Chapter One


The explosion caught her by surprise, the blast lifting her off her feet and sending her sailing into the air, higher and higher. The Earth grew small beneath her as she rose uncontrollably through the atmosphere. She could see the whole of the globe now and, twisting her head, she looked behind her and saw the darkness of space dotted here and there with the bright twinkles of the starry galaxy.

She hung suspended for a moment, having reached the apogee of her flight, then she began to plummet toward the spinning planet below. She fell, the cold wind rushing across her face and through her hair, gaining speed and getting closer to the hard unforgiving ground.

Then a hand grabbed her wrist, stopping her flight. She looked up to see her benefactor and smiled at her old friend and enemy. He grinned back, his eyes narrowed with laughter, the fire that constantly flowed from them a happy shade of orange. She heard a child’s laughter and then that same child began to cry, a wail so forlorn her first instinct was to take the babe up in her arms and comfort it.

Her eyes widened. Behind him a form of pure flame appeared. It reared up, expanding like a bubble, and engulfed him. She stared in horror as his mouth opened, silently screaming as he rapidly melted away. She blinked once and looked at the hand still grasping her. It was nothing but bone now which flowed into dust that scattered into the morning sky as she started to fall once more.

Faster and faster, the earth getting closer, gaining speed. She could see the rocks, the grass of the park as they grew large in her sight. The wind and fear watered her eyes and the ground rushed up and crushed her.


"NOOOO!" she cried and jerked up, the covers on her bed scattering. She looked around the room frantically as she sat in the bed, her mind slowly rising up from the grasp of her nightmare. She breathed deeply, at last recognizing her bedchamber. She ran her hands through her short blonde hair, sighing in relief. Her heart still raced and she ran her hand over her naked chest, wiping away the slight film of perspiration from between her small breasts. She shook her head. The same dream again, she thought. Maybe not a dream…

Her musings were interrupted by a flurry of movement outside her room. Suddenly her door crashed open and a young woman burst in, her long black ponytail whipping from side to side as her head scanned the room.

"Sister, are you all right?" the girl asked urgently. The gleaming sword in her hands pointed in each direction, synchronized with the movement of her green eyes.

"I’m fine, Sabine."

The girl still scanned the room warily and only when she was convinced there was no danger did she sheath her sword. She stood at the end of the bed, her lips pursed, regarding the woman seated before her. "Was it the dream again, Sister?" she asked, the concern evident in her voice.

Sister Hecate sighed and propped up the pillows behind her. Leaning back, she nodded her head once.

Sabine frowned, an expression not suited to her young face. "How many nights has it been…three?…four?"

"About that," Hecate said. It was more like eleven but she would never let her bodyguard know that.

The girl bit her lower lip in concentration and then, as though she had come to a decision, glanced furtively about the room, her eyes finally coming to rest on the Knife of Artemis assassin. "There’s been…I don’t know what…I mean…"

Sister Hecate smiled at the girl and patted the bed, the palm of her hand thumping the soft mattress. "Come, girl…sit."

Sabine looked around the room again then sat where she was told. She looked at her hands, folded in her lap, then smiled wanly at Hecate.

"Speak, child," the Hand of Artemis whispered.

"There’s been talk, Mother."

Hecate smiled. Sabine had not called her ‘Mother’ in a long while. She thought back to when she first saw the young woman seated in front of her. It had been an assignment in Russia, the outskirts of a little village near the outskirts of Siberia. The Soviet Union had ceased to exist for only a little while and those who once had power wanted to keep it and those who had none wanted to acquire it.

It really didn’t matter to her who wanted what. The price had been met and the job had been done. While in the village, Hecate had spied Sabine and her twin sister, Nakita, not even two years old, both filthy, hungry and bruised. Hecate made some inquires and learned the girl’s father had disappeared, more than likely dead, and they were left in the hands of their mother.

The mother, it turns out, was an alcoholic, beat the girls more often than she fed them and to make matters worse, the man she had taken up with had begun to show the girls more attention than he should have been. The Knife assassin had learned enough. She had persuaded the mother to let her take the twins off her hands. The next day the woman’s lover walked off into the forest and was never seen again.

Hecate took Sabine and Nakita, and raised them with two other children in her care: Vicca, now a striking six foot tall red head with a pageboy hair style, eagle-eyed deadly with a crossbow and Drea, a blonde jackrabbit with hands so quick she could strike before one could see them move.

But Sabine…the girl could do things with a sword that masters training twice her lifetime could not yet accomplish. Hecate had once said she had been touched by the Goddess and she and her sister had become her personal guards, even though Hecate feared no one.

And now the girl was trying to guard her from talk.

"Talk?" Hecate asked, an eyebrow raised in question. "What are they saying?"

Sabine lowered her head and leaned closer, her eyes darting this way and that, still making sure the room was secure. "They’re saying..," she whispered, "they’re saying that you’ve offended Artemis or some other god and somehow they are punishing you with these dreams."

The Knife assassin almost laughed out loud, but she knew the girl was deadly serious. The corners of her lips turned up and she reached out and patted the girl’s hand then held it. "Oh, Sweetheart, I can tell you for a fact that I am not being punished by the Goddess or any other of her kind." She smiled a bit more broadly at the young woman’s leery expression. "Let me tell you something about the Gods," she said softly, tilting herself closer to her daughter. "They don’t care about us, let alone punishing us. We are so far beneath their notice they couldn’t care less about punishing us."

Sabine’s jaw dropped and Hecate was concerned for a moment that the girl would jump up, point her finger and shout "Blasphemer!" But the girl sat there, her brow furrowed as she processed this new information. "But what about when we went to see that friend of yours, that red-skinned fellow, a while ago? Artemis bid us help him, didn’t she?"

Hecate fell back onto her pillows and sighed. Sabine was talking of her old friend Tropic. Poor, brave Tropic who gave his life to save the city and probably the world a couple of years prior. "Two years? That long?" she thought then looked up at her child. "Yes, she did," the warrior nodded, "but why?"

Sabine shrugged.

"Because it was in her interest," Hecate continued. "That…thing my friend fought…it would have destroyed everything, including Artemis. If it was no threat to her there would have been silence and we would have met our fate."

Sabine tugged on her lower lip slowly digesting the words. "But this dream… it must mean something."

Now it was Hecate’s turn to shrug. "I’m sure it will all be made clear in due course. Until then…," the Knife assassin sighed with resignation.

Sabine stood and, frowning, said, "Maybe the Oracle can tell you."

Sister Hecate stared at her bodyguard, one eye squinting. Their Oracle received the word of the Goddess and passed it on to the group’s leaders. She was a mere wisp of a girl yet Hecate was aware that the Oracle was older than all the Knifes combined, and Hecate herself was over four hundred and sixty years old although she looked to be only in her middle thirties, and some of the others among them were near or past that age as well.

The warrior nodded. "Perhaps. Now, what time is it?"

"0525 hours, Sister."

Hecate looked to her right and out two large windows, seeing the expanse of water that separated their island from the main body of Peregrine Island. The sky was still dark but in the distance she could see the light of day beginning to break through night’s grasp. She threw back her covers and kipped up and out of the bed landing silently in front of her daughter. "Well…the morning meal should be ready. Go, let me wash and I will join you in the mess."

"As you wish, Sister," Sabine said, nodding her head once in acknowledgement of the order, and left the assassin’s bedchamber.

Hecate sighed and stretched, arching her back, arms high over her head. She caught the reflection of her naked body in the full length mirror next to the door of her washroom. She studied herself intently. Sister Hecate. Knife Assassin. Hand of Artemis. She was barely 5’2’ tall. She had short spiky blonde hair that rarely need combing. The well-defined muscles of her arms and abdomen flexed and pulsed with raw energy. She looked closely at her hairless body noting with pride the thin white scars that crisscrossed nearly every inch of her. The trophies of a thousand thousand battles won.

She sighed and moved into her washroom, turned on the shower and, after a moment, stepped under the warm water. The Oracle, she thought. Hecate already knew part of what the dream was. Not a nightmare. It’s an omen. She finished washing with the thought foremost in her mind and went to join Sabine for breakfast.

Breakfast, the mid-day meal and the evening meal were some of the few times all the Knives of Artemis would be gathered together. The only other times were mission briefings and assignments or a ritual. Hecate walked deliberately into the dining hall, past the full tables of stealth suited women, to her cadre’s section. She sat at her place and her plate was set in front of her before she had completed sitting down. Hecate smiled at the girl serving her, a new recruit found in the slums of New Delhi.

To her left sat Sabine and to her right an older woman named Io. Io’s short brown hair was streaked with white and she had a pencil placed behind her left ear. Beside her plate was a small thick notebook and a PDA, its blue/white screen shimmering. The Knife assassin grinned and shook her head slowly as she began to eat.

Io had come to the Knives of Artemis relatively late in life. She had been married but her story was unfortunately becoming more and more common place: her husband was laid off from the refinery, money ran low. He began drinking heavily and when the drink didn’t dull his senses any longer he started to take his frustrations out on his wife. Beatings became increasingly violent. Then, one night, Io had had enough and struck her husband back. This, of course, enraged him further. He grabbed a knife from the counter and stabbed his wife. Four times the blade plunged into Io, but survival is an instinct that can give even the meek strength. She wrested the weapon away from her husband and, when the police finally arrived, was still stabbing, hacking and slashing at his lifeless body.

She was arrested, tried, convicted, even though her attorney did a very good job pleading temporary insanity. As she was being transported to the Zig, the Knives of Artemis set upon the prison wagon and, within seconds, freed her.

But Io was no killer. The Knives trained her and she could defend herself quite capably but she was no operative. She was, however, an absolute genius at logistics, planning, scheduling and bookkeeping. She had been assigned to Hecate’s cadre and the assassin now had no idea how she had ever managed without her.

"So, Io," she said, pointing with a crispy strip of bacon in her hand, "what’s on my schedule for today?"

Io smiled, picked up the PDA and poked at it twice with the stylus that appeared in her hand. The tiny screen shimmered, beeped and Io smiled crookedly. "Not much, Sister. Training till 1000 hours, individual tutoring…that new girl from Belgium…until 1100...hmm…then you’re free until the Meeting of the Hand Elite at 1530 hours and then…lets see…the assignment congress with the entire Sisterhood at 1700."

Hecate nodded. The assignment congress was the most interesting. At that meeting, missions were discussed and decisions made as to who would be chosen to complete them. At the Hand Elite meeting, the four sisters who had reached Hand of Artemis status worked on the day to day running of the organization. Boring, at least to a trained killer.

But she was free for a long while in the middle of the day. And the thought of seeing the Oracle popped into her head again. Hecate sighed. The Oracle, she thought.All right, all right.

By 1130 hours Hecate was washed, dressed in a clean uniform and climbing the stairs to the Oracle’s sanctum at the top of the compound’s highest tower. The training sessions had been routine; the Knife sisters who were not on assignment gathered each morning to hone their skills with blade, arrow or bare hand. She mused that the new girl in her private class had showed some promise with the sword. A lot of work yet to be done, though, she thought. The girl had been living on the streets and was still wild, undisciplined. Unrestrained. Uncivilized. Even though the Knives of Artemis were assassins and thieves, to their thinking they were artists in a time-honored profession. Murder was the first crime, after all, Hecate smiled to herself.

She reached the top of the stairs and crossed the cobblestone floor. The Oracle’s chamber sat tall and quiet atop the windswept tower. Hecate glanced about as she walked. In front of her were the large wooden double doors that lead to the young/old woman. They were in the center of the circular rooftop, surrounded at the tower edges by five tall white columns. The cobblestones were a dark brown, scrubbed spotless. The wood doors were at least ten feet high, planks held together with black leather straps and large silver bolts were drilled through the straps into the wood. A huge circular knocker sat in the center of the right side door.

But something seemed amiss. Hecate paused for a moment in front of the doors, her head tilted to one side, eyes searching the scene out. She raised an eyebrow. The doors were closed. The doors were never closed. The assassin frowned. The Oracle was always accessible to the Sisters, ready to advise them or share some wisdom from the Goddess. Now, the doors were closed.Odd, Hecate thought, but she grabbed the hard iron ring and knocked, the hollow sound echoing out over her and into the bright day.

The assassin waited, the seconds covered with thick molasses. Hecate reached to the iron knocker again but before she could grasp it the door opened wide enough for half a body to be seen. "Yes?"

Hecate raised an eyebrow. "I’m…here to see the Oracle," she said frowning slightly. The woman in the doorway was not one of the Oracles Handmaidens, four virginal young women picked to assist the Seer. The girls were diaphanous, delicate in their manner and waited on the Oracle’s whims. The woman in front of her now was short and stocky, in a muscular way. Her hair was short at the sides and swept up at its center, into a small Mohawk. Her sword rested on her back between her shoulders and she was dressed in the khaki battle suit all the Knife Sisters wore. Knives and throwing stars bristled on her belt and Hecate noticed the red sash hanging from it.

The woman frowned and said, "The Oracle is ill and cannot be disturbed."

"Ill?!" Hecate exclaimed, her expression becoming even more confused. The Oracle was Immortal, perhaps even a bit of a God herself, and Gods did not get sick.

"Yes, she cannot be disturbed," the Knife warrior repeated.

Hecate pursed her lips, her eyes narrowing. She glanced at the red sash on the woman’s belt. "You are of Sister Helene’s cadre." Although the Knives of Artemis dressed in a standard uniform, the khaki one-piece battle suit, each of the four cadre had a designation. Sister Helene, a Hand of Artemis in her own right, was red. Hecate was black, Sister Tera, yellow and Sister Jen, white.

The woman nodded. "Yes, she is my mistress," she sneered proudly. There was always some healthy competition between the cadres but for the most part, the Knives of Artemis were one unit.

"Mari, yes?" Sister Hecate asked, remembering the woman’s name.

Mari’s eyes widened slightly, surprised that one of the other elite Sisters would know her name. "Yes," she answered warily. Mari was a fierce warrior, sure of her skill and was certain the stories told of the petite Sister in front of her were exaggerated. She looked Hecate up and down, wondering how this small woman could be considered a threat. I could break her in two with one hand, she snorted to herself.

"How is it that you have come here to…guard our Oracle?" Hecate asked, her brow furrowed. "Why is a trained warrior needed to guard a woman none of us would even consider harming?" The question repeated itself, looping over and over, like a wheel rolling about in her head.

Mari sighed, as if explaining was somehow beneath her. "Sister Helene was advised of the Oracle’s condition and I was sent to protect her privacy, to see she is given the time to recover unaccosted. Now, go."

Sister Hecate lowered her head and tilted it to one side. She looked up with her pale blue eyes, her brow creased and Mari realized she had made a potentially fatal mistake. "You will reconsider your tone, Sister." Hecate’s voice was a low, dark growl.

"Of…of course…," Mari stammered, her eyes darting back and forth finally coming to rest at Hecate’s feet. "Please…forgive me, Sister. It has been…I mean…the Oracle…I…I am sorry."

Hecate chewed her bottom lip, regarding the soldier. Something was not right here but there was nothing to be done about it now. She smiled crookedly and reached out, touching the woman gently on the shoulder. Mari flinched, started by Hecate’s grasp.

"No harm done, child," Hecate said quietly. She turned and began to cross to the stairs. "If the Oracle requires anything, please…call on me." The assassin knew that she would be the last person Sister Mari would call on. Mari nodded once and the door closed with a wooden echo, the sound pushing Hecate to the steps.

Sister Hecate paused at the top of the staircase and looked back to the large doors. They stood silent, no clue etched on their face. Hecate sighed, a twisting feeling in her stomach. She knew something was happening. Something awful. She stared out past the columns to the tall rooftops of Peregrine Island. They had no answers for her. She turned and walked down the stairs.

Soon as the wooden doors closed, Mari had reached for her communicator. She pressed two digits and waited, all the while chewing her lower lip.

"Yes?" the voice was heavy with a aristocratic English accent.

"Sister Hecate was just here, my mistress."

There was silence for several moments. "Explain," the voice commanded.

"She wished to see the Oracle. I followed your instructions implicitly." Mari paused then added, "She suspected nothing."

"Fool," spat the voice. "She is an Elite Sister, a Hand of the Goddess. Her suspicions were aroused at the very sight of you."

"What shall we do?"

The communicator remained silent for a time, then, "It is of no consequence. Remain where you are. Continue apace. She will be dealt with. In fact, she may tie her noose with her own hand." The English accented voice began to snicker. "Yes…her own hand."

The communicator clicked off and Mari stood quietly, a smirk twisting her lips.























CONTINUE >
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