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"I think we finally have it figured out." Azuria's words were clipped, maybe from excitement at her discovery, Trick thought. "The key was that last item you noticed they'd imported from South America. The primitive statue, remember? It's a catalyst. To a particularly nasty spell. It's time to make some arrests, I think."

            The detective muted the phone and called over to Dacy, who was sitting at her desk finishing up some paperwork. "Get a hold of Fire and Star, now, please. Looks like we'll be needing them to help us with some arrests!" Trick said happily. "Oh, and after that, get Brady on line 2 for me. I have something for him to get started on." Dacy looked up, and quickly picked up the phone. Trick returned his attention to his conversation. "So? Do I get to learn the details, here? Been waiting a long time for this thing to fall together."

            "Well, like I'd said, I had a hunch after I learned where exactly the vase had been found. I'd told you that the Circle was very old, and that we suspected it had been involved in the disappearance of several civilizations. We started looking closer at some of those, trying to see if we could match the "ingredients", so to speak, the list of things that we have here and their known magical qualities, with a spell and what we know of what happened in those instances. In particular, we looked at a metropolitan city by the name of Teotihuacan. It was the largest city of the ancient world, a real marvel, and not all that far from the Mayan Empire. It was a planned city, with elaborate drainage systems and what would have been every modern convenience of the time, and it was huge for that period of history. At a time when dense population was 30 people per square mile, this city housed over 100,000 souls. But, not long after the time your vase, here, dates to, around 700 A.D., the population of the city just vanished. There is evidence there may have been fires, but we just don't know why suddenly everyone was gone, and no one ever came back. Well, I think we know now. It took some creative research to figure out the combination of elements, because like I said, no one has seen a spell like this before, but we believe we know what happened to Teotihuacan. And what is planned for Paragon City. They have everything they need, except the vase. So, it's critical that you arrest them now. I don't want to risk that, given time, they'll find a way to breach our protections. There's too much at stake. I'm just glad you threw such a wrench into their plans and put the vase into our keeping."

            Trick's apprehensions were coalescing into a knot of dread in his belly. "What happened to Teotihuacan? What are they planning?"

            "We believe that the city's population was killed with a spell that consumed their life force and their very bodies and changed it into magical potential that the mages then stored for future use. The vase is the mouth to a resevoir. It would have to be paired with some other object or artifact which would actually hold the energy. This could be almost anything; that part of the spell is not difficult. We believe that the Circle plans to use Paragon City in a similar way, to fuel their own ascendancy in power. Given this huge of a supply of magic, they'd be unstoppable. Not to mention, we'd all be dead."

            "Sounds like 'immediately' is none too soon. Where are they?" Trick said grimly.

            "They've gone underground; at least, that is where we scry Gooden to be at the moment. Or, P'ternath, as he styles himself," Azuria said scornfully. "He's with some others, it would seem. They are in the ruins of the Lost City of Oranbega, I'm afraid. You can access it from the point I'm uploading to your GPS in Talos; after that, it'll be portal hopping til you find them."

            "Right. We're on it." Trick hung up the phone and looked at Dacy.

            "Bad?" she asked.

            "Worse," he replied. "New definition of 'bad'. Fire and Star meeting us?"
            Dacy nodded. "At the tram in Talos."

            "Perfect, as it happens. You got Brady there?" Trick asked his assistant.

            "Line 2, as requested, Boss."

            The detective punched the button for line 2. "Brady? Trick. It's time, start the subpoenas. We're rolling, no time to wait for paperwork." He nodded once and hung up, reaching for his hat in the same motion. "Let's move."

            Dacy looked at him for a second. "That's it? 'Start the subpoenas'? I coulda told him that!" She rolled her eyes.

            "Yes, but would it have had the same panache?" Trick grinned at her. Smoothly dodging the paperwad she'd thrown at him, he settled his hat on his head. "Time's a-wasting, Dollface. Come on, we've got a city to save. I'll fill you in on the way."


They wasted no time getting to the access point to the Oranbega ruins, which turned out to be a quite ordinary looking cliff face near the ocean. By this time, Trick had filled in Fire and Star on the situation.

            "So, we're to arrest P'ternath, and any with him?" Fire Onyx asked. "Does he know we are coming for him?"

            "Hopefully not," said the detective, frowning slightly.

            "Hmm. Good. Then we need to move fast. If they have any defenses set up, we need to get through those before they can strengthen them. Move fast, keep moving, try and keep them off balance and confused. Hopefully, we can get to P'ternath before he knows we're here for him, so he doesn't head for the hills. Once we're on top of him, he won't stand a chance," suggested the fiery team tactician.

            "I'm ready to take on all of them!" declared Starchilde, her fists glowing with barely restrained power. "Such evil can only be met with force such as we possess. They cannot prevail."

            "I'm for that!" Dacy piped in, her sword at the ready. "Let's take them down! This has gone on long enough."

            "Don't forget," Trick cautioned, "make sure your hospital transponders are not on 'automatic'. We don't want to wind up in a prison, all nice and caught for the Circle. Let's go."


When they arrived at the specified place for entry to the lost city, they pushed on the cliff rocks in front of them, and were rewarded with the click of a hidden door being activated. A solid looking rock moved to the side, and they could see a dark opening appear. They moved cautiously into the cave. Once inside, dimly flickering torches revealed that this was indeed, no natural cave, as one would suspect from something which had a magical rock for a door. Built into the rock of the cave walls were man made walls of stone blocks, arches of stone, and wooden doors. The floor was unnaturally smooth, and laid with pieces of flat rock and mortar. The team cautiously looked around, but saw no one. Staying tightly in formation, they advanced all the way to a portal without seeing so much as a guard. This was something they all immediately recognized, being familiar with the round stone structure from their other contact with the Circle of Thorns, previously. As usual, the upright ring had a haziness to the inside of the circle, and if you looked through the hole, you could only really see a nothingness. The heroes were unconcerned with this, as it was typical for an active portal. Trick chuckled to himself. At what point in his life had such formerly mind boggling concepts, such as stone rings one could step through to be transported to another location, become unremarkable?

            "So far, so good!" Star observed.

            "No welcoming party, that's a plus," Dacy added.

            "Could mean they have no idea we're here. Could mean they're saving their outer patrols to use as reinforcements for their deeper defenses. Stay close," Fire cautioned. The heroes carefully entered the portal. Fire Onyx went first, since she could take the most damage before being close to critically hurt. This meant that if there was a squad of Thorns on the other side of the portal, she could hold on til the rest of them were through and could help her. She then teleported Trick to her position if it was all safe, and they both then teleported Dacy and Star. They'd learned long ago to go through portals in this way, since the same portal could often take you to different parts of the Oranbega city. Trick's ability to teleport his teammates, courtesy of Solomon's technology, had come in so handy, they'd all decided it was a good ability to have. Trick wasn't sure how each had acquired their power, but he was unsurprised that all had been able to do so. There were definite advantages to living in Paragon City, with its high population of heroes and accompanying support network.


Really, Trick mused, he wasn't sure why this place was called a "city". It would be more accurate to term it a "warren". It was quite maze-like; mostly tunnels which connected one large area to another, all lit with dimly flickering torches which gave mute testimony to the presence of the Circle. Sometimes the rooms that the tunnels opened up into were quite large, with pillars to support the roof. They'd even seen sections of the city before that housed old, crumbling pyramids or possibly temples, of a style reminiscent of the Aztecs and Mayans. Trick was reminded of what Azuria had told him of the Circle's history. No small surprise that the architecture was so similar! The so called city of Oranbega was huge, too. The heroes had been to different sections of it in the past, several times, in fact, but they'd still only explored a small percentage of it. Trick hoped that Azuria had pegged the location of their quarry well, or they could be searching for a long time. They moved on, deeper into the lost city, through another portal. Still no Circle.  Fire Onyx brought the small company up short after exploring yet another large room, empty of all but its huge pillars, and yet another portal they must travel through. The portal sat off to the side of the room in dark shadows, not particularly visible, a fact for which Trick was grateful. He didn't really want to contemplate how much deeper into the city they were likely to have to go. He didn't want to admit it, but he was getting a little worried.

            "I don't like this at all. They must be here, somewhere. Your source was sure of that, right, Trick?" she asked the big detective.

            "Yeah, Azuria's not likely to send us on a wild goose chase. They must be up to something," he replied firmly, unwilling to let the doubts that were bubbling up in him show.

            "You could give her a call, and see if he's moved," Dacy suggested.

            Trick shook his head. "My cell phone just won't work in a cave like this. We just have to trust that she sent us to the right place, and that we will find him."

            "Well, let's be extra careful. This is feeling more and more like a trap!" the former mercenary declared.

            "Truer words were never spoken. Really, I was beginning to doubt your intelligence," a humorless voice remarked. The words skittered across Trick's nerves like dry leaves on pavement. The group turned as one towards the sound, and several figures stepped out from behind pillars into the uncertain torchlight of the room. "You certainly took your time. I thought you'd be here long ago," P'ternath said, advancing towards them. An array of mages and thorns could be seen spread out behind him, and pouring through the now noticable portal came Behemoths, the large, fire-casting demonic creatures the mages controlled. From the deep shadows around them, more and more masses of demons and mages emerged. So many of them! They quickly moved to overwhelm the foursome, their demonic attacks already flying. But as they did so, the team was already in motion. Against waves of attacks that already had made the air thick with fire and the screams of demons, Fire began to counter their attack by throwing fire out around her, and Dacy gave a primal scream and launched herself at P'ternath, who seemed focused solely on Trick. Star began to lay into the nearest of the mages, and Trick immediately launched his large-area gravity hold. Or at least, he tried to. He lost concentration as agony flared across his senses. It felt as if every nerve in his body had been exposed, and was now being abraded with sand. The pain overwhelmed him, making him black out.  When his vision cleared, P'ternath was smiling at him cruelly. Agony still raced through every fiber of his body. He moaned slightly. He could not move. He could just see Fire, who looked as if she was in a similar situation, although it had clearly taken a huge collection of mages to take her down. Dacy and Star were in crumpled heaps.

            P'ternath tsked. "Now, really, that was very brave. Nicely done. Utterly futile, as you can see, but you wouldn't be 'heroes' without the effort, now, would you?" His cold eyes swept the room. "Bring them. Back through the portal. Master will be well pleased that his sacrifices are finally here." He looked at Trick again, gesturing with his hand as he did so. New agony swirled through the detective's body. "You didn't think you had actually been watching us all this time undetected, did you? The Master, Xoqimatoc, knows all. We have been waiting for your arrival. It will be more honor than you deserve for you to die for the glory of the Circle. Come, we have waited too long."  Anger swelled as Trick realized they'd fallen neatly into a trap. Other emotions swirled, and he tried to marshal his thoughts of what he should do, but they crumbled into chaos as the darkness swallowed him again.




* * * * * * * * * *



Urgent. The need was urgent, something was telling her. It must be. She knew pain was waiting, but she pushed towards consciousness anyway. She had to.


Dacy opened her eyes slightly, battle senses keeping her cautious. Ignoring the expected pain, she took stock of her situation. She was lying in a heap on a stone floor. Star, looking quite the worse for wear, was lying unconscious not far from her. They were both a fair distance away from a raised stone altar on a platform. The platform appeared to be in the center of a huge room; a different room than the one they had been in. This one had several Aztec style pyramids in it, the largest of which was directly behind the platform, in front of Dacy. There were members of the Circle simply everywhere, most with their backs to her, facing the platform and blocking much of her view. Dacy closed her eyes for a moment, suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling of helpless frustration she'd felt as she'd been taken captive. It had been no contest from the start, given the numbers they'd faced, she knew that. But the memory burned, and an inner voice accused that she could have done more. Taking a deep but quiet breath, she squeezed her eyes shut more tightly and refocused her thoughts on what she could do now. Opening her eyes, she could see that there were many of the Circle present, although the darkness around the edges of the circle of light surrounding the platform made it difficult to see how many. She could hear a voice talking. She knew that voice. It made her skin crawl. Where had she heard it before? She focused on what he was saying, trying to remember.

            "It is time! Finally, the long time of waiting for all to be ready is at an end! We shall enjoy unlimited power! We shall rule all, and none can oppose us!" There was a roar of approval from those around her. Dacy could feel her body healing itself. Her headache was already noticably better. The voice continued, exhorting the Circle to ever higher levels of fanaticism. "Our enemies, who thought they would oppose us, instead, help us this day! Mighty is the Circle of Thorns!" The roars got louder. Dacy noticed she was near to the edge of the light. She eyed the monstrous fiery Behemoths that stood close to her; their enormous demonic wings were aflame with their hellish fires. Likely, they were supposed to be guarding the prisoners, but their beastly faces were intent on the speaker. Well, their inattentiveness was her salvation, as they were oblivious to the fact that she was awake. She scooted back towards the darkness fractionally, watching to see if anyone had noticed. "Even now, those dabblers in the arcane, those pretenders at M.A.G.I., think to stop us. We will crush them instead!" Dacy scooted back farther. Still no one noticed, absorbed in the speaker's words. "In their arrogance and belief in their own superiority, the charlatans have actually taken the Mouth of the Gods into their very vaults! The much vaunted vaults they bragged no Circle could ever breach! How very appropriate that they should become the center of the destruction we will rain on the weaklings they have sworn to protect! As it has been ordained, when we activate the portal inside the vase, it is our foremost enemies that shall feed our magic first!"  Safely into the darkness and with the glare of the torches out of her eyes, Dacy could now see that she was near to a small pyramid, with a door just a little above her current position. She got to her feet and took cover, to survey the situation. Her mind was working through the meaning of his words. The vase...that was why they'd never tried to steal it again! It was right where they wanted it! Which meant they were starting the spell. They had to be stopped! "And in the fine tradition of our ancestors, we have sacrifices. They will feed the spell with their very life essence and despair! The tools our enemies sought to use against us become the tools we use against them! Mighty is the Circle!" Dacy's throat constricted as she realized that Trick and Fire were also on the platform, next to the altar, suspended in obvious agony, under the control of several mages. Fire was conscious, glaring daggers at the mage who was speaking. As she watched, Trick stirred and groaned. "Ah, Mr. Dacy. I'm glad you could join us. I would hate for you to miss the climax. After all, you've been very helpful in getting us to this point. And, you've got a starring role still to come," the leader taunted the helpless detective.

            "Manitoba," Trick spat weakly. "I should have known. You were a viper from the start."

            P'ternath gestured with his arms and Trick jerked with renewed agony. "You will address the Master with respect!" P'ternath's soulless voice raked over the detective and added to his pain.

            Manitoba, or perhaps, more accurately, Xoqimatoc, smiled dispassionately. "Yes, perhaps you should have known. Or, you should have died. We shall remedy that now, I think. But not you first. No. I wish you to see what you have wrought. When the vase you recovered and so obligingly put into M.A.G.I.'s keeping opens up and swallows them, I want you to know. Your despair will also feed my power, as will the life force of your teammates. I will start with this one." He turned to Fire Onyx. "Oh, my dear, how I wish I could explore the delicious rage you put inside my head!" He stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers. She struggled, but could only move slightly. "How do you get inside my head and make it so that almost all I can think about is hurting you? How wonderful to be able to control others so! But that, I'm afraid, I have other things to do, and will never be able to see if your power could be something I could use." He sounded almost regretful. "Bring the others. It is time. I must open the portal now!" He unsheathed a wicked looking long, black, curved dagger.


Dacy froze with sudden indecision. She could run, and pehaps teleport Trick and Fire and Star out, and they could escape. Maybe they could get in touch with Azuria. Maybe the vase could be destroyed, and the spell could be stopped! She looked around, and noted a portal not far away, off to the right, barely visible in the gloom. Perhaps that lead to a way out?  Below her, Star had just come to, and figures were wrestling her to the platform. Others were looking for her, she knew. Dacy agonized. If she left, she might well save her teammates. But there was no guarantee that Azuria could stop the spell in time, and time was running short. Could help even arrive in time? There might be a way to break the spell here...but with all these members of the Circle here, it was almost guaranteed to fail, and it would be suicide.

            "Master! One is not there!" wailed a cowering mage.

            "FOOLS! Find her! The time of the convergence is now! It has begun...the spell must not be broken!!" roared Xoqimatoc. Mages and Behemoths and guards scattered in all directions, falling over each other in their haste to obey. Xoqimatoc turned back, raised his hands over his head, chanted some words of incantation, and plunged the knife into Fire Onyx's chest. Fire's face registered shock, then agony, as the knife easily pierced her nearly invulnerable skin. She slumped to the floor, the knife hilt sticking straight up.. Star screamed in rage. Trick seemed to sag in despair.


Her decision made, Dacy turned and ran into the darkness.



* * * * * * * * * *



Still held in agony by the mages around him, Trick could only watch with sick helplessness as Manitoba plunged the dagger into Fire Onyx. He tried hard to ward off feelings of despair, mindful of feeding Xoqimatoc's power, but it was hard not to feel despair. He'd been used from the start. All his clever detective work, all the care in watching Gooden while not tipping him off, it had all been for nothing. Worse than for nothing. He'd actually played into their plans, and now it looked as though they had won. Paragon City would die to feed the power and ambition of an evil beyond his comprehension, and he had made it possible. Even if they would have found another way to accomplish their goals, he'd still failed to stop them.


Starchilde, having gained consciousness just in time to see her friend put up for sacrifice, had made life interesting for a few mages until they had her, too, subdued in an excruciating hold. Her eyes blazed with the promise of retribution, but the Circle mages didn't look likely to be foolish enough to release her before she, too, became a sacrifice. Trick had hoped she could distract them long enough for him to break free and throw a hold, but that hope was quickly squashed. Besides, he had been under the constant personal attention of P'ternath. Unless he went down, it was unlikely Trick could get free.  Apparently, Dacy must have gotten free, for there had been a hue and cry, and the crowd had scattered in what seemed to be pursuit. He would be fiercely glad if one of the team lived through this. Especially if it would in any way disrupt the spell, even if only because they didn't have the sacrifices they'd obviously been planning on to power the spellcasting. He just hoped she'd gotten out or was bringing the calvary. Either one might disrupt things. Surely she'd know better than to try and rescue them by herself.  Although the mob had thinned quite a bit as the Circle hurried to search for her, it was still overwhelming odds. Even for someone as stubborn as she was.


Xoqimatoc was chanting steadily. There was a dark ethereal cord that stretched between him and Fire Onyx. She lay unmoving on the platform, the knife still protruding from her chest. Xoqimatoc raised his arms, and the blackness coursed up, seemingly into a temple behind them. That entire temple had begun to glow, and a portal had opened above the top of the pyramid.

            "Behold, the Repository! It begins!" cried someone in the crowd. Trick felt numb and hopeless. The city was going to die, his friends were being sacrificed to help empower the Circle, and he was going to have to watch it.


And then, the calvary did arrive. In the form of one very determined slender young woman, dressed in yellow.


With a huge jump from some unseen perch, Dacy soared down from the darkness surrounding the platform. She landed in the middle of the ritual, already swinging, a fierce determination etched onto her face. Trick hadn't see where she had come from. Were there others? He tried to see, but the torches interfered with his efforts to see into the gloom. She went for Xoqimatoc first, her bright sword flashing as she hit him with stroke after stroke, but it seemed to have no effect. In fact, it looked as though the sword was not even touching the lead mage!  Immediately, the mages, who had been focused on holding Trick and Star, began to attack, and the crowd of onlookers pressed forward. Xoqimatoc's chanting never faltered. Each of the mages threw a hold onto Dacy. The Behemoths surrounding the platform threw fireballs. Trick could feel the heat of the fire as he was included in the radius of their attacks. The agony of the holds and fire, as well as the will it cost her to resist it, showed as her face contorted and her movements slowed, but she gamely fought them, her blade dancing to deadly effect among them. Come on, Dacy, you can do it! Trick silently encouraged her. He dared not say anything aloud, and call attention to himself. Just a little more, and maybe the hold on he and Star would loosen, and they could join the fight! He noted that P'ternath had gotten distracted by the fight, and was now watching Dacy's losing battle with delight.  Dacy was swinging more wildly now, agony apparent with every movement, her clothes charred and smoking in places. Trick didn't know how much longer she could keep it up. But, a few mages had dropped under her attack. Dacy stumbled, and her movements ground to a halt. P'ternath moved to meet her, a wide smile of triumph on his face. Damn! She's going down! It was too much for her... WHY didn't she bring some HELP! Trick thought in despair. The mage extended his hand, throwing yet another wave of agony over the struggling heroine. Her face rippled with the anguish of the pain, and she seemed to bow under the attack as he moved closer yet.





* * * * * * * * * *



Dacy had gotten as high as she could before springing into action. She knew that if she had to fight through the mobs surrounding Xoqimatoc, she'd never reach him before she herself was taken down again. That was unacceptable, so she had needed to get into a position from where she could jump and land in the middle of things. The bitter memory of her recent defeat lay like ash in her mouth, but that wasn't what she was focused on as she grimly surveyed the mobs of Circle below her, sword gripped in her hand at the ready. She could see Trick, helpless in the agonizing hold P'ternath kept on him, and Starchilde, held and yet clearly defiant, forced to watch Fire Onyx's life bleed away in a black smoke. Determinedly, Dacy forced her fear for her friends down deep inside, along with the bleak knowlege that she herself was unlikely to survive this fight. She had one chance to stop this abomination. Whatever the cost, the spell had to be stopped! Her eyes narrowed as she zeroed in on Xoqimatoc: there, he was the key. If she could take him out, from what she knew of spellcasting, she would be removing the keystone of the arch, and the spell would crumble. Dacy tried not to consider what the chances were of being able to actually do that before the rest of the Circle could take her down. She had to try. There was no time for anything else, now.


The pyramid beyond the platform began to glow. That couldn't be good. Summoning her will, in a rush of adrenaline, Dacy quickly activated some charms to help her in battle that she'd gotten from M.A.G.I., and leapt from the top of the pyramid that was high above where she'd been when she awoken. She landed hard in the midst of the group she'd been aiming for, near to Xoqimatoc himself! Ignoring the complaints from her feet and ankles from the landing, as well as any temptation to go help her friends, Dacy immediately pressed her attack on the lead mage. Her forms were executed in an unconscious perfection, truly a part of her. Her blade flashed, an extension of her will, each movement flowing smoothly into the next, but something was wrong. She could feel her blade twisting away from the mage at the last instant, instead of ever connecting! Xoqimatoc ignored her, and his chanting continued unabated, drawing ever closer to ithe spell's devastating completion. Something was protecting Xoqimatoc! Dacy thought furiously as she continued her desperate attack, evading and resisting the many holds that the mages around her were throwing over her, and tried to figure out what to do. Maybe there was a way to get through the protection, or maybe there was a way to break it! Dacy could feel her body slowing as the many holds, individually like a spider web to her, gained a cumulative effect. Each move was becoming harder, and her body was struggling to heal the many burns from the fire that was being thrown at her from all sides. And still Xoqimatoc chanted on, dark energy spewing from his outstretched arms towards the ever more brightly glowing pyramid.


She was going to fail. She knew that, then. Her gamble had lost, for she had not known when she chose to leap into the fight, that her opponent was untouchable. Dacy knew of no way to get past whatever enchantment was protecting him, and she was out of time. She turned to face her attackers, sword poised, upright and ready, in a perfect line with her center of balance. At least she'd send some of them to hell before she went down! Summoning every ounce of technique and concentration she could, Dacy battled through the holds and the pain, her sword dancing and flashing as it sought the weakest points among her tormentors. There! a mage was down, undone by a soaring dragon. And there! another, brought low by her golden dragonfly. Her sword sang as it danced their doom, but it wasn't enough, and she knew it.


She was slowing. Not much time left for her. Her body was afire, torn with agony past any she'd endured. She stumbled to her knees, unable to catch her balance. Wave after wave of pain pummeled her, burning whips of torment snapped across her skin, and her vision wavered. Trick, she thought, I'm sorry, I failed you. Fire, Star...I'm sorry. I tried. She looked up, wondering if she'd catch a glimpse of her friends one last time...and saw P'ternath, smiling evilly, making his way towards her.


P'ternath. Her bile rose. She did NOT want to be finished off, or trussed up like a pig for roasting by HIM!


He stretched out his hand, laying another wave of agony on her. Her face spasmed with pain, but her spirit sparked with rebellion. She would NOT be defeated by this creature! Suddenly, Dacy realized that if P'ternath was here, focused on her, that meant he WASN'T watching Trick any more! And she'd learned that holding someone still, like Trick and these mages could do, took concentration. Holds seemed to be of a limited duration, no matter how they were accomplished, and so must be reapplied regularly.  Determination and a sense of purpose flared anew. She had one last chance to accomplish something here. She bowed her head, gathering her last shreds of strength. She wasn't done yet! At least not as done as they thought she was. Closer, P'ternath, closer...


He was close, close enough that she could have reached out and touched his robes. He sneered at her pain in smug triumph, as he stretched forth his hand to lay his final tortuous attack on her. Dacy gathered her will and energy and strength into a small hard core of determination, and hurled it at P'ternath in a final desperate strike with her blade, rising up from her bowed position as she did so. The suddeness and force of her attack caught him by surprise, and his face had time to register its shock only after her blade had already completed its upward arc through his entire torso.



* * * * * * * * * *



Trick felt the hold on him break as P'ternath fell to Dacy's desperate last strike. Quickly, summoning all the focus and willpower he could, Trick threw out his gravitational force field as widely as possible. The hold on her now also broken by the disruption and chaos Dacy had wrought, Starchilde landed on her feet with a cry of triumph, and quickly began distributing her promised vengeance. Dacy tottered and collapsed. Trick was torn; he wanted to help her, but Fire was the more urgent case. If they were going to survive this, they needed Fire's ability to hold the attention of a large group of foes. And, if he was fast, there might still be time to save her. The dark cord was still there...he hoped that that represented her life force. If so, she wasn't dead yet. With the bulk of the room hanging, suspended by gravity, Trick had a moment to try and save her. By some miracle or gift from heaven, he'd managed to get almost every mage in the room, save for Xoqimatoc himself, in his hold.  The so-called Master was wrapped deep in his spell, his chanting unabated. Starchilde was venting her rage on the few mages unfortunate enough not to be caught in his hold, and any others in reach. They quickly went down. The glow of the temple was intensifying.

            "Star! The knife! Get the knife!" Trick called frantically. He'd seen Dacy's attempts to take down Xoqimatoc; he knew that it was futile to attack him directly, and they could be fighting Circle mages all day, without affecting the progress of the spell one bit. Star was at Fire's side in an instant, her hand on the knife. The chanting faltered a little, and the dark cord wavered like a candle flickering in a draft. "Now! Take it out!" the healer cried, and bent his whole will towards healing Fire, concentrating as he'd never focused before. As Starchilde pulled the knife out of Fire's chest, Xoqimatoc howled a scream of terror and pain beyond imagining, and the etheral cord vanished. Trick poured his energy into Fire, willing her to heal with everything he had. She actually lifted up off the ground with his effort! Trick staggered, exhausted. Had it worked?

            "Hit him with everything you have, NOW!" Fire screamed, before she'd even settled on the ground. Apparently fully restored, she led the attack, Starchilde right behind her. Trick then realized, Dacy was nowhere to be seen.


It was then that the detective's hold on the Circle mages and Behemoths failed. A rain of fireballs ensued, fortunately focused on Fire Onyx, sparing him and Star from the attack. Grimly the trio fought Circle demons and mages on all sides, moving slowly towards Manitoba, intent on taking him in or taking him down, it really didn't matter to Trick by this point. Screams rent the air. He had just realized that they were screams of terror, and that the mage he'd known as Manitoba was glowing and screaming in agony, when the room vanished in a loud noise, and he was suddenly landing next to Dacy. It only took him a split second to realize he'd been ported away, and to turn around and teleport Starchilde to his position while Dacy brought in Fire Onyx.

            "Run!" cried Dacy. "We have to get out!" A resounding boom! shook the floor, and dirt and rubble fell from the ceiling, emphasizing her point. They ran.


She'd managed to bring them in close to the final portal out of Oranbega, which was fortunate, because they barely made it through the portal as the room collapsed around them.




* * * * * * * * * *




            "So, I'd learned enough about magic to know that, if a spell is broken during casting, the power of the spell rebounds upon the caster. I was about to rejoin the fight when Star took the knife out of Fire, and Xoqimatoc began to scream. Seemed like the spell was broken, and with as strong of a spell as that was, I figured we'd better be out of there," Dacy said, her hands wrapped around a hot mug of tea. She was sitting comfortably on a couch in what seemed to be a combination of a lounge and library room in the M.A.G.I. complex in Atlas Park, her feet tucked up underneath her. Her teammates were arranged around the room, having found various spots of their own liking. "So, I turned on the speed and made for the portal as soon as I was able, to port you all out of there. I figured that even if you didn't take Xoqimatoc out in the amount of time I gave you, he was a goner regardless."

            Azuria nodded. "Not every spell's breaking would have such an effect! But such a powerful working, combined with a was good you broke it. The backlash of such a spell of destruction would have destroyed him. And, a section of the city is no more; it is buried now, under the rubble, with those that deserved to be buried with it."

            Dacy looked down. "Yes," she said, quietly. She would be reliving much of that horror for a long time, she knew.

            "When the vase started to glow and we saw the opening to the portal, I knew we were in trouble," Azuria continued. "We were trying to destroy the vase on this end, but it had become insubstantial, having moved to another plane of existence. When the glow stopped and the spell was broken, the vase did materialize, but immediately crumbled into dust. I'm sorry, Mr. Solomon," she apologized, looking at Marcus, who was also holding a cup of tea. "I know you wanted to present your findings about the vase to the world."

            "Thank you, Azuria. I'm sorry I brought all this trouble to your doorstep. I almost visited doom on us all. The destruction of the vase is of no matter. The important thing is," he said, looking at each of the heroes in turn, "you all are safe, and you have saved the city as well."

            "I think you were used by the Circle. From what they said, they've been manipulating circumstances and events for some time now," Azuria consoled the explorer. Trick, nursing his own feelings of guilt for his part, looked up.

            "Yeah, but," the detective put in, "I still feel like I shoulda seen their plan. At least the part where we were walking into a trap. I always wondered why the Circle didn't try and steal the vase again. I shouldn't have ignored that fact." The look on Trick's face spoke to the fact that he wouldn't overlook such clues again. Dacy, sitting close by, reached over and rubbed his arm in a gesture of comfort and solidarity. It was a mark, Dacy noted, of the depth to which their relationship had progressed that he not only accepted her touch, but seemed to appreciate it. They had not, and perhaps never would, enter into the sort of relationship she longed for. That was okay. For now, anyway. She smiled a small smile to herself. She'd certainly keep the possibility open, on her end. In the meantime, she was enjoying the cameraderie that had developed between them. She no longer felt like he saw her as just his assistant. She did feel like his partner, and had certainly proven herself able enough. She'd earned his respect.

            "You did well to have put together what you did, Mr. Dacy," Azuria assured him. "I cannot believe, for all his words, that Xoqimatoc expected you to learn quite as much as you did."

            Dacy gave a puzzled frown. "Why...? Why did the Circle steal the vase to begin with? If they could operate the portal from a distance, why bother? Did they just want to mess with us that badly?"

            Azuria shook her head. "The Circle is very cruel, but it would seem like a great deal of effort just for the annoyance value. No, there was purpose in everything they did. They had to have the vase to set it to the spell, so it would respond when called upon. After that, they needed it to be recovered, so its placement in the city would arouse no suspicion. I don't know if they intended Mr. Dacy there, to die or not; seems like it didn't matter much to them either way. The purpose was to see the vase recovered, without making it seem like they wished it so. It mattered little to them if someone died in the process."

            Trick murmured quietly, "That's why they brought in Mac. A little extra insurance to make sure the vase got discovered. Probably figured on what pretty much happened. One of us would trigger the trap, and the other would report it. Sure made it seem as though the vase was hard to get, when all along, they were dangling it there for us. Damn it! Why didn't I listen to my instincts? I knew it was a trap."

            "Don't forget the important thing, Trick," Fire offered. "We're here. We beat him. And the city is safe." There were nods of agreement all around the room at this.


            Solomon rose to his feet. "Well, I must be on my way. Now that I know I won't be able to present my findings to the world about the vase, I guess I'd better find other ways to occupy my time. I've heard some rumors about a temple in New Zealand I'm going to go see if I can't track down." He shook Azuria's hand. "Thank you, madame, for your assistance." He moved on to shake Trick's hand. "I think it would be best if it were never known that an item of such power as the vase possessed had existed. I'd hate to think that anyone would make another one. I'm done giving unintentional aid to the other side! From this point on, as far as I'm concerned, you helped me break a Circle of Thorns magical artifact smuggling ring." He looked Trick in the eyes steadily.

            "That's your story and I'm sticking to it?" the detective inquired with a smile.

            "I'd appreciate it, yes," the explorer replied.

            Azuria nodded slowly. "That might be wise. He is correct. What is once known can be duplicated."

            "But, the Circle knows about the vase. Changing our story won't affect that!" Star protested.

            "It is true they knew about this vase. But we cannot be sure how many, if any, are still alive who know of it. Better to be safe and alter our tale, than risk teaching the enemy about that which could once again be used against us. We will be vigilant and watch. If ever they begin such a working again, this time we will know what it is, thanks to you," Azuria explained solemnly.

            Solomon nodded. "I'm off, then." He waved to the others around the room. They waved back, and he was gone.


            Starchilde rose gracefully to her feet. "Well, my good people, it has been a long day. We have emerged victorious, snatched victory from the very jaws of defeat, defied the odds, and vanquished great evil. That about does it for me for the day. I'm about out of energy. And for me, that's really saying something!" The group smiled at the energy blaster. Fire Onyx, Dacy, and Trick also rose to their feet.

            Fire chuckled. "Yeah, I'd have to say that being sacrificed for an evil spell of destruction by a death mage really takes it out of a girl. That one's not going on a resume anytime soon." The others chuckled in amusement. "Guess you really sort of resurrected me! Thanks, Trick."
            Trick gave an almost imperceptible shudder. "No problem, Fire, you've put your life on the line many times for me. I am happy I had a chance to repay that. But I really hope I don't ever have to do that again," he said with feeling.

            Fire laughed. "Understandable! And believe me when I say, I'm right there with you on that one!"


The group was still smiling as they walked out of the doors into Atlas Plaza. Dacy looked around at all the various heroes, each here to fight evil in their own way. She took a deep breath of air. It was a beautiful day. It felt good to know that this was where she belonged. She turned to the others.

            "Come on! Let's get some ice cream. My treat!"


Laughing and talking together, the heroes moved off as a group to get the promised ice cream and rest and recover. Tomorrow, after all, would be another day in Paragon City. No need to wonder if they would be busy.

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