Dux Noctus glided out of the sewers, nose twitching as it followed the Slayer’s unique scent. His eyes narrowed as he found himself on a lamp-lit upper middle-class residential street.
A street filled with tinted-windowed expensive cars and square-shouldered blacks and whites within them. “Thugs,” he growled, noting the guns stuck in shoulder-holsters and in the pockets of ragged jeans, and knuckledusters and bike-chains in their hands. It was a blatant display for even a city as lawless as Johannesburg.
His eyes flickered yellow and teeth elongated when he realised that all four car loads of thugs were congregating on the house his prey was in. “No,” he snarled before stalking through the falling darkness. He’d tasted her spirit, he had to be the one who took it.
The two men at the group’s rear were dead before they even knew it, Noctus casually snapping their necks, their corpses slumping soundlessly to the ground.
Some instinct made one of the next men start to turn towards him. Blood spewed from the man’s mouth when he punched him in the throat, crushing his larynx. The man had barely begun to fall when Noctus was gliding onto the next, one hand going under the man’s chin, one over his mouth, and twisting hard.
The crack of the thug’s neck was drowned out by his companions’ alarmed shouts. Several of the remaining hoods began to turn to face him, but before any of them had chance to make an aggressive move, his right fist had punched the nearest thug’s nose up into his brain.
Out of the corner of his eye, Noctus saw one of the men to his left begin to draw his revolver. Realising that any sound might alert the beauty he’d targeted, Noctus leapt at the man, clawed hands leading the way.
His right hand grabbed the thug’s shocked face and yanked, his neck snapping like a twig. “Blast!” Dux Noctus roared his fury when the dying man’s last action was an involuntary finger twitch that sent a round crashing out of his gun’s muzzle.
* * *
Xander couldn’t help but smile as he watched Faith bounce a gurgling, giggling Hector on her lap while Tara cast a spell that had the newly bought teddy bears acting out a pantomime for the enthralled baby. As he’d always suspected his girl was a natural with kids.
And as for Hector, it appeared the baby adored being fussed over by women. “They get harder when you’re older Hec,” he warned in a wry whisper.
“Hey, Harris did you hear-.”
“Yeah,” Xander was already rising when Faith spoke, edging towards the window and peeking around the edge of the drawn curtains. “Oh crap,” he groaned.
”What’s wrong?” Tara demanded.
“Dux Noctus is out there, fighting with a gang that I’d guess are Pinnear’s thugs. There’s seven, no eight, no now there’s seven, of them, but he’s tearing through them!”
“Guy’s one tough sob,” Faith commented.
”But he can’t get in here, can he?” Tara pointed out.
”No, but if Noctus knows where we are, the other assassins might do too,” Xander retorted. “And Pinnear can always hire some more thugs. Besides the police are bound to come and investigate this carnage. This place is well and truly compromised.” Xander concluded.
“So we headin’ for the car?” Faith queried as she rose, passing Hector off to Tara.
”Yeah,” Xander started for the front door. “If we hurry we should get out before they notice we’re gone. Be stealth-like.”
The night air was chilly, especially after their comfortably warm house, but Xander ignored that as he rushed to their car, its keys jangling uncomfortably loud in his hand. The moment the last of them were in the car, Xander jammed the key into the ignition and turned it, engine purring into life.
And Dux Noctus snapped the last thug’s neck and turned to them, fangs blood-stained and yellow eyes gleaming maliciously.
“Oh boy,” Xander gulped as he slammed down on the accelerator and the car shot off the gravelled drive, the hefty vehicle shuddering slightly as it powered over the downed criminals and straight at the master vampire. Xander caught the briefest flicker of shock in the undead’s eyes and then the SUV bounced as its steel grille bumper crashed into the demon, the monster lifted off its feet and flung into the air.
”Aaaaah crap!” Faith groaned as the roof thumped, dinting inwards. “You don’t think-.” The window by the Slayer shattered, a hand powering in to grab her by the throat, claws digging into her milky-white neck. “Uuuuuh,” Faith gurgled as they continued to speed through Jo’burg’s night-time streets, her hands coming up to grab the demon’s forearm and vainly try and pull the rampaging monster off, the backseat passengers unable to reach around and help. “Xan!” Faith cast him a desperate look.
“Kinda busy here,” Xander muttered. His arm muscles writhed as he yanked the car left, tugging it down a side street just ahead of an approaching convoy of police cars, their flashing lights illuminating the dark night. “Here!” He dropped a Beretta 93R into Faith’s lap.
“Thanks!” Faith scooped up the automatic, leaned out of the shattered window and fired a trio of concussively loud shots. Faith slid back into the car, slumping in her seat, hand massaging her bruised throat. “He’s gone,” his girl-friend reported in a hoarse rasp.
”But only for now,” Kennedy commented.
”Well yeah,” Faith grunted. “Temporary will have to do for now.”
Xander didn’t bother joining in the conversation. He was too busy screeching through the city’s streets, dodging between traffic. Things were a miss; all three of their hideouts had been blown in record time, and ditto with their cars. That crazy vampire and god only knew what other assassins were still after them. Pinnear would send more men after them. And now the police would looking for them too.
Talk about a clusterfuck of biblical proportions. Things hadn’t been this bad since the serpent persuaded Eve that taking a little bite of the apple wouldn’t hurt anything.
And look how that had turned out.
Xander forced himself to calm. They had to dump the car and find somewhere else to hide until Hec’s passport was ready. The only question was where to go.
The answer hit him as he blazed past an eighteen-wheeler, the cars heading towards him veering away and voicing their protests in a symphony of screeching tyres and blaring horns. “We’re going to Soweto.”
* * *
Dux Noctus growled as he struggled to his feet, body aching all over a combination of being hit by the car, his shooting, and finally falling from the car. Even a vampire of his age had limits.
The Slayer was beginning to annoy him, and that was always a dangerous thing to do. Although she didn’t annoy him quite as much as-, his hands flashed out behind him, snatching hold of an invisible throat and twisting, the brutal action done with such speed to ensure his target didn’t have time to even blink before he acted. An audible snap rang out, and then Sharon McCormack’s limp corpse materialised in his grip.
”My dear,” he muttered as he carried her corpse deeper into the side street’s shadows, “did you think you could follow me with impunity?” He chuckled. “You might have had had the gift of invisibility, but I could hear your heart and smell your scent. I wouldn’t have let you steal my catch from me!” He shook his head. But she would come in very useful in fuelling his healing.
* * *
“Soweto?” Faith glanced across at Xander, her hand still massaging her aching throat, damn that vamp had serious strength. “As in one of the world’s most lawless places, Soweto?”
“Ah, you’ve heard of it,” Xander wryly replied. Faith threw up her hands and shook her head, groaning as she did so. “Look I admit it’s an imperfect plan, but you said yourself, Soweto’s lawless, the police don’t have many friends down there, nor does Pinnear, his main competitors live there.”
”Imperfect plan he says,” Faith scowled.
“And what about the gangs that live there?” Tara added.
Xander glanced at first Tara and then her, his expression stern. “ Have you got any better ideas?” he challenged.
“No,” Faith sulkily replied. “Don’t mean we should do this.”
”Well tough, because this is the only idea any of us have got,” Xander retorted.
* * *
Lucas Pinear paced impatiently across his study, eyes flitting constantly between the grandfather clock in the corner and the door. “They should be back by now!”
“Yes, those foursome are a most formidable group are they not?”
Pinnear’s eyes narrowed at the diminutive figure suddenly stood in the doorway, not stopping to wonder how the man had managed to get there without him noticing. “Who the fuck are you?” he thundered.
The intruder smiled tightly, apparently unworried by his anger. “That’s unimportant,” he replied. “What is important is that I got in here. Your guards are all dead. You’re alone.”
Rage growing, Pinnear lunged at the stranger leading with a sharp right cross. He screamed when the intruder somehow wriggled around him, put a foot in his hamstring and pushed forward, while working a hand around his shin, and yanking back. Pinnear hit the wall by the door face first, his nose shattering on impact.
That pain was rendered unimportant next to his leg’s agony. The man released his hold on Pinnear’s broken leg, allowing him to slide down the now blood-smeared wall. He groaned when the intruder kicked him in his side, a rib cracking under the impact. “Now,” the man’s voice was cordially polite, as if they were two friends discussing the weather or the sports results, “tell me everything you know about the whereabouts of your son’s kidnappers or I will make your last few minutes of life very painful indeed.”
* * *
“Hey Big-Dog, you won’t believe what I just saw!”
“Oh yeah?” Big-Dog took an extra hit of his joint before looking up at his head muscle. “Wanna share, No-Neck?”
No-Neck grinned. The shaven-headed black stood only five foot eight inches tall but was so thick and wide, he looked like a box on legs. His limbs were ridged with muscles, legs like tree-trunks and the arms that stuck out of his sleeveless denim shirt would have made Popeye jealous. “One of my boys saw a car parking up in Molapo with three white girls in it, real sweet meats. I was figuring we should grab them for a party, hell you could make some serious coin off those bitches’ asses.” No-Neck spat on the floor. “Dumb fuckin’ tourists.”
Big-Dog flashed No-Nose his gold-capped teeth before rising to his six feet seven inch height, floorboards creaking beneath him. “Sounds fun,” he replied before reaching into his desk drawer. “Anyone with them.”
”Just one guy,” No-Neck retorted. “Tough-looking but,” No-Neck shrugged his vault-sized shoulders, “just one guy.”
“Yeah.” Big-Dog pulled out his favourite meat cleaver. “Get the boys together, tell them no guns, only coshes and machetes, and only use them on the man. Let’s make these bitches cry before we make them scream.”
Faith peered out of the crumbling house’s dirt-streaked window and sighed. The rising sun bathed the township in a bloody hue that was very appropriate given its troubled history. For as far as she could see there was row upon row of shanty houses made of rotting wood and rusting corrugated iron, dusty dirt tracks, and burnt out or stripped down cars. An air of tired depression hung over the entire area, choking life the life our of the inhabitants it feasted on like a vampire feasted on a co-ed.
“This is a very bad idea,” Faith muttered. It had only been an hour or so before dawn when Xander had found this place. His boy-friend had then dumped their car in a ditch half a mile away, broken into the apparently deserted house, and taken up residence. Thirty-six hours before they could collect Hec’s passport from Brill’s forger friend. A heck of a lot of stuff could go wrong in that time, ‘specially in a place like this.
Just like it was goin’ wrong right about now, Faith scowled as she noticed the lines of guys threading through the shanty town without any pretence at stealth. Dumb fuckers. “Guys!” she hollered. “We’ve got company!”
”Oh yeah?” Faith heard Xander rushing into the room. “Friendly?”
“Not hardly,” Faith retorted, “a dozen or so bad-asses converging-.” CRASH! “Shit!” Faith looked towards Xander, dark eyes widening. “That sounded like the side door.”
“Yeah,” Xander threw her a trio of Beretta 93Rs while pulling out a Mossberg 590 for himself. “I’ll take the rear, you deal with the side door, give those automatics to Tara and Kennedy, and have them watch the lounge windows.”
“I’ll get on it!” Heart racing, Faith started through the house’s drab corridors.
* * *
Xander had barely made it to the kitchen when its door crashed open, a cleaver-brandishing black of towering height charging in. Xander tugged on his shotgun’s trigger, his first blast taking the man full in the chest, dropping him like a bad habit.
The second thug through the door managed to avoid being shot by virtue of falling over the corpse crumpled in the doorway. The third hood through took the blast meant for the second, folding like a deck of cards.
The second thug leapt up with a snarl and shoved the kitchen’s rickety table over and into Xander. “Ah heck!” Xander cursed as he fell backwards into the wall, head cracking against a cupboard.
His trigger finger twitched involuntarily, a blast erupting out of his shotgun muzzle. The blast caught the next man coming through the doorway full in the face, the impact throwing him back out.
And then the thug already in the kitchen was on him, catching him with a right to the shoulder that knocked his aim off, sending a round shattering through the window. Xander blocked a left hook on his right elbow before jamming the butt of his shotgun into his opponent’s gut.
The man grunted, stepped back, and grabbed a chair, swinging it at Xander. Xander dropped to his knees, the makeshift weapon battering the air above, and pulled up his shotgun, finger tugging on the trigger. The blast took his attacker off his feet and splattered his remains against the far wall, blood, bone, and guts dripping down it.
* * *
By the time Faith was half-way down the stairs, the entrance hall it was already swarming with a trio of gigantic machete-wielding blacks with more coming in behind. “Ah hell!” Faith cursed. Somehow she guessed she wouldn’t be getting the guns to Tara and Ken any time soon.
Leaping over the stair railing, she landed in a crouch before the first intruder. Her trigger finger was a blur as she emptied round after round into them, gunsmoke scratching her throat and her ears pounding to their deafening retort.
She dropped five before the last two of them reached her, two bellowing, roided-up musclemen. Faith ducked one way and then the other, writhing and wriggling inside and out of the pair’s flashing cleavers.
A side-thrust kick to her left doubled up one of the thugs into a nose-breaking elbow, blood fountaining out onto the faded carpet. The other grabbed her hair and shoved her face-first at the stairs railing. Faith leapt into the air, hitting the wood banister feet-first as she prepared to spring-board off it.
“Fucccck!” Faith screamed as the rotten wood shattered, sending her sailing through to crash down onto the unforgiving stone stairs.
Head ringing, she rolled up into a crouch in time to see the two thugs charging her, one through the stairwell gap, the other running around to the front of the stairs. Faith leapt up over the man’s flashing knife before kicking him full in the face upon her descent.
Teeth flew out of the hood’s mouth as he flew backwards and crashed into the wall before sliding soundlessly to the ground. “Whoa!” Faith dropped into a squat under the last thug’s violently swinging arm before hooking her arm around the man’s nearest leg, standing, leaning to her left and releasing her grip. The man sailed over her head and landed headfirst on the third step up, the man’s skull shattering like an egg-shell.
And then it was deathly quiet, a hell of a contrast from the chaotic loudness of just a few seconds ago. The smell of blood made Faith’s stomach curdle, the enclosed rooms smelt like a slaughterhouse. Heart hammering, Faith rushed through into the lounge. “Is Hec okay?”
“We’re fine, Faith, thanks,” Kennedy snarked.
“Room’s not,” Faith retorted. The windows had been shattered; glass lying on the carpet, but two of the three thugs who’d clambered in were lying beneath the room’s sofa, obviously flung there by Tara’s magic. The third was lying under the coffee table, his blood pooling under him.
Hearing a footfall behind her Faith spun around, fists clenched and raised, only to relax when Xander entered. “Okay, so this was a bad idea,” her boy-friend breathlessly admitted. “Let’s get out of here.” Xander threw her a shotgun. “That’s in case someone follows us.” Xander rushed out of the wrecked building.
“Not even a yes dear, you were right dear,” Faith muttered as she followed Kennedy and Tara out of the house. She grinned as Hector raised a chubby hand and waved at her.
Her grin faded as she joined the others racing towards the nearest jeep to see more two jeeps heading towards them, dust billowing in their wake and people scattering before them. Oh fuck. “Xan!”
”I see them,” Xander shot a grim look over his shoulder. “Get in.”
The moment Faith had leapt into the jeep’s back seat, Xander rammed his foot down on the accelerator, the all terrain vehicle shooting off. “How far behind?” Xander queried.
“Not far enough!” Kennedy hollered in reply.
Xander grimaced as he glanced into his rear-view mirror to see now three jeeps full of hooting and hollering thugs racing after them. They probably wouldn’t be too happy with the ten or so corpses littering the house. Then again, Xander wasn’t too happy with the Watchers’ Council for hiring them to kill them.
The speedometer was hitting eighty-five as they shot across a crossroads, veering in front of a dusty red bus, so close that Xander could see the driver’s shocked expression and smell the public transport’s over-heating engine. Once around the bus, Xander was forced to pull hard to the left, tyres screeching as he swung around the rear of a range rover apparently held together by rust before straightening up and powering on.
Xander started slightly as a boom rang out, Hector cradled in Tara’s arms bursting into tears. “What was that?” he demanded.
“Shotgun round through the lead jeep’s windscreen,” Faith smugly retorted. “Fucker’s out.”
“Well done,” Xander praised as he dragged the wheel around and shot the car down a narrow alley. Trash cans flew into the air, garbage flying everywhere as their speeding car hit them like a turbo-charged bowling alley. Xander slammed onto the brakes as they flew out of the alley like a cork off a bottle, sweat appearing on his forehead as he yanked the car right and into traffic.
“Whoa!” Faith yelled about three seconds later. “Smooth move! One of the fuckers just flew out of that alley and into an eighteen wheeler! Bastard crumpled like a stomped can!”
”Good,” Xander retorted through gritted teeth as he concentrated on zigzagging through the busy traffic, his actions frequently greeted by screeching horns, blaring horns, curses, or a combination of all three. “And the other.”
”Still comin’,” his girl-friend tersely replied.
”Have to do something about that,” Xander decided. His eyes alighted on a road sign and ears picking up an accompanying familiar sound. Spying an off-road, he wrenched the wheel violently to the right, tyres screeching as he brought the traffic behind to a panicked halt as he dived towards the off-road they’d been about to pass.
”Xan!” Faith let out a panicked yell as their car shot down the thankfully deserted side-road. “What are yaw doin’?” Faith groaned and shook her head. “Oh fuck. Baby, last time ya did this, we had a way better car this heap of shit!”
Xander ignored his girl-friend’s protests to gun the engine, speedometer creeping up to a hundred. “Faith!” Tara let out a confused cry. “What is he doing?”
“Oh nothing much,” Faith sardonically drawled, “just tryin’ to make us train pancake.”
”What-, oh no”
The speedometer was hitting 110 when Xander hit the rail lines, his teeth rattling as the jeep juddered over the tracks just in front of a dark grey locomotive. The train’s roar was deafening and its lights momentarily blinding, but that was alright, Xander didn’t need his senses to ram his foot down as hard as he could on the accelerator.
And then they were over the tracks, inches ahead of the on-rushing gargantuan. “Jesus!” Faith gasped. “That jeep just got totalled, it crumpled like a screwed up ball of paper, then flipped up into the air.”
”What’s the plan now?” Tara asked.
Xander grimaced as he continued down the road, looking for a road that led them back to the relative anonymity of more populated roads. After all, all the plans he’d made since arriving in South Africa hadn’t worked out, his batting average sucked. “First,” he decided, “we need to find a shopping mall.”
”I like shopping as much as, well probably more, the next girl,” commented an ever sceptical Kennedy. “But a shopping mall, now?”
“Where there’s a mall there’s also a very busy parking lot,” Faith explained for him. “Great place to lose a hot car in. Long as the lot doesn’t have too many cameras to pick up on our arrival. We park at the back and walk in, casual as. After that?”
“After that,” Xander paused for a second before continuing, “we keep on the move, always sticking to the public places. Then when the forger calls, we go and grab Hec’s passport, and head for the airport.”
”How long before it’s ready?” queried Tara.
Xander grimaced. “Just over a day.”
Faith forced back a yawn as she looked around the busy fast-food restaurant. Heh, screw W&H and their plots, it looked to her like MacDonald’s was just half a dozen franchises from conquering the world. The day was slowly turning into night, ending a frantic day spent rushing from mall to museum back to mall again, anything that kept them in crowds and moving from place to place.
As a plan it seemed to have worked, at least they hadn’t be attacked, but it was pretty damn tiring. Especially with a squalling kid to look after. Not that Hec was a chore or anythin’, not with those big eyes, rosy cheeks, and beaming smile.
Faith tickled the little fella’s rotund belly, her heart catching. In just a few hours, she’d have to give this little treasure up and probably never see him again. She smiled sadly as Hec grabbed a hold of her finger and squeezed, gurgling happily as he did so.
”Are you alright?”
Faith looked up to see Xander staring worriedly at her. Faith forced a smile, getting that warm feelin’ she always got when her man looked at her like that. “Yeah, I’m cool,” she lied. “I was just thinkin’ ‘bout what we’re gonna do with the little guy. Is Tony takin’ him?” At least then he’d have everything a kid could want.
“Ah,” Xander winced. “He wants to, but thinks he’s too high-profile. People will ask too many questions about where Hec came from. He’s worried that Pinnear or somebody might track Hector down.”
Dread flooded her veins, chilling her. “What are ya gonna do with Hec then?”
”Um,” Tara spoke up, “he can come and live at one of my orphanages-.”
”No fuckin’ way!” Faith snapped, head wildly shaking. “I’ve been in those place. Ya ain’t putting Hect in some shitty-.”
”My orphanages aren’t shitty!” Tara’s eyes flashed as she jumped up, the air around the angry witch seeming to vibrate with power. “He’d have a scholarship to any university, toys, friends, a clean room-.”
“He wouldn’t have a fuckin’ family!” Faith snapped as she leapt up, eyeballing her best friend as she glared across the table. “Wouldn’t have people he knew loved him!”
“Oh thank god,” Xander murmured before pointing past her. “I hate to interrupt,” Xander’s insincerity dripped from every word, “but vampires.”
“Oh shit!” Her argument forgotten, Faith shoved Hec into Tara’s arms before leaping towards the demons, customers and employees screaming in terror as they fled the brightly-lit restaurant. “Ya guys deal with the minions, I’ll take Noctus!”
“I’m honoured dear,” purred the Master vampire, his face stretched in a vicious caricature of a grin.
”Don’t be honoured,” Faith ducked a haymaker as she leapt into the attack before thrusting her stake at the demon’s chest, “be dust!”
“Sorry to disappoint my dear.” The vampire grabbed her wrist, cold fingers pressing into her warm flesh, then twisted at the waist, and released. Faith groaned as she crashed into the stools arrayed by the counter, the back of her head bouncing off the counter’s plastic surface, hitting it hard enough to dent.
Shrugging off the pain, Faith kipped up in time to catch a sweep kick intended for her head on her shoulder and retaliate with a thrust heel kick. The demon twisted away from her attack, hooked her out-stretched leg, and kicked at the grounded limb.
“Crap!” Faith gasped as her world tilted. The moment Faith hit the floor, she was rolling away from an attempted stomp that hit the ground with enough force to crack the tiles where her face had been. Seeing her opponent charging her, she reached out desperately, grabbing the leg of one of the counter stool’s, ripping it from its floor screws with a hard wrench, and flinging it in her rival’s path. The demon leapt over the thrown obstacle, landing beside her as she reached a crouch, his elbow crashing into her head.
Blood burst from her forehead as she fell onto her back. Head ringing, blind instinct guided her into a backwards roll and onto her feet, her leaping spin-kick catching her opponent unprepared, knocking his head to the side. The moment her feet touched the ground, Faith attempted a downwards stake. Once again the demon blocked her attempt while at the same time crashing a left hook into her forehead.
Faith stumbled backwards, intuitively ducking beneath the demon’s follow-up leaping roundhouse kick to the head. Faith lunged up to hook an arm around the demon’s upper thigh and bring the demon’s small of the back down hard on her bent knee.
Noctus arched like a bow being readied for firing, pain written across its face. Faith brought her stake down only for the vampire to roll off her legs and back to its feet with a snarl.
The two of them leapt at one another. Faith blocked a knee to her crotch on her thigh while ramming her head into the vampire’s face, his nose audibly and visibly cracking under her onslaught. Notcus growled as he retaliated with an attempted thrust kick to Faith’s ample chest.
Faith grinned as she leaned back at the waist, the kick flying harmlessly over her. The moment the still growling demon pulled his leg back, Faith sprang up like a spring, leaping up and over the demon before delivering a hook kick to her rival’s upper back that brought Noctus to his knees.
The moment Faith landed, she spun and staked at the vampire, aiming to take him through his back. Once again the maddeningly elusive demon threw himself away from her attack, hand-springing back to his feet before spinning to face her.
The demon lunged at her again. Faith sidestepped the attack, kicking one of the restaurant’s bins into her rival’s path. The demon stumbled but still managed a backfist that sent blood flowing from her bottom lip.
Ignoring the pain, Faith retaliated with a feinted stake lunge. The moment her rival began responding to the attack with a customary twist away, she crashed a simultaneous reverse knife-edge across its throat and swept its legs from under it. The moment the master vampire hit the ground, Faith was straddling it, knees across its shoulders. Ignoring the beast’s frantic flailing, Faith slammed her stake deep into its heart.
The undead dusted with a pleasing flourish, leaving Faith to look up and see her friends had dealt with Noctus’ five minions. Faith winced, but not without two civilians paying the price, a courting couple’s corpses adorning the floor, their blood pooling on the tiles. Faith rose and looked around the destroyed café. “That’s another of the Council’s bastard assassins dealt with. What’s the plan now?”
Xander wiped dust off himself before replying. “We buy a people carrier, find ourselves a well-lit park or parking lot, spend the night there, and then go to the forger in the morning.”
”Oh great.” Every one turned to Kennedy at her groan. “A night with those two in moods.” Kennedy looked at Tara and Faith in turn. “In an enclosed space. This sounds like a real carnival.”
“Is this the place?” Kennedy queried.
“It’s the address the email gave,” Xander replied as he inspected the crumbling cottage on the city’s western outskirts.
“How good is this forger anyway?”
Xander glanced at Kennedy, and then the stonily silent Tara and Faith. The witch and the Slayer were both determinedly uncommunicative after yesterday’s argument over Hector and Tara’s orphanages. He returned his eyes to the still talking potential and shrugged. “Brill recommends her as someone who the CIA used for off the book operations.”
“Pretty competent then,” the potential commented.
”Yeah,” Xander agreed as he climbed out of the car, shooting eyes left and right as he did so, the early morning sun already warm enough to make him sweat. Xander glanced over his shoulder to see the others had likewise climbed out.
Xander led the group up the paved stoned path, eyes rising at the very modern intercom fixed beside and the CCTV camera above the doorway of the traditional-looking stone building. After clearing his throat, Xander lowered his head and pressed on the intercom button. “Hello, it’s Andrew Hawkins.”
A woman’s voice crackled through the intercom. “Yes! What do you want!”
”Um,” Xander took a second to gather his thoughts in the wake of the woman’s attitude. “Uncle Brill sent me to see a niece and pick up a package for his holiday,” he replied, repeating the code phrase the forger had included in her email.
After a second the forger spoke again. “Hold the boy up to the camera.” Xander glanced towards Faith. The sultry brunette shrugged before doing as requested, lifting the squalling baby over her head. Something buzzed behind the door. “Door’s open,” the voice within reported. “Come in.”
Xander raised an eyebrow at the woman’s continuing hostile tone but obeyed, stepping inside a narrow, dimly-lit hallway. Even in the half-light Xander couldn’t help but fail to notice the door’s steel reinforced inner and three separate locks, clearly this woman took her security very seriously. The moment the door clicked shut, a brunette in her mid-thirties with her hair cut in a bun stepped out of a side door with a shotgun in hand. “Oh boy,” Faith drawled, “I bet the delivery boys love you with a greeting like that.”
“Have you got the money?” the forger demanded.
Xander threw a bulky manila envelope to the woman’s feet. “Seventy thousand? That’s a lot for one person’s papers.”
“Kid’s papers are harder to falsify,” the woman explained as she dropped another slimmer envelope by his feet. “Babies grow so quickly, you have to be really specific on age. Plus it was a rush job. And I am the best in the business.” Eyes still fixed on the woman, Xander nodded towards Kennedy. The potential crouched down and picked up the envelope. “Now you’ve got what you wanted, get out. I never want to see any of you again. I don’t do repeat jobs.”
”Geez,” Faith drawled, “and there’s me thinkin’ of invitin’ you on the ten year reunion tour.”
“Faith, don’t annoy the nice forger with a shotgun,” Xander reproved before backing to the door, the others leading the way.
He was last through the door. His eyes widened as a sword-wielding figure leapt out of the shadows to the right. Xander spun to face the would-be attacker, instinctively drawing a sword from the Always Pocket. His arm muscles writhed and rippled as he brought the weapon up to block the sneak attack.
He gasped as he recognised his assailant as the swordsman from Pinnear’s house. “Kalybas! But that’s impossible, I killed you!”
The short man smiled as he attempted a thrust at Xander’s heart. “You know it’s more than possible, Harris! Just think!”
Xander twisted away from the thrust, the blade sliding past his chest, and waved Faith back as he did so. “You’re an Immortal?” he guessed as he watched his adversary.
“Ah, how astute!” Kalybas smirked mockingly before attempting a back-handed, upwards slash. “It will be quite a feather in my cap to kill,” the Immortal scowled as Xander sidestepped his attack, retaliating with a thrust that forced Kalybas on the back-foot, “the man who defeated Draco.”
“I’m not dead yet!” Xander replied as the Immortal blocked his thrust, swords clanging together.
“All in good time!” Kalybas replied with a diagonally-upwards backhanded slash that Xander jumped back from before charging back with a downwards swing, murderously intent on cleaving in the rival swordsman’s head.
Kalybas’ blade parried the blow inches from its target while the Immortal simultaneously kicked out at Xander’s legs. Xander grunted as the blow connected, pain jarring through his shin. Rather than fall back under the assault, Xander forced himself forward, leading with a lunge.
“Aaaaah!” Kalybas leaned back when Xander’s blade thrust at him, the point of his sword tearing through the Immortal’s jacket, his sword coming away slicked with crimson. Despite his discomfort, the Immortal still managed to step outside Xander’s back-handed slash.
Kalybas dropped to one knee and thrust up. Xander kicked the blade away while back-hand slicing at his rival’s head. The swordsman dropped into a forward roll that carried him behind Xander.
Xander barely managed to spin around in time to bring his blade down to knock aside Kalybas’ attempted attack. The Immortal snarled as he leapt up and at him. Xander grunted as the smaller man crashed shoulder-first into him, pain flaring through his chest.
Xander twisted away from the Immortal’s thrust at his torso. Xander’s knee came up, crashing into the swordsman’s forearm, knocking his attack off-target. Kalybas’ eyes hardened as he back-handed slashed at Xander’s mid-section.
Xander grunted as pain shot through his upper hip, the Immortal’s blade ricocheting off it. Ignoring his companions’ shocked screams he feigned a stumble to one knee. Kalybas grinned and raised his blade overhead.
And Xander surged up and past his opponent, sword lashing backwards and down, blade biting deep into his rival’s hamstring. Blood gushed as the Immortal crashed to the ground. Xander kicked the man’s blade away before stepping over his downed rival. “There can be only one,” he smiled darkly as he recalled the tragic truth behind ‘The Game’, “and it’s not going to be you.” His sword lashed down, decapitating his rival.
Xander leapt back from the corpse as lightning coiled and shot out from his twisting, arching corpse. “Whoa!” Faith caught him as his injured leg buckled under him. “Nice light show, but let’s get out of here ‘fore someone else tries to kill us, ‘kay?”
“You’ve gotta make sure his head’s supported properly and you’ve gotta-.”
“I’ve held a baby before, Faith,” her uncle softly reproved, a fondle smile on his creased face as he cradled a gurgling Hector, “I remember holding you like this, just about twenty years ago.”
“There’s an image.”
Faith ignored the brat’s mutterings to stare worriedly at Hector. The answer of what to do with Hec had come to her on the flight back to the states. It was obvious really, Uncle Spense didn’t have the press followin’ his every move like Ton did, and she knew from her own childhood what a good parent Uncle Spense could be if given the chance, and she could visit any time she wanted.
Yeah, perfect. So why her eyes watering incessantly? It must be grit in the air, it was a real fuckin’ pain. “You’ve gotta swing him from side to side, but only gentle-.”
“I’m sure we’ll learn Faith.”
Faith glanced at the shrink sat on the sofa beside her Uncle and nodded uncertainly. “Yeah, ‘course you will.”
“And of course we’ll expect his favourite Auntie Faith and her friends to come and see him all the time,” Uncle Spense looked up from talking to Hector to look at her, his eyes warmly sympathetic. “Not that you needed an excuse to come here.”
”Course not,” Faith tried and failed to smile, the lump in her throat threatening to choke her. Her heart jumped and stomach twisted, oh fuck, she was gonna lose it completely.
And then as if by magic Xander was there, his hand on her shoulder somehow lending her the strength she needed to hold it together. “Brill and Angela have made creating an identity for Hector a priority. You’ll be getting a birth certificate, adoption papers, and all the necessary paperwork within the week,” Xander said. “I’d advise you stick to the cover story even with Hector when he’s older.”
“Then he’s really ours,” Susan gasped, the shrink’s own cheeks streaked with tears.
“He’s really yours,” Xander said. “We’ve got some toys, a cot, car seat, that sort of thing, I’ll bring it all in while you all say good-bye.”
Faith waited until her friends had all said their goodbyes, even Ken letting out a tremulous sob when she hugged before taking the baby in her arms and forcing a smile as he reached up to her, fingers stroking her face and tugging at her hair. “You be a good boy, you hear?” she hoarsely whispered before leaning in and gently kissing his cheek. “You’re a little angel already, always will be to me. You be a good boy, and I’ll come and see you all the time, and bring you loads and loads of presents.”
* * *
Xander smiled as he entered their hotel room, purposefully choosing to look away as his girl-friend wiped at her eyes. “I was thinking about going down to the restaurant, seeing if we could clear the buffet out between us.”
“Okay.” Xander hid a grimace as he turned back to the door. This was serious, his girl off her food. However the worse thing you could ever do with his girl was push, when she was ready to let it out, to share or lash out, he’d just have to be there. “In that case I’ll go down and have something to eat. If you’re asleep when I get back, I’ll take the couch.” He reached out for the door.
”Xan,” his girl-friend’s voice was huskier than normal, pain scratching it, “I was wonderin’-.”
“I set up a trust fund for Hec on the plane back over here, he gets the interest off a five million dollar trust fund from the age of eighteen and the principal sum upon his graduation of any college. If he hasn’t graduated by the age of twenty-five, the money returns to the Brotherhood.”
”Thanks stud, but I wasn’t gonna ask that,” Faith paused. “What ya gonna do ‘bout the Council?”
“Oh.” The concern Xander felt for his girl was burnt out by his cold rage. It seemed his first slaughter of the Council hadn’t gone nearly far enough, a mistake that he’d have to rectify whenever he got the chance. “I wouldn’t worry about them,” he replied through gritted teeth. “There’ll be a reckoning down the line.” Xander turned back to the door.
”Maybe you could hold me for a little while.”
“Sure honey.” Xander smiled softly as he turned back to the tiny figure and knelt on the bed beside her, his arm looping around her waist. “It is after all my second favourite thing in the world.”
Faith let out a choked off laugh. “Don’t need to ask what’s your first.”
* * *
Milo sipped at his wine, a quite delightful glass of 1818 Château Lafite Rothschild, as he read his reports on his operation in South Africa. On the surface it was very bad news indeed, four of his hired assassins had died at the hands of the Mithras Quartet, one of them had died at one of his hirelings’ own hands, and the sixth had fled, presumably never to confront the Quartet again.
But beneath the surface there were pleasing ripples.
Yes, the assassins had been summarily defeated, without so much as a casualty to the all-conquering re-born god and his formidable companions. However he’d ensured that Harris would be made aware that the Council were behind the attack, widening the already vast schism between the Brotherhood and the Council. He didn’t doubt that such a man as Alexander Harris would check his facts before reacting, but that was to be expected. He’d laid a convincing trail that led all the way back to the Council and its esteemed leader. Not even the Brotherhood’s venerated hackers would be able to discover his duplicity.
After all, what was the point of being a Chaos Lord if one wasn’t an expert in deceit and double-dealing? Milo started slightly then relaxed as he realised the sound he’d heard was his own unbidden laughter echoing around his office.