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~:: Out of the Ashes
Chapter IV ::~

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DawL stood on a wooden box behind a small podium at the front of a borrowed conference room on the ground floor of the building she'd called home for many years. Her gaze swept the nearly full room as she nervously shifted her weight from one foot to another. Her eyes were swollen from crying as friends she'd made over her years of service in Paragon City filed into the room. Bloodwynd and La Luna slipped through the doors and met her eyes with worried glances. Her sons sat somberly in a small group, the younger boys reaching out to hug their older brother in reassurance. Zakai hadn't slept or eaten in days and his countenance was pale and drawn. He blamed himself for the failure to protect his little sister, just as much as his mother ascribed the blame to herself.

A somber Cale Westmarch ushered his daughter Adara into the room as Keres led them up to the front row to be seated with the rest of the family. Shandra, known to most as Silky Kitty, with her mate Demise, stood quietly in a shadowed corner at the back of the room as she tried to maintain a stoic demeanor that was belied by the puffiness of her eyes. The towering brunette that Silky had befriended, Danitra arrived shortly after. She was joined by the tiny Illusionist Ghoulie, who'd worked closely with Az and had become a close friend. Dawl looked up to see Krinalle slip into the room, still in her bright white lab coat as if she'd come directly from her clinical labs. The student nurse formerly known as Samantha Grigsby before she agreed to host the Nictus whose name and cause she took upon herself, flashed a small, sad wave to Dawl as she quietly found a seat near the back. The statuesque tank of a girl who'd befriended Dawl so long ago upon her arrival in Paragon city, met the demonesses' tortured gaze with a sad smile as she tucked her mace behind her and sat down near Dawl's sons. She was followed closely by the lovely Persian girl Karishka, who was a stalwart tanker in her own right. Dawl had rescued her many years ago during a trip home to see her mother and in gratitude, she'd returned to Paragon City to join her in fighting the seedier elements of their fair city.

A few members of the press cluttered around like vultures in front of the podium, jockeying for position to capture the devastated demoness in a moment of tragic pain that they could parlay into ratings.

As the room filled, Dawl met her lover's eyes with an anguished, pleading gaze. He slipped from his seat nearby and took his place at her side. It was a place he'd spent the best part of thirty security levels occupying and one he would not abandon now in this dark moment.

A hush fell over the room as he reached out and put a strong arm around the diminutive redhead's shoulder. She leaned forward against the podium and sighed quietly as she looked out across the crowd.

The microphone crackled softly as she moved close enough for it to pick up her nervous breath. Her voice was broken with sorrow as she struggled to speak. "My friends…today is indeed a sad day. My sister is gone, and many of you know, I have also lost my daughter. What most of you don't know is that she is believed to have been taken to the Rogue Isles by an assassin, and is feared dead, though there is no confirmation of this." A sob caught in her throat as she paused. "I…I don't know quite how to say this…"

One could have heard the beating of butterfly wings in the tense silence that enveloped the room as everyone waited to hear what was about to be said.

"I have failed. I have failed my sister, I have failed my daughter. I cannot continue to pretend that I am something I am not. I am no hero. My time of serving this wonderful community…" she stammered as she broke into tears. A somber murmur rippled throughout the assembled crowd. Keres drew her close and wrapped her in his strong arms as she struggled to regain her composure. "My time here has come to an end. I am going to retire my mantle as a hero… here in Paragon City."

A collective gasp rose into the stuffy air of the crowded room.

With a flourish of her delicate taloned fingers, Syn dissolved the mystical barrier that hid the secret room, to find Marcus gently holding a sleeping Sheken as she sobbed quietly in her sleep. Syn shook her head as Marcus started to move. With a barely perceptible nod, he relaxed. The succubus closed her eyes and focused herself towards the girls sleeping mind. She slid into the plane of Sheken's dreams as though she belonged there, remaining unseen as she watched a tortured scene unfold. The girl was terrified, cowering beneath a torrent of water, as blood ran from her lacerated wrists. The assassin advanced towards her as her mind replayed the horrific assault. But this time there was no retreat into unconsciousness as he lifted her body onto his own. The entire scene was being dredged from where she'd buried it deep in her subconscious. This time she would be painfully aware of the entire sordid ordeal. Syn shuddered. What had Marcus done to this child? The girl sobbed hysterically as she relieved the nightmare in vivid detail, as a prisoner of her tormented dreams.

Unmasking her presence within the girl's mind, Syn reached out to cast a warm burst of demonic energy around her as Sheken struggled futilely to free herself from the stalker's brutal grasp. "Sheken," she called softly, "let me take this pain away from you. Do not remain within this torturous vision any longer." Suddenly, Marcus was gone, and they no longer stood in a downpour beneath the warm shower. Syn was clothed in a heavily embroidered hooded robe, and Sheken herself was naked and on her knees before the little succubus. A feeling of vulnerability and trepidation weighed heavily upon her. Around them was only darkness. With the tip of her fingers, Syn dragged her talons lightly over the girl's forehead and uttered some unintelligible but somehow familiar words that burned into Sheken's mind. As the tormented girl's brain struggled to find meaning in the utterance, a sudden flash of clarity burst forth, and suddenly she was floating in midair, wrapped in a soft white swirling light. It spun around her like a whirlwind as it solidified from mere warmth into a blanket of softness that covered her entire being, wrapping her in a glowing cocoon.

Syn's soft voice echoed deep in the girl's mind. "May I change you?"

After a moment of frightened hesitation, Sheken felt her mind reach out to touch the succubus tenderly. "Sure."

In a burst of energy, the cocoon rent in two and Sheken stepped forth clad in a pure white gown of a radiant silken fabric. She hovered above the shredded shell for a moment as the succubus reached out her hand. "Come, return with me, and remember this ugliness no more, my child. It is time, Sheken, it is time…."

Syn's voice echoed within and without as the threads of deep slumber unwound themselves from the sleeping girl. Marcus felt her stir and realized he'd been holding his breath.

"…It is time, Sheken… awaken…." Syn chanted softly as the girl slowly stirred to awareness. Sheken's first thought was of the warmth of the glowing cocoon when she realized that she was actually wrapped in Marcus's arms. A tiny shred of instinct niggled at the back of her mind urging her to break free, but the sensation of warmth and being securely encompassed by his strong arms won out. With a soft yawn she met his worried gaze.

Syn smiled knowingly. She didn't have to enter the stalker's mind to realize that the hardened killer had somehow fallen for this little redhead. An underlying sadness flowed through the realization that this would very likely hasten his own doom, but she also knew in her demonic heart that this meant his end would not be a lonely, tragic one as it had once been fated to be.

"Okay, you two, we have to get ready. Night will fall soon, and we must be ready to depart. The doctor spent the entire day barking orders to his underlings to find you. Naimah is beside herself. She suspects I may be somehow involved with the girl's disappearance but dare not risk making herself appear less than all-knowing by making a potentially false accusation." She paused with a smile. "I managed to slip a few random ideas into the doctor's subconscious while he was preoccupied with his anger." She grinned wickedly as her voice took on an ominously dramatic air. "He summoned Naimah and they left for Nerva Archipelago to begin seeking there. It would seem he had a vision of Sheken tied down to an altar deep in the woods of Primeva and believes that Marcus may be attempting to sacrifice her in order to empower himself with her energies." She laughed out loud. "Okay, so that plot is thin and corny, but it was the best I could come up with on the fly."

Marcus gave her a sad smile and shook his head. He absentmindedly stroked Sheken's silky red locks as he met her gaze. "I am so sorry," he began as he started to pull away. Sheken met his eyes and shook her head. "No, it's okay. Thanks for keeping me warm."

He felt a pang of guilt stab through the center of his heart as he faced that fact that her sobbing was probably due to her reliving the attacks of the past couple of days. His eyes turned upwards to meet Syn's. Don't worry, Marcus. I know what you did to her. I have stolen those memories from within her dreams.

A look of shock passed quickly over his features at finding her within his thoughts, but he managed to quickly cover it with a mask of detachment. You refer to my deflowering her? I don't even know why I did it. In a way I did not want to, even as much as I physically wanted her.

Syn gave an almost imperceptible nod. Blame the vile drink for breaking your resolve. It matters not. What is done, is done. While she is still aware of the fact that you have been intimate, she does not remember the events surrounding the actual assault. This will save her reliving the act again and again within the prison of her dreams. Her budding psionic capabilities were not advanced enough to capture the entire conversation of thoughts flowing between the demoness and the assassin. Even so, Sheken could sense that they were communicating silently and she knew it concerned her. She remembered the strange cocoon and the presence of the beautiful demoness in her dream. In the back of her mind, she felt a vague feeling of loss as if something had been stolen from the vaulted halls of her subconscious. These feelings left her confused and apprehensive.

Be not afraid, young one. The succubus tenderly reassured her by pressing her soft words into the girl's troubled thoughts. I will do my level best to see that no harm befalls you. My love for you stems from a deep love for your fallen aunt. I will defend you to the point of my own destruction in honor of the memory of brave Azazela.

A sudden sorrow overwhelmed the tiny redhead. Tears began to flow copiously as she buried her face in Marcus's chest.

"Sheken," he began, softly, "I need to tell you something. I…have…I mean, I feel very guilty for…" He paused as he couldn't even bring himself to say out loud what he'd done. "…for what I did to you. I know I have no right to ask you to forgive me."

She looked at him with a mixture of surprise and reservation as she pulled herself from his grasp and slid from the bed.. "Don't…" she started. She made a shushing gesture and shook her head.

"We cannot change that which is done," Syn interjected. "We must now depend on each other to find our way through this mess. Are both of you ready? The sooner we get her home, the sooner…"

The little succubus turned her head as the faintest sound of energy being transferred filtered into her hypersensitive ear. "Someone's coming," she hissed. Backing up, she instantly recreated the wall, once again sealing Sheken and the stalker in the hidden alcove.

She walked back down the corridor, watching for any signs of whoever had entered through the mystical portal. She couldn't imagine Maritus returning so soon. She knew it would take him days to comb the woods in Primeva before he realized that his "vision" had steered him wrong.

As she rounded the corner that opened into a small lobby opposite his office, she noticed a lone figure sitting in one of the soft leather chairs. With a quiet sigh she morphed into her human form. Approaching the young girl she smiled. "Well, hello, Xandra. What brings you here, this evening?"

The young girl looked up at Syn and smiled a sad little smile. "I had an appointment with the doctor but he wasn't at the clinic."

Syn fought to hide a knowing smile as she turned away from the young child. "Of course he was not. Something came up and he is running an errand of some importance with Lady Naimah."

At the mention of the cruel demoness, the small girl winced. Naimah had "rescued" the young child from an orphanage and turned her over to Doctor Maritus. When the girl rebelled against her demonic demands, Naimah cursed her with the powers of hell. The child grew up with unusual powers to command demonic extremes of hellfire and deadly cold. She both loathed and feared the cruel demoness, and with good reason.

Xandra looked at the succubus uneasily. "I thought perhaps I might find him here. I guess I should wait for him."

Syn sighed under her breath. "I don't know when he is to be expected. You may want to try the clinic again in the morning." She turned her back to the seated girl and paced the lobby in frustration.

Behind the mystical barrier, Marcus and Sheken waited nervously. Her heart pounded in her chest as her fears of discovery invoked a surge of adrenaline. She stood near the wall and listened carefully in hopes that she might hear something that would let them know what was transpiring on the other side of the thick barrier. Marcus approached her and wrapped his arms around her shivering body.

"Cold?" he asked, quietly.

"No." The tremble in her voice told him all he needed to know.

Pulling her close he surprised himself by planting a soft kiss on the top of her bowed head. He inhaled the soft scent of her hair and sighed quietly as he hugged her gently. Her mind told her she should resist but her body craved the comfort of his embrace. A chill coursed through her as her imagination played through all kinds of horrific scenarios of what might be transpiring on the other side of the wall they were for the moment hidden behind.

"Do you think she's here?"

Marcus lowered his lips once more to kiss her forehead. "Naimah? I don't know. Syn said she and Maritus were searching for us in Primeva. It is a long journey there, and the forest is huge. I can't imagine them giving up and returning here so soon."

"I wonder who is out there." Sheken murmured quietly.

"Could be anyone," he whispered. "There are several of the Betrothed who might find a reason to visit the base. It could be anyone from the doctor's favorite, Jahalia, to that brute of a woman, Mahvash, who he just recruited. He," the assassin paused for a moment as he pondered how best to phrase his next words, "has a way, with women. Well, with people, really," he added, realizing that the doctor held considerable sway over him at times. "He's the kind of person who can suggest something to you and have you believing it was your own idea."

"How'd you meet him?" Sheken asked.

"Me? I met Syndi, err, Syn. She…" his voice trailed as his face burned hot with the memories of his first meeting with the beautiful succubus. "She convinced me to join the organization. Doctor Maritus felt it would be advantageous for the Betrothed to have the services of an assassin at their disposal. It helps when he needs to eliminate witnesses, or rivals."

"How did you…" Sheken turned and faced him, looking him directly in the eye. "What made you become an assassin?"

He swallowed hard and turned away. A few moments of uncomfortable silence passed in which she feared she'd overstepped her bounds by asking such a pointed, personal question.

Suddenly, he grabbed her by the hand and pulled her to the bed. Using his body language he coaxed her to sit beside him as he took both of her small hands in his own. In hushed tones, he spoke as he met her eyes.

"I cannot say it was any one thing." A pained expression etched his face as emotions he thought he'd long since buried resurrected themselves within his tortured soul. "I grew up in a very bad neighborhood and a city so big that no one even noticed I was alive. I was just another unfortunate bastard trying to survive the streets. I learned how to work the system from a very young age."

She could hear the anguish in his voice as he took a deep breath and continued. "The only person who ever loved me was my mother. Okay, so she wasn't a perfect mother. She did what she had to do to keep both of us alive. I understood…"

"I grew up watching most of kids I might have called friends, if I had any, die around me. A drug overdose here, a gang war there, a suicide… they all faded into nothingness and no one cared. One less hoodlum on the streets. I guess it proved to me that life isn't worth much. Only to those who have the power to do something with it."

He sat in quiet reverie for a moment. She held his hands tightly as she watch the lines deepen across his face. He suddenly looked much older and more tired than she'd noticed before.

"My mother…" a sob caught in his throat, cracking his voice as he tried to speak, "she only wanted to make me happy. To give me some small thing in the nothingness that was my life. She held back some money. A little bit at a time. She was saving to buy me a ten-speed bike. She told me if I had a bike maybe I could get a job as a courier and save enough to work my way out of the slums we lived in."

Tears began to stream down his face. Sheken felt her own resolve crumble as drops of saline formed on her lashes.

"I came home early that day. I'd gotten in a fight at school because someone had called me a son-of-a-bitch. I told him my mother wasn't a bitch, and he said 'Oh, that's right, I forgot, she's a whore.' I don't remember much of what happened after that. I remember an ambulance driving up on the playground, and signing the paper that suspended me from school for two weeks. I was so afraid she'd be mad at me…" he choked on tears that were flowing in a full blown torrent down his pale cheeks. "I got home and found her...on the floor in the hallway…in a pool of her own blood. She was black and blue all over. She must have put up one hell of a fight. I knew there was nothing they could do, but I called an ambulance anyway. They didn't even try to revive her."

His voice took on a bitter, icy edge. "He was my very first mark. I waited. Everything I did from that day on focused on the moment I would find him and deliver the justice my mother deserved. I studied the ancient martial arts and learned not only how to fight, but how to remain as unseen as the wind. It took me years, but finally I was ready. I hunted him. It wasn't hard. He lived like a king on the money he squeezed from his harem of hookers. He thought he was invincible. I proved to him that he was nothing more than a weak coward. I watched him beg me to spare his life, as I killed him slowly…"

The last few words were snarled with such vitriol that she cringed back from him. He looked at the mask of fear on her delicate features and softened his tone. "I'm sorry." He reached towards her and once again pulled her into his arms.

"I am the one who is sorry. I shouldn't have asked that. I had no right…"

"No," he answered her firmly. "Sheken, that is something that has been bottled up inside me since it happened. It has eaten my soul every single day of my life, eaten it until there was nothing left."

She hugged him tightly and cried.

"I needed to let that out. I should thank you." He stroked her hair gently and lifted her face to meet his own. Without so much as a thought, she closed her eyes and met his gaze by planting her satin lips on his own.

He moaned quietly as the tender kiss smoldered and flared into a deeper one. He felt himself falling backwards as she pulled him off balance to join her in lying prone on the bed. Well, if we are going to be found here, at least they will find us in a state of bliss. He chuckled morbidly at thought of Naimah and the doctor discovering them in flagrante delicto.

To Chapter V