CHAPTER TWO

Perez Park had once been a beautiful place, a lush green respite from the rapid pace of city life. Families could picnic on the thick grass or see a play outdoors at Gaiman Amphitheatre. Lovers could walk through the tree-lined paths in the depths of the forest, arms about each other, whispering their sweetest thoughts. Everett Lake provided wet blue coolness on the hottest summer day. It had been a beautiful place.

Then came the Invasion. The War. After that, Perez Park became a haven for gangs warring with each other or preying on the unwise citizen foolish enough to enter their territory. A place for living automations to chatter and build. Where the undead and the disaffected roamed freely. And a place where the Circle of Thorns worked their arcane magics.

The animal emerged from below ground, pushing past a wood gate that blocked the entrance to Oranbega. It's glowing red eyes surveyed it's surroundings. It was in the middle of a dense forest, a babbling creek nearby nearly masking the sounds of the prey at hand.

The thing's nostrils quivered in the twilight, the waning sunlight still filtering through the leaves above. It smelled its prey and it's eyes could see the green tendrils of arcane enchantments weaving their way amongst the tree trunks. The monster smiled, it's razor sharp teeth still flecked with blood, and made it's way from the cave entrance into the deep woodland, following the green magic lines.

A moment later it came upon a glade and was bathed in the sallow moonlight just beginning to shine. It stepped out with no fear still following the mystic path ahead.

"Hey! This is our turf, Thorn!", a gruff voice shouted out.

It turned towards the voice and saw a young man in a tattered jacket striding purposefully towards it. His face was painted white like a skull and behind him several of his friends gathered, smirks on their faces.

"You deaf, Demon?", the thug asked. "I said this is our land. Get out!"

"I am no demon," it said matter-of-factly.

The gangster smiled. "No, you're just dead!" The switchblade appeared from nowhere and slashed at the animals midsection. The Skulls murderous grin turned to shock as he watched the blade break off on the thing's hard skin and go sailing into the bushes.

The fiend's clawed hand slashed out and cut the thug in two, torso landing to the left, legs to the right. His friends eyes grew wide at the sight of their severed comrade and as one they rushed forward.

And as one they died. The thing spared them not a thought as he continued on, following the magic trail, killing all in his path.


Top Ten arrived in Perez Park, moving past the police barricades, through the gates and into a graveyard. All about them bodies were strewn. The Skulls and Hellions, Vahzilok and Lost, all lay dead about the park. Some were nearly ripped apart, others sliced open and all still had a look of horror frozen on their faces by the rigor of death.

"My…God," Cadecus whispered, the empathy defender feeling more than the others the terribleness of the scene.

They all walked forward, their boots squishing. Looking down Temptations saw that the ground had turned to mud from the blood of the slain. She was a powerful warrior and death was no stranger to her but the scale here was almost beyond her. "I don’t underst…what could have done," she gestured around her, "this?"

Tropic shook his head. "I don’t know," he said quietly. His fiery eyes flared bright as he looked at the devastation.

"Did you feel it too?", a voice called to them from above.

They looked upwards and saw the dark form slowly approaching. General Scrap nodded in greeting as Bzald landed gracefully beside them. The black clad figure looked at his teammates, his red glowing eyes the only thing visible from of the dark swirling shadow that perpetually cloaked him.

Buttercup smiled grimly. "Some of us. We think it only affected those with some magic in them."

The dark figure stood silently for a moment, one hand stroking his chin. "That would seem to be the case," he said. "I was in Dark Astoria locked in combat with a Shaman and his cohorts. Of a sudden it came over us both and we two were staggered. His zombie thralls collapsed almost immediately. Luckily I was able to recover more rapidly than my foe and defeat him." Bzald looked at his friends and then the bodies surrounding them. He shook his head. "It was most disturbing."

Elendil glanced about them. "That’s an understatement. How did you know to come here? Perez doesn’t border on Astoria or Talos Island.

Bzald’s red eyes took in the battlefield and said absently, "I exited Dark Astoria and just…followed the feeling." He paused for a moment and said finally, "It led me here."

Temptations listened to the dark man’s story. "Well, now that we’re here, how do we find…whatever it is we’re looking for?"

"Hey! You guys come look at this!"

The gathered heroes turned and saw WillowWind and Valya near the high stone wall that separated the park from the few office buildings across the road. Willow was waving them over and Valya was crouched over a dark form.

As they converged on the two heroines they saw the body was a Circle mage. Tropic and Cadecus squatted next to Valya and examined the remains. It was indeed a Circle of Thorns adept, a Madness Mage by the look of him. Valya stood again next to WillowWind and watched the two men.

Tropic leaned back and stroked his goatee. "Cadecus?", he asked and motioned at the corpse.

The healer nodded and held his arms out directly over the dead magician’s chest. A white aura flowed from Cadecus’ hands and as quickly as he started, he closed his hands into fists and drew away from the body. He looked at Tropic, shaking his head, one hand tugging at his lower lip.

"Well?", asked Buttercup her gaze shifting between them.

"He’s Circle all right," Tropic began, "but it’s different. The other bodies here are practically torn apart and he’s pretty beat up too, but there’s something different about this one." Tropic pointed down at the body. "Look at his skin. It’s wrinkled…calcified…like he’s been mummified or…" Tropic shook his head and pulled on his goatee again. "I don’t know."

"And there’s something else." The assembled heroes turned towards Cadecus. "Just now when I tried to get some reading off him, there was nothing." He saw the confused looks on the faces of his teammates. He sighed and explained. "Everyone has some type of aura or…presence…that remains with them, even in death, for a while at least." He paused and looked at the Mage. "He had nothing. Nothing."

Valya looked at the body and then at Cadecus. "Like he’d been…drained," she said quietly.

"Of everything," Tropic whispered. He looked at Temptations again. "You asked how we find what we’re looking for…" The gathered heroes of Top Ten looked at each other and then the stiffening remains sprawled about them. Then Tropic’s low voice broke the uneasy silence. "We follow the bodies."

Tropic and Temptations led the way, carefully picking their way through the seemingly unending corpses littering the unnerving quiet of the park. The heroes were silent, each lost in thought, all trying to remain focused on the matter at hand and not on the dead pointing the way to…what? The unknown was more worrisome than their surroundings. They had seen battle and death before but, with the exception of a few, not on this scale. Not knowing what they were facing was a frightening proposition.

Still they pressed forward. Up ahead they saw movement and, as one, immediately took defensive postures but quickly relaxed again as they caught sight of the familiar colors of the Top Ten uniform and the four individuals wearing them. The four teammates saw the larger group at the same time and waited for them to approach.

Ryuuhoshi shook his head. "What’s going on here?", he said looking over the devastation. "I’ve never seen anything like this."

Miyaka gripped her katana tightly and nodded a greeting, her short dark hair bobbing slightly in the still night. Deep Phreeze wrapped her cape close about herself, eyes hidden behind her red tinted glasses. Her ice powers warded off the cold but she shivered now amongst the dead. Johnny Cognito stood silent, tendrils of inky blackness gathering at his feet.

"I can’t say I’m not glad to see you," General Scrap told them, "but how did you…?"

"We were arresting some Family goons in Independence Port when we saw it." Ryuuhoshi looked up at the swirling green sky. "You can see it from all over the city."

Buttercup frowned. "You can’t see Perez from IP. You mean that…"

"You can see it from all over the city," Ryuuhoshi said again.

Cadecus grimaced and looked skyward. "That means the ordinary citizens are going to panic." Like most of the heroes inhabiting Paragon City, Cadecus had little faith in the city’s police forces. He and the others had seen them run from trouble too many times to think they could count on them now.

"Then lets find the people responsible for this and finish it before more die," General Scrap offered. "I’ll bet that the Circle of Thorns is behind it. Once we track them down we can…"

Johnny Cognito scowled and looked at the bodies near him. "The Circle? Look around you! The Circle are getting killed along with everyone else." He shook his head. "I don’t think they decided to get themselves killed en masse!"

Elendil nodded. "He has a point…but I’m willing to bet that they at least had something to do with it." He gazed up at the sky, an angry green cyclone swirling ominously. "Let’s keep on going. Follow the bodies and see where that leads us maybe we’ll…"

He stopped speaking, interrupted by an unearthly howl. He raised an eyebrow and returned the stares of his teammates.

"I guess we know where we’re going," Miyaka said with a crooked smile.

"Stay together," Ryuuhoshi whispered as they moved through the bloody mud towards the sound.

The heroes moved quickly through the park, skirting the thick forest line and following the edge of the small rivulet of water that lead to Everett Lake. They still had to step over the bodies littering the ground but now they noticed more Circle of Thorns among the dead. All of them had the same mummified, drained look as the one they had found.

Tropic and Buttercup looked at each other silently, a gaze of concern between them. The Circle were a group of very powerful magicians. Whatever could do this was head and shoulders above that power. The two heroes knew that what they were dealing with was deadly, dangerous, and maybe stronger than they. They continued on, though, knowing also that they were probably the only thing standing between…something and the rest of Paragon City.

The group emerged on the bank of Everett Lake and followed it towards the gate to Skyway City. They rounded a stand of thick trees and there, in the middle of the Amphitheatre, they saw it, gripping a Circle Thorn Wielder by the shoulders. A green mist was flowing from the helpless victim, from his mouth and eyes, into the open maw of the huge thing. Remnants of the mist drifted upward to the sky joining the swirling mass above.

The Thorn Wielder’s body began to shrink in the animal’s grasp as his power, his magic, his very essence was drawn away. When the monster had taken all there was, he simply cast the Thorn aside to join the others strewn on the Amphitheatre’s stage, all sucked dry of every bit of life and magic. It turned then and noticed the heroes of Top Ten watching it. It sensed the magic in some of them but there was not enough there to warrant it’s attention.

Until it heard the scream, "ATTACK!", then Top Ten had it’s complete attention.

As one the heroes surged forward assaulting the black demon with the practiced confidence earned with hundreds of battles: melee team moved forward to engage the villain directly and range heroes held back, peppering the fiend with blasts of ice, fire and energy. But it soon became clear that this…thing was not going to fall to conventional battle strategies.

Miyaka sliced away at the thing, striking it with slashing blows, her katana dancing over the hide of the animal so quickly only a blur of silver could be seen. Temptations stood beside her, the great broadsword in her hands hacking down on the ogre’s armored hide so hard the impact threatened to jar the blade from her hands. Both blades had the same effect - none.

The demon roared in annoyance and swung it’s huge hand, slapping Temptations away. The heroine tumbled in the grass and dirt, a cloud of dust rising in her path. She finally came to rest some twenty yards away at the edge of the lake already rolling to her feet and heading back to join the fray again.

Miyaka continued her attack, still trying to carve the beast’s skin, while behind her the blasts from her teammates attempted to disorient their foe. On the other side Ryuuhoshi and Buttercup struck with all the skill of their martial arts training. Thunderous strikes and kicks landed on the beast, hands and feet moving faster than the eye could see. But the thought became clearer in their minds that they were doing no damage at all.

Suddenly, the animal leapt over them and headed out over the lake towards the abandoned boathouse. "Keep after it!", General Scrap shouted. "We’ve got to take it out before it can do mor…". The rest of his words were lost to the wild sounds of fighting.

Top Ten pursued it, blast after blast hitting the fleeing demon. "We’re not hurting it!", Elendil shouted as he unleashed another blast at the beast. He watched as the things tail struck Miyaka and sent her flying. She hit the ground and tumbled across the grass, leaving a smoking trail of dirt.

Ryuuhoshi watched as Miya tumbled away and, in the split second that his attention was diverted, the thing's tail struck him as it swished back. The dark ninja was lifted from his feet and hurled some thirty yards away, finally hitting the ground and somersaulting several times before coming to rest on the cool green grass, dizzy and stunned.

He clambered to his knees, shaking his head, trying to recover. Ryuuhoshi watched the battle with the demon unfold. Valya and Cognito were doing their best to slow it down and the rest of the team were hitting it with everything they had.

Suddenly he saw Bzald swoop in, trying to get a decent shot at the thing. He watched in horror as the animal struck the shadowed controller with it's huge fist. Bzald took off like a rocket, spinning through the air and then hitting the ground and going airborne once more, sailing directly over Ryuu's head. Bzald's back slammed into the hard trunk of a large tree, nearly snapping the man in two. He fell to earth and lay there, unmoving.

Ryuuhoshi ran to his friend. "Bz! Bzald! Are you ok?" He crouched there next to him looking into the red, glowing eyes.

"Can't...move...", Bzald said, his shadowed face a mask of pain and fear.

Ryuu looked up, searching for the healer, Cadecus, when above him Deep Phreeze tumbled overhead and smacked into the concrete of the force field wall with a sickening wet thud. She fell at least twenty feet and lay still.

"Cadecus! Cadecus!"

The healer turned from the battle and saw the ninja frantically waving him over. With a last healing burst, Cad hurried over. He looked down at Bzald and, using his power, determined the extent of the man's injury. He looked over at Phreeze and then to Ryuuhoshi. "Take them to the hospital."

"What?", Ryuu asked in surprise. "Can't you..."

Cadecus shook his head and looked back at the carnage near the demon. "No. Get going! Get back as quick as you can!" With that the healer returned to the fray.

Ryuu frowned, picked up Deep Phreeze and, placing his hand on Bzald, activated the medical transporter and the three heroes vanished.

"Keep at it!", WillowWind yelled. She fired another blast at the thing. Valya had surrounded it with quicksand and Cognito added to it with tar, both heroes striving to slow the fiend down long enough for their team to stop it. Valya and Willow closed in trying to maximize the chance to strike. In back of the beast Elendil and Tropic did the same. Temptations and Buttercup still stood toe to toe with the thing, hitting it with everything they could muster.

Elendil hit it with a huge blaze of fire, not really hurting the beast but certainly getting it’s attention. As the beast turned toward the fire blaster its great forked tail swept into Valya knocking her away.

The demon looked down at the blaster and it’s clawed hand jabbed toward him. Elendil had stopped his assault for a moment and had taken a knee, resting, trying to regain some of his strength. He never saw it coming.

"EL!!", Tropic screamed and pushed the man out of the way. "ARRGGHH!!" Another scream burst from Tropic. Looking down he saw the talon of the beast jutting forward from his side. The villain had thrust its sharp nail through him from behind and, just as quickly, it withdrew the claw. Tropic fell to the ground, fire erupting from both sides of the wound.

"TROPIC! NO!", Elendil screamed and rushed to his friend. The fiery hero lay on the ground for a moment and then climbed to his hands and knees. "Trop, are you..?", Elendil asked, fear and concern in his voice and on his face.

"Just…got to…catch…my breath," he said between heavy breaths. Suddenly a scream rent the night air and both heroes turned to the sound. The animal had grabbed WillowWind and held her high above his head, one great hand wrapped around her leg, and was already swinging his arm down trying to drive her into the ground as if she were a hammer.

Valya cried out as she saw the dire trouble her friend was in. She ran towards the beast but knew already she wouldn’t make it in time. Elendil unleashed a bolt of pure flame at the thing, hitting it directly in the chest. The demon shrugged it off, still swinging the struggling heroine towards the hard cold earth.

Tropic rose to his knees, dazed and faint from the wound his body was still trying to heal. He took his hand from his side long enough to shoot a weak blast of fire at the black beast. That done, he collapsed to the ground once more, watching helplessly.

The ball of fire hit the beast in the chest again. Howling in agony the thing dropped Willow some ten feet to the ground. Valya made it to her almost as soon as she landed and, scooping her up, practically carried her from harm’s way.

The beast turned to Tropic, it’s nostrils quivering, and stared for a mere second at the fire blaster. Then it turned and simply bounded away, swallowed by the dense forest of Perez Park.

Near the force field wall a figure appeared seemingly from thin air, wearing the Top Ten colors. "What the hell was that?", it asked incredulously.

"Kunai!", General Scrap called out. He ran to the lanky fighter, holding his left arm tight to his body. "Follow that thing! Let us know where it goes, but for God’s sake, don’t attack it! Go! Go!"

"Right! Got it!", the stealthy warrior exclaimed and ran towards the forest, already seeming to disappear from view as he neared the thick trees.

Scrap watched Kunai go and then turned to the rest of his team. All had been injured in some way and Cadecus was going to each of them, the soothing green waves of his healing aura washing over them and making them whole again. Buttercup was on her knees, the midsection of her uniform bearing four claw-like tears. Temptations left shoulder pad was missing and the sleeve had split at the seam. Willow and Valya appeared to be all right but both were covered with dirt and sweat. Tropic was in his feet, supported by Elendil. And as he took stock of himself, Scrap noticed finally the deep gash in his arm.

Cadecus came near him and he felt the heal. He looked at his arm again and watched as the wound disappeared. Cadecus nodded at him, "You ok?" Scrap nodded in return.

"Well, we just got our asses kicked," Miyaka said plainly. She too was covered in dirt. Her uniform was covered with grass stains and the seam on one side of the short skirt she wore had split all the way up to the waist, showing, in flashes, the white panties she was so fond of wearing.

"Miya…"

"No, really, every part of our asses were just kicked. If there was an ass in the vicinity, it was kicked." She kneeled down at the edge of the lake and splashed the cool water on her face, washing away the grime.

"Miya…please…," Scrap began.

"She’s right," Tropic said quietly, still holding his side as he approached the group. Elendil stayed near but Tropic was standing now under his own power.

WillowWind walked up and rested her hand on his shoulder. "You all right?"

"Good as new," he said, removing his hand from the wound, revealing the two charred holes, front and back, in his costume. Not even a scar remained.

Buttercup sighed and stared into the forest after the beast. "So…what do we do now?"

"Simple," Temptations said. She gripped the hilt of her broadsword so tightly her knuckles were white. She looked at her teammates, her eyes low and growled, "We track it down and return the favor."
TO CHAPTER THREE >
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