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Chapter Four

    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 thought.

    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 stony exit.

    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 man’s unconsciousness.

    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.

    “Impressive…”

    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.

    NO!! Tropic 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 surroundings.

    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 rite.

    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 heavily.

    “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, flame-filled eyes.

    “Yes, yes…many questions,” he held up something in his hand. “Such as…‘what is this?’”

    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 Primeval returned.

    “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 ground.

    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 gasped.

    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.

    Nothing happened.

    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 see.

    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 immediately.”

    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…”

    “What?”

    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, “SISTERS! ATTAC…”

    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 disputes.”

    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 assassin, Helene.

    “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?”

    “We fight.”

    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 death, right?”

    “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 this.”

    “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 circle.

    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 regular; effortless.

    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 heal.

    “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 enemy.

    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 back.

    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 with explosions.

    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!!! MAMAAAAAA!!!”

    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.


TO CHAPTER 5 >
   

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