“Hear what?” Faith queried then sniffed and glanced suspiciously at Xander, her stomach suddenly queasy. “Damn it boy-toy, bein’ almost killed is no excuse for that stench!”
”What?” Xander stopped rubbing at his throat to peer back at her. “I haven’t done anything!”
“Huh,” Faith glanced at Kennedy. “Anythin’ you wanna confess?”
”Don’t look at me!” Kennedy protested. “My farts don’t smell like that!” Faith raised an eyebrow. “Or at all!”
“Huh,” Faith shook her head, “for fuck’s sake, no-one light a match. This stench could blow us straight to the moon.”
“Oh boy,” Xander started passing out weapons and rose, “if I’m right-.”
”Ahhh!” Tara threw a fireball or light at the tent’s entrance when a hairy, ape-like face stuck its face through the tent.
”Gagggh!” The monster reared back with a howl, while at the same time the tent’s side tore in half and a second creature attempted to enter, only to be blown away by Xander’s hastily drawn shotgun.
And then Faith was lunging forward, eyes taking in every detail of the horde rampaging through their camp. The round-shouldered beasts were covered in thick dark hair, with pot-bellies and long, ropy arms that hung down almost to their ankles. And stunk like six month old eggs.
”Whoa!” Faith leaned away from a haymaker, thrusting one of her two blades into the beast’s trunk-like left thigh, then, the moment the beast’s yellow eyes glanced away from her and down to his leg, back-hand slashing the other sword across his throat. Blood spurted out and splattered thin air, because Faith had already sidestepped the falling monster.
“SHIT!” Her eyes widened as another beast dropped into a crouch, his fists thumping the grass as he utilised his arms’ thick muscles to throw himself into a leap at her. Faith hit the ground on her side and rolled away from the snorting, howling monster, the battle’s din background noise to her own desperate panting.
Rolling up into a crouch, Faith caught a haymaker to the head. Her legs suddenly woozy and vision briefly blackening, it was only instinct that allowed her to just sway away from the monster’s stumbling charge. The moment it was level with her, Faith thrust her far side blade across her body and through the side of the thing’s neck, while a half-second later back-hand hacking its hamstrings away with her other blade. The beast let out a final howl before crashing to the ground, its life fluids staining the grass under her.
Faith glanced around, relief filling her as she realised the fight was over and her friends and her had battled through unharmed. “What’d you know?” Kennedy chuckled as she peered down at one of the creature corpses. “Hairy, smelly, and ugly! It is Xander’s family!”
“Yeah, but look at it, obviously the advanced branch.” Faith smirked at her fellow brunette. “A regular family reunion.”
“No, they’re skunk apes,” Tara soberly commented. “Foul-smelling,” Faith snorted, like she needed telling that, they fuckin’ stunk, “ape-like creatures that are supposed to populate the south-eastern states.” The witch shrugged. “But supposedly it’s just a myth.”
“Like all the other beasties that have attacked us,” Xander crouched by the nearest corpse. “What sort of spell could create these monsters?”
”A strong one,” Tara shrugged at their looks. “Look I don’t have the answers here, I’m as much in the dark as the rest.”
”Can’t you do a spell to track down the source?” Kennedy queried.
Tara grimaced. “I’m trying but this place is like a Hellmouth I guess.”
”Like a what now?” Xander peered worriedly at the witch.
”Look I’m only guessing,” Tara said. “Never been there, but this area is like a Hellmouth would be to a witch. It’s like I’m a radio, and my antenna’s picking up static, not allowing me to clearly hear the radio, or in this case track anything magical. If we get close enough, I’ll find the source, but it’s all dumb luck really.”
“Reassuring,” Faith scowled as she peered down at the skunk apes’ corpses, “could these things have laid the barbed wire across the road we ran over?”
After a long moment Tara shook her head. “No. They’re not smart enough for that.”
”Which means there’s something more out there,” Xander commented.
”Reassuring,” Faith repeated.
“Yeah,” Xander looked around then sighed. “Let’s move away from here and make camp somewhere else for the rest of the night. They really, really smell.”
“Jesus,” Faith shook her head. “This place is like Conan Doyle’s ‘Lost World’.” Faith glowered at everyone’s surprised glances. “What?” It had been on Tara’s reading list for her. “I can read!”
“Pop-up books, maybe,” Kennedy doubtfully commented.
* * *
“Uhhh.” A nauseous wave swamped Bobby Lee as he raised his head. Blinking furiously, he rolled to the side and spat out bile, his eyes falling on the corpse of his adversary.
“Uhh.” For a second he laid there, looking up at the not especially steep slope he’d fallen down, hand reaching gingerly behind him to feel at his head, wincing slightly as he felt at his bruised but thankfully not bleeding head. He’d probably have a lump the size of an egg but his vision was alright and his co-ordination appeared unaffected, he groaned again as he clambered to his feet, left shoulder and side aching from the various bumps he’d suffered. Walking over to the beast, his eyes widened as he examined it, confirming that it did in fact have the two arms and four legs he’d thought he’d seen. “What the hell?” he shook his head in disbelief. “A wampus cat?” He’d been brought up a woodsman, that was why he was so highly thought of in his previous career as a sniper, and had heard all the folklore myths swapped by such men. But he’d never thought to see one in person, much less have to fight one in a battle to the death.
He suddenly realised that several hours must have passed since his fall. It had been just turning dark when he’d fallen, now it looked to be near dawn. “I’ve been working too hard,” he comforted himself as he started up the slope, groaning slightly as his right hip protested slightly, “I needed the nap.”
Bobby Lee fell silent as he neared the hilltop cospe and crouched behind a bush, straining his ears and eyes as he sought to discern if an ambush was waiting him. When he was satisfied the cospe was empty, he strode back in and picked up his army surplus bag, winching slightly as he pulled it over his brusied shoulder. “Damn it,” he cursed as he picked up his shotgun and noted its mangled barrel. It was ruined.
Slightly better news greeted him when he found his automatic. It had been scratched by the wampus cat’s claws and was dirty from lying all night in the dirt he found it in, but a quick clean and inspection assured him that it was fine. Answers about Melissa Heverson’s fate would have to wait, his priority had to be finding the campers who’d stumbled into this hellhole and getting them out.
“You’re sure going on is the best idea, Xan?”
“Yeah,” Xander nodded soberly, eyes looking left and right into the forest, the huge redwoods’ gloomy shadows everywhere and tension prevading the air. “All these monsters have to have a magical source bringing them here and if it continues, these things could stop preying on passer-bys and maybe over-run the whole state.”
”That’s my boy-friend,” Faith drawled, “always with the optimism.”
* * *
“Man has firestick.”
“We many, he one.”
“Kill man, take girls.”
* * *
Faith stopped, brow furrowing as the hairs on the back of her neck prickled uneasily. Faith unfastened her holster, pulled out her automatic and hefted it in her hand, its weight not as comforting as she thought it would be. Her eyes scanned the surrounding trees, glaring suspiciously into the stygian darkness. ” Xan,” Faith kept her gaze on the nigh-on impregnable shadows as she spoke in a stress-filled whisper, “there’s somethin’ out there.”
”Have you seen something?” Xander muttered as he glanced back from his position at the point of their procession, Faith taking up the rear.
”No,” Faith reluctantly admitted, “but I gotta a feel-.”
Suddenly the forest’s thick bushes exploded open and a horde of thick-set, hairy creatures burst out of them. For a brief second Faith thought their attackers were more of the skunk apes, then she noted the subtle differences, the fact that although they stunk, it was a more natural body smell than the skunk apes’ stench, that the creatures’ sunken eyes seemed to have more intelligence than the apes, and that unlike the skunk apes, these things wore shredded aproximations of clothes, faded denim shirts and ripped jeans.
Then they were fighting and she didn’t have any more time to think about what the monsters were.
* * *
“Shit!” Xander swung his shotgun up as creatures erupted out of the surrounding undergrowth. Seemed like Faith was right again, Xander mused as he instincitvely aimed and tugged on the trigger of his shotgun.
Fire burst from the gun’s muzzle, blood blossoming on the nearest creature’s chest, a surprised bellow erupting from its wide mouth as it fell backwards, crashing to the ground. Xander spun to face a creature charging in from his right. “Damn it!” he cursed as the creature managed to step around his shotgun before he could fire it, almost as it instinctively knew its threat, then grunted when the monster’s hard-knuckled fist crashed into his forehead, blood spurting from his flesh.
Legs rubbery, Xander tried to re-position his shotgun, shoving its muzzle under the beast’s jaw as it closed with him, its sweaty stench reeking in his nostrils. A huge hand grabbed at the muzzle yanking it from under the creature’s jaw, his blast firing uselessly into the air as the creature wrenched it from Xander’s grip and flung it away. “Damn it!” Xander cursed again as he drove an elbow into the beast’s nose, flattening the squashed nostrils still further,
Xander opened the Always Pocket, reaching in it for-.
”Ahhh!” he staggered and reeled as a right-handed slap to the side of his head shattered his concentration, and then the creature’s fingers were wrapped around his throat, lifting him from his feet and flinging him into the air. Xander gasped as he smashed into something, blackness falling over him as he dropped to the ground.
* * *
“Fuck!” Faith cursed as she brought up her automatic and started firing even as she reached across and down, drawing her sword. “Shit!” Faith scowled as her bullets hit their targets, staggering but failing to put either of the three things charging her down, blood leaping from their torsos.
Heart pounding, Faith adjusted her aim. “Yes!” She cheered as she put a round through the right of the trio’s heads, knocking him on his ass. Faith changed to the middle of the three, eyes widening as her automatic clicked empty. “Oh crap!”
And then the monster crashed into her, knocking her back a step, but falling back a step himself. A shocked look had only just begun settling on the creature’s face when Faith’s blade sliced into his thick neck, blood jetting out as she dragged the blade out again, the beast falling to the ground.
Sensing a presence behind her, Faith spun into a spin-kick that swept the creature’s legs from under it, raised her blood-slicked sword for a killing strike then adjusted into a back-heel kick to the face of the monster charging behind her.
”Shit!” Faith cursed as pain shot through her leg, the monster having grabbed and twisted it, her other leg bucking under her as another beast grabbed her other leg and yanked it from the ground.
Faith twisted as she fell, pulling her legs up into her belly and shooting out to slam both feet into one of her attacker’s oversized-gut, the blow doubling up and downing her assailant. The other bent over and reached for her hair, insane giggling filling her ears.
Giggles that turned to pained roars when she thrust her sword up and through his shoulder. Then a boot crashed into her head, lights exploded in her head, and before she could react, boots were everywhere, kicking her into submission and unconsciousness.
Bobby Lee stopped at the sound of shooting in the distance, maybe two to three miles ahead of him. He licked his lips as he glanced at his holstered automatic, then drew and checked it, using the seconds it took to calm himself.
And then he was moving, not running, but not walking either, long strides eating up the yards as his eyes ceaselessly scanned the dark undergrowth around him.
* * *
“Oh goddess!” Tara ignored the corpses littering the clearing in favour of running over to Xander, the unconscious Sunnydaler slumped against a tree. Her heart thumped as she leaned over her friend, placing her face over his mouth until she was satisfied he was still breathing.
”They’ve taken Faith.”
Tara looked up at her girl-friend’s taut whisper. “What?” she looked around, heart dropping as her eyes confirmed Kennedy’s words, corpses of their strange ambushers were scattered throughout the clearing, their blood drenched into the grass, but there was no sign of the bombastic Slayer.
“How is he?” Kennedy queried as she crouched down by the opposite side of the comatose man.
”He’s out cold,” Tara grimaced. “I can’t call for help because of the poor reception and I can’t get a hold of Leo because of the magic static.”
“Oh boy.” Kennedy’s shoulders slumped as she picked up Xander’s shotgun, opened it, threw the spent shells onto the ground and started searching Xander’s pockets, pulling out his box of shells and shoving it in her jacket pocket. “Looks like I’ll have to go and rescue Faith.” Kennedy grimaced as she looked towards the bloody trail left by their surviving attackers. “At least they’ll be easy to follow.”
“What?” Tara’s eyes widened as she realised what her clearly insane girl-friend meant. “You can’t! There has to be another four of them!”
”Doesn’t look like I have a choice,” Kennedy replied. “You can’t leave Xander and god knows what those things will do to Faith if I don’t rescue her.” Kennedy shook her head and sighed long-sufferingly. “Again.”
“Have you got ammo for your automatic?” Tara nodded numbly. “Good, I’ve two magazines left. See you later.”
Tara shook her head as her girl-friend strode off, wanting to protest, but knowing in her heart of hearts that she was right. Tara scowled as she looked back at the unconscious man. The Always Pocket was great when he was awake, but when it wasn’t, it meant all of her spell components were inaccessibly locked up in it.
Well most of them anyway, Tara reached into her backpack and pulled out her bag of herbs. It’d take a while, but she’d soon have a spell cast and Xander up on his feet.
Just as long as the bang to the head wasn’t too serious.
* * *
Bobby Lee crept through the forest, bushes barely rustling at his passing, an all too familiar stench reaching his nostrils. He stopped, forced the memories away, then continued stalking through the thick foliage, the sunlight beaming down on him increasing as the foliage thinned and he reached the edge of a clearing. His eyes narrowed as he noted the young woman tending an unconscious man, then stepped out into the clearing. The girl let out a shocked as she lunged for the gun by her knees, snatching it up and twisting at the waist to face him, eyes wide and mouth open as swung her automatic up with a precision that hinted at long practice. “Back up, mister.”
“Relax,” he slowly raised his hands over his head. He wasn’t nervous, at least not as nervous as he would be if the gun was in the hands of a panicky novice, someone this girl didn’t seem to be. Still, accidents could happen. “I’m not going to hurt you.” His jaw dropped slightly as he noted the almost-human corpses sprawled across the ground. “What are they?”
“Haven’t worked that out yet.” He was surprised when the girl lowered the gun and looked away, continuing to work on her friend as if he wasn’t even there, seemingly having decided he wouldn’t harm her without another word from him.
“What is this place, I ran into a wampus cat?” he shook his head then winced, his head still aching a little from his fall.
The girl looked up. “Don’t know, why are you here?”
“My name’s Bobby Lee,” he replied as he crouched the other side of the man, “I was sent here to find out what happened to a client’s grand-daughter. You?”
“I’m Tara. Xander,” the girl glanced towards the unconscious man, “thought it would be a good idea for a camping trip.” The girl shook her head. “Another one of his good ideas.”
“You’re well-armed for a camping trip,” Bobby Lee commented as noted the Desert Eagle hanging on a shoulder holster inside the youth’s jacket.
“We’re not your usual campers,” the girl wryly commented.
“What happened to your boy-fri-.”
“So not my boy-friend,” the girl’s laugh was edged with tension. “Those creatures attacked us. We killed some of them, but they grabbed his girl-friend and carried her off, my girl-friend went after them.”
“Is that a problem?” the honey-blonde’s shyness was replaced with a low fire.
“No, I was just worried how she intends to deal with these things,” Bobby Lee replied.
”Yeah,” the blonde’s fire dimmed. “She’s armed but there were three or four of them still left.”
“In that case,” Bobby Lee pushed away questions about just what was happening in this insane forest to rise and deal with the more immediate problem, “I better get after her.” Bobby Lee stopped. “Do you mind if I swap guns with him?” he looked towards the Desert Eagle hanging beneath the unconscious man’s jacket.
The girl laughed. “Sure, I can barely lift that cannon anyway.”
“Thanks,” Bobby leaned over, took the gun and the man’s two clips before passing his gun over to Tara, “and what’s your girl-friend called?”
“Kennedy,” Tara pointed to where the blood trail went, “she went that way.”
“I can see the trail,” he nodded.
“Oh when you meet her,” the girl half-smiled. “If she doesn’t trust you, tell her the first time we met, Faith thought Kennedy fancied her.” Bobby Lee’s brow furrowed. “It’ll make sense to her, I promise.”
“Right,” Bobby Lee nodded slowly. He was more than half-convinced that this girl with her herbal potions was completely nuts.
“And also tell her I’ve read you.”
“Read me?” Bobby Lee blinked. That cinched it, she was nuts.
Kennedy gulped as she strode through the darkened forest, sweat beading down her forehead and her hands shaking. She didn’t normally get this nervous before or during a fight, but then she wasn’t normally the only one going into action. Normally she had a Slayer, an uber-witch, and a warrior-god backing her play. Kennedy swallowed, forcing down a nervous lump. She had to get a hold of herself, Faith needed her.
And okay, she and Faith didn’t have the best of relationships, but she was still part of the team, and like Faith said, you had to be able to rely on your team.
Kennedy chuckled nervously as an errant thought popped into her head. Xander knocked out by head-butting a tree? Her and Faith would have bet money that the tree would have come off worse in that showdown.
Her chuckles died at the sound of rustling in the bushes to her left. “I really,” she cocked the hammer on her shotgun as she peered towards the thick green foliage, her chest aching as her heart pounded within it, “hate the countryside.” Kennedy took a breath. “Here goes.”
She’d barely taken a step towards the bush when a hissing, thorny bobcatesque thing bounded out of the bushes. “What the!” Kennedy stumbled backwards as her finger tugged instinctively on the shotgun’s trigger.
The shotgun’s blast boomed in her ears, the leaping creature’s toothy maw parting in a screech as her shells shredded through it. Blood and flesh tore from the creature as it spun in mid-air and fell to the ground, its corpse briefly jerking, hissing its last defiance then finally stilling.
Kennedy’s eyes widened as she peered down at the bloody monster lying at her feet. It was about the size of a bobcat, but covered in what looked like a hedgehog’s spikes and a tail that ended in a vicious barb. “What is up with this place?”
Kennedy shook her head and reloaded her shotgun. She couldn’t think of that at the moment. She had a job to do.
Kennedy took a shaky breath then continued forward, eyes constantly darting from the blood streaked path to the surrounding bushes.
* * *
“What the?” Bobby Lee shook his head as he crouched over the remains of the monster, the smell of cordite still heavy in the air. Like the wampus cat he recognised this from the woodsmen legends. This had to be a cactus cat, but they were supposed to inhabit the south-east, particularly New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.
”This is very weird.” He glanced at the tracks. It would appear Kennedy was only minutes ahead of him, and heading into a fight with somewhere at least four ‘creatures’ of uncertain strength and ability.
In other words, he didn’t have time for internal debates on just what the hell was happening here.
* * *
”She make us feel good.”
“She kill our friend.”
“We kill her!”
“Girl taste yum! Eat girl!”
”No, she pretty!”
“No, girl soft!”
“Healthy girl, we use!”
“She make us feel good, then kill her!”
“Yeah! Yeah! Fun, then chop chop!”
The first thing Faith noticed as she began to waken was the stench, the mingled smells of dirt, dust, sweat, and even piss reeking in the fetid air. Next she noticed the barely recognisable as speech grunts, their continual noise forcing her heavy eyelids to flutter unwillingly open. Faith fought back a groan as she turned her aching head towards the noise, mouth opening to tell the annoying speakers to shut the hell up, her left eye apparently swollen shut.
The words died unspoken as she belatedly recognised the dire situation she was in. She was in what looked to be a derelict shack, tethered, spread-eagled and restrained by barbed-wire attached to four tent poles nailed into the wooden floorboards, dried blood ominously visible on the walls and floor. Worse, the arguing men stood by the shack’s solitary entrance were four ugly fuckers that made the family from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre look positively evolutionarily advanced. Fuck, Faith’s mouth dried as she wondered where the others were. Xander wouldn’t let her be in such a position, if she was here and he wasn’t, that could only mean….
Her heart stilled as one of the four turned towards her, head tilting as he stared as her, long tongue licking his lips. “Girl awake.”
“Girl pretty,” another of the men, a grey-bearded man with a bald head and thick, gorilla-like arms leered at her, her skin crawling in reply. “We like girl.”
“Girl smell good,” commented another, the fattest of them all, sausage fingers reaching down, pawing the air just above her.
”Oh fuck.” Sweat on Faith’s forehead, her back arching as she tugged desperately at her restraints, arms and legs kicking, the back of her head bumping into the floorboards beneath her as she thrashed. “Oh fuck!” Her heart thumped as she quickly realised struggling would only shred her wrists and ankles. “No,” she shook her head as the four savages crowded around her, “you get the fuck away from me!”
“Are you sure-.”
“I’m okay,” Xander lied as he shook away the queasiness swamping him. He peered forward, all too conscious both of the weariness ravaging him and the seconds ticking away. “It’s this way, right?”
“There’s blood all over the ground, can’t you see it?” Tara queried. “Xander, can you-.”
”I’m fine,” he leaned against a tree. To be honest, his eyes were a little blurry, but they were clearing up. And he couldn’t wait. “Come on.”
* * *
Faith let out a choked scream as her shirt was ripped from her, flesh pimpling as a great horror gnawed at her, unable to do anything but gurgle helplessly. This was really happening, Xander and the others were dead, and these monsters were going to-.
“Girl lacy,” purred the last of the monsters to arrive as he peered at her bra and thong, hot breath on her face. “Lacy nice-.”
Tears streamed from Faith’s eyes, throat and lungs burning as the hut exploded in a cloud of smoke. From somewhere Faith heard the monsters roaring their disapproval and racing from the hut.
* * *
”They’re coming,” Bobby Lee reported. “Take the left, I’ll deal with the right. Don’t shoot until we’re certain -.”
”Faith isn’t with them, I know,” Kennedy impatiently interrupted, her eyes fixed on the cloud-shrouded hut. Kennedy’s heart hammered as the seconds ticked by. God, this had to-.
The air reverberated to the sound of coughing, and then several unFaithlike shapes lumbered out of the hut. Kennedy swallowed as they staggered towards them, her worries not allayed when she didn’t see the Slayer with them. What if she was lying dead on the hut floor, killed in the monsters’ fury as the tear gas descended?
Kennedy shook her head, forcing her fears away as she raised her shotgun, sighted, and squeezed on her gun’s trigger.
The shotgun bucked in her hands, its boom obliterating the things’ collective coughs. Blood blossomed on one of the creatures’ thick torso, knocking him onto his ass. Kennedy turned her gun on the second monster charging heedlessly towards her and pulled the trigger again.
The gun’s roar filled her ears and the arid cordite stuck to her nostrils as her shell tore through the second monster’s chest, shredding it. Its pained bellow was still ringing in her ears as it fell, and she turned to the third.
Only to realise she’d been forced to wait until they were too close to ascertain Faith wasn’t with them. The beast snatched her gun’s hot barrel and wrenched it from her, its other hand swinging up to backhand her in the face, lights exploding before her eyes as she cartwheeled through the air.
* * *
The moment he was satisfied the girl wasn’t with the monsters, Bobby Lee dropped into a crouched marksman’s position, brought the Desert Eagle up in a two-handed position, the gun’s recoil tough even for a man of his size and strength, and pulled the trigger.
The cannon bucked, the recoil reverberating down his wrists as the shell smashed into the nearest of the things’ heads, ripping a good third off it, blood, brains, and bone spread across the clearing. The gunfire still ringing in his ears, Bobby Lee sighted on the second beast charging out of the smoke and pulled the trigger again.
Once again the gun bucked heavily in his hands. Once again his shot hit home, this one obliterating the beast’s forehead and spinning it around enroute to dropping it to the grass.
Eyes wide, he spun to face the growling mastodon, barely managing to duck under a wildly flung haymaker. His heart thundered as he swung his automatic up, only for one of the monster’s ham-sized fists to crash onto his shoulder, numbing his arm, gun falling uselessly from his grip.
“Shit!” His heart pounded as he jabbed the fingers of his remaining hand into the creature’s throat, ducked another haymaker, stepped to the left and brought up his elbow to slam it into the side of the creature’s head.
And then its thick, long fingers grabbed him by his throat, lifting him off the ground. “Uhhh!” Eyes bulging, Bobby Lee brought up his hands, feeling returning too late to his injured arm, and grabbed the creature’s wrists, his hands not coming even close to encircling the thicker than many men’s biceps’ wrists.
“Uhhh!” He purpled and wheezed as he struggled to pull the arms away, kicking uselessly at the creature’s belly. Dark dots appeared before his eyes.
”Oh I don’t think so.”
“Ooofff!” Something wet splattered his face and then he crashed to the ground, the wind temporarily gusting from his lungs. “Shit,” he groaned as he wiped at his face, belatedly realising the wet was blood, his attacker lying just a few feet from him, a crater-sized hole in the side of his head.
He looked up, eyes slowly re-focussing as oxygen rushed into his deprived body. “Xander?” he rasped a query as he recognised the battered-looking man stood over him.
“Yeah,” the boy’s eyes were fixed on the hut a few yards away, “Bobby Lee, right? Thanks for your help.” The youth swayed then staggered. “Tara, look after things here, I’ll go and get Faith.”
“Don’t you need-,” his voice trailed off as the youth limped away.
”He’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?” Bobby Lee rubbed at his throat and looked towards Tara knelt over Kennedy. “He looks like he can hardly stand, much less walk.”
Tara smiled wryly even as she cradled her partner’s head in her arms. “For her, he’ll stand.”
“Faith!” The gas was just about clearing when Xander entered the dirty hut, his breath caught, almost choking him as he caught sight of his girl-friend lying on the dirty floor, barbed wire around her wrists and ankles spread-eagling her, blood trickling down her left thigh from a knife-slash, her clothes cut from her, leaving her just in her bra and thong. “Oh Faith.”
In a second he was crouched beside his wild-eyed girl-friend stroking her hair. “Faith it’s alr-.”
”JUST GET ME OUTTA HERE!”
“Sure.” Xander nodded, jaw clenching as he pulled a pair of bolt-cutters out of the Always-Pocket, and started cutting through the restraints. God, he wished those bastard creatures were still alive, so he could kill them again, but slowly this time.
“Thanks,” Faith leapt up the moment the last barbed wire was cut. Xander winced as he saw her look at him with a wariness he’d never seen in her eyes when she looked at him before. “Some clothes?”
”Sure,” Xander nodded, unable to think of anything to say, “are you al-.”
”Five by five,” Faith interrupted with a shaky nod. “The clothes?” Xander nodded wordlessly as he passed Faith a pair of cargo pants, t-shirt, and hooded sweatshirt. “Thanks, I’ll just go change.”
“Faith-,” Xander reached for his girl-friend, but she wriggled away from his hand and rushed out. “Damn it!”
* * *
”Are you alright honey?” Tara softly asked. Tara smiled at Kennedy’s nod, and then scowled as she saw a semi-naked Faith flee from the hut, stop as she saw them, then bolt into the bushes. “Oh goddess!”
Her long skirt rustling around her feet, Tara hurried towards the hut in time to intercept Xander exiting it, a helpless look in her friend’s eyes. “What happened? Did they-.”
”I don’t think so, she still had her bra and panties on,” Xander said. “But she was so lost-,” Xander looked into the bushes. “I’ll have to go after her.”
“No,” Tara shook her head. “Let me.”
* * *
Faith’s hands shook as she stared at her forearms, already the welts left by the barbed wire were fading. The terror she’d felt was another matter entirely. She could still remember every despairing second, every word, every touch-.
Jagged fear shot through her at a rustle behind. Spinning around, she cursed inwardly as she realised she hadn’t asked for a weapon off Xander. Then a low growl erupted from her lips, she might be weaponless, but she was hardly helpless.
She was the mother-fucking Slayer!
“Faith,” her heart-beat returned to something approaching normal as she recognised her best friend’s voice, “it’s me, are you alright?”
”Yeah,” Faith hated the quiver in her voice as her best friend stepped out of the thick bushes, a look of concern in her eyes.
“Good,” her friend smiled, “are you alright? Did they -.”
”No, no.” Faith slumped against a tree, her legs barely holding her up. “When I was a kid,” she tried but failed to stem the torrent of words spilling from her mouth. “When I was a kid, my mom was a junkie, and cause she was a looker she paid for her habit on her back. Her pimp was this guy called Marco, a real bad-ass, but he made sure no-one touched me.” Faith let out a near-hysterical laugh. “When I was thirteen I found out it was ’cause he wanted to break me in himself, figured he could make way more money off me than he ever got off mom, on account of me bein’ young and fresh. Said that was why he’d let her keep me around.”
”Oh Faith,” Tara’s hand flew up to her open mouth.
”So he took me. I tried to fight him, but he beat me half to death, ain’t never felt that helpless. When I woke up I could hardly move, I was just one giant bruise.” Faith wiped at the tears spilling from her eyes. “Guess I’d have been turned out soon as I healed up, but for dumb luck. After he’d fucked me, Marco left with my mom to do some drugs, bang her, don’t know, don’t care, but I crawled off to hide, and hid in the basement, behind the furnace, then passed out. Then that night, this other pimp who wanted me, popular huh, broke in and killed mom and Marco when he couldn’t find me. The cops picked me up and put me in Child Services, but I ran away and started runnin’ with this gang of kids, my age, maybe a lil older. Anyone of them who wanted a taste, got whatever they wanted. ‘Cause I figured if I gave it away, what Marco did to me didn’t mean anythin’, sex wasn’t important, just flesh.”
”Oh Faith,” Tara’s own eyes were moistening.
”But it matters, Tar!” Faith shrieked. “It matters, he hurt me so much, and they were gonna do the same!”
“I’ve got you,” Tara’s hands were suddenly around her as she sobbed, holding her to her chest. “Nothing’s going to happen to you, none of us will ever let it happen.”
* * *
Xander rose from where he’d been sitting when the bushes rustled and Tara and Faith stepped out into the clearing, wincing as he noted the Slayer’s red eyes and tear-tracks down her face. “Hey,” he forced a smile and nodded awkwardly at his girl-friend. “Are you-.”
”Five by five,” Faith interrupted. “Thanks for rescuing me.” Faith looked towards the potential. “You too, Ken.” Faith stuck her hand out to Bobby Lee. “And you, bud.”
After a second Bobby Lee took the Slayer’s hand and shook it. “No problem at all.”
“Bobby Lee’s been telling me he thinks the town we came through on the way here knows about these things and was covering up,” Xander said for want of something to say.
Faith’s gaze snapped towards him. The pain fled his girl-friend’s eyes, replaced by an almost psychotic delight. “Yeah, do tell?”
“This the town jail?” Faith queried as they pulled in outside a single-storey, flat-roofed building.
”That’s what the sign says,” Xander said with a false lightness.
“Yeah,” Faith forced a smile as she glanced at her boy-friend before looking towards the jail. Last night had been tense, forced to camp out as they’d not made it back to Bobby Lee’s car in time. Now it was edging around to lunch. “I’ll go in on my own.”
Faith stilled Xander’s protests with a look. “Come in when you get the signal.” Xander’s mouth opened. “Oh you’ll know.”
Faith’s heart thundered as she advanced on the jail, her need for violence bubbling up inside her. These bastards had been covering up for those monsters for what looked to be years. How many people had died, gone through what she’d almost gone through, because of their lies?
They were gonna pay.
She was inches from the front door when it swung open and a massive black man loomed over her. “Hiya honey- ooof,” the man greyed, his legs buckling as Faith field-goaled his nuts into his throat, grabbing his collar as he crumpled forward, and flung him into the road while stepping around him and into the office beyond.
A pimple-faced kid maybe a couple of years older than her had half-risen to greet her when she reached him. She grabbed him around his throat, lifted, and tossed him through the room’s outer window in one smooth motion, then leapt over the kid’s desk, landing feet first on the chest of a chubby guy aged in his early-forties, her landing’s impact lifting him from his chair and dumping him head-first on the ground.
“What the hell!” The first female deputy, maybe ten years her elder, lunged up out of her chair and at her, nightstick coming down to crack her skull.
Except Faith sidestepped to the right, grabbed the nightstick and reversed its swing, the woman’s face disappearing in blood as the stick crashed home, shattering her nose. The woman crashed onto her ass, and grabbed at the wall behind her, struggling to pull herself up as Faith side-heel kicked an on-rushing deputy in the gut, then grabbed his collar as he doubled up and flung him into the female deputy.
Hearing the echoing sound of onrushing feet coming from around the corner at the end of the office, Faith strode to the end, waited to the last second and reached out.
She grabbed the surprised man around the front of his shirt and his belt. “What the-!” The man let out a shocked cry she lifted him over her head, then released, flinging him into the filing cabinet at the office’s near end.
Cabinet and sheriff crashed to the floor, the man dazedly pulling himself up onto his hands and knees, unwittingly presenting his over-ripe ass as a target for Faith’s boot to crash into, knocking him back down onto the ground. And then she had him by his collar, pulling him back up to his feet, only to drive him facefirst into the wall, leaving a bloody smear on the announcement board. The moment he hit the floor, Faith yanked him back up, and drove her fist into his protruding belly, wind exploding from the man’s mouth. And then he was flying again, into the deputy she’d dropkicked to the floor, knocking the pulling himself back up his desk deputy back to the ground, and propelling the sheriff over the desk to crash to the floor.
Faith kicked the deputy’s legs away as he struggled to his feet, then grabbed the sheriff and yanked him back up. “Faith, we need him conscious to answer our questions.”
“Yeah,” Faith nodded then flung the man into the bench that she guessed served as the police department’s reception area, “ask ‘em then.” Wood splintered as the sheriff hit the bench and went through it. Faith glanced towards Swagger who was staring open-mouthed around the devastated office. “Time of the month, y’all.” Faith was surprised when Kennedy stepped up to stand beside her. “What?”
Faith forced a smile. “Gettin’ there.”
”You can’t do this-,” the sheriff spluttered, hands rubbing vainly at the blood soaking his face.
”Oh,” Xander grabbed the man by his shirt and pulled him up, “I think we can. And I think you’re going to tell me what exactly you and your people know about these woods?”
“I’m a sheriff, you can’t-.”
“Maybe I go out and start shooting out all these street lights and maybe tonight all those nasty beasties start comin’ in here ‘cause they’re not so frightened with the lights gone,” Faith smirked as the sheriff paled. “I’m just spitballin’ tho’.”
“When I came to town, your deputies were very determined to stop me from asking questions about missing people, maybe you could tell us why?” Bobby Lee added, the sniper’s arms crossed.
The sheriff glanced at each of them in turn before letting out a choked sob. “After our ancestors slaughtered those damn savages, their tribe’s witch doctor cast a curse that trapped the men in a state somewhere between human and beast, and brought creatures from folklore to life in that area. Since then we’ve been here, can’t grow our town much, cause if we do, we move onto their land, and they start coming into the town.”
“And you let people drive into that without warning!” Faith snapped.
”Oh it’s worse than that,” Tara whispered, eyes filled with shock. “If anyone like Bobby Lee came looking for lost ones, the Sheriff and the townspeople made sure they either disappeared or didn’t get anywhere.”
“Why didn’t you just leave?” Bobby Lee demanded.
The sheriff’s bloody features contorted in rage. “This was our land! Those damn savages should have moved!”
”Unfucking believable, still fighting a goddamn war one hundred and fifty years later,” Faith shook her head. These numb-nuts were perpetrating every single hillbilly myth. “And to think we killed three of them for you.”
”Three-,” the sheriff choked, “but there’s- ooof,” Faith’s foot crashed into the man’s groin, the sound of his pelvis fracturing bringing winces to Xander and Bobby Lee’s faces.
* * *
“Huh,” Kennedy muttered as they strode out of the sheriff’s office, the crowd that had gathered outside hurriedly parting before Xander and Bobby Lee’s purposefully wielded shotguns, “correct if I’m wrong, but I thought we killed nine of those monsters, not three?”
“Yeah we did didn’t we?” Faith smirked as she strode back to the car. “My bad, I figure they’ll be worryin’ ‘bout the six monsters we haven’t killed comin’ into town for payback.” Bile rose in Faith’s throat as she looked around the town. “Let’s head outta hicksville.”
“Jack,” Brill leaned across the desk in Stanfield’s office, his team having discreetly checked the place for bugs under the guise of being a maintenance team just this morning, and shook his former student’s hand, “how did your hacking go?”
The computer security expert smirked. “I got the four names you didn’t want me to get.”
“Oh really?” Brill ignored the disappointment biting him. This was after all why he was here, to find any possible failings in the system.
“Yeah,” the younger man’s expression sobered. “But I was thinking, what if this was a ruse? I’m not about to blurt their names out so you could get some under the table and very illegal industrial espionage for the agency.”
“Fair point,” Brill leaned back in his seat. “I assume you’ve thought of a solution?”
“Yes,” Jack nodded. “You tell me the genders of the shareholders and their percentage ownerships, and I’ll assume you know the rest, and supply the names.”
“Sounds fair.” Brill nodded. Not completely fool-hardy, but if it acted as a sop to Jack’s conscience, he could work with it. “There’s four shareholders, one man, three women. The man and one of the women own thirty percent shares, the other two women twenty percent each.”
“Okay,” some of the tension left Jack. Indeed he grinned triumphantly. “Prepare to be a million dollars worse off, Alexander Harris and Faith Spenser each own thirty percent, and Tara McClay and Kennedy Lucas own the other forty percent between them.”
Brill’s heart raced. “How hard was getting into the system?”
”Hard, very hard,” Stanfield replied. “A lot of the usual tricks didn’t work, and your traceback programs would catch most people. You’ve got a very layered system. If I wanted everything from your system, it would take months-.”
”Years,” Brill corrected. Stanfield raced a querying eyebrow. “Several of the encryption algorithms randomise on the 1st of every month, only top level employees have access to the key, and can only use it when on-site. Plus there’s certain parts of our system that can only be accessed while on-site, and only by certain employees working within those sectors. My office’s internal security is impressive.”
“How very paranoid of you,” Stanfield’s features crinkled in a half-smile, striking blue eyes sparkling with mirth.
“I trust you’ve got your notes?” Brill queried.
”Everything,” Stanfield replied. “Things that worked, things that failed, where the system could be tightened, alarms I triggered, how I diverted them, holes that could be plugged, the hours it took, the equipment I used.”
“Right, thanks.” Brill pocketed the CD Stanfield passed him, while glancing over the sheaf of notes. Looking up, he opened his attaché case and passed a contract over to Jack. “That’s a contract and confidentiality agreement detailing you’ve been paid a million dollars for security consultancy.” He paused. “I assume this is the only copy of the work you’ve done?”
”I wiped it off my computer this morning with my own deletion program,” Stanfield replied as he signed for the money. “Why the interest?”
“Certain special interest groups are after that quartet for various reasons,” he evaded. “If they knew who really owned our business, they might try and come at them through the corporation. I have a responsibility both to my employees and our founders to ensure they’re both covered.” Lyle didn’t bother to explain the inexplicable loyalty he felt towards the kids, a loyalty he hadn’t felt since his early, idealistic days in the agency.
Stanfield leaned back in his seat and stared at him. “There’s a lot you’re not telling me.”
“Yes, there is,” Brill agreed. “But all I can tell you is these people aren’t a threat to America or our way of life. Indeed, this work you’ve done for me today is the greatest service you’ve ever done our country.”
“Great,” Jack’s brow furrowed as he struggled to decipher Brill’s words then shrugged and grinned. “But I’m still cashing the cheque though.”
* * *
Pine Bluff, Arkansas
The shower’s hot water jetted over her, cascading down her, easing her physical aches, but not the emotional maladies besieging her. She’d barely slept a wink last night, every time she shut her eyes, either Marco’s face or those monsters’ features leering over her. Faith stiffened as she heard the bathroom door opening. “Faith, are you okay?”
Faith forced herself to relax as she recognised Xander’s voice. “Five by five, stud.”
”No really,” Xander said from the doorway, concern filling his voice, “are you alright?”
Faith stuck her head outta the shower and managed a smile. “Not yet, but I’m tough, gonna be, ‘kay?”
Xander nodded. “Well if you need someone to talk to-.”
”I’ll talk to Tara, the one of us asses with actual empathy,” Faith winked at her boy-friend. “Now how ‘bout you leave a girl to get showered and dried?”
“Okay,” Xander pulled out of the bathroom.
Five minutes later and she was walking out to meet Xander in their hotel room. “So,” she nodded, “we gonna give Bobby Lee the big pitch?”
“Yeah,” Xander nodded. “Just got off the phone with Tara-.”
”Other women Xan? And lesbians too,” Faith shook her head. “One night without sex and you’re chasing skirt! You’re a hound, Harris.”
”Ha, ha.” Xander offered a half-smile before shaking his head. “No, she was giving me a report on Bobby Lee.”
“Yeah?” Faith glanced at her boy-friend as she dropped onto the side of the bed and pulled her sneakers on. “What’s the 411?”
“Thirty-five years old, a Marine sniper, recruited out of school and served from March ’87 until March last year. Served in Panama, Operation Desert Storm, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. He’s been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts.”
Faith smirked. “Guy must set off the metal detectors everywhere he goes. Tara, read him, he’s okay, so you offerin’?”
Xander nodded. “I’m offering.”
* * *
Bobby Lee listened as Xander finished his pitch. Ever since finishing his tour of duty, he’d been directionless, missing the uniform and the honour of serving his country, but not at all missing the frequently morally questionable black ops he’d often been called into. It was his belief he should be defending his country’s interests and people, not furthering the goals of multi-nationals.
This though, it had the mission he’d been seeking, the chance to make a difference. The reason he’d enlisted as a bright-eyed teen so many years ago. Maybe through this he could salve his wounded conscience. The monsters he’d faced the last few days were terrifying, but the resources offered by Harris and his group, and the opportunity to do some real, concrete good were just too tempting to turn down. Finally he nodded. “I’m from Missouri, is it taken?”
”No it isn’t,” Xander beamed as he looked towards Tara. “What potential resources do we have in Missouri?”
Tara tapped at her laptop’s keyboard for a few seconds, the computer’s CD drive buzzing. “We’ve got two teams of eight in St. Louis, a witches’ coven and a team of ten demon hunters in Kansas City, and a team of eight in Springfield.”
Bobby Lee was briefly rocked by the numbers fighting a secret war under his oblivious nose. “I’ll take it.”
“Great,” Xander’s beam increased. “Now, there’s a lot of paperwork to go through. Protocols, operating procedures…”