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Chapter Six

    Tropic stalked through the lab’s gleaming corridors, the straight line of his lips slicing across his grim countenance. The pull of the child was incessant but the halls and passageways crossed and turned relentlessly. At times the baby felt to be around a corner but the fiery hero was met with a dead end. She seemed below him once, then above, near then far. By nature, Tropic was a dour, stern fellow, a man who showed few emotions and spoke fewer words. But the emotion now radiating from him was anger.

    The hallways had been sparsely populated by Crey operatives and they now lay unconscious or dead in his wake. Whenever he turned into a closed hall and had to retrace his steps, whomever he came across faced his wrath, an unbridled loosing of power that lit the corridors with white fire.

    He stopped in front of a pair of closed metal doors. The blaster felt the pull of the child within and, frowning, operated the round metal lock at the door’s center. They slid open, a metallic echo filling the empty passage behind and the large room before him. It was big and round, perhaps 50 feet in a radius, another corridor stretching away from him on its other side. At its center a raised platform squatted, a large silo extending to the ceiling, crackling with energy. Computer terminals surrounded the platform, clicking and whirring as their hard drives calculated some theorem.

    His daughter was not present.

    However, at least twenty Crey personnel of every stripe milled about and as the doors opened all turned to look at the intruder. Paragon Protectors, Crisis Units, Riot and Patrol Guards, Special Agents, Scientists, Researchers and too many others to name stared at Tropic with the same stunned expressions. Everyone came to a complete standstill.

    A scientist at a control panel stepped forward, pulling the surgical mask from his face. “You?!?” he exclaimed in slack jawed surprise. “You’re…you’re dead!”

    Tropic raised an eyebrow as he surveyed the room, his unwavering gaze passing over the gathered Crey personnel. “Is that an excited utterance,” he smirked, “or wishful thinking?”

    The scientist’s lips twisted. “DESTROY HIM!!”

    A Crey Infiltrator landed next to the fiery hero and kicked at his head, her mini-skirt riding higher up her leg. Tropic leaned back, avoiding the kick, barely getting his arm up to block the right cross that followed. He blocked with his left and, before she could withdraw the strike, reached out, grabbing her wrist with his right hand and spun her into him. She twisted like a dancer and ended up tightly against him, her body blocking his right side and her back to the rest of the room.

    Tropic held out his hand to the advancing foes. “WAIT!” he cried. The Crey hesitated for a split second. The blaster smile crookedly and ripped the mini-skirt from the woman in his arms. Every eye went involuntarily to the Infiltrator’s naked bottom, the thin elastic of her shoestring thong seeming to draw a line between the hard, round globes of her buttocks. She screamed with outrage as Tropic tossed her aside and hurled a raging ball of fire at his enemies.

    And then he was among them, a wrathful being, flame made flesh, fire leaking from every pore. From his hand, seeming to spring from nothingness, a sword appeared; a blazing scimitar of orange fire slicing through armor and skin, metal and bone. Blasts of fire melted the computer equipment and steel fixtures of the room and engulfed those unfortunate to be caught in its path. Bodies split in two and fell smoking to the cold metal flooring. There was no blood for every wound was immediately cauterized by the cleansing fire.

    Soon, Tropic stood alone. About him lay smoking husks and moaning injured. He sensed movement behind him and turned into the spin kick of the Infiltrator he had torn the clothes from. The strike caught him in the shoulder. He pursed his lips and backhanded the woman, her head jerking back violently as she fell senseless to the ground.

    Tropic strode uncaring to the passage across the room, still being lead by the pull of his child. The corridor curved to the right some twenty feet ahead and beyond he heard the sounds of battle, a thud followed moments later by another. He quickened his pace and rounded the corner.

*****

    WillowWind and Hecate exited the elevator, quickly moving to a shadowed wall. The going had been slow, up and through the many levels the facility possessed. The baby was here, that was certain. But the tracking device was on the Protector, not the child, so the only course of action was to search every room on every level. A time consuming dangerous undertaking.

    They had fought a battle on every floor, in every office and lab. However, the personnel had not been as numerous as they would have thought, and there had been signs of a hasty scramble. Some mission or other, they had surmised. They looked up the corridor and noted that this floor, at least, seemed to have more guards than those below. An array of Crey soldiers milled about in the hall, spread out in groups of three, sometimes gathered in greater numbers.

    There was an intersection of corridors perhaps thirty yards ahead and the two women looked at each other, frowning.

    “Hard going,” Hecate said softly.

    WillowWind stared down the hall to the closest group of Crey. Two Riot Guards and a Cryo tank talked quietly. “Something’s going on up here and I don’t think my little girl is the center or attention anymore,” Willow whispered.

    The assassin nodded. “Look at how they’re standing, the looks on their faces,” she inclined her head towards the enemies. “They’re scared of something.”

    “Well, lets give them a reason to be scared,” the heroine grinned. “Let me try to get the attention of that group up there. Pull just the three of ’em here.” Willow smiled at the mercenary. “Of course, everybody in the hall could come too…”

    “Inspiring,” Hecate smiled sarcastically.
 
    Willow grinned conspiratorially and turned her attention to the group of Crey minions. She focused her attention on the Cryo tank, reasoning he was the most dangerous. She held out her arm, concentrated and, with a harsh crackle, a beam of intense white energy erupted from her palm, sailed across the hall and struck the armored man.

    “What the…!” he exclaimed, a metallic voice filtering through his helmet speakers.
    
     The two Riot Guards looked up. One pointed, “There!” and all three rumbled down the hall to the waiting heroine. Willow stood unmoving for a moment longer then quickly stepped back toward the elevators and the shadows. As the three Crey soldiers rounded the corner another blast of energy knocked one of the guards off his feet, sending him careening into the closed elevator doors with such force the impact left him unconscious and the doors deeply dented.

    Hecate struck the other guard with her left elbow just as he appeared. The man never saw the blow coming and dropped like a stone. The Cryo tank found himself almost immediately alone and began to backpedal into the hall. The Knife assassin reached out and grasped his right arm. With a grunt and snap of her hips, she flipped the heavily armored man over her shoulder. While he was still in flight, WillowWind opened her hand and a blazing beam of hard power lanced out, slamming the man in the chest. The armor crumpled at the point of impact but did not crack and he tumbled into the polished metal wall, slumping to the floor surrounded by the harsh clang of the impact.

    Sister Hecate smiled at the young woman. “Nicely done,” she nodded.

    “We got mad skills, yo,” Willow smirked.

    The assassin shook her head. “I have no idea what that means,” she frowned and Willow giggled in response.

    The two women moved quietly up the polished hall, hugging the wall, trying to make themselves as small as possible. Another group of three Crey soldiers talked in animated earnestness ahead. Beyond them, perhaps 20 yards distant, another ten to fifteen Crey minions waited, consisting of Protectors, Infiltrators and soldiers of every type. Willow turned back to Hecate and nodded. This nearest group would be a bit more problematic. They were relatively in the open, the takedown had to be quick and silent so as not to draw the rest of the enemy.

    The assassin nodded once, her lips set in a fine grim line, and gripped her sword tightly. WillowWind held out her arm, supporting it with her hand and pointed it at one of the Riot Guards ahead. Legs spread and feet planted firmly, she gathered her energy and a blinding flash of power leapt from her palm. The bolt struck the man in the abdomen, knocking him violently into the cold steel wall. His two companions looked with shock at his fallen body then turned, rushing toward the women, drawing their guns.

    Willow felt a hand on her shoulder and saw Sister Hecate flipping over her head. The Knife mercenary extended her body, both feet striking one of the guards in the chest and driving him into the hard floor with a crack. She rolled onto the floor, spinning only to look directly down the barrel of second man’s submachine gun. Her sword was already coming up when a blast of energy engulfed the man, hurling him from his feet and sending him tumbling down the hall. He struck a wall and bounced off, sliding uncontrollably up the slippery floor and almost directly into the center of the fifteen or so waiting Crey personnel. They looked at their unconscious comrade. One by one they turned their eyes down the gleaming hall to the heroine and the assassin.

    Sister Hecate glanced sidelong at WillowWind. “Oh, thank you,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

    “Crap,” WillowWind replied with a disgusted look.

    The shocked Crey soldiers quickly came to their senses, surging down the hall to the women. Hecate’s sword practically sparkled in the fluorescent lighting as it pointed toward the advancing enemy. She was already rushing to meet them, WillowWind close on her heels. “ATTACK!!” she screamed, lips pulled back, teeth gritted and flashing.

    The Knife warrior leapt into the air, somersaulting over the heads of the Crey minions, her bottom sliding over the slick metal ceiling. Willow fired a blast of energy which engulfed the group, dazing them and Hecate landed in their center. Her blade arced out, tracing a figure eight as she spun in a complete circle. Those closest to her screamed as the razor sharp weapon cut through them, dark crimson blood marking its passing.    

    WillowWind stayed outside the ring of Crey troops, knowing she was no melee fighter, playing to her strengths as a ranged weapon. She sent blast after blast of energized power into the wild fray before her, picking off the soldiers one at a time, thinning the odds standing against her companion. She watched as Hecate whirled with deadly abandon among their enemies, her steel steaming red, her eyes hooded, the white froth forming at the corners of her lips. Willow realized the truth of their conversation on the roof: Hecate was a killer, remorseless, relentless and unstoppable. And Willow also realized that with the bond formed over the course of just this one day that Sister Hecate would probably die for her.

    She sent a blast into the head of a Crey Infiltrator trying to attack Hecate from behind. Willow smiled, shaking her head. Hero and Villain. We’re the odd couple, she thought. Suddenly she felt an enormous tug at her left heel and her leg was forcibly pushed back. She lost her balance and struggled to regain her footing. Willow looked down quickly at the chuck of hard rubber missing from her boot and realized a stray bullet had almost cost her the foot. She sighed in relief and looked up directly into the fist of a Crey Infiltrator. She rolled with the blow as it struck her left cheek, spinning around and hitting her attacker with a backfist. The Infiltrator stumbled back a step and the heroine stuck her boot in the man’s chest and kicked him back. As he fell, she unleashed a hard focused blast into him, driving him back into the group around Hecate. He hit hard and the collected minions lost their balance. She watched, rubbing the stinging side of her face, as the Knife assassin sliced and hacked her way through them until none were left.

    Sister Hecate stood among the dead and wounded, breathing heavily and smiling grimly. WillowWind approached her with a limp. “You are alright?” the assassin asked with concern.

    “They shot my shoe!” Willow said with outrage. “And that…dead guy hit me,” she said indignantly.

    Hecate smiled as she glanced at the heroine’s mangled heel. “It could have been worse.”

    “Yes,” Willow nodded, “these boots could have been new.”

    The mercenary stared at the woman for a moment, then sighed and shook her head. “Come on,” she started to round the corner into the next hall. “Lets find your…” Hecate stopped short, Willow almost bumping into her. Ahead of them stood a lone Paragon Protector, his face hidden beneath his blue and gold mask.

    Hovering a few inches above the floor, the Protector turned. He was tall and muscular, exuding menace from hard spines that appeared on his body. His voice bounced from the metal surrounding them, echoing through the hall.  “I been waitin’ for you.”

    The two women spared a look at each other and Hecate stalked down the hall. “Go,” she whispered to WillowWind, “I’ll deal with this.”

    “But…,” Willow started but the Protector interrupted.

    “Yeah, go on,” the voice was hollow and lifeless. “I’ll catch up.”

    Willow looked briefly at Hecate and nodded once. She moved past the Protector, never taking her eyes from him, and made her way down the hall to the chamber at its end.

    Sister Hecate drew herself to her full height and pointed her sword at her enemy. “Ready to die?” she asked with as much feeling as the cold metal surrounding her and launched herself down the hall.

*****

    WillowWind hurried down the empty passageway, her face set darkly. She could hear the sounds of battle behind her: Hecate’s sword clashing against the hard thorny spines of the Protector; the grunt of exertion; the thud of flesh on flesh. She chewed her lip with worry as she approached the locked double doors ahead.

    The circular lock at their center was flat and blank. No mechanism was apparent and she paused, staring at the round plate. Willow reached out, running her hand around and over the disk when it suddenly pinged and the two doors slid back only to reveal another set of locked double doors. She sighed in aggravation as she placed her hand on this next lock. Another ping and the doors opened.

    The heroine stepped back hurriedly as the room revealed itself. It was round and fairly large. At its center a cylinder stretched from floor to ceiling, surrounded by a low retaining wall. At what would be the approximate four corners of the round room rested circular units, crackling with energy also protected by a low ledge. Along the back of the room, energized cabinets hummed and glowed, clicking and whirring as they preformed their calculations.

    The chamber was also filled with a bevy of Crey personnel. Those at the right of the doors turned to look at the heroine, their startled murmurs rippling from one to another until the entire room was staring at the lone woman.

    WillowWind fixed them all with a hard glare and said softly, her voice pregnant with menace, “I’ve come for my daughter. Where is she?” and strode grimly into their midst.

    Still silence greeted her entrance and then the room surged toward her. The heroine never slowed as she extended her arms and white glowing energy erupted from her hands, battering two of the approaching Crey soldiers. A Riot Guard leapt in front of her and she kicked him back, hurling a ball of power in his direction. The further into the chamber she went the more minions surrounded her.

    She was struck hard in the back, a steel baton knocking the wind from her. Willow stumbled and felt her ankle hooked by an Infiltrators foot. She jumped up to avoid falling and as she tried to regain her balance she saw a flash of metal. A serrated knife came down, stabbing into her chest. The hard plastic gold and blue Top Ten shield on her uniform cracked but held fast, stopping the blade from piercing her heart. She lashed out, punching the assailant with a hard right but there were too many. The heroine was kicked from behind, then a roundhouse right struck, splitting her lip. She spat frothy blood and a blow to the back of her head sent her tumbling to the hard metal floor.

    The Crey pounced, circling her, kicking. The assault gathered momentum and intensity as the group attacked the superhero, the glee of beating down one of Paragon City’s protectors adding to their zeal.

    WillowWind covered up as best she could. She heard and felt a ‘pop’ and knew a rib had snapped. She was dazed and nearly unconscious when she heard, or perhaps felt, a tiny voice in her head. “Up, Mama, up!

    The heroine’s eyes snapped open and her voice filled the round room. “ENOUGH!” A huge flash of light and power exploded from WillowWind, hurling her foes away, the concussive blast causing the chamber’s equipment to shake and rattle. She shakily climbed to her feet, the eerie silence punctuated by the moans of the injured. The Crey around her had been knocked senseless, those closest had been crushed, pulverized by the horrible nova of released power and the room was filled now with their mangled bodies.

    She ran the back of her hand across her forehead, smearing it with a crimson stain. WillowWind turned and left the scene on trembling legs mumbling under her breath, “I’m coming, baby. Mama’s coming.”

*****

    Hecate rushed headlong at the Paragon Protector, lips snarling over clenched teeth. She knew she was at the disadvantage, not only because of the spines jutting from the man’s body, but also because of his ability to fly. He would always have the high ground and the Knife assassin would always be on the defensive.

    Unless she took the reckless offensive.

    The Protector fired several spines from his hands and Hecate batted them away with a flick of her sword. Then she was on him, her blade moving up, around, in circles and thrusting forward. Each strike was blocked by bony thorns, their whittled shards regenerating before the pieces hit the floor. Hecate kicked out, sweeping the floating man’s feet away. The Protector spun crazily in the air, but was still able to block the assassin’s weapon.

    He righted himself and landed quickly, not willing to be caught unawares again. Hecate grinned, now on more equal footing with her enemy. She swung her sword at the Protector’s head, spinning as it sailed over his head. She caught him with a roundhouse knee in the ribs. He grunted and lashed out with a right cross. Sister Hecate sidestepped and sent her elbow over his arm aiming for his throat. The Crey villain lowered his head, taking the strike on his masked chin, blocking the blow with his jaw. He pushed Hecate away, the spines on his forearms raking over her shoulders, tearing her stealth suit and leaving scratched skin in their wake.

    The Knife mercenary stepped back, sword held tightly, circling her foe. She watched as he rubbed his chin with the back of his hand. Suddenly two small spines arced toward her. She smiled, recognizing the gambit. One of the sharp shards flew at her head, but it was an inch or two off its mark. The other spine traveled behind, a bit lower. A lesser warrior would, out of reflex, dodge the first spine and move directly in the path of the second. She stared into the featureless mask of the Protector and simply stepped to the outside of the first spike, expressionless as both harmlessly passed.

    The Protector nodded. “You’re good,” he said, the sneer evident in his voice.

    Sister Hecate said nothing, continuing to silently circle her opponent. She leapt toward him, her blade sweeping up from the floor. The man leaned back, the sword missing his flesh but slicing through the hard spines surrounding him. Hecate was in close, unable to avoid the knee that struck her stomach. The hard muscles of her abdomen, honed by hundreds of years of training, contracted and she barely felt the blow.

    She drew back her sword and thrust straight at the Protector’s middle. Hecate saw his bony hand come down and tried to withdraw the weapon but was too late. It smashed into her wrist and her hand opened reflexively, dropping her blade. She watched as it slid away down the corridor, ending far out of reach.

    Thought and action were one as the Knife warrior leaned back, kicking up between them with her left leg. Her foot slammed into the Crey soldier’s chin, her body following as she somersaulted back, drawing her knife in midair. She landed, crouched and ready, teeth flashing as she watched the Protector stumble back a few steps.

    The man rubbed his chin, again trying to work the sting out. “You’re really good,” he said coolly, his vacant masked features staring at the woman.

    Hecate said nothing, remaining crouched and motionless, a deadly coiled spring. Suddenly the spring released, her powerful legs practically launching her at her foe. Her knife thrust in, stabbing and sweeping. She did not wish to be in this close with the spiny Protector but there was no help for it. Her sword was out of reach and her knife was just as deadly.

    She slashed up and then down, slicing through the bony spikes extruding and contracting from the man’s body. The knife assassin sent her elbow into his cheek, following the blow with a head butt, dazing the Crey soldier momentarily. Suddenly she felt a tug at her left thigh and her blade cut through a spike, leaving it in her leg. Hecate sent the knife up, trying to slash at the Protector’s throat. The blade barely grazed his neck and with her arm fully extended, brought the knife down, trying to stab his head, neck, shoulder…anything to incapacitate the enemy. The Protector grabbed her wrist and pulled her arm wide.

    Hecate’s body was exposed and a searing explosion of pain enveloped her. Mouth open, she looked down in time to see the long thorny spine impaling her through the right side and out her back. She dropped her knife and as the Protector withdrew the sharp bone, she dropped to the floor, landing on her rear, propped up on an elbow and clutching the wound with her left hand. Blood flowed through her fingers, dark and thick. With her right, she pulled the bone dagger from her left thigh and gripped the spine shard tightly.

    The Knife warrior lay with her legs bent in front of her, the Protector standing at her feet. Her eyes darted over the corridor searching for any advantage. They fell on her sword but it had come to rest so far away it may as well have been in another country. She saw that her knife had fallen almost directly between the Protector’s legs. Hecate gritted her teeth, squeezing the spine in her right hand and realized the Crey minion had been speaking.

    “…but I was just so much better than you,” he was saying, the gloating sneer dripping from his masked lips. “You know, if ya live I think I might make you my girlfriend,” he leered. “And then, when I get tired of ya, maybe I’ll let the others take a turn or two. I know alla the guys and a few a the girl’sll like a taste,” he nodded then fixed her with his covered gaze. “You’d like that too, wouldn’t ya,…whore.”

    Hecate’s lips curled with anger and she said flatly, “My name is not ‘whore’.” She kicked out her legs, spinning and sweeping them around. The Protector leapt up as the legs passed beneath him. The assassin continued her spin, her bottom sliding smoothly on the polished metal floor and she scooped up her knife with her left hand. She bounded to her feet, the knife firmly in her grasp and turned to the Crey minion. He had landed, crouched and ready for battle.

    The Knife warrior came around with her right hand and the bone shard punctured the Protector’s right temple and went through the brain, an inch of the sharp point protruding from  the other side. The knife in her left had came from overhead, driving to the hilt into the top of his skull and pushing him to his knees.

    Still holding onto the hilt of her blade the Hand of Artemis said with as much feeling as the hard steel of her knife, “I am Sister Hecate. Tell the Boatman I say ‘Hello’.” With a flick of her wrist she snapped off the hilt and kneed the dead Protector in the chest. He fell heavily, thudding onto the cold floor, the surprised look on his face forever covered.

    Hecate threw the hilt down the hall and moved away, clutching her side until her back bounced into the corridor wall. She sat heavily on the hard floor, back resting against the wall, legs stretched in front of her. She sat silently bleeding and then her eyes flew open at the hard rasp of the voice, a voice that sounded like concrete dragging over gravel, a voice she could never forget.

    “I didn’t expect it to be you.”

    Hecate turned to look down the hall and saw a ghost. “You! It…it cant be…I…”

    Tropic smiled crookedly as he approached her. He looked at her wound and frowned, the fire flashing from his eyes..

    Hecate still stared incredulously. “You’re…you are dead!” She squinted an eye at him. “Wait…am I dead?”

    Tropic smiled as he kneeled in front of her. “No,” he said simply.

    “Then how…how is this possible?” Hecate shook her head slowly, staring unblinkingly at the man before her. “I saw them bury you…I…I watched…I…”

    “Ask your Goddess,” the hero said as he pulled her hand from the wound. “Let me see.”

    “Artemis?”

    “Yes,” he nodded as he examined the Knife mercenary. “She came to me and said my daughter needs my help. She sent me back to the Ritual to regain my powers and here I am.”

    “By all the named Gods,” Hecate whispered under her breath.

    “Is Willow with you?” Tropic asked, never looking up from her injury.

    “Yes,” she replied, her head motioning down the corridor. “She’s looking for the baby.”

    “She won’t find her. She’s the other way.”

    The assassin raised an eyebrow. “How…how do you know?”

    “I can feel her, the pull of her,” Tropic shook his head. “Don’t ask me how.” Finally, he looked into her eyes. “This is bad,” he said referring to the deep wound. It had gone straight through her. Liver, spleen, pancreas, intestines…all had been punctured by the long spine of the Protector.

    “It’ll heal,” she smiled. Hecate saw the look of concern flash over his red-skinned face, the flame flowing from his eyes deepened in color and she sighed. “If you think you can come back from the dead and have me die on you, you’re even dumber than you used to be.”

    Tropic’s lips curled into a lopsided grin. “Its never finished between us, is it?”

    “Never.”

    Tropic stared unmoving for a moment more then leaned in, kissing her hard, his lips pressed tightly against hers. Hecate’s eyes flew open in surprise, then closed, hooded, as she returned the kiss. It was a kiss full of promise and passion, need and desire. Even as seriously wounded as she was, she felt the same heated shiver as ever, as though it were a hundred years ago, as though time between them had never passed.

    Tropic pulled away, looking intently at her face and the voice within him whispered A fine mate. The hero nodded and said, “δικός μου καρδιά”


    Hecate’s started in surprise at the ancient language then smiled. “δικός μου καρδιά,” she answered in kind. My heart.

    “I’m going to get my daughter,” Tropic nodded. “Are you going to be alright?”

    The assassin glanced down the hall. “Bring me my sword.”

    The hero retrieved the weapon and handed it to the Hand of Artemis. “Are you going to be alright?” he asked again.

    “Go,” Hecate assured him. “The heroine will be back soon. Go get your child.”

    Tropic nodded and stalked away, his face set with grim purpose.

    Hecate watched him go and as he rounded the corner out of sight, her body slumped, her eyes closed and her sword slipped from her fingers, clattering to the hard metal floor, its mournful echo filling the empty corridor.


TO CHAPTER 7 >



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