What Are Heroes Anyway?

Silvio ran for his life through the narrow corridors between the stacked containers of depot forty-three of East Dallas. Heard the hounds making a ruckus behind him. Knew that they already had his scent. He glanced behind himself, but he couldn't see them yet. A good sign, because if he could see them, then he was a dead boy running.

The wall was close. His makeshift rope still hanging over the ledge. With a running jump, he caught it and climbed as fast as he dared. By the time he landed on the other side his breathing was ragged and needles of pain poked through his lungs. Still, he couldn't stop now. It wasn't safe yet.

He forced himself into a jog - painful as it was - and darted into the sprawling slums of East Dallas. Past shelters cobbled together with trash and dirt. Cut through narrow passages and ran over faulty rotten wooden planks of equally rotten huts.

He heard the hounds and the roar of vehicles too late. Just as he crossed through a big clearing in the slums they found him. Gasping for his breath he stopped. It was no use. In moments they had him surrounded. There was no call to give up from them. Just as they would be no mercy. They would take what he had stolen and then the police would kill him. It was simple like that. Silvio had seen it a hundred times before. All that was left to close his eyes and hope his death would be without much pain.

"Shit. That maniac again!"

The shouting and a string of curses made Silvio's eyes snap open. Just in time to see a young woman in torn clothes ran onto the square with a howling battle-cry born in madness.

He saw the police sling their rifles and pull batons out. "Beat her. Maker her suffer. Don't kill her," the squad's leader ordered.

With their intention on the charging woman, Silvio took his cue and ran as fast as his fatigued body could manage.

It was a shame really. To be rescued by Ella Ritter. That good for nothing wannabe hero of a hooligan. She had the spark of the Phoenix and what did she do with it? Instead of fighting the big villains that ruled the dystopian nightmare of Silvio's reality she picked fights with the police. And that was she did with her gift. The spark of the Phoenix was wasted on her. Of that Silvio was sure.

Grumbling to himself Silvio made his way home. Not even once he glanced back. He knew what would happen. Ella would put up a fight till the police would overwhelm her. Beat her to the brink of death and leave her in the gutters of the streets. Then the spark would heal her. Mend broken bones and mend the torn skin and organs. Then, an hour later, she will stand up and look for the next fight to pick.

Just why had the spark of the Phoenix picked her? It was a question Silvio had to ask himself many times. She was just a masochistic brawler always looking for her next fight. It seemed so unfair.

After making sure no one had followed him, Silvio ducked into one of the ramshackle huts that were just like every other in the slums with one difference. In it he found his mother lying on the makeshift bed.

Her fever hadn't broken yet and it worried Silvio to no end. With haste, he dug into his small backpack and fished for the small pill bottle he had stolen. Ibuprofen. Silvio wasn't sure what that medicine did, but he hoped it would help his mother recover. He gave her two pills and forced her to swallow it with the dirty liquid one might call water. If that someone was very generous.

The rest of the pills vanished with a few stolen food rations in their secret hiding place. Only then he allowed himself to lay down as well. Exhaustion took over and sleep caught up to him fast.

*****

Silvio bit back the curse that was on his lips. He hadn't gotten one of the labor spots for the factory again. Another day without the meager income the job could provide. At least his mother felt a little better. For now, that had to count for something, but he knew tomorrow or the day after he needed to get a spot in the factory. Even if it meant showing up even earlier in the morning.

Lost in his misery he wandered aimlessly through the slums till shouting made him look up. It was close and he didn't have to go far to peek around a corner to see the commotion. Ella Ritter again. Brawling with the police. Sighing Silvio shook his head and walked away.

There were other jobs than the factory. Less legal ones, but out here in the slums that didn't matter much. Silvio was cutting through a part of the slums that had seen better days - those when the ramshackle huts hadn't burned down - when he saw a flickering. At first, he ignored it, but as it caught his eyes again he got curious.

"Probably some trash burning," he thought till he rounded a corner.

There it was. Something he had dreamed of finding since his earliest childhood. A spark of the Phoenix. It was a flame floating in the air about the height of his chest with myriads of sparks of lightning dancing within. It was as if it was calling out to him. Begging Silvio to reach out with his hand and take the spark for his own. Still, he hesitated.

The spark was really what everyone said. Part of the Phoenix. She had been the last Superhero. When all others had died or succumbed to the new evil overloads she had kept fighting. Streaking through the sky and burning henchmen and villains alike. She had been unstoppable. Literally, as she would always be reborn if she died.

For a while, it looked like she might actually win. Then the tragedy happened. A devious gadget hitting her, that not only burst her body apart but her very soul too.

What was left of her soul was scattered all over the world and Silvio now stood before a fragment of the legendary last hero. He could take it. Fuse with it and gain her power. Then he wouldn't be as helpless to the oppressors as he was now.

Yes. Silvio had decided. He would take the spark for his own and show everyone that there are still heroes around. Might even show Ella Ritter how someone could really use the power for good instead of using it to brawl.

Once again he reached out and this time he grasped the fire. It quickly roared to life and enveloped. Silvio wasn't scared. Even when darkness claimed him as he fainted.

*****

Silvio groaned as he woke up. The very sound strange to his ears. As he opened his eyes he saw the one thing he wanted to see less than the police.

"Good morning sleepy-head. And I guess welcome to the army of the Phoenix," Ella Ritter greeted him. Sitting on an empty turned over crate nearby and gave him a cheery grin.

"Fuck you Ella and ..." Silvio stopped. Something was wrong with his voice and he reached for his throat.

"Let me guess. You used to be a boy?"

Used to be was correct as Silvio stared down on a body not his own. Or rather one that hadn't been his, but now it was. For a few heartbeats, he could nothing but stare down the ash-covered body and the curves that looked so very alien to him from this perspective.

"How..." he started, but his voice gave out.

"Isn't it obvious?" Ella asked. "Those who touch the Phoenix's spark take on aspects of the original Phoenix. And SHE gives out more than just her powers."

"Glad this amuses you," an annoyed Silvio shot back while standing up. "Why are you even here."

"To welcome to the fight ... and I guess to womanhood." Seeing his glare she quickly continued. "Also I thought you might want some clothes. No one ever strips before fusing with a spark."

Silvio was well aware how right she was. His clothes probably part of the nest of ash below him. "Thanks. Didn't know that you cared about anything besides picking fights with the police."

"So you know about me..."

"Everyone does," Silvio snapped.

"... and I don't know anything about you. What is your name?"

"Silvio."

"Don't think so. Try again."

"Silvio Copello"

"Worse! For one thing, you are a girl now and on the other hand never reveal your last name," Ella chided him. "Look down on your right arm."

Silvio did and saw something red poking through the dirt sticking to his arm. After rubbing it away a bright red tattoo revealed itself in the form of a stylized flame.

"The police hunts everyone with the spark of the Phoenix. One can handle that or not. Worse is that they hunt everyone who is dear to you. Give out your true name and your friends and family will suffer. Now, what is your name?"

As much as he hated to admit it. Thinking of his mother Silvio knew she was right. He couldn't bear making her suffer for his choices. "I'll have to think about that," he admitted.

"Good. You do that. For now, take this." She threw him a coverall that clearly had seen better days. "Find me once you are ready for me to teach you." Then she got up and started to walk away.

"Teach me? All you can do is to brawl!" Silvio shouted after her.

Ella only turned around to give him a short cheery grin before heading out.

*****

Violet cursed the very fact that Ella was right. From far away she spied on her mother's little shack. She didn't dare to get closer. No one knew yet that she had a spark, but just to be safe she came up with a new name. Or rather an old one. Her mother always had told Silvio that if he had been born a girl she would have named him Violet.

Violet didn't like her name that much, but it was something to remind her of her mother. It was something she always could take with her and no one would be the wiser.

With a sigh, she turned around and headed back to the outskirts of the slums where she conducted her training. One that so far proofed to be miserable. Flying eluded her as much as throwing fireballs. She not even managed to summon the flame aura the original Phoenix had been known for. After three days she had nothing to show for.

Maybe something was missing. Like a teacher. Violet scrounged her face. No way she would ask Ella. How could she teach Violet something she couldn't do herself?

She was pulled from her self-pity when loud shouts and sirens broke the silence around her. People rushed past her and her old instinct nearly made herself go with them.

Then she saw the mother and her child downward the street. They must be the intended target as the police slowly surrounded them. Violet clenched her fists. Injustice like this had made her want to become a bearer of the Phoenix spark. Now she was one and still, she was helpless. Nothing had changed. She had given her male body for nothing. No skill or ability had revealed itself.

Fighting them was madness. She knew that. She couldn't possibly win. Not in a million years. Still, she made a step towards the mother and child. Then another. She couldn't win, but maybe, just maybe, she could buy them enough time. Her legs felt into a jog and then full on run.

A scream as mad as the dash she made escaped her lips. Heads turned and before the police could react Violet jumped and struck down one by punching his riot helmet.

She was as baffled as them as the guy actually crumbled down. She hadn't punched that hard, right? Or she had more strength than before. That must be it she reasoned. It gave her a fighting chance. A small one, but one she intended to take.

She jumped the next guy and everything around her turned to chaos. Violet punched and kicked every weak point she saw. Now and then she was rewarded with a satisfying crunch as an arm or leg gave in and a policeman howled in pain.

The advantage of her surprise attack didn't last long. The men fanned out and Violet had a harder time to engage them all. With the sudden chaos gone the men turned smart. Those before her got defensive while those behind her now attacked.

Pain flared as she heard the crunch of one of her ribs breaking. Still, she fought on. Pain be damned and all. She managed to knock out another one but found her left leg gave out as a vicious kick brought her down. Before she could react a baton smashed her face hard and all she could see for the moment was stars.

Violet knew this was it. This was as far as she would come. She managed a glance around before a kick into her chest robbed her of her breath. Three police officers lay on the ground unmoving and she saw five more clutching some extremity. No sight of the woman or her child. At least she managed to get them safe.

Another kick rolled her onto her back. One eye had a hard time staying open as blood flowed into it. The other saw the hard and angry faces of her foes. One of them drew a pistol. Violet grinned. Stupid police. She wouldn't have come half as far if they had pulled one at the start.

"Now you die bitch," the man with the gun said. He aimed at her head and she looked down the barrel. Two lives for her own. It wasn't much, but at least it was something.

"Wait!" another man shouted and grabbed the gun to push it aside. Mercy? From her enemies? Violet couldn't believe it. "Check her arm first."

One man crouched down to check by pulling up the sleeve of her overall. It was his last mistake. Violet pulled her last strength together and punched him in the throat. Gasping he pulled away and clawed at his own crushed windpipe. A moment later he ceased to move at all.

"Shit. Frank. And she is a Phoenix. What a clusterfuck."

"Can't be helped. Break every bone she got as long as it won't kill her. Give her so much pain she will regret ever touching that spark!"

And hurt her they did. A flurry of kicks broke what felt like every bone in her body. It was relentless torture till Violet would have begged for mercy if she still could. Then they left. Leaving her as a bloody pile of skin and bones at the side of the road.

*****

Time crawled when you suffered immeasurable pain. Violet felt it all. The broken bones and bruises, the cuts and scrapes, and steady dripping of her blood escaping her body.

She suffered through it all. Hoping, no praying, she would die soon. But the end didn't come. Only slowly her pain faded away and her breathing got less ragged and deeper. By dawn, she managed to pull her body up and against a wall with her arm she was sure had been broken. More than once.

"Not bad for your first fight," Ella remarked as she let herself fall down beside Violet. "Killed one, knocked out three and injured a bunch more. At least that is the word out on the streets. You might want to go easy on the killing though."

Violet didn't answer. She didn't trust herself to manage that. Each breath still hurt like a bitch.

"Don't worry," Ella continued. "With time it becomes less painful and you regenerate faster."

"Fuck you!" Violet managed to press out. " 'am nothing like you..."

"Are you sure? Looked like a brawl to me."

"Couldn't… do more," Violet admitted through gritted teeth.

"Right! You are a newbie. How could I forget? You need a teacher," Ella told her.

"Not... you…"

"Not me? Well, how about another spark then? There are three others in this area."

That was news to Violet. All she had heard was of Ella. Faintly she nodded.

"Okay... Hmm. Julia Lowe lives near the bombed-out gas station. Sharron Snow on the south side of the Barrens and Iria Neves a dash north of the old tool factory. Hope that helps. If not then you can always find me."

With that being said she stood up and walked away. Leaving Violet with her thoughts and pain.

*****

By the next morning, Violet was up and about. No injury was left. Not even a scar. That must be the regeneration Ella had talked about. Clearly, she knew things Violet didn't, but she would be damned to go to her for help.

It took her a few hours, but she found the gas station. Then Julia Lowe. It was a meager woman. Worn out and only skin and bones.

"Are you Julia?" Violet asked. With fearful eyes, she nodded. "I am a spark and ..."

"Out!" the woman screamed. Pushing Violet feebly with weak arms. That wasn't what made Violet comply. It was the sheer terror in the woman's eyes. The ramshackle door slammed into Violet's face. Her last glance on a spindly arm with a faded tattoo on it.

Shocked about the reaction Violet turned away. There were two others. Maybe they could help her.

*****

"Look what the cat dragged by," Ella greeted Violet as she walked over.

"The names you gave me ... They were sparks alright. But they can't teach anything. They are scared out of their wits. They're ... worthless. And you knew!"

"Of course they are. They have given up fighting."

"Argh! I asked for teacher and you ..." Violet broke off and shook her head in anger. "What were they supposed to teach me?"

"The biggest lesson of all. This is what happens to sparks who give up. Their fighting spirit was broken."

"What's that supposed to mean? I never get a straight answer out of you, do I?"

"You want straight answers?" Ella gave her a grin. "Go ahead ask, but make sure you ask the right questions."

Violet fell silent for a moment. Gathering her thoughts. "I am a spark and yet I can't ..."

"Fly? Shoot fireballs? Cloud yourself in flames?" When Violet nodded Ella continued. "Because you haven't died enough. Wait! Straight answers. I remember. When the Phoenix - the original Phoenix - started out she didn't have any of that. All she had was her fighting spirit. Everything else originates from it. Heightened strength. Fast regeneration. The refusal to stay down even if she got killed. You think she got some dominion over fire? All that are physical manifestations of her will to fight."

Violet needed a moment to stomach the news. This was far from what she had heard before or had expected. "So all I can ... we can ... do is to brawl? What is the point?"

"The point? Besides fighting evil? We grow. With each passing year, there are more sparks. This fight has been going on a long time. Both sides know their opponent's strength and weaknesses."

"Great. So we slowly grow in strength. Is that it? To win in a few decades? I doubt we make it so far. Those villains in their ebony towers probably lose patients long before then and kill us all off," Violet concluded.

In the distance, Violet saw a dust cloud drifting off from one of the police compounds. Someone was in trouble again she concluded.

"We are long past that point," Ella corrected her. "Despite how young I look I have been in this fight for over twenty years. Back then the police didn't hesitate to shoot into a crowd of rioters or sparks. They quickly found out that it was a bad idea to kill a spark. We come back to life better, stronger and more pissed off. Nowadays they are scared to hand out guns to their patrols because they might shoot a spark. That is one of the changes we made happen."

Violet tracked the dust cloud with her eyes. Two vehicles she concluded by the size of it. "Why not capture us or so?"

"Ever see a Spark punch through a steel door? Because yes we can. Might take some time, but we punch through and then they have a spark right inside their base. Bad news for them. No. The only way they can stop a Spark is by breaking their will to fight. That's why they kick us to the brink of death. Hoping we get their hint."

"And we Sparks fight them to raise our fighting spirit and for the hope they kill us?" Violet wanted to know.

"It is a little bit more," Ella admitted. "Our goal is to take out the enemy forces. Break a leg or arm. That stuff. Not killing though. They would just recruit new ones. You see every policeman in the hospital drains their resources for weeks or month while we ... well, you noticed how fast we heal. Believe me, we are far from a stalemate, but it comes at a price."

"Pain," Violet threw in as she watched the police convoy split. Probably to cut off someone's escape route.

"Yes. For some, it is too much to handle. So now you know. So what about you?"

"Violet."

"What?"

"You once told me to get a new name. It is Violet."

"Well, then Violet. Being a spark or hide for your the rest of your life. What do you choose?"

Violet turned around with a grin and said: "I choose left."

She took off running before Ella could shake her confusion. It felt good to leave her with a cryptic answer for once. She grinned the whole time it took her to catch up to the vehicle that had split up to the left on the horizon.

With a mighty roar, she threw herself into the side of the big truck and it actually veered to the side and crashed. Angry policemen climbed out and Violet was ready.

This wasn't how she had envisioned it would be to be a spark. Nor was it the kind of hero she hoped to be.

But in this day and age what did it even mean to be a hero? Violet didn't know anymore. All she knew that she had now the means to change something. Even if it was little and brought with pain. She would fight for those who couldn't.

The end.



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