CHAPTER FIVE

Everything in the little park seemed to come to a standstill, a pause so total that not even sound escaped it. Top Ten stood grouped together, backs to one another, hands all balled into fists, surrounded by the deadly assassins. Tropic stood a bit apart from them hurriedly assessing the dire situation they were now in.

The Knives’ leader stood near him. She was tiny, not even 5’2", he estimated, and was clad in the second skin of their spandex battle suits, so tight that the outlined muscles of her abdomen were visible. Her blond hair was short and spiky, and her eyes were covered by the red night-vision goggles all her sisters wore. To her left and right were her bodyguards, twins, with long black hair pulled into ponytails. They both had their swords drawn, their heads constantly moving, ready to protect their mistress with their lives.

Looking over the rest of the warrior women, he saw all were dressed alike and all had their swords drawn. But there was no attack. All this he noticed in mere seconds. Tropic turned to their leader and was about to speak when he noticed the white glow coming from the center of his teammates.

"NO!", he shouted but it was too late. The energy bolt struck one of the Knives and the battle was on.

Miyaka’s katana flashed faster than the eye could follow, steel clanging against the swords of the two women who attacked her. Sparks flew from the blades, lighting up the dark night like flashes of lightning. One of the women blocked Miya’s blade and the other swiped her sword in a wide arc at the heroines midsection. Miya threw her middle backwards and the enemies’ katana just caught the armored fabric of her costume, slashing it but missing skin.

"Bitch!", Miyaka screamed and leapt into the battle, sword glowing with venomous light.

"WAIT!", Tropic yelled at the top of his lungs but the battle was fully involved now, the cacophony of fire and energy blasts, steel against steel and flesh against flesh drowning him out.

Temptations was dealing with two of the assassins as well, her great broadsword darting between the double blades against her. The sword weighed at least 60 pounds but the warrior woman wielded it with ease. The katanas of her foes, however, were strong weapons as well, hot steel folded at least 3000 times made them able to withstand the great power of Temptations sword.

Suddenly one of the women parried a stroke from the heroine. Her partner leapt up and planted a boot squarely in Temptations chest, kicking her backwards. Temptations rolled with the blow, somersaulted back and came up immediately to her feet. She rushed to them again, blades of grass falling from her hair as she engaged her enemies.

Tropic looked around him. All his teammates were in the fight. His eyes flared bright with red fire and he yelled out again, "STOP!", hoping to end the battle.

Buttercup and Ryuuhoshi squared off against the women, their hands and feet streaking in and out, blocking and striking their foes. A Knife warrior kicked at Ryuu’s leg but he raised it up, blocking the blow with his shin and, stepping forward with that same leg, reached out and hit the woman with a straight cross in the bridge of her nose. Blood erupted from her face and she staggered back. There was no time for chivalry, truly there was no place for it here, and Ryuu pressed his attack. As he approached, the woman dropped low and swept her leg around in an arc trying to sweep his feet from the ground. Ryuuhoshi had to jump over her leg and, as it went by, she jumped up towards him tackling him in midair and taking him to the ground.

Buttercup was having her own problems. The warrior she was facing had tried the same maneuver her sister had, sweeping the feet of her opponent. Buttercup had been just a fraction of a second too slow and the leg sweep worked, toppling the heroine from her feet and onto the damp grassy ground. Her foe jumped on top of her, mounting her and raining down blow after blow.

Buttercup covered up as best she could and bucked her hips slightly to dislodge the woman. The Knife lost her balance momentarily but continued her assault. The heroine then popped her hips up as hard as possible and the Knife lost enough of her balance that she had to put her right hand on the ground beside Buttercup’s head to steady herself. As soon as the hand hit the ground, Buttercup clasped her hands together, entwining her fingers, and ran them down her foe’s right bicep into the elbow and pushed down hard, collapsing the arm altogether. Bucking her hips hard again she rolled the woman over and ended up on top of her. Their situations reversed, Buttercup began her own rain of fists on to the dazed warrior.

Valya and Johnny Cognito stood back to back with General Scrap between them. They turned the ground to quicksand and black tar, slowing the Knife assassins and allowing Scrap to target them with his powerful energy blasts. But the women had their own ways of slowing the heroes and the park was soon littered with caltrops, five sided spikes of metal, that hampered the teammates movements.

Elendil and WillowWind took to the air, throwing bolts of fire and energy at the women. The Knives of Artemis soldiers leapt and tumbled, avoiding the blasts and coming closer to the heroes. Suddenly, one of the women launched herself upwards and was just able to grab hold of WillowWind’s ankle. She tugged down hard and both hero and villain tumbled to the ground.

"I SAID, STOP!", Tropic shouted at the top of his lungs. His eyes blazed as he raised his flame filled hands high above his head. Dropping them down he aimed a powerful blast directly into the ground in the middle of the combatants. Concentric rings of repulsing fire hurled back friend and foe alike.

Most found themselves off their feet. As his teammates scrambled up Ryuuhoshi squinted at the blaster. "Tropic! What are you…?", but the question went unfinished when Topic raised his hand to gently silence the dark ninja.

Top Ten gathered themselves together, once more surrounded by the Knives of Artemis. Cognito looked at the women around him, the tips of the katanas pointed almost at their throats. "Well, this looks familiar," he sighed.

Tropic paid no attention as he walked purposefully to the Knife leader. Her twin bodyguards rushed to stand in front of her, one blade pointed at his heart, the other at his throat. He stood before the small, blonde haired woman and, looking down into her red goggled eyes, curled his right hand into a fist and crossed it over his chest, saluting as the ancient soldiers did. He stood straight and tall then said, "We greet you with strength and honor and in the name of your Goddess."

The woman regarded Tropic for a moment then gestured with her hand. The two bodyguards moved to their original positions behind her. She surveyed the scene in front of her and motioned with her hand again. The Knives of Artemis surrounding the heroes split in two and quickly moved in half circles to stand in formation behind their mistress. They stood in two groups of nine and, as one, slid their deadly blades into their sheathes, keeping their hands on the hilts of the swords. The twins did the same except their swords remained half drawn, ready to strike.

The leader removed her goggles and stared up at Tropic with pale blue eyes. She placed her right fist over her left breast and said at last, with a crooked grin, "We accept your greeting and are pleased the old ways are remembered."

Tropic extended his hand out to her and they grasped each other by the elbows in the fashion of warriors of old and he said, *"Greetings, Hecate, it’s been a long time"*

Sister Hecate smiled up at the red-skinned hero, *"A long time indeed. What’s it been…50...60 years?"*

Tropic thought for a moment then returned her grin. *"More like 90."* He paused and nodded, *"Sarajevo."*

*"Ahh, yes…the Balkans,"* she said raising an eyebrow. *"Who was that…a prince?…no, I remember now. It was an Arch-Duke. Set things off rather nicely I think."*

The heroes listened intently as Tropic and the woman spoke in a language they could not understand. Valya shook her head. "What is that?"

"I think it’s…old," Buttercup shrugged.

"Gee, thanks for clearing that up," Valya replied and returned her attention to the esoteric conversation.

*"It was a fine piece of assassination, although I don’t think your employer counted on a World War,"* Tropic said with a smile.

*"No, he didn’t,"* Hecate said crookedly. *"Said the war had frozen his finances. Tried to renege on our deal. Then he tried to renegotiate. Then he paid in full."* The Knife leader shook her head and sighed. *"Then he died under the most mysterious circumstances."*

Tropic laughed out loud. *"Served him right."*

Hecate smiled and said, her eyes hooded, *"If I remember correctly, we spent a month in…Morocco after that. And as I recall, the nights were rather…hot."* At the word hot, the tip of her pink tongue licked the left corner of her upper lip. She made no effort to disguise the lust on her face.

Finally, WillowWind spoke up. "Tropic, you know this…woman?"

Hecate turned to the heroine and an evil grin appeared on her pursed lips. The Knife said, loud enough for all to hear, in her accented, perfect English, "How sweet! The cow is jealous!" She looked at Tropic. "Does she belong to you? Is she for sale?"

"COW?!?", Willow exploded. "Oh, you have got to go!" Her hands glowed white as the energy built up within her. She threw her hand forward to fire a bolt at the smirking woman but at the last possible instant, Valya grabbed her friend’s arm and the blast of pure energy shot up and out of the park, arcing over the train station and glowing like a searchlight.

Tropic lowered his head and sighed. He rubbed his forehead then pinched the bridge of his nose. Hecate had always been a manipulator and one hundred years hadn’t changed her. She stood there with a serene expression on her face watching Valya and Cadecus hold Willow back. He stole a glance at his friend and saw the anger etched on her face as she struggled against the grip of her teammates. Tropic shook his head and sighed again.

"Hecate!", he called out forcefully enough that WillowWind calmed a bit but Valya still had a tight hold of her arm. "She is no cow," Tropic said firmly, "she belongs to herself and she is not ‘for sale’." He stared intently at the assassin’s leader and nodded once, almost imperceptibly.

Hecate grinned her sly grin. "Pity. She has…some sprit." The woman looked Willow up and down then turned to Tropic. "I suppose we could have trained her to be less…awkward." Behind her she heard the heroine hiss in anger and her smile grew a bit broader.

Tropic frowned at the warrior. "You said you know something of the tablet. Tell me," he said, trying to get everyone back on track. He had had a feeling since this thing appeared that events were rushing to a conclusion that no one, not the city, not the police, and not Top Ten were prepared for. If Hecate had any information, they needed it now.

Hecate smiled crookedly again realizing her fun was over. She moved until she was directly in front of Tropic, her head only coming to below his shoulders. She looked up at her old friend, "The Tablet of Traume is in the possession of a Tsoo boss named Bright Blade." She had practically spit out the name ‘Tsoo’. Even though the Knives of Artemis and the Tsoo were in almost the same business - the mercenary business of assassination, murder, protection, terror, the Knives looked at the Tsoo as thugs and common criminals. The Knives, on the other hand, were artists, in their own minds at least.

The red-skinned hero regarded the small woman. "And you know this…?"

"The Goddess has told us," she said matter-of-factly.

Tropic nodded. "Why does he have it?"

"He fancies himself as learned, a collector of artifacts," she sneered. "He had his men break into the Guild’s warehouse and take several objects," she shook her head, "the Tablet was not on his list. They merely took it because it looked…old."

The hero tugged on his goatee for a moment, deep in thought, then finally whispered, "He doesn’t know what he has."

"I’ve heard of this ‘Bright Blade’," Cadecus frowned. "He’s a master in the ‘Lightning School’, channels electricity through his sword." He looked at his friends with a raised eyebrow, "Very dangerous. Let me call a contact of mine, see if he can tell us anything." Cad pulled out his communicator and was already dialing as he turned away.

Tropic looked down at Hecate and smiled at his old friend, "Thank you for the information. It’s very helpful."

The assassin shrugged. "The Goddess decreed it," she said simply as if she had no control over the matter. She bowed slightly. "Take care, Dread One," and gestured with her hand again. The Knives of Artemis began to move away in formation.

Top Ten watched as the women moved away. As Hecate passed her, Willow whispered loudly, "I’ll be seeingyou again." The warrior woman looked sidelong at the heroine and grinned, not with fear but with…invitation.

When the Knives were about 30 yards distant Hecate stopped and turned. She looked at Tropic and, of a sudden, headed back to him, leaving her cadre behind. When she finally stood in front of him she paused and then, much to the hero’s surprise, leaned into him and hugged him tightly. For the only time that evening, Top Ten and the Knives of Artemis were one; confused.

Tropic stood there awkwardly and at last put his arms lightly around her, gently returning the embrace. When she pulled away from him he stared at her with a bemused expression. "Nice, but what was that for?"

Hecate gave him a sad smile as she held him at arms length. "If you should survive this, Dread One, come visit me. There are so few of us left from the old days and I…"

Tropic nodded, "I will, I promise."

Hecate bowed her head once and rejoined her warriors. They moved out of the small park and as one, vanished.

The teammates all breathed a sigh of relief and Scrap came to stand beside Tropic. "So, you trust her?", the energy wielder asked.

"Trust her?", Tropic said shaking his head, "No. Believe her? Yes."

"Why?"

"Because she’s scared. And so are the Gods." Tropic noticed Scrap’s expression. "Oh, the Gods exist. They’re out there but not many believe in them anymore so they’ve turned their attention to other matters." He tugged worriedly on his goatee. "But this thing…this demon…something about it has them scared. So they told the Knives about the tablet and the Knives told us."

Buttercup stepped forward with a questioning look in her eyes. "But why even tell us? Couldn’t they get the tablet and take care of this themselves?"

"We’re cannon fodder," Johnny said flatly. He met the gaze of his friends. "Think about it. We’re taking the risk. We’re fighting the thing. We might get killed. They don’t get their hands dirty."

Tropic nodded, "And, if we fail, they can still step in and finish it. And if we succeed, their goal is accomplished as well."

"Founders Falls," Cadecus said. His teammates faced him. "Contact says he’s got a place in Founders Falls. Out near Hutchinson Park overlooking Red River." The healer nodded his head. "Says he’s there now."

"Huh," Willow frowned, "I live in Founders Falls."

Johnny Coginito shook his head, "Hmm, I guess they’re letting anybody in now." WillowWind and Valya looked at him with furrowed brows and he shook his finger at them saying, "That sounded so much better in my head."

General Scrap looked at the clock visible in the station overhead. 11:30pm. "All right. Let’s get over to Founders Falls and see what this ‘Bright Blade’ knows," and Top Ten boarded the train.


* translated from the Ancient Greek
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