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Chapter Three

    Hecate glanced quickly to the apartment’s front door. She grimaced and turned away, hurtling over the large wooden coffee table in the direction of the balcony. The front door’s narrow opening would restrict the Knives entrance and provide easier targets for WillowWind. Hecate knew that the woman would have her hands full, fighting the onslaught of assassins and protecting the baby. By taking on the brunt of the attack, the larger number of warriors flooding into the apartment from the burst dam of the shattered sliding glass door, the Hand of Artemis hoped to give Tropic’s family at least a slight chance of survival.

    And she knew their chances weren’t even that high.

    The force of the explosion had moved the large couch away from its usual place against the wall. Hecate landed behind it, its low back forming a small barrier. A Knife warrior was already standing on it, intent on the legendary figure in front of her. Hecate’s sword had started in its path as soon as her feet touched the ground. The blade sliced upward, through the sofa, bits of leather, cloth and cushioning following behind and slashed the arm of the girl. She yelped in pain and surprise, dropping her sword and falling away.

    From behind her, Hecate heard Willow cry out, “My sofa!” She grinned a feral little smile, her lips curling up, baring her teeth. Another assassin rushed at her and Hecate calmly booted the back of the sofa, sending it sliding into the shins of the woman. The girl fell forward, her head down, and Hecate struck her in the back of the head with the pommel of her sword.

    Across the room, WillowWind was able to keep the Knife assassins at bay, confined to the doorway. She fired a constant barrage of energy blasts, keeping the women pinned down. She was at a disadvantage and she knew it. The baby was held tightly in her left arm, covered with her cape to shield her from the debris and to shield her eyes from the carnage. Willow was no killer, but nothing is as dangerous as a mother protecting her young and if these women wanted her daughter…then they would die trying to get her.

    She was distracted for a moment by a Knife soldier sailing through the air. The woman tumbled, senseless, and crashed into a small end table which held several potted plants. The table gave way and everything collapsed, shards of wood, pottery and dark dirt exploding outward. “My plants!” Willow yelled but the distraction allowed a Knife mercenary to clear the doorway.

    The woman was almost upon them, reaching for the child and too close for WillowWind to blast. As the soldier grabbed for the baby, Willow turned with her, moving the babe out of reach and driving her right elbow into the Knife’s head. Willow took a step back and kicked the woman square in the chest, pushing her back and creating enough space to unleash a powerful bolt of pure white energy which sent the assassin careening back into the wall next to the front door. She bounced off, leaving an indentation of her body in the plaster, and tumbled through the doorway, knocking down several of her comrades.

    Hecate landed lightly beside the heroine. “You all right?” she asked as she picked up a piece of a broken flower pot and flung it at a charging Knife soldier. It struck the girl square in the forehead, knocking her back and off her feet.

    “Fine,” came Willow’s terse answer, firing another salvo of energy at the door, “but we have to get out of here.”

    The warrior nodded. The confines of the apartment would work to their advantage for only so long. Soon the Knives of Artemis would refine their strategies and the two women would be overrun and the child lost. “Watch for my signal and be ready,” Hecate grinned and rushed into the battle once more.

    Three of the assassins came at her, their swords flashing in the dawn light that had begun to fill the battleground. Hecate never slowed, putting her shoulder down and ramming it into the lead soldier’s stomach. She heard a satisfying “OOF!” as the air was driven from the woman’s lungs. She snapped up, standing her full, short height, flipping the warrior over her head. The unlucky assassin whirled through the air and crashed finally into the far wall. The impact was accompanied by smoke, a hail of sparks and WillowWind shouting in exasperation, “My TV!”

    Hecate smile grew wider as she turned to the two others. As she stepped forward her foot slipped on the curve of a broken bowl or perhaps a piece of the ruined sofa. It made no difference. All that mattered was that the Hand of Artemis lost her balance for less than a second.

    One of the women lunged forward, her blade stabbing straight into and through the outside of Hecate’s right thigh, so deep it almost scrapped the bone. Hecate grunted, quickly regaining her balance. The girl was still close, her head down. Hecate struck her with an uppercut, lifting her feet from the ground, knocking her unconscious before she landed.

    Hecate spared a glance at the leg, the blood already soaking her uniform. She gritted her teeth and shouted, “Time to fly, Hero!” then turned and ran, leaping out the shattered window into the air 32 stories above Founders Falls.

    WillowWind’s jaw dropped as she watched the Knife assassin disappear from view. “Oh…Crap!” she exclaimed and rocketed out of the apartment after her comrade, knocking Knives of Artemis mercenaries out of the way.

    On her hip, covered with a blue and gold cape, a little voice happily repeated the new word she had just learned: “Crap!”

    *****

    He felt himself being dragged, strong bony fingers sinking into his biceps as he navigated out of the darkness. His mind was a sea of images: of fire and green grass and red skinned little girls. He tried to move his legs, to pull them from the dirt, but they wouldn’t answer his commands. He moaned softly, his head moving from side to side in his confusion.

    “He wakes,” a deep old voice said from his left.

    “No matter,” came the reply from his right.

    Tropic opened his eyes a sliver, almost closing them again, the dim light of dusk hurting him. He saw the sandaled feet of his captors trudging beside him, their long red robes scraping the forest floor. He turned his head slightly, seeing fully the source of the voices and finally understood where and when he was.

    The Hun Lords of the Feuer. His creators. His masters. Evil. Tropic was filled with a dread held for almost 3500 years, remembering what they did, what they had him do and the Ritual yet to come. He fought, moving his arms weakly in their grasp, trying to escape, the all encompassing fear he hadn’t felt in so long overwhelming him.

    “He struggles.”

    “No matter.”

    The voice was right. Tropic was weakened from the trip back in time or, perhaps, returning from the dead, to do more than weakly try and fail to move his arms and legs. He craned his neck to look behind him and once again saw the memory that haunted him all these millennia. Danicelus’ charred, smoking body lay exactly where he remembered.

    The two of them had been out hunting when the Hun Lords appeared behind Tropic. Dani was quick with his arrow but his expression changed to one of shock and fear as the bolt burst into flame as it struck the mage’s side. The Hun Lord said simply, “He is needed. You are not,” and a blast of flame erupted from the magician’s fingertips, engulfing poor Dani, and leaving only an ashen husk smoldering on the forest’s green floor.

    Tropic dropped his head, wailing now, again, in sorrow and loss. He had hoped that this time, this time it would be different. But events now proceeded as they did then, a rushing torrent, unstoppable and final.

    He felt the ground change under his dragged feet. The lush green carpet of the woods was giving way to stone, rock and gravel. Tropic knew exactly where he was, a place he had spent lifetimes. He looked up and as they rounded a small curve saw the cave entrance. A huge gaping hole in the side of a mountain, black and hopeless, with stalactites hanging like sharpened fangs at the opening, beckoned them inside. The two old sorcerers pulled him in, dragging their burden into the tunnel and down into the cold earth.

    His feet slid over the well worn passageway, glasslike due to the already thousands of years of use. Twisting left and right, ever down, deeper into the darkness. The walls were lit sporadically, here with torches, there with the reflected light from crystals imbedded in the hard stone walls. Occasionally, a fissure of open rock appeared, molten lava bubbling just below its surface. Still, the bony hands lead him into the fathomless black.

    Tropic heard the shuffling of feet all around him, seeming to come from behind the rocky walls. A chanting, low and monotonous, danced just at the edge of his ear. As they progressed it became louder, filling the tunnel, reverberating along its walls. He knew that soon he would be there, the place his life ended and began, where he was bonded to power and evil for eternity. I can’t do this…I can’t…, the thought circled through his head and panic welled up within him again. But then the smiling face of a little red-skinned girl danced before his eyes and he was lost again, in love with someone he had never met, in his heart knowing he would pay any price to save her, his daughter, his blood.

    He felt some of his strength returning and was able to get his feet under him, stumbling through the shaft still supported by the supernaturally strong mystics at his sides. His head lolled back and stretched out behind him, filling the length of the tunnel, he saw the adepts following in two columns, their faces hooded by their red robes. They stretched as far as his dazed eyes could see. Tropic’s head fell forward and, as they passed an intersection of passageways, he saw more adepts, in line, waiting to join the foul procession.

    They trudged downward still, more mages following them. They rounded a sharp bend in the tunnel, Tropic remembering every turn and burrow. Ahead were two wooden doors and when they opened he knew what he would see.

    The doors opened and they were in a huge cavern, at least the size of a stadium. Already, the adepts of the Hun Lords were gathering. They stood in a half circle, tier upon tier, all in red robes, their black silk collars marked with arcane symbols in red and yellow. They faced a raised dais, a circular stone carved with the same strange writings, cracked and blackened with fire. The cave was cold and hot at the same time, bursting with a dark energy. It was a place of death and evil, each vying for supremacy.

    Tropic was lead to the dais, the magician’s hands still holding him upright. He saw a flash of silver and his clothes were cut from him. His captors simply let him go and he collapsed, naked and numb, still groggy from their spells. He curled into a ball and waited for the inevitable, tightly clutching the stone Artemis had given him, listening as the monotonous chanting filled the chamber.

    He lay there, shivering for hours, all the while the droning, rhythmic voices of the Hun Lords filled his head. He felt stronger now but was still in a sort of twilight fog, neither asleep yet not fully aware. Let’s get this over with. Give me my power. Even in this dazed state, Tropic was anxious for the ritual to take place. He needed it to save his child and no matter how much pain he had to endure, he wanted the power back, even to do this one thing.

    Two adepts appeared before the dais and began to trace symbols in the air. Tropic felt a tug on his wrists and ankles, becoming more insistent and forceful. Slowly, his arms and legs were tugged apart and he rose up hovering spread-eagled about a foot above the flat stone, held by the orphic restraints. He hung there, staring out now at the rows upon rows of mystics filling the huge cavern. Great, he thought, every man’s dream - hanging naked in front of a room full of crazy magicians. Tropic lowered his head and sighed. It would begin soon.

    A few moments later, a rustling started in the back of the cave. Tropic looked up and saw the adepts parting to make a path. There were two sorcerers, their hooded robes black with yellow arcane symbols etched on their collars. They flanked another mystic, a woman in a white robe, opened so that all could see her nakedness. She held her head high as she strode purposefully through the Hun Lords, the robe flowing around her lithe body. Her skin was a pure alabaster, unmarked and unblemished, her hair a wild tangle of red streaked with white and yellow. But her eyes…her eyes were a clear pupil-less white. She stopped directly in front of Tropic and stared at him with a mixture of lust and disgust, her nipples hard and tight in her depraved excitement.
     
    Behind her appeared another mage, this one wearing a long robe of darkest black. No symbols marked the shadowy fabric and it betrayed no movement as he walked through the chanting adepts and came to stand directly behind the naked sorceress. They both stood solid, unmoving, as the droning, unchanging incantation reached chaotic heights. Suddenly, the black robed mystic raised his arms high above his head and the reverberating chant stopped so quickly Tropic felt slapped by the ensuing silence.

    “Sanctify him,” the mystic said, his hard rasp of a voice carrying throughout the huge cavern.

    “Sanctify.” “Sanctify.” “Sanctify.” The word rippled through the cave, susurrant, an undertone that calmed and excited the gathered Hun Lords.

    An adept to the right of the witch turned to her, tightly grasping a large open urn. The woman dipped her hand in and withdrew it coated, dripping with clear oil. She placed her palm over Tropic’s face, the sweet scent of the slippery ointment filling his nostrils. The woman’s hand continued down, a straight line covering his neck and chest, over his abdomen and finally his genitals. Her unctuous hand closed around him, squeezing him, feeling the strong beat of his heart in her clasped hand. She released him and turned to the dark mystic saying, “He is the one. He is ready.” Her voice was dead, emotionless and empty.

    The magician raised his arms once more and silence again filled the cave. “Anoint him.”

    “Anoint.” “Anoint.” “Anoint” The whispered chant echoed throughout the rocky cavity washing over the assembled occultists.

    Tropic watched as the woman turned to her left and dipped her finger into the urn the mage proffered. The single digit was covered in a thick, dark, viscous fluid and she began to trace an arcane symbol into the oil coating his chest. Her finger pressed hard into him, her nail scraping across his skin and the marking began to smoke painlessly. At last she finished her work and faced the dark sorcerer once more. “It is done. He is ready.” She spun on her heel and walked from the cavern, the adepts forming a path and bowing low as she passed.

    The black robed mystic raised his arms and, as before, the low chanting stopped. He stepped forward and regarded Tropic, baring his yellowed teeth in an evil smile. He frowned suddenly, the lines on his wrinkled face working deeper into his skin. The old mage expected the subject to be trembling with fear, begging for his life. But the bound man just stared at him, not fearful but…impatient? No matter, thought the sorcerer as he stepped back.

    “You are the vessel,” the old man said and began to trace his finger through the air.

    “You are the vessel.” “You are the vessel.” You are the vessel.” The gathered throng repeated, the words echoing over and over throughout the cavern.

    Tropic watched as the magician traced his arcane symbols in the air. The tip of his finger started to glow and the glyph took shape, hanging there before the hero’s eyes. The chanting grew louder, words Tropic couldn’t understand reverberating off the walls, the floor, the very air seeming charged with energy. Yes, he thought, c’mon, c’mon, I am the vessel, whatever.

    “You are the vessel,” the magician said, louder this time, his finger moving faster and faster through the air. The symbol was almost a solid, physical thing, floating, glowing brighter and brighter.

    Suddenly, it burst into flame and behind the old sorcerer a plume of fire erupted, shooting straight up, a churning inferno hovering above the Hun Lords. The black robed mystic threw his arms up and swung them down until both were pointing directly at Tropic and the symbol the woman had drawn upon his chest. A tear appeared in the ball of fire, looking like the black gash of a mouth, and a howl filled the cave.

    The fire rocketed to Tropic, a bolt of flame hitting him directly on the symbol and into his chest, filling his body with the sun. “YEARRGGGHHHH!!” the hero screamed, his arms and legs contorting, spasming uncontrollably, held fast by the invisible mystic shackles. The scream echoed throughout the cave, bouncing from ceiling to floor, wall to wall. He felt the fire burrowing deep, invading every vestige of his being. His blood felt as though it was boiling into steam; felt the marrow in his bones being replaced by molten magma. And he writhed in agony, the burning fire within him bubbling to the surface, turning his skin red and beginning to leak from his eyes.

    And still he needed more. Tropic willed himself not to resist even though it seemed his body was going to burn away, leaving nothing more than an ashen husk. Then he noticed something else, just at the edge of his mind, a hot whispering urging him to take more. He screamed again and this time the sound seemed doubled, not only an echo but a primal physical presence screeching in rage and anger.

    The chanting of the Hun Lords reached new heights. The bolt of fire grew wider as it struck the bound hero, a locomotive sounding rush of air pummeling Tropic for an eternity of seconds. Then it reached its end, the last of it flowing into him with a wet schrupp and the huge cave fell silent. The arcane bonds disappeared and he fell heavily to the charred dais beneath him, dazed, waves of heat rising from his crumpled form.

    Tropic lay unmoving for several moments, listening to the unnatural silence. The Hun Lords made no sound, there was no rustling of their long robes, there was no scuffling of sandaled feet. Nothing. The seconds seemed to lengthen, longer and longer, as he waited for something…anything to happen. He could feel the power bubbling within him but try as he might, he could not gain access to it. No spark or fire lit except the harmless red-yellow flame that flowed from his eyes.

    At last rough hands grasped him and he was dragged from the chamber, pulled through the twisting tunnels, this time moving upward. He was thrown into a small cell and fell hard on a moldy straw-filled mattress that occupied one corner.

    “Cover yourself, Slave,” one of the younger mystics laughed and threw a dirty white tunic at him. “We’ll breed you soon enough.” He slammed the iron door of the cell closed and Tropic heard the laughter as his jailer retreated through the passageway.

    The hero covered himself slowly and growled, “Laugh, Clown.” He stood, the effort evident on his face, and eyed the small room. It was no more than a small indentation in the rocky tunnel wall, measuring at the most 10 x 10. The entrance was iron, a cell door fashioned into squares, the center of each twisted up to resemble thorns. Tropic noticed the lock, a flat panel with a large keyhole, and thought, Just like a cell in an Old Western…or what will be old in a few thousand years.

    He sighed once and nodded, then leapt into the air, arms raised above his head, ready to burst into flame and burn his way through the earth and to freedom. Once outside he would fly directly to Artemis’ temple and use the stone he still clutched tightly.

    But there was no fire, no melting rock, no freedom. He fell heavily to the floor, stumbling, reaching out to the rocky wall to steady himself.

    Tropic frowned, looking at his hands. He could feel the power within him, churning relentlessly. He tried once more, jumping, willing the power to manifest, but the result was the same. The hero sighed and tugged at his goatee’.

    The power was there. He could feel it. His skin had returned to its red hue, the flames flowed from his eyes. Yet, try as he might, the fire eluded him. His face darkened as he wrapped his mind around this…unexpected development. He stared at his hands again, clenching them into fists, and suddenly realized the truth.

    His mind knew what to do but his body had not yet acclimated to the inferno within him. The neural pathways and synaptic triggers formed over the long centuries of his life, which he could wield with almost 3500 years of experience, were nonexistent…for now. Which also described his easy escape. Nonexistent. Tropic’s frown deepened until his lips were a thin line. He stared at the cell door and shook his head. Fine, he thought, we do it the hard way.

    He stared at the open palm of his right hand and concentrated. His lips curled back and his teeth clenched together as he focused all his energy, his will, into forcing the hand to burst into flame. Tropic began to shake with effort. Sweat started to form on his brow only to bubble and evaporate with a hiss, the great heat he was generating roiled within him but still would not appear. Harder still, concentrate…concentrate, eyes squinting, face contorted with effort until at last a spark and a puff of black smoke rose from his trembling hand…and that was all.

    Tropic fell heavily onto the straw mattress, breath coming in great gulps. “It’s a start,” he whispered exhaustedly and looked over at the cell door and its lock. He rolled onto his knees and then, after a moment, stood. The hero took one shaky step toward the door, then another until, knees trembling, he stood at the entrance.

    He looked at his hand once more and curled it into a fist. “I need you to do this,” he said, talking to the appendage as if it were a physical entity. “She needs me and you can’t fail.” He opened his hand and stared at his palm, seeming to memorize every line. Finally, he exhaled heavily through his nostrils, his face a grim mask of resolve, and stepped closer to the door.

    Tropic reached out and wrapped his hand around the lock. “Burn,” he said softly and again concentrated on setting his hand to flame. Harder and harder, with a perseverance born of desperation and hope, he relentlessly set to his task. Squeezing the hard metal of the lock, he forced his hand tighter around it. He started to shake once more, again the perspiration hissing as it boiled from his skin. The hero’s head bent low and the fire flowing from the slits of his eyes burned up through his hair making it appear as if his head were engulfed in flame. Harder still he forced himself, so desperately his teeth ground together and his legs shook. “Burn,” he whispered again, his voice strained with the arduous task.

    And then his hand burst into white hot fire. “ARRGH,” he grunted as though he had been punched in the stomach. Still he fought, his hand glowing white hot, lighting up the cell and the corridor around him. He gripped the lock tighter, his hand closing together, until, at last, his fist closed around the melted iron of the lock. The door sprang open and Tropic sank to the rocky floor, falling to his knees and leaning heavily, exhausted, on the cell’s open door.

    He stayed that way for several minutes, waiting for any alarm, the rushing of sandaled feet, anything that would stop his escape. But there was no sound, just the murmured chanting that constantly echoed through the caves and tunnels. He pulled himself to his feet, holding tightly to the iron cell and, on unsure legs, stepped into the tunnel. Tropic looked back and forth but saw no one. He sighed again and, leaning heavily against the rocky wall, warily made his way up the passageway.

*****

    WillowWind rocketed through the shattered glass door and into the sky over Founders’ Falls. She saw the mercenary two floors below her, falling and picking up speed. “You’re crazy!” she exclaimed as Hecate twisted around, her arm flinging a pair of small, silver spheres past the heroine and unerringly into the battered apartment.

    “EEEEEE!” the baby screamed happily as Willow arced down to catch the Knife warrior. Above them came two loud explosions as the tiny spheres detonated. Smoke and flame erupted from what used to be a very nice apartment.

    “My apartment!” WillowWind yelled in exasperation, seeing the feral grin on Hecate’s face. Shaking her head, the heroine raced after the woman. 28th, 24th, 19th, 12th…Willow flew, extending her hand out, gaining speed, trying desperately to catch her new ally. The ground was closing in on them, faster than she anticipated. Finally, she lunged forward and caught Hecate’s outstretched hands at the second floor.

    She zoomed up but the weight of the baby and the Knife assassin held her to only a few feet off the ground. Hecate held her feet up above the water as Willow streaked over the canals and docks that made up most of Founders’ Falls. She was afraid she was about to drop the mercenary when she saw what she had been searching for.

    An overpass above one of the canals appeared, wood planking on both sides, under the street above. It was perhaps twenty yards long and was mostly shadow. She zipped into the tunnel and lightly dropped Hecate onto the platform.

    “You are insane,” she said, landing in front of the woman. She placed the toddler on the ground, holding tightly to the child’s hand.

    Hecate laughed. “We needed to go. I had faith.” She turned and looked at the city beyond.

    Willow shook her head and with a frown noticed the wound on the assassin’s leg. “I need to look at that leg.”

    Hecate glanced at it for a moment and looked away again. “It’ll heal.”

    “I’m sure…but I still need to look at it.” She gave Hecate her best ’mommy’ look and said, “Sit.” Hecate raised an eyebrow and did as she was told.

     Hecate rested with her back against the tunnel wall, her legs splayed out straight. Willow kneeled, the child squatting near her, fascinated by the water rushing past them in the canal, and tore the right leg of the assassin’s stealth suit open to get a better view of the wound. After wiping some of the blood away, WillowWind saw it was perhaps an inch and a half long and thin.

    “Hmm,” she muttered and then to Hecate, “straight through. I don’t think you’ll need any stitches…but I’ll have to bandage it.”

    Hecate nodded, turning her attention once more to the city beyond the shadows that now hid them. She knew the Sisters would be looking for them and that they would find them. It was only a matter of time. She looked at the heroine briefly and hoped they would have enough time to rest and devise a new plan. Time was not on their side.

    WillowWind tore a few strips from her cape and set to work cleaning and dressing the injured leg. “So…,” she glanced up for a moment, “why are you doing this?”

    “What?” Hecate asked, not taking her eyes from the docks.

    “This…everything,” the heroine answered as she tended the leg. “Helping me, protecting my baby…fighting your people. I mean, let’s face it, you’re about as far from ‘good-guy’ as you are from innocent.”

    Hecate spared Willow a look then turned back to her vigil with a sigh. “There has been a…a darkness within the Sisterhood for some time now. Always just beyond my reach…at the corner of my eye. Until now…until this…well, I couldn’t let her consolidate her power…”

    “Who? This Helene person?”

    “Yes,” Hecate nodded. “With this mission, the elimination of our Oracle, the payment from her mysterious employer…the child’s an innocent. I couldn’t…and Tropic…well,” she paused, a sad expression on her face. “He was always so good to m…” The assassin caught herself. “He was a fine warrior. An honorable man, no matter if he were friend or enemy. I couldn’t let them do this to…”

    “Oh…My…God,” Willow interrupted.

    “What?”

    “You were in love with him.”

    “Who? Tropic?!? Don’t be ridiculous! Besides you and he…”

    “No,” Willow shook her head. “We were good friends who had a moment and something really wonderful happened,” she said, looking at her daughter, “but we were…incompatible; better at being friends than anything else and when he…died…that’s what we were.”

    Hecate stared at WillowWind for a long moment, finally turning back to the edge of the tunnel, digesting this new information. Suddenly, she heard the woman singing softly under her breath.

    “Hecate and Tropic sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n…

    She turned to the heroine in open mouthed astonishment. “Shut up…Cow!”

    “Tramp!”

    “Mule!”

    “Whore!”

    The two women stared at each other for several seconds then burst into laughter until tears fell from their eyes. They caught their breath, the giggling slowly subsiding, and Hecate said, “You may be the only person to ever call me that and live.” She wiped a tear from her eye, shaking her head and grinning.

    “I feel honored,” Willow smiled.

    Hecate sighed and watched as Willow continued bandaging her leg. She turned and scanned the outside of the tunnel for a moment. “So,” she said, her eyes falling again on the heroine, “did he still do that thing with his toun…?”

    “Oh, yeah,” Willow cut her off and the two women laughed again.

    Suddenly, Hecate felt a presence at her side and she looked over quickly. The child stood there, her little hand reaching out to steady herself on the assassin’s shoulder. The little girl stared at the woman with an inscrutable face, cautious and considering.

    The Knife warrior regarded the child with a raised eyebrow. “She’s not afraid of me,” she said, her lips pursed.

    “No,” Willow looked up from Hecate’s wound briefly, “she’s not really afraid of anything. Hardly ever cries, either.”

    Hecate nodded, still looking at the little red-skinned child. “You should let me train her.”

    “Oh, yes…please. That’s exactly what I need: a toddler with lethal combat skills.”

    The Hand of Artemis smiled and almost jumped as the baby began to clap her hands excitedly, her eyes wide, a broad smile on her face. “Goggie! Goggie!” she cried out.

    Both women turned to the entrance of the tunnel. A small dog had appeared on the dock. No more than ten or fifteen pounds, its white fur turned a dingy gray from the dirt and dust of the street. The stray heard the happy sounds of the child and trotted into the shadows.

    “Shoo!” Hecate said sternly. “Shoo! There’s nothing for you here.”

    The little dog sniffed fiercely around the two women and the child until finally its gaze fell on Hecate. It began to yip and bark happily, bouncing back and forth, tail wagging so quickly it became a dirty white blur.

    “Shoo!” Hecate exclaimed again, this time with less conviction. The dog stopped moving, splaying its front paws out, head almost resting on them. Its back bowed up, its hindquarters high in the air, tail swishing mightily. “Stop it! I have nothing for you,” the Knife assassin said, her lips curling into a reluctant grin.

    Suddenly the dog sat, its head cocked at an odd angle, silently staring at the warrior. Its tail wagged so hard the little fellow’s bottom was moving across the planks of the dock.

    Hecate couldn’t help but smile at the sight. “Well, maybe I have a little something.” Her hand moved to one of the compartments on her belt and took out a thin wrapped strip. Opening it, she held it out to the animal. The little dog sniffed gingerly and gently took it from the assassin’s hand.

    The Hand of Artemis noticed the heroine’s expression. “Hard tac,” she said to WillowWind, who shook her head, not understanding. Hecate thought for a moment. “Jerky,” she explained. “You never know when you’re going to be stranded without food.”

    Willow eyed Hecate’s utility belt with a raised eyebrow and sighed. “I’m on the run with Batman,” she said under her breath.

    “Who?”

    “No one. You’re done here.” Willow patted the warriors bandaged leg.

    Hecate nodded, her expression pleasantly surprised. “That’s a fine field dressing,” she said as she examined the heroine’s handiwork. “Well done.”

    “I have many skills,” Willow smiled.

    The assassin rose to her feet, tentatively flexing and moving her leg, getting the feel of the binding. She nodded and smiled at Willow then turned to the sunlit opening of the canal.

    “Well?” WillowWind asked.

    “They’re out there. I can’t see them…they may still be a few blocks away…but they’re out there.” Hecate looked at the woman and frowned. “And they’re going to find us.”

    Willow nodded. “I think getting to our base in Peregrine is out.”

    “I agree.”

    Willow rubbed her chin, deep in thought. “I think we should go to Williams Square here in Founders’. Numina and Infernal are usually there and I’m pretty sure they’ll help us. I don’t think the Knives want to take on the two of…what?” She asked, at last noticing the look on the assassin’s face.

     Hecate shrugged, her head dipping down sheepishly. “Numina…may be…a bit of a problem…”

    WillowWind watched as the Knife assassin waggled her foot in a small circle on the dock, looking like a little girl caught with her mother’s makeup on her face. “Well?” she asked impatiently.

    “Its…she may not be…I mean it was…”

    “What…did…you…do?”

    Hecate shrugged again. “I…I…sort of…killed Numina’s mother.” The last three words came out in a rush.

    Willow’s mouth dropped open as she stared sidelong at the woman. Then she rubbed her forehead and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I almost forgot who I traveling with,” she sighed under her breath.

    “It was a long time ago…perhaps she’s forgotten,” Hecate said brightly.

    The heroine looked up at the assassin and shook her head. “Forgot you killed her mother. Right. OK.” Willow continued shaking her head until finally, “Well, Williams Square is out, then.”

    “No,” Hecate frowned, “it’s the correct course of action. I won’t let you put yourself or the child at risk because of me.” One corner of her mouth turned up in a very small smile. “I’ll stay to the shadows when…if…we make it.”

    The two women looked at each other, heads tilted and lips pursed in thought. They nodded to each other and turned their eyes to the dock and the streets beyond. One had acted out of duty and honor, the other from need and desperation. But from those disparate seeds a bond had grown, forged in battle and cemented by the memory of the dead Tropic, the two, assassin and heroine, had become friends.

    The assassin started out, holding fast to the side of the tunnel. “Stay close. Try to keep to the shadows. Quick, quick,” she whispered over her shoulder.

    They began down the dock, Hecate in the lead, Willow following close behind, clutching the child to her. They passed the row of boats and went up a small ramp to the street above. “Northwest,” WillowWind pointed and the pair turned to the left, crossed the street and made their way into an alley. The buildings on either side stretched high into the blue, cloudless pre-noon sky. The steel rungs of the fire escapes filtered the sun so that bands of shadow stretched before them, draping the ground and dumpsters around them, making it appear as if prison bars blocked their path.

    The pair twisted and turned through the jungle of buildings, keeping to their dark depths, sprinting across open streets and stopping frequently to listen and scan the area, waiting for an attack they knew to be inevitable. Hecate stopped at the end of another of the unending alleys they had traveled. She frowned and squatted, staring unblinking before her.

    “What is it?” Willow asked, standing beside the mercenary.

    “A problem,” Hecate answered, waving her arm. The alley emptied into a open air courtyard, large enough and bright enough to expose them completely to watchful eyes. It was surrounded by four buildings, its center commanded by a fountain and reflecting pool of rippling blue water. Benches were scattered throughout the airy square and green hedges lined the area. Beyond that, another alley stretched directly across from them and they could see that it opened into another dock.

    Willow took in the courtyard, her head moving back and forth, looking for any purchase that would hide their passage. “Well?”

    Hecate shook her head. “Nothing to do but trust to chance and the Goddess.”

    They sighed and surged from the alleyway, running through the courtyard, hurtling over benches and hedges until they reached the dark confines of the next alley. They stood, breathing hard and looked back at the expanse they had just covered. No movement or sound greeted their ears, except the beating of their hearts as they waited expectantly.

    “What do you think?” Willow frowned.

    “Luck favors the foolish,” Hecate shrugged.

    “Well, that’s certainly us,” the heroine smiled.

    Hecate shook her head and the pair moved down the alley. At its end, a street appeared and beyond that another dock. They moved into the street, planning to cross quickly and get around the dock to the safe closeness of the buildings beyond.

    Suddenly, flashing, booming explosions blocked their path. They turned, trying to retreat to the buildings behind them. They froze, dead in their tracks. From those buildings, from their balconies and windows, dropped at the very least fifteen Knives of Artemis.

    The two women waited. Hecate drew her sword, holding it with two hands, its blade in front of her, between her hard eyes. WillowWind held the baby closer to her body. The heroine’s legs spread shoulder width, bent at the knees, ready to fight. Her extended right hand glowed white with crackling energy, her face a mask of anger and fear.

    Hecate stood at the ready, her eyes darting over her enemies. She saw the colors of all the cadres represented…even her own. The assassin sighed with regret, knowing that the day would end with blood, the acrid scent of death already starting to seep into her nostrils.

    “So, traitor, you are done,” a smug voice said from the shadows. From the alley Hecate and WillowWind had just exited stepped a short, stocky muscular woman, her dark hair swept up into a small Mohawk. Sister Mari grinned crookedly, already basking in the glory that would be hers with the death of Sister Hecate and the capture of the child.

    “Forgive me if I do not agree,” Hecate said with an incline of her head.

    “Your words mean less than nothing to us now. You have betrayed us.” Mari drew her sword, pointing its blade to the ground.

    “That’s not true,” Willow called out, coming to the defense of her new friend. “She’s trying to protect you from…”

    “Quiet!” Hecate hissed, cutting the heroine off. The rank and file of the Knives knew nothing yet of Helene’s schemes. The knowledge would be disastrous for the Sisterhood. Better to believe in only one traitor at a time, even if were untrue.

    Mari sneered again. “You are finished, bitch!” She raised her sword, pointing it at the Hand of Artemis and called out to the gathered Sisters, “Attack! Kill her and take her body back…WHAT!?!?” She jumped and looked at her feet.

    The little dog Hecate had fed had his sharp tiny teeth imbedded in Mari’s ankle. He growled fiercely, head shaking back and forth, trying to repay the kindness show him.

    “FILTHY ANIMAL!” Mari screamed.

    “NOOO!” Hecate shouted, already starting toward them.

    She saw the bright flash of Mari’s knife and the air was rent by the dog’s scream. It scrambled away, dirty white fur already stained red with its dark blood. The buildings echoed the little fellow’s cries as he ran in terror for twenty or so yards before stopping, collapsing in the street.

    Hecate leapt up, grasping the shoulders of the mercenary that moved to stop her. She somersaulted up, pushing the girl down and kicking her in the back of the head as she rushed to the wounded dog. She kneeled beside him, her face a mask of horror. The cobbled street below him was wet with blood but when he saw her, he licked her hand and whimpered. His tail wagged a few more times, then he lay his head on the pavement. No one moved. A forlorn silence descended over the street, the buildings, the Knives of Artemis, even the boats in their docks made no sound as they rocked mournfully in Red River.

    “Its just a little dog,” Hecate whispered as she kneeled beside the silent animal. She gathered up her sword, holding it tightly in her right hand. “Its just a little dog,” she repeated, this time a bit louder. From behind, the Sisters could see the muscles ripple across her back. The assassin’s shoulders twitched, the knuckles of her hand turned white as they squeezed the worn hilt of her blade.

    Then she turned around and faced them. The wiser amongst them flinched for they knew they were staring at death made flesh.   

    Hecate’s head bowed low, eyes looking up through her furrowed brow. Her lips curled back showing the blinding whiteness of her clenched teeth. Her gaze fell on Sister Mari and her voice boomed across the distance.

    “YOU…STUPID…VENAL…GIRL!” The Hand of Artemis started towards her enemy, not wavering, sword held low and hard. “DO YOU NOT KNOW OUR NAME?!”

    One of the Knives rushed forward to intercept her. Hecate never slowed, her right arm straight out, clothes-lining the girl, her forearm striking her with such force blood spurted from her broken nose and causing her to back flip, striking the pavement with a wet smack. Hecate marched on.

    “WE ARE THE KNIVES OF ARTEMIS!” Another of the Sisters attacked, rushing forward, her blade held high. Hecate planted her foot and twisted. The spin-kick caught the girl in the chest, the assassin’s boot hitting so hard the cracking of the mercenary’s rib echoed in the air. The girl was lifted off her feet and sailed over the street and into the river beyond.

    “KINGDOMS HAVE FALLEN AT OUR FEET! WARRIORS FEAR TO TREAD ON OUR SHADOW!” Two more stood to block her path. Hecate’s sword danced before them. Suddenly, from behind the assassin a white bolt of energy struck one of the Knives, WillowWind’s blast lifting her off her feet and hurtling her into the side of one of the buildings that lined the opposite side of the street. The woman bounced off the wall and landed unmoving, face down on the sidewalk. Hecate’s blade traced a figure eight over the torso of the remaining warrior. The woman screamed as the sword bit into her and then fell, dead, a scarlet pool forming beneath her.

    “IT IS A NAME PAID FOR IN BLOOD BY OUR GRANDMOTHERS AND THEIR GRANDMOTHERS BEFORE THEM!” Another Sister moved forward, her sword already slashing down. Hecate simply sidestepped and as she passed buried her elbow in the girls face, catching her between the tip of her nose and her upper lip. Blood and teeth spilled onto the street, followed quickly by the unconscious body of the Knife soldier.

    “AND HOW DO YOU REPAY THIS SACRIFICE?!?” Another girl came forward to protect Sister Mari, screaming with her attack. The woman’s blade slashed across, hoping to lop Hecate’s head from her shoulders. But Hecate was no longer there. She dropped down and as the sharp weapon passed overhead, she spun, her leg extended, sweeping the other woman off her feet. As the girl hit the ground, Hecate rose up, sword flashing in the noon sun, and drove it straight down, through the warrior. She screamed once before she died, the sword piercing her with such force it had imbedded itself in the cobbled street below.

    Hecate stalked toward Sister Mari, leaving her sword quivering in the lifeless body. She drew the knife from her belt, holding it hilt down, the cold blade resting against her forearm. “BY MAKING WAR ON INNOCENT CHILDREN AND HELPLESS ANIMALS!”

    Mari rushed to the attack, planting her feet, the bright light of her sword striking at the Hand of Artemis. Hecate blocked the swings of the mercenary, her blade moving back and forth, sparks flying as sword met knife. Mari swung again and as Hecate parried the blow, she leaned back, kicking out, her foot sinking deep into her enemy’s midsection.

    The air rushed from Mari’s lungs and she stumbled back several steps. She looked up and saw the calm expression on Sister Hecate’s face. Mari sneered and with a howl of anger ran forward, sword high above her head, ready to split the small woman in half.

    Hecate waited, unmoving. As Mari’s sword came down, streaking toward the assassin’s head, Hecate struck upwards, the knife biting into Mari’s forearm so deep it scraped bone, the sound loud enough to cause Willow to wince. Mari yelled out in shock and pain, the sword flying from her numb fingers and clattering onto the street.

    The momentum of the strike turned Sister Hecate around so that her back was to the wounded Knife soldier. She looked over her shoulder and grimaced, her voice devoid of emotion, “You are not worthy.” Hecate stabbed backwards with her knife, the blade sinking into Mari’s stomach, and then simply turned around dragging the knife with her, eviscerating the woman.

    “Gaah,” Mari’s eyes flew open, her mouth a round O of surprise as she clutched at her abdomen.

    Sister Hecate stared down at the dying Mari blankly, and whispered, “May your ancestors turn their eyes from you.”

    Mari coughed once, dark blood erupting from her mouth. She grasped at her killer but Hecate was already moving away. She coughed again, the blood running past her chin and down her chest. She fell to her knees and then Sister Mari dropped onto the hard pavement, dead, covered in crimson.

    Hecate tossed the knife aside and returned to her sword. With a soft grunt, she brutally yanked it from the sheath of the girl’s body. WillowWind came to stand beside her, her head moving over the carnage and said softly, “Holy shit.”

    “NOOO!” The scream came from above them, from one of the buildings across the street.

    Hecate looked up, searching. Three of her sisters leapt from a third floor balcony. Her eyes locked on one of them, a tall, thin woman with mousy brown hair pulled into a tight bun and a long aquiline nose.

    She gritted her teeth and hissed, “Helene.”

*****

    The Chairman stood in the middle of the penthouse office atop one of the highest skyscrapers in Steel Canyon. Images flashed over the plasma television that covered one entire wall. The picture was cut into four squares, each showing the feed from four different local stations. The Chairman raised the remote control and toggled the mute button. The office was filled with the excited voices of reporters.

    “This appears to be a battle between two groups of super powered beings that…”

    “We are getting reports of some deaths that have occurred in the…”

    “Yes, we are trying to get verification that the combatants are the legendary Knives of Artemis, a secret society of…”

    “…unconfirmed rumors of the Sisters of Artemis, a heretofore unseen and largely secretive group of…”

    The Chairman muted the TV again and silence descended over the room. Crossing to the large oak desk, the Chairman stabbed the intercom button, frowning. “This is unacceptable, very, very unacceptable,” the thought repeating over and over.

    “Yes?” the secretary’s voice crackled from the box.

    “Dr. Albriecht will be in my office within the minute, is that clear?” the Chairman’s voice was hard, cold and insistent.

    “Of cour…,” the Chairman broke the connection and turned back to the silent screen.

    Thirty-seven seconds later there was a knock and the door opened. Dr. Albriecht stepped in, struggling to straighten his tie, his hair still wildly unkempt. “You wished to see me?” he asked, his high German accent thicker than normal.

    Without turning, the Chairman’s hand waived at the television. “It seems your ‘discreet operatives’ are all over the news, Doctor.”

    Albriecht looked at the screen with a frown. “I do not have the time to watch these things or worry about them.”

    Countess Crey faced the doctor, lowering her glasses. Her pale eyes starred at the doctor and her dark lips pursed. The deep dark purple of her dress highlighted the paleness of her skin, although now her face darkened in anger. “Really…well…I suggest you take an interest, Doctor, and begin to worry.” With a click the office filled again with the sound of confused reporters.

    “…footage is graphic so be warned that…”

    “…appears to be wearing the uniform of one of the city’s super groups, Top Ten, but that is unconfirmed at this time. We take you back to…”

    “…this is Miranda de la Hoya Vera Cruz Cardinale reporting from Founders Falls where a pitched battle…”

    Countess Crey muted the sound again and walked to the window. She gazed out over the city, her back to the man and said, “I believed I had made it clear to you that Crey Industries was to have complete and total deniability with regards to this endeavor, Doctor.”

    Dr. Albriecht said nothing. He stood silent, his eyes tracing up the Countess’s body from her feet to the long dark hair on top of her head. She stood with her legs slightly apart and her long dress was slit on each side, both ending high above her hips. Albriecht could see she wore no underwear and he said with a leer, “It is an unforeseen circumstance. It has no bearing of note on my plans.”

    “Your plans?” the Countess repeated. She stalked to the middle of the room stopping directly in front of Albriecht. “You have no plans, Doctor,” she said angrily. “Your plans are my plans. Your plans exist only through my good will.” She waved her hand at the television. “And now these plans are in danger of being found out, exposed and investigated.”

    “I…I…don’t understand how…,” Albriecht stammered, at last realizing the peril he was in. Countess Crey had a reputation for ruthlessness, in business as well as in various suspicious dealings. He had heard stories…rumors of how she had solved her problems in the past.

    “You will deal with this,” she interrupted, her eyes boring into him. “Is that clear?”

    “I?…but I do not…”

    “I…don’t…care,” Countess Crey said through clenched teeth. “Do what you will and make sure we…Crey…cannot be traced to it.” She moved to the desk and sat in its large leather chair.

    Albriect’s eyes darted back and forth, mouth working to say something but no sound issued. He sighed and bowed formally with a click of his heels. The doctor backed out of the office and shut the door as he left.

    The Countess leaned back in her chair, seeing the television’s flashing images out of the corner of her eye. She sighed and shook her head once, chewing on her bottom lip. She stood, pressed a red button on her phone and said softly, “Bertram.”

    She crossed the length of the office, stiletto heeled shoes sinking deep into the plush dark carpeting, and stood again in front of the large window. The noon sun lit up the glass and steel buildings outside, causing them to shine like long stars. Countess Crey crossed her hands behind her back and looked out over her city. A Crey Industries product was arguably in every home and business in Paragon City. And she was Crey Industries. Her city. Hers.

    A private door opened in her office, set so well within the grain of the rich oak paneling, it was nearly invisible to the naked eye. She felt the new presence in the room and said over her shoulder, “You have seen the news reports?”

    “Yes,” a deep voice answered with a thick Brooklyn accent. “I take full responsibility. I was the one who advised you. It is my fault.”

    Countess Crey smiled and turned to face the man. He was huge, near seven feet tall, close to 350 pounds, and his waist couldn’t have measured more than 32 inches. Slabs of muscle lay like concrete under his skin and his thick hands clenched with anger over his supposed failing. He stood there frowning, his eyes hidden behind the black sunglasses he constantly wore, his neck seeming to erupt from the well fitted collar of his white shirt. He wore a blue suit, a custom made Armani that must have cost at least five thousand dollars, a white shirt and a sapphire tie. His dark hair was cut close and slicked back and even just standing still he looked caged, dangerous and anxious.

    “No…no, Bertram,” the Countess said as she crossed to her desk. “Dr. Albriecht had already contacted them. He set this in motion. I only asked for your opinion. You gave it.” She sat in the leather chair again and leaned back to look at the large man. “Albriecht is becoming a problem,” she said flatly.

    Bertram nodded. “Shall I contact our people in Liberty Quay?”

    The Countess thought for a moment. “No…,” she steepled her fingers in front of her and pursed her lips. “Have you shown the Doctor’s research to anyone else?”

    “Yes. Professor Henderson in Applied Physics and Hero Genome Recombination.”

    “And?”

    “He believes the work has merit,” Bertram inclined his head, “he has even posited some theorems that were not in Dr. Albriecht’s original thesis…although if the Doctor did not simply think of them or if he decided not to tell us…there’s no way of knowing.”

    Countess Crey was silent for a long while, digesting this information. She spun the chair around so she was looking through the window once more. “Albriecht works closely with the Protectors. Where do their loyalties lie?” The Paragon Protectors were put forth to the people as Crey Industries answer to the hero population. Created from the DNA of  deceased or injured heroes, the Protectors fought crime but under the surface of their good works, however, the truth was quite a different matter. The Protectors served Crey Industries in general, Countess Crey in particular. Industrial espionage, theft, assassination were the actual day to day activities of the Paragon Protectors.  

    Bertram snorted. “Their loyalty is a non-issue. The nano-tachyon chip implant they all have assures they answer to you and no one but you.”

    The Countess chewed her lip again, deep in thought. She rubbed her fingers together, her head nodding as she weighed the pros and cons of each action she could undertake. Finally she turned in her chair and looked up at Bertram. “You will forward all current and future research from Dr. Albriecht to Professor Henderson.”

    “Yes.”

    “Stop all payment to the Knives of Artemis. If any monies have been forwarded already, they will be retrieved.”

    “Yes.”

    “And you will spread the word, through whatever…contacts…you have, that it was Dr. Albrecht that reneged on their contract.”

    Bertram’s eyebrows raised over his sunglasses at this last order. “Very well…but I don’t understand…”

    Countess Crey grinned crookedly and her assistant. “Even the most…questionable, shadowed dealings are governed by a…code of honor, for lack of a better term,” she explained. “If the Family is contracted to smuggle electronic parts…they get paid. If Malta is contracted to steal the blueprints to a new magnetic weapon…they get paid. If the Knives of Artemis are contracted to acquire a…package…”

    “They get paid,” Bertram finished.

    “Yes,” the Countess continued. “So, when it becomes known that Dr. Albriecht…oh, what is the word I’m looking for…”

    “Welched?”

    “Yes,” she smiled, “welched on this deal, his name will be mud. And when the Knives come looking for their payment…and they will…poor Dr. Albriecht will find that no one will be willing to assist him in…well…staying alive.”

    The big man rubbed his chin, shaking his head slowly. “So…we get the package, keep our money, the Knives take care of Albriecht and we are completely uninvolved. Four birds with one stone. Brilliant.”

    “Isn’t it just?” Countess Crey’s dark lips smiled. “Now, go. Report to me when its done.”

    Bertram nodded once and left through the private door. Countess Crey turned the plush leather chair to look out the window across the office again. She pointed the remote control at the television and clicked it off. Pressing another button, the solar filters in the windows began to darken and the office was swathed in shadows. The Countess sat in darkness and whispered to no one, “Four birds with one stone.”

    Her lips curled back, smiling broadly, the bright white of her teeth the only light in the room.


TO CHAPTER 4 >


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