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Tropic slowly made his way through the underground
passages, pausing often to listen for signs his escape had been
discovered and avoid the roving groups of mages and adepts that
practically infested the caverns. He had regained some of his strength
and had been using the rocky walls less and less frequently to support
himself . He was also able to generate black puffs of inky smoke from
his hands yet no fire manifested. He was a match that, when struck,
would not catch. The fiery hero sighed and moved on, coming now to an
intersection of tunnels.
He bore to the right, remembering the paths like the
back of his hand. Tropic smiled grimly, quickening his pace. The tunnel
curved to the right and he cautiously hurried along the twisting
passage. Now it turned to the left and up ahead he could see another
right curve. He knew exactly where he was, thanks to the millennia
spent here during his…first life. The hero shook his head at the
Suddenly, voices could be heard and the scuff of
sandals against the smooth stone floor, loud and coming closer. Tropic
cast his eyes about frantically. He was weak and still almost
powerless. His eyes fell upon a small niche in the hard stone of the
tunnel wall. He pressed himself to it, willing himself smaller as the
voices grew louder still, closer…closer. Tropic lowered his
head, turning it to the wall and shielded his eyes with his hand lest
the flames leaking from them give him away.
Two adepts passed, close enough that Tropic thought
they would feel his breath. They continued on, lost in conversation,
their hooded heads oblivious. Tropic didn’t move, waiting for the
two to disappear around the corner. Finally he lowered his hand and
stepped gingerly into the passageway. He sighed in relief and continued
through the cavern. In the back of his head a voice whispered with
disgust, It is beneath us to hide from such filth. He frowned and nodded and followed the curving path.
Ahead, another tunnel intersected the passageway and
Tropic grinned. He peered around its corner and smiled at its
emptiness. He stepped out and moved forward quickly. Around the curve
five hundred yards or so in the distance lay the toothy entrance to the
cave. His exit and freedom. Beyond that, perhaps a half a mile through
the woods to the village and Artemis’ temple. He squeezed the
pulsing stone in his hand. The hero rounded the bend and skidded to a
stop. He almost fell as he stumbled back until he was again behind the
tunnel’s sharp curve.
Tropic peered out, his mouth pressed into a thin,
grim line. Fifty yards ahead freedom beckoned him. Unfortunately, four
adepts paced, standing guard between the hero and the thick green
forest beyond. He moved back and leaned heavily on the rocky wall.
Tropic stared at his hands, willing the dangerous flame to come forth
but succeeding only in producing harmless dark smoke. Chewing his lower
lip, he peaked out again. The four guards moved silently, back and
forth, watching the dark woods beyond.
Tropic smiled thinly. They were intent on the
outside world, paying no attention to what they believed was safe
behind them. The hero exhaled through his nostrils and tugged at his
goatee’. The fire inside him churned, restless and elusive. His
limbs felt like ingots of molten lead. He stepped out into the final
tunnel, pressing his back against the wall, and inched his way to the
He was weak yet far from helpless. The thousands of
years he had lived previously had brought him in contact with the
greatest warriors who had ever lived. Tropic had learned from the
Spartans, samurai from the Far East, monks from the depths of China,
Norsemen, Romans, the Huns and Visigoths. He remembered a lesson from a
Spartan soldier, “If you’re going to fight, you’re
going to get hurt. Pain has no power over you if you expect it.”
His eyes narrowed as he crept silently closer.
Tropic pressed his back to the rock as he slid
nearer. When he was about fifteen or so yards from the guards he
stopped. At last they were close to each other and the fiery hero burst
from the shadows. At the sound of his bare feet thudding across the
worn stone floor, the adepts turned and cried out in shock, fumbling
for the knives they wore on their belts.
Five yards away, Tropic launched himself into the
air, twisting so that his body fell on all four of the guards. They
fell in a heap, Tropic on top, his left hand covering the face of an
adept. As they fell, the hero pushed the hapless guard’s head
into the glassy, stone ground; the satisfying wet smack sounding the
Still on top of the man, Tropic spun to his right,
catching the next guard with the back of his fist. The stunned adept
dropped away, tooth and blood spurting from his mouth. Tropic continued
his spin, rolling off the guard onto his knees and then quickly to his
feet. Another adept was almost in front of him, just climbing to his
hands and knees. The hero took two steps forward and kicked the fellow
in the head with all his fast waning strength. The guard somersaulted
through the air and landed squarely on his back, senseless.
Tropic breathed heavily, his head turning to look
for the last guard when suddenly he was grasped from behind, his arms
pinned to his sides in a bear hug. The hero immediately pushed his hips
back into the man, trying to create some space. His right foot came
down on his captors instep and then up as hard as he could, attempting
to strike the man in the groin. Tropic missed his target but succeeded
in hitting the inside of the guards thigh. The adept yelped in pain and
surprise, loosening his grip.
The fiery hero moved his arms free and grabbed a
handful of the magician’s robes. He flipped the man over his
shoulder, keeping hold of the garment as the adept sprawled to the
ground. Tropic dropped down and sent his fist deep into the hooded
figures shrouded face. The guard jerked once and lay still.
Tropic stood, moving back on shaky legs until his
back hit the tunnel wall. His breath came in huge gulps and he felt as
if he would pass out. He squeezed the Goddess’s stone in his hand
and looked out to the green woods beyond the cave. He took a step and
then a cold, old voice froze him in his tracks.
The exhausted hero spun about, searching for the
strange and familiar voice. Stepping from the tunnel shadows an old
mage appeared. His long black robe swept the dirty stone floor and his
decayed, yellow teeth shone brightly from within its hood. His white
beard reached to the middle of his chest and he stood, seeming to
regard the hero with a mixture of pity and contempt. He sighed as he
continued, “…but futile.” The magician opened his
hand, not moving it from his side, and from his palm flowed ebony vapor.
screamed to himself and backpedaled toward the entrance of the cavern.
But the dark mist was upon him, swirling around his head, burrowing in
through his nostrils, his mouth and finding its purchase within his
mind. The cave spun, the dark green of the forest outside grew darker
and he felt himself adrift and falling, thinking Funny…I don’t remember the ground being this far away but a murky hand closed over his face and he was lost.
Tropic awoke slowly, swimming to the surface through
an inky ocean of torpid water. His eyes opened slightly and he tried to
move his hands but they held fast. The fiery hero shook his head weakly
and looked at his arms. He hung suspended with familiar invisible
shackles and he opened his eyes a bit wider trying to see his
He was in another chamber, a large room this time,
its walls made from blocks of stone. Lining each side were bookshelves
filled with ancient tomes and mystic paraphernalia. Human and animal
skulls rested among books and jars filled with magic ingredients,
sanctified knives and ritual weapons. At a small table near the wall in
front of him, the magician from the tunnel was bent, working on some
Tropic himself was bound as he had been for the
ritual; his arms and legs held fast by the arcane bonds and hovering a
foot or so above a pulsating stone, etched with glyphs of power. As he
looked down at the stone he noticed he was naked again and sighed
“I know you are awake,” the mystic
cackled. “No need to pretend.” He turned around and stared
at the bound hero, the disturbed smile on his face causing the lines
around his mouth to sink deeper into shadow. “You are quite a
fascinating case, my slave,” he shook his head as he came to
stand in front of Tropic. “Most others did not survive the
ritual, those that did were dead within hours. But you…”
The Hun Lord raised an eyebrow, pursing his lips in thought. “You
almost escaped. Your will should have been broken. You should be
nothing. You are a slave. But…,” he clucked his tongue and
returned to the table. “…we have questions.”
Tropic said nothing, merely watching and listening
as the mage spoke. Even now he was scanning the room, looking for any
means to break the spell that held him. The Hun Lord picked something
up from the table and spoke again. Tropic looked at him with dark,
“Yes, yes…many questions,” he
held up something in his hand. “Such as…‘what is
Tropic’s blood ran cold as he saw the object.
It was the stone Artemis had given him, the one that would take him to
his daughter and it was now in the hands of his greatest enemies. He
clenched his fists and his teeth ground together in his helplessness.
“It…pulses with a power not known to
me,” the mage said, enthralled by the stone, turning it over in
his palm. “I can feel its energy. How odd that it be in your
possession.” He shook his head, gazing pitilessly at the bound
hero. “No matter. Its secrets will be mine. Its power will be
mine.” The Hun Lord crossed the room and grasped Tropic roughly
by the chin staring with cold determination into the blazing eyes of
his captive. “And you will tell me all…slave.” He
spun on his heel and returned to his table.
Tropic’s lips were set in a thin, grim line.
He pulled again at the invisible bands but they remained tight. He was
helpless. Then the voice in the back of his head returned, no longer a
whisper, now bold and hard. “This fool wants power?!? Show…Him…POWER…!”
And then, suddenly, it was as though a switch had
been flipped on. The power of the fire primeval rushed through him, no
longer just beyond his touch but complete, total and awaiting his
command. It boiled, threatening to burst from the pores of his skin,
the molten magma of his marrow now his very essence. He was again all
he had been…and more. Tropic, the Dread One, Lord of the Fatal
“Magician.” The hard rasp of Tropic’s voice filled the chamber.
The Hun Lord turned, his eyebrow raised in confusion. This was not the voice of a cowed, helpless prisoner.
“You wish power?” White smoke tinged
with red puffed from his mouth as he spoke. The hero stretched his body
out and then, with a audible snap, pulled his arms and legs together
breaking the mystic shackles. He dropped to the etched stone below him
and smiled. “Behold power.” He raised his arm and opened
his hand. A ball of flame, so hot it was leeched of all color, erupted
toward the mage.
“NO!!!” the robed man screamed. The fire
engulfed him, the force of it knocking him back, sending him careening
into the wall. He burned in a flash, the room filling with the charnel
scent of his flesh, falling and dead before his blacked husk hit the
Tropic calmly crossed the room and stood over the
smoking corpse. He bent and took Artemis’ stone. “This
belongs to me.” The hero pulled the charred robe from the
magician and covered himself. He spared another look at the smoldering
body then leapt into the air, his body bursting into flame as his feet
left the cold stone floor.
He rocketed upward, arms extended, the fantastic
heat he generated turning the cavern’s rocky ceiling to liquid.
Tropic burned straight up through the thick stone, catapulting through
chambers, rooms, caves, past startled adepts and mages, all of them
falling back and crying out in shock and horror. The fiery hero blasted
through the Hun Lord’s mountain stronghold until he emerged
through a hail of molten shards into the cold dark night of his past.
He paused for a moment, suspended in the ether, and looked up at the
stars filling the ancient sky, then he spun and, like a comet, streaked
across the heavens.
The village was no more than half a mile from the
Hun Lord’s cavern and Tropic blazed through the ebon sky, cutting
a bright tear in its raven grasp. He landed several hundred feet from
the Goddess’s temple in the woods surrounding the little hamlet,
snuffing out the sizzling fire covering his muscular, red skin. The
hero had no desire to frighten the little town’s inhabitants and
hoped that any talk of a ‘burning man’ would be attributed
to the sodden patrons of the local saloon. He made his way through the
dark green forest until he came upon the village.
It was small, perhaps five or six wooden buildings
lining both sides of a dusty dirt road. A butcher shop, livery,
blacksmith and a dry goods store made up the town proper. This was farm
land, after all, and most people at this time of night were asleep,
dreaming of the next day’s chores. A tavern was set back from the
street at the intersection of another dirt track, music and laughter
seeping from its bright windows.
The Temple of Artemis was to his right, two hundred
yards give or take fifty, silent and bright, glowing in the dark night
like a beacon. Tropic stared at the structure, its doors beckoning. He
stepped out into the street and walked purposefully to the
goddess’s shrine, the dead mage‘s robe leaving a faint
trail of smoke as he passed. He hoped it would be late enough that the
hierodule would be done with their tasks and the Vestals finished with
their prayers and asleep in their chambers.
Two white columns framed the white and gold marble
double doors. Etched into each door was a likeness of Artemis. On the
right was the Goddess, holding her bow, depicting her as the Goddess of
the Hunt. On the left she was shown with her arms extended over her
head, the moon suspended between them, signifying her station as
Goddess of the Moon. Tropic hurried up the five marble steps and
cautiously opened the doors, peeking his head through, his fiery eyes
scanning the silent room. It appeared empty and he slipped inside,
pressing himself against the wall.
The temple wasn’t large, the size of a
moderate dining hall, but it was richly appointed. The citizens of the
tiny village took the worship of the goddess seriously. The floors were
made of the same marble the doors were carved from. Pristine white shot
through with gold, the symbols of their patron covered the floor and
the alabaster walls. Ahead of him, against the back of the temple, two
steps lead up to a raised platform. A statue of Artemis stood, arm
extended, watching benevolently over her people. On either side, drapes
of deepest purple framed her serene countenance.
But Tropic’s eyes were riveted to the floor
just before the steps. There, a round, flat circular dais sat, carved
from the same stone the fiery hero held tightly in his hand. He
remembered Artemis’ instructions: stand at the center of the dais
with the stone and he would be taken to his child. He took a step then
froze, hurriedly backing into the shadows once more.
The temple was not as empty as he had thought. A
young woman kneeled before the Goddess’s statue, her blonde hair
falling past her shoulders. She was small, no more than five feet in
height and wore the white robes of one of the Vestal Virgins that
attended the temple needs. She rose, turning to leave, and Tropic
The girl looked almost exactly like his old friend,
enemy and lover - Hecate. So much so, he almost called out to her. He
realized it was impossible. He was thousands of years in the past and
Hecate had not been born until the 15th century…but this girl
was…An ancestor, he
thought. Tropic pressed him self tightly to the wall as she passed,
watching as she quietly bowed before leaving. He sighed and shook his
head. Hecate…no…not Vestal Virgin material, he smiled to himself and crossed to the stone dais.
The fiery hero paused at the edge of the flat stone,
chewing his lower lip. He squeezed the stone in his hand tightly and
then with a nod and a loud sigh, stepped onto the dais stopping
directly in its center.
Frowning, he looked at the rock in his hand. Tropic
could feel it pulsing with what could only be described as a heartbeat.
He thought for a moment. Perhaps it needs to be in contact with the
dais, he reasoned. He narrowed his eyes, the flame in them deepening
and placed the stone on the floor between his feet. Still nothing. He
was about to pick it up when suddenly the temple dimmed.
A haze began to form around him. Tropic started to
raise his arms but they seized up and he stood, frozen, within a
circular column of mist rising from the stone platform to the
shrine’s ceiling. His eyes darted wildly. He could move his head
slightly but he was as unmoving as the statute of Artemis, her upturned
lips seeming to laugh at him.
The doors of the temple burst open and a cadre of
Hun Lords and adepts streamed through. At least twenty of the evil
sorcerers tumbled into the goddess’s chapel. They surged towards
him and he struggled in vain to move. They were upon him and
pulling…dragging him from the dais, through the mist and onto
the temple floor.
But Tropic remained on the stone within the mist! He
watched as his…other self flailed against the Hun Lords.
Suddenly, a cudgel struck the back of his head and the malevolent
wizards dragged him from the shrine. The fiery hero watched them go,
his eyes wide in shock, still trapped, unmoving on the dais.
Tropic watched as the mist swirled, faster and
faster. Images began to appear within its fog, like a film. He saw
himself. He saw fire. He saw evil. He watched as he plunged into Mt.
Vesuvius, triggering its eruption. He watched as he played his part in
the destruction of Pompeii. Faster now, the images came. The burning of
Rome. The sacking of Constantinople. Greek fire. Dormant volcanoes
forced to life. The destruction of the Library of Alexandria. Moscow.
The fire of London.
He tried to turn his head, to close his eyes, but he
watched in grim silence the death and horror he visited upon the world.
Tropic’s mind raced as he stood unmoving in his shrouded prison. Why? he thought. What is happing? How am I here and…there?
He looked on, the images of his deeds speeding past. San Francisco,
Chicago, the Hindenburg, Dresden and Coventry, Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Apollo 1. Death upon death. His doing. And then the words of Artemis
rang in his ears.
Thou shalt live
out all the long years of thy life, mayhap until the end of time
itself. And when thy existence at last flickers out and the fire
extinguished from thine eyes, I cannot e’en guarantee that thou
whilst return-ith here to this place, to thy family…or
e’en to Paradise itself.
For his daughter to be born, for his life to begin
again, for everything to be as it is…everything had to be as it
was. The evil he had perpetrated had to be sown again so he could be
redeemed, so he could kill the Beast, so he could have the child, so he
could be born anew. The hero sighed heavily. It felt as if he had
killed all the thousands again and he thought his heart might crack.
The reflected time flew past, horror etched upon
horror, until at last he saw familiar faces. The chance meeting in a
warehouse in King’s Row. Battling along side heroes who would
soon become family. There were smiling faces, battles to be won, evil
to be defeated, redemption to be had. Then, his final battle. Fire and
an explosion so terrific the immense flash of light made it hard to
Suddenly, everything went black. The temple was gone
and he floated in the ebon ether. He had no sense of up or down and he
generated a small flame from his hands to provide some light but there
was literally nothing to see. Time was nonexistent and Tropic floated
for hours or minutes or possibly seconds. He extinguished his fiery
hands and was encased again in darkness. He felt a pull and he turned.
Far in the distance, he saw a small white speck of light. Go into the light, he smirked at the cliché but the insistent tug was strong and he pushed himself in its direction.
The light grew larger as he approached and he felt
himself gaining speed, careening toward it faster and faster. Tropic
raised his arm to shield his eyes from the rapidly expanding light. It
was bright and getting brighter, painfully so. He could not stop his
momentum and hurled at it, now tumbling, spinning out of control. Then
there was pain, starting in his arms and legs, moving to his chest and
now his head. He started to scream and Tropic was swallowed by a star.
Dr. Albriecht stepped from the portal into the Crey
Labs facility in Crey’s Folly. The portal he used was stolen tech
from Portal Corp, the only company contracted or even allowed to use
and experiment with captured Rikti technology. Which of course meant
that Crey Industries had acquired whatever they wanted and the portal
at the main Crey site in Steel Canyon was connected to portals in
almost all Crey holdings.
He marched through the gleaming metal corridors, up
an elevator and to his sparsely furnished office. Papers were strewn
haphazardly over the desk, books and reports were stacked on the floor
and upon two Spartan steel chairs. Filing cabinets lined the four
walls, papers threatening to spill from their drawers. There were no
windows. The doctor did not have the time to look at the view;
technically there wasn’t one.
The zone was a polluted mess which, at one time, had
begun to clean itself up. Then the Rikti attacked causing a Crey
experiment to go horribly wrong, tainting the area anew and making
prolonged exposure problematic to say the least. Although several
heroes had at one time or another tried to determine the exact nature
of the “accident” that had doomed Venice, as the district
had once been called, the only consensus was that it had been illegal
and unethical and was completely untraceable to Crey Industries or the
Countess herself. But the population of Paragon City assumed the truth,
hence the name and accusation - Crey’s Folly.
Albriecht sat morosely in his chair, his mind
spinning. Countess Crey had been clear: get the package, get your
agents off the television news or we will kill you. It was that simple.
He leaned on his elbows and covered his face with his hands, rubbing
his forehead. He sat back and pulled his lower lip, deep in thought. He
had hoped to keep his hands clean but now realized to save his skin he
had to take action.
He stabbed the intercom on his desk.
“Protector 0-1-1-Alpha, report to the director’s
office.” His tinny voice echoed throughout the base. Dr.
Albriecht sighed once, leaned back in his chair and waited, his face
clouded with deep, dark thoughts. Several moments later he almost
jumped at the knock on his door. “Enter,” he called out and
grinned lecherously at the new arrival.
“Come in, come in, my dear.” Dr.
Albriecht rounded his desk and stood in front of the woman. Protector
Alpha was tall, nearly six feet, and the blue and yellow stretchable
leather of her supersuit hugged her muscled body. The mask hid her
features but Albriecht knew she was as lovely of face as she was of
body. Wide shoulders tapered to a tiny waist, large breasts and, as the
doctor walked around her, he noted her round bottom. He grinned again
and came to a stop once more, staring into her featureless mask.
“I have need of your assistance,” he said as he placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Of course, Doctor,” she replied, her voice quite high for one so imposing.
Albriecht started around her again, his hand
trailing across her shoulders and the nape of her neck.
“The…agents I have chosen to acquire the unit have failed
me.” He circled her again, this time his hand trailed over the
small of her back. “Unforeseen circumstances arose and our
benefactor is most disappointed. So much so,” he stood beside her
now, both of them facing the same direction, and his hand dipped lower,
cupping her buttocks, marveling at the perfect roundness of it,
“that she has tasked me with retrieving the package
Protector Alpha stood quietly still, motionless, the
disgusted grimace on her face hidden by her emotionless mask. “Of
course,” she repeated.
Dr. Albriecht moved again, now standing behind his
desk. “You will go to Founders’ Falls. You will fetch the
object and salvage this mess. The unit is your only objective. Nothing
must stand in your way. Understood?”
Alpha nodded once. “Yes, but…”
She shifted from one foot to the other, clearly
uncomfortable. “What does…I mean, why is
this…package so important?”
Albriecht frowned at the question. The Protectors
were an elite strike force…an unquestioning strike force. The
very thought that she would even ask disturbed him. Oh well, he thought, I’ll just remove this predilection at our next DNA sequencing upgrade.
“You know the parentage of the unit?” he smiled. “The
father, the late father, was the master of one of the four primeval
forces - fire. The power released at the time of his death was immense,
causing even the Red River to overflow its banks. The mother controls
energy. And energy is part of everything.” A gleam formed in the
scientist’s eyes, a mad, deranged look that bordered on
obsession. “The child is an amalgam of these powers - a true
force of nature. A force to be controlled and used. We
can…distribute her DNA to you Protectors and you can be even
more powerful.” He paused and raised an eyebrow at the woman.
“You would like to be more powerful, wouldn’t you?”
She nodded again, “Of course.”
“Then go,” the doctor pointed
dramatically at the door. “Go and let nothing stop you!”
Alone in his office once more, Albriecht rested his
elbows on the desk and began rubbing his forehead once more.
“This may work out,” he said with a loud sigh, “this
may work out after all.”
“Murderer!” Helene cried as she knelt
next to Mari’s body. She made sure not to stain herself with the
red blood pooling around the mercenary’s body, frowning deeply as
she gently closed the dead girl’s eyes.
“This is on your head, Helene,” Hecate said under her breath.
“This?” Helene swept her arm at the dead
and wounded Knives of Artemis scattered in the street, a red path of
death leading to a still shrouded destination. “You have killed
your sisters, traitor.”
“It is you who
has set this in motion, woman! Death has hovered over us all since this
morning.” She raised her eyebrow. “Does the Oracle yet live
or have you been successful in that measure too, betrayer?”
Hecate gripped her sword tightly, its point staring at the slim woman.
The rest of the Knives had spread out around them, circling. She felt
WillowWind standing behind her, the energy crackling around the hero
causing the Hand of Artemis’s hair to stand on end.
“That is none of your concern,” Helene
sneered. She extended her sword at Sister Hecate and, drawing herself
up, standing as straight and tall as possible, she shouted,
Before the Knife assassin could finish her order
Hecate bellowed, “I INVOKE THE GAGE OF THE HORAE!”
To WillowWind it seemed as if time had come to a
standstill. The Knives of Artemis surrounding them looked at each
other, eyebrows raised in surprise. Even more shocking, they lowered
their swords and stepped back. Helene looked as though she had
swallowed a particularly distasteful mouthful of spoiled cream. The
woman’s face turned red enough that Willow thought it might
explode. Her lips were set so thin they could cut flesh. And she noted
the white knuckled grip she had on her sword.
The heroine leaned close to Hecate, whispering,
“What’s this ‘Gage of the Whores’ thing?”
Hecate’s lips twitched, her eyes never leaving
Helene. “Horae,” she corrected. “It’s the
‘Challenge of the Fates.’ A ritual, to settle grievous
Willow eyed the mercenaries around them, all of them
moving back falling into a formed circle. All stood motionless, the
points of their swords resting on the ground. “Disputes?”
she asked warily, holding the baby a bit tighter. The little girl
peered out from behind Hecate, her little eyes staring a hole in the
“Yes,” Hecate whispered. “I would
have invoked it earlier but I had to get to you. Its technically a duel
of honor. If she declines its akin pleading the 5th Amendment in your
courts and I will be exonerated.”
“And if she accepts?”
Willow looked back and forth, from Hecate to Helene.
The two women’s eyes were locked, although Hecate seemed to be
the calmer of the two. The heroine sighed. “Let me guess...to the
“It is our way,” Hecate said. It was a
simple and true answer. The laws and rules of the Knives of Artemis
were forged in tradition and honor set hundreds or possibly thousands
of years ago. What seemed to WillowWind as harsh and violent was, to
them, simply the way of things; as it was, as it is, as it will be.
“Can you beat her?”
“She is an Elite Sister, a Hand of Artemis,” Hecate shrugged.
“You don’t know.”
“I don’t know.”
Suddenly the circling Knives tapped their sword
points to the ground twice, the metallic sound echoing against the
nearby buildings and down the street. “The Challenge is
given,” they intoned, somber voices matching their hard faces.
Hecate quickly whispered over her shoulder.
“Move back,” she told Willow. “Stand with the others
in the circle. Try to move a little behind them. When the fight starts
their attention will be on us. Run and don’t stop until you get
to Numina and Infernal.”
“No,” Willow said tightly, her eyes
flaring bright in the noon sun. “I’m not going to leave
you.” A white nimbus of crackling energy formed over her hand as
she closed it into a fist.
“Do as I say, foolish girl!” The
assassin snapped. “Save the child. That is my mission and your
duty!” She spared a look at Willow and her features softened at
the hurt expression on the heroine’s face. “Go,”
Sister Hecate said calmly, “You must. I will deal with
“But...you might not...,” the finality,
the sheer desperation of their situation seemed to drape itself over
them as a shroud over one dead. WillowWind asked quietly, her voice
almost childlike, “Will I see you again?”
“In this life or the next,” the warrior smiled. “Now go on...do as I say.”
Willow stared at Hecate for a moment, silent thanks
passing from her eyes to the mercenary. She looked around the circle,
her eyes flashing hard and angry at the gathered Knives of Artemis, her
most violent look reserved for Helene. Their eyes met briefly. Helene
sneered. WillowWind paused, debating whether or not to blast the thin
woman into the next state, then quietly, clutching the baby tightly
stepped away to stand with the other Knives in the circle.
Helene’s white-knuckled hand gripped the hilt
of her sword tightly. The corners of her mouth turned down; she chewed
her lower lip in anger, her brow knitted together and her eyes narrowed
to slits of dark rage. Helene ran her hand over her hair, making sure
the tight bun was in place, held by two sharp knitting needle-like hair
sticks. Finally she stepped forward, her head high, and dragged the
point of her sword across the pavement.
“The challenge has been borne,” the
Knives of Artemis intoned, tapping the points of their swords twice
more onto the street.
“Since you seem to be in a hurry to die,
I’ll try to make this as quick and painful as possible,
bitch,” Sister Helene sneered as she stepped further into the
Sister Hecate held her head low and smiled with
pursed lips. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t make it
easy for you, won’t you…whore?” She turned her head
slightly and winked at WillowWind.
Helene rushed forward, her scream echoing through
the street and reverberating from the buildings nearby. Her sword
flashed down, sparks flying as Hecate blocked the overhead blow. Helene
pressed her attack and the two women’s swords blurred through the
air, almost faster than the eye could follow, their dangerous dance
highlighted by the gleaming stars that erupted every time they met.
Back and forth, the hot blades flashed again and again, until the two
women backed away, circling each other, their breathing deep and
Once more Sister Helene attacked, the sword
thrusting in. Hecate parried, pushing it aside to the right and coming
immediately to the left, trying to slice across her opponents
midsection. Helene bowed her body, throwing her hips back, the sword
flashing less than an inch from her stomach. She howled and ran
forward, driving her weapon up between them. The two blades screeched
together, both women now face to face, their swords held tight and fast
between them. Hecate and Helene pushed against each other, their teeth
gritted in effort. Her left hand balled into a fist, Helene quickly
struck her enemy in the side, once, twice, three times, the blows
landed hard below the ribs on Sister Hecate’s right side,
knocking the wind from her.
Grunting with effort, Hecate pushed Helene back and,
in the small space created, delivered a front kick, her boot striking
Helene’s chest hard and flat. The woman tumbled backward, loosing
her footing but as she hit the ground she somersaulted back, coming to
a rest on one knee, her leg extended in front of her, her sword held
defensively and at the ready.
“Oh, you have got to go,” Helene spat as she scrambled to her feet.
Hecate said nothing. She merely held out her left
arm and with her upturned palm motioned twice with her curled fingers
the international sign for “come on”.
Helene launched herself at her foe, the tips of
their swords swirling, touching lightly in a continuous blur of
glimmering sliver. Hecate backpedaled quickly, her feet sliding over
the cobbled street, her face emotionless as she blocked and parried
Helene’s flashing blade. Helene feinted a deep thrust but her
weapon stopped short. She planted her left foot and with her right leg
attacked with a hard, low roundhouse kick.
Sister Hecate angled her left thigh out, absorbing
the brunt of the vicious blow. As Helene’s body turned to the
left she brought the sharp sword across Hecate’s right side,
biting deep into the assassin’s exposed hip. Wounded, Hecate
threw her hips back, avoiding more damage, but the blade caught in the
fabric of the Knife’s stealth suit, tearing it from under her
ribs, between her breasts and finally out past her left shoulder.
Miraculously, it never touched her skin.
Helene’s strike had left her with her arm
extended, her blade in the air. Hecate drove forward, banging the
pommel of her sword into Helene’s right cheek. The woman
staggered back and Hecate swept her sword at Helene’s groggy
head. Even in her dazed state, the Knife traitor still had wits enough
to duck and Hecate’s strike sailed over her head. There was a
hollow clicking from the ground and Helene looked down to see the
sliced pieces of her hair spikes rattling over the street along
with a tuft of mousy brown hair. The tight bun of hair came undone and
fell, unruly, past her shoulders.
The two women stood, their cold eyes locked. Hecate
touched her hip and looked briefly at her blood stained hand. She
grimaced in disgust, more upset with herself than her opponent. Hecate
had allowed her to score a cheap wound, deep but not mortal; it would
“First blood, c**t,” Helene jeered.
“Its last blood that counts, you ass.”
Hecate smiled sweetly. “I have taken your measure. Now,”
she pointed her blade unwaveringly at her foe, “let a true Hand
of Artemis take you to school.”
Helene screamed and flew at Sister Hecate. Her
weapon slashed down and Hecate blocked the strike, immediately poking
Helene lightly with the point of her sword. Helene stepped back,
looking incredulously at the tiny pinprick of blood forming on her
battle suit. She hadn’t even seen the blade touch her. She howled
and unleashed an onslaught of flashing silver at Hecate. Thrusting,
slicing, overhead and roundhouse blows were blocked or somehow missed
altogether. Every attempted strike was rewarded with a nick or slight
cut, turning her suit into a checkerboard of blood.
Helene came on, thrusting her sword out, attempting
to impale Hecate’s heart. It was another feint. Helene dropped,
sweeping her leg mere inches from the street trying to topple her
Hecate leaped over the outstretched limb. Helene
continued her spin, rising now to her feet, her sword coming around
attempting to lop Hecate’s head from her shoulders. Sister Hecate
ducked low, the weapon passing so close she felt it chop a lock or two
of her hair. She stayed crouched until Helene faced her once more then
simply thrust upward, arm and sword straight and true, stabbing into
Helene’s right shoulder. The blade sank in and went completely
through, half of Hecate’s sword protruding from the woman’s
Helene screamed again, this time in pain and shock,
at last realizing whatever blood she had drawn had been nothing but
pure luck and also, that she was as good as dead. She pulled back
quickly, the sickening suck of Hecate’s blade as it exited the
wound greeted her ears and her clothing soon became soaked with dark
blood. Helene’s left hand flew to the injury, pressing tightly.
She wildly stared around the circle of assassins but knew there would
be no help forthcoming. She raised her sword and through clenched teeth
spat, “So…come on. Its not over yet!”
Sister Hecate sighed, shaking her head. “Look
at what you have wrought, Sister.” Her face radiated sadness as
she looked slowly around the circle. “You have betrayed your
oaths, spit upon our honor and duty. And for what? Money? Power?
Foolish, foolish girl.”
“Bah! You are the fool, old woman!” Helene spluttered. “Your concepts of honor are important only to you.”
“No, you are woefully mistaken.” Hecate
drew herself up, standing as tall as possible. “We are the Knives
of Artemis. We are bound by duty, honor, fealty. We are feared across
this globe, in this world and the one beyond. Know this, betrayer,
though we are bound to the Goddess of the Hunt we walk hand in hand
with the God of Death. And we are loyal servants to both.”
Helene sneered, contempt etched on her
countenance so deeply it set her face in shadow. “Your day is
done and no matter what happens here, I will live to dance on your nameless grave. So, spare me your platitudes and let’s finish this…coward!”
The word “coward” drew and audible gasp
from the Knives of Artemis. Sister Hecate sighed once more, shaking her
head, her lips a tight line. Suddenly she left her feet, sailing
through the air with her sword above her head, a silent statue of death
blotting the sun from Helene’s eyes.
WillowWind watched the exchange between Hecate and
Helene with fascination. When Helene had sliced her friend in the hip,
she had backed up a bit, getting behind the two women beside her. It
had looked bad and if Hecate was to die, Willow wanted to stay at least
that long so her friend would not face it alone. But then Hecate had
revealed her true skill and Willow was confident she would win out. But
her fate and the fate of her baby were still very much in doubt.
Even if Hecate won would the Knife mercenaries
relent? Would they attack Hecate? Would they try to complete their
mission? And how many were loyal to Helene? She had said that honor was
important only to Hecate. Was that true?
Too many questions. Too few answers. It was time to go.
She glanced at the Knives making up the circle.
Hecate had been correct: they were intent on the battle. Willow backed
up another step and felt the curb of the sidewalk at her heel. She
looked around the circle and in its center she saw Hecate flying
through the air. She turned to flee and suddenly the street was rocked
Hecate was sent from the air, landing heavily on the
street. Helene was blasted back, disappearing into the dust
raising from the cobblestones. All around, Knives of Artemis soldiers
were thrown from their feet to sprawl on the street or sent over the
railing onto the dock or into the water.
A blast went off next to Willow and she was thrown
to the left. Another blast and she tumbled to the right. The baby had
started to cry when another explosion was set off directly in front of
the heroine. The concussion sent her reeling back into the hard brick
wall of the building behind her. Dazed, she looked about frantically
through the dust and smoke, gripping the screaming child tighter.
Then from the haze, a blue and gold clad figure
materialized and ripped the child from her arms. Willow screamed and
stumbled after the unknown assailant, her hands trying to seize the
little girl from its grasp. But she was groggy from the explosions and
her hands gripped only air.
She tumbled onto the sidewalk screaming. “MY BABY!! MY BABY!!”
The blue kidnapper took to the sky, the little girl
held over one shoulder. The child’s hands flailed about, reaching
for her mother as she receded in the distance. “MAMA!!! MAMA!!!
The plaintive wail echoed over the street and
through the tall buildings accompanied only by heartbroken sobs.
At that moment in the section of
Founders’ Falls called Louis Forest, at the monument to the
heroes who had fallen that fateful day, the eternal flame that
constantly burned there erupted. Out of the flame a man leapt, his red
skin smoking, fire flowing from his eyes and up through his spiky
blonde hair. He turned his head left and right, seeing, remembering and
he smiled crookedly.
The hero had returned.
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