Once Faith had changed, Xander turned to her. “You’re sure you’re alright?”
Faith shot him a tight grin. “Five by five, but I’ll be even better when we’re out of this hellhole, ya know?”
“I know,” Xander offered Faith her Berettas back.
”Fuck that!” Faith glanced scornfully at the automatics. “Are ya trying to get me killed? I want a shotgun.”
“Me too,” Kennedy chimed in.
”You two agreeing?” Xander shook his head even as he passed the requested weapons out. “That’s a sure sign of the apocalypse.”
“Funny fucker,” Faith grunted as she snatched her weapon off him.
“You’re welcome,” Xander grinned at Faith’s glower before sobering. “We best get a move on. I don’t suppose I need to tell anyone to -.”
“Be careful?” Faith shook her head. “Jesus, got that memo.” Faith slapped her forehead, a sudden look of horror on his beauty’s face. “Got that memo on my favourite jeans. Fuck! Fuck!”
“I’ll buy you another pair,” Xander promised as they continued on their way. Faith winked at him. “Hey, I liked them too.” The city was now bathed in orange, growing shadows failing to hide the city’s decay, the thread-bare curtains of long since cracked windows, heavy cobwebs often filling them, the decaying doors, and the weather-beaten stone or rusted metal statues. “To all things,” he murmured, heart filled with unease, “there is a season.”
“What was that hon?”
Xander smiled as they ducked under an arched bridge. “Noth-.”
There was a sudden click and then the ground disintegrated under them, sending them plunging into a darkened hole, the brick debris accompanying their fall. SPLASH! Xander groaned as he hit the ground, a grime-covered water slightly cushioning their fall. “Shit!” Xander heard his girl-friend’s curse as he clambered to his feet, looking around the muddy-green water and the rounded tunnel they appeared to be in, the only light coming in from the hole above, an awful stench filling his nostrils. “Another pair of pants ruin-. Oh fuck!”
Xander looked towards his girl-friend’s silhouette. “What?”
“Other than the general sitch?” Faith snarled. “Those sewer rats ya told us about, they’re coming towards us.”
“Oh hell-.” He looked towards Tara when the tunnel was suddenly filled with a blazing light. “Thanks.” He threw a grappling-hook to Kennedy. “Get that up, Faith and I will take care of these.”
Xander turned his attention back to the ‘rats’. The brown-furred horrors had the characteristic beady eyes, sniffling snout, and skittering tail of a rat but each rodent was magnified to the size of a small dog.
And they were all heading straight to them, their teeth glinting in the glow of Tara’s magically created light.
Xander fought back a shudder as he began pulling his shotgun’s trigger. The enclosed place reverberated to the sound of gunfire and its arid stench clung to the back of his throat as he blew away rat after rat. Soon the water had turned copper with their blood, but they continued to come, their eyes glinting hungrily.
”Shit!” he jumped as he felt a paw on his shoulder. Spinning around, he relaxed when he discovered it wasn’t a rat’s paw but his girl-friend. Faith looked around, signifying the others had gone and then pointed at the rope. Xander shook his head as he shot the head off a charging rat. “You first.”
Faith shot him an irritated look before leaping at the rope and starting nimbly up it. Xander groaned as his shotgun clicked empty, dropping it with a splash into the murky water, he leapt at the rope and started after his girl-friend, pulling his knees up as a rat leapt at his ankles. Reaching the top, he gasped and wheezed for fresh air after the sewer’s nightmarish dank, his heart pounding.
“Jesus,” he looked up to see Faith looking down at her drenched in sewage pants. “Another pair!”
“You know I think for the sake of your wardrobes you three should just strip and walk around naked.” Xander sighed when all three girls turned and glared at him. “Worth a try,” he shrugged as he stood. “Let’s keep on going.”
Eventually they reached a narrow walkway over a twenty-four foot wide orange river of what looked and smelt like larva. “Nice,” Faith commented as she peered over the edge before stepping towards the walkway. “Thank fuck for the -.” Faith’s eyes shot towards Tara when the witch grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back. “What’s the sitch, sis?”
”This,” Tara’s eyes shot everywhere, “is all an illusion, the walkway doesn’t exist.”
”Shit,” Faith scowled, “I can jump it, but I doubt ya guys can.”
“No,” Tara shook her head. “You don’t understand. Everything’s an illusion.” Xander joined Faith and Kennedy in staring blankly at the wicca. “Apart from where you see the walkway, we can walk straight across.”
Faith’s brow furrowed. “So where I can see flowing larva is really covered ground?” The witch nodded. Faith took a breath. “Here goes.”
Faith swallowed as she started across the river, to the rest of them it looked like she was walking on air. “Thank fuck,” the Slayer exploded across the river before turning to face them all. “That was wicked creepy.”
“Yeah?” Xander gulped as he stood on the invisible surface and started across, all too conscious of the sea of larva beneath him. “I’d never have guessed.”
Once they were on the other side, continuing on their way until they came to a long tall building. “We’ll leave it-.”
“Ah,” a sibilant voice hissed, “visitors and it’s been so long.”
“Hello, Ms. Smith,” Tony half-rose as his guest entered the room, offering her his hand. “Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee?”
“Thank you, no,” the woman had the polished accent of an former English prep school pupil. Despite being in her mid-fifties, she carried herself with a grace and poise of a woman decades younger, her dark eyes shining with energy. “And please call me Sarah-Jane.”
“Then you must call me Tony,” he gave her the gleaming Stark smile that always worked when charming people. “Please,” he gestured to the office chair at the other side of the desk, “take a seat.”
“Thank you,” the journalist shot him a dazzling smile. “And may I record this?”
“Of course.” Tony glanced at the tape-recorder the woman had pulled out of her hand-bag. If the woman falsified anything he’d said, his own hidden tape recorders would have their own record. “I must admit to surprise,” he commented. “A freelance journalist from England coming all this way to interview me about my businesses. I didn’t think I was that interesting.”
”Oh, but you are,” the woman disagreed with a smile. “Billionaire playboy genius with an open line to the president, friend to many a head of state, and of course friend to Iron Man. “ The woman paused. “Not that I’ve come to ask you about yourself, at least not directly.” Tony opened his mouth. “What do you know about The Mithras Brotherhood?”
Ah crap, when this woman had requested an interview, he‘d had her investigated, found her talent for ferreting out secrets and had invited her here to find out just what she knew. But he’d thought it was something to do with him or perhaps his alter-ego, not his kids. “I’m sorry,” he forced a puzzled expression, “Mithras? I’m not as up on mythology as I suppose I should be, my academic tastes always ran to the sciences, but isn’t Mithras some sort of god or other?”
“The original Mithras was a Persian God Of War, also worshipped by Roman legionnaires.” The journalist’s knowing smile suggested she wasn’t quite convinced by his bluffed confusion. “However that’s not the Mithras I’m referring to, at least not directly.”
“Now I’m really confused,” Stark lied.
“Really?” The English woman looked like the proverbial cat who got the canary. “That is a surprise.” The woman paused for a second, waiting to see if he responded. When he didn’t she continued. “My particular area of interest as a journalist has always been secret organisations. I’ve always been a believer that the more light shone on a person or an organisation the less likely they’re going to do anything underhand.”
”Perhaps there’s some people you can trust without the light being shone on them,” Tony retorted, his face held carefully neutral.
“Such people wouldn’t scurry in the shadows, concealing their identities,” Sarah-Jane retorted.
“Captain America and numerous costumed heroes do,” Stark pointed out.
“Ah, I see you’re not going to be very much help,” Sarah-Jane leaned back on her chair, eyes briefly disappointed. “At least I enjoy a challenge.” Sarah-Jane paused. “You won’t comment on your supposed affiliation to this secretive group with links to the White House, Doctor Strange, and Professor Xavier? A group whose personnel, goals, and resources are shrouded in mystery?”
“I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about, you must be mistaken. However I wouldn’t be too disappointed.” Tony Stark shrugged. “After all, what would the world be without mystery?” Tony smiled. “For example, where did you disappear to in the seventies Ms. Smith?”
“The velvet glove conceals an iron fist?” Sarah-Jane surprised him with a wry smile. “You won’t find any dirt on me to blackmail my silence with,” the journalist stood, placing her tape recorder back in her hand-bag. “I won’t stop looking. Goodbye, Mr. Stark.”
“Good-bye, Ms. Smith,” he murmured as the woman strolled out, a heavy hand resting on his chest. She’d need watching, nothing could be allowed to get in the way of the kids and their mission.
* * *
The speaker was a three-headed winged dragon with the scale-covered bulk to rival a tank. Each head was exactly the same, a spiralled foot-long horn shot out from its forehead, its green eyes glittering dangerously in the almost dusk, and each massive mouth filled with glinting fangs. The ground appeared to shake underfoot as it padded towards them, taloned feet gripping the ground.
Xander swallowed as the monster approached, a deep chill threatening to freeze his heart. “Where the hell did your scaly ass come from?”
Xander rolled his eyes, typical Faith, open her big trap where angels fear to whisper. Or something like that. The dragon blew smoke out of its nostrils. Hopefully it was amused rather than angered. ‘Cause a thing that angry-. “Crap,” Xander groaned as he caught the glare Tara was shooting the beast. When the nice as pie witch looked at anybody or anything like that, you knew it was evil of the darkest black.
Like worse than Snyder evil.
“I am Zahhak,” the demon hissed, forked lolling over its fanged teeth. “And you are people of power,” the dragon sniffed. “I can smell it.”
”No, no, no,” Xander shook his head, heart dropping. Zahhak was a name to inspire fear in the people of this region, a legendary dragon of monstrous evil and power, ancient beyond telling and as cunning as a snake. Why did this always happen to them? “That’ll be my body odour.”
“He’s world famous for it,” Kennedy both wisely and hurtfully agreed.
Xander ignored the potential to continue the questioning. “And why are you here?”
”Why I am here?” The three-headed beast seemed to laugh again. Which was marginally better than him attacking, but still creepy as hell. “That is a long story, a mage of surpassing ability and unsurpassing ego summoned me to this plane, thinking to make me his pet.” The beast seemed to laugh again, this time with even more menace than before. “How he misjudged. Instead I took his magic, tore this paltry metropolis from its dimension and spent the past fifty thousand years feasting on its inhabitants. And such entertaining prey they were. But now those days of plenty are over and I have need of new flesh to feed me, so I brought the city back to snare the adventurous and the foolish.” The demon stared at them with its dead eyes. “And here you all are.”
“Tara! Magic defences!”
Tara nodded, having being holding the magic ready since they’d been confronted by the demon. She gasped as her mana hit the demon’s, its sheer power and dark, inky malice staggering her and fouling her own spells. Sweat beaded on her forehead.
* * *
“Ah hell,” Xander reached into the Always Pocket, desperate for his rocket launcher.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a spiralled tail with a spike through it swinging around the monster’s huge body and right at his head. Heart pounding, he ducked under the swinging tail before straightening, rocket launcher in his hand. “Shi-.” He cursed as the tail swung back, cracking into the side of his head, a crimson waterfall filling his eyes as unconsciousness beckoned.
* * *
“Xander!” Faith’s stomach somersaulted as her boy-toy crashed to the ground, blood trickling from a cut on his forehead. She darted towards her boy-friend, only for the demon’s middle head to snap out in front of her, teeth glinting dangerously and eyes dancing with evil mirth.
“And you girl,” the demon’s forked tongue lolled over its mouth. “You’re different, something I’ve never experienced before. What are you?” the demon seemed to laugh. “Will you taste exquisite as your power suggests?”
“You’ll never find out!” Faith threw herself to the ground as the demon’s head lunged at her, the Berettas bucking in her hands as she fired round after round into the demon’s face.
“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” The demon’s high-pitched scream caused her ears to pound, its face morphing with every shot that crashed into its scaled face.
”Fuck!” Faith threw herself to the right as the left head lunged at her, jaws gaping. Her heart skipped a beat as its teeth tore through her jeans left leg, ripping the denim off at the knee.
She groaned as her guns clicked empty, the wounds on the demon’s face already healing. With Xander out cold there wouldn’t be any more ammo, and she didn’t fancy taking this demon on with just the hunting knife sheathed at her ankle.
Her heart jumped as her eyes alighted on the rocket launcher beside her motionless boy-friend’s body. “Ken!” she yelled. “I’m gonna go for Xan, cover me!”
Without waiting to see if the potential heard her, Faith scurried to her feet and leapt for Xander like a soccer goalie diving for the ball. “Shit!” she grunted as the demon’s pronged tail lashed at her, the spike tearing across her stomach, ripping away shirt and tearing a cut across her stomach. Faith grunted again as she crashed to the ground, her landing thrown off by the pain flaring through her midsection. “Jesus!” Teeth clenched in a desperate grimace, she stretched out a hand, reaching for the weapon the other side of her worryingly-unmoving lover. And then the tail crashed into the side of her head, bouncing her skull off the unforgiving concrete.
* * *
Kennedy wailed as she fired bullet after bullet into the demon with seeming no effect and then one of its heads crashed into her, lifting her from her feet and flinging her into the wall behind.
* * *
“And then,” Zahhak turned his three heads towards the witch, “there was one.”
“I won’t,” the witch spoke through gritted teeth, “let,” sweat beaded down her greying skin, but her eyes burnt with determination, “you hurt them.”
“You stop me?” Zahhak rumbled a laugh. “I think not.” The girl was powerful, far more powerful than the fool that had first summoned him onto this plane of existence, and more powerful than any of her foolishly valiant companions. But he was an Elder Demon with all the power that entailed, and as such had eons of experience in the black arts, expertise that a mere callow human with their paltry lifespan could not hope to match. “Ha!” He smiled as the witch groaned and swayed. “Have I found your weak spot?” he taunted.
“How about yours?” Suddenly the brunette beauty rose, the right side of her face bludgeoned, some sort of weapon attached to her shoulder. “Try this on for size!”
Zahhak screamed as something hit his left wing, fire scorching him, turning his world into a blazing agony. “Fool!” he screamed at the bitch. “I was forged in the fires of hell! Did you think this trifle would stop me!”
“Oh crap,” the brunette gulped before pulling a knife.
“No,” the witch gasped, “but this will.”
Zahhak’s three heads snapped to the momentarily-forgotten witch, a deep horror filling him. It had been just a few seconds but it might as well have been a lifetime. Suddenly he felt it, pulling on him, its grip inexorable. “You bitch!” he screamed as it tore him away from this dimension with all its lovely victims into a far bleaker one.
* * *
Faith blinked as the demon disappeared, hand rising to gingerly touch the right side of her face. “Jesus,” she winced as pain shot through her face. Nose grimacing with the lingering stench of sulphur, she turned towards Tara. “Not that I don’t appreciate it sis, but what the hell did ya do?”
Tara smiled wearily. “I found the thread of the summonsing spell that first brought Zahhak here and reversed it, sendin-.”
“Shit!” Faith leapt forward to catch the witch when her eyes rolled back and legs buckled, catching the witch just a foot or so from the ground. “Don’t worry, sis,” she whispered gently, “I gotcha.” Looking up, she saw Kennedy struggling to her feet. “Hey, kid,” she drawled, “yar gal-pal went weak at the knees, wanna take the load while I check on X-Man?”
“Tar!” Kennedy leapt towards her. “Is she-.”
”She’s five by five,” Faith interrupted as she gently passed Tara’s limp frame to the potential. “Just major mojo taking a toll, ya know?” The moment the potential had Tara, Faith spun to see to Xander only to find him groaning his way to consciousness. “Hey lover,” she crouched beside her battered boy-friend, “how ya feelin’?”
Xander grimaced as he looked towards her, wiping the blood from the cut on his forehead out of his left eye. “Like someone dropped this entire city on me.” Xander looked around, wincing as he did so. “Zahhak?”
“Tara kicked his ass back to the dimension he came from,” Faith hastily reassured her boy-toy before lowering her tone, “what the hell was he anyway?”
“He was an Elder Demon,” Xander replied as she helped him to his feet. “It’s too dark,” Xander decided, eyes looking nervously around at the encroaching shadows, “we need to get out of here fast.”
”What’s an Elder Demon?” Faith asked, half out of interest and half to deflect screaming heebies that threatened to overwhelm her when her man pulled out the Wrathful Energy.
“A demon,” Xander didn’t look at her as he crouched before the supernatural object, attaching something. “One of the Old Ones’ major lieutenants in Mithras’ time.”
”Shit,” Faith gasped. “We,” she glanced towards Tara, “Tara kicked major ass.”
”Like that was even a question,” Kennedy smirked proudly.
“Sure, kid.” Faith snatched the limp witch off the potential, placing her over her shoulder. “Don’t even start, we’re gonna be moving fast, I’ll be able to carry her easier.” Faith looked towards Xander to see him rising. “Ready, lover?”
Xander shot the approaching shadows a wary look before nodding. “Let’s go.”
The next half an hour or so passed in a panting, sweat-soaked blur as they raced through the eerily hushed streets, not daring to take the time to watch out for traps. The only sound they heard apart from their pants was their feet slapping against the age-old paving stones.
They burst out of the city perhaps seconds ahead of total nightfall. “Thank fuck!” Faith fell to her knees, chest heaving and clothes plastered to her. She gently placed Tara on the ground. “All we have to do is get sis awak-.”
“Hand over everything you took from Iram.”
“Ah crap,” Faith groaned as she looked up to see the dunes surrounding them lined with twenty or so gunmen.
Xander looked around, the surrounding dunes were all lined with hard-faced and heavily armed men of middle-eastern descent. “Would you believe me if I said we didn’t take anything and that going in there wouldn’t be a good idea?”
“No,” the group’s apparent leader smiled thinly.
“And who do you work for anyway?” he queried.
The man’s smile broadened. “Al-Qaeda.”
“Ah,” Xander smiled inwardly himself. That made what he had to do much easier. “And I don’t suppose you’re just going to let us go?”
”You and your western whores aren’t going anywhere.”
”Just for the record, not a virgin.” Faith called up. Xander glanced towards his girl-friend. The sultry Slayer shrugged. “Hey, anyone who watches CNN knows they have a kink for virgins. I just want it known, ain’t been a vestal virgin for a long time.”
“You’re deeply troubled.” Xander pulled out his detonator and flicked the switch. The ordnance he’d planted under the sand dunes before entering the city exploded, flinging the gunmen into the air and returning them to the ground as dismembered chunks. Flashes of light briefly illuminated the dark sky as the screams of the dying and the booms of the explosion pounded his ears. Xander almost threw up as the stench of fire and human suffering mingled in his gut. Eyes determinedly averted from the carnage he’d just wrought, he turned to Tara. “You can de-magic our car now.”
Tara stared at him, expressive eyes horror-stricken. “Xander, you just can’t do that!” she breathed.
“They drive planes into buildings and walk suicide bombers into supermarkets,” Xander stonily replied, hiding his own revulsion behind a pragmatic expression. “Not one of them was an innocent, and that’s all we’re here to protect.”
Tara shook her head. “You can’t make a jud-.”
”Jeez, sis,” Faith snapped. “Just what do ya think those assholes were gonna do to us, throw us a fuckin’ tea party?”
Tara’s shoulders slumped. “Alright, alright,” the witch whispered, the car materialising where she’d left it, “doesn’t mean I have to like it though.”
”It wasn’t exactly my favourite action of all time,” Xander grumbled as he climbed into the car, the others silently following suit. Xander re-set the GPS for Muscat and set off, grimacing slightly as he drove through the scorched sands, fires still burning where the bombs had been buried, broken bodies littering the ground. The journey back was grimly morose, Xander only stopping after they’d gotten half a dozen miles to remotely open the Wrathful Energy, the sky behind them somehow temporarily turning the night sky an even darker more impregnable black.
The sun was beginning to rise when they made Muscat’s glittering outskirts. “Where we gonna stay, Xan?”
Xander looked warily around, noting a higher than normal police presence on the streets, an almost certain side-effect of the previous night’s carnage. “Well the Grand Hyatt’s out-.”
“Doh.” Kennedy snorted. “You think?”
Xander ignored the brunette lesbian’s comment to continue. “So we’ll head to the Intercontinental Muscat,” Xander looked towards Faith, “yes, before you ask, it’s five star too.”
”Better be,” his girl-friend muttered. “Girl’s got standards.”
“News to us,” Kennedy muttered.
Xander ignored that in favour of continuing through the lightening streets. “I’ll use the alternate identities, but I’ll need Tara to put a glamour on us, changing us. Faith will be a taller blonde, I’ll be an older red-head with a patch over his left eye, and Kennedy’s hair will be braided and her eyes changed to a green. That won’t be a problem will it, Tara?”
”I’ll get on it,” the witch retorted, an angry note in her voice.
“Okay,” Xander decided rising to the bait in front of the others would provoke a full-blown argument. Instead he drove silently to the hotel, pulling into its palm tree-lined parking lot.
The hotel wasn’t anything like as ostentatious as the Grand Hyatt with its grandiose architecture, but it was impressive in its own way, a brown-bricked towering skyscraper, a neon sign on its front. “Come on,” Faith leapt out of the car and started towards the looming hotel, Kennedy trotting behind.
”Wait,” Xander stepped in front of Tara as she exited the car, hands reaching to grab her forearms and then dropping awkwardly by his sides. “I know,” Xander licked his lips, uncertain as to what to say, “I know you wish I hadn’t done what I did, but I had no choice. They wouldn’t have let us pass.”
Tara stared at him, big eyes troubled. “Y…you should have given them a chance.”
“Given them a chance?” Xander shook his head, even as he struggled to hold onto his temper. It wasn’t Tara he was angry with, not really, it was the world for not fitting her vision. It was a world for eagles and not doves. “Tara, these people aren’t soldiers, they don’t believe in the Geneva Convention. They’re savages!”
“And doing what you did, what does that make you?”
Xander stepped back, genuinely hurt and surprised by Tara’s query. “I don’t send brain-washed children into schools and supermarkets wearing bombs, I don’t hijack planes, I don’t preach hate.”
“I could have put them to sleep or something,” Tara protested.
”I couldn’t risk you not being quick enough.” Xander raised his hand at Tara’s opening mouth. “And even if you’d succeeded, what then? They’d have awoken, and any innocent they’d have killed from that point on would have been on my conscience because I’d had a chance to end them but hadn’t taken it.”
Tara smiled weakly. “Let’s just go inside.”
“Okay,” Xander nodded before falling in beside the witch, striding into the hotel. Its lobby was a classically stylish amalgamation of white-washed walls and white titles, interspersed with neatly trimmed rows of palm trees and luxurious sofas.
* * *
Daim Laith hung up the phone, eyes narrowed in thought. He swept a look around his rented accommodation, the eleven men who made up his team ‘The Dark Dozen’, staring back impassively at him. “That was the office,” he reported. “Apparently the Seers report that Iram is gone,” a shocked murmur ran through his companions, “and that the Mithras Quartet are in town, at the Intercontinental to be exact. Our orders have changed. Now we’re strictly on a wet mission.”
* * *
James Buchanan’s eyes narrowed as he noticed the quartet entering the lobby, the spells put on him by NID enabling him to see through the glamour put on them. Their faces were familiar, something from the files, but he wasn’t quite sure what. Then he had it, the Mithras Quartet. The boy, he reminded him of someone from his past, but he couldn’t remember who.
He’d have to keep an eye on them.
Xander groaned as he awoke and disentangled himself from his snoring girl-friend with a chuckle. He’d once taken a video of her snoring to prove to his steadfastly arguing lover that she actually snored. Her response had been to very sweetly ask him where he wanted the camera shoving.
Since then the topic hadn’t come up.
Xander strode out onto the balcony, glancing at his watch as he did so before peering down on the idyllic swimming pool a dozen floors below. They’d been asleep for almost eight hours, their private plane was booked to take off in two hours. They’d have to get a move on. “Faith!” he looked back into the room. “Get up!” Faith flipped him the bird while determinedly keeping her eyes shut. “The plane leaves in two hours.”
“They’ll be another,” Faith’s husky tones were slurred by sleep. “They’re like buses.”
“Okay.” Xander strode into the bathroom, closed the door, pulled a bucket out of the Always Pocket, and filled it with cold water before opening the door, and walking back out into the bedroom. “Rise and shine!” he shouted before throwing the bucket’s sloshing contents all over the prostrated brunette.
”Owwwwwwwwwww! You son of a bitch!” the soaked and completely nude beauty jumped out of bed, her dark eyes gleaming angrily. “I’ll rip your damn throat out!”
“Some days,” he smiled. “It’s good to be me.”
* * *
Forty minutes later and they were driving through the industrial area en-route to the private airfield their plane was meant to join them in. All around were warehouses and factories, their stolidly dirty-brown brickwork a grim contrast with the more gaily-coloured tourist spots.
“We’ve got a tail,” Faith warned him.
“The grey hatchback?” Xander nodded. “Yeah, but they’ve with us since the motel, and if they’re staying at the Intercontinental, they might have the money to have a plane booked to take them wherever.”
“Could be a coincidence?” Faith shrugged. “’Kay, but I’ll keep an eye on them.”
“Right,” Xander glanced in the rear window, grimacing slightly as his eyes fell on the witch and potential in the back. Tara hadn’t spoken to him all morning. He wished he could be as gentle as the witch, he really did, but for the lambs to be safe from the wolves, he had to be a hunter himself. He didn’t like it, but if killing a hundred scumbags like those he’d taken out the previous night saved one Tara, he was more than willing to do it.
Xander’s eyes narrowed as he noted the four police cars blocking the road ahead, a scowl contorting his features as he glanced left and right in a futile attempt to see any side roads they could escape into. “Damn,” he muttered. “Tara, are our glamours-.”
”Xander!” the witch poked her head through the gap between his and Faith’s seat, eyes wild, “their auras aren’t right, they aren’t police officers.”
“Oh hell!” Xander gasped as he jammed the car in reverse, the eight men blocking the road bringing their guns up. “Everyone down!”
* * *
Daim Laith snarled as the target car began reversing. “Hit them with everything!” he roared.
* * *
”Shit!” Faith cursed as the window exploded under machine-gun fire, glass flying everywhere as she threw herself to the side and under the dashboard, her boy-friend crashing the car’s rear into a palm tree by the side of the road. The car shuddered as bullets began to hit. “Xan, throw us a fuckin’ gun!”
“Thanks,” Faith caught the Mini-Gun Xander had thrown her, the gun comfortably heavy. A kick sent her door crashing open. “On three!”
“One, two, three!”
* * *
“Oh heck!” Xander cursed as his door crashed open and he started out, the air hot with flying lead, only to dive back in the car when another quartet of men burst out of the building opposite, their guns spitting lead. “We’re screwed.”
* * *
James Buchanan’s eyes narrowed as he watched the ambush strike, the kids’ car coming under sustained fire.
The word hit him like a hammer-blow, shattering a block on his memories. He gasped as a thousand images flashed before his eyes. That was what he had been when it had all begun. A kid like these, who believed in freedom and justice-.
Suddenly raw, visceral instinct took over and he was gunning the engine, the car screaming protests and tyres burning as he propelled at the quartet firing at the car from side-on. Two of them began to turn towards him at his speedy approach, but his only response was to duck under the window and jam his foot down even harder on the accelerator. His small but still substantial car shuddered with every impact as he crashed into the men, sending broken bodies flying en-route to screeching a halt beside the barricade of cars.
Seeing two of the men turning towards him, he punched out the window with his cybernetic arm and raised his gun. The two men danced like unstrung puppets as the young man kicked his door open and shot them. At the same time a brunette valkyrie burst out of the car’s far side and unleashed with a Minigun, screaming curses as she did so.
And then just as suddenly as violence had erupted, peace descended, the four kids turned to him, eyes grateful but understandably wary. “Thanks for the help, Mister,” the young man of the quartet suddenly made him feel sixty with that ‘Mister’. Although to be fair, sixty was actually considerably younger than what his age would be. “Only, who are you?”
“James Buchanan Barnes,” he smiled as a mist cleared, finally he remembered it all. Not just images and feelings, but who he was, what he’d done. The good stuff as well as the bad. “But you can call me Bucky.”
“Buck-,” Xander shook his head. “That’s impossible,” he croaked. One of the few lessons he’d ever paid attention to in school had dealt with the exploits of Captain America and the Invaders in the second world war. “You’re dead. I remember reading -.”
“Whatever you’ve read is wrong,” Tara suddenly interrupted. “He’s telling the truth.”
After a whiplash look at the witch, Xander gulped and turned to face the patiently waiting man. ‘Bucky’ was a powerfully-built man of above medium height with determined brown eyes and matching shoulder-length hair. His hard features didn’t match up to the youthfully optimistic photos he’d seen in history books, plus there was the fact the twenty-something man was maybe fifty years younger than he should be, but if Tara said he was Bucky, he was Bucky.
A sense of incredulity gripping him, Xander stepped forward and offered the man his hand. After a moment the man took it. “Mr. Barnes, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I read all about you in history. Thank you for all-.”
”Jesus,” Faith broke in, a note of amusement in her voice. “Ya wanna get a room or somethin’, Harris? I’m standin’ right here ya know.”
Xander glared at his girl-friend even as he realised Bucky’s touch seemed somehow metallic. “Your hand-.”
”Cybernetic arm,” the man flatly replied.
”Right,” Xander stared at the hard-featured man, suddenly uneasy. “Must make magnets a bitch-.”
”Xan,” Faith snapped. “We gotta hustle. Someone might turn up at any moment.”
“Right,” Xander nodded before looking at Bucky again. “Our car’s wrecked, we need a lift.”
“You’ve got a way out of this country?” the older man asked after a second. Xander nodded. “Take me with you and you can use my car.”
* * *
“You have your own private plane?” Bucky gasped as they made their way across the airfield.
The Slayer shot him a smouldering look that he guessed was a speciality of hers. “Xan’s from old money,” the sultry brunette flashed him her deep dimples, “actually it don’t get any older than his, come on.”
Bucky’s eyes widened as he entered the plane, noting its suede sofas, beautiful carpets, and hand-crafted and gleaming furnishings. It seemed that adventuring and saving the world had moved on considerably since his day of parachuting from shot-at transport planes over enemy lines. “’I suppose you’ll be wantin’ an explanation?”
Bucky looked over his shoulder at the curvy Bostonian. “It’d be nice,” he retorted.
”’Kay,” the dark-eyed beauty nodded. “Take a seat, Xan will explain.”
Buchanan forced himself to concentrate as Xander talked, explaining the world of Slayers, vampires, and the occult. “We can show you if you want-.”
”That’s not necessary,” he shook his head at the youth’s offer. “I remember Union Jack battling Baron Blood in the war and I know for a fact that Hitler experimented in necromancy and the occult in a search for a way to tip the war in his favour.”
“Okay then,” Faith stared at him. “And who have you been working for?”
“After I was captured, I was brain-washed and worked for the KGB until recently,” Buchanan’s brow furrowed. “Then I was snatched by people, but I don’t know who they were or even where I was held, I was drugged and blind-folded before I left the place. No-one ever used a name or identified them as belonging to an organisation, even if they had, I had no way of knowing they were telling the truth.”
Three of his companions looked towards Tara who nodded. “He’s telling the truth.”
“Damn,” Xander grunted. “Another potential enemy we have no idea about.” The youth shook his head before looking towards him. “I wonder if you’d be interested in one of the Brotherhood’s units-,” Xander shook his head. “No, I suppose you’ll want to go back to Cap, we certainly wouldn’t stand in your way for that.”
”Jeez,” Faith snorted, nostrils flaring cutely, “fan-boy much, Xan?”
“Says the girl with a huge Blade crush,” Kennedy muttered.
“I just have an honest appreciation for a fellow vampire hunter’s exploits,” the Slayer defended.
”An honest appreciation for his biceps,” the potential retorted.
”Well,” the sultry Bostonian shrugged, “that too.”
“Faith,” Xander groaned, “I’m right here, try not to emasculate me completely in front of company.”
Buchanan half-smiled at the youths’ bantering even as his heart twisted inside his ribcage. Steve, he hadn’t really thought about Steve until Xander just mentioned him. As much as he’d like to see his old friend and mentor, he couldn’t, not until he was able to look him in the eye, and he wouldn’t be able to do that until he’d atoned for at least some of the misdeeds he’d done while brain-washed. Besides, it was time to step out of the shadows, and not be a follower but the leader of a team. “My home state was-.”
“Virginia,” Xander interrupted.
”What was I just sayin’?” Faith elbowed her boy-friend in the ribs before smirking at him. “You’ll be arrested as a stalker next. Virginia’s free. Welcome to the team.” The gorgeous brunette looked towards the self-confessed witch. “Tar’, ya’re the gal with the facts.”
* * *
Simmons’ guts were churning as he made his way down to Lecter’s cell. Normally visiting the sociopathic shrink filled him with dread, but at the moment he was just too angry to consider being frightened. After clearing the security requirements, he strode up to the prison cell, only the bullet-proof screen separating him from the sadistic serial killer.
Lecter smiled slightly at its arrival. “Why,” the learned scholar barely whispered, “it’s my mysterious jailer.”
Simmons hated himself for his instinctive lick of his lips, a momentary weakness. Lecter’s disconcerting level of self-possession was yet another sign of the man’s insanity, nobody in control of their senses could be that calm, especially in his position. “James Buchanan Barnes has broken his programming,” he snapped.
”As he indeed?” the criminal genius’ eyes gleamed with amusement. “I trust the erstwhile Bucky hasn’t caused you too much problems?”
Simmons’ jaw clenched. All Iram’s riches gone, destroyed. All the effort they’d gone to in securing the Winter Soldier wasted. “You planned this!” he heatedly accused.
Lecter appeared utterly unworried by his anger, as if he was the prisoner and Lecter the jailer. “To be honest I didn’t expect it quite so soon, Mr. Barnes must have an exceptionally strong will,” the shrink chuckled. “But I did leave a loose few ends to unthread in good time.”
”You bastard!” Simmons’ temper snapped in the face of Lecter’s smugness. “You’ll die for this.”
“As if I was ever going to be kept alive,” Lecter’s smile didn’t move an inch. “At least this way I have the satisfaction of knowing that whatever plan you wanted me for was doomed by me.”
“You bastard!” Simmons pressed the remote control to release the nerve gas into the cell.
“Ah almonds,” Lecter nodded. “Nerve gas. I had hoped for a more-.” Suddenly the shrink’s head snapped back, his body arching in his chair as he began to make gagging noises.
Simmons smiled sourly as he watched the doctor’s death throes. Lecter might have thwarted his plan, but at least he had Lectar’s death to comfort him.