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Trick studied the papers strewn over his desk, sorting them as he did so. A name. He'd finally gotten a name out of one of the contacts he'd cultivated so carefully over the past months. P'ternath. Once he'd gotten the name, he'd begun cautiously pulling more information about P'ternath from wherever he could: other contacts, Circle of Thorns he'd arrested, and even the police. He'd been skeptical that the police would have any information, since the Circle was so elusive, but that was actually where his big break had come from. A friend of his whom he'd mentioned the name to happened to overhear some newly arrested Circle minions talking amongst themselves, and one of them said, "P'ternath will get us out. He always does." Sure enough, a lawyer showed up shortly thereafter and got them released. A lawyer with a long record of getting charges dismissed or winning not guilty verdicts for alleged Circle members. A lawyer from Jenkins and Gooden. With a name and a new direction to go in, it didn't take a detective like Trick long to connect the dots and get the information he needed, which was spread out in front of him now. It looked like Michael Gooden, a.k.a. P'ternath, had indeed been a busy little Circle mage, and was using his position as a lawyer to keep their backs covered, as well. He was also quite savvy in the means of hiding illicit activities and ownership; but now that Trick knew what and who to look for, it had been much easier to find the connections to the shipping company and warehouse involved in Solomon's vase heist, among other things.

 

Trick's brow furrowed, looking at just how many companies and activities he'd connected Gooden to. Busy little viper, indeed. The width and breadth of the Circle's involvement was stunning to contemplate; to shut down a web of this size would have to put a sizeable crimp in their criminal operations. Which was exactly what Trick intended to do, of course. Well, not personally. He'd hand the information he'd gathered over to the authorities so they could subpoena records that would seal the deal, so to speak. He didn't have enough for an airtight case, just enough to get the warrants for the airtight case experience told him was right there. But before he did that, and possibly alerted them to the case that was building against them, he would really like to know what they had been doing lately. Clearly they were up to something; the thefts he'd noticed had been too bizarre to be accidental, the items too specific to be chance. He had the feeling that Solomon's vase was still a part of the equation, too. He needed answers, before it was a moot point. He picked up the phone.

 

            "Hello, Trick. What do you have for me?" Solomon's rich tenor voice betrayed no surprise at the call.

            "Thought I'd give you my report over the phone, Marcus. In truth, I was hoping you could help me a bit. I've collected enough data on the Circle and P'ternath to give to the authorities so they can handle the legal side of getting the subpoenas and shutting them down, but...I don't want to do that just yet."

            "Oh?" inquired Marcus, his tone heavy with expectation.

            "They're up to something. I don't want to tip our hand that we're onto them until I'm sure we know what we need to know.  I've got it all mapped out here, and it's pretty clear to me; there is something they've been working on for quite a while that is going to happen sooner rather than later. And I think it involves your vase. From the length of time and the amount of resources they've devoted to this, I'd say that whatever it is is going to be big. Which means I'd rather it didn't happen, and I'm betting, there aren't many as would be happy to see it. I need to know whatever you know about the vase. I know you have it because it has some sort of magical properties, and perhaps you'd rather not share that information. I've respected that priviledge, Mr. Solomon, but we have things hanging in the balance, here. Whatever you know could be the key to unlocking what they are doing, and stopping it in time."

            Marcus sighed. "I wish I could help, Mr. Dacy, I do. We have been testing the vase, with every sort of magic we can get our hands on. I'm not entirely certain it isn't magic, but it's doing nothing definable as magic. In fact, it reacts very oddly to magic. Any magic aimed at it sort of...hmmm...'pings' is all I can think of how to describe it. It's like there's an echo, maybe a residual of past magicks there. Other than that, it remains inert. It has reacted to exactly nothing. Which, it should have had some response from some of the things we've tried, a mundane object would have, which is again what makes me think it is magic, and we just don't know what its key is."

            Trick grimaced. This all sounded highly dangerous to him. He wondered if Solomon had considered that blindly poking at the vase could unleash calamitous forces. He considered this a moment, then realized that Solomon must have an inkling of what sort of response he was looking for; he wasn't stupid. Therefore, there was more information on the vase, perhaps on its history. "Where did you get the vase, Mr. Solomon?"

            There was a hesitation on the other end of the line. Then Marcus said quietly, "The vase was obtained in Guatemala. It's old. We have reason to believe it has magical, protective properties. That's all I can tell you at this time. I seriously doubt that knowing any more would be of any use to anyone."

            Trick sighed and said, "Okay, Mr. Solomon. Thank you." He paused a moment, considering where to go next. "I know you've been trying to unlock the mysteries of the vase for a long time now. Have you considered that perhaps, there are people with more expertise that might have more success?" He held his breath a bit while he waited to see what his audacity had earned him.

            "I actually had considered that, yes," Marcus replied drily. "And I have hired some of the best people to come in and take a look at it. We just haven't had any luck with it. Did you have a suggestion?"

            Trick smiled to himself. He loved reasonable people. "I'd like it if the folks at M.A.G.I. could study it a bit. They're working on some things for me right now. Maybe having all the pieces of the puzzle in one place will help them put it all together." At least, he hoped it would. And he hoped he did have enough of the puzzle pieces collected together.

            It was Solomon's turn to sigh quietly. "If you think it will help, I will do so. But any findings must be confidential, and reported to me immediately."

            "I don't think that will be a problem, Mr. Solomon," Trick reassured the explorer. "I'll give them a call. You want them to pick up the vase?"

            "No. I'm still not convinced that the Circle won't try and take it again. I will move it over to them myself, under high security. Make sure they know it must not fall into the hands of the Circle."

            "Not to worry. They have magical protections the Circle has never breached. It will be safe there."

 

The detective hung up. He studied the papers before him on the desk, his fingers drumming out his annoyance. The answers were in front of him, he was sure. If only he could recognize them....

 

Pushing aside his frustration at the unsolved puzzle, he picked up the phone and dialed M.A.G.I.. He hoped they were having some luck with the list of unusual stolen items he'd given them.

            "Azuria, please. This is Trick Dacy calling."

            "One moment."

            "Azuria here. How may I help you, Mr. Dacy?"

            "Hey, Doll, was wondering if your people had had any luck with identifying the items on the list I sent over?"

            There was a moment of silence on the other end. "I thought we agreed it was better if you didn't call me that," said Azuria mildly.

            Trick winced. Oh, for the days when all women thought that was a compliment! "Uh, right. Sorry." He cleared his throat. "So... about the list."

            "Yes. Well, we've had some success, but we're not sure if there's truly a pattern here. We've identified probably three quarters of the list, but they aren't ingredients to any particular spell that we can identify. Some are, as you might imagine, used in spells of destruction. Some are focusing devices. The others are varied, and seemingly unrelated."

            "So, what is your verdict? Is the Circle planning something?"

            Azuria's voice smiled. "No doubt, Mr. Dacy. They usually are. We have been scrying the mage whose name you gave us, though. We haven't seen any unusual activities. It could be they are up to something, and we haven't figured it out yet. Or it could be something more mundane, like profitting from selling magical items on the black market. Just let us know when you want to arrest P'ternath. We'll tell you where he is."

            "Count on it. I will be arresting him," Trick stated emphatically. "I just have to be sure the case is completely wriggle proof, if you know what I mean."

            "I do indeed. And I'm happy to wait if it means he'll have no escape."

            "Oh, one more thing. Marcus Solomon has agreed to let your people have a look at his vase, to see if you can determine what its magical properties are. I'd sure like to know why the Circle wanted it."

            "That is wonderful news! I confess, I've been somewhat apprehensive about that particular item," Azuria confessed. "I'll feel much better knowing it is safely within M.A.G.I. where the Circle can not reach it. I've been worried that Solomon, for all his technical expertise, couldn't withstand a full magical assault from the Thorns. And, I too would like to know what it is that vase does. Did he tell you any more about it?"

            "Firstly, I must get assurances that any findings on the vase will be confidential and reported to him immediately."
            "Absolutely. No question about that."

            "I thought as much. Well, all he could tell me about the vase was that all the tests they'd done had yielded exactly nothing, that the vase seems inert, even more than a mundane object. He also said they had reason to believe it had protective properties, and that it was old and from Guatemala."

            "Hmmm. Could be that is how the Circle learned he had it, then," Azuria mused.

            "What do you mean?"

            "The Circle is very old. It has tried to manipulate and gain power through evil magicks throughout the course of many civilizations. In fact, we suspect it was the cause of several "unexplained" ends of entire peoples. We believe it first appeared in the rather advanced cultures in South and Central America. You can see the influence of those cultures in the architecture of their holdings, even today. Could be that they have connections in the region where Solomon got the vase, and know exactly what it does and where it was going to be."

            Trick felt a chill. This business of the Circle perhaps being involved in the end of a whole civilization was frightening to contemplate. He wanted to finish solving the puzzle and make sure they could do no harm, and quickly! "Be ready to receive the vase. Solomon said he would move it himself, under high security."

            "Good. We'll let you know as soon as we have any findings."

 

Trick stared at the phone for some time after he hung up, his hands steepled, lost in thought.

 

 

 

* * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 

The pretty brunette studied the girl in the mirror carefully. She'd been impatiently waiting for this moment for weeks, waiting until she'd developed enough skill to be able to join Trick and his friends, so she wouldn't make a total fool of herself. However, there was no point in rushing, now! She wanted to make sure she looked just right for this. Although her skill level was still no where near theirs, she felt she'd developed enough muscle and learned enough attacks to be of help. At least her muscles weren't so sore anymore! That had been really frustrating. To know how to move the sword, but be unable to do it correctly because her muscles lacked the coordination and strength...argh. And she HATED it when she missed!

 

Dacy turned from side to side as she inspected herself. She wondered what Trick would think! It had been so hard to keep this a secret from him, but she'd wanted to surprise him. She was a bit nervous about it, though. She'd obviously paired herself with him, and didn't know if he'd necessarily like that or not. She'd chosen an outfit in bright yellow, to match his suit, with a matching hat. She'd decided to stay away from a feminine version of his suit, though. She couldn't imagine wielding a sword in a suit! Besides, if she'd ever hoped to catch Trick's eye....well, a suit just wasn't going to do it. She examined her outfit critically yet again. Well, if this short little skirt and cleavage baring top didn't make him at least look, she wasn't sure what would! She didn't usually dress this way, and felt a bit on the overexposed side, but she had to admit, she looked good. All that sword work had had a wonderful effect on her already nice figure.

 

A noise in the hallway alerted her that Trick was coming into the office She waited for him to enter, then took a deep breath and left the ladies' room that sat across the hall from the office. It was time to see what his reaction was going to be. She stopped at the office door, hand on handle. She closed her eyes for a moment, then, summoning her nerve, she opened the door.

 

He was at the desk, his back to her, looking over some reports. Absorbed, he didn't turn around.

            "Dacy? That you?"
            "Yeah, Boss," she replied, and stepped into the room.

            "Good. Did you finish the reports I gave you?"

            "Sure. Can you see? They're all right there." She was surprised how steady she sounded. Why didn't he turn around?

            "Mmmm. Yes, I was just double checking.....What about my contacts? Anyone have anything more that needs attention? I was planning on heading out tonight."

            "Everything should be there. Contact mission requests are in the out box." Her nerves felt stretched tight.

            "Ok. I see them. Thank you. It's always nice to have things ready to go when I meet with--What the...?" Trick had turned around and was staring at her, his eyebrows attaining new heights on his forehead. "Got a costume party to go to you didn't tell me about?" The corners of his mouth were fighting a losing battle with a smile. He tried putting his hand to his chin and pulling at them, in a "thoughtful" pose, but his efforts failed to smother the grin, and did nothing to hide the amusement in his eyes. Dacy was far from amused. This was not the reaction she had hoped for! Well, possibly, he didn't realize what her outfit meant, she rationalized. She quashed her irritation with some effort.

            "Do you like it? I wanted to surprise you." She watched him carefully for his reaction.

            "Well, the outfit, it's, um," Trick's mouth struggled, then lost to the mirth he'd been suppressing, "very nice. Not your typical outfit, though. I like the color!" he chuckled. "I'm not sure why the change, but, I think I can live with it. The hat's a nice touch. Can I look forward to seeing this every day, or was this just for fun? Heh, I should have thought of this a while ago. It's distinctive. Sorta like advertising my agency. Clients will know they're working with Trick Dacy when the get a load of you!"

            "I did want it to look a bit like your outfit, yes," Dacy smiled. "I want people to know we are a team. We work together, we're a team, right?"

            "Of course! We're a team. You do a lot around here, Doll. I appreciate it," he said, still chuckling occasionally.

            "I'd like to do more. And not just around here," she said meaningfully.

            The amusement faded slowly. "What do you mean?" the detective asked, somewhat suspiciously.

            Dacy took a deep breath. "I want to join you. In the field. I want to help you fight crime!"

 

            Trick regarded her seriously, all laughter now gone from his face. "That's just not possible. What I do...it's dangerous. I've landed in the hospital numerous times! There are places civilians aren't even allowed to go. It's no place for a dame like you! You could get hurt, Dacy. Even killed! What you do here is very valuable to me. Truly. I need that. I need you here."

            "I know you think I wouldn't be able to do it, but I can! The mages at M.A.G.I. helped me. I'm what they call a scrapper, now. That's a fighter. So I can help you in the field!"

            "What?!"  the detective exclaimed, clearly taken aback. He blinked. He blinked some more. "Care to explain that a bit more?"

            "You go places I can't. You meet people I don't. I want to do more! I want to fight with you, Trick! I want to do what you do. So, I went to M.A.G.I., to see if they could help me, because I knew I needed to have more abilities than I had, to work with the heroes like you do. And, they helped me!  I went through this magical rite, and now I'm a sword fighter!" She stopped, breathless for a moment. "All I want is to come with you, and fight with you. You said we were partners..." she trailed off, her eyes pleading for agreement from him.

 

Trick leaned back heavily against the desktop, clearly at a loss for a moment. "Well." He crossed his arms, and considered the carpet, his eyebrows raised. "Well," he repeated, but he was clearly no closer to finishing the sentence. The papers on the desk seemed to catch his eye. He glanced at them, then looked at her. "I really do need help with the paperwork around here! If you are in the field with me, who will be doing the paperwork? I really can't see it working. I hired a Girl Friday, not a field partner. And, you're not experienced enough. You couldn't be. These guys are tough! It's no place for a dame," he said, with ever growing conviction.

            "Is that what you tell Starchilde and Fire Onyx?" Dacy asked pointedly.

            Trick shifted uncomfortably. "Look, they have a lot more experience than you. It's different, for them. They were both mutants, and have lived with their powers for a long time. And their powers are impressive! I just think it would be dangerous for you, and I can't baby-sit! When the going gets tough, you'll get hurt! Besides, there's that paperwork I was talking about..." he gestured somewhat weakly in the direction of the reports she'd finished.

            "Oh, you mean the paperwork I've been getting finished all while I've been out there, gaining experience so I could join you in the field? That paperwork?" Dacy said with dangerous sweetness, her arms crossed, and her eyes fixed on Trick intently. "Two points I want to make about that. One, I get that done rather quickly. And, two, I am not asking you to pay me to be in the field. This is my choice, and I can do it on my own time. But. I want to be out there with you whenever possible, and, I'd like some flexibility in my hours, as long as I finish my work. Which I promise, I will do." Her chin had a stubborn set to it as she gazed at Trick with unblinking determination. "I am not asking for a baby-sitter. I think I am ready. If I get hurt, I get hurt. That falls on me, because this is my decision. But, I would like to point out, I have been magicked to enhance my ability to heal, and that must have toughened me up, too, because, I already have had enough experience to know that I don't get overwhelmed quickly or easily. Unlike some detectives I could mention."

 

The aforementioned detective took off his hat and ran a hand through his short but thick dark hair while he thought. Hat cradled in his hands, he fixed Dacy with a look of amused exasperation. "Looks like somebody's already thought of all the objections I'd have," he noted. "You really want this?" It was really more of a statement than a question.

            Dacy nodded with certainty. "I already proved that in my magical conversion. Trust me."

            Trick replaced his hat, decisively. "Well then. I guess I'll have to, at that." His beautiful blue eyes locked with her brown ones as a smile of anticipation crept over his face. She felt her knees go weak as every supressed yearning rushed her at once. Oh, if he only knew what it did to her when he looked at her like that! "Guess we'd better go meet up with the others. They're in for a bit of a surprise," he chuckled.

 

Dacy grinned triumphantly and bounced a little in exuberance. She could barely contain her glee and excitement. Yes! She was finally going to go with him! Trick paused for a moment, his hand on the door.

            "What's your name? How do you want to be introduced to them?" he asked.

            Dacy grinned mischieviously. Every hero had to register their name with the city. Many chose heroic sounding names, or names that reflected their powers. Some picked names that revealed their origins, and some even just used their given names, not feeling a need to hide their real identity. Dacy's choice seemed obvious, given the circumstances, but she knew it had raised a few eyebrows. "Officially? I registered as Dacy's Trick."

            Trick burst out laughing. Dacy grinned, enjoying her little joke. "Oh, that's rich. Seriously?" he asked.

            Dacy nodded. "But, they can just call me Dacy," she smiled.

 

The still fairly inexperienced young heroine scarcely paid attention to anything around her on the way to meet the others in Independence Port. So far, so good. Trick was letting her come, and hadn't seemed upset that she'd patterned her outfit after his. He'd actually seemed to rather like that. That was definitely good. Now she was focused on the meeting about to take place. Trick had gotten to be rather good friends with Starchilde and Fire Onyx, and rarely worked with any other heroes these days. He liked their style, he said. If she was going to be able to keep working together with Trick, and she was quite determined she would, it was imperative that these women accept her. Her fingers twisted nervously, and she readjusted her hat and smoothed her skirt several times, quite unnecessarily. Her eyes looked out at nothing as the world past the tram windows flashed by. She hoped they liked her. She knew that they were both pretty choosy about who they worked with, and part of her was scared that she wouldn't be good enough, experienced enough, or they'd just plain decide they didn't like having her around. Of course, she hoped she'd like them, too. It would be annoying to be working with someone you didn't like much. But, if it kept her close to Trick, she'd put up with just about anyone. You don't always get to work with people you like, she reminded herself. She took a deep breath and exhaled in a sigh. The tram was slowing down. They were pulling into the Independence station.

 

            Trick had out his cell phone. "Right. See you there," he was saying, as they got off the tram. He shut the phone with a click, and turned to Dacy. "They already have a mission they are going to work on. I can fly over there, do you have any way to travel that's as fast?" Dacy shook her head. "Okay, I'll go on ahead, and port you in once I get to the place we're meeting. I sure am glad I let Solomon add that teleport device to my arsenal." He glanced at her once before taking to the air, as if to reassure himself that she'd be fine. Soon he was only a distant speck in the sky. Dacy waited quietly, her nervousness and excitement building. She hoped she'd been right, and was truly ready to come along! It would be horrible to make a fool of herself. What if they felt like they had to baby-sit her? Alone with her doubts worrying at her, time seemed to stretch out into infinity.

 

Suddenly, she heard a noise all around her. There was an instant of blind weightlessness, and when it lifted, her surroundings had completely changed. She was able to orient to the quick shift just in time to catch her balance smoothly as her feet hit the ground. Whew. No one had warned her she might make a fool of herself just getting here! She looked around. There were several heroes around. Dacy had no trouble picking out Starchilde and Fire Onyx, from the descriptions she'd heard from Trick. That could only be Fire Onyx, lounging with an air of casual competence against the building, her absolutely black skin gleaming in the sun. That contrasted nicely with her fiery red leather outfit, complete with high topped red boots, and capped off with her own flame colored hair. She noted Dacy's arrival with a relaxed nod. And, Starchilde, already moving with strong, graceful strides on her way over to them, was unmistakable. She was also dressed in red, with the same type of thigh-high boots as Fire Onyx, only she wore a slinky short dress that showed off her rather impressive curves. She had a glorious mane of red hair that cascaded down past her waist. Dacy's heart sank a bit. She had been harboring a hope that when Trick said he was working with women, they wouldn't be so annoyingly beautiful.

            "Whom do we have here, Trick?" Star asked, her full lips curved in a smile.

            "Starchilde, Fire Onyx," Fire stopped leaning against the building to make her way over to them as Trick spoke, "I'd like you to meet my assistant. She's just recently come into her powers, and would like to join us." He indicated Dacy with his hands, and said, "She's a scrapper, and her name is Dacy's Trick."

            There was a split second of silent comprehension, and then the two other women broke out in uproarious laughter. "Oh, you're kidding!" Star exclaimed, as the mirth died down to chuckles.

            "Hey, it was her idea!" Trick laughed. "Honest!"

            Star smiled warmly at Dacy. "How marvelous! It is wonderful to meet you, my dear! I love the outfit."

            "Thank you! Yours is great, too!" the brown haired young woman replied with a smile.

            "Hey, nice to meet you, Dacy's Trick!" Fire Onyx said with a grin. Now that she was up close, Dacy could see that she wore an eyepatch over one eye. It had been hard to see at a distance.

            "Oh!" Dacy exclaimed, as her hand involuntarily flew to her own eye. She tried to turn it into a planned hair smoothing, but the hat foiled her attempt, and Fire hadn't missed the gesture.

            "Souvenir from my days spent as a mercenary," she explained, pointing to the patch. She switched the topic back. "So, what are we going to call you? This could get confusing!"

            "Please, call me Dacy. I know, everyone calls him Trick...seems like, if we keep it to just Trick or Dacy, that will avoid confusion." the new heroine smiled.

            "All right, Dacy it is," Starchilde confirmed. "I think this is fantastic! Just look at the two of you. What a wonderful team you make," she beamed. Dacy grinned happily.  Hearing herself paired with Trick that way, well; there just wasn't much that would make her happier than that. And she already felt so welcome! "I'm glad you brought her, Trick! She'll be a wonderful addition to our group." Star sounded so confident! Dacy hoped that confidence would prove well founded.

            "Why don't we head on into the warehouse, here, and let her introduce herself to a few members of the Family? I'll bet they'll be anxious to meet her, too!" Fire joked, referring to their mission to take out some high ranking Family members, an organized crime gang that had its hand in almost everything that came through Independence Port.

            Starchilde smiled a sharp, predatory smile. "I think that is the least we can do."

            Trick chuckled. "They'd better hope they never see the most we can do." This was met with general grins of agreement, as the heroes headed into the warehouse. Dacy swallowed nervously. Time to prove she belonged here.

 

Fire Onyx's laid back manner disappeared the moment they were inside, and she transformed into the military leader she was, giving crisp, clear direction to their manuevers, and leading the way into each group of Family they came upon. Dacy realized with a start that it hadn't been the sun gleaming that she'd seen before, that Fire Onyx herself gave off a soft glow. Dacy shook her head, amazed. The heroes she'd worked with thus far hadn't been nearly as high of a security level, and hadn't nearly the powers at their command as this group did. But, it was only the first of many fantastic things she would be seeing in her new world of heroes, she was sure. She was a bit overwhelmed with everything that was going on in each battle. Fire and Star seemed unafraid of anything. Fire would wade into the middle of the mob of thugs, fire crackling around her and pouring from her hands in a flaming fury. She was heedless of their tommyguns or the fists that rained on her. They seemed to bounce right off her tough skin, which drove the mobsters so insanely angry, they scarcely seemed to notice that Starchilde was knocking them left and right with blasts of pure energy, and sending them flying with powerful punches from fists that actually glowed, so focused were they in their frenzy to take Fire Onyx out. Trick was in the back of the group, Dacy was glad to see, and he was busy, too. He could lift almost the entire group off the ground, with just a gesture of his hands. They'd hang there, motionless, allowing the busy heroes a chance to arrest the ones that hadn't been suspended in the air. He also healed team members when they needed it. Dacy needed it a lot, it seemed to her. She gamely dove in to each melee, swinging her sword, chasing down any that even looked at Trick cross eyed, but she wasn't as immune to their fists and bullets as Fire seemed to be, and she was sure she wasn't packing the wallop that Starchilde was. She frequently found herself out of breath at the end of each fight, standing with her hands on her knees for support while she got her wind back. And the number of times she was missing was slowly driving her crazy. Still, it wasn't going to stop her from trying!

 

By the end of the evening, Dacy was exhausted, but exhilarated. She'd managed to account for herself pretty well, she thought. Being out there with Trick was everything she'd hoped and dreamed it was. The others seemed to like her pretty well, too, and she certainly liked them, and felt welcomed.

 

Well, okay, she admitted to herself. It hadn't been everything she'd dreamed. The outfit hadn't triggered anything like the reaction she'd been hoping for from him. Still, she was here, at least. She would keep hoping that her nearness would encourage the feelings she longed to see in him.

 

            "So, are we done for the night?" Starchilde asked, her rich melodic voice breaking the companionable silence that had settled over the group. They were back at the tram station, having worked hard to finish up several missions their various contacts had asked them to do, and they all seemed to have developed a certain lassitude that comes with the natural end of an activity. Dacy rubbed her tired arm muscles covertly. Oh, she was going to be feeling this tomorrow....

            "I think it we've done enough good for one night," Trick offered a smile that seemed only a little less tired than Dacy's.

            Fire grinned. "Kewl. Tomorrow, we can tackle some of the tougher missions." Dacy bit back a groan. Please let her be kidding...

 

 

 

* * * * * * * * * *

"No, I'm afraid we've had no luck, either," Azuria said disspiritedly.

 

Trick ran his fingers through his hair, trying to think what to do next. The pieces just weren't fitting like he'd hoped they would. He'd hoped he'd have had an airtight case against P'ternath by now. But Solomon's vase stubbornly refused to yield its secrets, and the other items he'd brought to the attention of the M.A.G.I. researchers were only so much disparate junk without some unifying factor.

            "Am I crazy, here? Do you think they're plotting something big? Or am I grasping at straws?" Trick's voice also sounded tired, even to his own ears. He'd been working on this case for so long; it was so frustrating to be close and yet, so far from where he needed to be. His gut told him there was something here.

            "They could well be planning something, but if they are, it is something out of our experience. We haven't been able to recognize what it is from the information we've gotten so far," Azuria said slowly. She, too, sounded frustrated.

            A thought occurred to Trick. "Would knowing more about the vase's history possibly be helpful?" he asked hesitantly.

            "It might. Magical objects are usually created for a specific purpose. This one obviously was. If we knew more about where it came from, we might be able to extrapolate its purpose."

            "I will see what I can do to get you that information, Azuria," Trick promised.

 

Without missing a beat, the detective hung up and dialed Solomon. Time to hear everything.

            "Hello, Mr. Dacy. What have they discovered about my vase?" Solomon, as usual, sounded calm and confident.

            "Hello, Mr. Solomon. Well, I'm afraid, not much. Nothing, really, that you hadn't learned already. But here's the thing: Azuria thinks that if they knew more about where the vase came from, they might be able to figure out its reason for being. That's why I'm calling. I really need to hear the whole story. My instincts tell me that something big is on the line. If this can help, if it has any chance to help, I think you should tell what you know. Please."

            There was a hesitation on the other end of the line. Then Marcus said quietly, "This has to stay confidential."

            "I'm respectful of that, Mr. Solomon, you know me," Trick replied reassuringly. "But confidential has to include Azuria. They have to know, so they can figure it out."

            "Yes, I know," Marcus responded. He sighed. "Well. As you know, I am something of an explorer and adventurer."

            Trick nodded, then realized he was on the phone, and said encouragingly, "Yes..."

            "I was leading an expedition in the rainforests of Guatemala. The area is well known as the heart of the Mayan empire, although, due to the heavy rainforest, there are still parts not well explored. The Mayans were one of only two cultures to ever build urban centers in a rainforest. It's a fascinating culture, one I've been interested in for years. Although many of the ruins have been disintegrated by the encroaching jungle, the area is still dotted with them, some in better shape than others. Our team came upon an area of nearly undetectable ruins, they were so eaten away by the vegetation. If we hadn't had state of the art equiment which was able to locate the underground portions of the ruins, we might have missed it. It isn't on the lists of any known Mayan site, Trick." Solomon's excitement was evident now. "We'd discovered some ruins no one else had known existed for hundreds of years!"

            "Wow, that's really something," the detective said.

            "So, naturally, we started poking around, to see if there was anything we could discover. Thanks to our equipment, we could see that there was at least one intact underground chamber. We were able to get into this chamber, and inside of it, was the vase."

            "That was all? The vase?" Trick asked sharply. He didn't like the direction this seemed headed in at all.

            "Yes! Clearly it was an item of great importance. The walls held writing which described how important it was," Marcus continued on with growing excitement. "What was even more amazing was the condition of the chamber itself. You heard how the ruins in the area had disintegrated, but this room...it was in perfect condition. That was the first indication that we were dealing with a magical object. I'd never gotten the chance to discover anything remotely like this before! I had to bring it back and see what I could discover about it. Imagine, the chance to present the world with something never before seen, or even imagined! But first, we had to discover what all it had been used for. In that, I've been less than successful," the explorer added, sounding a bit more subdued on this last note.

            Trick was getting a bad feeling about this vase. "What did the writing say?"

            "Oh, most of it was fairly typical about their beliefs. They believed they had to keep their gods satisfied for their gods to have the energy to take care of them, you know. Mostly that involved bloodletting and food sacrifices, but occasionally they'd have to rip some poor victim's beating heart out. The description of this vase said it was the "Mouth of the Gods" and that using it got rid of the need for those other things. At least, it said that it was the way to keep the gods satisfied for a long time, and would keep and protect the people and aid them, so they became strong and so forth. The translators said that some of the symbols and writings weren't entirely clear at times, so, I admit, we're not entirely sure. However, it said that the people in the "Hands of the Gods" would always be safe from the gods' hunger. Obviously, it has some protective properties, or it could not have kept the room so well for so long. So, we'd been exploring the idea that it is some sort of protective power, given the right key."

            Trick felt a chill. "But couldn't this "key" be human sacrifice? That's a scary culture to be messing with a magical artifact from!"

            "Well, the thought did occur," Marcus said wryly. "But, we'd tried blood, with no effect. And it didn't do a thing when Mac died next to it. All the writing points to it being the path to some sort of resource that would protect and empower the Mayans, but it was power they couldn't normally access. It specifically said that the sacrifices and blood that they usually used to appease the gods would not work. It's something else. We just haven't had luck finding out what, yet."

            Trick remained unconvinced of the vase's benevolence, but decided not to argue the point. He had no evidence, only a hunch. But something else was bothering him. "Why the secrecy? Why didn't you just tell me where you got the vase?"

            Solomon paused a bit before he responded, "I guess part of my love for exploring is the thrill of discovery. And it always seems like there are fewer and fewer things left to find first. When I found this...well. You do understand, the Guatemalan government didn't exactly sanction the vase's removal? Not to put too fine a point on it, but they don't actually know we discovered the site at all? I will of course be working through all the correct legal channels!" Marcus hastened to add, "Eventually. But I would much prefer to have all the information and understanding of the importance of the find established before I do so." He added somewhat apologetically, "You know, they'll want to cordon it off and give the excavation and research responsibilities to an archaelogist, and I'll never get a chance to discover anything about it."

            Trick's lips quirked in an understanding smile. He could sympathize; he'd feel much the same way about turning over this investigation  to someone else before it was complete. "I'll see if they won't tell you whatever they find out first, Mr. Solomon. I'm sure they'll keep things confidential. And thank you...what you told me could make the difference."

            "I hope so, I know it could be important," Marcus sounded relieved.

            "Ok, I'll get in touch with them and let you know," Trick said.

 

By this point, the detective had the number for M.A.G.I. memorized, so he wasted no time dialing them back up. Azuria herself answered. Trick quickly relayed the information Marcus had given him.

            "Hmm. I'm not sure I buy the idea that the vase is protective in nature," she said with concern.

            "I don't either. Of course, I have nothing with which to back up that belief. Other than the fact that the Circle wants it, and whatever they want is not something I want to see happen."

            "I have an inkling of what it could be, I think. More research is required. If I'm right...well, let's just say I'm glad that we have it here. I'd hate to see it fall back into the hands of the Thorns."

 

 

 

* * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 

In the weeks that had followed her introduction to the others on their little team, Dacy had worked hard to train herself to ever higher levels of competence. She still wasn't as experienced as the rest of the group, but her strength, endurance, speed, and accuracy were improving all the time, and she'd been able to develop a resistance to being knocked this way and that, or held by the villains who could usually hold or stun a hero. She took pride in her emerging role on the team. At first, she'd felt quite like she wasn't pulling her weight, and that special care had to be taken of her, by other members of the team. Gradually, she noticed that she was no longer out of breath after a battle, and she began to feel quite confident in her abilities as her sword strokes took on a real power, and she noticed that she could stand up to more physical punishment than either Trick or Star, after all. She'd wondered for a while, there, if she'd ever get to that point. She could, at last, go toe to toe with a tough villain who was threatening Trick, and be confident of her ability to take him out before he harmed her favorite detective. In short, she was beginning to match in reality what she'd imagined she wanted to become, and she was loving it. She'd found that the heroic life, and helping others, was something she quite liked, too.

 

Tonight, they were going to tackle some of the group known as the Lost, who had apparently taken over a laboratory. The Lost were, as far as Dacy could tell, a bunch of angry, purposefully mutated malcontents who liked to recruit weak minded scum. They were powerfully built: heavily muscled but with disproportionately small heads and very blunt and ugly features. She'd be happy to see the group as a whole disappear, especially the ones in command, who possessed mental powers. She wasn't too vulnerable to psionics, now that she'd developed her resistance to them, but they still hurt, and what was worse, Trick had no resistance to them. She'd have to watch carefully tonight, to make sure they didn't hold him helpless and start beating up on him. Sometimes some of them snuck around behind the front lines and did that. She was resolved to be proactive and get them before they got Trick.

 

            "Hello, Dollface!" Trick greeted Starchilde, who had just arrived at the tram station. Dacy ground her teeth just a little bit. That had been so cute, when he'd said stuff like that to her, but unsurprisingly, she wasn't nearly as fond of hearing him say that to someone else, especially to someone as beautiful and charismatic as the mysterious Starchilde.

            "Hi, Handsome! Are we ready to go?" Star called out..

            Trick grinned and teased, "I know I am! I'm ready for whatever action I can get!" He bounced his eyebrows. Star and Fire chuckled.

            "Oh, good, then you're ready to get Lost," Dacy observed mildly. Oh, sometimes she thought he enjoyed being the only male on an otherwise female team just a little too much!

            Everyone laughed. Fire grinned and said, "Don't worry, Dacy. I'll keep my eye on him and make sure he gets Lost." Dacy grinned back at her friend. She couldn't ask for better friends, she reflected. Star was gorgeous, and she had the easy confidence of a woman who knows she can get a man to do whatever she wants him to, but she was also warm and very easy to like, and had made Dacy feel quite included in the team. Trick liked to flirt a bit with Star, which might have made Dacy feel threatened, except Star never seemed to take it too seriously, and was ready with a comeback if it ever looked like Trick might like to take things more seriously. It was actually rather fun to see what she would come up with in response to what he said. Dacy just wished he'd notice her the same way! Both Star and Fire knew how she felt about Trick, and had made it clear they were rooting for her; they even sometimes dropped hints about how she felt to Trick. Now if only she could get the tall detective to pick up on the hints and flirt a bit with her...

            "I think we can arrange to all get Lost together," Starchilde said with a wink. "So, let's get to it!"

 

The laboratory most certainly had been taken over by the Lost. It was overflowing with them. The team of heroes moved from cluster to cluster of Lost villains, taking them out so they could be whisked off to detention cells by the prisonport system. They fell into a comfortable pattern as they did this: Fire Onyx would lead the charge, usually taunting them and throwing fire around, to make sure they were focused on her, while Dacy and Star would take advantage of the distraction she provided, and start taking them out. Usually, about then, Trick would capture many of them with his gravity field, and they would have to hang there, unable to do any damage to the heroes at all.  The gravity field, however, required a lot of concentration and energy to power it, and Trick couldn't generate it just any old time; he had to choose the time when it was most needed, and he was only able to hold them all up like that for a short while. Usually, though, it was long enough to keep the mob from wreaking too much damage on their team, and Trick could also throw out an individual gravity detention field, which was much easier for him to do, on any one thug that was especially nasty. This was especially helpful for helping the team deal with the psionics of the Lost leaders. Although Fire's skin was quite tough, and she rarely even seemed to notice most physical attacks, psychic attacks could and did hurt her quite a bit, and they could render Star and Trick completely helpless. Unfortunately, holding the leaders took a great deal of effort and concentration, and Trick was limited as to how many he could manage at once.

 

Still, the mission was going smoothly! Keeping the dangers that the Lost's abilities posed to the team in mind, Fire Onyx had led them quite steadily through one successful battle after another. Dacy was feeling especially confident in her abilities, as she could face down the leaders without blinking. They were almost done. This was the last level of the lab.

 

The team moved into position behind Fire. Dacy sucked in her breath in alarm. Ahead was a junction of several lab areas, and it was swarming with Lost. This was going to be a tough fight, she knew.

            Fire glanced back at her. Dacy had the feeling she'd heard her sharp intake of breath. "Stay tight and focused around me," the ebony hero cautioned. "We'll keep a tight defensive posture and just move from this side through to the other."

            Starchilde nodded briskly. "Laying them out as we go," she grinned. "This looks like my kind of fight!"

            Trick's brow furrowed in mock puzzlement. "When isn't it your kind of fight, Star?"

            Star's white teeth flashed in amusement. "When it's not happening now, that's when! Let's get them!"

            "All right! Let's do this," Fire said decisively. They moved in, and began their attack.

 

Dacy's blood sang in her ears as she moved fluidly from one foe to the next, taking down one after another. This wasn't so hard! She felt a flush of exhilaration. Never had she felt so strong! Her sword moved through the air almost effortlessly, gliding from one position to the next. The initial group had seemed so big, but Trick had thrown his gravity distortion field and hung them all up like so many pinatas for her to swing at, and they'd gone down quickly, caught between her sword and Star's energy blasts and Fire's crackling heat. Still, there were a lot of them nearby. Dacy reminded herself not to lose concentration. These were dangerous foes. She checked around her, to make sure Trick and the others were okay. The team was busy working on a group of Lost that were clustered around them, but, across the room, Dacy noticed that there were several leaders launching psychic attacks at Fire from a distance, where they could hit her, but she couldn't reach them. Locked in combat with the mob around her, she could do nothing for the moment, except take the damage. But Dacy could get them.

 

Confident of her abilities to take these mutated misfits down, Dacy broke away from the group the team was working on for the moment, and launched an attack on the small group of leaders who were targetting Fire.

            "Dacy! Where are you going! Stay close to the rest of us!" Trick called frantically, starting forward towards her as if to head her off.

            "I can take these guys!" Dacy called back, over her shoulder.

 

Too late, she saw another group of Lost down the hallway. Belatedly realizing that they could also see her, and would probably come running, Dacy broke off her attack.

 

They could, and they did.

 

            "Incoming! We got uninvited guests to our party!" Trick cried in warning. Fire and Star spun around, as a horde of Lost poured into the room. Dacy met the leaders head on, sword whistling as it sliced through the air.  However, she was unable to stem the tide, and the bulk of them flowed past her. Now Lost were all around her, and she suddenly realized, she was cut off from the others. She shifted directions, hacking and slicing, blocking and parrying, working her way back towards the others. She could see Fire and Star, who had leapt into the center of the fray and now were back to back, furiously laying into the Lost that surrounded them; they were easy to spot, because of Fire's glow and the snapping flames that shot from her hands as she attacked, and the brilliant energy that surged from Star's fingertips, but where was Trick? He was normally hard to miss, being head to toe bright yellow, and quite tall, but the Lost leaders were also hugely tall, and Dacy was having a hard time seeing through the masses of them that were around her as she fought. She fought even harder, her growing alarm speeding her sword work. Trick wasn't with Fire and Star, and he wasn't with her! Frantically, she cut her way through the mob towards where she had last seen him. She noticed that some of the Lost in that area were hanging motionless in the air. Good! He was there, then, somewhere, apparently. She had to get to him! A moment, a shift in the ebb and flow of the Lost around her suddenly opened up a line of vision, and she spotted him. He was clutching his head, his eyes rolled back in a familiar stance...the pose of one held and stunned with psychic energies.

            "NO!" Dacy screamed, as the closest of the monstrous mutants sliced down with his wickedly sharp two-handed scimitar. She was too far away to block it. Trick crumpled in a heap. Too late. She was too late!

 

In a haze of fury, the once mild office assistant went to work with a vengeance. She didn't even feel the numerous cuts and injuries she was getting, or realize how perilously close she herself was to passing out. When she had vented her wrath on the mobs that had been surrounding Trick, she turned and realized that Fire and Star were under heavy fire, too, and Star looked dangerously close to collapse, herself. And there was no healer, now, with Trick down. She could feel the magic helping her, healing her, as she willed herself back into action to help her teammates. They had to end this, now! Trick could be dying, or already dead...no! She wouldn't think of that. He had to be all right! Her body was getting harder and harder to move, the sword heavier and heavier, as her injuries and the long fight took their toll. Desperately, she fought on, grimly determined that no one else would go down because of her. The only way to help Trick now was to finish this fight, so they could tend to him. Why hadn't he been whisked away by the medivac system?

 

As the last of the Lost fell, an eerie silence descended. Dacy's breathing seemed overly loud to her, as she quickly resheathed her sword and hurried to Trick's side. She could see the ugly slash left by the enemy's blade through the cleanly sliced clothing. She noted with relief that the bleeding had already stopped, and the gash was beginning to close a bit. Those biostimulators they had installed to encourage his neural injuries to heal were clearly at work. Dacy breathed a sigh of relief. That meant he was alive. He just must not have his medical transponder set for automatic retrieval. This was a safeguard to avoid becoming imprisoned when using the medical transport, since some of the villains they fought had developed ways to intercept the evacuation, and some heroes preferred to be healed in the field by those that could do so.

 

            Trick stirred. He was coming to. "Unnnggh," he groaned, "Well. Turns out, they're not so much fond of the hanging in the air bit. I may just have ticked them off a little." He held his head with his hands and turned eyes bleary with pain to Dacy, who was kneeling next to him, her face a mask of worry.

            Fire snorted in amusement. "Gee, ya think, Trick? Now, why would that bother them?" Trick gave a small grin and started to shake his head, but winced and stilled himself immediately.

            Dacy's first rush of relief at his return to consciousness was immediately smothered in a wave of shame for the part she had played in his injuries. She was here to protect him, and look what she'd done! "I'm...I'm sorry, boss," she said so softly only he could hear, and a tear escaped and slid down her cheek. "It was my fault. I thought I could get them. I didn't think about any others being nearby." Trick said nothing, merely looked at her, his face impassive. Then he nodded and slowly got to his feet.

            "Happens," he said to her nonchalantly. He beckoned Star over to him, so she could also get the benefit of the waves of healing energy his regenerators were now creating.

            "Too bad you missed the party," Fire teased. "It was wild."

            "Yeah, I know. I've got all of the hangover, with none of the fun!" quipped Trick.

            Dacy tried to smile at the jokes, but still felt quite miserable, and apprehensive about what her other teammates would say. She was harboring a hope that the others had missed her part in what had happened. It was bad enough that Trick had seen her go haring off. She looked at Star, who was looking less battered with every second that saw her in Trick's healing aura, and wished that she'd listened and stayed close, like Fire had said. She avoided looking at Fire altogether. Star caught Dacy's eyes with her own, and smiled at her. "You're still learning. Don't be too hard on yourself," she told Dacy gently. Dacy's eyes dropped, and she felt her face go hot. So, they had seen what had happened. Her eyes slid involuntarily to Fire Onyx, who was leaning against a nearby wall, arms crossed, casually studying her. She gave Dacy a short, reassuring nod that spoke volumes. Dacy felt certain she knew just how they had come to find themselves in a sudden flood of foes. The overeager scrapper waited with some trepidation to hear some much deserved words on what she'd done.

            Instead, Fire simply stood up and asked, "Shall we finish this up?"

            Trick responded, "Sure! I had my nap, I'm all ready to go." The chuckles this declaration produced broke the somber mood, and they were all smiling as they moved to get into position to move into the next area. Dacy stopped as she reached the edge of the room, to allow Fire to take her customary place in the lead. Fire Onyx clapped Dacy on the back as she passed her by, but still seemed to have nothing further to say to her.

 

Gradually, Dacy came to realize that the tough tactician wasn't going to point out her obvious mistake. Maybe she'd figured that Dacy had been aware of what went wrong. Well, Dacy reflected, that was certainly true. She thought for a moment about all she'd learned, and vowed inwardly to never again allow confidence to become cockiness. It was a short trip from managable to overwhelmed.

 

 

 

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