“Attacks on both our groups at the same time is awfully coincidental,” Lara paced the floor of the hotel room.
”Gee, ya think?” Faith snarked. She was just grateful she’d managed to escape Ramdev’s clutches before the prof had tried to dissect her. Faith glared at Tara, and she’d noted the witch had stayed quiet about her powers.
“There is one theory,” Xander said. “Perhaps whoever's behind this decided to tie off the loose end of the trustee while Neelam was attacked by one of her competitors?” Five sets of highly sceptical eyes turned to Xander. “Okay then,” her boyfriend shrugged and grinned weakly, “question is were they following you,” Xander looked towards Lara, “because they were ordered to by their big boss to make sure that if you found Kali’s Crown you didn’t make off with it? Or did someone recognise us and order a follow on us?”
“I’d say that the former is more likely,” Lara decided as she lounged in her chair. “However it hardly matters, the fact is we have tails of some description.” Lara looked towards Hillary. “Any luck?”
The butler sat down and shook his head. “I’m afraid not, Lady Croft, it would appear we’re not bugged.”
“Ah,” the English woman looked disappointed before picking up the stereo remote control up and turning it on, “just in case.” Lara turned to Xander. “Unfortunately we were unable to find anything from Mr. Chaudry’s office before the police arrived. Did you have better luck?”
Xander grimaced. “Afraid not. We’d barely started talking when they attacked.”
“She did impart one nugget of information though,” Hillary interjected. “Just who else has been contacted to search for Kali’s Crown.”
“Oh really?” Amusement danced in the English beauty’s dark eyes. “The competition, do tell?”
“Very well, mi’ lady,” Faith noted that Hillary’s usual air of unflappability had been replaced by a look of nervousness. “Dr. Solomon Zond, Dr. Benjamin Gates, Dr. Robert Langdon, and Dr.,” Hillary licked his lips, “Sydney Fox.”
“That bitch is here!”
* * *
“Old friend then?” Xander murmured.
Lara shot him a furious glare. “Sydney Fox is hot-headed, irresponsible, and glory-hunting-.”
“Pisses off Lady Muck. Sounds like my kinda gal,” Faith’s hot breath tickled his ear as she whispered.
Xander ignored his distracting girl-friend to stare at the English noble woman. “So we shouldn’t worry about her getting her hands on Kali’s Crown?”
“Oh no,” his heart dropped at Lara’s head shake, “she’s very capable at what she does, just extremely reckless.”
”So what do ya figure’s going on?” Faith queried. “Whoever’s behind this is watching the treasure hunters ready to make a grab for the crown when one of them finds it?”
“That’ll be about right,” Xander nodded. “We’re going to have to use our secret weapon.”
* * *
Aloba’s lips were pursed and his brow furrowed in thought as he struggled with what Gaya had told him. Long hours had passed in talking, meaning the night now shrouded him as he hurried home. His friend had been in charge of the security for nine men, Gaya didn’t know who, but the number nine was significant in India. According to occult lore, the Nine Unknown Men are a two millennia-old secret society founded by Emperor Asoka in 270 BC. According to the legend, upon his conversion to Buddhism after a massacre during one of his wars, the Emperor founded the society of the Nine to preserve and develop knowledge that would be dangerous to humanity if it fell into the wrong hands.
Could it really be? Did the old legends exist and his friend was responsible for protecting them?
“A heavy weight you carried, old friend,” Aloba muttered. Of course it could be a terrified spouse’s hysterical mutterings but something rang true. He hated to admit it, but the odds were his friend was dead.
Which left only vengeance.
Since he’d left the house he’d been conscious of a trio of men following him, more evidence to support Gaya’s words. Even if he was wrong about the Nine Unknown Men, his friend was mixed up in something very murky.
He spun around, the shadows appearing to surge to meet him. His hand came up, a gust of wind sending one of the men flying backwards. Another lunged at him, knife flashing. Aloba leaned away from the attack, sending a lightning bolt crashing into the man, frazzling him to ash.
Burnt flesh filled his nose as the two remaining shadows charged him. Another gust of wind lifted one of the men off his feet, flung him twenty feet in the air before dropping him like a stone. He twisted away from the third’s lunge, backhanding him to the ground.
“Did you think you were messing with just anyone?” Aloba raged as he approached the remaining thug. “I am Monsoon!” His hand crackled as he fired a lightning bolt at the man, flinging him into the side of the car parked across the road. “Who are you?” he imperiously demanded, as he strode across to the dying man, blood leaking from both sides of the man’s mouth.
The man laughed and winced, eyes dulling. “I am Thugee. We are many, you are-.”
Aloba stepped back, eyes widening with horror. “They’re back.”
“What’s our secret weapon?” Unsurprisingly Kennedy was the first one to ask the question. Well he’d bet on it being her or Faith anyway.
Xander cleared his throat. “I am.”
Faith’s eyes narrowed. “Ya know it makes me nervous when you say things like this stud.”
“No, it won’t be dangerous,” Xander shook his head. “At least I wouldn’t think so, but I know more about Kali than anyone in the world.”
”Why is that?” queried Hillary.
Xander glanced towards the Englishman. “Because Mithras was actually there.”
”Ah,” Hillary chuckled self-consciously. “Of course.”
“What I still don’t get is this crown garbage,” Xander looked towards Tara. “Anything?”
The witch shook her head. “I’ve been looking through the Eternal Archive since this meeting began, no mention of Kali having a crown in the really old texts. It only starts being mentioned around eleven hundred years BC., in some of the Vedic texts of the day.”
“Okay,” Xander screwed his eyes shut in thought and spoke. “The most obvious places to look for something valuable of Kali’s would be in her temples.”
”They’ve already been turned upside down, if it was there, it would have been found decades or centuries ago,” Lara objected. “Look, the text says ‘seek not in the temple of my worshippers, but in the accursed sanctuary of my enemy’.”
“Okay then,” Xander pursed his lips together before looking up, the embers of an idea flickering into life. “Where’s the oldest Durga temple?”
”Durga?” Lara stared at him.
“Durga slayed Kali, if there was a crown, she’d have taken it and hidden it,” Xander paused. “All the other clues lead to Calcutta?”
Lara stared at him. “The non-specific ones refer to the crown being hidden in the goddess’ land.”
“And Calcutta is believed to be an anglicised version of ‘Kalikshetra’ which means ‘land of Kali’,” Tara added.
“Sis has been reading her guide books again,” Faith’s wink took the sting out of her words.
“So definitely Calcutta then,” Xander grimaced. “Here’s the thing though,” Xander’s forehead creased as he dragged facts out of Mithras’ memory, “although Durga killed Kali, she also injured Durga fatally. In those days they believed that if a warrior dies in battle with their enemy who they also kill, they should be buried with them to herald their passage into the afterlife.”
”That’s just whack,” Faith sniffed.
Xander half-grinned. “That’s what they believed. Now, I have no idea where Durga was buried, but odds are the oldest temple in the city is built on her burial ground.”
”I know where it is,” Lara rose gracefully. “Come on.”
* * *
The door to the opium den swung off its hinges, flying across the room to crash against the wall. And then there was a figure in the doorway, a tall man with a pony-tail and dark burning eyes, with muscles that pulsed with power. “I have been searching for answers all day and night, and I am not a patient man,” thundered the intruder, “where are the Thugee?”
A figure lunged out of the shadows to the doorway’s left, the stranger lifted a casual hand and the figure flew back the way he had come. His nerve frayed beyond snapping, Palak lunged for the back entrance. “Ahhh!” he squealed as a gust of wind picked him up and flung him to the front door.
”Just the man I was looking for,” growled the stranger.
Palak gasped when the man grabbed his collar and threw him out into the street, dust billowing where he landed. He hurriedly rose, wide eyes fixed on this impossibly powered man. He lunged to his left, eyes looking for an escape.
And walked into a backhanded slap to the face that knocked him into the wall. “You’ll get me killed,” he sobbed.
He gasped when the man grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off his feet. “Worry about now,” the man retorted, steely fingers pressing deep into his throat. “You’re a man of a certain reputation, always scurrying in the gutter. And in the gutter, you’ll have heard things.” Palak tried to shake his head only to get a slap across his face. “The sooner you talk, the sooner you can start running.”
His eyes brimmed with tears, this was so unfair. He wasn’t a bad man, a pick-pocket and a con-man yes, but he didn’t deserve this. “All I know,” he gurgled, “is a man arrived in New Delhi twelve years ago. No one knows where from or what he did before, but he began uniting the smaller criminal gangs across the country, brutally killing anyone who got in his way until he ruled a nation-wide organisation bigger than any in the nation and brought back the old ways.”
“Why does no-one in power know this?” the stranger demanded, dark eyes troubled.
“Maybe they do,” Palak gasped, “maybe they’re paid to be quiet. Maybe they’re too scared to do anything. Maybe it’s because the gangs have just continued doing their normal activities until recently?”
“I..I don’t know,” Palak stuttered. “Just there’s been a dark change in the city over the past months, a deadness in the air, like everyone’s waiting.”
His assailant glared. “And this man’s name?”
“I don’t know his real name, but they call him Darr’s Shakti.”
“Fear’s Power?” the man chuckled. “Let him fear me.”
* * *
“I don’t understand,” Nigel grimaced as he followed his employer into a hidden passageway at the back of the temple, ducking under a low-hanging cobweb, dust clogging his throat and grit tearing his eyes. “Why would a crown belonging to Kali be in a temple to Durga?”
“I don’t know,” Sydney whispered, her torch leading the way down the narrow, dark passageway that seemed to lead ever downwards, “perhaps this temple used to be Kali’s, but the clues lead here. Besides,” the professor looked over her shoulder at him, gleaming teeth flashing through the darkness, “it’s a secret passage, they’re always begging to be explored aren’t they?”
“Oh sure,” he muttered. “I’ve always enjoyed traversing the bowels of hell.”
After an apparent eternity the passageway levelled off and spilled out into a tiny chamber, an apparent dead-end, its cramped walls etched with writings. “Look for something out of place,” Sydney ordered.
”That’s a little vague,” Nigel groused as he started to look. “Is this writing what I think it is?”
“Vedic and Indus,” Sydney agreed. “It’s old, far older than-.”
“I’ve found something,” he interrupted. In an instant, his employer was beside him, distracting him slightly with her intimate closeness. Nigel forced himself to concentrate. “This writing, I don’t recognise it.” His fingers trailed the inscription.
”I didn’t do anything!” he protested as a panel just before him clicked open, revealing a skull. His eyes widened as he finally realised what he was looking at.
”It’s not possible,” Nigel shook his head. Even in the near-dark he could see the skull belonged to no known species, extinct or otherwise. Its bone was charcoal-grey rather than the usual white, the size of a small elephant, but shaped like a goat but with wolf-like jaw and an apparent horn curving out from between its slanted eye-sockets.
“Perhaps it is,” Nigel looked towards a suddenly pale-faced but excited-looking Sydney. “Perhaps Kali was a beast from a time we’ve never even heard of. Perhaps there was no crown, perhaps there was a mis-translation.”
“You mean crown rather than head?” Nigel guessed.
”Precisely,” Sydney agreed. “Either way, this is the find of the century. We have to get it out of here.”
Nigel grimaced. It looked bloody heavy.
Despite his misgivings they burst back through to the surface, dusty and tired but still alive almost an hour later. “Now we need to-.”
“Now,” a cold voice cut Sydney off, ten men stepping out from the shadows to surround them, “you need to give us the skull.”
“See,” an unfamiliar but sexily husky voice drawled from somewhere behind the gunmen, “that really ain’t gonna work for us.”
The moment the men began to turn, their guns coming up, Xander started to fire. His Mac-10 held at waist level, he took down three before diving for cover, lunging for the ground as the men began to fire back.
* * *
“Shit!” Faith cursed as the men went for their guns. They were meant to realise they had them surrounded and just give up. Faith’s gun came up, spewing lead into the nearest of the men even as she glanced around, worriedly checking that her baby was five by five.
* * *
Nigel groaned as Sydney lunged at the men’s apparent leader when really they should have been leaping behind them to hide behind the altar. His eyes widened when the man deftly ducked his boss’ side-thrust kick, nimbly hooking his arm around her leg before smoothly kicking her grounded leg from under her.
“One doesn’t see that every day,” he gasped as his boss hit the ground. Undaunted, Sydney attempted to kick at the man only for him to grab her foot at the ankle and swing her into a near-by stone pillar. After dropping his winded employer, the man turned towards him. Nigel felt a chill run through him at the man’s cold eyes.
Swallowing his fear, Nigel hurriedly placed the skull on the ground and assumed a boxing stance. “I must war-.” His eyes crossed when the man’s palm crashed into his chest, cutting off his oxygen. His knees buckled under him, sending him crashing to the ground. Seeing the man step past him, he reached out to grab the man’s feet only to get the side of a boot to the head.
* * *
“What happened?” Sydney groaned as she started to rise, ribs aching. That man had moved with such raw speed and power, she’d never experienced anything like it. Her eyes widened as she saw Nigel lying unmoving on the dusty ground. “Nigel!” she shouted, her ribs forgotten as she scrambled over to her best friend. “Nigel!”
“Oooooh,” the man groaned as she shook him by the shoulders. “Not so loud.”
“Oh look who caused all this,” her elation faded at a hatefully familiar clipped voice, “imagine my surprise.”
Sydney stood and faced Lara. “Look at the chaos you and your companions caused!” she snapped, looking around the devastated temple, complete with corpses sprawled everywhere.
”We caused?” Lara’s eyes widened, cheeks flushing with outrage. “You’re the one who recklessly endangered people. Just like that time with Thor’s hammer!”
“Ah you’re just sore because I got to it first!” Sydney spat.
“Can there be Jello?”
Sydney’s eyes snapped to a tall ruggedly handsome young man with sparkling eyes who looked to be perhaps a decade younger than her. “What?”
“What Xander means if there’s going to be a cat-fight,” commented the smaller of the two black-eyed brunettes, “there should really be Jello.”
“And a camera,” added the young man. “Definitely a camera. And that Thor’s Hammer? It’s a fake.”
”And how do you know that?” Sydney planted her fists on her hips as she glared at the young man.
“Eh, because,” she joined Lara in gasping when the youth pulled a war hammer out of nowhere, its iron head gleaming and its grooved handle about two foot long, “I have the real one.” The young man looked around. “We better get out of here. Faith, can you-.”
“Pick up barely conscious boy?” The leather-clad brunette nodded, ebony eyes sparkling. “Yo,” Sydney gasped when the lithe beauty gabbed Nigel and effortlessly flung him over her shoulder, “no copping a feel, ‘kay?”
“Come on,” the young man ordered. Somehow Sydney knew she had to follow, if only to get some damn answers.
* * *
Shakra Yamini stared at the skull set on his glass coffee table, conscious of the muttered comments of his gang’s most senior members as they inspected it. He’d heard their comments, their theories that the skull of this unfamiliar creature must be in fact an intricately-carved helmet worn by some warrior chief to scare his enemies when riding into battle.
He knew the truth of course, he remembered Kali from the old days, this was her skull, the skull he needed to put the next stage of his plan into operation. He should be ecstatic, and yet…
The interruption to their well-planned snatch had disturbed him. Not that someone was onto them, that was unexpected but people were bound to be sniffing around and they were too far along in their plans to be stopped. No, it was the younger man of the two at the ambush. He’d never seen him before, he’d seen enough ‘westerners’ in his time since awakening to know that, and yet he knew him.
More than that, the boy had frightened him in a way no-one had ever done, for well-. Forever it seemed. His forehead creased in thought as he struggled with the twin unfathomable mysteries. Who was the boy? Why did he scare him so much?
Shakra looked towards his men, forcing a smile. It didn’t matter, in just a few days the whole of India would be his. “Yes,” he nodded slowly. “Begin the snatches. I want to be ready to move the night after tomorrow.”
“Oh you’re staying at the Grand, Lara?” Sydney sniffed as they entered the gleaming hotel lobby. “It must be nice to have your family fortune to fall back on. Not like us working joes.”
“Hey,” Faith muttered in his ear, hot breath tickling his lobe, “family fortune? She’s gonna love ya, sweetcakes.”
“Doubtful,” Xander muttered as he followed the two bickering explorers into the elevator. The moment the doors closed, he turned to both women. “Look, we’re here to do a job. If you don’t want to be involved that’s fine, we’ll drop you off, either at your rooms or the nearest balcony. But if you come in, you will cut out the bickering, it was entertaining at first, but now you’re starting to sound like a Britney Spears record, and that does nothing for my state of mind.”
Both Hillary and Nigel gulped. Eyes glittering, Sydney’s mouth opened. “I wouldn’t Tokyo Rose, when he uses that tone, boy-toy ain’t playing.” Faith drawled as she slouched languidly against the elevator’s far wall. “And if that don’t work, remember who risked their butts saving your cute rear end.” The Oriental’s mouth clamped shut. “Smart lady.”
The moment the doors opened, Xander stepped through into the corridor and started towards their room. “Lara, fill in Sydney on who we are, the myth about Kali’s Crown, and see if she’s got any information to add to what we already know.” Xander unlocked their room door and herded his companions in. “Tara, what about that hack on the trustee?”
“Give me a minute,” the witch took her laptop and started work. “I was just finishing a search of his finances.”
”Anything interesting?” Xander queried.
“Oh yeah,” Tara nodded. “The trustees are usually either esteemed members of the academic community, celebrity fans, or affluent businessman.”
“And who was he?” Xander queried as he sat on the desk beside the witch and peered at the screen before shaking his head. It was all numbers to him.
“An affluent businessman,” Tara paused and grinned, “supposedly.”
“Supposedly?” Faith queried a second before him.
“The man had debts, I don’t know who to, but eighteen months ago, he owed about $250,000 in house, business, and car payments,” Tara paused. “Maybe even more under the table. And then more or less over-night, his books were healthy again.”
“Fresh infusion of cash?” Kennedy queried.
”Yeah, but where from and why?” Xander countered.
”I don’t know for certain, but fifteen months ago, the trustee set up an offshore account, every two months he’d receive a payment of ten thousand pounds,” Tara looked up. “He must have been their inside man.”
“The faked suicide confirmed that already,” Faith countered.
”No it didn’t,” Xander shook his head. “That might have been some sort of set-up to take us off the scent, or he might have been an innocent who discovered what was going on.” Xander looked towards the New Mexican. “Go on.”
“The payments all came from Devi Holdings,” Tara said. “I tracked their address, but it doesn’t make any sense, it’s in one of Calcutta’s most run-down areas. However, I also realised there was a Bhagwan Holdings in one of Calcutta’s most prosperous areas.”
“So?” Xander said.
“Both Devi and Bhagwan Holdings came into being two years ago.” Tara reported. “They both are owned by a recluse by the name of Shakra Yamini. And both Devi and Bhagwan mean god.”
“Okay, it’s the best lead we have,” Xander decided. “As there’s two places to cover, there’s going to have to be two teams, one watching each place.” Xander looked towards the two explorers and their companions. “Lara and Hillary, go with me and Tara, Sydney, Nigel, you’re with Faith and Kennedy.” Xander looked towards Faith. “We’ll take the business building, you take the slums.”
“Typical,” Faith shook her head. “Always give me the hard job.”
* * *
John Creasy shaded his eyes as he left the path and stepped out onto the pavement, just before the car. Even after six months working protection for a prominent scientist he wasn’t used to the Indian sun. His eyes narrowed as he noticed a black tinted van parked across the road opposite and one parked three houses to the right. His hand dipped inside his bomber jacket, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling.
He glanced to the two silently efficient Indian men he’d been detailed with. “Get him back-.” At the last second he saw the man’s gun rising up from within his jacket.
He flung himself backwards as he fired, his Glock bucking in his hand as he took down the first of the two men. He was rolling towards the second and up onto one knee when he saw a dart hit the primary in the throat, the aged man dropping to the ground. He took down the second, his round ripping the traitor’s face off, before spinning around to crouch behind the car.
One sweeping look was all it took to see that all around was carnage, three van-loads, a third had screeched up at the inter-section to his left, of balaclavaed thugs were all converging on his position. And then one threw a grenade at the car he was crouched behind.
Heart racing, Creasy threw himself backwards over the knee-high stone wall behind him, his head cracking against the lawn as the sky turned red with flames. The last thing that flashed before his mind before he passed out was the registration of the van across the road.
He’d need that later.
“I don’t know anything!” The Thugee screamed as Aloba picked him up with another gust of wind and threw him into the far wall. “I swear-.”
“Your lack of knowledge is unfortunate,” Aloba coolly regarded the crumpled man, one of three he had followed along their route, extorting money from small businesses. The man’s companions were dead, and the once arrogant bully close to it. But he’d have his answer first. “Because only knowledge can free you. Who do work for?” The criminal’s mouth opened, Aloba kicked him in the ribs. “That was in case you were going to tell the same old lies.”
“Please,” blood dribbled out of the Thugee’s mouth as he wheezed for breath, eyes desperate with fear. “I don’t know any names but I know where we report to hand in our money.”
* * *
Farez Raja fought back a groan as he lifted his head, bludgeoned eyes barely opening and head swimming as he forced them to focus on the recently opened doorway. Even with the best of wills, he could only make the fuzzy outline of the man stood in the doorway. “Don’t worry Chief Inspector,” the man’s voice had all the menace of a leopard’s purr, “the Nine Unknown Men will soon be here, and then we will have no need of you.” The man paused. “For you at least the pain will be over.”
* * *
“This Slayer myth is really quite fascinating,” Faith rolled her eyes as Sydney continued to talk. “To think the legend of the Shadow Men is true.”
Faith glanced at the oriental beauty. “The what now?”
Sydney blinked, clearly shocked by her lack of knowledge. Faith smirked inwardly, she’d been shocking people with her lack of knowledge for years now. “There’s a legend that in ancient Africa, a group of tribal elders known as the Shadow Men used powerful magics to infuse a captive girl with the heart of a demon. This process granted the girl great strength, agility, and endurance: she became the First Slayer called upon to fight the vampires and other demons that populate the earth. All Slayers since then have come from her line, the demon passing onto another girl upon the Slayer’s death.”
“I’ve heard the myth. It was just one of the theories about how the Slayer Line was created,” Kennedy interrupted from the back of the car. “Didn’t your Watcher ever tell you?”
”We were more into the training to stay alive thing,” Faith replied.
Sydney’s almond eyes widened. “Say has anyone measured your abiliti-.”
”No, and they’re not gonna,” Faith firmly interrupted. “I’m no lab rat. No X-ray, ct-scan, no tests.”
“But,” the explorer pouted.
”We could always see how far down the street I could bounce you?” Faith offered.
”That’s not necessary,” the relic hunter sniffed.
“Five by five,” Faith kept her eyes on the building they were watching. They were on top of a hill its cramped road leading down to a dirty grey warehouse backing onto a busy market with only one apparent entrance at the front, the only thing identifying it a battered sign hanging over its entrance. “Ken, you got the plans for it?”
Kennedy looked up from her lap-top and shook her head. “Nope,” the potential replied. “Tara just emailed me, my sweetie says the planning office is a waste of time, everything’s at least five to six years out of date.”
“Your sweetie,” Nigel interjected. “You mean you’re,” Faith could actually hear the Englishman’s blush, “oh….”
”Yeah, we’re gay,” Kennedy snapped. “You got a problem with that?”
“No, not at all,” the Englishman stuttered. “I just have a vivid -. Never mind.”
Faith snorted. This was more entertaining than she’d expected.
* * *
Creasy ignored his still aching head as he watched the rear of the building the van that had been involved in last night’s attack was currently residing in. It had taken quite a lot of work to track them down, first an expensive bribe to a transport clerk to track the owners, then another bribe this time of a traffic cop to look at the CCTV to find just where the van was. He’d been sat outside since day-break wondering what exactly to do. Breaking in wouldn’t get him any closer to his employer and besides, the place didn’t look like it would be easy to get into.
He’d have to wait until the vehicle left.
* * *
“How do you think Sydney and Faith are getting on?” Xander idly queried.
”You’re evil,” Tara reproved.
“Try saying that without a grin,” Xander teased before staring at the looming building before them. It gleamed in the sun, sixteen stories of glass reaching up to the heavens. “And you say this man owns the entire building?” Tara nodded. “He must have some money,” Xander whistled.
”Yes,” Tara nodded. “But he’s a complete mystery. He goes back about fifteen years but then nothing and no clue where his money came from. Here’s the photograph I found, the only one.”
Xander’s eyes widened as he looked at Tara’s lap-top screen. “That’s not possible,” he shook his head. “It’s almost as if I know him, but I’ve never seen him before.”
“Weird,” Tara commented. “He must look like someone we’ve met or something. I don’t recognise him though.”
”Yeah,” Xander nodded uneasily, eyes fixed on the photograph. Somehow he didn’t think that was it. The beep of his cell interrupted his train of thought. Grabbing his cell, he spoke. “Yeah.”
“Nine tinted windowed vans are leaving out of the underground car park’s rear entrance,” the Englishwoman reported in her clipped tones.
“Okay,” Xander nodded to himself, “you best follow the-.”
“There’s something else, they’ve picked up a tail other than us,” the noblewoman paused before adding, “and I think he made us too.”
”Great, well follow them too-.”
”Xander, that’s him.” Tara nodded as the businessman strode out, flanked by a pair of shaven-headed hoodlums.
Xander’s belly did a flip flop. No it wasn’t because they’d met in the past, it was something else entirely. “We’re on the move,” Xander announced as the businessman’s car drove off.
“Shit!” Faith slouched down in her seat as a procession of vans snaked past their position and down towards the building, its electronically controlled doors sliding open to allow them access then smoothly closing behind them. Faith hurriedly called her boy-friend’s number up from memory and rang it. “Xan, they just got a shit-load of reinforcements.”
“Yeah,” Xander answered, “we’re following them in. Definitely looks like there’s a link. Hold tight.”
“Five by five,” Faith’s eyes narrowed as she noticed an athletic Indian man shrouded in the shadows of an alley half-way down the hill. “Gotta go, stud.” Cutting Xander off, she looked towards Kennedy. “Ken, you’re in charge, I smell trouble.” Then she grimaced as a worrying thought occurred and looked over her shoulder. “I can trust you two crazy kids to behave can’t I? No necking in the back-seat?”
She was out of the car before either Nigel or Sydney could splutter a reply, hitting the ground in a ball and rolling into the nearest building’s shadows. Rising in a crouch, she retreated away from her companions’ vehicle, her eyes fixed on the man watching the building. He wasn’t there when they’d arrived, so he’d gotten there after them, and yet she hadn’t seen him arrive. “Dude’s good,” she decided in a whisper.
Stepping around and ignoring some kids begging for money, she stole into an alley. There had to be a way around to get behind him.
* * *
Aloba grimaced as he peered at the building. It was a formidable sized fortress with resolute security that would be difficult to break into. The nine vans had doubtless added significantly to the numbers inside too. His mind told him it was best to wait for nightfall, but his heart worried that might be too late for his friend.
“Hey.” He spun around to find himself being regarded by a western beauty with mocking eyes and a Mac-10 resting on her leather-clad hip and pointed at him with studied casualness. “What’s your beef with them?”
Aloba stared at the curvy brunette, unfazed by the weapon, knowing he could take it from her with a gesture. “Leave here,” he growled a warning, “this does not concern children.”
“Child?” the beauty’s ebony eyes hardened. “Do I look like a fuckin’ kid? Ya got a beef with them, I wanna know it?”
“What is your problem?” he countered.
”’Kay,” the dark-haired temptress nodded. “We figure they’re into some mind-control shit.”
“Mind-control-,” Aloba’s mouth opened in a mocking laugh then clamped shut. “It’s just possible.”
”What is?” the dark-eyed beauty demanded.
“Two days ago the wife of a friend told me that they’d gone missing. My friend is an important policeman, so I was surprised when she told me that no-one had been investigating his disappearance. And then she told me he was the chief of the security of The Nine Unknown Men.”
“The what now?” the beauty’s face creased in puzzlement.
“A group of nine very powerful men and their descendants who have controlled India from the background for the past two thousand years,” he calmly replied. “Perhaps my friend was kidnapped for the information he holds.”
”Shit,” the brunette cursed. “There were nine vans in that convoy that just passed by.”
“I noticed that too,” Aloba replied.
“Fuck!” the brunette spat before glaring suspiciously at him. “I suppose I’ll have to get Tara to check ya out. Wanna join forces?”
After a second Aloba nodded slowly. If nothing else he needed more numbers. “Wicked,” the brunette drawled. “Follow me. So no guns and shit, how’s that workin’ out for ya?”
“I am my own weapon,” Aloba enigmatically replied.
”Yeah,” the girl appeared unfazed by his answer. “I get that a lot too.”
* * *
Creasy’s eyes narrowed as he watched the hard-looking middle-aged man attempt to sneak up on his vehicle. A white Westerner didn’t exactly fit with this mob, but it was rare for crime to know a race barrier. After a quick glance over his shoulder in the other direction he eased his hand into his jacket for his gun.
And spun around again as the far window smashed, a pair of small yet awesomely powerful hands snatching hold of him to drag him out of his car and dump him on the concrete. “Hand comes out with a gun and I will break something,” a huskily sexy voice warned, “and that’ll be a shame as we ain’t even introduced yet.”
Creasy looked up at the brunette beauty and her shotgun wielding companion, a black-haired youth barely out of his teens. “Who are you?” he demanded as he eased his empty hand out of his jacket.
“See,” he gasped when the bombshell snatched hold of his shirt and effortlessly lifted him up, “that ain’t how it works, we’re the ones asking the questions.”
Creasy stared at the dark-haired beauty. She was impossibly strong, stronger than him by far. And yet his gut, the instinct that had carried him through over two decades in the world’s hotspots, couldn’t find anything inherently bad in either of his companions. And it wasn’t like he was getting out of this situation any other way. “One of the vans that went into that building was used in the kidnapping of my employer last night.”
”Yeah?” this time it was the boy who spoke. “And who might that be?” Creasy told them. “Who’s he?”
“One of Asia’s finest scientists so I’m told.”
”Shit,” the girl spat. “Looks like the theory’s right.”
“Come with us,” the young man demanded. Creasy nodded wearily. It didn’t look the girl was the sort to take no for an answer.
* * *
Shakra Yamini beamed as he walked into his building’s basement; the nine men were set out in a pentagram, strapped to gurneys and connected to IVs that would keep them pumped up with enough drugs to stop them from resisting but not enough to knock them unconscious. No, they had to be conscious until the very end. The best way to fool anyone into believing that they were still alive was to hold off from their execution until the last moment. That way their corpses would have decomposed the least by the time of re-animation.
Kali’s skull in his hands, he walked to the centre of the pentagram and began the chant, the flames of the candles encircling him seeming to lean away at each arcane utterance.
“So ya with us?”
Creasy shook his head as the ‘Slayer’ finished her story. It was incredible, unbelievable, except he’d experienced how strong she was, as well as seeing a shy-looking girl levitate her lap-top.
Compelling evidence then.
“Yes,” Creasy nodded.
”Wicked cool,” the leather-clad beauty winked before looking towards her fortunate paramour. “What’s the plan, Harris?”
“There’s two entrances,” Xander said as he peered through his binoculars. “Unfortunately, seeing as we haven’t a clue how many men there are in there, so we can’t risk splitting up until we’re actually inside.” Xander paused. “We’ll have to go through the front.” Xander looked towards the recently introduced Aloba Dastoor. “You say your power is the weather?” the powerfully-muscled Indian nodded. “Can you send a lightning strike through those CCTV camera?”
The Indian smiled. “Just say the word.”
“Cool,” Xander looked towards him. “What’s your weapon of choice?”
Creasy stared at the boy. “Where do you keep this arsenal?”
Xander grinned. “What do you want?”
”Gawd,” Faith drawled. “Just answer the boy, he just loves to show off.”
“Okay,” Creasy shrugged. “Do you have a MP 5?” His eyes widened when the beaming youth pulled a MP 5 and four cartridges out of thin air. “How-.” Creasy shook his head as he took the weapons. It had to be some sort of trick, he just had to figure it out. “Do you have a Mossberg 590-.” He gaped as the now chortling kid pulled a shotgun out of air. “Okay, how in the hell are you doing that!”
”Men,” Faith sighed. “There’s all kids.”
Xander sobered the moment he finished explaining his Always Pocket. “I assume you know how to handle C4?” Creasy nodded. “Okay, the moment Aloba has knocked out the CCTV cameras, we’re going to fix two blocks to that door and blow it open.” Xander looked over his shoulder. “Creasy and I are gonna sneak down to just outside the cameras’ range. Then I’ll phone you and Aloba will put out the cameras.” Creasy was shocked by just how calmly and easily the boy accepted the Indian’s claims of outlandish powers. Either the group he’d fallen into were completely nuts, or the world was a far stranger place than he’d ever guessed. “The moment we go forward to blow the door, you’ll come down and we’ll charge together en masse.”
“Simple plan,” Kennedy approved. “But then anything too complex and she,” the tiny brunette looked towards the Slayer, “gets confused.”
”Oh boy,” Xander was up and walking down the hill, dodging in-between the milling people, “better get out of there before they start.” Soon the duo’s bickering was lost in the crowd’s general hubbub. As they neared the bottom, Xander sat on the steps of a house, one eye sticking on the target, the other straight-ahead. After a second Creasy took up position leaning on the wall beside the step. Xander dialled his cell. “Aloba, show us what you’ve got.”
Creasy looked up at a sudden crack of thunder, mouth opening as he noted just how grey the clouds had got. And then two bolts of blinding lightning shot out of the sky, smashing into the cameras with pin-point accuracy. “Wow,” he heard Xander gasp as he blinked his eyes clear, “he actually did it.” He felt the youth grab his elbow. “Let’s go.”
* * *
“Shit,” Kennedy finished for Faith.
”Yeah,” Faith agreed as she stared up at the sky. “He really did it.” Faith glanced towards the mutant. “It’s safe to get out now ain’t it? Ya ain’t gonna rain lightning on our asses?”
”I wouldn’t dream of it,” the mutant half-smiled.
“In that case,” Lara interrupted in her clipped tones, “I would suggest we move out as soon as possible.” The Englishwoman raised a perfectly groomed eyebrow. “That was the plan wasn’t it?”
“That’s the plan.” Faith gritted her teeth. Man, she so wanted to punch Lady Uppity straight in the jaw. Made her wish for the days without her powers when she didn’t have to think about responsibility and shit, could do just what she wanted. Faith shoved her door open and slid out, the milling crowds parting before them and their heavily armed presence.
* * *
Shakra looked up when the ceiling shook, dust falling from it. Eyes narrowing, he looked towards the three guards he had guarding the sedated men. “You stay here,” he growled before heading up the steps. His patience with these intruders into his business was at an end.
* * *
The moment the C4 exploded, ripping the long metal door off its hinges and flinging it inside, Xander was up and racing through the hole left. Inside he found a vast area crowded by various vehicles parked around it. Xander hit the ground, rolling for cover as shots began to ring out. “Cover!” he yelled rather unnecessarily as he peered under the jeep he’d rolled behind. Seeing a pair of unfamiliar legs, he tugged on his Mac-10’s trigger.
Fire spewed from his gun’s muzzle, ripping through the man’s ankles, the Thugee dropping with a pained wail. “Yeah sorry,” Xander muttered as he rolled over the jeep’s hood and landed in a crouch beside the felled man, “but I’m kinda touchy when people shoot at me.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw two men coming around the back of a van fourteen feet away and threw a flash-bang to their feet before twisting in the opposite direction. The moment he heard the grenade went off he was up and racing at the two reeling men, putting them both down with elbows to the sides of their heads. “Just count yourself lucky,” he lectured as the second one hit the ground.
He was just stepping around the front of the van when he caught a reflection of a gun on its front window and dropped to one knee, a bullet flying over his head to shatter the window as he twisted to face his attacker.
”You!” Xander gasped as he suddenly recognised the man, legs almost buckling under him.
“You’re him but not him!” ‘Dev’ declared. “You’ll not trap me again!” With that, the Indian turned and flung himself out himself of the rear window.
Xander snarled, something alien bubbling up inside him. Unmindful of the bullets flying about, he charged towards the back of the building.
“Oh shit!” Faith declared as he started for the window, leaping for him as he left his feet. “Nooooo!”
Xander crashed to the ground on his shoulder, rolling up into a crouch and leaning away from a kick to the face. “How is it possible?” Dev screamed, spittle flying from his face and terror etched on his finally-chiselled face, his gun thankfully dropped during the melee. “Five million years and still your line plagues me.”
Xander grabbed the foot and twisted, sending the traitor flying into the wall opposite. Leaping up, he attempted his own thrust kick only for his rival to wriggle away from him, hook an arm around his foot and fling him to the ground. Xander grunted as he hit the ground, dust billowing up as he rolled away from an attempted stomp. “What about you?” he demanded as he kicked at the man, forcing him back. “Mithras imprisoned you-.”
“For millions of years!” his adversary screamed. Hatred had replaced the terror on the man’s features. “While you were feted as gods I was trapped!”
Suddenly the man turned and ran. “I hate it when they run,” Xander snarled as he started after the man, dodging in and out of the cramped market leading away from the warehouse, eyes fixed on the fleeing man. Suddenly he saw an arm reach up, a hand grab hold of a stall’s pole and yank it in front of him.
Xander ignored the stall owner’s yells as his goods crashed all over the narrow street’s cobbles just in front of Xander, not missing a step as he leapt over the mess and continued his chase. The five million year old warrior ducked around a corner.
Xander snarled again as he swung around it just in time to see a door half-way up the alley crash shut. He charged after the man, kicking the door open with splintering force.
Inside, he found himself running up a darkened corridor, eyes following a pair of feet up the stairs at the end. The moment the banister rail was in reach, he grabbed for it and one-hand vaulted onto the threadbare carpet adorning the stairs.
His breath coming in gasps, he made the landing to see his quarry climbing out onto a balcony. “Unbelievable!”
Xander followed the man out, finding he was climbing up an outside staircase. Ignoring the hubbub on the street below, he started after the man. “Jesus, Mithras,” he complained as he made his way onto the flat rooftop, looking left and right to search out his prey, “why couldn’t you just kill him?”
Even as he asked the question, he saw Dev, three house tops away. After a shake of the head, he started after the former pit fighter, snatching a blanket off a washing line as he noted the broken glass lining the flat top’s raised walls. Reaching the wall, he snatched a hold and vaulted the short, but undeniably dangerous distance between the two houses.
Landing on the next house, he carried doggedly on, eyes widening as he saw Dev drop off the side of a building just ahead. Xander rushed to the end and looked down the slab-faced building to see a balcony three floors down. “Ah hell!” he moaned before leaping off.
The wind whistled around him as he fell, knees bent to take the impact. He hit the balcony with a grunt, the collision nevertheless reverberating through him. His eyes widened as Dev lunged back through the balcony’s shattered glass door. Sweat soaking him, Xander twisted to the left, catching the criminal mastermind with a forearm to the chest that sent him stumbling backwards. Xander followed him into a thankfully deserted apartment. “Bastard!” Dev flung a kitchen table in his way before fleeing out of the tiny apartment. Xander chased after the fleeing Indian and onto the corridor outside. Doors opened and then crashed shut as Xander chased the Indian up to the roof, both men’s breath coming in pants.
Xander grunted as he reached the rooftop, leaping through the door only for Dev to crash it shut on him. “Shit!” Xander grunted, head ringing as he stumbled backwards.
The door swung open and Dev charged back onto the landing, racing towards him in a flurry of kicks and punches. A fist caught Xander in his mouth, snapping his head back, a foot slammed into his gut, driving the air from his lungs.
Fighting to stay upright, he flung a feeble right that Dev grabbed at the wrist before twisting at the waist and flinging him through the doorway and onto the flat roof. Xander hit the unyielding ground on his shoulder and rolled up into a crouch. Dev strode through the doorway, his expression thunderous. “In my day!” the Indian raged. “We were considered almost gods for the feats we accomplished! And you think you can stand against us!”
Xander didn’t bother with a reply, he was too busy ducking under a roundhouse right before stepping inside his rival’s guard and ramming two fists hard into his gut. Dev didn’t even blink, his fingers raking down Xander’s face causing him to stumble backwards, tears blurring his eyes.
Then he felt a kick like a mule’s to his left outer knee. “Shit!” he stumbled blindly forward and bent at the waist as he brought his hands instinctively up. Then felt an arm grab him in a front face lock. Stars dotted in front of his eyes as his adversary crushed down on him. Gathering his weakening resolve, Xander hooked his arms around his rival’s waist and lifted him off the ground, twisting at the waist as he flung him from him.
The moment the former pit fighter’s grip was released he fell to one knee and sucked in a couple of breaths. The whistle of the air parting warned him to Dev’s charge. Xander dived to his left, the Indian’s boot slamming air where his face had been.
Xander was on his rival before he could pull away. Snatching a hold of the man’s outstretched leg under the knee, he pushed the leg up while slamming a knife-hand into the former pit fighter’s throat.
Dev gurgled as he fell away before leaping into the air, turning his retreat into a spinning kick that Xander ducked under before grabbing the airborne man’s feet and flinging him down headfirst. “Damn!” Xander cursed when the Indian stuck his arms out to the ground and hand sprung back up.
Xander attacked before the Indian could fully regain his balance, beating him back with a flurry of punches. And then suddenly Dev was inside his defences, driving a bruising elbow into his sternum. Breath gone and legs rubbery, Xander staggered away from the attacking whirlwind, some blows being blocked but far too many landing.
He grabbed a boot pounding towards his head, hooking it around the ankle. For a split-second he stared into Dev’s shocked eyes. Then his bloodied spittle splattered against the Indian’s face and his fingers were jabbing into the man’s throat, flesh tearing under the impact. Blood shot out of the man’s mouth as Xander simultaneously drove a knee into the man’s unprotected crotch and grabbed him around the chin and twisted, Dev’s neck snapping with a final crack.
“Winner and still champion.” Xander muttered as he dropped the corpse on the ground. Xander stumbled to his knees for a second before forcing his aching body to rise and start to the doorway. He stopped as a momentous thought occurred, he’d killed one of the pit fighters from Mithras’ time, a lesser one but still, this meant he was at least approaching his ancestor’s abilities. “Oh boy,” he groaned as pain shot through him. Time to go home.
Wherever that was.
“Tara,” Tara looked up as Xander and Faith entered the room she shared with Kennedy, “have you got that research?”
Tara nodded. “Yes, I rang Professor X about Monsoon and he said he knew Monsoon.” Xander raised an eyebrow as he waited for her to continue. “He said that Monsoon is a man with a troubled past but could be worth a second chance.”
“I love it when people are so certain in their opinions.” Xander sighed before staring at her. “What do you think?”
Tara blushed slightly when she realised Xander was asking her rather than Faith. “H…his aura reads well.”
Xander’s shoulders relaxed slightly. “What about Creasy?”
“John Marcus Creasy was born 1956. After some gang-related stuff in the late seventies, fled the states and did seven years in the 80s in the French Foreign Legion before doing a spell in the late eighties and mid-nineties in the CIA as an executive action operative.” Tara’s brow furrowed. “What is that exactly?”
Xander shuffled from foot to foot. “Government assassin. And his aura?”
“Ooooh,” Tara gasped at the revelation that the studiously polite Creasy was in fact a hired killer. “That reads well too.”
”Thanks Tara,” Xander nodded gratefully.
“Ya gonna offer them membership?”
Xander glanced towards his girl-friend. “Aloba Dastoor could be the in I’ve been looking for into Asia, our first foothold. As for Creasy, there’s plenty of America that needs coverage still.”
Faith nodded before glancing at her watch. “They’ll be in the restaurant by now.”
Xander grinned briefly. “Is my little Slayer hungry?”
“Ya know me Xan,” Faith flashed a dimpled smile even as she purred, “I’m always the two hs –hungry and horny.”
“And god bless you for it,” Xander grinned before sobering. “Come on then.”
* * *
The Grand’s restaurant was an explosion of colourful plants and the smells of exotic foods, the waiters and waitresses all dressed in traditional Indian dress. Their three guests - Creasy, Dastoor, and Raja rose at their arrival, Faith snatching greedily for the menu as they sat. “Thanks for coming,” Xander greeted as he sat. “Ignore Faith, despite my billions I never feed her.”
Faith flipped him the bird as she continued to hungrily read the menu. “Wow,” Tara whispered, “is that drool?”
“Funny, sis, real funny.”
Xander shook his head before looking towards Creasy and Dastoor in turn. “I was wondering if any of you would be interested in joining the Brotherhood?” he quickly licked his lips. After all the times he’d made the pitch you’d think it would get easier, but no, every time his lips were still as dry as a desert. “We’d give you each access to a hundred and fifty million dollar trust fund, full arms and electronics support, and full records on demon-hunting teams in your designated area.”
Creasy exchanged a long look with Dastoor. “And our duties?” queried the African-American.
“Protecting the populace of your area from demons and hunting demons down.” Xander paused. “In that order. No involvement with mundane policing.”
“I’d help co-ordinate your efforts with the police,” a battered-looking Raja glanced at his friend.
After a second Monsoon nodded. “As you wish,” the mutant rumbled. “What resources do you have in India?”
Xander beamed even as Tara’s fingers flew over her laptop’s keyboard. “Mumbai has two teams of a dozen, Bangalore has two teams of the same, Delhi has the same, Calcutta has two groups of ten, Chennai has two teams of eight, and Hyderabad one team of ten. Wow, that’s a lot,” Tara looked up, “and at the foot of the Himalayas there is a settlement of witches and assorted wise men.”
“A considerable force,” Dastoor commented.
“And what about you, Creasy?” the always pushy Kennedy demanded. “You in?”
Creasy smiled slightly at Kennedy’s stridently put query. “Have you got anybody running France?”
Faith’s head snapped up from the menu, a look of horror etched on his girl-friend’s beautiful features. “ France?” she gasped, cupid-shaped lips parting in a gasp. “But the French live there! And ya’re like American!”
Creasy’s face creased up into a smile. “I served with the French Foreign Legion.”
“Yeah, but France?” Faith shook her head, raven tresses bouncing. “’Taint right! You’re American!”
Faith continued to shake her head and mumble about having at least a little self-respect as Tara’s fingers danced over the keyboard. “In France we have Paris with two teams of a dozen, Marseille with two groups of eight, Lyon with one group of ten, and Nice, Nantes, and Bodreaux, each with a group of eight.”
Creasy’s smile broadened at Faith’s continuing head-shaking before speaking. “I’ll do it.”