Chapter Two

Sister Hecate entered Founders Falls about one thirty in the morning. She coasted the speedboat to the dock, hopped out and made sure the mooring lines were secure. She had stolen the boat simply because she needed it and hoped it would eventually be returned to its rightful owner. If it had been destroyed in a battle while in her possession, so be it but, for a…joyride like this…No harm, no foul, she smiled crookedly.

Hecate moved quickly from the dock. She knew WillowWind, the child’s mother, lived in an apartment building near Williams Square, on a high enough floor to overlook both the Square and Louis Forest. Strange, she thought, that she didn’t move. He died there, in Louis Forest. She shrugged the thoughts off and hurried to the Square.

"You’re a long way from home, ain’t cha, little mercenary?" a hard raspy voice called from the darkness surrounding a doorway.

Hecate turned to the sound and three shadows detached themselves from the shrouded building. She recognized their uniforms as they stepped farther into the light. "Council," she sneered under her breath. The Council were an organization once affiliated with both the Nazis and the 5th Column. She had heard there had been some sort of power struggle within those camps and she had not seen any 5th Column soldiers for at least a year.

"You say that like it’s a bad thing," the same voice said.

Hecate looked them over quickly. The one speaking, the obvious leader of the three, was an Equinox Parasite. His pale skin practically shone in the moonlight, his sharpened teeth glinting with a smile that could only be described as lasciviously evil. He looked for all intents and purposes like a Vampire. But the Council Vampyri were not true vampires at all. They were the final product of the Council’s super soldier program. Volunteers submitted themselves to a full year of chemical and surgical enhancements which left them some of the most deadly killing machines on earth. Fast , strong, and resilient, the Parasite also had the ability to drain the life from its targets, strengthening itself.

The other two were a Vortex Car Leonis, a dangerous hand-to-hand combatant, and a Car Leonis, a Council front-line soldier who has undergone some super soldier treatments. Both had superior strength, that of at least five men, and Hecate also knew that a Vortex had never been taken alive. All three were very dangerous on their own, all three were now in her way.

"Back away, sallow thing, I have not the time for you," Hecate frowned and tried to move past them. But the Vampyri blocked her way and grinned.

"That’s no way to talk, sweetie." He gestured at the two men behind him. "We been standing out here all night just looking for something to do." He turned to the Knife assassin and tilted his head, looking her up and down as though he could see through her clothes. "Bored, bored," he shook his head. "So I guess we’ll just have to find ‘someone’ to do!"

He was on Hecate in flash, his arms encircling her waist. She nearly gagged in his grasp, the smell of his fetid breath reminding her of a mix of cabbage and Indian food. "I said I don’t have time for this!" she muttered again.

Hecate reached up and grabbed the Vampyri’s right ear and, with a quick flick of her wrist, ripped it from the thing’s head. The Council minion screeched in agony and dropped the struggling woman. The assassin spun from its grasp and threw the bloody ear at the Vortex Car. The man recoiled from the flying piece of flesh, almost jumping out of his skin.

Hecate continued her spin, drawing her sword in the middle of it, and as she came full circle lopped the Vampyri’s head from his shoulders. She ended up directly in front of the stunned Vortex Car, his attention riveted on the vampire head rolling down the alley. Hecate simply lunged forward, driving her sword through the soldier’s chest. The assassin withdrew the blade quickly, its passage making a wet ‘shrupp’ sound. The Vortex Car looked at the hole in his uniform, dropped to his knees and then keeled over, his helmeted head clanging into the pavement.

Hecate looked for the last man and saw him running away. She flipped her sword to her left hand and her right brushed past her belt, plucking two throwing stars from it. In one fluid motion she hurled them at the retreating form of the Council soldier. The shuriken struck the man in the back, tiny pinpricks not deep enough to slow him down. Hecate grinned, whispered "Right about…," the two shuriken exploded with a muffled bamf, "now." The two halves of the man landed in the street amid a cloud of white and red dust.

Hecate quickly melted into the shadows of a nearby building. She knew that the heroes Numina and Infernal were often present in the Square, meeting with new heroes in the city, dispensing advice and the occasional mission. The assassin waited, almost holding her breath, but no shouts of alarm, no hurried footfalls reached her ears. She paused a moment more, then stepped out into the moonlight. Hecate looked upward, her gaze at last falling on a tall building of marble and brick. Keeping to the shadows, she made her way to the child.

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She awoke with a start, at first not recognizing her surroundings. Her eyes darted around the room as she lay on her side in the soft, warm bed. Slowly, she rolled onto her back and stretched, her arms extended over her head, her body curling slightly as she tensed her muscles. Absentmindedly, she traced the question mark scar over her right eye and down her cheek. It was no longer an angry red but had healed to a fine white line and for some unknown reason she had kept the mark. She sighed and stared at the ceiling. The gauzy strips of fabric in red, black and purple flowed lazily to the bed’s four posts. To her left, the large sliding glass doors glowed behind their drapes with the city’s light. In front of her bed, across the room, her large black dresser stood, its mirror shrouded in the darkness. On her right, the large bathroom, its red and black checkerboard floor shinning dimly in the ambient light. And between the dresser and the bathroom rested the oversize crib.

WillowWind heard the movement coming from the baby’s bed. The clock on her nightstand read 2:36am. She sighed again and smiled, shaking her head. She rose from the bed, her feet sinking into the deep black carpet, and crossed to the crib, her long, black, lacy nightgown flowing along behind her. Looking in the crib she smiled and said in mock anger, "And just what are you doing awake at this hour, young lady?"

The baby stood in the crib, gripping the railing with her right hand. In her left she held a small stuffed animal, a black and white monkey, in a ‘baby death grip’ as Willow’s friend Valya called it. She smiled happily at her mother, her red skinned face deeply dimpled. "Mama," she gurgled, "Mama…up…" She raised her arms to Willow, waiting to be lifted.

"Oh, don’t you ‘Mama’ me ," Willow grinned crookedly, but lifted the child anyway. She rocked the 18 month old, holding her tightly. The little girl entwined her hand in her mother’s long hair, mother and child both having the same jet black color. She still grasped the stuffed monkey tightly. "So, are you thirsty? Mama’s thirsty." The baby began chewing on the head of the monkey. "Let’s get something to drink," and they went into the living room towards the kitchen.

Crossing the large room, she felt the child stiffen. The baby leaned in close to her mother then out, staring into the darkness. Willow spared a quick look at the little girl. Her brow was furrowed and her small face was scrunched up in confusion.

Willow never broke stride. "Well, what do you want? Maybe some milk? I can heat it up so that…"

Quickly she flicked a switch and the room was bathed with light. She spun around, the baby held tightly in her left arm, her right hand extended, glowing white with crackling energy.
"Who’s there? I’m warning you, I can…," her eyes flew open and her jaw dropped. "YOU!"

Sister Hecate sat in the overstuffed chair, her eyebrow raised, lips pursed in annoyance. She raised her hands palms out until they were at shoulder level, trying very hard not to appear threatening. "WAIT!" she said urgently, "your baby is in grave danger."

                                                                                         *****

The valley sloped downward, its soft green grass covered with shadows from the thick forest lining each of its sides. The twilight sun peaked through here and there, not wishing to leave the world in night’s grasp. The snow covered peaks of a distant mountain range still shone brightly but the dreamy touch of dusk insistently caressed their jagged edges.

A long, low farmhouse rested in the valley’s hollow, light already streaming from its wood bordered windows. The sound of laughter leaked out, pushing back the fearsome night, the low happy murmur of talk and the clinking of plates and knives and forks. Inside, the family gathered about the heavy thick wood table, all of them seeming to be speaking at the same time.

All, except one.

He sat silently, one hand gripping the large flagon of ale in front of him, the other stoking his blonde goatee’, a small crooked grin on his face. His broad shoulders were relaxed and the elbows of his muscular arms rested on the table. His long blonde hair was pulled back from his face and clasped behind him in a ponytail, a style much different now than the tall spiky locks he sported when he was alive.

He gazed slowly around the table, his eyes resting briefly on the family he had missed for over three thousand years. His mother bustled about the table, dropping plates heaped with steaming food in front of them. His father, home at last from the wars, digging into a huge turkey leg. Aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews and cousins all surrounded him. And the hero was the only one who knew they were, all of them, dead. One of the beauties of the Elysian Fields, he mused. The ancient Greek equivalent of Heaven made one believe one was alive and their loved ones, those that were actually living, were away or out or somewhere just beyond the next turn of the road and would return home at any moment.

Tropic turned to his cousin, Danicleus, whose hands were waving in the air, trying to describe the sights he had seen at the carnival in a neighboring village.

"It was huge, I tell you," the young man said, his voice raising at least an octave. "It was as big as the barn and its skin was all wrinkled but tough and hard as armor…hairy gray armor." The people gathered laughed at the sight their mind’s eyes conjured. "And its ears were like big fleshy wings as large as an albatross. They flapped so much I thought the thing was going to take to the air!" He looked to each of them, nodding. "And it had this long nose, like a thick rope, that could grab hold of anything!"

Tropic’s father snorted at the sight. "So, Dani, a hairy gray barn with wings for ears?" He winked at Tropic in disbelief. "And what did the carnival barker call this…thing?"

Danicleus smiled broadly. "He said it was an el-e-fant," the young man nodded. "It was from the South, across the sea and past the realm of the Egyptian and the lands of sand."

The older man shook his head. "An ‘el-e-fant’, humm?" He made a show of sighing. "I don’t know, Dani, next you’ll be telling us he made it balance on a ball or something."

Tropic’s cousin looked at his laughing relatives with a smirk on his face. "You see?" he said, turning to the former hero. "You see what I’m up against? Try to bring a little education into the lives of your loved ones and what do I get? Huh? Tell me!"

Tropic laughed and clapped his cousin on the shoulder. "Its all right, Dani, I believe you. I’ve seen an elephant before," he looked sidelong at his father, "but I never thought one would fly!"

"Oh, great….jolly joker," Danicleus frowned amid the snickering of his family.

Tropic grinned at his cousin and then, out of the corner of his eye, caught the flash and glimmer of crackling energy. His eyes narrowed as he stared out the widow into the darkening night. The flash was just beyond the rough wooden fence that corralled the horses, close to the field and the tree line. Tropic frowned. He had seen that flash before but why now? Why here? The former hero rose from the table and turned toward the door.

"Son?"

He turned to the questioning gaze of his mother and smiled. "Its alright, Mama. I’m just going to check on the cows, get some air." He leaned down and kissed her lightly on the forehead.

"Well, don’t be too long. You don’t want to miss desert, do you?" The dark haired woman smiled as she went back to the kitchen.

Tropic grinned and with one last look around the table, as if he were trying to burn their faces into his memory, he went outside and walked purposefully to where the light had flickered. There was nothing there, nothing disturbed. The stockade was empty, the horses having been put in the barn for the night. He looked to his right and left but the night was his only companion.

Tropic sighed and said, "I know you’re here, Goddess…please…"

"How fare thee, Dread One?" Artemis said from behind him.

He turned slowly, already sinking to one knee before her. "Artemis," he said simply, his eyes cast down, not looking at her glowing form.

Artemis grinned, her lips curling crookedly. "Rise," she commanded.

Tropic stood, looking up as she hovered in front of him. Her body was covered with crackling white energy and her bronze hair streamed from her face, caught in a breeze that he could neither see or feel. What he did feel, however, was unease. "Goddess," he began, "its not that I’m not pleased to see you…its just that…you are not in the habit of visiting."

The huntress looked down her nose at the blonde man. "Thy family ist in grave danger," she said without emotion.

"My family?" Tropic said in surprise as he turned to look at the farmhouse. Through the window he could see them, his mother and father and all the rest, happily gathered about the table.

The Goddess smiled. "No. Not these." She paused a moment. "Thy daughter."

"My daughter?!?" Tropic’s jaw dropped in disbelief and his eyes widened with shock. "There must be a mistake! I don’t have…"

"Behold." Artemis interrupted. She held out her hand, palm up, and smoke began to rise from it. Within the mist, a sphere appeared and a form took shape. As if watching a movie, Tropic saw his daughter for the first time.

He saw all the months of her life. He witnessed her birth, the infant’s red skin, a paler shade of what his had been, and her jet black hair giving proof of her parentage. He heard her first cry, heard he first word. He saw her take her first step and he saw her cradled in her mothers arms.

"Aye," Artemis’ continued, "thy daughter. The babe is in peril. Unseen forces are marshalling. Even tho her mother hath power to spare, it be not enough. She has receive-ed help from an unexpected source, yet I am afeared it shall not…" The Goddess’ voice trailed off as she looked intently at the hero.

Tropic’s eyes, his whole being, was still focused on the images of his daughter that played above the Goddess’ hand. His open mouthed shock had turned into a foolish grin. "A daughter," he repeated. "My daughter…I have a little girl..."

His words were barely a whisper but Artemis heard them clear enough. It was also clear that Tropic had not heard a word she had said. She clasped her hand into a fist, the specter of the child disappearing so quickly it made him jump. "ATTEND!" she commanded, her red lips frowning.

Tropic shook himself, his full attention on the Goddess of the Hunt. His face clouded and his lips curled into a snarl. The hero’s fists were clenched so tightly, his knuckles turned white and in a hard, low, emotionless voice said, "Tell who wishes to harm my baby and I will kill them."

Artemis raised her head and stared down her nose at the former hero. She shook her head sadly. "Thou hath not the power."

Tropic chewed his lower lip for moment, his mind racing. Finally, he sighed. "Goddess, I may not be the smartest man in the afterlife but even I know that you would not appear to me like this, show me these things and then say I was helpless." Tropic paused and stared directly into the immortal’s eyes. "Tell me."

Remarkable, Artemis thought. She smiled and pursed her lips. "Mayhap...there still be a way."






CONTINUE >
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