PART FOUR

Tropic had just handed Crimson the ledger when the red-suited man’s phone rang. "Crimson", he said tersely, "…yes…you do?…good…no, no, he’s here now…OK…I’ll send him along…right…and by the way, good job, Indigo."

Crimson turned to the hero. "That was Indigo. She has some information on our man Asam."

"Already?", Tropic said with a raised eyebrow. "She is good, isn’t she?"

Crimson nodded absently as he thumbed through the Malta ledger. "Um Hmm, very good." He looked up eventually at Tropic. "But she didn’t want to say anything over the phone. Go meet with her in Founder’s Falls and see what she has to say. I’ll get to work on this ledger. Meet me back here in…", the spy looked at his watch, Rolex, ("Of course", Tropic thought.")"…it’s one p.m. now…say an hour. I should know more by then." He looked back to the hero and saw he was already in the air.

Tropic waved back as he flew over the sky and to meet with Indigo.

Crimson turned back to the ledger and began to see some very interesting things.

Tropic exited the tunnel from Talos Island and flew over the streets and canals of Founder’s Falls. The place had a very European feel to it reminding him of his colored past. He thought of the things he had done in all the long years of his life and had to constantly tell himself it wasn’t his fault. Being the controlled slave of an evil mystical organization was different than being a willing participant. He had freed himself but still, the guilt he felt over the things he had been forced to do, the lives lost to his power, he knew he could never balance the scales. But he had to try, he knew that at least.

Shaking himself from his reverie, he saw he was just about to Indigo’s base of operations. Crimson had his statue, Indigo had her monument in Hutchinson Park. He saw her standing at it’s base as usual and dropped down in front of her.

"Troppy!", the dark haired woman exclaimed and hugged him tightly.

Tropic raised his eyebrow. She was always calling him some variation of his name. He returned the hug. "Hey, Indigo. What’s the word?". He smiled at her as he broke the embrace.

She looked up at him and smiled. The sun shone through her black hair. She was dressed much the same as the last time he saw her: Tight pink blouse and short black mini skirt, her stiletto heels buckled at the ankle. He knew that, in the past, she had used her looks and body to get whatever vital information was needed. She was much like Crimson in that regard: do whatever is needed to get the job done.

"Got some dirt on your man Asam.", she smiled.

Tropic grinned at her. "You do fast work. Let’s hear it."

She pulled out her PDA and reviewed her notes. "Al-Salim Kabir Asam. Born in Saudi Arabia. Attended college blah blah blah.". She looked at Tropic and smiled. "All that routine stuff we really don’t care about."

Tropic nodded and waited for the girl to get to the point.

"He lives primarily in Saudi Arabia but also has a place in New York. Upper west side. Owns it. Seven figures."

"What’s he do for a living?"

Indigo looked at her PDA again. "He’s attached to the Saudi consulate."

Tropic raised his eyebrow in surprise. "He’s an ambassador?"

"No, he’s an accountant. Specializes in…lets see", the woman touched the screen with her stylus, "…’Agriculture accountancy issues in the Middle East and other third world countries’ whatever that means." Indigo concluded.

Tropic stood silently and stroked his goatee. "What would the Malta Group want with an accountant?", he wondered out loud.

"There’s more,", Indigo continued, "he is what our gang friends call ‘morally unburdened’. His history and past known associates show a definite like of walking on the wild side. As near as I can figure he helps questionable individuals and organizations make money and invest that money so they can make more money." She punched the screen of the PDA again and handed it to the hero. "Here’s a listing of some of the people I can confirm an association with."

Tropic looked at the screen and his eyes flared brighter. Red Brigades, Bader Meinhoff, Saddam Hussein, various terrorist groups in the Middle and Far East, Chechnyan rebels, all were listed here as current and former "clients" of the accountant.

"Jeez.", he said simply giving the girl back the pad.

"Yeah."

Tropic’s communicator rang at that moment. Answering, he found Crimson on the other end. "Crimson. What’s going on?"

"Tropic, this ledger you brought me. If the information in here is accurate…well…get back here right away. You won’t believe some of this stuff." Crimson hung up abruptly.

Tropic put the communicator away and turned to Indigo. "It seems I have been summoned.", he said ominously and smiled.

She smiled brightly. "All right, get going. And don’t be a stranger!", she called out to him as he flew toward Talos Island.

"I won’t!", he called back, "and thanks, Indigo!" He turned and flew over the river to the tunnel.

Suddenly, a hail of bullets zinged past the hero, he could feel the displaced wind as they passed by his ear. "What the…!". He looked down frantically trying to spot his attackers. Then the bullets became the least of his worries as he was engulfed in a beam of intense white light. He felt his strength pour from his body. It was all he could do to keep himself in the air and he knew he had been hit full force by a Sapper.

Tropic tried to will himself to fly, to get away, and he was able to gain some altitude, but the sky had become like pudding and he struggled to keep going. Bullets whizzed past again and he desperately sought his attackers.

Then, looking down, he saw three smoky contrails heading at him. He knew that a Malta Titan had zeroed in on him and the contrails were a barrage of rockets. Tropic had nowhere to go. The energy sapped from his body left him sluggish and barely able to move. The rockets drew closer.

"Oh…crap.:", he said with resignation. Two of the rockets passed on either side of him but the third hit him directly in the chest. The explosion that followed shattered windows for two blocks in all directions. Tropic was engulfed in flame and fell some 600 feet. Witnesses to the event said it appeared as though a meteor was streaking down from the sky. Tropic hit the hard surface of the Red River sending up a plume of water and steam as his superheated body disappeared beneath the surface of the river.

Five Malta agents and a Zeus Titan gathered on the dock near the point of the hero’s impact. With weapons at the ready they waited for their enemy to resurface. And they waited. And he didn’t.

The groups leader ordered two engineers and the sapper to take one of the vessels docked there and search the impact point and beyond for the fallen superhero. They jumped in the boat and headed out, searching in larger and larger concentric circles. After 20 minutes, the leader waived them back in.

"We found nothing, Boss.", the sapper said as he stepped onto the dock.

The operations engineer in charge of the group stroked his chin. "I know, but I don’t like not having a body. You know these capes have nine lives."

He thought a few minutes more then turned to the robot. "Titan, query."

The Zeus Titan turned and faced the engineer. "Continue affirmative.", the metallic voice answered.

"Calculate probability of survival of the target designate."

The robot appeared to stand a little straighter as it’s mechanical program sought the answer to the question posed. The air was filled with clicking and typewriter-like chattering. After a few moments the robot responded. "Done."

"Report"

"Target designate: Tropic. Probability of survival: report. Target designate: Tropic probability complete incineration due to Inferno rocket: 85.6%. Target designate: Tropic probability death due to rapid descent: 72.4%. Combine all factors: Strike by Sapper weapon, Inferno rocket strike and incineration, rapid descent to surface. Conclusion: Target Designate: Tropic survival at 4.7%."

The engineer nodded his head. He turned to his men. "Gentlemen, I think we just killed Tropic." He pulled out his communicator and called his superior. Soon word spread throughout Paragon City: Tropic is dead.

Two miles down river, a hand reached up and grabbed hold of the dock. Straining with all his might, Tropic pulled himself up and lay on his side, the wood panels of the dock wet beneath him. He rolled on to his back and stared up into the warm afternoon sky. His chest was a ball of flame as his body fought to heal his injury.

"Get up! Get out of here!", he told himself but he couldn’t move. "Ok..", he answered himself,…"rest for just a second.", and he closed his eyes and was in another place and time, far away and thousands of years ago.

It was a bright early morning in Thrace as he and his cousin Danicleus set out. His mother had received the message the night before and was busy preparing the feast. The Persians had been routed and his father was returning finally from the wars to the south and she had sent them out to hunt. Nothing but the largest buck would be acceptable they told each other.

The two men, that was how they referred to themselves now that they had passed their eighteenth summer, crept lightly through the forest searching for the elusive deer. Pushing back a stray band of his blonde hair he looked back to Danicleus. He stood upright a look of concern on his face.

Danicleus looked horrified and grasped for his bow. The blonde haired man spun around and was confronted with three old men, each wearing blood red robes, their long white beards reaching nearly to their waists. But their eyes glowed red with fire and they reached for the blonde man with bony hands.

"You are needed.", one intoned in a voice that seemed to boom through the woodlands.

Danicleus finally had his bow ready and loosed an arrow at one of the old men. It struck home, penetrating the ribs on his left side and sinking deep into his flesh. Danicleus’ eyes widened in disbelief as the arrow burst into flame and charred away to nothingness.

The old mage turned to Danicleus and said simply, "You are not." Fire leapt from the man’s hand and Danicleus was engulfed in a ball of white hot flame. He screamed for a short second and then, within a moment, all that was left of the blonde man’s cousin was a pile of charred bones.

"NOOOOO!", he screamed and struggled in their grasp. The skeletal hands only gripped harder and they dragged him deeper into the forest. He fought against their pull with all his strength but had no effect. He saw that he was being led to a cave and he tried even harder to get away but these old men were supernaturally strong and he was helpless.

"You are the vessel", one of them spoke solemnly. The others took up the chant - "You are the vessel. You are the vessel."- repeated over and over.

Deeper and deeper into the earth he was lead until finally the cave opened up into a large cavern. He was taken and placed upon a large circle scratched with ruins. One of the old men waved his hand over him and he was unable to move. They moved back and suddenly the cavern was filled with more of these mages. All in blood red robes with bright yellow symbols running down the sides. All appeared to be ancient and all chanting in some language the blonde haired man couldn’t understand.

"No, please…", he begged, "…you can’t…my father’s coming home today…please." But the appeals fell on deaf ears.

His arms and legs moved of their own accord and he hung there suspended and spread-eagle in the center of the circle. The chanting had caused it to begin to glow slightly.

One of the old men stepped forward and raised his arms. The cavern full of sorcerers fell silent. "It is time." The chanting began in earnest now. Same tones over and over again. Same rhythm, same words.

The old man looked at him again. "You are the vessel."

"No, no!", his skin began to feel warm. The chanting was getting louder, filling the cavern and creeping deep inside his head.

"You are the vessel"

"NO!", his body began to vibrate slightly in time with the monotonous chanting. He was getting hotter and hotter.

"You are the vessel."

"No, I’m…", his pleas were getting weaker. His skin was turning red from the heat he felt from…inside him?

"You are the vessel."

"No…please."

"You are the vessel."

"I’m not…no.", his eyes began to glow slightly. His will was almost gone.

"You are the vessel. You are the vessel."

"No. I am…"

"You are the vessel. You are the vessel. You are the vessel."

"I am…"

"You are the vessel. You are the vessel. You are the vessel. You are the vessel."

"I am the ves…"

"TROPIC!"

The voice snapped him back to the present. He looked up into the night sky and then finally to the voice which had awakened him. The woman looked down with concern and relief etched on her face, the strand of hair dangling loose as it always did.

"WillowWind?", he asked weakly. He looked past her and saw that she was not alone. The super heroine was with two others whom he knew - Dark Demon, a shadowed hero with a shadowed past, and Demon Crawler, a small heroine with big power. They gathered about him and helped him sit up.

"Thank God.", WillowWind said simply. She kneeled down beside him as he sat on the dock. "Word is out that you’re dead."

Tropic smiled crookedly at her. "No. Just feel like it." He got his feet under him and tried to stand. He wobbled slightly and the three heroes each reached forward to steady him.

He smiled his thanks at them and looked at his chest where the rocket had struck him. Not a mark remained but his costume was ruined. He had a bit left about his neck but beyond that the top of his outfit was gone leaving him bare-chested with just his gloves. His normally spiky blonde hair lay flat and reached below his shoulders.

"Well, I must look wonderful.", he said smiling.

The others laughed and WillowWind put her hand on his shoulder. "It is a new look for you.", she grinned.

Suddenly, Tropic became aware of the night sky. It had been daylight when was attacked! "Quick! What time is it?", he asked urgently.

"Around seven o’clock, I think.", Demon Crawler answered.

Tropic cursed to himself. Five hours! He had talked to Crimson around 1:30 that afternoon and was supposed to meet him long ago.

"Look, everyone, I’ve got to get going.", Tropic gathered himself and began to hover. He still felt a bit woozy but the clear night air was beginning to revive him.

Willow stepped forward. "Are you sure you’re alright?"

"I’m good.", he smiled down at her. "Thanks for bringing me back.", he told her and with that zoomed towards the tunnel to Talos Island and beyond that Peregrine Island and his meeting with Crimson.

----------------INTERLUDE------------------

AuraGirl sat quietly, her long tan legs tucked beneath her. In the room with her were the other captured heroines. All were handcuffed with large metal casings that covered most of their forearms with a small chain between them and, she noticed, all were chained to the wall.

And all had the same dazed expression on their faces. Because of her healing powers, AuraGirl seemed to be more aware than her fellows. But it was still a struggle, and she fought to keep her wits about her. She tried to focus on her predicament, remember how she came to be here.

She had been investigating…something…when suddenly she had been enveloped in that draining white-blue light. She had been dragged to a cold metal room and stripped of her costume and given this "short, white potato sack" to wear and then she was taken here where she was joined by these other women. And the smell and the chanting.

It was that odor that had kept her docile and that chanting that had dulled her mind. But she fought still to be free and had come up with a plan. Even if it didn’t work at least she would have done something.

"Feeding time, Ladies!", the voice called from outside the room and the heavy reinforced door swung open. Pushing a cart, the hooded man in black entered followed by another carrying a weapon. The cart pusher, as AuraGirl had come to call him, began placing bowls of porridge in front of the captives. The women began to eat automatically and he went down the row of them giving each their portion.

He placed the bowl on the floor in front of AuraGirl and started to move on to the next girl when she stuck out her foot tripping the soldier and causing him to fall.

"What the…!", he yelled out as he hit the ground. As he sat up AuraGirl swung her handcuffed arms and caught the man in the nose, breaking it and knocking him out. Her mind was still in a fog but she knew she had to keep fighting. There was the still other man in the room and she turned to face him.

"Dammit!", the guard exclaimed and moved into the room to get his partner and to secure the prisoner. As he stepped forward another heroine, Crystal Thunder, hooked his leg with her foot and sent him tumbling to the floor. The soldier cursed and tried to get his legs under him again. He fell in front of another of the captives who swung her arms just as AuraGirl had. The heroine Temptations struck the guard on the point of the chin by sheer luck and knocked him out cold.

She rummaged through the man’s pockets and found the key to their chains but unfortunately not their handcuffs. Temptations unlocked AuraGirl and Crystal Thunder from the wall. The other super heroines were still too groggy to take part in the prison break. The three women stood unsteadily in the center of the room, wobbling and unsure of their balance. They looked at each other and without a word between them made for the open door and freedom.

They ran out the door and were confronted in the hallway by at least five Sappers and a Hercules Titan. The hall lit up with the distinctive white light and buzz of the sapper weapon and the girls crumpled to the ground, their short lived escape ended before it began.

"Get that damn magician!", one of the Operation Technicians called out as the unconscious women were dumped back into the room and chained again to the wall. The two unlucky Malta thugs that had been knocked out were being helped from the room when the black-robed mage entered.

Then the room was filled with that sweet cloying smell and that droning chant. But AuraGirl and the others were unaware, already cradled in slumbers heavy hand.
TO PART 5 >
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