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~:: Out of the Ashes
Chapter VIII ::~

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Dawl stood in the hallway as she heard Keres answer the phone. She noticed the changes in tone and pitch in his voice, and a sliver of apprehension crept into her mind as she strained to hear what he was saying. She growled softly as she heard him end the call before she could hear enough to know what it was about.

As he approached her she saw that his brow was knit in a thoughtful grimace. He met her eyes, speaking slowly as if he was thinking of how to properly phrase what he was about to say.

"Come with me, I have something to show you," he said slowly.

She cocked her head to the side and shot him an inquisitive glance. "Come where with you?"

He drew a short breath and pursed his lips. "Do you trust me?" he asked, knowing full well what her response would be before the words rolled off his tongue.

"Of course I do."

"Then, please, don't ask questions, just come with me."

She nodded slowly and followed him to the door. They took the elevator down to the ground floor. She fell in step as he turned west and headed down the block. For a few minutes, she pondered their destination. She didn't have long to wonder as he stopped a few blocks later at the door to the interdimensional night club.

She shot him a completely bewildered look. "Why are we here?"

"Remember what I said about not asking questions?" he looked at her with a gentle smile. "Just trust me."

She nodded and followed him through the door. They made their way into the main club and she followed him as he walked past every bar and headed straight for the main center stage where the club owner was chatting with a small group of patrons.

Looking up as he saw the scrapper approach him, DJ Zero motioned to them to come closer. He leaned in and whispered something into Keres' ear as Dawl stood beside him looking dazed.

The smiling DJ turned to his fans. "Take heart, good people. The show will go on, but I must take a few moments to attend to something important. Enjoy this newest remix and keep the dance floor hopping until my return!" He signaled one of his sound men to take over and keep the music going during his brief absence, then motioned to Keres to follow him.

The duo followed him up the stairs and to a door with a faded, barely legible sign that simply said "Private". He placed his hand on a sensor next to the door which unlocked the door. Opening the room, he motioned them in ahead of him.

He gestured towards a group of chairs across from a slightly cluttered desk. Shelves along one wall held various collections from reel tapes to CDs to old vinyl records. DJ Zero extended his hand to the little empath. "I am sure you are wondering why you are here."

She nodded. He exchanged a glance with the scrapper seated next to her. "Well, as you may know, I love seeing folks happy. I created this place as a haven for peace and harmony. It is a place where those who would be enemies can actually get to know and understand each other."

Her expression remained blank as she wondered what this had to do with her.

"I have heard about the tragedy your family has been through, and I am sorry." He met her eyes with a sincere look of sympathy. "But sometimes something good can come out of something that seems very bad."

Saying that, he pushed a small button on a small console on the desk. A speaker crackled to life as a faceless voice answered. "Yes, sir?"

"Hey, dude! Can you escort our two VIP guests up here to my office? Thanks!"

"Will do. On my way!"

He turned his attentions back to the pair seated before him. "I just want to remind you that there is no fighting allowed here."

Dawl's expression faded from curious to completely confused. None of this was making any sense.

A few minutes later a loud knock echoed over the thumping bass beat of the music. As the DJ leaned forward and pushed another button on the console, a buzzer sounded and the door clicked loudly.

As the door swung open, Keres turned to catch Dawl as she collapsed for the second time that day.

Sheken stood over her mother's limp form and shook her head slowly. "Boy is she going to be pissed when she wakes up," she mused, almost to herself.

"Sheken, you know she doesn't allow you to talk like that," Keres reminded her, firmly.

"Sorry," she blushed. "I guess I was just thinking out loud."

Marcus remembered his last meeting with the fiery empath. He stood behind Sheken with a hand on her shoulder. She could feel a mild tremor course through him.

Keres looked him up and down. "You're the stalker," he said in a flat tone.

Marcus met his eyes and nodded, unable to bring himself to speak.

Sheken opened her mouth to speak but before she could, their host returned with a medic and a glass of cool water. The medic stooped over the prone demoness and pulled out a small handheld device. He adjusted a dial then pressed a button, releasing a soft green glow. Within seconds the groggy empath stirred and opened her eyes.

As her vision focused on the girl bending anxiously over her, she caught a glimpse of the stalker standing just behind her. She bolted into a sitting position and with a flash of incredible speed, she lunged forward and reached out to grab him by the throat.

"What are you doing here? You have some nerve."

DJ Zero put his hand on Dawl's shoulder. "Remember, no fighting."

"There won't be any fight to it," she snarled as she tightened the grip around the stalker's trachea.

Marcus could feel her talons pressing into this skin, but made no move to defend himself.

Sheken grabbed her mother's wrists. "Mom, you don't understand," she pleaded. "He brought me back."

"He also took you away, or did you forget that part," her mother growled. "Why are you defending him?"

"He's had a change of heart, mom. Just give him a chance to explain."

"I haven't heard him explain anything," Dawl retorted, between clenched teeth.

"That's because you are cutting off his air," Keres offered gently.

For a tense moment, time stood still as all eyes focused on the little redhead with the stalker in her death grip.

"Please, mom, just hear him out," Sheken begged with tears in her eyes.

Dawl's eyes narrowed as a low growl rumbled deep in her throat. She grudgingly released the hold on the assassin's throat.

He stumbled backwards sucking in a huge draught of air. His hands went to his throat, rubbing the indentations made by her talons. He considered it a small miracle when he found no blood or broken skin. As he caught his breath, he looked the empath straight in the eye, and quietly began, "I am going to be honest with you. I kidnapped your daughter. I was hired by Naimah. They wanted me to hold her long enough to distract you, and then I was to kill her."

Dawl glared daggers at him. "They?"

"I was working directly for Doctor Maritus, the leader of the Betrothed and a pawn of Naimah's. I didn't want this job to begin with. It made me sick just to think of it. Literally and physically sick. But I had no other choice. The doctor has an incredible amount of control over the minds of others. I had just saved Sheken from that group of hoodlums in Pocket D, and brought her safely home when I found out that she was the target of my next assignment."

He dropped his head and stared at the floor. "I have been under Doctor Maritus' control for a long time. I am not using that as an excuse, of course. With the help of a..." he found his tongue stumbling over the word, "...friend...I was able to break away, and bring Sheken back. I know what I did was wrong. I know I caused you and your whole family a lot of grief. I am fully prepared to surrender myself to the authorities for what I have done to Sheken, and to all of you."

"NO!" Sheken wailed. "You can't do that. You'll end up in the Zig!"

Every jaw in the room dropped in a synchronized gesture of shock as every eye focused upon the young redhead.

Her mother found her voice first. "Don't tell me you are scr...mmmph..." Keres reached over and gently clamped a large palm over the empath's mouth.

"What your mother is trying to ask you is - are you involved with him, Sheken?" Keres asked, tactfully.

Sheken's face flamed a shade darker than her fiery hair. She shot a pleading gaze at Marcus, then dropped her eyes to the floor and silently nodded.

Dawl instantly went livid as she wrenched from from the scrappers grip. "I cannot believe you. What were you thinking? This isn't some pretend adventure from one of those goofy romance novels you read. This is real life and this man is a dangerous killer. What the hell is wrong with you? He was going to KILL you? Don't you understand that?" She grabbed Sheken by the shoulders and shook her firmly. "And you gave him your virginity?"

Marcus choked and blushed furiously, but brought his gaze up to meet her mother's. "Don't judge her too harshly. She didn't give anything."

In the space of the four or five seconds it took that statement to register in the empath's brain, the entire population of that room collectively held their breath for what seemed like hours. Dawl blinked hard enough to bring tears to her eyes, as a demonic roar rumbled from her chest. Before anyone could react she spun and once again had a death grip on the stalker, but this time her talons were not embedded in his throat.

He immediately stood up straight as his breath caught in his throat and stayed there.

"Give me ONE GOOD REASON why I should not remove these from your body," Dawl snarled, menacingly.

"MOM! Please don't!" Sheken screamed as she watched Marcus stand on his tiptoes as her mother tightened her grip.

Marcus looked the empath in the eyes. "I would not blame you if that is what you wish to do," he whispered hoarsely.

"NO!" Sheken screeched as she launched herself towards her mother. Dawl sidestepped at the last second, sending Sheken sprawling to the floor. She shook off the impact and stood to face her mother. "Let him go, Mom. Please?"

Keres stepped forward. "Dawl, maybe it would be best to let the authorities deal with him."

She felt the rage within her begin to subside as the scrapper wrapped his arm around her and took her outstretched wrist in one hand. Applying slight pressure to the inside of her wrist, he forced her to open her curled fingers. As she released her grip on the assassin's most tender parts, he sank to the floor. Panting with relief, he looked up and gave Keres a nod of gratitude.

Keres turned to DJ Zero. "Do you think you could quietly arrange for the police to come escort him to jail."

Sheken looked crestfallen. Marcus turned to her and shook his head. "Don't be upset. This is what needs to be done."

"I don't want you to go," she said, tearfully.

"What I did was wrong. I have done a lot of things that are wrong." He drew a deep breath. "It is time to pay the piper."

She began to sob. Dawl turned to her daughter and took her in her arms. "Sheken, I don't really understand what is going on here. Maybe I don't really want to know. But the important thing is, you are safe now." She paused and swallowed hard as tears stung her eyes. "I have something to tell you."

"I know," her daughter answered. "They killed Aunt Az."

Her mother nodded. "But...that isn't all of it..." she began. Suddenly a bright blinding light filled the room.

"What the..." DJ Zero began. "I am supposed to be the only one opening dimensional portals here."

The light coalesced into the form of a tall, glowing angel. "Aunt Az!" Sheken squealed.

The tall blonde nodded with a smile.

"Are you...a ghost?" the girl asked.

"No, Sheken. I am now one of the Host of the Creator."

Sheken blinked in amazement. "Wow. How cool. My aunt's an angel."

DJ Zero reached out a hand, "I think some congratulations are in order, Az. Sounds like you got promoted! How about a party, to celebrate? Drinks are on me!"

He turned to Dawl, "Would you mind if the stalker joins us? I promise I will have the PPD come get him as soon as the festivities are over."

Dawl gave the assassin a sidelong glare. Sheken shot her a pleading glance as she dropped to her knees. "Please, Mom! I swear I won't argue with you about anything for a year if you say yes."

Keres had to choke back a guffaw. "Sweets, I think you should say yes just because I want to see her try to keep that promise."

Dawl looked around her. Everyone in the room was watching her to see what she would say. Slowly she nodded.

Marcus turned to Azazela. "I owe you a deep apology. Though we have never met, I feel responsible for your death."

Azazela smiled and shook her head. "It was meant to be. Your bravery and your honesty in facing the consequences of your actions have redeemed you. You put your own life on the line to bring Sheken back here."

He dropped his gaze. "Yes, but she would not have been in danger in the first place, had it not been for me."

"That is not true, Marcus," the angel said. "Another would have simply taken your place."

He blinked tears away and met her eyes. "Thank you. You are very kind."

Sheken moved towards the glowing angel. "Can I...touch you?"

Az nodded and the girl ran forward to hug her tightly. "I am so glad you are back."

DJ Zero pulled glasses and a bottle of champagne from a small credenza behind his desk. His assistant has returned with a bucket of ice and after a few minutes the drink was properly chilled. With a loud pop, he opened the bubbly and passed around the glasses. Raising a toast, he said "To our newly minted angel, Azazela."

"Sheken, I really think you should reconsider." Her mother pleaded.

"Mom, I know I promised not to argue. And I don't want to argue. But my mind is made up."

Dawl heaved a deep sigh. The prosecutor grimaced and shook his head.

"Sheken," he said, slowly, "you do realize we cannot convict him of the...assault without your testimony."

She nodded emphatically. "I am not going to testify against him."

"But by not testifying, all we can pin on him is your abduction, and even that is a very weak case. By the time we plea bargain, he will be out in six months. Do you really want to see that happen?" The prosecutor gave her a pleading look.

"Look," she said, vehemently, "he turned himself in. He could have run. He has obviously had a serious change of heart. Shouldn't that count for something? What good is putting him back in the Zig going to do?"

"Sheken, he kidnapped you, sexually assaulted you, and came very close to killing you. Don't you think he should bear some consequences for those acts?"

"He didn't kill me," she retorted flatly. "He could have. But he didn't. That's the point. What stopped him? It sure the hell wasn't me."

Dawl's mouth dropped open. "Sheken. Don't talk like that."

"Mom, I am just getting really frustrated. Why can't you people see that he's changed. Why keep punishing him? It won't teach him anything he doesn't already know. He knows he screwed up. He wanted to make amends so badly that he risked his own life in even coming here to make sure that I got back home safely."

Her mother sighed and turned her back towards her daughter. She gave the prosecutor a longsuffering gaze and a shrug. He shook his head and walked out of the room.

Dawl sat down at the table and took her daughter's small hands in her own. "Sheken, I don't understand. Be honest with me, and with yourself, for a moment. Doesn't it bother you that he forced himself on you?"

Sheken's averted her eyes and began to twirl a stray lock of hair around her finger. She smoothed it back behind one horn and cocked her head. "I suppose, a little. There are worse things that could have happened. Yes, I was scared. I knew when I woke up in that place...I knew then he was going to kill me. I kept trying to break loose, and I couldn't..." Her voice cracked as her mind began replaying the memories of her imprisonment in his small domicile. "I don't remember much about him...actually...doing it..."

Her mother gave her a puzzled look. "I think it was that girl. Syn, they call her. She, she did something to my mind. Not in a bad way. She was trying to help me."

"Do you think that is why you don't want to testify against him now? Did she put something in your mind to prevent that from happening?"

"No, Mom. It isn't like that at all. She didn't...do anything to my mind, really. She just... made the bad memories...go away. That's all."

"Why would she help you? She is a villain. Are you sure she wasn't just protecting him?"

Sheken shook her head violently. "Mom, you don't know anything about her. She isn't like that. She was helping me. She is Az's friend."

Her mother closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Sheken, I think you've fallen in with some bad company. I don't like you making friends with the so-called 'Destined Ones' from the Rogue Isles. Look what happened to Az."

"You make it sound like I planned an excursion there to make friends and meet people. You are being very unfair to me."

Dawl growled in frustration, "That isn't what I said at all."

Sheken stood up and turned her back to her mother. "I don't understand why everyone is picking on me. I am the supposed 'victim' here. But no one cares about that, you all just want to use me to get to Marcus."

"Sheken," Dawl said with the pitch of her voice raising a notch, "now you are the one who is not being fair. We just want what is best for you."

"Then let it go. I am not going to testify against him. You can put me on the stand, call me as a witness, whatever. But I assure you that my memory will prove very unreliable and it will be a big waste of your time." She directed the last comment towards the prosecutor who had returned and was standing in the doorway holding two cups of some steaming beverage. He offered one to Dawl as he slowly walked into the room and lowered himself into a chair.

"Okay, Sheken," he said, wearily. "I won't ask you again. But you realize this means he may get off altogether, or get a very light sentence."

She nodded. "I understand."

"How are you going to feel if you don't cooperate, and he goes free, and does this again, to someone else's young daughter," he asked her pointedly.

"I guess that is a chance I am willing to take, because I believe in him," Sheken answered softly.

Marcus sat quietly at the table. Beside him sat a rather unkempt man in a wrinkled suit. He smelled of cough syrup and mothballs. Across the table, the prosecutor was nodding glumly.

"Thank you, Mr. Phister." He reached his hand towards the attorney with a barely perceptible grimace.

The man nodded with a Cheshire cat grin on his lean, angular face. "Pleasure doin' business with ya."

His attorney shook his hand, and silently walked out of the room. Marcus remained in the chair as the deputy returned to lead him away by whis shackled wrists. "You got off very lightly considering what you did," the prosecutor said, his voice barely a whisper.

Marcus closed his eyes and let those words weigh heavily upon his mind. In flashes of memory the events of the past few weeks came rushing back to him and the guilt they invoked rose up to suffocate him.

He blinked hard to stem the tears that were threatening to burst forth like an overflowing dam. His voice was quiet and even as he dropped his eyes and replied, "I didn't ask for an attorney. You insisted that I accept the services of that court-appointed buffoon." He paused as he met the prosecutors gaze and tried to ascertain whether the man's comment was intended as a mere declaration of fact or a thinly veiled indictment of his character. "And I never once asked for any leniency."

The prosecutor moved in close and lowered his voice even further so that Marcus had to strain to hear his words. "We didn't have much choice. Had we let you represent yourself, we risked the judge questioning your competency to make such a decision. We had nothing to go on. Your victim was most uncooperative."

Marcus sighed. Part of him was glad that he would only be a very temporary guest of the fine folks at Paragon City's resident detention facility. Six months wasn't such along time. Another part of him was hoping for something more. He needed some measure of expiation of the massive burden of guilt that weighed on him like a giant boulder. It was a foreign and painful sensation that was obviously a product of the newfound emotions that Sheken had awakened within him.

"You know..." the prosecutor began, hesitantly, as the deputy led Marcus to the door, "I sincerely hope she's right. I hope you really have had a change of heart."

Marcus turned and faced him. He met the man's solemn gaze with a pallid smile and an expression of earnestness. He nodded silently as the deputy tugged at his arm and gently pushed him down the hall to the car that was waiting to take him to his temporary home.

The angel hovered silently unseen above the tall edifice she'd called home for so long. She looked down at her niece quietly reading as she sunbathed on the balcony. Her sister sat a few yards from the girl but kept one eye on her child as if she expected her to suddenly disappear.

Azazela shook her head gently to toss her silky blonde tresses in the gentle breeze. Out of the ashes of defeat rose a new strength. She pondered on the changes that were wrought by the events of the past weeks. Even though she'd been changed, she felt the same inside. What was so different? Had she really been the same being all along, just one who'd been recently pardoned for the sins of her forbearers?

But then again, she was different, she realized as she stretched her gently beating wings to hover above the streets of Talos Island. Nothing stayed the same. All of them were changed. In some ways they'd changed for the better and in other ways it was for the worse. In the end, they would all continue to fight the good fight, regardless of the adversities they weathered. That, she mused, was what truly made them the citizens of a City of Heroes....