A few months had passed as James trained, studied, and grew closer with his fellow guildmates. Everyone was astounded with the progress he was making in such a short time all thanks to Kazav. The training was tough and every day it got tougher as they shaped and molded him into a real hero.
Sparrow was both excited and concerned with the speed his powers were growing. She liked James and saw the makings of a real hero in his heart but so much about him didn't sit right with her. As she grew closer to him her worries started to slip away and before long she came to see him as not just a guildmate, but as a good friend.
He had gone on field missions with most of the other heroes to train and observe but had never been entrusted with a solo assignment. Sparrow felt that it was time for that to change so she assigned James to a patrol shift for the day so that she could talk the idea over with the team. They all agreed that he was ready and waited for the following day to give him the news.
Mornings in the guildhall were more or less the same. James would walk into the briefing room and sit next to Sparrow who sat in her command chair waiting for the team to assemble. He was usually the second person to arrive followed by Super Static who was usually eating something messy. Owl liked to hang out in the rafters of the ceiling and would drop down once everyone filtered in. Hawk and Falcon always started training earlier in the day and always arrived amped up and extremely talkative.
Once everyone took their seats Sparrow would begin to issue assignments for the team and that day's meeting was now underway.
"Lots to talk about today," Sparrow announced to the team. "For one, crime is down while monster attacks continue to rise so I want everyone's focus to shift toward that."
Now walking back and forth across the table, she continued with the briefing. "Secondly we need to talk about a new concern in our precinct." She pulled out an edict from the heroes guild HQ and read it aloud. It stated, "It has come to our attention that a new anti-hero sect has been reported in your guilds patrol radius. It is recommended that you dispatch a hero with the task of tracking down and investigating this potential threat."
She looked over to James. "I think this is a mission you could handle on your own."
The anxiety at the thought of his first solo mission made his throat tighten. "Really?" He asked as his voice cracked.
Sparrow nodded. "Yup, I think it's time. This is a low-pressure mission that will get you more familiar with the city and give you the chance to break in your new skills."
Everyone clapped and cheered as Sparrow walked the instructions over and plopped them on the desk in front of him. This was a huge deal to him and as he stared at the file, he began to anxiously tap his fingers against the desk.
She could tell he was getting tense and gave him some reassurance. "Hey, you got this. Just do your best and I promise you won't let us down."
He slowed his fingers and gave her a smile. "Thanks, Sparrow, I'll do my best."
"One more thing," she chirped. "Have you come up with a hero name like we talked about? Remember this is how everyone will know and identify you so make sure it's one you like."
After a lot of back and forth with Kazav, they had indeed settled on a hero name they both liked. Looking out at the table he announced, "My hero name is going to be Night Phoenix."
He wanted to stick with the bird theme they had going but also wanted to highlight the concept that he had transformed into something he never thought possible. He was like a phoenix that erupted from the dark hopelessness of his past life.
Sparrow and the team clapped in support of his choice. "Well then, welcome Night Phoenix, the name certainly suits you. Now get out there and gather all the information you can on this new group."
"Yes ma'am!" he replied gleefully.
After gearing up and reading through the file he took off into the city. It had been reported that people matching the group's description were spotted around the southern end of their guild's territory. Witnessed reported a group of strange people going in and out of an abandoned building several miles south of his current position.
As he flew from rooftop to rooftop, he couldn't help but feel amused. Just a few months ago he would never have dreamed of being able to cover so much ground in such little time. In the past, a journey of several miles used to be an ordeal but was now just a few leaps and bounds away.
While flying between buildings he looked down at the people below. Some of them would point in awe when they spotted him. Others would clap and cheer or even ask for photos and autographs if they could catch you in time. One thing James learned fast was that there were a lot of people who didn't like heroes. That didn't surprise him as he agreed until recently.
Eventually, he got to the general area the file had mentioned. He decided to use one of the taller buildings for a vantage point and started a wall jump to get to the top. It was hard work avoiding the windows when jumping off the side's and he broke more than a few windows before he got the feel for it.
With a swift finale kick off the side of the wall, he reached the top and perched himself over the edge. Like a stoic gargoyle, he leaned over the city with a motionless gaze.
The building he was looking for was a run-down factory near the edge of town. The report didn't name a specific building or street number so he would have to do some recon if he was to find out which one to inspect.
"Let me know if you see something interesting Kazav," James commanded in a serious, confident tone.
"Yes sir," he playfully replied. Kazav didn't mind the new confident James. He liked him a whole lot better now than when they first met by a mile.
Their relationship had grown over the past few months into a friendship of sorts and as it did James grew ever more trustful. Despite the odd circumstances behind their meeting, James felt a kindred spirit in Kazav.
Several hours had gone by of scanning and patrolling the area before James saw anything noteworthy. As he looked out over to the edge of the city, he began to notice several suspicious-looking vehicles shuttling back and forth.
The people coming in and out of the vehicles all dressed and looked the same. and greeted each other with odd hand gestures. Black cloaks covered their faces and long, dark robes hid the rest.
Kazav let out a hearty laugh. "I'd say that warrants a closer look. It's almost like they want people to know they are up to something."
James jumped off the edge of the building and entered a freefall. Hitting the concrete ceiling of the building below, he made his way across several other rooftops before reaching the outskirts of the city.
He hid out of sight behind a clock tower that rested atop one of the abandoned factories. At least 20 people all got out of the vans that pulled in and filed out into the factory across from him.
James hung back until all of them were out of sight and then jumped down to inspect the vans. They were all empty except for a few bags that had a strange insignia. It was of a red orb being held in a withered old hand. He took a few pictures with his phone and then moved on to explore the building they had entered.
The doors were locked so he crept around the side until he found a broken window. After checking to make sure it was safe to go through, he jumped inside.
The factory was long abandoned with all its old equipment scattered on the floor collecting dust. He stepped over the piles of old gear as he walked along looking for clues as to where the group may have gone off to.
All the rooms were empty and the only sounds he could pick up were of mice and birds darting throughout the facility. A normal person may have given up but James, with his new and sensitive eyesight, could see odd friction marks on the ground in front of him. As he leaned in to inspect the wall a light breeze brushed against his cheek as air seeped out from behind.
A closer look revealed an expertly hidden secret door built into the wall. "Very clever," James remarked as he felt the wall around to try and find the way in.
After searching the length of the wall, he finally found a fuse box that didn't seem to connect to anything. James pulled the lever down and heard a resounding click. Moments later the wall parted revealing a long stone stairwell leading down into the ground.
Everything instinct was telling him not to go down there. In every scary movie, he had ever seen entering a secret doorway was a sure way to wind up dead. James shook his head and steeled his nerves for whatever he might find on the other side. No matter how spooky things got he was not about to let his team down.
The second he passed through the doorway it slammed shut behind him leaving him with only one option, to press on. The stairwell was made of old stone and was covered in strange etchings. Freshly lit candles lined the walls and illuminated the carved statues of strange creatures placed throughout.
He finally reached the bottom of the stairwell and could now detect the faint echoes of someone shouting out into the crypt. James crept closer and closer until he was able to look on at the meeting taking place before him. The group that had entered the ruins all sat around in a half-circle while a man in a cloak gave a passionate and rousing speech.
"Out long wait is almost over!" The voice shouted out in a guttural tone. Cheers and clapping thundered out into the hall as the observers engaged with the speaker.
"We will no longer suffer under the noxious influence of the so-called 'heroes' of this rotting world!"
The hooded figure jumped off the slab of stone he was standing on and, reaching into a satchel, pulled out a mysterious dark crystal. He held it up into the air for everyone to see as he continued his ranting. "What I hold in my hands is the solution to our long-awaited cry for freedom! With the power of these crystals, we can raise an army to aid in our fight to cleanse this planet."
As James looked on at the gem an overwhelming urge to reach out and touch it began to grip him. It was as though there was some kind of magnetic force that was compelling him to get closer. The feeling passed once the man put it back in his pack and out of sight. James let out a gasp of relief and rubbed his eyes to get his focus back.
Now back up on the slab, the stranger continued to shout to the crowd. "Our leader is already among us just waiting for the opportune moment to bring the heroes of this world to their knees and take that which rightfully belongs to him!"
The crowd shouted manically in agreement and began to jump around in their seats. James shook his head in disbelief. He couldn't understand why anyone would want to get involved in something like this. He wondered just what it was they thought they were going to accomplish.
"In one year, this world and all who inhabit it will finally get the true leader it deserves and will be forced to submit to its awe-inspiring power!" The figure pointed to a massive stone carving behind him. It was of a boney, wretched, and vile-looking creature that was clutching a sphere in its hands.
Kazav snickered as he listened to the man shout and strut for the crowd. "Well well, looks like creeps and weirdos exist on every planet I visit. I was hoping this one would be different but maybe that was asking for too much."
James nodded his head in agreement. "Yeah, there are weirdos everywhere you go. Haven't you ever been inside a superstore?"
They shared a brief chuckle and then went back to spying. "For now, my children, we will disperse back into our mundane lives and wait eagerly for his arrival. In just one year's time, the Nexus Orb will no longer be out of our reach, and with it, this world will be reborn!"
The crowd again cried out in loud and cheerful joy as the man concluded his speech and stepped down from the slab he was perched upon. The members began to file out and up a staircase that was at the end of the room they had been gathered in.
Kazav could tell the hallways would lead right back to them and warned James immediately. "Kid we gotta go! They are heading right back toward you!"
James took off running as fast as he could. The last thing he needed was to get made and blow the entire operation. Once he reached the bottom of the stairwell he jumped and launched himself up to the top. Once he was up there he begin to panic because there was no obvious way to open the secret door from this side. With no discernable switch or lever, he decided the only way out now was by force. With a powerful kick, James broke the door right off the wall and created a gaping hole through which he could escape.
A voice shouted out from the stairs below, "What in the world was that? Who's there?"
James didn't wait around to let them find out. He dashed back outside through another broken window and made his way back to the guildhall at breakneck speed.
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