eBook Format for “Tiamat Unbound”

I’ll be busy with school for the next week, but that’s not to say I won’t get other things done. In the meantime, I’ve made Tiamat Unbound available in eBook format, so if you want it all in one place, download, read, share, and enjoy. I’m underway with the new series of short stories, but it’ll be about a week before I can promise anything new up. Of course, I can always throw in a surprise somewhere between…

https://www.dropbox.com/s/qavt9qg130n8hm6/Tiamat%20Unbound.prc?dl=0

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Embers (Tiamat Unbound Finale)

It’s a bit late, but here’s the conclusion to Tiamat Unbound. I hope it’s been/will provide entertainment, and I look forward to working on bigger projects in the future. Let’s just say this might not be the last you ever read of the men and women of Tiamat Unbound and the associates. Enjoy!

Metal clashed in a symphony of cringe-inducing scrapes with enough friction to generate sparks with each blow. The intensity of the contest kept our eyes going back and forth like we were witnessing a tennis match from hell, and both players were going all out, neither willing to relent to the strength of the other. One contestant pushed back the other until the other returned the favor. In relation to their contrasting sizes, it was the battle of David and Goliath…if that story involved sword duels between a modern-day samurai and a very prideful grappler. Finally, the smaller man dropped to the ground and swung his right leg out, knocking the larger off of his feet and sending him crashing onto his back. Silence gripped us. Before the big guy could recover, his aggressor put the tip of his blade to the giant’s chest, causing both women on each side of me to gasp as the tension hit the high point. Then the samurai on the ground smiled as he pushed the blade away with the palm of his right hand. He stood to his feet with some help from his opponent, and that took a lot of strength. Both men bowed to each other before sheathing their swords, and then the larger spoke.

“You have improved,” Makoto Nagase told his new pupil sincerely, “I am impressed.”

His opponent, Jackson Lewis, smiled at his rival-turned-teacher in earnest, “I picked that sweep up from the last person to beat me. Years ago when you handed me my ass with just a wooden sword, I just couldn’t stand the humiliation. A rematch is all I’ve ever wanted,” he handed the sheathed replica sword to Makoto as he spoke, “Though I wish the fight would’ve been even,” he commented as he nodded towards Makoto’s dead left arm. Makoto had mentioned before that he was still able to operate it at random times, but for the rest it just teetered between numb and stinging. I’m no expert, but that sounded like some of the symptoms of radial nerve dysfunction.

Makoto bellowed a laugh, “If I had the use of both arms, you would not be so grateful.”

Lewis shrugged, “I’d rather fight you at your peak; I trained hard for the day I’d get another shot at you.”

“I wonder,” I said from the sidelines close by, “did you mean today, or four months ago when you both squared off over your petty rivalry while the three of us here were handling business?”

Lewis snorted a laugh and flipped me off instead of using any of his usual choice words. I was speaking, of course, about the day we three men as well as our two lovely yet gun-savvy assistants stormed the headquarters of the world’s most powerful private military company and killed the CEO before she had the chance to launch a nuclear weapon. We didn’t even know of that last bit of information until Lewis found out from one of his sources who’d managed to obtain that classified intelligence from the UN documents following their own raid. Luckily for us, they came in moments after we’d already fled using the CEO’s personal chopper.

To be completely honest, the past six months had been hell for all of us now situated here in my mountainside retreat in Obersalzberg, and that wasn’t just because we were situated only a few miles from where Hitler’s residence was. I was glad that I took all of my money out of savings before splitting with Kriegspartai, because without those years of profit we’d be in a royal pile of shit. Now, where to begin?

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth…and at some point a pink-haired nuisance named Lydia Dedov to interfere with my plans. One lovely afternoon in Italy I was tending to some business that one could argue crossed into the shady side, when my client’s head…well there’s no nice way to say he was shot in the head. I then spent the next fifteen minutes held up by a mysterious assailant who was concealed in one of the many buildings that surrounded me in the town square. To this day, I’ve never been able to pinpoint just where she was, and she still holds it over my head, just like the scope of her rifle that day. Luckily for me, she was willing to give me a shot at redemption for selling weapons to the company that had gotten her father killed, and thus began our great endeavor to topple an empire.

The young woman to my left, Alexis, had killed her own father under orders from the American branch of Tiamat Unbound. Fearing for her life otherwise as well as those of the people she cared for, she complied, with remorse to follow in her trail. After that traumatic event she split from the company and went on the run, and the higher-ups just couldn’t have that. In response they sent countless mercenaries after her, and one by one she cut them down. It wasn’t until they sent Terry Shields-her former trainer and at the time current affection-that she finally gave up on running, but not without a fight. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Shields had begun to question his superiors himself, so when the two finally were able to speak once more following an encounter that left Shields with a lot of lead in his left shoulder, they were glad to be on the same side. That happy reunion was cut short four months ago, however, when all of us minus the samurai engaged in combat within the subway system of New York. Tiamat Unbound had planned on activating an EMP device underneath Wall Street, and Shields spearheaded our undertaking to stop them. Jackson Lewis was on opposite terms with us at the time, what with being the leader of Tiamat Unbound’s Special Force Group Dragon’s Talon after their former leader decided he liked our resolve much more. In the end, both Lewis and Shields spared each other’s lives, but Shields lost his in a sacrifice to stop the downfall of the economy, and Alexis had lost yet another important person in her life. All of us liked Shields; he was a mentor to us all, and a valuable asset in bringing down the dragon. In death he became a martyr to these people.

“Lewis!”

My attention was drawn to the big guy, Makoto, who was approaching Lewis as he departed from the patch of grass between gardens of flowers that served as the arena for the two men. Lewis turned back and awaited what the samurai had in store him. None of us were prepared to see Makoto holding out one of his extra sheathed swords to the former Dragon’s Talon leader. Both were bitter rivals just a few months back, and now Lewis was being given a high honor in regards to a samurai.

“What is this?” Lewis asked, staring at the present as if it were going to spring from the sheath on its own accord and run through his chest.

Makoto shoved the weapon into Lewis’ arms with enough force to push the man back before replying, “Yours.”

Lewis held the object in his hands and turned it around and around, like a gunsmith inspecting his weapon for any abrasions. With an inquisitive eye, he grabbed the hilt and slowly withdrew the blade from the sheath. As the daylight stroked the metal, a red hue was visible to us all. The blood-red color sent involuntary chills down my spine, like I was looking at death itself. What the hell was that thing?

Lewis held the blade upright as he admired the craftsmanship, “This is the sword you tossed to me four months ago, when we dueled during the raid on Tiamat Unbound.”

Makoto grunted in agreement. I had never had the chance to see it that day, mainly because their duel happened in the hallway behind me while I was busy trying to keep my colleague, Lydia (or “Wrench,” as I often called her), from blowing the brains out of the leader of the mercenary company before we could get more information out of her. Lewis placed the weapon back into its sheath, and then bowed to Makoto.

“Raise your head, Lewis,” Makoto spoke, “That blade belonged to my brother, Toya. It is a replica of the legendary Muramasa. He used it in hatred, but I expect you to use it in justice.”

We’d managed to coax a bit about his brother out of him one night over drinks. For a big guy, Makoto couldn’t handle a lot of alcohol. I guess that growing up under such a strict system as the Bushido didn’t allow much in the way of hindering judgment. I admired the fact that he respected the true aspects of the term, and not the ‘purification through war’ crap. Apparently Makoto’s brother hadn’t developed the same mindset when they were growing up. Lewis had worked with him before, but I didn’t know Toya Nagase. All I knew was that Makoto slew his own brother in a snowstorm somewhere on a mountain range in Russia. Toya was the head of Dragon’s Scales, and a fierce warrior who obeyed his orders to the detail. Makoto spoke of him with disappointment clinging to his words, but somewhere beneath that was a dash of regret. I don’t know what brings a man to kill his own sibling, but I’d never ask the big guy up front. War is hell when it forces flesh and blood to stand on opposite sides.

“Why give me a token of your brother?” Lewis asked. Makoto’s eyes seemed to gravitate towards the sword, and his demeanor took a sudden shift for the grim.

“Toya used that blade to commit countless atrocities. Personally,” he grunted in disgust and glared at the blade, “I could not stand to wield the weapon, but since Toya did not survive to atone for his sins I thought it best for someone who has a lot to repent for to carry on in his wake.”

Lewis looked offended, “What exactly are you saying?” he asked in scrutiny.

Makoto grinned, “To Toya, that sword was a tool of destruction. To you, Lewis, I hope that it is a tool meant for whatever new path you have chosen after Tiamat Unbound.”

Lewis nodded, “And what do you know of my future?”

“I know that there will come a day when we will be forced to face our decisions,” he stated, “I know that we must be prepared for that moment.”

The man was a philosopher. I leaned up in the chair and called out to him, “Mr. Nagase, I’d love to pick your brain for a few hours someday soon, if you wouldn’t mind?”

Makoto approached with Lewis in tow, but both were making a beeline for the patio door. Makoto slid the door open and looked back over his shoulder, “As long as you do not mind if I pick the contents of your refrigerator.”

Who the hell was I to say no? Not big enough, for one. Both men disappeared into the two-story structure as Lydia and Alexis rose from their seats and approached the settlement that had served as the sparring grounds for the past three months. I had planned on expanding the surrounding gardens, but not with these people trampling the ground…they’d already crushed a bed of roses. My hand tightened around my glass of rum. I liked my roses.

“Let’s see how you’ve improved!” Alexis shouted at Lydia from across the lawn.

“It doesn’t take accuracy to hit you in the face!” Lydia retorted. I placed my head in the palm of my hand and grunted. She was such an amateur. Both contestants paced in a circle as they finished tightening their gloves, eyes locked onto each other in a heated stare down. Finally, Lydia charged at Alexis…and was met with a foot to her chest. I had to give her credit; she knew how to take a hit and get right back at it. I wondered how long it would take for them to start to pull hair and verbally insult each other…

“That’s pretty tame,” a voice said behind me. I leaned my head back to see Lewis, upside down in my view and standing over me with a beer in his right hand. Something was tucked underneath his left shoulder.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Considering what they’ve been through I assumed they’d use this as an excuse to vent a lot of-”

He was cut off by Lydia screaming in frustration as she swung for Alexis’ head, only for her to duck underneath the assault and jab her in the stomach. It was sad.

“Never mind…” Lewis finished. He took the seat to my left and leaned back until he was in a nice and comfortable position to spectate the one-sided bout.

“I guess she’s not making any progress,” I remarked before downing the rest of my rum. Should I have been drinking on such a beautiful day? Probably not, but I wanted to relax, unlike the rest of them.

“How much are you paying that specialist to come out here in private?”

“Not enough, apparently,” I grunted, fumbling with my glass as the ice rattled inside. I was having a therapist come and see Lydia and Alexis once a week. Killing a lot of people in a span of two months could do a lot to a person, and I saw that for myself the day Lydia killed the CEO of Tiamat Unbound. The poor thing broke down on the spot, and I had to carry her up to the helipad so we could escape before the UN arrived. It took two weeks to even get a word out of her. The sorrow may have finally subsided, but she still hated herself. That was evident enough in her frantic attempts to land a blow on Alexis, and with the latter being a trained former mercenary, there was no taking it easy. Alexis herself was fighting inside too, but she’d never speak of it. I did speak to the therapist once about their progress, and that was enough for me to learn that she didn’t regret killing her father. I can only assume it had something to do with her not being who she wants to be. If anything, she missed Shields much more than she missed him.

Something landed in my lap and broke my concentration. Lewis had thrown me a manila folder that was stuffed full, some of the pages inside sticking out of the corners.

“What’s this?” I asked, examining the exterior for any indication of just what the hell it was.

“Files on Tiamat Unbound’s cancelled projects,” Lewis answered. He chugged most of his beer as he observed the beat down Alexis was now administering. Without guns, Lydia was in a jam. I was betting on Alexis; even if she had developed some hand-to-hand tactics, Lydia was an amateur after all.

“You said cancelled?” I asked. Lewis was shaking his head at the two feuding women in disappointment.

“Cancelled now,” he stated. I had to snicker at that one. He leaned back in the chair and sipped from his beer, “Makoto got me thinking about the future, so I figured I should share this with you.”

“Okay, so what’s in it?” I asked. Lewis looked away from the scene to eye me and raise a brow.

“Look for yourself.”

I complied and flipped the cover open, and the very first file inside took me by surprise. It was information about utilizing methods of psychological warfare, but it didn’t stop there. Tiamat Unbound had been planning on…

“Child soldiers?!”

Lewis nodded, “That’s right. It gets more and more bizarre the deeper you get into it. Aaron,” he said sternly, “we stopped a lot of things from happening. Some within the bounds of completely insane. They wanted to make biological weapons to instigate incidents where America would be framed. I was…well, you’ll see,” he said awkwardly before downing the rest of his beer and excusing himself to get another.

I could only imagine would he meant by that. What was worse than child soldiers or biological warfare? I continued to skim through the documents until I came upon one that called for experimentation on certain members to enhance their abilities beyond human limitations. It was something straight out of a science fiction story, and the two personal files attached to the document were those of Toya Nagase and Jackson Lewis; the former top-ranking mercenaries of the company.

“Holy shit…” was all I could actually utter. This was inhumane. This was wrong. This was-

“Found it, I see,” Lewis’ voice announced from beside me. I didn’t even hear him return as my mind struggled to come to terms with this. I dropped the folder in my lap and stared absentmindedly at the fight before me.

“How could she even consider this?” I asked, “When I met her to sign the contract between our companies, I didn’t even suspect that she could be so twisted.”

“They’re not necessarily her ideas,” Lewis told me, “she just insisted on keeping them safe from prying eyes like ours or anyone else who was looking to shut them down. They’re the products of the R&D team, and they were dead set on insuring that they could keep conflicts going to fill their own pockets.”

“That’s a war economy for you,” I muttered, “Did she expect you both to consent to such a thing?”

“She was probably going to try and sell it to us,” Lewis explained, “She knew how to make even the most horrid of things sound appealing, and someone like Toya would have been happy to hear her out,” he said, grimacing at the sight of Alexis upper cutting Lydia so hard she actually got some hang time for a brief second.

“Wouldn’t you have been inclined just as well just six months back?” I inquired. Lewis grunted and crushed the beer can in his hand before tossing it aside.

“Look, I was willing to do things to get ahead, but that’s a bit beyond my ego.”

“Fair enough,” I replied. I just still couldn’t grasp the fact that Elizabeth Belmont’s empire was going to implement such horrors. I have no idea what drives a woman to those extremes, but I have to admit that I feel a bit sorry for her. I hadn’t even intended on her getting killed that day. It would have gone much smoother if she just could have answered for her actions.

“You know,” Lewis commented from my side, “I guess you and Lydia could consider yourself heroes after all of that. It was because of you two that everything worked out.”

I flipped through the pages, skimming some of the outrageous experiments and proposals by the coordinators of Tiamat Unbound, “I don’t feel like a hero.”

“Well if you did,” Lewis remarked with a laugh, “I’d be worried. Killing isn’t supposed to make you feel great. It takes its toll, and I’m pretty sure you had never killed many people before that day in the subway, not even counting the tower just a few weeks later?”

I nodded, the images still clear in my head as if someone had cut open my skull and infused the very sights into my memories with vivid clarity. I don’t know why it didn’t bother me as much as it did the women. Maybe it was because I didn’t work for Tiamat Unbound to begin with. Maybe it was because I had accepted the fact that the weapons I sold were used in horrible acts. Maybe I was a bit sociopathic before having death held over my head in the form of a scope by Lydia. Either way, I imagined the guilt didn’t grip me as tightly as it did the others. Lewis may have been the only other one who understood that, but I honestly wished he was a bit more burdened.

“There’s another thing,” Lewis said, reaching into his pocket and withdrawing something that was concealed in the palm of his hand, like a dark secret he didn’t want the world to know of. I had to suffocate my curiosity, but all of this new information had my mind going like a factory trying to process so much at one time. The alcohol wasn’t helping, so there was no point in a refill. Something was bound to give in, and of course, it was curiosity.

“What’s that?” I finally asked.

Lewis regarded his fisted hand with a grin, “Well, let’s just say that the dragon was sitting atop a mountain of gold all along that it was very protective of.”

“What?”

Lewis opened his fingers and revealed a black flash drive, “This contains the records of all of Tiamat Unbound’s assets. All of the money and what banks it can be found in, from Switzerland to Australia, and any other economic stronghold you can name. All of it is on this.”

“Wait!” I sat upright and eyed the device, “That contains the sources of money for them? How…why do you have that?”

Lewis smirked, “I nicked this along with those files from a safe on the wall right after Lydia shot the bitch,” he pocketed the drive and leaned back once more, “The door on it was ajar, so I figured it was free game. You have to know how to pay attention to detail when dealing with life-threatening situations every day.”

“I wouldn’t know, I guess,” I replied, my attention back to the ladies.

“Well, I know a lot of people who do, and they’ll need some help.”

“What do you mean?” I asked off-handed.

“The drive also contains the records of all of the personnel that were a part of the company at the time before we set up for the UN to come in and clean house,” Lewis explained.

“Meaning?” I had no idea what he was getting at.

“Aaron,” he turned to me, “a lot of people were left with nothing after that. Many were arrested for war crimes, and the rest are in hiding with no way of supporting themselves. Haven’t you ever seen the stories of the soldiers who come home from war and are unable to cope with the reality of a normal life again?”

I nodded, “Yeah. Countless times, actually. Hell, they used to run commercials about that stuff all of the time.”

Lewis was a lot more serious than he was moments before, “Those people are going to need a place to go, now that the world has been violently thrust upon them,” Lewis explained, “Most aren’t ready to handle that.”

“Yeah…” I replied, watching Alexis toss Lydia over her shoulder like she weighed nothing before spinning around to deliver a kick to her chest. I wasn’t really enjoying the match, my mind on the matter of coping with everything that had transpired over the past six months. These people as well as myself had gone from serving under or being oppressed by the might of Tiamat Unbound to bringing the dragon down and all that followed it, including ourselves. The majority of us were wanted criminals for connections with the PMC, and I myself was a wanted man since my old company Kriegspartai Industries threw me under the bus after Lydia’s interference drew attention to the fact that I was selling company weapons illegally on the side. Lydia herself had managed some lists as our ‘pink-haired accomplice,’ which I found highly amusing. I reflected on that day and looked to the bubblegum-haired young woman, who was busy getting to her feet while Alexis taunted her. Lydia was the sole reason we had even managed to do all of this. She was why we were here today.

“I have a plan,” Lewis announced, “but I need some input.”

“On?”

“Well, to put it simply,” he began slowly, as if he were bracing for incoming insults that I hadn’t even began to compile, “I’d like to set up an organization.”

That one got me, “Wait, an organization? For what?”

“For all of those who have nowhere else to go,” he continued, “They’re set to battle.”

“Hold on,” I held a hand up and picked my next words carefully, “Are you saying you want to establish another PMC?”

“No, no,” he argued, “nothing like that. I mean…” he trailed off, like another thought was creeping around his mind and just striving to get his attention, “If I ever considered doing something like that, I’d definitely take the steps to avoid something like Belmont’s mistakes all over again.” He mustn’t have liked the look I was giving him, because he was quick to retract, “Of course, I’m not saying I would, you know? I just want to construct a place where they’ll be welcome with open arms, unlike they would be to the rest of the world. Think about it,” he held up a finger, “most of them will go to straight onto other battlefields, because that’s all they know. What if we gave them another option?”

I decided against talking against it, “I’m listening.”

“We could use the funds that turned them into what they are and rehabilitate them. Who better to help out those men and women than us? Besides,” he stood up and went to pick up his can, which I was grateful for. I had planned on chewing him out later over his messy habits, “we owe it to them.”

“Because we’ve pretty much doomed them to that kind of life?” I asked.

“Exactly,” he replied, examining the crushed aluminum in his hand as if it held the answers he sought as to what to do next, “So? What do you think?”

“As long as it’s fixated on rehabilitating them and not preparing them for more battle, I think it’s a fine idea,” I stressed, “but how do you intend on getting something done when something like that would obviously draw a lot of attention to you? Remember,” I pointed to him, “just like us, you’re a wanted criminal according to the rest of the world. Besides, you’d draw a lot of the people you want to help out of hiding who could end up being arrested.”

“I’ll work something out,” Lewis said with confidence as he sat back down, “Besides, the rehabilitation could potentially serve as part of their sentence. You never know.”

“I think that alcohol is stronger than you think it is.”

Lewis laughed, “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

It was hard to be honest, especially to a man who could kill you in your sleep, but sometimes you just have to speak it, “I don’t think you’re crazy. I just think it’s risky, and although it’s admirable for someone with a past like yours, I just don’t see it working out like you say.”

“Won’t know ’till we try,” Lewis replied with a smirk. I couldn’t argue with the confidence, but I wasn’t keen on the idea of what could potentially turn into another PMC funded by the dragon’s blood money. The pane door behind us slid open with a thud as Makoto rejoined us on the patio with a right arm full of random packages of junk food. The big guy really packed away on the calories, but I wasn’t going to tell him to slow it down. Maybe the fats were just as terrified of him as I was, because he shoveled food with no signs of weight gain. The three of us observed the fight as it seemed to be reaching its conclusion. Lydia stood on her feet, heaving every breath as she glared at her opponent. Alexis maintained her cool and awaited the next attack, preferring to play the counter role.

Lydia was going in for the kill, head down low and lungs exhaling all air as she roared a battle cry and cocked her right hand back for a full-force punch. I heard Lewis comment on how wasteful she was being right before Alexis stepped aside and let Lydia hit the ground. She was up again and spinning around to find her target, who was braced for another artful dodge.

“I don’t think the poor girl needs this right now,” Lewis said with a sigh. Lydia jabbed and swept, but Alexis just kept gracefully evading the onslaught of violence. Lydia was a pouting child who just wanted to exert pain on someone, and it had driven her blind with rage. I couldn’t take it anymore.

“We need to stop them,” I said, standing up and preparing to interfere. Makoto stepped to the right to block my path.

“No,” he stated calmly, “leave them be.”

I looked to Lewis, who was potentially the only person capable of getting past the brute samurai. He remained seated, seemingly uninterested in what was transpiring. I couldn’t just let Lydia have a meltdown, so I did the only thing I could think of. I pushed past Makoto, only to have a hand land on my shoulder and tug me backwards with enough force to send me crashing into Lewis, who immediately shoved me off. I was dumbfounded. Sitting back up, I saw that Makoto’s right hand was still cradling the food, but that meant…

“Makoto, that left arm of yours may be faulty,” Lewis grunted to my right, rubbing his chest from where I had impacted, “but damn if it isn’t still strong.”

Makoto moved his left wrist a bit to indicate that it was still functioning despite the damage from having a blade shoved through his shoulder four months ago. Then something happened that had Makoto drop the food on the ground at his feet. Lydia made a last effort in exhaustion to swing at Alexis. Her hand was within inches of her opponent’s face, when Alexis tilted to the side so that Lydia’s arm crossed over her left shoulder. Alexis capitalized, reaching up with both hands and grabbing Lydia, whose head fell against her opponent’s chin as her body gave out.

Alexis embraced her.

Not one of us dared to speak as Lydia began screaming, her emotions finally breaking free of the dam she had fortified for the past four months. Her knees buckled and she began to slip away as Alexis followed her to the ground. Both were on their knees while Lydia cried into her shoulder. Alexis soon accompanied her wails of anguish with her own. The two strongest women I knew were vulnerable and broken before us.

“That’s something you can’t get through therapy,” Lewis remarked with a grin.

“Should…” I began, “Should we do something?”

“No,” Makoto replied, strongly opposed to the idea, “I think that we should let them settle their grievances in their own way. Let them drown in the emotions for now. It may just wash out their sorrows.”

I got to my feet and looked on with the other two men, and not one of us spoke another word. Lewis and I had it easy. We were able to cut ties and just leave our past to die, but Makoto, Lydia and Alexis had left important people behind. None of us were really the same person anymore; replicas had taken over our lives and left our old spirits to wither in the back of our minds. I had a bit of a limp from a bullet wound I suffered during the invasion, Makoto had lost most of the use of his left arm, and everyone else had lost a mentor in Terry Shields. We survived here today, a ragtag group of rebels who had set out with a purpose fueled by a hotheaded woman with a trigger-finger. In the end, we were alive, and we were together. Come what may, we were facing a future together where we were all finally free of the ties that bound us to manipulative masters. I can honestly say I’m a bit grateful for the young woman who pinned me down under her scope in Italy. Of course, there were the downsides to all of this. We wouldn’t be hailed as heroes, but remembered as villains to all who relied on Tiamat Unbound for their income. We wouldn’t be able to show our faces in many places without a chance of being arrested, considering the FBI and most other organizations around the world had us on their ‘wanted’ lists. With retribution came consequences, and we’d live with them until the day we died.

After several minutes Makoto took his leave of the area. I assumed that he had seen enough of the emotional scene, but maybe a part of him even felt moved by the display. I’d never know, and asking him would probably lead to my utter demise, so I’d just have to be content with his absence. Alexis stood to her feet and pulled Lydia up by the arm, both clinging to each other like they were each other’s last hopes in the world.

“Hey, Aaron,” Lewis said to my right, nudging me in the ribs.

“What?” Something was troubling him, and it wasn’t the awkward situation now approaching.

“Think on my idea, won’t you?”

I hated to tell him that I wasn’t as interested as he was, as thoughtful a concept as it was from the man who took pride in his style of murder. Honestly, I couldn’t see anyone here wanting to be involved in the past. Sure, he was right about us owing it to the countless we had left alone and abandoned in the world, but I wasn’t willing to do something that would probably have them back on the battlefield. Rehabilitation is meant to end violence, not give it another outlet that could potentially relapse into the same problem. Lewis grunted and stood up, standing to my right and facing the house as I faced opposite.

“If worse comes to worse, I’ll do it on my own,” he uttered as the women drew closer, “It’s the least I can do to try and absolve all of these mistakes. If none of you want to come along, I’ll take the money and do this alone.”

I said nothing more, and he only let the silence persist for a few seconds before entering the house and sliding the door closed behind him. Alexis and Lydia had finished drying their tears and approached as I let lingering thoughts die.

“You look troubled,” Lydia commented. That was coming from the women who had a red face, mangled hair, and visible bruising.

“You uh…” I fumbled with words, “You two going to be okay?”

Alexis smiled, “We’ll be fine. I think that fight alone did more for us than the therapist visits.”

I noted that with a grain of salt, “That’s good. Do…you two need some time?”

“No,” Alexis said, letting go of Lydia and walking around me to the door, “I think everything’s going to be fine.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. I wasn’t sure what to say. Makoto and Lewis had left me to handle a delicate situation alone. Such men they were.

“I’m getting a shower,” Alexis called back, “Aaron, if you want, I’ll help you replant the rose garden tomorrow.”

I wanted to point out that she was the one who landed in it yesterday when Lewis booted her backwards, but I refrained and instead gave a thumbs up in reply. She slid the door closed behind her and left Lydia and myself alone on the patio.

“What were you and Lewis talking about?” she asked.

“Nothing to be concerned with.” I had no intentions of letting her know that he was looking to step back into the conflict. Of course, I had to remember that she was good at seeing through bullshit.

“Aaron, I still don’t trust him.”

“I never said I did either, but he helped us in the end, and that matters.”

The uneasiness in her expression overshadowed what I’d normally consider her cute characteristics, “Aaron, I’m serious. Unlike the rest of us, he didn’t lose anything other than free reign to kill, and now he’s free of the consequences. How do we know that I didn’t just set up for him to swoop in and take charge of something even worse than Tiamat Unbound?”

My heart skipped a beat, “What makes you say that?”

She began to involuntarily play with her hair, “I just have this bad feeling…”

“Is that your father in you?” I asked, remembering that her father was Spetsnaz.

With a disgruntled sound she turned away and spat, “You say that like you knew him, but you didn’t.”

“I know he’d be proud of you. You’re not the one-track-mind amateur that I met six months ago.”

She silently fumed and crossed her arms before turning back to me, “Why do you always know what to say?”

I laughed and clapped a hand on her shoulder, “I’m just optimistic. I didn’t trust you at first either, remember? Besides, he hasn’t tried to shoot me personally yet. I can’t say the same for you, Wrench.”

That got a smile, “I guess. Okay, I’ll behave, but if he steps out of line, I will kill him.”

“Noted,” I replied with a sigh, “Just learn to give people chances, okay? I did it for you.”

“Yeah, and look where it got you,” she pointed out. I shrugged.

“If I had a choice between my old weapons dealers and you crazy people,” I punched her in the arm, “I’d pick you crazy bastards any day.”

She smiled and leaned in close, “I’m flattered, but there’s something else I need to tell you.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“Call me that name one more time,” Lydia uttered with a smirk, “and I’ll do what I planned on doing six months ago.”

“Think you can?” I asked. She laughed and brushed her hair from her left eye.

“I know you won’t do a damn thing about it,” she replied in a deadpan tone of voice.

“Oh yeah?” I challenged. She reached the door and slid it open, taking a step inside before looking over her shoulder and smiling flirtatiously.

“Of course. You can’t shoot, remember?”

With that she closed the door and left me alone on the patio as the sun was setting. She was right. There are two things I’ve learned over the past six months; first impressions aren’t everything, and challenging women is a bad idea unless you have a lot of support behind you. I would remember both of those lessons. Both would be my saving grace in life.

Beheading the Dragon (Tiamat Unbound #6)

My coffee mug spilled its contents onto the stapled documents in front of me as another rumble from below shook the entire structure. With a sigh, I sat the mug upright before picking the forms up and waving them in the air in an absent-minded attempt to dry them. My attention was more focused on the laptop monitor in front of me that currently displayed the wreckage of a helicopter embedded into the front entrance of the tower my employees and I currently occupied. To say it had been a bad morning would be an understatement. I ran my free left hand through my messy red hair and suspired my annoyance. This was going to cost a lot in repairs. Another booming sound came from below as I pushed up from the desk and noted the falling dust from the ceiling. Someone had done a terrible job cleaning yesterday. I’d be sure to mention that in the next bill. Grumbling under my breath, I made my way to the table in the corner of my large and dim office where the coffee pot was. I poured another cup, mixed in some creamer, and then proceeded to top it off with fine Russian vodka. After stirring the mixture I returned to my desk and fell back into the seat before taking a sip. That was better.

“Um…Mrs. Belmont?” one of the guards by the doors voiced. I placed the mug down and gave a half-hearted smile. I had almost forgotten about Fredrick Monroe and Ricardo Pierre standing in the darkness by the large oak doors. Two of my elite guards, they had volunteered to stay and defend me with their lives as members of Dragon’s Scales. Fred was a polite young Brit who would probably drop a thousand apologies as he’d drop countless empty bullet casings from his FN Minimi. The Frenchman, Ricardo, was much more serious than the polite young man next to him, and expressed that through long periods of silence during the tensest of moments. He had earned the name “Silencieux mais Mortel” for a reason. The FAMAS in his hands was ready, and his finger was on the trigger guard. His gaze remained fixated on a spot in the back corner of the room as he was no doubt listening for updates through his earpiece. Brave men. I liked them. Handsome too.

“Would you like one too, Fred?” I asked, smiling seductively, “Normally, I’d prohibit drinking on the job, but I can make an exception.”

Fred appeared rather unsettled as he cleared his throat before addressing me, “Ma’am, not to insult you, but we’re under attack and you’re downing spiked beverages.”

I chuckled and waved my mug, “Fred, Fred, my dear, its fine! My people will have them disposed of within the next ten minutes, and following that we’ll have the area cleaned up before the UN investigators arrive at three. You and the rest of Dragon’s Scales won’t have to put a finger on a trigger.” As I said that, the video feed I had been observing was cut off as a woman with pink hair shot the camera with what looked like a small-caliber Russian pistol. Maybe I should dye my hair like that…

“Ma’am,” Fred responded in a pressing tone of voice. I knew it was all he could do to not yell at his employer, “We just received word that an attack chopper crashed into the front entrance! We can’t hide that!”

I had another swig of my concoction as I changed the feed to another camera a floor above the previous, “Is that so? Well, that could pose a problem…” I replied as my gaze shifted to the stained documents that were still damp in front of the laptop. Most of it was nonsense from the UN on the botched attempt by a terrorist group to detonate an EMP device underneath the stock market in New York two weeks prior, and the discovery of evidence that linked my company to the incident, including numerous bodies, each donning my company’s uniform. Of course, they were right to be suspicious about the likelihood of our involvement, but I was more concerned with the bodies themselves. Enclosed in the packet were pictures of them, and I was easily able to identify the members of my elite field group, Dragon’s Talon. Marcus Ward, Patrick Morrison, and Christopher Williams were among the dead, along with more members of Tiamat Unbound that I could not individually identify. What irked me was the absence of one particular person among them; Dragon’s Talon leader, Jackson Lewis. Lewis had taken control of the unit after the desertion of Terry Shields a.k.a. Doberman, and he carried the determination to follow through with an assignment, unlike Doberman during the last few months of his employment. Terry was such an obedient dog at one point, and I thought it was such a shame that he had turned his back on me. I treated the man like a son, after all.

The pressing question in my head was where had Lewis disappeared to? He did not return with the other surviving units, and I would have found out had he been captured. Plus, it was Lewis. Captured and his name didn’t belong in the same sentence. For two weeks I had pondered what could have become of one of my top men, but as I happened to look up at the video footage of him bashing a man’s head in with the butt of a Kreigspartei rifle before emptying the magazine at unseen responders to the threat he posed, I became more concerned with the fact that he was indeed alive and well. Between this discovery and yesterday’s account from the team sent to the Caucasus Mountain range to hunt down and dispatch of deserter samurai Makoto Nagase that my head guard Toya (Makoto’s brother and leader of Dragon’s Scales) had perished during the bout, I felt justified in downing the rest of my coffee with legarthic melancholy.

I looked to the flag pinned to the wall on my left that depicted a black dragon’s silhouette with broken chains attached to its legs as it spread its wings. Many people tended to overlook the fact that Tiamat was a female. No one ever expects women to hold such a fearsome power, and that is why I chose her as the mascot for the company. When it was founded in 1994, I had so much ambition for the company. I had a vision for an army that would fight where no one else wanted to stick their noses in, be them political or moral reasons. We would take up arms against those no one else would. Where others wanted to avoid chaos, we took it to those who deserved it. Now my dream had become a nightmare beyond redemption. How had it all come unraveled so?

Before our reputation had plummeted to that of ‘terrorists’ just months ago, Tiamat Unbound was a revered private military company that basked in the chance to fight where no country wanted to be involved themselves. That was the philosophy; the motivation behind everything I had created. I welcomed those that had been discharged for disobeying their superiors, and even the greedy who sought money in exchange for blood, as long as they spilled the blood of the ones deserving. Those people became my children, and I made sure that they were treated well. We had to start somewhere, and with the results of the Rwandan Civil War spiraling into genocidal chaos with little intervention from the UN, I saw opportunity to put my resolve to the test. It was a complex plan, but I felt it was worth it. The Geneva Conventions prohibited our direct involvement in the conflict, but should we take up a contract to defend a business from the Hutu murderers fed propaganda by the Akazu, we could justify the shutdown of the extremists. It beat what the UN was doing; sitting on their asses and waving their fingers from a distance or even up in the faces of the Hutu in disapproval. They even took up that habit with my company as the death toll of the murderers grew higher. Doberman and his first unit had led that endeavor back when he was still a rookie who just wanted to see some action without the restrictions of an organized military. The result was a pile of dead bodies composed of the vilest of human beings, a cheering crowd of the helpless who had been spared the wrath of what had begun as another attempt at apartheid-turned-mass murder, and a series of charges of war crimes brought upon us that forced us to pull out. We were unlawful combatants according to the Geneva Conventions, and punishment must be dealt. Our increased support from nations had actually gotten the charges dismissed, and we were hailed as heroes rather than money-grubbing guns for hire. Though the genocide was not stopped, our intentions had been made clear, and that was enough to draw attention to my organization.

With recruits coming in by the hundreds, we began operations in Afghanistan during their civil war with the Taliban in 1996, as well as participating in the First Congo War, and even the Six-Day War of Abkhazia to defend innocent Georgian homes and businesses from being set ablaze by Abkhaz forces. We were even hired to protect businesses from the drug cartels of Latin America, and honestly, I would’ve accepted some of those contracts for free. Many companies around the world thrive with drug money. I find the offenders to be as despicable as rapists, and personally enjoyed hearing of the fates of the dumb gangbangers of the cartel messing with areas protected by my employees. The only reason officials got involved was because we were tampering with their income, and though I despised the outcome that resulted in us having to withdraw, I was still happy we got to wipe many of those bastards from the face of the planet. America claims they are waging a war on drugs now, but we were attempting that back in the nineties.

The company was a military that answered to the call for need. Those that frowned upon our actions were just furious that we could interfere in global conflicts without concern for our image. Our image was clearly painted across the battlefields; it was an image of an army with the force of a raging dragon. It was an image of a group of people that sought a solution when no one was willing to do anything for fear of getting the wrath of the UN on their asses. Of course, we were not exempt, as made evident by the browned and wrinkled papers on my desk before me, but at the time we truly sought to shut down evil when everyone else was afraid to.

I picked up my mug for another drink, only to realize I had forgotten I had already finished it. I sighed and went to stand up, but when I placed my hand down for support I ended up knocking over the single picture frame on my desk. Angered with myself I quickly went to scoop it back up and place it back in its place on the right corner of my workstation. I found myself staring at the picture of the young man in United States Army apparel for quite a while. For all I knew, it would be the last time I got to see all I had left to remind me of my son. This picture, and my company I had built up with him in mind were all I had, and all I knew.

When my son died during his deployment to Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Storm, he was branded AWOL for his pursuit of Iraqi soldiers who had slaughtered innocent Kuwaiti civilians. He had asked for assistance, but was told by his superiors that the zone was off limits and that it wasn’t their problem. Without consent from the Army, he went in alone with the hope that he could right a wrong. They found his body amongst those of the perpetrators before the area was bombed. I was never able to bury my own child.

I stood up and approached the coffee pot once more. As I prepared another cup, I couldn’t help but notice the questioning looks Fred and Ricardo were shooting each other. I didn’t need their judgment. I just needed them there to keep the hounds at bay while I planned, or in this case thought. I had established the company with the philosophy my late son had inspired in me in mind. We were doing the right thing throughout the years, and for the nineties we were a small army built upon men and women who wanted to make a difference, or for some, at least to make money for a cause.

Then came the rekindling of the fires in the Middle East at the turn of the century. I have no issues with the Islamic community, but when people bastardize the ideas and justify their actions in the name of religion, I’m not against shutting down homicidal ‘Sons of Allah,’ just because they want everyone to conform to the their image of the ‘orthodox’ standard. A modern day Dark Ages, only this time the dragon would crush the oppression. After the attacks on America, we were contracted amongst others to aid in the effort where their government was otherwise afraid that involvement would incite criticism. Spineless bastards, I thought to myself as I shifted around in my seat. We even stood in for police during the division of ideals in Egypt when the constitution was suspended. That was a tense situation, and many of my soldiers found themselves staring down military tanks. We also accepted contracts for defense during periods of the still ongoing insurgency in Thailand to keep areas safe from the harm of war.

Now that the U.S. Military has mostly withdrawn from Iraq, we’ve handled contracts under them to defend civilian areas from the uprising terrorist wannabes. I could respect that decision, as there was the beginning of an effort to get US troops home and away from a war they could not win. I wouldn’t want to see any other mother face the hell I had experienced. Of course, when the men and women in black and red armor with big guns were brought to question by NATO, the U.S. was quick to deny our agreements. We’ve seen the atrocities done by those no one will step up to face. We’ve combated them. Now we’re the enemies because of claims that we’ve harmed innocent lives, and engaged in illegal actions involving taking payments to assassinate figureheads of drug trades, shifty businesses, and groups conspiring against governments. Doberman and that young woman he had recruited were the perfect team of stealth assassins, but questions were posed, and our answers apparently too vague. While I haven’t argued that some of our employees had rather poor judgment when situations heated up, their actions don’t reflect what my vision for the company was to begin with. Then came the knife in the back; America pushed for our disbandment after hiring us, trying so hard to cover their own damn tracks, and right after we were given the charter to build a site right in the country. Of course, following the incident a month ago in Pittsburg, that building is now abandoned. That incident was the first to truly incur the scrutiny and distrust of the world upon us.

“Mrs. Belmont!”

Fred’s voice pulled me from drowning in my thoughts, “Hm? What is it?”

“Ma’am, apparently there is another intruder besides the four initially reported.”

“…I see,” I muttered, knocking my empty mug off of the desk and sending it crashing to the floor. I waved a hand at the mess and scowled before sighing and propping my chin up with my hand, “What threat does this one pose?”

“Unknown,” Ricardo answered, “but according to one of our employees, he is a swordsman. He appears to have an injured left arm.”

That instilled a little hope inside of me. Had my best line of defense actually managed to survive and return? Surely he could deal with these invaders to my fortress. I began flipping through channels on the security system in an effort to find video evidence of the man.

“Ma’am, there’s an issue,” Ricardo announced.

“There are a lot of issues, dear,” I mumbled, knowing I must’ve been wearing a stupid grin as my eyes stayed locked to the screen, “What is it?”

“He’s already killed three people,” Ricardo replied with a hint of trepidation in his voice.

“Only three?” I inquired. Ricardo didn’t seem to share the optimism, and it took a bit longer than it should have for me to realize what that meant. I stopped keying away for a minute. It wasn’t Toya.

“Ma’am…” Fred said hesitantly, “you don’t think…”

I didn’t want to. I don’t believe in ghosts, and the report from the encounter in the Caucasus Mountains stated that Makoto Nagase had died alongside my right-hand man after a heated duel. Who was this phantom? Had Toya betrayed me as well? I began going through the camera feeds for any evidence of the mystery infiltrator, “Where was he last spotted?”

Fred nodded as he held two fingers to his ear piece, “Apparently he’s on floor ten now.” I fumbled with the keys and switched the display to one of the few remaining functioning cameras on floor ten to see the shady silhouette of a man disappearing into smoke.

“I don’t suppose anyone wants to get close enough to positively ID the man?” I jested. Fred just looked sick from restraining himself to keep from telling me off. I had to wait until I turned the chair’s back to him to chuckle as I stared at the window that would have given me a beautiful view of the Italian coastline. Instead, I was staring at metal shutters that were meant to keep my office safe from outside threats. They blanketed the room in darkness save for the few lights given off by my desk lamp and the two wall-mounted lights on the walls to my right and left. As much as I so badly wanted to see the setting sun, my security team didn’t want me to take a sniper’s bullet to my head during times like these, so I had to settle for staring off into space once more in this depressing atmosphere. I needed another drink.

As I made my way (with great difficulty thanks to a mixture of alcohol and heels) back to the coffee pot, I could hear Fred and Ricardo having a heated discussion by the door.

“What is it?” I asked, as I poured coffee into the new mug I had grabbed…and on the table…and the floor.

“They’re only five floors beneath us now,” Fred informed me with great difficulty

“Really? Well, that’s a shame,” I responded, smiling at the bottle of vodka as I spilled a great deal of it on the counter, “Are you both sure you don’t want to partake?” I couldn’t make out the words, but I knew Ricardo was mouthing off under his breath to Fred. I didn’t care; more for me then.

“Mrs. Belmont, we’re going to defend this position from outside in the hallway,” Fred announced to me, “Do you have a weapon on your person?”

I responded without turning around by patting my left breast, indicating the presence of my personal 1911 in its bra holster underneath my red dress. I wasn’t necessarily dressed for combat, but I always had a weapon on me. In case of a demand for more firepower, I made a habit of keeping a loaded Mossberg 590A1 under my desk. The preference comes from the fact that I used to hunt with a civilian model when my son was alive. Was it safe to keep it beside my legs at all times? No, but did I care? Absolutely not, for when you’re the CEO of the most powerful private military company in the world, the paranoia is what keeps you alive.

“Okay, please wait here. Do no open that door under any circumstances,” Ricardo lectured me.

“Yes, yes,” I murmured. I could hear the oak doors opening on their hinges before closing once more as I stirred my messy drink. I was fairly certain there was more vodka than coffee this time. I was alone now. Deciding to bask in the solitude, I downed my drink and walked over to a portrait next to the company flag depicting the early stages of this tower’s construction back in 1997. It seemed so long ago, but when you tried to distance yourself from certain thoughts, they all seemed to fade, no matter how much they resided in your mind. I lifted the portrait and tossed it aside with a clatter of wood on wood as the frame broke, but I was more interested in the vault door embedded into the wall that was now unveiled. I grabbed the combination lock and began to spin it. What were the numbers again? 1…15…35? That was it. I grabbed the handle and turned it before pulling open the heavy door. The contents inside were still the same as they had been when I had opened the door two weeks ago to deposit the very item I now desired. I reached inside of the vault and grabbed the small, gray metal lock box that contained the means to my utter downfall should the UN inspectors not be dismayed by the destruction the intruders were causing. I left the vault door open as I returned to my desk and dropped the box with a loud clatter on the surface. The key was in one of these drawers…not that one, I thought as I pulled the center one open. Could it be? Yes, I had taken extra precautions and had hidden it. Where was that? I didn’t remember.

Swearing, I pushed the box aside and went back to monitoring the video feed from five floors below. Three bodies lay on the floor, motionless and puckered with gunshot wounds. I shook my head and rested it in my left hand while I continued to search for the invaders. I caught a glimpse of the pink-haired woman firing from behind cover…blindly. Three of my own were advancing towards her position at the entrance to an office as she continued to lay down suppressing fire with a submachine gun. I couldn’t understand her tactic; until I saw Lewis and another man emerge from the door to the same office behind the Tiamat gunmen. I was about to key the microphone to alert them to the danger, but Lewis was too fast. Before I could reach the button he had already maneuvered up to the nearest gunman and kicked his leg out, dropping him back into Lewis’s awaiting arm that wrapped around his neck as he put the muzzle of a pistol to his head with his other hand. The other two men were torn between the threats, and that would cost them. The intruders were quick to work. While the two were distracted, the pink-haired woman left her cover and stitched one man in the back with a burst from her weapon. While the other hesitated, Lewis’s assistant put a series of bullets into him from his rifle before Lewis popped his hostage in the head. I was terrified at the professionalism of the group, minus the woman. She could have missed and hit one of her allies, proving that she was a bit of an amateur in her actions. It actually appeared as if Lewis was chastising her. I noticed another Tiamat gunman who was about to get Lewis by surprise, when his head suddenly rocked back and the contents of his skull rained out on the floor. I finally discerned the figure of the fourth member of Lewis’s party, the blonde, in the top left portion of the screen within an office surrounded by glass pane windows. She had fired through one of them to get the man in the head. Her accuracy and timing were spot on, and her stance was reminiscent of someone’s that I just knew I recognized…she looked like that woman from the photo Doberman had sent me of his recruit who had saved his life. No…Doberman had killed her…right?

I had only four more floors separating me from them. The remaining three members of Dragon’s Scales were now outside of my door and ready to throw down their lives. I switched the feed to the camera down the hallway from my door and zoomed in to see all three prepared for battle. In the back was the big guy, Jason Sapani. The Samoan brute was wearing a thick layer of black and red body armor and wielding an outdated Vietnam era flamethrower with the napalm canister on his back. His face was concealed by the helmet that accompanied the armor, and behind the red visor I imagined his black eyes were fixated down the hallway, ready to torch anything that came into view not donning the black and red colors of Tiamat Unbound. In front of him, but out of the line of fire (I chuckled stupidly at that) were Fred Monroe and Ricardo Pierre, both with their weapons at the ready and just as determined as Jason was. I had no doubts that they would succeed in besting the pests. They were my pride and joy.

Knowing the general location of the initial interlopers, I decided to check on the lone samurai. I was disappointed, or should I rather say disturbed by the lack of his presence in any of the footage. Since the others had cleared a path up to me, I felt safe…or more appropriately endangered in assuming that he wasn’t too far behind them. With nothing else to do other than wait, I decided to return to the task of finding the key to the box that sat eerily on my desk. After several minutes of disappointing results that left my office in wreckage that resembled the aftermath of a grenade going off, I was in my chair again and irritated with myself. Bottles lay broken near the personal bar where I had spent half of my morning making my tonics. Books were strewn about the opposite side of the room from my hopes that I had hidden the key in their pages of knowledge. A potted plant was uprooted and tossed to the center rug, and the container shattered and spilling the earth it once housed. I had no clue as to where the hell I had stowed the thing.

Discouraged and disoriented, I returned to my chair and swiveled back and forth as I stared at the picture of my son, propped up and protected by the black wood picture frame. That picture frame was the one thing even the help knew not to touch, much like an unspoken rule. It was more precious to me than the company. Then it hit me. I grabbed the frame and flipped it around in my hands. Undoing the clips on the back that held the picture in place, I pulled the back cover off and was rewarded with a silver key that fell to the surface of my desk with a metallic clank. Of course.

After fixing the frame and returning it to its rightful place on the desk, I held the key in my right hand, heavily weighing the consequences of what I was about to do, immediately disregarded those thoughts, and proceeded to open Pandora’s Box. Flipping the lid back on its hinges, I removed the two items from inside; a slip of paper and another key very unlike the former.

Two months prior to this moment, I received word that an old R-36 that had gone missing following the Cold War had popped up in transit to Iraq. I had no idea how a bunch of insurgents had gotten ahold of the thing, but there wasn’t any doubt that leaving that alone would come to haunt me later. With no way to legally pursue the transport, I formed a small task force made up of Dragon’s Talon and Dragon’s Scales to retrieve the weapon in seclusion. Doberman and Toya would be leading the unit to take out the members of the transport and bring the weapon here. Better in our hands than theirs, I had figured. The transport was slow, moving from town to town until they reached their destination somewhere east of Baghdad. I had no idea how it had slipped past the eyes of NATO let alone the American troops, but I wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass us by. On the second night following our discovery of the weapon, the task force struck hard under what we had deemed Operation Dragon Flame. It was by the chance of a miracle that they had managed to secure the weapon and bring it back to headquarters, where I decided to keep the monstrosity in a silo I had already commissioned two miles away. With an ICMB, Tiamat Unbound would exist as a small nuclear state among the world’s nations, but in secrecy. It took a lot of black hand work, but I was now in possession of the means to launch an ICBM at any target I pleased from right here near Venice within the nearly 16,000 kilometer range.

The control panel for the weapon had been ever so secretly installed within the main drawer of my desk after a part of it was hollowed out for the computer. I pulled out the drawer and removed the false panel of wood over it to reveal the keypad and key slot. The numbers were encrypted on the slip, but I knew how to solve that. The question was, did I want to? I had no real target to strike at. In fact, I wasn’t really sure why I’d ever need a nuclear weapon in the first place. If anything, the ICBM would be my ignition switch to burn away any evidence of my business’s existence. When the payload hit then everything would be obliterated. The UN wouldn’t be very happy with that, but I wasn’t going to leave my legacy here for others to plunder through. If I was going to leave the world, then I’d leave no trace of myself behind. It wasn’t quite as simple as putting a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger, but they always say “go out with a bang.” I’m not so sure that they meant a three stage system of nuclear fusion and fission, but I was free to interpret.

While my intoxicated mind fumbled with the idea of launching an actual nuclear weapon at the very building I was occupying, I looked to the laptop monitor and became much more interested in the development outside. A figure had appeared at the end of the hallway and taken shots at Jason Sapani. The brute simply took the hits as they struck his body armor, and when the figure dared to show itself again, Jason released Hell. The ignited napalm streamed down the hallway and struck the back wall, setting it ablaze instantly. Realizing that another camera was mounted facing my office doors, I switched to it in time to see the Jason’s figure taking a few steps back and bracing himself, but the camera lens began to melt from the extreme heat rising from the flames below it. I berated myself for approving the use of that thing in my building, but I couldn’t remember if Jason had made a compelling argument or if I was simply already too far gone when he had addressed the issue of heavily armed trespassers. Either way, I regretted the decision. If those bastards didn’t get in here and kill me, then Jason would raze the building to the ground. Either way, we lost. That nuclear option wasn’t looking so bad at the moment…

A brave soul emerged from the end of the hallway long enough to toss a grenade at my guards, but Jason acted fast and incinerated it before it even reached the halfway point. These men were my personal guard for a reason. Then I was surprised when Jason’s head suddenly lurched violently backwards on his neck before he dropped to his knees and released his grip on the flamethrower before collapsing to the floor. In the top right corner of the video I could see pink hair whipping back into the safety behind the corner of the hallway and blonde on the opposite side as the flames raged behind them. The bitches had used the grenade as a diversion to take a shot at Jason as he swept the flamethrower up towards the ceiling for it and away from their position. No wonder they had made it this far…I had to take back what I said about the pink-haired one; she was better than I had originally given her credit for. Ricardo and Fred were my last line of defense. Following the collapse of the brute, Lewis appeared at the end of the hallway, the fires at his back. It was a hellish sight in my monitor; an omen of what was to come. Fred and Ricardo responded by firing burst shots from behind cover, careful to avoid the return fire from Lewis and the other man who was assisting him. My door was puckered with spots of splintered wood every now and then. It was a deadlock.

Ricardo stepped out and let loose with the belt fed Minimi, lining the walls and floor with bullet holes as the four remained behind cover. When he stopped to step back to safety, Lewis poked his upper body out and tossed a grenade before Fred had a chance to shoot him. The grenade impacted the floor and bounced a bit before rolling down the hallway towards my men. Ricardo retreated off screen as Fred darted for the thing and tossed it back up the hall before it blew up. The sound wasn’t that muffled in my office, and everything quaked for a brief moment. Fragments impacted him hard and sent him falling backwards to the floor. Even when faced with death, he put someone else’s life before his own. I could actually make out the blood pouring out of him on the screen. Ricardo returned to his spot on the left side and tried to speak to Fred. When his head slumped over, Ricardo stepped out from his cover and emptied the rest of his ammunition at the bastards, striking one; the other man besides Lewis. Gun empty, Ricardo fell back to the corner and withdrew his Beretta Px4 Storm from the holster on his left hip, unwilling to surrender the fight. He occasionally stuck the gun out and fired a few shots to keep the enemy at bay, but there was nothing he could do against them that wouldn’t ultimately just hinder their advance. After expending two more magazines of 9mm ammunition, he tried something a bit ballsier and rolled across the gap between walls to snatch Fred’s FAMAS. I applauded Ricardo for his efforts. As he left safety to return fire, a bullet struck him in the left leg, sending him to the floor. He didn’t let it stop him as he emptied the rest of his magazine at the four occasionally sticking their heads out from the end of the hall. Ricardo tossed the empty weapon aside and started hobbling over to Jason’s body. He had only managed to wrap his hands around the flamethrower when a bullet struck him in the back and sent him toppling over Jason’s corpse. I cringed at the sight. Ricardo Pierre was willing to try anything to keep them from getting to this room. I saw now that I had made a mistake in making Jason the interim captain of Dragon’s Scales.

I was out of options. Inserting the key into its slot beside the panel, I turned it clockwise and was rewarded with a lit up panel of numbers. I then began to hastily study the paper, decoding the numbers while glancing up every few seconds at the monitor. The victors walked down the hallway with caution in their every movement. The man Ricardo had managed to hit was lagging behind with a limp, back to the rest of the group as he covered their tracks in case of a surprise attack. It was because of this that he saw the samurai first. I could hear him from outside shouting for Lewis’ attention, and that drew my mine. On the screen Lewis turned back to see the man who was now making his way towards them. There was no mistaking it; it wasn’t Toya at all, but his brother. He walked forward with resolve in every step, his left arm tucked into the blue traditional samurai kimono that he was wearing over his Tiamat Unbound armor. I had just realized the issue; Neither Makoto nor Lewis knew that the other no longer served under me. This would prove interesting. If I was lucky, they’d kill each other. Makoto finally halted when all guns were trained on him, but even still I was willing to bet he was considering just running through the bullets and killing them. Makoto and his brother were unlike the rest of my employees. They were trained to fight from a young age, raised like warriors by their superiors. I could respect carrying on the family tradition. It was a difficult task in the modern world. They were good kids.

Lewis stepped forward and ordered his own to avert their weapons. He and Makoto exchanged words, and then Lewis said something to his party. There wasn’t much hesitation as they turned away from the development and proceeded up the hallway towards my office. While they became clearer in the lens of my camera, I was still watching the other two in the background. Lewis had put down his weapon, and the two exchanged dialogue before Makoto ripped one of his sword sheaths from underneath his kimono and tossed it to him. Lewis caught it and unsheathed the sword as Makoto did the same to one still concealed on his person. They were actually going to have an honorable duel. I was far too intrigued, remembering Makoto’s fight with Dragon’s Talon years before. Lewis had tried every trick in the book to overcome his opponent, but Makoto beat him with little effort compared to their leader. Only Doberman had even come close to hitting him. I wondered if Makoto knew that Lewis had taken that defeat pretty hard; hard enough that he’d taken private lessons in sword fighting, believing that if he could become like the man that had defeated him then he would become stronger. Though I knew Lewis wouldn’t rival a Nagase, it would still make for a great show of swordsmanship…that I would have probably enjoyed if my office wasn’t currently being broken into by the three remaining members of Lewis’ party. I hesitated with what to do about the launch codes as the right door of the double set to my office suddenly burst from its hinges accompanying the booming sound of a shotgun blast. The left one was simply pushed open as the three assassins entered with guns trained on me, minus the man in the middle who was busy reloading the Kriegspartei Kniebrecher in his possession as he limped along behind them. It was then that I recognized the man whose contract I had signed for that company’s weapons. I couldn’t remember his name, but I knew the charming face.

The pink-haired woman looked to him while keeping the barrel of her MP5 on me, “Aaron, did you really have to use a breaching round on a wooden door?”

“Hey!” the man named Aaron responded as he loaded a standard magazine into the shotgun, struggling due to an apparent wound, “It’s called that for a fucking reason! The door needed breaching, so I breached it!”

“Jesus, Aaron,” the woman sighed, shaking her head before focusing on me, her intended target. I stole a glance at the panel behind their field of vision. The launch switch now had a bright red ring of LEDs around it, indicating that I was now in complete control of the missile that resided in a silo only two miles from here.

“Elizabeth Belmont, we felt you should know who we are and why we’re here before we kill you,” Aaron gestured with his head towards the blonde girl, “That’s-”

“I’m Alexis Hawkins,” she spoke in a determined voice, “and because of you, my father is dead…by my hands. If I didn’t kill him, you would have had Terry Shields, or as you refer to him, Doberman, kill me. He didn’t want that, but you forced him to hunt me down after I left. You sent man after woman after man to find me, and the more I killed the more you sent, until you made the mistake of sending him. My father and Terry were good men, and now…” she began to sob, her hands trembling as the rifle began to rock from her spasms, “now they’re dead. They’re dead! They’re dead because of me, and because of you, you bitch!” she cried.

I said nothing as she continued to weep behind the rifle. I knew nothing of what she spoke of. I wasn’t even aware that Shields had actually died, and as for the other man she spoke of, I could only assume that my American counterpart had a hand in that. I wanted to believe that whatever reason he had for having this young woman’s father killed was justified, but as of lately I didn’t really know. I did send Doberman after this woman after hearing of her continuous evasion and execution of some of our top American employees, but that was only after it was requested of me. In truth, I didn’t even know who the target was until after Doberman’s departure from this country. The pink-haired woman finally broke the awkward silence.

“My name isn’t important,” she said, the Russian accent unmistakable, “but what you did to me is. Your fucking mercs killed my father for defending what they called terrorists! They were innocent people who were at the mercy of your damn goons! They executed him before murdering the others! Your company is full of shit, full of violent intent!”

Again, I had nothing to say. An apology would do me no good. They had already made their minds up. They wouldn’t have fought their way up here to spare me.

“My name…” she muttered, “my name is Lydia Dedov, but these people have called me Wrench, because I’m going to throw one in your fucking plans by ending you and bringing down your goddamned company!” she declared, steadying her aim and placing her finger on the trigger of her Vintorez. The subsonic rifle was unwavering as she kept it pointed at my head.

“Lydia, breathe,” Aaron spoke to her. The gun began to shake in her hands as she struggled to calm down. I could see it in her, the desire for vengeance. Was that not what drove me to engage in the activities in Manhattan two weeks ago? Was that not what drove me to build a company rooted in the disposal of the vilest of humans like those who had killed my son? Was all of this not the result of my desire to give my son’s death meaning? I looked at the three before me, and felt sorry for them. They were here, had come through all of this, and had lost their former lives because of me. To them, my death would be the answer to all of their problems. Despite the fact that they would all be tried for possession of illegal firearms, war crimes, conspiracy and every other possible charge the UN could bring upon them following the discovery of their presence by the investigators that would be here soon, they still felt that ending me would make all of the wrongs right. I sighed and closed the drawer. These people had already lost so much because of me. There was no reason to take their lives. They were not responsible for what had transpired; I was.

“Why?” the one named Alexis asked me, “Why have you twisted so many lives. Why have you kept these conflicts going; kept these imbeciles under your command? Why are you such a monster?”

My head sank low. I had twisted the lives to get my way when things started to fall apart. I hadn’t kept any conflicts going other than the one between my company and the States. I had brought people to the company to give them a purpose. Many couldn’t go back to a normal life, nor could they fit in with people in the first place. I gave them the opportunity to exist outside of society. I gave them a job, an identity they could live with, and a home. I wasn’t a monster…at least I wasn’t always.

“Mrs. Belmont,” Aaron said gently, “You may not remember me, but I was the man who drew up the contract between our companies.”

I nodded, “I remember you…Craven,” I slurred.

“Are you…are you drunk?” Lydia challenged. I was afraid to answer for fear that it would bring upon my impending death much sooner than I wanted.

“Lydia, it doesn’t matter if she is or isn’t,” Aaron continued, “what matters is what I want to say next.”

“It does matter!” she argued, “I want her to be able to process what we’re telling her, otherwise I’m going to put a bullet through her head so we can finish this!”

Aaron was relatively calm for having to work with a woman such as this Wrench, “Lydia,” he replied, “let me say my part first, and then we’ll decide how we’re going to handle this.”

“Hurry up,” Alexis commented with concern, distracted by the action out in the hallway, “because Lewis is getting his ass handed to him by that swordsman.”

“Mr. Craven,” I spoke up, “forgive me for-”

“Oh, I’ll forgive you all right,” Lydia cut in, “right between your fucking eyes-”

Aaron held up a hand and motioned for me to continue. I had to regain my train of thought, and Lydia appeared rather furious by my obvious intoxication, “Why are you here? You had no…obligation to join these people and attempt to bring ruin to my company. All we did was sign a paper together, so what is your reason for being here at this moment with a personal…vendetta?” I said, struggling with the bigger words.

“I’ll be honest with you, I’ve asked myself that a lot over the past few months, and,” he glanced towards Lydia for a brief few seconds, “though I may not have a personal reason myself, I’ve learned of the crimes your company has committed, and knowing that I was the one who gave you the line to our weapons, I just couldn’t sleep at night with the fact that you’re using the weapons I allowed you to continue such injustice. Quite frankly,” he said with a scowl upon his face, “it pisses me off. In the past few months alone I’ve almost been shot more times than I can count, have been today, had my life threatened on multiple occasions, including once from the woman who is ready to take your head off much like she was mine, and watched good people die because of your decisions. Honestly, I’m sick of this shit. I’m here because I want to make amends.”

“Amends?” I laughed and leaned back in my chair. I could hear Lydia swearing under her breath, and knew I was only a few more comments away from having that entire magazine emptied into me. I collected myself and sat upright, “Mr. Craven, I envy you. To be able to actually find… salvation in this world in this line of work, now that is something I cannot put a price on.”

Aaron smirked, “We may not forgive you, but you can try your luck with God. Lydia’s just itching to introduce you two.”

I slammed my fist on the table and held my hands up in surrender, “Then go ahead!”

“That’s it?” Aaron inquired, “No great speech? No challenge? You’re just done?”

I cackled, “I am but a broken woman now. There is nothing left for me here. Do as you will, but I hope you find more…fulfillment than I did in my…” what was that word? Ah, “endeavors. Besides, your friend appears at the end of her tether.”

“One more question,” Alexis pressed on, “do you feel any remorse? Would you do it again?”

Remorse? Of course I felt remorse. Countless lives were gone below me because I had created the vengeance-seekers before me. I was in this situation because I wanted to get back at America for what they did to my son, and what they had done to me. Would I do it again? Absolutely, but with a better game plan. My empire was now burning around me, and there was nothing I could do. Though I had an endgame button, I lacked the restart one I so desired. I looked to the picture of my son and smiled. Where I was going, I wouldn’t be reunited with him, but I could no longer do harm here. Then I looked to the trio, and had no time to react as Lydia fired a bullet right through my chest cavity. My heart burst open, and the pain was unlike anything I had ever felt. I slumped onto my desk, staring at the woman who had just shot me. There was no triumph in her face. She was crying.

“NOOO!!!” A great voice boomed. Makoto entered my sight and appeared very enraged with the fact that he had been denied his purpose of coming here. Why else would he have come back to the company that was trying to kill him? Lewis was right behind him. He too looked disappointed that he had missed his chance to quit his job in such a way that Westbrook had in America. I was more amazed by the fact that neither man was dead.

Even my death brought out hatred in everyone. I grimaced as my vision began to fade. It couldn’t really be helped. The final thought that went through my head was rather interesting to me, and could keep philosophers such as the greatest minds in humanity’s history as well as a woman like myself pondering the answer for endless nights. Who won today?

Of Blood and Man (Tiamat Unbound #5)

I present part 5 of the Tiamat Unbound series. This was a really out of my comfort zone style, so I hope it pays off. Enjoy!

 

A blank canvas of white. That was the only fitting description for the scene now covered in feet of snow. It reminded me of an old haiku from my youth, but I was not able to recall most of the lines under such pressure. The lack of oxygen at this altitude was probably a formidable factor in that. The heavy snowfall created the perfect whiteout between sky and horizon, almost like the pureness left in the world had all gathered in one place at this altitude to escape the despair brought forth by the hatred of man. The howling winds concealed every other noise within the raging storm; the sounds of brave birds scavenging for food, the clawing of a squirrel as he climbed to his sanctuary in a single tree in the vicinity where he had prepped for such an occasion, and even the cry of pain from a man cut down in the prime of his youth for interrupting my train of thought as cold steel painted the canvas a dark shade of red with a swift stroke. If life was art, death was a masterpiece, I thought, disappointed with the irony along with the fact that such a work of nature’s beauty was now tainted from my abstract brush of metal. So much for the peace.

These pawns had been hunting me down since I had deserted the ‘mission’ in Iran, and now being near the edge of the Caucasus Mountain range into Russia, it would seem as though I can’t escape the eyes of the dragon even in the heights of the snow-capped mountains where most men dare not tread. I had hoped that no one would be foolish enough to come after me after what I did to the first retrieval unit. It pained me to have to slay the men I once called companions, but I made sure to leave their bodies in such a way as to warn others. Apparently, even that didn’t thwart the paid guns of my former employers. Who were these daft imbeciles that approached me now?

Even before I had joined the ranks of Tiamat Unbound, I was hailed as a great swordsman. Every day as a child I sparred against my younger brother while my elders watched with ambition in their eyes. I trained hard under their tutelage, and after many years honed my combat skills to satisfactory levels in my father’s eyes. My grandfather had passed away during the course of my training, but even he was proud of my progress in the end. It filled me with a pride beyond words. I wish I could have said the same for my brother. Toya was conceited, and believed that he was far too superior for such ritual training. He did not take after his elders.

My father and grandfather before me were austere men who believed in the ancient teachings of Bushidō. Even after my father brought my brother and I to America when I was only fourteen, he focused on instilling the code into us much like his father did for him. Though the samurai is, as the West has worded it alongside their cowboys, “the last of a dying breed,” that is not to say that we cannot learn from the legendary entities of our past cultures.  The virtues of Bushidō dictate my life, as my father and his wanted. Even up to his death many years ago, he stressed their importance in the modern world where lack of such qualities has made men into tyrants. Men like my brother tossed these virtues aside in their quest for greater power. Men like that will only create more complications in this world.

The first virtue, rectitude, was implied to be the most important, surpassing all else. In every action, we must believe that what we do is of good moral. Without that, we lack the backbone to support our body and guide it forward. I knew not in the beginning that my masters were in such a wrong, but after the bravery of the one called Westbrook when he executed the American CEO and exposed the company’s true plans in sabotaging the global economy, eyes began to open, including my own. By standing up to the injustice of the dragon’s might, he drew attention to the malevolence brought forth by Tiamat’s ‘missions’ when others took up arms against them and destroyed a device meant to bring about a great halt to Wall Street. The rumors were vague, but there was no doubt in my mind at the time of learning of the events that Tiamat Unbound was up to no good. The second virtue, courage, nearly goes hand-in-hand with the first. One must have the courage to do what is right. Mine was belated by a blind eye, but no longer.

The third virtue taught is benevolence. One with the power to kill must also be able to show mercy. I…I attempted to when I simply left my unit behind as I fled the control of the company. When they scouted after me, I warned them of the consequences and implored them to respect my wishes, but when they brought arms against me, I could not simply abandon my will. I gave them a quick death, for they were once fellow brothers in arms, and I felt it was the honorable thing to do.

The fourth virtue is politeness, or more socially accepted as ‘respect.’ It is a trait that one must show to all enemies, equals, superiors and underlings. I didn’t see bowing to people that wished to take my carcass back to their master for a bone as fitting to that one, so severing heads from spines wasn’t completely beneath me at this time, especially considering the circumstances of my departure.

The fifth virtue taught to me by my father was honesty. As a samurai, it should be the only excuse ever given for actions. Sincerity came before material wealth, and to dismiss that belief is to accept that one values the reward over the true nature of a pursuit. Wisdom from trials was more valuable than anything else that could be obtained.

The highest regarded trait of a samurai, at least to me, is honor. The samurai must take pride in their duties, as long as it is what they believe is right. Finally, loyalty to one’s beliefs must drive the samurai forward. Loyalty to the mission, a superior, and to oneself was the utmost important virtue that kept a warrior in line. The problem is determining where one’s loyalty truly lies. This was the very aspect I was struggling with, and breaking it was the cause for these mercenaries to hunt me.

Noticing the surrounding sentries, I gave my sword a quick swing to toss the blood to the snow and sheathed it as I awaited the newcomers. There was no telling what Tiamat Unbound had sent after me, but knowing them it could have been Dragon’s Talon, their special force unit. It would be understandable, since those four men had been the ones to test my merit and nearly defeated me when I was recruited. Perhaps had they not been issued rubber bullets for the competition they might have succeeded, but the goal was not to kill me. It was to break me, and they had failed. Right now they would prove quite the challenge nonetheless, especially if Doberman was still among their ranks. I feared no man, but I respected him. Doberman was a strong adversary, but a respectable force. Three times during my bout with his team during my recruitment training I had disarmed him with my wooden sword alone, and three times he had surprised me by improvising and adapting to the situation at hand. The man was resourceful, and admired talent rather than being cut down by pride in defeat. He even smiled when he offered me a position on his team. I politely declined the offer, though was glad to meet a man who showed respect to any adversary. He even bowed to me, and chastised the other three for neglecting to follow his example. I couldn’t forget the one called Jackson Lewis. Lewis was a stubborn man with a hot temper. The defeat did not sit well for him, and it took physical discipline from Doberman to tame the underling when words failed to pierce his pride. He possessed a desire for power not unlike my brother’s, and that made him dangerous. Doberman reminded me of my father in the ways he taught his men. Humble in defeat is a man who finds peace in all. I found irony in the fact that a man trained for combat was a Buddhist.

The figures approaching me were more visible now, and none resembled the men I had sparred with in the Tiamat Unbound training room, even in their thicker winter apparel. More grunts to slow me down. I had thought the company respected my skills. This was actually starting to insult me. Then a command was shouted that could be heard over the winds, and it ordered the men to stand down. A newcomer slowly faded in past the snow as it let up, and advanced between two of his men in front of me. I didn’t expect him of all people. I hadn’t seen the man in nearly ten years. Standing before me in the midst of the blizzard, he slowly unsheathed one of his two swords and made a show of slicing through the air a few times before pointing the blade at me in his left hand. He addressed me in my native tongue.

“It’s been a while, big brother!” my younger sibling, Toya Nagase shouted over the howling winds. He looked a lot rougher than the last time I had seen him, but there was no mistaking the face, even if it now donned dozens of scars. His skin was darker as a result of numerous missions in the direct sunlight, and his sun-bleached hair was long and tied into a ponytail while two narrow bangs hung past both of his eyes. Those gray eyes that always appeared to mimic his lack of compassion were prominent against his darkened skin. Rather proudly, he donned his black uniform with red trim. A sword sheath was on each hip, one still housing a weapon. A Belgium FN P90 was attached to his left hip so that it was under the sheath, which seemed a bit of an odd placement if he needed it in a hurry, but that thought wasn’t one to ponder on for long. The time for the reunion of blood had come at last.

“So, the rumors were true!” I yelled back. I had heard that an unmatched samurai had been made the head of the CEO’s personal guard, Dragon’s Scales. I didn’t want to assume it was Toya, but I had my suspicions as much as I feared them to be true.

“Makoto, I’ve been waiting for this day!” he announced, holding his sword in the air and marveling at the weapon. It appeared to be a fine piece. A katana by appearance, if the light hit it right, it actually appeared to hold an eerie blood-red hue on the steel. Toya crunched through the snow around me during his pace. He stopped in front of me and held the blade in front of my face, back edge toward me. The blade was like a mirror. I could actually see myself in the tiny sliver of metal now inches from my nose. His gray eyes were narrowed on the metal between them.

“Isn’t it a work of art?” he asked with pride, “The finest of engineering efforts went into this blade. Tempered high carbon spring steel. It’s an enhanced replica of a Muramasa blade, and a worthy weapon for the mighty. Next week it’s being remodeled into a high-frequency blade that can cut through steel. An experimental process, but great endeavors lead to great results.”

“It’s not the weapon that makes the warrior,” I replied, reciting the very words my father had spoken to us years before, “I thought you had learned that over the countless hours father made you wipe camellia over the blades we sparred with as punishment for believing in such nonsense.”

“The weapon doesn’t make the warrior, but it defines us,” Toya explained as he walked around me in a circle with the blade tracing the air, “My blade defines my abilities as a master swordsman who was in need of a worthy symbol. Yours…” he stopped once he was in front of me once more, “I am safe in assuming you still possess the sword bestowed upon you by father?”

I nodded, and unsheathed the weapon. Not a traditional samurai sword by any means, the refurbished Shin Guntō had belonged to my grandfather during his service with the Imperial Japanese Army. The hilt still retained his brown tassel from his service. Everything but the blade was original. I had it replaced to better serve me in my trials. Toya sneered as he gazed at the sword.

“Yours is a symbol of the past; full of antiques, both in material and in wisdom. You foolishly follow the ideas fed to us by our elders. Do you not see the futility in them now? A new world order will arise following the emergence of the dragon as a supreme power. We have even secured a nuclear weapon! We are no longer a private military organization. We are a world power! Why would you choose to separate yourself from something you were a part of creating? You’ve performed hundreds of special ops in the Middle East under command of Tiamat Unbound. You’ve assassinated countless people without question! What makes you think you’re above us now?”

I wasn’t above them. I too had put my loyalty into something far more than what I had understood. Now I was paying the price, “I did serve the same master as you, but I am my own master now. Like you, I felt that my abilities would serve a better purpose amongst these people. The contrast resides in my realization that there is no honor to be found in the tasks given to me. Do you want to know why I left Iran and cut down the people that were allies to me? I saw what was to become of us. We were to be scapegoats in an attempt to draw ire to America. The men I killed were going to dispatch of the few of us left out of the circle of knowledge and leave our bodies to be found by Iranian forces. The discovery would have drawn backlash-”

“I’m well aware of what would have happened,” Toya interjected, “and it would have been the most honorable accomplishment you could have obtained with your pathetic life, to die for such a cause.”

“Brother, you know nothing of what you say. You’ve become clouded-”

“Enough!” Toya bellowed. He continued to stare me down as he cocked his neck to the side and barked an order to his men in English, demanding one to his side. One of the mercs rushed to him as fast as he could through the snow, where upon Toya undid the P90 on his left hip and handed it to the man. “This battle will be settled with honor. Do not interfere!” Toya commanded to all as the man retreated. The mercs formed a barely visible circle around us, an arena of witnesses to the battle between blood. Toya took the taito stance taught to the both of us by our father and grandfather. I responded by doing the same. I was surprised that he retained some of his original teachings after all of these years, having renounced everything else.

It was the most intense standoff I had ever experienced. Even in the freezing cold I could feel sweat pouring down my back. Toya smirked before rushing forward. The final battle between us had begun. Countless times before I had bested him in sparring. We hadn’t crossed blades since we were both sixteen, but I knew he was much stronger than he was at that age. I was not the same person either. With a quick swing he brought the blade mere inches from my nose as I leaned back and braced for a counter-strike. I cleaved for his torso, but he was too fast. Bringing his sword back to him he stopped my strike and forced my arms back when he shoved against it. I stumbled a few steps while he followed up by charging forward and swiping at my head, but I ducked under the horizontal slice at the air and attempted to run my blade forward through his left leg. Again, he brought his blade back in time to defend, swinging from my left and knocking my lunge aside. I fell forward into the snow to his left, and he laughed.

“I was always second to you! In father’s eyes, in grandfather’s eyes, and even in yours! No longer!” he cried as he stomped on my back, “I’ll show you that power triumphs over morals!”

I looked over my shoulder to see him raise the Muramasa in both hands to plunge into my back. It wouldn’t be that easy. Rolling over, I swiped at him and nicked his hip. He grunted in pain as I jumped to my feet and readied my stance. A few droplets of blood had stained the snow at his feet, and he was angry. No…he was pissed.

“I’ll have your head, brother!” His next swing was fueled by hate. I brought the Guntō up in time to block the cutting edge, but what happened as a result was unprecedented by anything I was trying to calculate as we fought. His Muramasa snapped my Guntō in half and still had plenty of momentum to dig into my cheek, cutting to the bone. I spun around and clasped a hand to the wound that burned from the cold air stinging it. Holding the broken sword before my eyes, I realized I was out of my league. Toya was indeed no longer the little brother that I had grown up with. His desire to finally stand above me, even if it meant discarding the lessons our elders had passed on to us, had finally manifested into a personality that drove him to become a killing machine. He didn’t see me as his blood. He saw me as another target meant to be killed in the name of Tiamat Unbound.

“What a fitting symbol of how things are, isn’t it?” Toya taunted, pointing to the remainder of the weapon in my grasp, “Everything you know is weakness! I have become strong though strife! You have become weak through remorse!”

I disregarded him and reached for my other sheath that crossed below the first. Grabbing the hilt of my second blade, I glared at my brother as I drew the sword that would bring about his ruin. He regarded the weapon with interest.

“That sword…”

It seemed as though he had never faltered in his studies of the very weapons our ancestors utilized in combat, “Much as yours is a replica of one of Muramasa’s legendary designs, this is of Masamune’s.”

For a brief moment, Toya appeared perturbed by the development, but his frown turned into a wicked smile as he reached across and unsheathed his other blade with his right hand. This strange katana had no curvature, and resembled an 8th century blade I had seen in my studies. I had no idea as to what it was actually based off of, but it looked like something a ninja would be more accustomed to.

My brother always did have one advantage over me; he is ambidextrous. Though he had never displayed the ability to utilize that skill during our bouts, he seemed determined to exploit it to the fullest extent this time as he wielded both blades and stood before me.

“That was a fun warmup, but now we dance for real!”

He came at me full force, slashing with both swords overhead. Spinning to the side I hashed at his head only to be blocked when he swung the second sword upwards and knocked my blade away from the target. The flurry of jabs and cuts he threw following that were almost inhuman. Block, block, step, block, step, parry, step, block. He gave me no chance to counter. Hoping he would eventually tire himself out, I opted to just keep up the defense, but then one of his jabs that I had tried to deflect with my sword was instead redirected into my right bicep. Though glancing, it still cut deep into muscle. I cried out in pain as he retracted his arm that was at length with the Muramasa through my bicep, and cackled. I blinked the tears away and attacked. Toya stepped aside again and again as I missed slash after jab after swipe. Enraged, I roared as I cut a line through the air directly for his face. In a flash he had my blade directly between both of his, and we pushed in close so that our faces were only separated by the swords. The rattling of the hilts together under the force of our might almost made the blades seem as if they were trembling at the brutality of the duel. Toya still wore a smile as he watched me struggle. The more I strained, the more my right arm hurt, but the moment I submitted to it would be the moment Toya would go through the opening and kill me. I could feel tears building up in my eyes and freezing to my skin. Never before had I been this scared for my life.

“Worthless!” Toya remarked as he twisted his blades in a fashion that wrenched mine from my hands and sent it spinning into the snow blade-first feet away. I had been disarmed. It was over, and Toya knew it. Readying to sever my head from my body, he brought both arms wide and prepared to slash the swords at my neck. I closed my eyes and listened. The wind. The excited chatter of the mercs watching and awaiting the bloodbath. The swishing sound of the blades converging. My hand darted for the sheath behind my waist and grabbed the hilt of the dagger I always carried. I snatched it out and ducked at the last second, and while both blades passed overhead I sent mine into Toya’s abdomen. I left it implanted as he dropped the ninja sword and tried to remove the blade with his right hand. I took the chance to hurry off and retrieve my Masamune from the snow, turning back and taking a stance as I observed Toya removing the blade and tossing it aside, allowing blood to flow from the wound and down his uniform. At first he appeared rather collected, but then a trickle of blood began to protrude from his mouth. Spitting a glob onto the surface of the snow, he smiled with stained teeth. I didn’t understand why he wasn’t showing any submission to the pain. He wasn’t a monster…was he? An internal organ being penetrated should have had him crippled. I shivered from a combination of the chilling sight as well as the cold, and then the winds picked up. Toya faded back into the whiteout that had formed as the storm grew violent, leaving the ninja sword behind. The winds thrashed and threw the white everywhere, obscuring everything from view. No longer could I see the gathered audience, or even my opponent for that matter. I remained still, watching, listening, and waiting. Finally, a crunch in the snow behind me outdid the wind, and I turned in time to parry an assault from Toya. I held my blade across my face as I forced him back. The wound I had dealt him had succeeded in impeding his strength. He relented and quickly faded into the snow again, leaving only a faded blood trail behind that was quickly concealed by the amount of snow blowing past.

I had never thought that Toya would be one to fight smart, but he was utilizing the weather like a genius tactician. The bleeding gash that should have served as a hindrance to him wasn’t posing as much of a problem as I had hoped. I attributed that to his rage that I had performed so desperate an attempt to stop him.

I didn’t hear the footfalls in the snow this time, and when the blade erupted from my left shoulder in a spray of blood, I was more surprised than pained. That changed when he ripped it back out. I screamed as my arm went limp. There was no doubt he had severed some very important nerves with that one, and I wasn’t even sure if he’d missed anything vital or not. I clutched the hilt of the Masamune in my right hand and spun around with a swipe, but nothing was there. I looked down to see the blood trail left behind. It trailed off into the storm, but I knew chasing Toya was suicide. My only option was to remain and counter, and with one arm that would prove to be near impossible. I tried to will my other to move, but the surge of pain that shot through nearly had me vomiting. I breathed deeply, trying to remain calm, but the truth was I probably was not going to escape this encounter with my life. The swish of a blade just missing my head was loud in my right ear, but it still carved through the top layer of the skin on my right arm and left me further injured. It was like peeling an onion. He was systematically weakening me with each guerilla strike. I had to try something new if I was to stop this onslaught.

I looked down at his blood and was stricken with an idea. Dropping down I quickly rolled into the snow, trying desperately to dig myself in as much as I could before Toya returned. I finally settled on my back and readied the sword in my right hand, holding it down and against my right leg. The snow was blowing past my face at an incredible rate of speed, and I was mostly buried under an inch within half a minute. I was careful to use only my eyes to scan the scene above me as I awaited Toya’s next move. I began to worry that the blood from my shoulder would give me away. It stung as the snow covered it.

Finally, he emerged from the storm once more, but appeared confused when I was not there to serve as his cadaver. He crept slowly towards me, cautiously keeping tabs of the environment except for anything below him. When his foot landed next to mine, I acted. Exploding from the snow, I thrust the tip of the sword through his left leg and forced half of the blade’s length through. The feeling of metal scraping bone was unpleasant for me, and I wasn’t even the one who suffered the horrible injury. Toya expressed the agony in a very unorthodox way; he pushed through what should have been a crippling injury and hobbled over to me with his sword grasped firmly in both hands. I had to admire his tenacity, which is why I felt a bit guiltier when I raised my boot and kicked the hilt of my Masamune embedded into his thigh, pushing it further through him. That one did it. Letting out a howl of agony, he dropped to his knees and began cursing in many languages as I backed away.  My foot sank into the snow and met something solid. Reaching down, I wiped away enough to reveal the black hilt of the other sword my brother had used against me, the straight-edged katana. I pulled it out of the snow and held it in my right hand towards my brother, who was attempting to rise to his feet. Hunched over, he held his Muramasa in both hands towards me in return.

“Brother, it doesn’t have to end this way!” I shouted.

“It’s already over,” he heaved, “you are the victor today, Makoto.”

I didn’t understand. The man had a sword through his leg, a punctured organ that was obviously causing internal bleeding, and yet he was still able to stand on his two feet and hold a weapon to me. I was honestly afraid he’d still manage to kill me in his current state. Suddenly he dropped to his left knee.

“You’ve pierced my femoral artery!” he shouted over the wind, “I won’t live to see you fail, but fail you shall!”

Even in defeat, Toya was delusional, “Enough! Let me help you! Your men-”

“My men cannot help me, nor would I want it,” he shouted back, cackling aloud, “You’ve defeated me once again.”

“Toya!”

“Silence! Tradition won here today. Perhaps if I had paid heed to the lessons our elders tried feverishly to teach me as well, I would have stood a chance. Instead, my soul will be the one to part ways and meet them again in the afterlife. I’ll be sure to tell father what a success you turned out to be.”

I lowered my blade, “Toya…”

“Makoto, your legacy shall live on. It is one of rectitude and honesty, just as your were raised to believe,” Toya then did something I never would have expected; he stood up on his injured leg and bowed to me. The storm began to die down, and his men were visible once more. All were astounded to see their commander lowering his head to the enemy. He raised his head and smiled at me. I knew his leg was killing him, but Toya never knew how to show any emotions besides pride and anger, and I would like to believe that it was pride in another that was keeping the beam about his face, “I dishonored father, and grandfather. I dishonored our family, our heritage, but most importantly I dishonored myself,” he looked around us at his men, “This man is free to go!” he shouted in English, “That is my final order to you.”

“S-sir!?” the one who had taken his P90 objected.

“Silence! That is my command. You shall follow it!” he bellowed as he raised the Muramasa and turned the hilt around in his hand so that the blade was pointed toward his stomach.

“TOYA!!! STOP!!!” I cried, dropping my sword and running through the snow to grab the weapon. He smiled at me as he drove the blade through his flesh and out the other side. The snowflakes appeared to be falling slow enough that I probably could have made out their details had I not been watching the life drain from my brother. He closed his eyes and brought his hands to his face, and then slumped over onto his side before I could reach him. By the time I was kneeling down beside him and shaking him by the shoulder, he was already gone. The snow was dark red underneath my knees, and my trembling right hand was warm with blood in the frigid air, even through the glove. I didn’t even remember the other mercenaries. I could only see my brother’s corpse. It was all I knew at the moment. My little brother was dead by his own hands because he could not accept defeat by mine. I roared into the storm as it built up in presence again, as if nature were reacting to his death too.

I felt like I was in the final circle of Hell in the Inferno of the Divine Comedy. I had only skimmed the literature in my free time, curious as to how man envisioned an afterlife of punishment, but it was enough to make me respect those that chose to live lives of peace. I no longer had to wonder. This was it. This was what man called Hell. All of the wounds on my body could not hurt more than my heart as I placed a foot on my brother’s torso to support myself and wrenched the Muramasa from his abdomen. I threw the blade aside in disgust, not wanting to touch the weapon that had ended him. Next came the Masamune from his leg. The spurting blood was a reminder that he would have indeed died anyway, but it was no comfort. His men gathered around and brought the circle inward. No one dared speak.

In all of my years, I had never found it harder to obey the virtues of Bushidō than that moment. I wanted to lift the Muramasa and kill everyone there in a bloody massacre that would be the only fitting representation of my anger, of my very soul as I looked at my brother’s corpse.

I stayed my hand, and instead swung the Masamune to cleanse it of my brother’s blood. After sheathing the weapon I collected the Muramasa and undid the holster on Toya’s left hip that had contained the blood sword. I then did the same to the other and, with assistance from one of the mercenaries who had picked up the sword from where I had left it, placed the ninja sword into it. He handed the sheath to me, and I tossed it and the Murasama over my right shoulder, surveying the men before me.

“Kitsune,” the young man who had assisted me spoke. I was surprised. A Japanese utterance from what appeared to be a Frenchman.

“Fox?” I inquired in English, “What about a fox?”

“Kitsune is what your brother called that straight sword. He treasured it; something about receiving it from a great warrior he admired that once bested him.”

I hadn’t known my brother to admire anyone, just the idea of physical strength. The thought had captivated me, and I only grunted in acknowledgment before I looked to the mercenaries all congregated around my brother’s corpse.

“You are all my enemies, but you served next to my brother and obeyed him without question. Your loyalty rested solely with him, and for that, you have my thanks.”

The men all exchanged awkward glances. One even bowed hesitantly, unsure if that was the right thing to do. Imbeciles though they were, I could not harm them and do dishonor to my brother’s dying wish.

“We will give him a proper burial,” one of the men announced. I nodded. If there was any lingering thought of murdering these men, he had just saved their lives. I carried my brother’s swords in their sheaths over my right shoulder and began to walk away. One of his men shouted after me, and I turned back to see the one my brother had entrusted with his weapon. He was a small one of German descent, and I could see the fear in his eyes shrouded in winter apparel as he looked up into mine.

“What do you want, pawn?” I asked him. He shrunk at those words, but spoke anyway.

“What will you do now? I know that we’re not supposed to do anything to you, but they’ll probably send others. I’d hate to be the bearer of more bad news, but you’re dead if you just keep running.”

“Then I will not run,” I replied. That statement made the little man shake his head.

“What does that mean?”

“It means I have a final obligation to fulfill,” I answered, turning to leave.

“That injury won’t let you go far,” he remarked.

He was right. Medical attention came first. Toppling an empire like Tiamat Unbound would require two arms, “That is not of your concern. I do ask that you do me one more favor.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I died here today alongside my brother. We both suffered wounds that brought about our demise. My body was lost to the blizzard, and you failed to recover it from winter’s grasp.”

The man nodded, “That will prove difficult, but very well. For what it’s worth, I’m terribly sorry about your brother.”

My brother succumbed to his own pride in the end, and Tiamat Unbound had not endowed that personality into him to begin with, but I disliked the company nonetheless. My brother had only stood before me because he was ordered to, and in that aspect, he was loyal. The dragon played with our loyalty and manipulated us. I was to die today in the cold reaches of the mountains, not him. Now, I would make amends. I would personally drive the Muramasa through the CEO myself before this was over. I turned my back on the mercenaries and headed west, my resolve the only guidance I needed.

Declawing (Tiamat Unbound #4)

This marks part four of the Tiamat Unbound series. Here, we are introduced to some new faces, and quite a few old ones return in a race against time to stop a major impact to the American economy. Enjoy!

 

“He’s this way!”

I swore under my hastened breath as I took the left at the fork and picked up the pace. The subway system underneath Manhattan wasn’t the most complicated thing once you picked a direction and ran for it, but with a linear path like the one I had chosen headed for Wall Street, you found yourself hoping for a few more twists and curves to throw off the pursuers that would seemingly stop at nothing to kill you before you could thwart their grand scheme, and since they knew exactly where I was headed and how much time I had, this was pretty much just a foot race. At the time, heading straight from Times Square to Wall Street above ground seemed the way to go, but I hadn’t actually counted on Tiamat Unbound forces silently overtaking the city to ensure their plans came to fruition. They had control over all emergency frequencies, and were diverting responders to bogus situations far from the target. Everything was playing out in their favor, but I still had one final card.

Stopping to catch my breath was something I wanted to avoid, but one can only run so far, even when the fate of the world was in the balance. I checked my watch as shouting could be heard from the bend behind me. 1:35 pm. I didn’t have long now. Cursing again, I started off once more and pushed beyond the burning pain in my leg muscles. I had to run miles for training, but damn if they trained us to run a distance that took a subway train ten minutes on a good day. Only two more miles were between myself and the station where the train would be parked and more than likely under heavy guard. I had improvised most of the day so far, from blowing up my car as a distraction to having a foot race down here anyway, so coming up with a plan to get past an unknown variable of enemies paid to make sure someone like me didn’t get near their boss’s precious EMP device shouldn’t be too hard. Optimism aside, I didn’t have a choice anyway; I was the only once close enough with knowledge of the plan to stop it, and that was thanks to my old friend Westbrook who had died falling out of the top floor of Tiamat’s American HQ in Pittsburg. I had really hoped that the outcome of that incident would have done more than just shut down the American branch, but Westbrook did a hell of a job nonetheless at the cost of his life. He entrusted me to finish this, and I would.

A light filled the tunnel around my body, and my running shadow was visible before me. The assholes who had shot two construction workers before giving chase were now upon me. The poor guys probably didn’t realize they had screwed me over with their last good deed of pointing down the tunnel when the armed men questioned them. At the time I was gone before the gunshots started echoing after me.

I couldn’t stop to fire back at my pursuers right now. That light would be concealing them, and blind shots were bound to cost me when I needed the bullets the most in a short while. Besides, I had the standard issue Kimber Warrior, and from what I had heard as I fled down the subway escalators those guys meant business with automatic weapons. Most likely German make, so that ranged from Heckler and Koch weaponry to whatever else our company was normally supplied with. The make didn’t matter, it was the marksmen wielding the weapons that had me scared, and these guys were like me; Tiamat’s best. No doubt they were the Dragon’s Talon unit, my former squad turned greatest threat.

A burst of bullets went zooming past inches from my head as I strafed left to hug the wall around the bend. Now came the fun part; the last length of the tunnel was straight and dark before two more curves, but I had to get that far, and while I had kept these guys behind me, I couldn’t outrun bullets.

“Fuck,” I muttered as I came to a stop, turning and withdrawing the Kimber from its holster and racking the slide back before aiming in the general direction of my pursuers. The scalding light mounted on one weapon hit my eyes hard, but I just squinted as I awaited the firefight. If I was going to die, I’d go out the way I was trained to do, much like my brothers across from me.

“Doberman, that’s far enough,” a deep voice called out. I recognized it as belonging to the current leader of Dragon’s Talon, Jackson Lewis. Lewis had once been my second up until I was the most recent deserter, which left the lead position open for him. I knew what he was capable of, and killing me was high enough on that list. Cocky and hotheaded, it was me that had kept his ass alive all this time anyway. I wondered how that would play out with me on opposite terms for once. The floodlights illuminated the shapes, and two of the other three accompanying him were familiar, as they too had served under me. The big bald one carrying the shotgun was smiling as he smacked gum loudly in his mouth. I hated his annoying habit, but Marcus Ward was a damned good killer to have on your side, albeit a menacing terror from this side. The shotgun slung around his torso appeared to have a drum magazine and short barrel. Even in the dark I recognized the Kriegspartei Kniebrecher (accurately named so, as the automatic 12-gauge shotgun was a shoulder-friendly knee cracker, along with every other part of the body). The recoil was practically nonexistent through whatever kind of wizard-like engineering Kriegspartei was paying for, and twenty shells of whatever the hell you desired between slugs and lead shots made it a formidable weapon to keep your enemies at bay, or within death’s grasp one. The tall and skinny guy with tattoos up both arms and his neck was just as timid as ever, even when out of breath. Patrick Morrison was a quiet individual, but he was the team marksman for just that reason. He hated personal contact with people, whether it was talking or getting up in their face while murdering them, so it was fitting that he was quite comfortable performing his job from half a mile or farther away. I figured that he had his custom Mk 14 EBR with him. That thing was more precious to him than any human life anyway, so being a recluse didn’t really matter when no one wanted to get near the trigger-happy guy. Tiamat Unbound liked his standoff with police a few years back that involved him holding off three whole forces with a Vietnam era M21 as his bank robbing buddies escaped, so they hired the guy. He had found his calling working for a company where his skills were actually promoted rather than feared. I guess the later still applied at the moment.

That left the last guy bringing up their rear. He was short but stocky, and had a long beard that ran down past the front of his vest. A tattoo of some kind covered the left half of his face, and his nose was full of studs that reflected the light from the walls. The guy looked strange from what I could make out, but I never judged by appearance. That was how Patrick had nearly killed me when I was sent to recruit him during his isolation days. I felt safe to assume that he was the replacement to fill up the four-man team.

“Lewis, let’s be reasonable. This isn’t about money, it’s-”

“The fuck it isn’t about money!” Lewis barked. The man was intimidating with his voice alone, but tack on the accuracy with a pistol and his short temper, and you had a dangerous individual with a hair-trigger personality, “This is all about the money! Why do you think we picked Wall Street?”

I had no idea, but I knew what the plan was, thanks to Westbrook’s sacrifice. Tiamat forces were to set off an EMP blast on the train underneath the area to send the Stock Exchange into a frenzy of utter chaos. The dumbass American CEO had left the plans in his desk, and when I had arrived a minute before the police and dealt with the remaining goons in the room, I found the notes on the odd one with the ponytail. What I didn’t know, was why this plan? Lewis could see that, since the fourth guy still had the light of the rifle in my face.

“You know why, Shields. You were there, in Iraq. You saw what America was ignoring that we didn’t. Instead, they moved to have us shut down for what they and the UN have dubbed ‘unlawful actions.’ Thanks to the interference of that Kriegspartei bastard, our American branch is fucked beyond repair. I take it you caught on because of his hampering, huh? He got to Westbrook, and look what happened. The fucker was splattered all over the street and still you idiots are going against us!”

While Lewis was right, it didn’t justify this, “So why target the American economy? What’s this going to accomplish?”

“The hell if I know,” Lewis replied in a smug tone of voice, “as I said, it is about money, and I know that there’s a huge bounty on your head right now for desertion!”

“Don’t do this, Lewis,” I barely pleaded. I knew there was no changing the bastard’s mind once it was set on something. Persuasion for him was probably getting killed.

“Relax, Doberman. We used to be friends, so I’ll make you an offer,” he said as he lowered his own Kimber, “Turn yourself over to us now, and we’ll take you in alive. You’re worth more in a communicating state anyway, and you wouldn’t get fucked over by us right now, so everyone wins. What do you say, old pal?”

I wasn’t about to give up, so I already knew my answer, “Okay.”

Lewis was surprised, “Okay? Really? Just like that?” When I nodded the expression on his face went from one of confusion to one of amusement, “I guess I shouldn’t be that shocked. After all, you abandoned us; what’s to stop you from abandoning your goal now?”

I said nothing more as I pressed the magazine release on my gun. It clattered to the ground as I held the gun up in my right hand with my other parallel. The unit shared a laugh at my moment of weakness, but Lewis stopped after he caught my gaze in the light. The others didn’t notice, but he must’ve gotten an uneasy feeling about me all of a sudden. That was wise. Your guard should never be dropped.

“Marcus, subdue him,” he ordered. Ward treaded forward cradling his gun on its sling. Patrick still had his rifle around his shoulder but the pistol in his left hand down at his hip, and the fourth guy had the light of his gun on me. Lewis watched closely, finger tapping the trigger guard of his pistol in the flood lights. Ward reached for the gun in my right hand, and I threw my forehead into his nose. He fell back with his hands over his face to stop the blood flow, but I kept him between myself and the others as I readied for the fight of my life. I had to get this perfect, there wouldn’t be any room for mistakes. Stepping just to the right, I hit the light mounted under my Kimber and blinded the fourth guy, leaving him disoriented as I squeezed the trigger. The bullet that I had loaded upon contact with Dragon’s Talon was still in the chamber after I had ejected the magazine. I thought Lewis would’ve known better than to fall for that old trick, but ambition tended to blind.

The source of light was flung backwards, so I knew I had hit home. Not taking the time to react to what was, quite frankly, the most badass thing I had ever done, I killed the light on my gun and pistol-whipped the disoriented Marcus to the ground. Following up on that I hastily undid his leg holster and pulled out his personal HK 45. I knew he had an extended threaded barrel on this one, which could come in handy later when I got close to the device and needed as much silence as possible. Right now, it was all I had to fight back with in the darkness, seeing as though my magazine for the Kimber had been lost somewhere around my feet, and I didn’t have the time to grab any spares before having to blow my car up after other Tiamat mercs found me in my previous altercation. The flood lights of the subway only illuminated silhouettes of humans moving, and even though the glare of the muzzle flash was still present we could still see each other. I made out a tall figure whipping something around himself. The sudden realization hit me; Patrick used night vision on his rifles.

“Ah, fuck,” I uttered.

Marcus pushed himself up, swearing. I dropped to the ground as he stood and obscured Patrick’s line of fire.

“Ward! Move!” the sniper shouted.

“Where the fuck is he?!” Marcus yelled back as he spun around in circles. He never was the brightest, but having just stolen his gun, I had to fight not to smile in such a tense situation.

“Get out of my way or I’ll kill you too!” Patrick snarled at the big guy. Marcus obliged with some choice words, and the second Patrick’s silhouette was in my sight, I squeezed the trigger repeatedly. Patrick was punctured by all four shots, and went down hard. Marcus spun around with his shotgun raised, but I had already lined his head up before he could get the barrel in my general directional. The bastard was strong, so I knew he was wearing body armor to protect his center of mass, making me throw training out of the window as I caused his head to snap back with one shot in the dark. The big guy hit the ground with a loud thud. I looked around, but didn’t see Lewis anywhere in the shadows.

“Like I said, you turn your back on everything important,” Lewis said coldly behind me. I felt the muzzle of a pistol press into my head. With a sigh, I dropped my gun. The bastard had used the chaos to sneak up on me.

“I’m impressed,” he spoke, “you were our leader for a reason. You even dispatched of Williams with ease, and he was promising.”

“Was that the short one?” I asked, “He was the only one who kept the barrel on me. Smart kid, but I kind of cheated anyway.”

“Quite,” Lewis replied, “Now, since you chose to do this the hard way, I hope you won’t mind if I make life Hell for you before taking you straight to the CEO himself for questioning. After all, we still need to find Mr. Craven for Kriegspartei. His influence has proven quite troublesome to our plans, as evident by what just occurred.”

“You might as well just kill me,” I replied as I looked at the body of Marcus in front of me, a tinge of regret in the back of my head for my former partner, “because I’m not saying shit to you people. If I die, someone has to bring that monster’s foundation crumbling on top of him. If anyone can, it’s Aaron and the others.”

That drew a laugh, “That traitor was just a money man for an arms dealer, and now he’s a false prophet for the stupid beliefs you all carry about us being evil.”

“He’s smart,” I replied, “and that’s all it’ll take to topple an empire.”

“Oh yeah? Well you were supposed to be smart, but look at you now,” Lewis hissed as the sound of the hammer cocking back sounded just loud enough to be heard down the tunnel. I began to breathe very slowly, trying to relax in my darkest moment. My teachings were very clear on what to do in tense situations, and being mindful was top priority. Being a Buddhist, I’m not really supposed to be a violent man, but the meditation always kept my mind clear. Plus, if karma prevailed, I didn’t have to worry too much…though most of that applied to another life. Right now, I was pretty fucked in this one. Even if I tried to overtake him, Lewis was good with a blade, and no doubt kept a few on him. Getting his ass kicked by that samurai recruit years ago had made him brush up on that to correct his mistakes.

A bright light reflected off of the wall at the bend ahead of me from the direction I had come from. Something or someone was coming. I could hear a screeching sound, and Lewis was aware of the development as well.

“What the hell?” he uttered under his breath. A subway car was coming, but how? Tiamat Unbound had sealed the tunnels, so who was possibly coming? Reinforcements for Lewis? He didn’t appear to believe so as he himself removed the gun from my head.

The train rounded the bend and was opposite the tracks from us. I had to make a move. Taking the merc’s confusion to my advantage, I dropped and placed my left hand on the ground as I swung my right leg around and swept Lewis off of his feet. Falling on his ass and slamming his head on train rails must’ve felt some kind of nice, because he was out cold. Now my attention went to the train, which was screeching to a stop. The conductor’s cabin stopped only a few yards away, and the face smiling back at me was a relieving sight. The man exited the cabin and opened the door right behind it to lean out and greet me.

“Hey there. Long time no see,” he said with the grin that earned him the title of top negotiator for his weapons dealer. Persuasive as hell, I could see how he won my last target over so easily after I had failed.

“Hello Aaron,” I said to the former Kriegspartei employee, “Fancy meeting you here. I take it you didn’t come to just drive a train?”

Aaron snickered and shook his head, “No, I thought you might need some help. You’re not the first person I’ve called crazy for trying to take on Tiamat Unbound alone.”

“Would that be the woman who shined the light on the company’s atrocities?” I asked. A figure moved through the train car and appeared behind Aaron. It was a young woman with bright pink hair, and she no doubt fit the physical description of the whistle-blower. I had never had the chance to meet her, but if Aaron trusted her I couldn’t argue with her presence.

“You guys talking about me?” she inquired in a humored voice. She didn’t even sound professional. Aaron was right in calling her an amateur.

“My apologies,” I told her, “I take it you’re this ‘Wrench’ my good friend has informed me of?”

She beamed, “The one and only!”

“What the hell is your real name, anyway?” I asked. She just winked and turned on her heel to disappear into the car. I couldn’t help but admire the view. When she was passing by the windows headed for the back I grinned at Aaron.

“Ah, yes,” I said aloud, “Aaron spoke of a lovely assistant.”

She quickly returned, looking befuddled, “He said I was lovely?”

“Ahem,” Aaron cleared his throat, face turning a faint shade of red, “What’s the plan, Doberman?” With this kind of help, things would be slightly less difficult than I had anticipated, but in a numbers game, Tiamat would own us. I was carefully weighing my options when a familiar voice spoke up from behind Wrench.

“Silent and deadly, right, Doberman?” another voice from in the train said. The woman who had twice saved my life emerged, smiling at me. I wasn’t sure if it was the thought similar to mine that she had just shared that had her looking like that, or if she was genuinely happy to see me. That would have been odd considering our previous encounter that ended…violently.

“Well, if it isn’t the little ‘Gunner Girl’, or would you rather I call you Alexis?” I asked as I returned the smile. The last time we had met she had nearly blown my damn brains all over her apartment wall. It was only fair though; I had been ordered to kill her, but being the man who had taught her the tricks of the trade, I was willing to talk it through first. Of course, both of us being members of Tiamat Unbound at the time, ‘talking’ meant only using small caliber weapons against each other. I had to give her credit; she paid attention to my lessons well. Just in the living room alone she emptied three different weapons at me that she had hidden in everything from the couch to the bookshelf. The 20-gauge was a surprise. I got lucky; most of my body was behind the corner before the blast pelleted everything. Contrary to popular belief, shotguns are not front-sweeping death bringers from Hell. The closer the target, the more concentrated the spread. A baseball-sized spread of buckshot covered the four yard distance pretty damn fast. Getting half of that buckshot picked out of your arm hurt like hell. I still couldn’t believe she was willing to kill me. She hated violence. I guess she really didn’t want to go back to that life.

“How do you know my real name?” she asked in surprise, eying me as if I really shouldn’t have known that.

“Darling, you were an employee for Tiamat Unbound, and besides,” I said as I pointed to her, “I always research the people I have assigned to me. You never know when someone is just trying to get close to kill you when you’ve been in that line of work for more than a decade.”

Her expression suddenly took on that of the guilty, “Sorry about your arm,” she said, ducking her head down behind Wrench as a shy child would to her mother when embarrassed.

“It’s fine. They only spent a few hours picking the lead out,” I replied as I rotated my shoulder to indicate that it indeed still worked.

Luckily, she was a smart one, reasonable. I’d gotten Aaron to parley a literal ceasefire so that we could talk after I left intensive care, which was a struggle itself. Convincing the doctor’s that I’d had a hunting accident was one thing. Convincing the authorities was another. That was how I finally met Aaron. I went out for a smoke break just before investigators arrived, and there he was leaning against the passenger door of that red Stingray, staring at me over sports sunglasses and smirking. The next thing I knew we were both on the run from the cops and I was on the phone with an angry girl who wanted to know why I had been stalking her, let alone the fact that I had forced her to kill her father. She sure as hell didn’t apologize then, and I didn’t blame her. It wasn’t like I wanted her to do it, but if she had refused there would have been hell to pay for her entire family. Tiamat Unbound was just cruel like that. Now we were both fugitives on the run trying to make a few things right before the end. Then again, we were all fugitives now. The remnants of the defectors and the intuitive, we stood in the subway armed with next to nothing, ready to deliver the fatal blow to the dragon. The question was rather pressing; gunpowder and lead, or a more tactical approach?

Wrench spoke up first, “I saw we just run this subway car into the one with the device. Wouldn’t that be enough? Maybe even set explosives in our weapon bags? Then we could just sit here and relax while the chaos ensues.”

Aaron appeared disappointed with that decision. I guess he really did like driving the train. That or he found an issue with the lack of thought that went into that plan. I was already considering the chances of failure, and how we’d have to compensate. Sure, a crash would cause confusion that would work to our advantage, but what if the device wasn’t damaged, or if the explosives didn’t go off? There were a lot of negative scenarios in that idea…

“Are we even equipped for stealth?” Alexis asked, surveying our apparel and weapons. Wrench was holding her VSS and dressed in dark jeans and a black t-shirt. She was winning by a mile since Aaron and I donned dark blue suits that weren’t good for maneuvering, as I had just experienced. He was possibly concealing a shoulder holster, but I didn’t live making assumptions. Alexis had a bright yellow shirt with a pink flower displayed on the front and blue jeans that definitely were not going to assist in a firefight.

“We’ll make do,” Wrench said, ever the optimist. I wanted to like this one; she had a ‘natural born leader’ personality about her, but was quick to make one decision and act on it.

“We’ve got some spare firearms up here if you’d like to partake,” Aaron said, gesturing to the back of the car. I nodded and grabbed the rails to hoist myself up to the door, when a loud bang sounded off behind me as my back lurched involuntarily. The pain was crippling. Letting go, I fell back to the rails as Alexis reached out for me, but her voice was so far away, and her hand seemed to gain distance from me as my sight narrowed. Wrench was faster, having aimed her weapon somewhere beyond me. I nearly passed out on impact with the ground, but the adrenaline was kicking in. My head was pointed in the direction of my assailant as my back arched, keeping the wound from touching the ground. The lights of the subway car gave him away; Williams. The bastard was holding a Warrior and smiling with gritted, bloodstained teeth as he held the gun extended in his right hand.

“That was for…my team,” he sputtered before Wrench put a subsonic round through his head. The sound of the bullet penetrating his skull was actually louder than the action cycling. With him down the others converged on me, but I could feel my insides burning with intense pain. Something important was hit.

“Doberman!” Aaron shouted over the clattering of a gun dropping to the ground. He knelt down over my head and shook it with both hands, “Stay with us!”

“Please, don’t go!” Alexis cried, literally. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. I wanted to reach out and wipe them away, but taking my hands away from my wound would yield great consequences. Aaron rolled me over, but not before I protested with a string of profanity that was made up there on the spot. His grunt and swear that followed were not comforting to me.

“What?!” Alexis demanded, “How bad is it?!”

“He’s taken a bullet in the liver, and I didn’t see an exit wound bleeding out on his front…” Aaron replied grimly.

They were all silent. Alexis was choking up, but she tried to speak again, “Then…then-”

“I’m fucked, kid,” I managed to say, grimacing from the pain of my lungs expanding. Maybe that was a bit too insensitive, because her tears went from a stream to a torrential downpour on her face. I hated myself, but that was somewhere beneath the thought that I’d made a mistake; Lewis had warned me that I turned my back on the important things. Maybe there was some truth to that, “Let this be a final lesson to you; always…” I had to pause for the pain to subside after taking a breath, “always make sure your foes are dead.” She just kept crying, and it pained me too; more so than the bullet lodged in me. Now wasn’t the time to fall apart. I needed to be strong for her sake, “Alexis, don’t give up. I’m not.”

She looked to me and blinked tears away, “What?”

“Kid, just because I’m down doesn’t mean I’m out. You guys need to leave me and carry on. I’ll be on radio,” she looked discouraged by the idea of leaving me behind, “Kid,” it really hurt to breathe, “I know you struggle with yourself when I’m not there. The last time I wasn’t, your life was turned upside down. I’m going to be right with you. Don’t lose hope here.”

She looked to the blood forming beneath my left thigh, “But-”

“Alexis, I’m not abandoning you. I’m going to be with you until the end. Besides, Aaron and…”

Wrench stifled a laugh and rolled her eyes when I looked to her, “Fine, as your dying wish, I’ll tell you. My name is Lydia, Lydia Dedov.”

“…Lydia. Right. Nice name,” she blushed at the compliment, “anyhow, these two will be your anchors now. You guys are brave to do what you’re doing. Even you, Aaron,” I paused to take a sharp, stinging breath as his head perked up, “you didn’t have to get involved. I’m glad you did. You and Lydia are the reason we made it this far…and Westbrook,” I paused, mostly out of the pain, but also to remember my friend and fellow employee-turned-rouge. The guy’s death hadn’t, and wouldn’t be in vain, “You’ve got ten minutes, guys. You need to get a move on. I’ll slow you down.”

Aaron stood and checked that his bullpup was in satisfactory condition to drop his enemies at a second’s notice. He then walked over to Ward’s body and undid the sling that kept the shotgun and fastened it around his own torso. Aaron had told me before that he was a terrible shot, but the Kniebrecher used the old point and click method with little kick. I was confident he could use it. Wrench walked around my body, bringing her VSS up front and ready as she stared up the tunnel alongside him. I guess that the point was to allow Alexis a chance to mourn. She closed her eyes and sobbed hard, back jumping with every gasp for breath. I reached a bloody hand out and used my finger with the least amount of my life force stained on it to wipe her left cheek. Didn’t even leave a smear.

“Alexis, I know this isn’t your preferred calling. You’re not a monster; not a killer,” I told her, and her eyes opened, “You’re just an unfortunate soul who got sucked into this mess. I’m sorry I crossed paths with you that day,” another agonizing wheeze, “and I’m sorry about your dad. I brought you into this, and that mistake cost you your old life, and your father’s-”

“Shut up!” she hissed, and then dropped her head to his chest, “I don’t blame you for his death. Not anymore. Just shut up!”

I wanted to adhere, but she was an emotional wreck with a mission, and that was dangerous to leave alone, “Nine minutes. Go be a hero, kid.”

“But-”

“Hey, you’ve got a lot to live for after this, whether you see it or not. You’re going to bring a guy back to life one day,” I said with a smile. I never was good at sweeping a woman off of her feet, but that at least got a grin through the tears, “there we go. That’s one of the last things I want to see-”

“No,” she interrupted, “stay alive until we get back. I want to say a proper farewell.”

I knew I couldn’t promise that one. I just nodded, “Go be a hero.”

She slung her Lewis Machine and Tool .308 Modular Weapon System (her expensive as hell welcome gift from Tiamat Unbound) over her shoulder and started off to join Aaron and Lydia, but stopped to look back at me one more time. I waved her off with a forced smile, and with reluctance written across her face, she turned her back to me and set off down the tunnel with the other two. Watching their figures disappear up past the bend, I realized I had just sent the three people I could trust into the dragon’s den, where chances of their collective survival were faint. Pain increasing, I flopped onto my back and gasped for air. A slight chuckle came from behind me.

“Those three will die before Tiamat lets them foil their plans.” I didn’t need to look above me to know that Jackson Lewis was conscious once more. There was no defending myself in this state, so whatever he decided to do would be my ultimate fate, “So, Shields, what happens now?” he asked.

What kind of question was that? “I don’t know. You’re in more of a position of power than I am. I guess…whatever you decide to do. Just know that whatever you radio down the tunnel won’t be sufficient. Those three…won’t just give up.”

Another laugh, “I know, Terry. That doesn’t mean they’ll succeed. It’s a shame, really,” I heard commotion as he sat up, all of his gear shuffling about on his person, “that one girl who was so torn up over your fatal wound, was she one of your personal recruits?” I didn’t answer. The bastard didn’t deserve to know anything about my personal life anymore. He continued anyway, “I’d say she’s taken a liking to you. She’s a tragic one, isn’t she? I read the file on her after she’d deserted. Ordered to kill her own father, and then hunted by the man she fell for before being forced to defend herself against him? You always do go for the lost and helpless, Shields,” he taunted with a satisfied snicker, “I guess you won’t have to worry about dying alone. You’ll get to see her again soon.”

If I knew I could react before him, I’d put a bullet through his lung to keep him from talking. Instead I maintained my silence and found my calm, and then he asked the question I didn’t have an answer to.

“Why didn’t you kill me, Shields?”

There was no way I could answer that one. I didn’t even know. I should have. I easily could have. Why didn’t I?

“Did our time together actually mean something to you after all?”

“I guess so, unfortunately,” I answered, not knowing what else to say.

“You really couldn’t bring yourself to do it, then?”

“I’m done killing, Lewis. Patrick and Ward were enough, but you too? I never enjoyed the bloodshed like you. I’m not a monster.”

Lewis grunted, “And she sees that? You think she understands you, and you her? Pathetic.”

“Understanding,” I wheezed, still aching, “is something you’ve never been able to do. Hell, Lewis, you don’t even know why you’re here.”

“What’s that?” he snarled.

“Lewis, tell me, why are you here, in this tunnel talking to me? You could have dispatched of me and left for the others. You could’ve easily gotten the jump on those three…” I winced as I sat up, “and ended it. Why are you here?”

I was looking over my shoulder at him now. He shrugged his shoulders and held his hands up in defeat, “I decided I’d rather hear you out. This is between us. Let all of those fools fight their battle. We don’t matter anymore; it’s up to the rest of our sides to settle this. You’ve got your faith in those three, and I’ve got mine placed in Tiamat Unbound. Besides, I’d rather just watch you bleed out painfully than kill you,” he said with a sinister laugh under his breath.

“That’s not the point, Lewis. You do what you do for the money. You never question why. You swore your allegiance to Tiamat Unbound, but you don’t know why. I always watched you to see if you’d discover a reason to fight, but you’re no better than the grunts that join just to shoot stuff. You’re a child with a hard-on for guns and action. That’s why I’ve always been tough on you; greed and honor don’t go together, and you’ve chosen the-”

“What the hell makes you think you can talk to me like that?!” Lewis shouted, standing up and pointing his Warrior at my head. I looked to the train and sighed. I didn’t feel like arguing. Instead, I felt like shit. My liver was literally killing me.

“Go ahead, you’d just be proving my point, you jackass,” I said, knowing full well he was going to splatter my brains all over the track.

“So why should I do this then?! Why should I have a reason to work for the greatest company in the world?! They’ve given me everything! When I was discharged from the Marines for killing that bastard in Baghdad who had slain those women in the name of fucking ‘Allah,’ they were the ones who gave me a place once again to be who I am!”

“Is that who you are, Lewis?” I replied calmly, looking back at him now, “Are you a man who enjoys the slaughter, or did you kill that man in retribution? Did you disobey your superiors because you wanted to, or because you sought justice?” I could see the gun shaking in the dim light. He was thinking now. It had taken four years, but he was finally using his head, “Lewis, you’re not a hit man for some master to give orders to. Back in Baghdad you killed that man because he deserved it. You did the right thing that day. You split from your leash and did what you thought was right. Is this what you think is…” I had to stop. The pain was too much.

“I don’t think what I’m doing right now is right. I think it’s the only way. You really don’t understand, Shields,” he said as he stood over me, “You won’t until it’s over.”

“Lewis…” I gasped through the burning.

“I’m leaving, but I’ll make you a promise. If those three succeed in stopping us, then I’ll reconsider what I’m doing. I’ll have to, since my boss will be furious with the failure,” he said, laughing at what was the truth, “but if they fail, you’ll just have to die knowing you all stepped into a war that you couldn’t ever hope to win.”

My radio buzzed with static, “Doberman? Doberman, can you hear me?”

It was Alexis. Lewis nodded and walked over to the train car where he lit up a cigarette. I took that as approval for me to communicate, “Hey, I’m still here.”

“Good,  I was thinking-“

“Don’t think about anything other than your mission right now. Carrying emotions into battle is going to distract and hinder you. Everything is riding on you guys destroying that device.”

“I know, but-“

“Alexis, maintain radio silence. You three are the best suited for this,” I looked to Lewis, who was illuminated by the lights in the train now. He took the cigarette from his mouth and exhaled while shaking his head. To hell with his opinion, “I have faith in all of you.”

“Okay…I want to see you when we’re done here. I’m leaving the radio on so you can relay advice if you need to.”

“This isn’t like when we used to work together,” I told her, “you’re ready now. You don’t need me.”

I do.”

I swallowed a knot in my throat, “Okay.”

Another minute passed. They only had four left. Suddenly, I could hear crackling gunfire in the static, but it was much more clear as it echoed down the tunnel. The sound of bullets going supersonic was loud even at this distance. I assumed that Alexis was fucking someone’s day up. A collection of automatic gunfire followed for half a minute, and then the continuous roaring booms of a shotgun accompanied that. Kriegspartei meant for the Kniebrecher to be an effective and easy to use weapon for even the inexperienced shooter, so I wasn’t too worried about Aaron. I did not worry about Lydia at all. She’d evaded everything us and even the authorities threw at her. She was crafty. Together, she and Alexis would be a force to be reckoned with.

“Sounds intense,” Lewis commented, “you sure your people will be okay? Having faith is one thing, but having faith in a god to keep them safe from an army, now that’s another thing all its own.”

We listened to the firefight up the tunnel. A blast tore through, and though we were far enough to not feel the effects of the concussion, the pressure changed a bit.

“Grenade,” Lewis remarked, “maybe that did it?”

I wasn’t listening, “Aaron, status report?”

I heard more static interference with gunfire mixed in before an answer, “It’s bad! Wrench has been hit, and she’s down behind a pillar. They just keep coming!”

I had to do something. Damn Lewis and his nonchalant apathy, “Are all of you off of the tracks?”

“Yeah, we’re on the platform, why?”

“Get back on them and head for this direction, opposite the side of the car you left behind. Do it!”

“Okay, but what are you-“

I pushed his voice out of my head as my brain went to work. Pushing up, I struggled to my feet as Lewis watched in disappointment while he tossed the filter of his cigarette to the ground.

“I thought we were just waiting here?” he inquired.

“Change of plans. They need me, and I’m not abandoning them,” I answered, stumbling over to the door and, with a grunt, I pulled myself up the first step. He stepped away from the side of the train and walked up behind me.

“Don’t be an idiot. You’re in no condition to help. What could you do?”

I laughed as I made it onboard and headed for the driver’s seat in the front cab. Lewis leaned his head into the entrance to further taunt me.

“You’re a fool, Shields. Don’t do this.”

My hand found the accelerator and pushed forward. With a grinding, the car started to move forward. Lewis dropped down to the ground and ran alongside it, “Shields! This is suicide!”

“Remember your promise,” I mouthed back to him with a smile. He stopped running and I turned back to face the fate in front of me. I didn’t have much time. Stepping out of the driver’s car, I searched through the duffle bags loaded with Aaron’s extra equipment. I found the one loaded with plastic explosives and the detonator stashed away with them. I had no idea what Aaron was planning with this, but I hoped he’d forgive me for making use of them to help him out. When all else fails, go with the simple solution. Occam’s razor probably didn’t account for explosives when the principle was first devised, but perhaps Lydia wasn’t that reckless after all.

“Aaron, are you guys coming this way?”

“Yeah, but we’re being followed. Alexis is keeping them off, but I’ve got Wrench. She’ll make it if we get out without any more hits.”

“Okay, stay on your side of the tracks and keep going. Don’t look back.”

“Terry, what are you doing?” Alexis asked. I didn’t want to answer. I didn’t know what to say.

“Doberman?” Lydia’s voice called to me.

“Tell Lewis I said thanks,” I told them.

“What?!” All three exclaimed in unison. I didn’t have time to explain. I could see them in the headlights now. Lydia was hobbling along with an arm over Aaron and a pistol in her left hand that she was occasionally firing back at their pursuers with. Alexis was turned back with some rifle pointed up the tunnel, firing away at more figures. They all stopped when they saw me pass by. Aaron, Lydia, and Alexis all looked to me in confusion. I just smiled and waved as I sped up faster and faster. Setting the charge on the controls in front of me, I held the detonator in my right hand and watched as the train car Tiamat Unbound had loaded with the EMP device drew closer. I took the few seconds to meditate before impact, finding peace with the world before I left it. Opening one eye, I checked my watch. 1:59 pm. I was just in time as I pressed the red button of the detonator while metal crashed against metal. I wished I could have stuck around to see how that dog bite would hurt the dragon.

Wasted Talent (Tiamat Unbound #3)

I present to you the third installment of the Tiamat Unbound series.

I’m not a killer.

The coffee was so good this morning. That extra packet of sugar was just what I needed. After cleaning my mess from the table, I thanked Mrs. Welch and excused myself from the café to continue my daily routine that had now become the repetitive prison that was my life. It wasn’t anything special. Every day I wake up, put on the most drab of my clothes and the most bland of my extensive collection of makeup, check every inch of my apartment (the third one I’ve lived in in the past four months) for any abnormality, go to the same coffee shop in whichever area I resided in at the time, order the same drink, and stop by the closest bookstore to my apartment and pick out another mystery novel to bide my time with. I then spend the rest of the day with my nose buried in the pages of the book, but my mind isn’t always into the story. How could it be? Every day may have been the same, but every night was another nightmare about another victim to my gaze.

I’m not a killer.

Have you ever been good at something you didn’t really have much enthusiasm for in the first place? Some people are good at math, but never put it to good use in something like, say, the field of engineering. Some people like poetry, but would never reveal their works to others, and the lack of support pushes them down another path. Others can cook, draw, or even grasp a difficult concept with ease, but might end up ‘wasting talent’ as my father once told me. Myself…I was a natural with a firearm from my youth. Most little girls stick close to the house with mom, but my dad dragged me out to play with one of his new toys one afternoon in the middle of summer. I took one look at the Remington 700 and shuddered. How could people use such tools to instill death in another living being? Now, I don’t follow the belief that ‘guns kill people.’ I believe that they are tools, much like blades, blunt objects, and really anything that can be used as a means of murder. So when my dad put me in front of the scope and helped me settle the butt on my shoulder, I was justified in telling him that I wasn’t comfortable yet, no matter how many times he adjusted everything for me. The joy that ripped across his face the second the bullet tore through the aluminum can fifty yards away was actually more haunting than encouraging. God, the irony.

My father was so proud of me. Daddy’s little girl knew how to aim and shoot. Then it went from there. He taught me how to clean and care for a rifle, and he gave me my very own Winchester Model 70 rifle for my thirteenth birthday. It was the post-’92 model, and he’d even spent the extra money for one with a fiberglass stock. I was so embarrassed, but I smiled and treated it like the greatest thing ever given to me. I never brought anything back from our hunting trips, and not once did he fault me. ‘Performance anxiety,’ he called it. It doesn’t explain how I could score top marks in every target practice, every tournament, everything. I was hoping he could piece two and two together, but maybe he was too caught up in how proud he was of me, his little ‘Gunner Girl.’

I was picked on for being different, but not for long. I guess no one wanted to tease the girl who won the state championship marksmen tournament two years in a row anyway. I feel safe in saying that my dad didn’t need to protect me when it came to boys. Whereas most of the stories you’d hear would include a father sitting in a living room cleaning his gun while talking to a prospective suitor, mine would just yell from the front porch that he got a new batch of hollow points he’d love for me to try on a bad day. I must admit, it never ceased to make me smile when the arm around my shoulder tightened its grip as I was led to a vehicle. Those dates never lasted long.

I had plenty of scholarships to get myself through college, from organizations like the NRA, and even a few hunting lodges and professional sports shops. Dad couldn’t stop beaming, but I was proficient at hiding my true feelings about my curse; as good as I was a shot. My social life didn’t really develop in college either. My love for reading, sure, but not my social life. I preferred getting lost in a book over getting lost in my head as I squeezed the trigger in my futile attempt to forget about what I was doing. It’s odd; I used to clean guns to take my mind off of things. I couldn’t even do that now without remembering the last person I shot with them.

My love for books led to my meeting with the fate I’m now damned to see through, even if I’m to die before fulfilling all of the things a normal women trying to get through college at my age would want to accomplish; survive, not go broke, live a happy life, and on a personal note make a career out of something that doesn’t make me hate myself. Of course, I wouldn’t fit under the idea of ‘normal’ anyway, but I’d give anything to get out of this life since I ended up ruining that one. I was outside of the campus library when a man pushed me down in his haste to get away from what was at the time an unseen threat to me. As I sat up and went for my bag I saw what had sent him fleeing with no thought for anyone else. A tall figure shrouded in dark clothing wasn’t far behind him following his path, and the flash of metal underneath his coat wasn’t a lighter. I had been trained for that moment by my dad. I put my concealed carry permit to use, snatched my bag and retrieved the Colt Mustang my dad gave to me on my eighteenth birthday, and pointed it right at the man’s center of mass, stopping him dead in his tracks. I knew I should’ve have had it, but that decision to go against rules saved my life that day. My dad taught me to be paranoid after all, just like him.

I don’t know what was going through the man’s head seeing a small young woman pointing a gun at him, but it mustn’t have been nice for him to aim his in my direction. I was always told by my dad not to hesitate when it came to self-defense. It was the reason he made me get my permit, because he wouldn’t always be there to protect me. I kept my eyes open as I squeezed the trigger repeatedly and sent five ACP bullets through his chest. He hit the ground coughing up blood, and people scattered in all directions. The man who had knocked me down was the only one to approach the scene. He rushed to my side and held my head close to his chest, but I didn’t cry. I had done what I was supposed to do…right?

Other than being kicked out of the university and facings charges for possessing a firearm on campus ground (thanks to zero tolerance, by the way), I was more surprised by the phone call I received several weeks later from the very man whose life I had saved. Since he had indirectly ruined my future by putting me in the way of what should have been his demise, he felt compelled to fix it. The offer was nice, but I wasn’t exactly alacritous at the chance to work for what I had once heard my father speak of as a mercenary company. It turned out that the man I had saved was a high-up contract gunman for Tiamat Unbound, and I had made the mistake of saving his life. I say mistake…well, you’ll understand. I was very reluctant at first, but when you can’t get into any university and face a felony charge that cripples your career opportunities, you have to take chances as they come. I agreed to a meeting, didn’t tell my parents, took a flight to Pittsburgh, and met the man who would change my life. The CEO of the American branch of Tiamat Unbound gave me a job supplying backup to…well, there’s no nice way to word ‘contract killers.’ One in particular he stuck me with was him, the man whose life I had saved. I wasn’t allowed to know his real name, but he went under the moniker “Doberman.”

The man was reckless, but he tended to keep me out of the bloodshed. There weren’t many times I had to be ready to intervene, and in truth I only participated in two gunfights where just one man wasn’t enough to get the job done. For every other instance he kept himself on guard, and his finger on the safety of his Kimber Warrior. It was almost like he always wanted to prove to me that he was quite capable of taking care of himself. I wouldn’t say that he was ashamed of what had happened, but rather, he wanted to redeem himself in my eyes, the small girl who had kept him alive by intervening with someone else’s fate. Doberman never did speak much when we were alone. He just cleaned his rifle or kept going over mission details in his head (he muttered to himself a lot) to keep from thinking about anything else. He kept himself in his zone. I always wondered if he really wanted to do it either. He just didn’t seem like a killer based on appearance. He wasn’t much taller than me, not the really muscular type, and actually always looked as if he was smiling even if there was nothing to smile about. For a man of little to no words, he really struck me as a friendly guy underneath the determined killer. The only time that smile faded was after he’d confirmed his kill. If he caught me staring, he just quickly packed up and made excuses about having to get back to HQ. I had heard a rumor once that he had been the leader of Tiamat Unbound’s special unit, Dragon’s Talon, but even they were supposedly just a rumor themselves. Either way, Doberman was an expert, who just happened to make one mistake that caused me to get pulled into this uncomfortable lifestyle.

As much as I hated the grim aspects of my work, I enjoyed not being completely lost in life. Tiamat Unbound took care of my weapon charge, and I was allowed to go back to college, which I took full advantage of. It was during my down time of taking a semester full of classes that I got the phone call that would send everything spiraling to this moment, with me sitting in my apartment, eyes trying to follow the words on the pages in my book, with a loaded gun tucked away at every vantage point of my residence. Doberman’s voice didn’t carry its typical placid tone. He informed me that he couldn’t carry out the next task, as he was occupied with personal matters, but that he entrusted me to take care of it. This was it; my first solo-op. I took on the burden and left campus for home to gather my belongings. It was easy to conceal my purpose since my parents were gone for the weekend, so they never even knew that I had entered the county. I found the location of the target odd, but it wasn’t until I got to the resort that the realization hit me. I hadn’t been given a name, just a description and a location. Why it didn’t click is still beyond me, but when I saw my dad through the scope of my Winchester Model 70 from the fourth floor window of the hotel across from the resort, I was confounded. He matched the description. I hadn’t even thought to ask Doberman for a name. The target was my father. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was a reason beyond what I knew. He had talked too much; people began to question how I got away with the weapon charge and had my permit reinstated, and how I had managed to get back into a university. My dad knew that it was odd, but he was so proud of his daughter. Pride is a fault that brings down all of humanity. It buries everything else about us. It buried the truly compassionate side of my dad, the side that should have seen that I didn’t want to be this. I was forced into this lifestyle because of his pride in his daughter for being exactly what he wanted. I didn’t get a choice. I didn’t want this. Doberman forced me into a corner and made me fight my way out. Once again, I was being controlled. I was going to make everyone pay.

I’m not a killer.

I tried to hunt Doberman down, but it was no use. Tiamat Unbound burned me, and my name was put on the blacklist. I couldn’t focus my aspiration with the best of hired guns turning over every stone and peeking into every crevice around me. They didn’t train an idiot. I’ve been slowly luring their best into the shadows and making nothing of them. I’ve never been able to truly avoid the eyes of the beast, but I’ve harassed it into a boiling point. I don’t know if they had to try hard to convince him, but I was confident that I’d seen Doberman tailing me the past two days. I managed to lose him yesterday, but there was no telling when he’d make a move. It was time to get out of here and find someplace else.

The sound of the front door being kicked open from the hallway caused me to send my book flying through the air as I reached for the Browning Hi-Power between the couch cushions. I flipped the safety and held my breath as the footsteps drew near. It wouldn’t be the first time I killed a man I loved.

I’m not a killer, but I’ll kill anyone who thinks they control me.

If Hell is What You Make of It (Tiamat Unbound #2)

The Following is Part Two of the Tiamat Unbound series. Enjoy!

If Hell is what you make of it, I’ve outdone myself. Let me put this into perspective; start with a rectangular room that’s forty feet by twenty feet. Take that room and put glass panes all over one side of the wall facing the east, and then place that room in a tower a hundred and thirty-five stories up. Add a desk in front of the center pane with a nice leather chair on wheels. The floor is of a royal blue carpet, and the walls are covered in random oriental decorations, from the traditional samurai sword all the way to an abstract painting of something that resembles a man’s hairy chest. There’s a cocktail bar on the northern wall, and a rather large bookshelf that wraps around the corners of the southern. The only way into the room is a large, stainless steel door opposite the windows, and that weighs a ton. The view outside is of a beautiful sunny morning in Pittsburg, and the other buildings are just parted enough to the sides that the golden orb in the distance has plenty of room to spread it’s glorious rays of light into this setting I’ve described for you.

Now we need characters. Two men in suits are by the door. One has buzz-cut blonde hair, and the other has long black hair tied-up into a ponytail. Both are armed with Glock 19s, and are having a field day with them by shooting at the door. It’s loud, and distracting the hell out of me, but I’ll get to them a bit more in a moment. Now add me; a twenty-six year-old guy who is supposed to be ambitious, smart, and full of energy. Also fucked. I can’t forget that. I’m fucked.

Let’s speed up a little; there’s a gun in my hands (my trusted Kimber Warrior, to be specific), and they won’t stop trembling. Why? I neglected to mention the body on the floor in front of me. It belongs to the boss of my job that I’d so formally quit ten seconds ago. The two guys by the door are too occupied trying to open the impregnable barrier to retaliate for what I’d just done. Why, you might ask? They’re not scared of me, I can assure you. I’m not entirely sure, but it might be due in part to the beeping sixty-second timer on the napalm bomb strapped to my former boss’s torso. That, or the muffin cart was making its rounds through the fiftieth floor offices again, and they were hungry. No, I’m pretty sure it’s the former.

With fifty seconds on the clock, I had to make a damn-good play. While the imbeciles were busy shooting at the door to no avail, I made myself useful and began to look for a device somewhere on the desk that might open it, or a trap door. Evil lairs always have crap like that, right? A guy can dream…well, with forty seconds to go I really didn’t have time for that either.

The gunfire was breaking my concentration. The two brutes by the door were emptying round after round of 9mm Parabellum into the steel, hoping that the minuscule bullets would break away at the material. Under any other circumstance, I would be laughing at the two. Laughing took a lot of breathing, and breathing took time. I didn’t need to waste any of it on that; comical as it was.

Thirty-five seconds marked the end of option hunting. Three remained; help the desperate half-wits by the door, stand here and await the sweeping flames of Hell to take me, or finally see if I could fly. I looked to the window pane behind the desk and couldn’t help but take in the view as the gunshots and beeping grew distant behind me. It was a nice day out; distant clouds on this early morning, all illuminated by the backlight of the sun. No doubt that the streets below were packed with bumper-to-bumper traffic, which was going to make the explosive event a very interesting commute for anyone below.

I guess with what time is left on the clock-twenty seconds to be exact-I could get the last bit of detail in that I can. I’m not a hero, and I definitely won’t die like one. After all, heroes reveal who the bad guy is and have him taken down, right? I had just failed in that attempt. In confronting my boss on the countless murders executed under his command, I had unknowingly sealed my own fate this morning. Turns out this was his plan in case he was ever ousted. I’d say no one likes a sore loser, but he was coming out on top in this. Everything would be consumed by the inferno, including the hardwood desk that contained enough evidence to have kept the old man’s ass locked up until he coughed up dust with his dying breath. Now it was all for naught. Even the best piece of evidence, myself, wouldn’t be able to stand against his crimes. There was nothing to be done. The harness holding the contraption together was too complicated for me, and the paracord wasn’t going to give, even if I had a knife. It was probably set to blow if I tampered with it anyway. Fifteen seconds remained.

Slides locked back, and the final thumps of brass casings hitting the carpet accompanied the beeping for about two of those seconds. The men had surrendered the endeavor. Buzz-cut looked over his shoulder and met my eyes. There was no anger in them, only the fear of death. I couldn’t blame him. I’d say the two were just innocent victims in all of this, but considering they were the personal bodyguards of the bastard bleeding out all over the carpet, I had no sympathy for them either. It was already in short supply as it was. Hell, if I wasn’t busy considering my next move, I’d have loved to send them to meet their boss with a message from me; “Fuck you too.”

Ponytail stepped back from the door, and both men looked to each other, then to their boss, then to me. It was more of a plea for help than a death stare. To be fair, I wasn’t the one who decided to bathe the room in hell before dying. I got the idea to toss the body out of the window, but risking the lives of the innocent below seemed kind of on the harsh side, even for my line of work. Ten seconds. It was worth a shot. God forgive any casualties I may cause.

I knelt down and hoisted the body over my shoulder with a lot of difficulty, but it was there. I was lucky the old man was frail and light. My Kimber was ready in my right hand, so I ran for the second window from the left and started squeezing. The glass was already clearing the frame by the time I came to an abrupt stop and let gravity take the man from my shoulder and over the edge. He tumbled for two stories before the napalm ignited, but I was already stepping back as the flames swept up past the ledge. The carpet was seared at the edge, but no harm done. I was pretty sure the windows below were stained for a few floors, but as long as that was the only case I wasn’t too worried. A plummeting ball of fire wasn’t that hard to avoid for anyone below…I hoped.

I actually managed to breathe a sigh of relief as I prepared to face the two men behind me, but a hand grabbed my shoulder, and it wasn’t comforting. I didn’t even have a chance to fight back as I was shoved out of the window of the top floor of the building. The updraft hit hard. I was slammed back into the wall a few feet under the ledge, and I felt bones crack. I tumbled like a coin for the ground below.

Know how they say everything seems to slow down as you’re approaching death, you know, the whole bit about your life flashing before your eyes and all of that crap? Well, everything did seem to slow down, but then again, I think too much. I was already calculating how far I’d have to have fallen from to hit terminal velocity. It was enough. Time did seem to slow for a bit even as I fell faster and faster. I swear as I crossed the window of the accounting offices on the sixtieth floor I saw Salzman standing with a cup of coffee trying to enjoy the morning sight, and then staring with a scrunched face as he tried to identify the object that had just obstructed his view, or maybe he was trying to decide if he’d imagined me altogether. I liked Salzman. Good man. I’d miss him.

There wasn’t much distance left between myself and the road. I was kind of hoping I wouldn’t hit a taxi. I know it’s stupid, but I really didn’t want to hit a taxi. Two days before I had been screwed by a cab driver; charged me too much for a ride to this very building. I could see a few yellow cars blurring into perspective. Maybe I could flap my arms and aim for the road and become one with it. I was having too much fun with this, but it was the closest thing I had done to flying; being pushed to my death. I had never even been bungee jumping, let alone skydiving. Somewhere underneath the fear was a slight rush of adrenaline that was fueling excitement. Underneath that was the tiniest bit of comfort that I’d succeeded; the evidence was still in the desk, and not even the two assholes up above knew about it. It would fall into the right hands when the door was opened. I’d made sure to tell the right person before I decided on confronting the big boss this morning. Hopefully the parts of me that would be scattered after I hit the ground wouldn’t deter him from the cause.

It was all so slow now. I could see the police converging from the north and south. Blues lights were abundant. I wasn’t a fan of the police before, but I’d never been happier to see them. It was too bad they couldn’t help me in my predicament. I could see the flaming remains of my boss explode on the sidewalk as the pedestrians ran for their lives. That spectacle drew eyes towards me as fear of more debris caused people to look to the skies. I couldn’t hear any screams over the wind rushing past my ears. At least that wouldn’t be the last sound I’d hear.

I suppose this is the part where you’d expect me to be saved by some miraculous intervention. Well, the pavement was pretty close, so that’s a stupid, optimistic hope to be wasted. I closed my eyes and tried to smile as much as I could with my skin folding back from the force of the air. I may have lost, but I’d at least take the bastard’s empire down with me. I opened my eyes, daring to look death in the asphalt. And then I hit the hood of a fucking taxi.