Zero (Ninja)

Hideo looked over at the sleeping Yukie, caressing her dark hair softly, as he felt his body stir awake with the rise of the sun.

Gently pulling the blanket aside, he climbed out of bed and walked softly over wash basin, where he scooped up water and ran it over his face and neck, luxuriating in the cold, clean sensation.

Closing his eyes, Hideo stayed still for a moment, as he traced the sensation of water running down his neck and across his chest, calmly controlling his breathing. For Hideo, this meditative state allowed him to visualise the day ahead and everything he needed to achieve.

This was his daily morning routine, cleansing the body and mind, to prepare for the work ahead with a clear spirit, free of any distractions or lingering memories.

Achieving zero … maintaining zero. echoed Hideo in his mind, as his breathing steadied.

Opening his eyes, Hideo felt his spirit steady itself for the day and night ahead. Slipping on his dark grey kimono, he cinched the excess material tight around his lean frame, before stepping out of the bedroom and sliding the door silently, as to not wake Yukie.

~

The sparks from the flint scattered softly across the wood, before dancing upon paper. With soft blows, the paper caught alight, generating heat that soon engulfed the wood in flames. Stepping back, Hideo fanned the flames higher and higher, until they could sustain themselves.

Placing the paper fan aside, he walked over to the well that was just outside their home and cranked a bucket of water upwards, until he had enough to prepare the rice and tea.

Carrying the two buckets of water over, he felt something run between his legs and smiled gently at the sight of Hime, their domesticated chicken scurrying away, eager to be fed. Pouring the water into the kettle, he placed it gently over the flame, before walking back outside with a handful of feed.

Cooing softly for Hime to come over, Hideo smiled as she waddled up to him and began to peck at the feed on the ground. Stroking her back gently, Hideo walked over to Hime’s roost and plucked out the two eggs she had laid overnight.

As he prepared the breakfast, a simple omelette with miso soup, Hideo kept his mind empty still, allowing each task to be performed with a precision that could only come from a calm spirit.

The eggs were perfectly scrambled, curdled and rolled, before being spliced into 8 equal rolled rectangles. The green chives were expertly cut, and sprinkled gently atop each serving of egg, whilst his rice was beautifully fluffy and round in their wooden bowls.

Hideo’s miso soup was the perfect blend of cloudy soup and green seaweed, with little islands of tofu poking through the surface. A tiny dash of togarashi serve to create appetising colour and a hint of spice that would awaken the senses after sleep.

As Hideo finally put the finishing touches to the breakfast, Yukie sauntered out, dressed in a sky blue kimono, her long dark raven hair tousled over the front of her shoulder, highlighting the pale slender beauty of her neck and jawline. She smiled gratefully at her husband, washing her hands in the sink and giving him a lingering graze across his hand in affection.

They both sat down cross legged at the low table and clapped their hands together, before eating their food in silence. This was their custom, another way of maintaining harmony within themselves and each other.

The morning was a time of reflection, of preparedness for the rigours ahead. When they were so busy with life, especially in this difficult time, their morning meals was almost the only time they could take to relax, ponder and think.

They would clean up together, before Yukie would break away from Hideo’s side with the barest hint of sakura perfume.

Her day would always start with lunch preparation, invariably another simple, elegant meal that spoke of their humble yet fulfilling lifestyle, whilst Hideo would retreat to his room, where he would examine his tools of war.

~

Armed with the stalk of a bamboo cup, a bucket of water and a dark rag, Hideo would open the drawer of a large wooden cabinet and inspect his weapons.

Yukie would do likewise, inspecting her precious knives for any rust or impurities, before opening a door where they kept their smoked meats. For today, Yukie took out a smoked mackerel that Hideo had caught a few days before, as well walking into their garden and cutting some herbs and vegetables that had been grown weeks ago.

Laying them out in a semi circle, both Yukie and Hideo selected the first item to be washed, in Yukie’s case, a batch of spinach that would be simmered in soy sauce and sake, whilst for Hideo, it was his prized kusarigama, a unique weapon that consisted of a sickle and a chain, meant to immobilise swords. Then came the sharpening of radish and katana, the gentle cleaning of spring onions and quiet tabi shoes and the slow inspection of chicken stock and kunai knives.

They mirrored each other, absorbed in their meticulous tasks, focused on every step.

It would be midday, when Hideo and Yukie finally parted ways, Hideo heading into the fields to work on the local lord’s farm and Yukie making her way to the local market to shop and buy new equipment that would let her mend her husband’s clothes faster.

Before he left, Hideo softly stroked on Yukie’s cheek, before thanking her for the lunch and slinging the bag on his walking stick and setting off for the long 7 kilometre walk to work.

It would be a long day, of tending the fields and moving cattle. Like any work day, Hideo savoured his small break to enjoy the simple mackerel don that Yuki created for him, and reflect on what he would have to do that very night, rehearsing moves and routes, incorporating body stretches and martial arts movement into his field work.

~

It wouldn’t be until twilight when Hideo came home, to greet Yukie, busy at work at the fireplace, simmering a rich broth for their udon dinner. Placing a hand on her shoulder gently from behind, he squeezed fondly, before retiring back to his room, to prepare for the night.

Yukie sighed softly as she heard the door to Hideo’s room click shut. For months now, Hideo had been in the service of their lord as a shinobi, eliminating rivals to the clan. Tonight’s mission was going to be particularly difficult, but the lord had offered enough money to soothe their lives for 3 months.

Such an offer was almost worth the risk.

As she shook the excess water off the udon and laid the thick glossy noodles in a bowl, Yukie kept her mind focused on preparing the meal, ignoring the terror she felt at losing Hideo and the prospect of him being caught at a rival clan’s castle.

There was nothing they could realistically do.

There was only life in the moment. They had to live the best they could now.

Yukie poured the broth in, pleased with the amber colour, before slowly adding in fish cake, the same soy simmered spinach she had prepared for lunch and a luxurious slice of pork chashu she had bought from the market.

She had just finished adding half a egg and some thinly sliced spring onions when Hideo came through the kitchen, fully clad in his shinobi gear.

Even now, after many nights of seeing Hideo dressed up for war, Yukie felt an involuntary shiver run through her body, at the sight of a myth came sharply into the focus lens of reality.

From head to toe, Hideo was a shade of dark navy blue, with only his large bow creating a contrasting colour of amber-gold bands that ran across the dark cherry red lacquered wood and the white feathers of his arrows. His short sword was also another splash of colour, the wakizashi’s scabbard a similar cherry red wood to the bow, with a bright red fabric used to create the handle’s signature diamond knit.

It was tied on the left side of his body, whilst resting just above it, was the kusarigama, tucked securely into a thick fabric belt that also hid several throwing stars and knives. On his right, was a thin reed that served as his blowpipe and dangling on a strong knot was a pair of thin axes with loops that would help Hideo climb walls.

Placing his mask aside, Hideo sat down, side by side with Yukie, breaking the normal traditions. Blushing slightly, Yukie sidled closer to Hideo so that their arms were touching. Sipping the broth appreciately, Hideo gave a happy sigh.

Thank you. It’s delicious as always.

Yukie felt her hands tremble slightly. For Hideo to compliment her food, was uncharacteristic of the stoic persona he always held.

He’s nervous realised Yukie with a degree of shock. She felt an urge to ask him about how he felt, what he was thinking about … whether he was afraid. But she knew that such questions were not the way.

Instead Yukie simply replied Thank you. It means so much to me that you like my cooking.

Hideo reached over and tenderly squeezed her hand reassuringly. They continued to eat their dinner in silent companionship, with Hideo finishing first and looking at the still whole slice of chashu. Knowing that Yukie had bought this specially for him, despite their poor lifestyle, Hideo split the slice in half with his chopstick, and placed the precious, expensive cut into Yukie’s bowl.

Yukie looked up at him in shock but the protests died quickly, as Hideo wrapped his arms around her and held her tight against him.

Yukie returned the hug, tears beginning to form from the dread they both shared. But she kept them to herself, they had to be strong. Without her support, she knew that Hideo would not be able to find his focus at the most crucial of times.

So, calling upon her own spirit, she stayed strong for Hideo and returned the hug, without fear or dread, but with love and respect. Yukie closed her eyes in Hideo’s chest … her tears would come later, at a time of her own choosing, but not around him.

After a long solemn hug, communicating everything they ever wanted and couldn’t say, Hideo lifted her chin and kissed her goodbye.

The click of the sliding door closing shut, as Hideo disappeared into the darkness of the night echoed louder than it ever had, and Yukie finally allowed herself to weep for her husband.

~

Earlier that day, near the end of his shift, Hideo was summoned by one of the samurai retainers to see their lord. As Hideo bowed in greeting, the lord looked down upon his most prolific assassin and placed a hand on his shoulder.

Guiding Hideo to the balcony which overlooked the lord’s vast estate, the noble elder samurai pointed at the stables and whispered something courteous, before handing Hideo a pair of scrolls before dismissing him.

Hideo noted that only one of them had the lord’s official seal. Tucking the other one away in his robes, Hideo walked down to the stables and handed the official scroll to the stable-master who nodded and walked inside. Moments later, Hideo was riding one of the fastest and darkest stallions in Japan, a dark chestnut coloured horse that featured a plain saddle with no markings on it.

It’s name was Kaze. Wind.

Loyal and steadfast, Kaze was fond of Hideo, despite being one of the lord’s favourite steeds. They had been through several missions now and every time, Kaze bought Hideo home without fail, in the darkness of dusk and galloped back loyally to the lord’s stables.

As Kaze galloped along the road to the rival clan’s castle, Hideo kept his body flat along the dark horse’s torso, only looking up occasionally to see the castle of the Ashikaga clan slowly loom larger and larger in the horizon, until it was all he could see.

Why his lord, from a minor clan was tasked with the assassination of one of the top Ashikaga’s samurais, a man known only as Tadayoshi, was none of Hideo’s concern. All his focus was on feeding his beloved and ensuring their future would be easier than the present.

Touching a tiny jade pendant that Yukie had made for him on the night of their marriage, Hideo felt strengthened by her love and resilience, despite being kilometres away from her.

Slowing Kaze down, Hideo slowly cantered his way towards the camp, before stopping altogether, nearly 1 kilometre away and tying Kaze’s reins to a tree that was part of a large forest that surrounded the base of the Ashikaga castle.

As Ashikaga castles came, this particular one was spacious and well maintained. Situated on a hill that dominated the flat landscape around it, it rose above the tree lines of the curated forest that surrounded it and from the west end, it was easy to spot, as the forest had been cleared to make room for a large training and barracks area that employed the services of 30 samurai retainers.

Adorning the east face of the castle, was a large banner with the simple Ashikaga clan symbol, a black circle with two thick white lines running horizontally across it. The banner hung from the Ashikaga warlord Tadayoshi’s balcony, and was tightened on a lower balcony about halfway up the tall 5 storied building.

An attractive, if atypical castle, Tadayoshi’s personal residence to his small army of samurai retainers and his family was coloured in the typical style of the day, black accented roofs and white walls. A deep moat surrounded the castle, with 2 red drawbridges on the north and south end.

Tadayoshi’s wife, a renowned noblewoman from Kyoto, had done her best to soften the harsh military aesthetic, by hanging hundreds of lanterns that ran across the moat. At night, on special occasions, they were a spectacular light show that allowed many visitors to see the white bodies of wild carp that patrolled the moat.

From the moat, a straight footpath lead into the living areas of the samurai, which featured several long wooden cabins with square windows on the left side of the compound and a large stable with an ample courtyard for the horses to graze and wander.

Opposite the living quarters, was the training area, where bows, swords and spears were neatly lying in wait on racks and several dummies were propped up, awaiting abuse.

Towards the main gate, which was southwards, there was a large empty space with an Ashikaga vertical banner planted in the ground, no doubt, the staging area where Tadayoshi would give his men a speech and briefing before going on their sorties.

Hideo studied everything for a solid two hours, perched atop the tallest tree in the dark forest, trying to make out as much detail as possible.

The full moon that shone over the surroundings, helped enormously with his vision, a big reason why Hideo chose this night. It would also have an added bonus of drawing Tadayoshi out of his castle, as he was famous for creating haikus in honour of the moon, when it was a particularly auspicious occasion.

Using his thin axes to climb down again, Hideo set off towards his target, moving silently between trees. It was midnight now, and the night was going to be the darkest it would ever be.

~

The sole samurai that guarded the main gate would later swear before the Ashikaga’s head daimyo that he saw nothing, before committing ritual suicide for his failure.

This was the truth, because Hideo was never near the main gate. His long observation of the castle had revealed an even better route. On the eastern side of the castle compound, close to the living quarters of the samurai retainers, was where the forest was most dense. Indeed, upon closer inspection, Hideo actually found the secret door that Tadayoshi and his family would use in an emergency.

This door, was cleverly disguised to be a part of the wall, but for a small seam that denoted its status. Pushing it in, Hideo was astonished to see that it swung open and was just big enough for him to crawl through.

Lying flat against the grassy ground, Hideo noted that he was at the back of the living quarters, which thankfully featured no windows. Controlling his breathing, he silently shut the trapdoor and reached into one of his pouches, where he pulled out a bag of caltrops. Careful to not scatter them directly in front to the trapdoor, Hideo gave a solid metre gap before placing 5 of them down carefully.

Sneaking away, Hideo peered round the corner, noting two samurais who were talking softly to each other. Muttering quietly to himself, he looked up and noted the height of the roof above him.

Taking a couple of steps back, Hideo gave himself a running start and charged the wall, where with a silent press off his foot, he launched himself up, and grabbed the roof, hoisting himself up.

Choosing each step with care, Hideo crouched along the roof, staying as low as possible and waiting until the samurai had their backs turned to him.

Without hesitating, he launched himself from the roof and landed on the next adjoining roof, his feet scrabbling slightly for purchase on the sloped roof.

He froze, uncertain whether he made a lot of noise.

Nothing happened.

Sighing quietly in relief, he kept making his way along the rooftop, this time on a belly crawl. He was getting deeper and deeper into the compound, so the chances of him being spotted was exponentially growing.

Every couple of minutes, Hideo would pause and listen, smell or look for any sign of alarm. Fortunately and unfortunately for him, tonight was one of celebration, so Tadayoshi’s wife had requested every lantern and light in the compound to be lit up, for a gay and festive atmosphere.

It was beneficial, because up high, his silhouette would be darker and harder to spot against the roof, owning to how bright the lights were.

It also would make his ascent to the castle extremely difficult. Knocking lanterns into the moat along the way would immediately alert everyone.

But there was no other way.

To get to the line that strung all the lanterns up to the balcony of the castle, meant that Hideo had to risk a quick dash across 50 metres of open ground to the 4 metre tall wooden pole.

Patiently waiting and noting the routes of the guards, whose movements were relaxed and ambling, Hideo swore silently when he noted that one particular guard was constantly stopping by the pole to take breaks in his patrol.

With time running out, Hideo knew he had to make decision soon.

Reluctantly, he reached into his belt and pulled out the thin bamboo reed.

With gloved fingers, he took out one of his blow darts, whilst simultaneously pulling out a tiny bottle.

Dipping the tip into the bottle, he carefully placed it into the reed and aimed the blowpipe at the guard’s neck.

With barely a sound, the tiny dart flew out of the reed and pierced the nape of the guard who was making his way towards Hideo’s hiding spot on the roof.

Snatching at his neck with his hand, which inadvertently jabbed the dart in further, the guard look up with a look of horror as he saw a shadow move above him.

He tried to draw his sword, but the poison had already entered his bloodstream and was playing havoc with his nervous system.

Hideo jumped down noiselessly in front of the guard, his kusarigama drawn and without hesitation, flicked the chain over the man’s neck and began to tighten it, whilst dragging the struggling guard back towards the pole, where there were bushes nearby.

The guard’s struggles soon began to fade and Hideo loosened the knot, and checked the guard’s face, which was contorted grotesquely, his tongue a strange shade of grey, his eyes bloodshot and drool coming out of his mouth.

Careful to layer the bushes over the guard, Hideo paused for a second to check his surroundings, before taking out his thin axes and leaping onto the pole. Like a giant bug, Hideo slowly ascended the pole, before tucking the axes in his belt and reaching out for the wire that held all the lanterns.

Testing the strength, Hideo was relieved when it barely budged under his furiously yanking.

Crawling along the lantern wire was an exhausting task. His legs were wrapped right around the wire, whilst his hands slowly shimmied his torso along. Whenever he came across a lantern, he would relax his legs, looping his ankles and using his fingertips, allow the hot lantern to pass over his head, through the loops on his arms and legs.

It was a precarious climb, one that only got harder as the wire got higher and higher.

But Hideo made it. It took longer than he anticipated, but he was now hanging directly above the viewing balcony.

Inside, he could hear the sounds of music, the gay sounds of laughter. It sounded like Tadayoshi was hosting a moon party to celebrate the beauty of its full nature.

He waited patiently. Stealth was a waiting game. The process was not meant to be rushed.

Hearing or sensing nothing below him, Hideo loosened his grip and dropped to the balcony, noiselessly.

He immediately slid to the side of the door, staying crouched and peering through the open door.

The design of the Ashikaga Castle was striking. It was vertically oriented, with the 5 floors getting smaller and smaller as they neared the top. Staircases connected each floor, the “ground” itself, slabs of wood that were polished to a high sheen.

Banners, kimonos and swords adorned many of the walls, the colours of the Ashikaga clan prevalent amongst all the upholstery. The first two floors were actually the dining area, with an upper recess for private conversations, which was where the viewing balcony was.

The third floor was the training area, which was lined with hard reed mats, whilst above that was the private study of Tadayoshi, with scrolls neatly spaced on shelves and an ornate calligraphy table for his haikus.

The final space was the living quarters. Tatami mats lined the area luxuriously and there was a small window that opened out to the roof to allow natural light through.

Hideo crept out from the balcony, staying low. He peered over the lip of the recess and looked down at the party.

Around 25 people were in attendance. Most were samurai retainers with Tadayoshi’s wife entourage in tow, chatting amongst themselves. The men were seated cross-legged on tatami mats, bent at the waist, hunched over their small writing tables, doing their best to write haikus, espousing the beauty of the moon and how it shone on the castle.

As the men furiously wrote on their scrolls, the women would soothingly pour tea, before retreating and chatting quietly amongst themselves.

Tadayoshi’s wife, a classic city beauty, with ultra-pale skin and dark hair, lorded over the proceedings, her scarlet kimono shimmering under the lamp light. She teased the men who were struggling, whilst providing subtle encouragement, as she moved amongst the tables, judging the progress of the haikus.

So where is Tadayoshi then? thought Hideo.

Then he heard the the subtle sound of a brush being dropped above him.

Hideo felt his chest tighten in excitement.

This was too good to be true. Tadayoshi, alone, in his study, away from everyone, eager to create the best haiku out of all his retainers.

Silently making his way up the stairs, Hideo peered and breathed a sigh of relief at the empty space, the training room devoid of any movement or sound.

Placing each foot carefully in front of each other, Hideo crossed the open space and looked upwards, to see light shimmering through the cracks of the floor.

Tadayoshi was there. Hideo could see the Ashikaga’s warlord sitting at his ornate calligraphy desk, struggling over his haiku, his fierce face stretched into a scowl of intense concentration.

Only a solitary guard stood at the top of the staircase, waiting his lord with respectful admiration.

Looking behind him, Hideo winced slightly and crept back to the staircase he had climbed and placed the remainder of his caltrops on the steps and top of the stairs. He wasn’t taking any chances.

Taking a deep breath, Hideo walked towards the staircase that would bring him close to his target.

~

The samurai guard never heard Hideo climb up the stairs. Blinding pain wrapped itself around his throat and flung him down the stairs, where Hideo used the Kusarigama’s sickle to cut his throat.

Hideo charged up the stairs, and was just in time to see Tadayoshi look up in shock, his handsome featured contorted into a war-like scowl.

Hideo dodged to the side, as Tadayoshi flicked his calligraphy brush towards him. The brush whistled past and Hideo glared at Tadayoshi who now stood tall, his hands gripping his large katana.

Silence descended on the pair. Hideo unsheathed his smaller wakazashi short sword and moved towards the centre of the room.

The two men sized each other up.

Then their attention was broken by a plaintive call.

The loyal retainer was somehow still alive. His gurgling was now almost a yell.

Help … our lord! gasped the retainer to the party below, as he threw his sword down.

The loud crash the sword made as it clattered down the stairs and then into the haiku party shocked everyone.

Suddenly everyone blazed into action.

The men roared into action, their hands gripping their swords, upturning tables and charging up the stairs. Their war cries reverberated through the castle. Tadayoshi smiled smugly.

Hideo seized his chance. He leapt forwards and was immediately met with the steely defence of Tadayoshi. They danced around the private study, the floor barely enough for the two combatants.

Hideo would lunge, his wakazashi held high and sweeping down. Tadayoshi, knowing his men were coming, would defend, moving his legs away, an amused look on his face. For he had an distinct advantage, his longer katana ensuring Hideo had to commit further to his attacks, thus revealing his moves earlier.

They were barely 30 seconds into the fight, but Hideo felt desperation and tiredness start to creep into his arms. Then he made a mistake, he over-committed to an overhead cut. Tadayoshi smelled his opportunity and took it.

Without hesitating, Hideo leapt backwards as he saw Tadayoshi’s riposte come straight for his head. As the warlord’s blade came sweeping down, past his hips, Hideo grabbed one of his throwing knives, and with a flick of his wrist, slammed the kunai into the exposed warlord’s foot.

The warlord fell for his feint.

The big samurai roared in pain. Reversing his grip, he swung upwards with his katana, nearly taking Hideo’s head off, as he anxiously looked behind him at the staircase where heavy footfalls were increasing in intensity.

Gritting his teeth, as he turned his attention back at the warlord, Hideo slammed his wakazashi back into his scabbard, and simultaneously drew his kusarigama. Tadayoshi was too skilled a swordsman to keep this fight going.

He had to finish this now.

Hideo spun the kusarigama in a blur of steel, before flinging the curved sickle towards Tadayoshi. The warlord scowled, as he caught the vicious blade and chain combination with his sword.

The sickle wrapped itself around the blade, and Hideo made a vicious downward motion, causing Tadayoshi to loosen his grip on his katana.

For a second, the Ashikage warlord was exposed.

It was enough.

Hideo grabbed all of his throwing stars with a smooth practised motion off his belt, and with his left hand flicked them all.

Schwick, schwick, schwick!

The 7 bladed stars made a sickening sound as they embedded themselves into the warlord’s chest and face. 3 of them alone found his face, the fearsome, handsome scowl, disappearing under the onslaught of stars.

Blood splattered outwards, and Tadayoshi took his final breath as he toppled onto his back, the poison on the stars causing immediate asphyxiation. As the Ashikage’s warlord body dropped to the floor, the first screams of pain from the charging army of retainers echoed loudly as their feet were viciously cut open by Hideo’s caltrops.

Hideo, scanned his surroundings furiously and decided the only way out was up. He dashed up the stairs to Tadayoshi’s private room and just as he reached the top, the first overeager samurai came running, his crazed expressions, baying for blood.

Hideo, didn’t hesitate and threw a kunai right at the man, who stumbled backwards, stunned as the knife buried itself 3 inches into his forehead, causing the 4 men behind him to trip over as well.

Sprinting for the tiny window that allowed moonlight to spill into the private quarters, Hideo slammed his thin axes into the wood and climbed his way up to the open window and crawled through, barely fitting through.

Ignoring the frenzied cries of rage inside, Hideo was momentarily stunned to be standing atop the Ashikage castle. The view was spectacular, with the moon shining brightly on the lush green forest and the brightly lit lanterns.

Shaking off his awe, Hideo leapt down to the next parapet of the castle and kept repeating the motion, until he came to the bottom floor. Seeing the drawbridges had been drawn up, and that the lanterns were now too obvious an escape route, Hideo looked down at the moat.

Water swirled gently as Hideo could see huge carp moving the black depths.

But the walls of the moat could be scaled with his axes.

Taking a deep breath, Hideo braced himself and dove into the murky depths.

Immediately the shock of the cold water, nearly drove all the air out of his lungs, but Hideo steadied himself and kept diving before surfacing, making his way for the other side of the moat.

He stifled a scream of surprise, as a carp rubbed itself along his leg, its cold heavy body knocking him off his intended course.

Swimming faster now, Hideo reached into his belt and slammed his thin axes into the gaps of the stone moat wall, and fished himself out of the water, shivering and relieved to get away.

Taking a breather, Hideo climbed out of the moat, and peered over the edge.

The entire castle was now on high alert. Samurais were stationed everywhere, and there was a sense of rage and urgency suffusing the once festive atmosphere.

But there was no-one directly looking at Hideo, and the empty space between him and the emergency escape route.

Seizing his chance, Hideo rushed across the empty space, ignoring the wet footprints he left behind and stealthily avoiding the caltrops he left at the secret exit, he opened the door, clicked it shut before rushing through the forest.

He had gotten away.

~

The ride onboard Kaze was slow but uneventful. Hideo found himself hunched close to Kaze for warmth, as he tried to dry himself as quickly as possible after the cold waters of the moat.

Exhausted, Hideo whispered to Kaze encouragingly, but soon was asleep.

Hours later, Hideo awoke to vigorous shaking.

Opening his eyes, he was astonished to see Yukie staring at him, her brown eyes and pale face, haggard after a night of little sleep.

A soft blanket covered his bare chest, and he could feel the warmth of the fire nearby, restoring strength to his tired body.

Yukie? asked Hideo as he sat up. How …

The question died, as Yukie, unable to contain herself, hugged him tightly, tears of relief streaming down her cheeks.

Hideo felt a strange calm as he held Yukie tightly to his chest, and closed his eyes.

They would survive for another moment.

Hideo and Yukie stayed that way for the rest of the night, their silent relief slowly giving way to love by the fire.

Author’s note:

This story took me forever to finalise, simply because I had no real idea where I was going with it.

In addition, I was stuck on a very simple question: How do you write stealth in an exciting way that is tense and engaging?

As you can probably tell, I more or less gave up and ventured back into familiar “action” territory at the end. I also came to the conclusion that a fight between the target and main protagonist was much more fun to read than a silent kill.

No wonder there aren’t many stealth books out there …

Anyway, I’m glad to have put the finishing touches to this story and move onto the next one!

Until then!

~ Damocles.

Smallville (IMPACT Series)

Smallville (2001-2011)

Welcome to the IMPACT series where I dissect notable and iconic sequences from games and movies, and how they broadened my mind and left a lasting impression on me, years to come. 

Somebody save me …

Let your warm hands break right through it

Somebody save me …

I don’t how you do it. Just stay, stay

C’mon I’ve been waiting for you …

The Backdrop.

The early 2000s were an intriguing time for me. Growing up, I was banned from watching television, due to my over-enthusiasm for copying the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers fight choreography.

My mum, rightly or wrongly, didn’t allow me to watch any TV ever since.

So you can imagine my initial shock at discovering TV shows and how dramatic they could.

Smallville was exactly that.

Dramatic. Fun. Relatable … and crucially … filled with ridiculously good looking people.

It was also the perfect show to watch for a guy who was going through puberty and high school at the same time as Clark Kent was.

I can’t stress that enough. To say that Smallville had a significant impact on me growing up, is to severely underestimate how much of my teenage years were spent watching the show, growing obsessed with the idea of being a superhero and saving my high school crush.

The show is probably the sole reason why I’m such a disgusting Boy Scout when it comes to my moral compass.

It is also the reason why I have such fond memories of early 2000s rock music.

I can’t look at this farm, without feeling nostalgic

The Impact.

Smallville formed a lot of my values through my teenage years.

I shake my head now, but the episodes where Clark undergoes an edgy transformation due to “Red K” were some of my absolute favourites as the series went on. I wanted to be the darker, more unhinged version of Clark, who just didn’t care about revealing his powers or being a boy scout.

But I knew deep down that I was a lot more like normal Clark.

Shy around the girl he liked, eager to do some good and trying to keep his head above water.

I wasn’t bullied at school, nor was I the most popular guy on campus. I was just another guy.

Which is why I clung onto the idea of idolising Clark. Because he was a pretty ordinary guy, with some extraordinary powers. His dream was to be the popular kid, the guy cool enough to get Lana Lang’s attention and score the winning touchdown at his home game.

I could relate to that. I myself, was hideously shy around the girl I liked, and to my eternal regret, I never confessed my feelings to her for the entirety of high school.

Which is why I vicariously lived through Clark and his now iconic formula of Freak of the Week in which he would engage a new “freak” who was affected by the meteor shower from Krypton, do some amateur sleuthing and save the girl.

All whilst balancing school, friendship drama and trying to hide his secret identity and discover more about his true alien nature.

I remember keenly tuning in every week to watch a episode and experiencing my first real agony over a cliffhanger in which Lana is trapped in her car, with a tornado about to sweep her up and Clark super-speeding over, just in time to see her get tossed into the air.

I couldn’t believe that I had to wait months before I could see what would happen next. I remember being immensely upset and praying there would be a season two.

But I idolised the show. I wanted to be Superman, and have all of his powers. In fact, if I had to pick one from this powerhouse of a hero, it would definitely be his super-speed and for the time, the effects looked great.

In all honestly, looking back, I can’t help but be impressed by the style and production design. Metropolis was all hues of blue and grey, with an emphasis on glass and steel creating a unique look to the city. The Talon, a cinema/cafe complex where a lot of the characters met and worked was surprisingly lived in for what it was.

Then there was the Kent Farm itself, which was an incredible set, that really showed the love and care the Kent family poured into their adoptive son, and was the perfect way to show how All-American Clark really was. I loved the barn’s loft in particular, a prelude to what would be Clark’s occasional need to find solitude.

Hell, I even liked the cheesy look of the Fortress of Solitude and especially the way how the show paid homage to Christoper Reeve in his turn as Superman.

The show had just the right balance of action, romance, adventure and quickly deftly wove all the complex issues that Clark was facing over a season really well.

This show was so formative to me, that I had dreams of being a star quarterback … despite the sport not existing over here in Australia.

The Enrichment.

I won’t lie. Smallville was what started my admiration for America. I don’t think I wanted to move over to America as much as I did whilst watching the show.

I mean Smallville High looked so cool. People my age could dress however they wanted, drive cars to school and do fun stuff like run a student magazine and play girdiron. Then there was the summer break, where you could hang out with your crush, skinny dip in a lake and if you’re lucky you might even get this ridiculously attractive teacher who would hit on you, with her Kryptonian pheromones.

But I want to delve into the more important elements that I got out of the show.

A. American Football

Seeing Clark Kent armour up for his football never failed to get me amped. Especially when the iconic Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day. For some reason, I loved the football scenes in the series, because they showcase the moments when Clark is happy, but also restrained, fighting his natural superhuman strength and speed to be normal. All he ever wanted was to be accepted and not feel like a freak and sport gave him that outlet.

In a lot of ways, I echo that. Whether I’m running, playing tennis, go-karting or practising quick-draws, I get that sense of power. I can feel my inner showman come out, and show the world how athletic I am, how coordinated I can be. I get that powerful surge of energy that lets me know, yes everything is working right.

Would I have signed up for the football team if NFL existed down here in Australia? Maybe. I’ve always seen myself as a wide receiver, until recently, when I forgot how much those balls hurt your hands if you catch them the wrong way.

But that was the dream … and it’s more suited to me, because I know damn well, I can’t throw the perfect spiral.

I mimed the hell out of those scenes when I was young and I’m glad I got to taste a little bit of it, when my younger brother bought a football and we got to spend a couple of hours together throwing the pigskin around.

B. American Values

Whilst Clark Kent’s fashion choices aren’t exactly the most forward or dramatic, I did oddly grow an obsession with wearing similar colours.

The iconic Red/Blue combination has stuck with me ever since, with a lot of my gym wear being based around that All American standard. Whilst I know it was an obvious reference to his superhero costume, I liked how casual it looked around Tom Welling’s big frame.

In fact, I can honestly say that almost all the colour in my wardrobe are either bright blues or red, my subconscious still channeling Superman, even when I don’t realise it.

Beyond dressing like an All-American in a town that value black on black and on more black, I took away a lot of Americanisms from the show.

There is something to be said about wholesome American shows that espouses strong morals and deal with such strong American icons. Even the first Captain America film, affected me greatly after watching it. They have this charm and old-fashioned element to them that I appreciate.

I think it is that old-school vibe that I adore. Perhaps one of the worst and best part of me, is that old generation outlook to moral and life. I believe in hard work, doing the right thing and honouring your duty to society.

I harnessed that part of my personality through shows like Smallville and Bones, where all my favourite male characters were that stoic, boy scout character, whose toughness hide a surprising vulnerability.

Call it a cliche, but it was these shows that really taught me how to be my own man and accept the consequences of my own actions.

Perhaps the greatest lesson one can learn from American values is that when you are called upon to do something, you should do it because it’s just the right thing to do.

C. Female Friendships

In the show, Clark Kent is quite the ladies man, the opposite of me in reality, whose luck with women have resulted only in two positive scores.

But what I learned from Clark’s many escapades is the ability to treat a person who you previously had feelings for, with respect and even maintain a friendship.

I struggle a lot with my feelings for the opposite sex. Whilst I’ll explore that in depth later, I will say that for a long time, I’ve always found it difficult to separate infatuation to genuine love and depth of feeling. That struggle has actually lead to a lot of random confessions to friends, which strangely allowed me to move on without regret and still maintain my friendships with my girl-friends.

In a bizarre twist, I would say they even deepened our bond.

What I appreciated about Smallville was the show’s focus on Clark and Chloe’s friendship. There was a lot of reciprocated love between the characters, but it didn’t stop them from being friends. They learned to put aside their feelings, and move on without any malice or regrets.

Whilst this can’t be said for Clark and Lana, whose relationship honestly plagued the show for far too long, I really loved the natural progression of Clark and Lois, whose initial friendship is spiced up with competition and then eventually love.

Seeing how Clark dealt with all three women, and even the fleetingly sweet but dangerous Alicia, taught me a lot about how I wanted to view my own relationships and what I got out of them.

With Chloe, it was a friendship, tested by extraordinary circumstances.

With Lana it was a love story that was far too insecure and plagued with betrayal, deceit and obsession.

But with Lois, there was a friendship first, that blossomed in mutual feelings, something that I understood to be natural, far more trusting and romantic.

I’m thankful to say that my current girlfriend is definitely a Lois type.

The Barn Loft was something I always wanted. It gave Clark his breathing space and was incredibly romantic at certain twilight hours with all his love interests.

The Culmination.

Smallville had an undeniably big impact on my teenage years. I grew up alongside Superman as odd as that sounds. Whenever I think back to any big high school moments, I can almost picture the show and how it parallels with mine, only in Smallville, Clark got the girl at the end of prom, whilst I didn’t.

Through a young Clark Kent, I was taught how to not to behave and give in to darker desires, be a honourable man and ultimately grow up and be respectful to everyone around me.

Smallville taught me that you don’t need a dark, tragic past to be a good person. You can just be a good man because it’s the right thing to do.

Clark Kent grew up with the most supportive parents who taught him how to harness his powers for good. He had amazing friends who kept his secret and an incredible woman who understood him for all his flaws and strengths.

I suppose its’ why I always gravitate to these overly goody-two-shoes characters because my life is just like that. I don’t a tragic past and I’m not sure I ever really tried to pretend I ever did.

I’m the sum of a guy who had love and support every step of the way, along with a whole lot of luck and … in all honesty, with all respect to the people around me, I turned out pretty damn well.

Love and support.

Arguably, that is the best superpower to have.

IMPACT

~ Damocles

No matter what anyone says, to me, Tom Welling and Erica Durance’s chemistry remains to date the best Clark and Lois on screen.

The Miami Tango.

Top Gun’s silhouette sex scene is still burned into my brain, as a young 7 year old.

It was a hot night, and I was thirsty.

Beckoning the bartender, I leaned in flirtatiously and ordered two mojitos with lime.

She smiled at my generosity, and I watched her dance with the cocktail shaker, her hips and arms shaking temptingly, her sky blue nails flashing under the neon lights of the club.

What’s your name, baby? I half yell over the remixed sounds of 90s pop.

Rita she says, as she leans in and toasts me with her mojito glass.

Rita … I’m Danny. Where’re you from? I ask, whilst sipping from my drink.

Cuba.

I grin at her. Qué poco azul llevas… para el cielo que eres .

Rita laughs, tossing her hair back and flashes me her long fingers.

I got a little bit of blue on. Enough for you baby. So what brings you here? asks Rita, as she tilts her glass at me, raising an eyebrow.

Miami? I query with a smile. Well Rita … I came here to relax, watch the Dolphins and meet gorgeous girls. We just won so … here I am, spending money I shouldn’t and doing my best to flirt with you.

So, Rita, baby .. how am I doing?

Rita smiles back at me and cocks her head sideways. It’s hard to break eye contact with Rita, because her eyes are the exact reason why I, and three unsuccessful drunker guys went up to chat to her. They’re an incredible light brown that almost look golden under the flashing lights of the club.

Well Danny, you bought me a drink first. So that’s a tick. I will also say, you’ve been nothing but honest to me so far too, so that’s another tick.

Although …

Your Spanish is absolutely shocking.

I grin mischievously at her. I haven’t had many teachers. Would love to learn more though, from a native speaker.

Rita tilts her head again at me. Danny, baby … I could give you 200 lessons and it won’t get rid of that horrible accent you’ve developed.

I only need 1 lesson to get better. I raise my glass and we both toast each other. To Spanish lessons. Salud!

OK Danny. What’s the real reason you came over here. You must have saw the guy I blew off before. Besides, I’m meant to be working.

To answer your second question first, I’ll ask … what time do you finish?

Too early to sleep with you, too late to wake up next to you either.

I laugh. Rita had a way with words. I liked that. I fatalistically shrug.

I was hoping we’d do more than just sleep, but that’s OK.

To answer the first part … I’m pretty sure I’m the same as every guy here … I came over to see your eyes up close.

And how are they? asks Rita, as she turns up the luminosity of her golden eyes to another level. I’m entranced.

Even better than I imagined I answer truthfully.

Rita casts her incredible eyes downward in a blush. She toys with her drink before looking up again with a wry look on her gorgeous face.

So what now Danny?

I’ll ask for your number and we’ll hit it up sometime? I’m old school. Wine and dine. Movies. Baseball. Hell, even a Dolphin game if you’re down/.

How long are you here for? asks Rita cautiously.

For you Rita? I’m here until the sun is up and the party is over. Then I’m back to being Daniel, the travelling salesman with a boring 4 hour plane ride to nowhere.

Rita laughs. Not that long huh?

The grind never stops. I retort with an easy-going sarcasm. But I did stop it for you.

Rita bites her lips. How much money you’re gonna spend tonight?

I shrug and pull out a roll of cash. It’s an easy two thousands in 50 bills. Until this band can’t stay tight any more. Here.

I slide her a 50 dollar tip and Rita nods at me. She leans over to her boss who nods approvingly.

Ripping off her apron, Rita exposes her white shirt, which is cinched tight around her midriff, exposing the taunt, fit stomach. I shake my head in admiration and hold out my hand to her as she steps out of the bar.

Let’s go. she whispers in my ear as the DJ slows down the beat and I savour the huskiness of her voice.

~

Yo taxi! Over here!

Rita and I climb in a bright yellow taxi, greeted by a laid-back cab driver who smiles at how much we’re unable to keep our hands off each other.

You want dinner, baby? I ask Rita.

I’m good thanks.

Hokay then, driver … take us to the Savoy Hotel.

You got it, pal said the cab driver sardonically as he pulls out onto the street.

Rita nestles in close to me and I can smell the perfume on her neck. It’s a familiar scent, because I used to pitch for Le Labo.

Noir 29.

Rita looks at me, puzzled for a second, before she catches on.

Oh my god. How did you know?

I’m in sales baby. I used to pitch for Le Labo back in the day, before they got big.

You were serious then? When you said you were a salesman?

I try not to lie to women I’ve just met. I laugh. I wasn’t joking when I said I was here on vacation.

How long you here for? asks Rita

Long enough for a good time, but nothing permanent. I wasn’t joking when I said that I got a flight in the morning tomorrow.

I feel Rita’s hands loosen slightly around my arm. She turns her golden eyes outside at the lights of Miami flickering past the cab.

I look across at her and sense a strange sadness.

Hey I say, as I reach across and cup her chin gently for the first time.

Rita looks over at me. I can tell she’s having second thoughts. Her eyes aren’t meeting mine.

If you don’t want to do this, it’s okay. I’ll pay for the cab ride home. No hard feelings, I promise.

Rita looks up and suddenly smile.

Thanks Danny. I don’t really know what came over me. But thank you for being a gentleman. Give me a bit of space until we get to your place OK?

Sure. I reply as Rita undoes her belt. She shuffles across to the other side of the cab, and stares out the window, crossing her arms. I do the same, feeling the sting of rejection, but not feeling bitter about it. It’s just one of those nights. You can’t have it all.

Moments later, the taxi pulls up to the Savoy, my temporary home away from home. Rita looks over at me and shakes her head.

I smile reassuringly. It’s okay Rita. It was lovely to meet you tonight. Thanks for having a drink with me.

Walking up, I rap on the cab driver’s window and he rolls it down, with a sympathetic look on his face.

Bro, you mind taking her home? Here’s my card, just send the bill to this hotel. Room 404.

No worries pal. I gotcha. Sorry you struck out man.

All good bro. Have a good night. Here’s a tip.

Bro … 30 bucks? That’s the price of the ride man … I can’t take this.

Yeah you can. Get yourself a square meal on me. Thanks again.

The cab driver raises his fist out to bump and I duly do so with a warm smile, before walking into the hotel.

~

It didn’t take me all that long to get over Rita. Whilst I was a little bit cut that I couldn’t spend the night with a beautiful, golden eyed Cuban Latina flame, I was still living life pretty comfortably.

Face it pal, the only sensory pleasure you’re going to get today, is seeing the Dolphins trash the 49ers. That’s enough.

Changing into my nightrobe, the silk feeling luxurious on my bare skin, I pick up the phone and decide to have a final drink to celebrate, before retiring to bed.

Hey, is this room service? Awesome. Can you send up a bottle of Dom Perignon, two glasses and your … errr …. dessert platter? Yeah, those fruits are all okay, just add some dark chocolate in as well. Thanks pal, have a good night … What’s that? 10 minutes? Awesome. Thanks again.

I lie down on the bed, my arms around my head, closing my eyes to reflect on my day.

I must have dozed off, because I’m shocked out of my nap by persistent knocks on my door.

Shaking my head, I tighten the nightrobe around me and blearily open the door.

Hey, sorry I was taking a …

Rita is standing there, a blazer over her bartender uniform, but with a pair of red heels on, holding my champagne and dessert platter. Her white shirt is undone just enough, for me to see the bright neon yellow lingerie that taunts me against her tanned skin.

I’m frozen in surprise. So Rita makes the decision for me, and brushes past me, where she sets down the bucket of sparkling wine and the food on the bedside table, before pulling me in close.

I can taste the lingering aftertaste of the mojito we shared on her lips and I encircle her hips with my arms, bringing her in even closer.

There is a strange desperation to our kiss, as if we have a time limit, which was true technically. Rita is hungry, and insistent, tossing her light brown hair to and fro, as she frantically starts to pull at my nightrobe.

When we finally come up for air, Rita has me pinned against the wall, and her gorgeous chest is heaving for breath.

I don’t want to say it, but I have to.

Rita, are you sure about this?

Yes breathed Rita, before going in again. I hold her still by the shoulders for a second. I’m beginning to lose control, but I have to be absolutely certain.

Why?

Rita looks at me seriously, transfixing me with her golden eyes.

Because I want you to come back to Miami one day.

I look at her seriously. She holds my gaze equally.

Deal I hear myself breathe out.

Before Rita can crush me, I spin her around and pin her against the wall. She furiously loosens the knot that ties my night-robe together and soon, I’m standing naked before her. Pushing me back, Rita almost drinks me with her golden eyes, and I almost feel self-conscious, her gaze is that intense.

I pride myself on my lean figure, not too much muscle, but just enough for everything to be taunt, wiry and firm. A lot of core exercises, light arm work and far too much cardio.

Something inside Rita clicks, because she pushes me down on the bed and takes a step back.

I stare, astonished, as she slowly slips off her blazer, swaying her hips to an invisible rhythm. Rita’s long blue nails clasp over her white shirt, as I feel my breathe quicken with her every movement. The slow unbuttoning is agonisingly slow, but every inch of her tan skin that gets revealed only hype me more.

Soon, Rita is standing there, shirt around her wrists, her upper chest bared forward, her dark brown hair tossed behind her and her chin defiantly tilted, as if daring me to question whether she was not the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.

In that moment, I was stunned and in agreement.

Then the shirt came off in a whirlwind of movement and her long legs wriggled back and forth, as she slid her dark pants down.

Rita paused for a second, allowing me to sear the image of her lithe body in neon lingerie and red heels into my memory. I can still see her head tilted back, her golden eyes staring into mine, her brown hair tumbling over her shoulder and her arms up over her head like a nude muse out of a painting.

I can’t take the tease anymore, so I launch myself off the bed and wrap my arms around her, savouring her soft skin, loving the way how her stomach presses against mine, luxuriating in the rise and fall of her breasts against my heartbeat.

My hands are around her back, undoing her lingerie’s clasp that will free her breasts. The moment the intricate bra is off her shoulders, I break away from her soft lips and slowly run my tongue down her body.

A soft giggle comes from Rita, as I bury my mouth into her clavicle, still giving her a warm full body massage with my hands.

Her breasts under my lips are soft, full and beautifully bouncy. She moans under my ministrations and slips out of her heels, pushing me away when it becomes too much and jumping up into my arms.

As I hold her, my hands splayed wide grabbing her bare ass, Rita wraps her legs around my hips and begin to grind, as she comes in and out of kisses and breath.

I groan, as she hits a particularly tender sweet spot and I bounce her up, to reposition her better.

Rita is now biting my neck, her soft moans becoming louder in intensity as she can feel me rubbing along her most sensitive parts.

I pin her against the wall, cradling her head and as she reflexively put a foot down, whilst keeping the other up, I angle myself and go all the way.

Rita and I groan in ecstasy. She feels incredibly soft and warm, as we stay there for a moment, our eyes closed in relief and pleasure.

She starts to move ever so slightly, and I snap my eyes open, to look at her, her back pressed firmly against the wall, riding me energetically, whilst transfixing me with those golden eyes.

Her moans are now starting to sound like soft pants and half-screams, and I begin to match her, grunting with every thrust, every movement, every sound and every wave of pleasure that washes over me.

I keep rocking back and forth, unable to stop this ride, as Rita matches me in intensity and focus, her brown hair whipping my chest back and forth, as she tosses her head back and forth in gratification.

Danny! More! More! she breathes out. Don’t stop. Oh please, don’t stop.

I’m in my own world now, all my attention is focused on making her feel good. Nothing exists except my body giving her all the feel-good vibes it can.

That’s it, baby. I encourage her as I can sense her starting to peak. I’m only here for you.

Yes! Yes! You’re all mine baby. she screams as she increases her grip around me.

We both unleash a primal scream, as she climaxes along with the rest of me.

It’s so powerful, that we’re frozen like that, for a full minute, before we both collapse on the floor, exhausted, sweat beading everywhere on our skin, my manhood still trapped inside of her.

She wraps her arms my neck and I breathe in her perfume deeply, and the scent of her hair.

Don’t let me go Danny. Not yet. she whispers in my ear. It’s a promise disguised behind a plea.

I’m right here Rita. I whisper back. I’m not going anywhere … I promise.

Author’s Note.

Originally writing this, I had huge writer’s block.

This is one of those drafts that has stayed a draft for a very long time.

My inner conservative side literally wasn’t sure how to proceed, until I finally found a scene that reminded me why I wanted to write this.

Top Gun’s sexy silhouette sequence (my first ever sex scene I saw on screen) and Miami Vice (2006)’s flirtatious scene between Sunny and …. Rita, a bartender in a club at the very beginning of the film.

Yes, I stole the name and the idea of buying a bartender a drink as well from that movie.

After that, it was literally a matter of getting over the idea that my friends who will read this, will judge me for writing such poor erotica (or maybe it was good, I don’t know) and bada-bing, bada-boom, the story turned out great and I could write a proper sex scene without fear.

One more final aside … I hate the word “penis” and “vagina”. There is just something unpleasant about how they sound, so you’ll note I didn’t use either terms in the scene.

Keeps it more … sexy I think? I’m still a novice at this stuff.

But if I’m to write a book one day, I got to keep practising.

Thanks for reading smut as always, until the next one.

~ Damocles.

Professional.

Collateral (2004)

What does professionalism look like to me?

Beyond basic competency in your job, professionalism is an attitude that I think is lacking in a lot of people.

It is something that you need to train and work continuously to maintain.

Just having a job, doesn’t make you a professional in my eyes. Everyone can get a job. It doesn’t matter what background you have or what field you chose.

A consummate professional, in my eyes, is someone who espouses getting the job done, above everything else.

There is a certain ruthlessness that comes with being a professional. It’s not about being an arsehole all the time, or kiss-arsing everyone you deem above you.

It is about checking your ego at the door, acknowledging problems for what they are and being pragmatic in how you find and apply solutions. Some solutions require you to bring out your inner arsehole. Other answers may be found from stroking the egos of people above you.

Professionalism means that you don’t let emotions cloud your judgement or criticisms and apply them fairly without being malicious. It means that when you are confronted with an uncomfortable co-worker or even a friend, you can disassociate your personal feelings to your professional duties.

So much of being a professional is swallowing your ego and ideals for the sake of the job.

No matter how much you might hate the rules, your boss or even your co-workers, you need to put it aside for the objective.

Complete your mission, no matter the cost.

Which is where I want to touch on the personal cost of being a professional.

No matter the job, no matter how much you might enjoy or hate the environment, there are going to be people you don’t get along with. Ideologies, morals and personalities clash all the time. I know that in my current retail role, I don’t have an ounce of respect for any of my bosses. They’re hopelessly out of touch with the situation on the ground, incredibly overbearing and controlling and I suspect, they don’t take very kindly to my maverick attitude to authority.

That said, I know that I am professional about my role. I recognise the one major benefit of this job … that I can write on this blog during dull hours of work and that I’ve somehow managed to carve a small niche, in where I am actually getting paid to write and do retail work.

This small solace, amidst all the terrible mismanagement, is what keeps me from snapping. I can tolerate a lot, as long as I can write.

Which is why, despite personal cost, I can keep a professional demeanor at work and towards my bosses. This one benefit, trumps all the negative aspect of work.

I think that is the key to being professional. You have to view everything as objectively as possible and consider what are your limits.

Knowing your limits … that leads me into something that I think all professionals should have … high emotional intelligence.

Any idiot can be a professional. It’s not hard to learn skills, once you are getting paid to do so or forced to learn them. A monkey can use a hammer, just like a university graduate with no life experience can be taught how to calculate the trajectory of a rocket re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and it’s most likely impact point.

What is often not taught, is how to communicate effectively with people you dislike, how not to be the arsehole at work and what are your personal limits.

Some people don’t have any concept of work-life balance. Which is incredibly detrimental to their professional life. Balance in all aspects of life is crucial to success and mental health. You enjoy work more when you spend the money you earned on things that matter to you … fine dining, sports, art galleries, concerts, racing or in my case, guns and books.

Understand and explore what your limits are. Don’t be the person that clock offs from work and immediately go home every night of the week. Expend a little bit more energy into living after work. Flirt with people, interact with your bartender, dance the night away …. have good conversation or just exercise with your dog.

When you discover that you actually have a lot more energy than you think, that work isn’t everything to your life, you’re going to find out more about yourself. And when you know yourself better, your emotional intelligence is going to rise, because you’ll see everyone around you, suffering from the same difficult acts and tribulations that come with work, life and play.

When you are a true professional, you’ll find it easier to manage your work-load and can even help others out.

I’m a firm believer in the concept that everyone is born with a “backpack” on their shoulders.

In this backpack, you are going to fill everything in it. Work. Relationships with strangers. Good memories. Bad experiences. Friendships. Lovers.

Often, without realising it, we fill this backpack with stuff that we don’t mean to take on.

Our bosses’ angry tirade at us. Our lover’s trauma. Parental expectations. False ideas about who we are.

Sometimes we forget to lighten this load and it creates a huge burden on our shoulders. I like to think that everyone can carry their backpack at 80% capacity comfortably. But too often we over-extend and end up shouldering 90%, or even 110%.

If you have a reasonably high emotional intelligence, you’ll know exactly when you are exceeding the weight limit in your backpack and you’ll start dumping things that you shouldn’t be carrying in the first place. It could be as innocuous as taking a bit of time off work. Or it could be as drastic as having a conversation with your partner, about how they need to learn to shoulder their 80% better, because goddamnit, you’re already loaded down, you don’t need to be carrying their arse along as well.

This is what I mean by exploring your limits as a professional. Your personal affects your professional life as well. By being pro-active at managing your limits, you can do your job better. Less things annoy you, work becomes a bit easier to handle and you can instinctively know when you can take a little bit more than 80% on your shoulders and when you shouldn’t.

More importantly though, you possessing a high emotional intelligence means you can manage people around you better, no matter their personalities and be more flexible in how you cope with difficult situations. You will find it easier to tap into your sides of your personalities and be more pragmatic in how you approach problems.

That ability to adapt, improvise and overcame any obstacles, regardless of personal strife or ideology is what makes you a professional in my eyes.

It is such a pity that more people aren’t taught the importance of balancing all aspects of their lives. Too many people experience the same pitfall of working becoming their existence, without realising that they can exist as individuals outside of the business grind.

If you are going to work hard for your whole life, do something that makes you happy. But more importantly, don’t make that happiness only be tied to work.

Explore yourself and you’ll find that being a professional can also apply to yourself.

You can be a pro at being yourself.

~ Damocles.

The Silent Tram

The tram rattled it way through the darkness of Melbourne suburbia.

The iconic whir and grind of the tram lulled everyone onboard into a strange stupor, of boredom and listlessness. For Jordan Bordeaux, this daily purgatory was his only way home, after a long stint at the office.

An unassuming man in every way, Jordan was boring and single. A man in his early 30s, he had no future aspirations or career options. He was the classic loner, happy to work in a dull accounting firm, and then head home to his humble abode and play video games for the rest of the night.

Tonight though, he had an important task.

Even now, as he stared out at the dark suburban landscape of Melbourne, the houses blurring by under weak, amber lights, and cars racing by underneath him, Jordan was still grappling with the unexpected task that has been thrust upon him by his boss.

Jordan, it’s very important to me that this briefcase be delivered to this client. He will meet you at the Burwood One Shopping Centre. Don’t worry about meeting this client, he’ll see you.

When you meet him, just hand it over and go home right away. I would do it myself, but I have to tie up a few things here at the office. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure this is part of your overtime pay. I really appreciate this mate.

Jordan, knowing deep down, he couldn’t refuse, had meekly responded and after work, had hopped onboard the 75 Vermont South Tram that would take him to the shopping centre.

Ever since that incident, his boss had been a bit colder. Today though, he seemed a bit warmer. Perhaps forgiveness was coming. Jordan was eager to keep the peace, so he decided to run this errand.

Having never possessed a car, let alone venture outside of his Richmond area, Jordan was nervous. He was used to the tram itself, as it took him home, but he had never been this far along the line.

As it was, Jordan was sitting in his usual spot, at the rear of the tram, the brown briefcase on his lap, his laptop bag underneath. The briefcase was oddly heavy, but Jordan didn’t dare open it, for fear of losing his job.

From his spot, Jordan had a door in front of him that he could exit out of, and see the whole length of the carriage.

Few souls were on this tram this late, most of them staring emptily out the window, waiting for their ride to end.

Near the middle of the tram, was an old couple muttering about a film they had just seen, the husband acting out scenes to his wife’s amusement. Their interaction filled Jordan with a envy he had not felt in a long time.

Only 2 booths in front of him was an attractive hipster girl, her classy white dress offset with black booties. Jordan found himself invariably drawn to her. Her head rested on the window, and there was something beautiful about how the light played across her face.

On the other end of the carriage, near the driver’s cabin, sat Jordan’s twin, another quiet, bored businessman in a suit, his fingers dancing his phone screen as he communicated with a flurry of friends in a group chat.

The last two occupants in the large tram, were young. A nursing student in her blue slacks was watching K-drama on her phone, her headphones blocking any sounds from the outside world.

Across from her, on one of the standing seats, was a bored teenager, his skateboard in one hand, his other supporting his schoolbag. The teen did nothing but look out the window and occasionally tap his board against his leg.

Jordan felt himself lurch forward, as the tram decelerated to a stop.

The doors slammed open, and no one got off.

Instead, a hooded man step onboard.

Decked out completely in black, the hooded figure had a balaclava that covered the bottom half of his face, sunglasses that obscured his eyes and a military styled backpack slung on his shoulder.

Scanning the length of the tram, the blacked out man silenced the tram with his presence. The old couple stopped talking and the husband defensively held his wife’s hand in reassurance. The hipster girl moved her bag across her stomach, wary and unsettled. The teen looked down, and avoided eye-contact. Only Jordan’s twin and the nursing student ignored the newcomer, unaware he was onboard.

With a blank stare at Jordan, the hooded man moved away and without hesitation, sat down with the old couple, looking at them silently.

Expectantly.

The old man swallowed, whilst his wife moved into the corner. Reaching up deliberately, the hooded man pulled the string that signalled for the tram to stop at the next station.

The old man nodded in acquiescence and minutes later, the old couple was disembarking, holding their belongings close. The skateboarding teen, seeing what was going on, also immediately jumped off, the sounds of his board skittering across the concrete pavement, a distant echo of panic.

Without any sound, the hooded man moved towards the attractive girl, and stood in the centre of her seat booth.

She looked up at him in abject fear, shaking slightly.

The blacked out man raised a single finger up to where his mouth would have been and nodded mockingly.

The girl grabbed her shoulders in fear, as the man leaned over and put his face close to hers.

Jordan watched in horror, straining to hear anything as the girl, tears streaming down her face, nodded obediently to the man’s quiet commands. Then in a burst of fear, she ducked out from under him and ran away through the carriage, frantically pressing the button for the next stop.

The hooded man didn’t move, instead he sat down in her place and placed his gloved hand over the still warm seat, as the tram shuddered to a stop and the girl ran outside into the darkness of a strange neighbourhood, nearly getting hit by a careless driver.

Jordan looked on in abject horror as the masked man ran his hand over the seat, lingering and savouring where the girl had just sat.

Run! screamed his mind. But what about the briefcase? inputted his logical side.

The indecision froze Jordan in place. He didn’t know what to do. He was an accountant for god’s sake. Sweat pooled underneath his arms, and across his forehead.

Once the seat cooled, the masked man stood up unerringly and made his way to the nursing student, her back to him. He moved smoothly and silently, his dark presence only amplified by the lack of sound coming from him.

In a freak coincidence, the tram rumbled over a piece of debris, causing the electricity to short out for a second, casting the carriage into darkness.

In that second, the masked man placed a gloved hand over the student’s mouth and slammed her head into the window of the tram.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

Blood slowly trickled down the glass and temple of the poor girl, as she lolled listlessly with the movement of the tram.

It happened so swiftly, so viciously and violently, that Jordan’s twin barely had any time to do anything before he was pounced upon by the masked man.

No! No! Urk! ….. Pleaseeee ….

The masked man was coldly efficient. Using the man’s tie against him, he wrapped it around the man, and as he twisted and choked the man, the dark figure bought his knee up and slammed it repeatedly into the twin’s head.

As the man slumped to the floor, the masked man, in a strange frantic state, scrabbled through the man’s pockets, and bag and briefcase.

Jordan, his mouth agape, began to furiously pull the string for the next stop. He couldn’t peel his eyes off the man, who was kneeling astride his twin, his hands rummaging and pulling all sorts of things out from every pocket.

What the fuck is in this briefcase?! screamed Jordan internally.

It was at that moment, the masked man took of one of his gloves. Jordan eyes widened as he beheld a blackened, claw of a hand, with viciously long fingernails and open sores. He clamped his hand over his mouth, stifling the scream that died before it come out, into a whimper.

The tram kept moving. A ghostly vehicle, amongst quiet suburbs and homes.

The masked man, ran his hand along the unconscious man’s cheek, stroking it, in a perversion of care, as his nails drew a line of blood.

Why isn’t this working!? thought Jordan as the plaintive peal for a stop kept being ignored by the driver.

Then he froze.

The masked man was now looking directly at him.

Rising to his full height, the masked man stared at the terrified Jordan, clutching the brown briefcase tightly to his chest.

Recognition of the prize, shone in the masked man’s eyes.

There was nowhere to go. The tram was not stopping. Jordan didn’t know how to fight.

End of the road.

The masked man walked slowly over to Jordan, his pace measured and agonisingly slow.

The lack of noise was terrifying. It was like seeing a shadow come towards him. It was impossible not to stare at the claw of a hand.

The masked man stood before Jordan, who was now quivering in apoplectic fear.

He stretched out his hand towards the briefcase.

Jordan, bravely or stupidly, held on.

The cut that appeared on Jordan’s right cheek was so fast that he didn’t even have time to register it, before the next one appeared on his left.

Blood oozed out from the pair of cuts and Jordan felt, rather than heard, a scream of pain erupt out of his lungs.

He sank to his knees, dropping the briefcase, which never hit the ground, because the man caught it in an blink of an eye.

Jordan Bordeaux wet himself in fear, before his eyes lolled into the back of his head, in a stupor of anxiety.

Just before darkness completely engulfed him, he could have sworn he felt something pierced his neck …

~

The masked man ripped open the briefcase and exposed the contents within to the world.

Under the flickering lights of the tram, the briefcase yawned open and the masked man pulled out what he really wanted the whole time.

3 blood bags, with a needle and catheter.

Behind him, the nursing student rose up on her haunches as did the business man clone of Jordan.

Their movement were worthy of a contortionist. From the floor, the female student stood with her legs first, before lifting her upper torso into the correct position. It was like seeing a yoga pose in reverse, and all the more unnatural because of it.

As for the clone, he merely just crawled forwards. The lower half of his body was left behind. The bizarre image of only half a man, without his legs, just using his arms to propel himself forward eagerly was something that would only be normal amongst the three of them.

The pair of them gathering around the masked man, their mouths open, teeth bared in anticipation.

The masked man stroked Jordan’s cheek in a bizarre parody of care and tenderness, sensing the strong heartbeat underneath. He scooped a drop of his blood on a long fingernail and lifting his mask, savoured the metallic taste.

Nodding approvingly, he stepped aside to let the student work, who immediately started searching for a vein to insert the needle and start the process. The Jordan clone flexed his muscular arms and began to massage Jordan’s arm intensely.

The first blood bag was filled in 15 minutes.

The second, was over in 10.

The final one, was in a record 8 minutes.

The masked man, nodded approvingly at his associates and they nodded back, their teeth still bared in anticipation for the final order.

But he shook his head and gestured to the front of the tram.

Disappointed, the pair of them retracted their fangs and sullenly returned to their seat, to pack their items, each of them clutching a precious blood bag.

The masked man looked over at Jordan, his pale features, now a sickly shade of marble.

There was just enough in there.

Leaving behind the briefcase, the masked man looked at the note written hastily, with a nervous hand.

Jordan Bordeaux // AB+ // Sentence: Voyeurism on his employer and mistress.

Snarling with amusement, the masked man pulled the string.

Minutes later, all three creatures had disappeared into the night, into the surreal suburban landscape of Melbourne.

The tram rattled on, this time quicker, as it neared a junction.

Pressing a button, the tram’s yellow text flashed red momentarily, triggering a switch in the rail.

Diverging off its normal course, the tram made its way through a darkened alleyway, where it was immediately swallowed up by a shed that opened its door when the tram came close.

Red light flooded the interior of the shed, and the tram driver stepped out from his cabin, to stare at his prize.

Like the other creatures, the tram driver had a disfigurement that needed blood to prolong his life.

The nurse needed blood to stand properly without slumping over. The clone needed blood to continue to use his legs. The masked man needed blood to cure his skin.

But the tram driver needed blood to keep his eyes.

They were incredibly bloodless. So much so, that they were nearly rendering him blind. He drove the tram almost by feel, recognising every bump, every jostle on the road.

The tram driver walked through the tram, blind and his teeth bared.

Jordan was now barely alive. But he was conscious enough to know that it was over. His boss had sent him on this tram ride to hell, to get rid of him, for being an innocent bystander.

All because one night, he forgot his keys and had to tram back to get them.

That one night, was when his boss was having his secretary from behind and they were caught mid-peak when Jordan walked in.

As the tram driver bit into his neck and began to draw the last of his blood out, Jordan didn’t even have the energy to scream, all he could do was despair silently, as he knew no one would miss him.

In a strange way, he felt a sense of relief that his lonely existence was over.

The tram driver could see again. His eyes pulsed furiously, as blood rushed around his pupils and his eyesight was restored to a familiar red tinge.

Grabbing the bloodless corpse, the tram driver opened the door to the iconic public transport vehicle and began to start up the incinerator.

The ashes would be spread in his garden later, and when the opportunity was right, the boss would be charged a significant fee for their services.

The vampiric tram driver got back into the seat of his tram, licking his lips, and wondering when the next victim would come aboard. Flicking the tram line text from red to yellow, the tram driver settled back into his role, sated and happy he could see properly again.

Within minutes of the schedule, the tram was clattering along the streets of Melbourne, none of her citizens the wiser about the dark exchange that had happened on their network.

Author’s Note:

While this didn’t quite turn out as well as I wanted, I always liked the idea of a terrifying public transport option, where things go wrong very quickly and you’re trapped aboard, but none of the outside world notices.

I was actually semi-inspired for the ending by my recent blood donation and thought I would incorporate it in.

See you at the next one!

~ Damocles.

Nip & Tuck

My girlfriend is pretty much perfect.

She’s smart, funny, has the cutest laugh and the type of body that will make any guy stop and stare.

It’s how she got me in the first place. I was just nursing a drink in the bar, when she came in, perfectly svelte in a Chanel evening dress, and my jaw dropped on the floor.

Everyone else seemed intimidated by her. I wasn’t. I can read people pretty well and I knew that she came to this bar for some fun.

So I walked up to her, offered to buy her a drink in exchange for a conversation and that soon became 4 drinks later, and then a bedroom conversation.

I didn’t think she could be any more perfect up close, but I was dead wrong. She has these incredible green eyes that shimmer during the golden hours and tiny freckles across her straight nose that I found incredibly cute. Her lips were sensually thick and I wanted to kiss them forever.

Her voice was husky and sensual, she always sounded like she was half whispering something to you, and I always felt like I had to strain to catch every nuance in her words.

But my God, her body was to die for. She was pale, with dark raven hair hair that flowed down her sculpted back. She had full, firm breasts with a flat stomach and these incredibly supple thighs that I caressed constantly. I remember seeing on her back, a birthmark shaped like a diamond. It was the tiniest blemish that was hidden from the world, just behind her right shoulder, a fact that she hid with a bra strap constantly. Even her imperfections were difficult to find.

I loved her. She was my world from that night, and for the next 2 years. When she was away from me, my dreams would populate every sleep with all my memories I had of her. I would wake up, painfully erect and desperate to see her.

I craved her like a drug.

That night, as we laid entwined naked on my small bedroom apartment, she told me her name was Ava.

Which is why I was fucking confused when I was sitting across my friend, at a trendy brunch place and I saw Ava, sitting at another table, with another guy in front of her.

But this Ava had blonde hair, tanned skin, and the loud, infectious and sunny accent of a valley girl.

My friend, her fork, halfway up towards her mouth, with a load of avocado bread, winced as my hand grabbed hers. She dropped the avo back on her plate in pain and slapped me angrily.

Daniel, what the hell?

Summer, look at her. Isn’t that Ava?

Summer turns around and looks at the blonde Ava. She doesn’t believe me.

Ahhh come on Daniel. I know you love Ava, but you’re seeing her everywhere. It’s not healthy bro.

But she looks EXACTLY like her though. Look at her nose! It even got the freckles. I would recognise that nose anywhere.

Summer waves her fork dismissively after spooning a successful mouth of avo this time.

Daniel. Ava is like … marble white. That chick? She’s your super tanned, super hot, beach bunny. Last I checked? Ava had dark hair not blonde wavy locks?

I slump back, defeated, in my chair. I am certain it’s Ava. But so much of her has changed. So, I could be wrong. Maybe it isn’t her.

Besides Daniel, look at the hunk she’s hanging out with. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re cute, but he’s … h.o.t.

Summer spells out the word, with each letter another nail in my jealous coffin.

He’s like you, but only a bit more muscly and he’s got a better jawline.

I glare at Summer. She shrugs and pouts teasingly at me.

Oh come on, I’m just teasing. He’s doesn’t have a better jawline. But he is hotter though.

I’m getting mad now. Desperate even.

I’m going to talk to her. I get up halfway to leave. I’m going to solve this mystery.

Summer grabs my hand and pull me down.

What are you, crazy? They’re on a date stupid! You can’t just barge in there like that and interrupt them! If you really want to know if that chick is your precious Ava …. why don’t you just text or call her dumbass? If that hot beach babe really is her in some crazy blond wig, then you’ll know for sure!

I blink in surprise. Summer’s idea makes a lot more sense than me barging over. I pull out my phone and text Ava, praying that the hot blonde beach babe isn’t her in some elaborate disguise.

Hi baby, just checking up on you, where about are you right now? Wanna meet up?

The moment I hit “send”, I look over at the blonde Ava clone. I’m certain that she will reach for her phone on the table, mid conversation and look at the text I sent her.

Each second that passes feels like agony for my heart. I want to be right but I also desperately want to be wrong.

The blonde Ava doesn’t do anything except continue her conversation with the hunky guy, and she reaches for another spoonful of the Poke bowl she ordered.

My phone buzzes.

I look down in shock.

Hi baby, I’m at Emporium’s Uniqlo, shopping. I thought you were out with Summer?

Summer laughs at my confusion and continues to eat. She waves her fork knowingly.

Oh, Daniel. I told you it’s not her. I mean look at that chick … she’s a total babe. Ava wouldn’t dress like that.

I nod silently, as I text Ava back.

Yeah I’m out with Summer atm, but we can meet up after?

Putting my phone down in frustration, I look over at the blonde I had confused for my girlfriend and note how different she dressed to Ava.

Whilst Ava preferred French clothes, all chic and gamine, this blonde version was decked out in American retro denim. Her tanned skin was perfectly off-set by the short jeans she was wearing, with a white crop-top that showed off her toned stomach. Her ankles were adorned with bracelets and her shoes were simple lace sandals.

The whole thing screamed beach bunny.

She was as different to Ava, as one person could be.

But she had the same body, damn it.

The same nose, the same sensual mouth, the same beautiful breasts.

Her stomach was even the same, with the hint of familiar abs showing on her lower ribcage and the long legs that threatened to overwhelm any sane man with their supple nature.

As I got up to the counter to pay, I couldn’t help but stare at her shoulder. There’s no way she can disguise her birthmark right?

But this blonde had no such distinguishing marks. There was no diamond birthmark just tucked away. I snap a quick photo of her anyway. I feel strange doing it, but I manage to capture her profile. It’s uncanny how much she looks like Ava.

Summer and I left the brunch restaurant, Summer bemused by my frustration.

Come on Daniel, be happy! It’s not Ava. She’s not cheating on you. Chin up. Anyway, I got to go work now. Be seeing you soon?

Yeah, see you soon Summer. I say distractedly as she leaves me behind to my drama.

~

It is nearly 2 hours later, when I met up with Ava. The moment I see her, I’m instantly reassured. The blonde version of her looks nothing alike the woman standing before me.

Ava is all class and mystery. She’s in a business suit today, with a black blazer that cinches her tiny waist and a white turtleneck. Monochrome is her normal style, but with enough cuts and adjustments to make her stern looks, vaguely sexual. There is an exciting severity to her looks that make you want to tear her clothes off.

In her hands are large shopping bags from various stores.

Daniel! she says huskily.

I wrap my arms around her. It feels good to hug her, and she is surprised.

What’s wrong? Your text message sounded strange.

Oh well … it’s kinda hard to explain, but I could have sworn I saw a blonde version of you. You don’t have a sister you’re hiding from me are you? I ask jokingly.

Ava looks confused, and she draws away from me. She shoots back No I don’t. But wait, I don’t get it, what do you mean a blonde version of me?

Well, Summer and I were having brunch together, just before she had to go to work and just across from us was this couple. I could have sworn the girl looked exactly like you, but she was wearing clothes that didn’t suit your style at all. She was in these beachy clothes and was super tanned. I guess I might have mistaken her for you, because you guys have the exact body type.

Ava frowns at me. Did you take a picture of her? I’m curious now.

Yeah I did. Have a look!

I show her a photo of the blonde clone and Ava is visibly shaken.

Oh my God. She looks just like me. You’re right.

I nod vigorously. See? I told you.

I look across at her and notice how pale she’s gotten. Ava, are you OK?

Let’s go home Daniel. Come to mine.

I do a double-take. Ava has never invited me to her place before. In all the two years we’ve dated, she has never shown me her home. I’ve dropped her off many times before, but have never been invited in. I’ve never really questioned it, because I was just happy to have her in my arms at my place.

Umm, OK Ava. Let’s go.

I lead her to my car and drive to hers. Luckily it’s only 5 minutes away from the city. As we pull up, I always forget how big her house is. A handsome two storey house, with your classic white picket fence, wooden veranda and glass stained door. The windows were covered with luxuriously thick velvet curtains that seem perpetually pulled down.

We walk up to the house and Ava looks back at me with a mixture of sadness and reluctance as she opens the door.

I look at her beautiful features, twisted in an expression of regret as I walk past and look around for the first time at her home.

It’s threadbare, plastic sheets cover everything from the floor to the lounge chairs. Everything is incredibly clean and oddly “unlived” in. It doesn’t look like anyone lives here.

Ava, what the hell is this?

I turn around at my girlfriend, only to see her holding a golf club. She must have left it by the door. Suddenly, I understand why everything is covered in plastic sheets. My heart starts beating faster, terror, not love, coursing through my entire system.

Ava must have been blonde. I saw another version of her at the cafe.

I start backtracking, my hands in front of me.

Please, Ava. Let’s talk about this. Don’t you love me?

Ava’s beautiful features have twisted into a savage caricature of herself. Her scowl is now terrifying me.

Ava, please.

Ava swings and I duck it, only to feel my feet go up against the wall. I’m trapped.

Ava no!

Her first swing knocks away my hands, so now I’m completely exposed.

The last thing I see before the golf club slam into my head, is Ava’s cold beauty, now devoid of any warmth.

Dark, traitorous blackness swallows me whole.

My last thought is Why Ava? I thought you loved me.

~

Ava looked down at Daniel, the blood slowly trickling out from the huge dent in his head. She shook her head and calmly walked into the kitchen with the golf club.

Running the tap on the highest heat, she slowly scrubbed the golf club clean with a scourer, bone, hair and blood trickling down the white sink. Placing it aside to dry, Ava walked back over to the unconscious Daniel, and took out a specialised trolley that was hidden underneath the staircase.

A strange device, it is a trolley that can be laid flat on the floor, with flanges running on the sides and multiple straps hanging loosely from its frame.

Lying the trolley flat on the floor, Ava slowly rolled Daniel’s body onto the trolley, before doing up the flanges and using a pneumatic hydraulic jack built into the trolley, lifted the trolley up, so that it was more akin to a stretcher. Strapping him in with the black fabric on the frame, Ava wheeled Daniel into the back of the house, where she pressed a button on a bookcase that moved it on its hinges to reveal a dark tunnel that descended into the basement of the house.

Lights flickered on, as Ava moved through the tunnel, before flickering off behind her, their “on” duration, movement sensitive.

It was a simple way to disorient any of her captives, should they get free.

Ava navigated her own maze unerringly, and finally came to her unique prison.

Four barely alive men greeted her, suspended in bizarre prone cruxific style frames, their tongues removed and eyes permanently blinded by lasers.

Where they once struggled mightily against the black straps that held them, they were now resigned and defeated, their bodies wasting away slowly as they awaited death from starvation.

Ribs, sunken skin and numerous needle marks were etched across their bodies.

This was what Ava needed to maintain her beauty.

Bone Marrow.

Blood.

Fat.

Skin.

Stem Cells.

Each of these men, had been chosen by her for their desirable qualities. They had all fallen under her spell, had compatible blood types and were attractive enough to sleep with, but not so much that they ruined their precious bodies with artificial means like steroids.

Ava placed Daniel in the centre of the room, and activated a machine. The soft whir of the machine, stirred one of the men nearby and he began to anxiously break out into a sweat. He knew what was going to happen. But he couldn’t talk, scream or see. Disturbing shakes from the man’s anxiety rattled the metal crucifix cage.

Ava undid the straps from Daniel’s torso that binded him to the stretched and watched as the machine manouvered itself from the dark corner of the room. It was nothing more than a pneumatic circular hollow magnet, that was capable of lifting heavy weights, but affixed to end of it, was a high powered laser, that Ava could control. The machine lifted one of the spare crucifix frames and hovered it above Daniel’s unconscious body.

Daniel was face down on the mock stretcher, and without remorse or compassion, Ava strapped his limbs to the frame, before allowing the machine to flip the crucifix frame to give Ava access to Daniel’s face.

Looking at him, Ava mercilessly opened Daniel’s mouth and pulled out his tongue, and in a shockingly fast motion, severed the entire appendage out from his mouth with a small electric doctor saw, before jamming the high powered laser and cauterised the bloody wound inside his mouth.

Daniel’s eyes opened wide in shock and pain, his first instinct to scream, but no real noise could emit from his open mouth, but a high pitched whine.

In a well-practised move, Ava removed the laser from Daniel’s mouth and swiftly burned his open eyes blind.

His

Stepping back, Ava allowed the machine to flip the crucifix again, so that Daniel was looking down at the floor, as blood rushed out of his mouth and into a drainage pipe that led to a blood collection tank nearby.

She would leave him like this, until his mouth was drained, a slow process that would take 3 hours.

Ava looked down at her watch and sighed. She was going to be late for her brunch date, who had asked her out for dinner.

Leaving Daniel behind to suffer with her other victims in darkness and pain, Ava walked back into her house and closed the bookcase.

She walked upstairs into her bedroom, where there were exquisite clothes arranged on racks everywhere, as well as numerous realistic wigs, and make-up stands.

Stripping naked, Ava placed her black business suit and white turtleneck on the dirty rack, to be cleaned surreptitiously later. Looking at herself in an antique full length mirror, she examined every inch of her body for any marks or signs of ageing.

She frowned when she saw a tiny crease near her eyes.

She would require an injection tonight to remove that stain.

But everything else was flawless. She had designed this perfect look for herself and she was damned if she was going to have anything ruin it for her.

For now, it was time to become the girl Daniel had saw at the brunch place and the new man, Sam, had fallen for.

Her green contacts came out. Ava’s eyes were actually naturally blue.

The dark hair that Daniel loved to caress was real, but actually much shorter. She removed the hair extensions that were pinned to her dark hair and took up the blonde wig. It was made from genuine hair and had cost her in the thousands to obtain. She clipped it to her short dark hair and was pleased when she looked at herself in the mirror.

She was halfway to transforming into the stunning blonde.

Reaching behind her, she removed the skin-like birthmark sticker that Daniel had identified her with, placing it carefully aside in a small container. In reality, there was no way she would allow any such blemish on her flawless body, but it served a purpose in confusing the multiple victims she courted at the same time.

Getting out a specialised tan liquid, she ran a bath, where she poured the liquid in. By taking a long soak, Ava would ensure that her pores would absorb as much of the tan as possible and thus give a convincing illusion that she spent a lot of her time in the sun.

Within the hour, as Ava padded naked and wet back into her room, she picked out the same style retro denim that was associated with beach-loving women all over the world. She even included a small stud in her belly button, and had tossed her blonde wig into the slightly frizzy, wavy mess that could only come from salt water exposure.

Ava was now Eve.

Smiling at herself in the mirror, Eve was now decked out in a cute denim overall, with a bikini underneath that emphasised her perfect full breasts, and cut-off legs that showed off her tanned ankles and white Vans.

With a practised sunny smile, Eve walked out for her dinner date with Sam, the memories with Daniel already forgotten.

He was now just Donor number 5.

Sam pulled up outside her house and Eve hopped in and kissed him on the cheek, as he hungrily looked her up and down.

Eve merely smiled confidently back at him. She was relieved that her beauty would last a while longer with a new donor.

Perhaps she might even play around with Sam a bit longer. He was very cute.

But like all of her previous partners, he would soon be reduced to bone marrow, stem cells, blood, fat and skin.

All the nutrients she needed to stay youthful forever.

~

Author’s Note

I came across this idea when I was sitting with my girlfriend at a dessert bar and someone at a table across from me looked like the spitting image of one of my girlfriend’s best friends.

It was a Eureka moment for me, because I soon wanted to write a horror story where a guy confused another girl for his partner, only to discover later that he was right. She was just a radically crazy person who would create disguises for herself to court other men and pretend to be multiple people.

I wanted to also touch on how she had designed herself to be this perfect aesthetic for womanhood through various surgeries performed on herself and that is what doomed so many men to fall for her spell. They would ignore red flags, because they were just grateful to have sex with her.

I had a fair amount of fun creating Ava’s surgery/extraction chamber and I hope it was suitably gruesome in your minds! I honestly made all of it up on the fly, without referencing anything so I’m quite pleased having come up with the original idea.

Until the next one!

~ Damocles.

The Prince (The Espionage Novel)

For your reading pleasure, the entire Espionage novel by Damocles in one volume.

Chapter 1: Woods.

The scent of petrichor slowly permeated the air, until it was all CIA Special Operations Group (SOG) Paramilitary Operations Officer Woods could smell.

The spice that usually perfumed the Afghan marketplaces in Kabul slowly receded as rain began to hammer the streets, turning the ground into dark, muddy slush that stuck to cheap boots and the hems of coarse hessian trousers.

Woods aimed his gaze upwards, staring up the street that stretched towards the Hindu Kush mountains that dominated the landscape of the capital city.

In the distance, tiny dots littered the sky, kites being flown by children, as they weaved their creations in deadly dances.

Mock combat being practised by skilled young hands.

Woods watched as a scarlet kite smashed into a green one, crumpling the frame, noting the strong gust of wind that discarded the corpse of the green kite further away than the children expected.

Looking down at the weathered crimson carpet he was sitting on, Woods picked up the small tea cup and tossed back the amber tea, savouring the slightly spicy, sweet taste of Afghan chai, before standing up and adjusting his colourful kufi cap.

Brushing down his Perahan tunban tunic, and buttoning up his sleeveless vest, Woods ambled slowly over to the reception desk and handed over a few afghani into the tin bowl.

The elderly shopkeeper smiled and nodded his head in thanks at Woods. He nodded back and wandered back onto the streets of Kabul, to resume his search for the missing hostages.

It happened, only a month ago. A naive American journalist got herself and her team captured by a local drug running group in the capital of Kabul. The journalist’s name was Karen Matthews, and she was the perfect, toxic combination for a kidnapping: proud, beautiful, morally righteous, arrogant and worst of all, ambitious.

Matthews thought that by shining a light on the opium addiction that ran rampant through Afghanistan, she would be fast-tracked to earning a Pulitzer. Instead, she was captured by one of Afghanistan’s more vicious drug dealing criminal gangs during a particularly brash interview with one of the dealers.

She was lucky … she and her two members left the cafe alive.

The dealer was found with his hands removed and his body hanging from the underside of an overpass, stray dogs taking bites out of his feet. The common punishment for those who dealt with Americans.

Still, what they were doing to her wasn’t pleasant. Woods had watched the kidnapper’s tape and winced upon comparing the beaten woman on a grainy film to the smiling portrait that graced her social media pages.

It was his job to find her, but at the moment he wasn’t having much luck. He felt like he was close, but not close enough.

Making his way through the people of Kabul, Woods ducked and weaved past hundreds of small minivans and bicycles, the endless cacophony of traffic adding to the chaos of colours, smells and wares on display.

The Market Sediq Omar was always busy, with hundreds of goods on display, piled together unceremoniously and without any true reason or logic behind them.

It was atypical of bazaar experiences: claustrophobic, dense, overwhelming and fun. Merchants would rapid-fire Pashto at anyone who would walk by, with a particularly bothersome salesman insisting that Woods examine his electronics.

Woods, politely extricated himself with a firm grasp on the hand that rested on his shoulder and demurred politely in quiet Pashto, before silently disappearing into the crowd.

Situated within a tall structure that housed multiple levels of residents, the marketplace dominated the courtyard of the apartment complex. The decor that surrounded the marketplace was an ugly off-white colour, punctuated only by colourful carpets that were hung out to dry on balconies and the occasional flag of a warlord or drug runner.

The Market Sediq Omar was a hotbed of activity, both illicit and legal and for the people who lived there, they didn’t care. They had more crucial matters to worry about and this market was actually a genuine convience for shopping, despite the shadiness.

Woods had been frequenting this market for the past month, his Taliban source, a certain “spice” merchant whose product had more white than any other colour, a regular at this bazaar. This was the cost of war, turning an blind eye to certain dealings on the streets to fight more effectively in the mountains.

However today, there were going to be no such appearance. The weather was only going to worsen, as the rain would intensify and turn to snow soon.

Gently pushing a tall man out of the way, Woods made his way into the only functioning lift and pressed a button to reach the 4th floor. Silence filled the empty chamber as the doors creaked shut, unconvincingly.

As the elevator groaned slowly upwards, Woods lifted up his vest and checked through a slit in his tunban tunic, that he could still access his trusty Glock 19 in its’ appendix carry holster. Reassured by the weight of the cold steel, he counted down the seconds until the elevator would reach the 4th floor, the average time being around 40 seconds.

At 38 seconds, the doors rasped open, and Woods sidled out, making his way around the floor to room 417, looking down and admiring the view of the marketplace below, as noise and the smell of spice and nuts wafted upwards to the sky.

Taking out a cheap key, he slid it into the wooden door, and carefully scanned the spartan apartment, before locking the door behind him.

It was a bold decision to have a hideout, right atop the market where all sorts did business, but the risk had paid off for the past couple of months.

Actionable intel was genuinely rare to receive, and Woods had managed to score 3 crucial pieces of intel that led to boots on the grounds and bodies underneath the snow. 3 vital pieces of the puzzle in less than 6 months. He had a feeling that another piece of the puzzle would come soon for Karen Matthews.

A high risk, high reward play.

This was why, in spite of the danger, Woods chose to stay and maintain this hideout.

Locking up the door, he slid a deadbolt into place before moving back. Undoing the hooks on his appendix holster, Woods placed the Glock and its’ holster on a table, where a dirty rag that smelled of oil and grease, reminded him of his duties.

Walking over to his bed, he reached underneath and pulled out a military laptop, encased in ballistic padding and equipped with a small secure aerial that allowed encrypted access to the internet.

Typing in a standard report, effectively stating that he saw nothing of note today, Woods spent a moment browsing area reports, and noted that this week was slow and quiet.

Winter was like that.

Sighing quietly, he closed the laptop shut and placed it back underneath his bed, before reaching into a large duffel bag and extracting his pistol calibre carbine (PCC), a venerable MP5A5 kitted out with a sling, a torch and an Aimpoint Micro T-2 optic.

Despite its’ Cold War status and age in comparison to better and more advanced weaponry, Woods still enjoyed using the MP5. Its’ legendary status, sealed with his original unit, the 22nd SAS, had been proven time and time again, with its’ remarkable reliability, accuracy and recoil impulse.

It also helped that the ammunition that serviced the weapon was the same for his Glock 19, thus ensuring lower cost and more ammunition carried if there was ever a firefight.

Picking up the dirty rag, Woods stripped the MP5, carefully putting aside the T-2 optic, the Surefire torch and the sling in neat corners, before taking a screw driver and undoing the weapon. With a tiny plastic bottle of oil, he cleaned the weapon methodically, and caressed each part with care.

Once every part was well greased, he swiftly reassembled the weapon, and leaving the magazine out, flicked the ambidextrous safety to semi before aiming the tiny red dot at a circle on the wall.

Hearing the satisfying click, he flicked up the safety, pulled back the charging handle and inserted a skinny magazine, before slapping the handle forward, allowing it to chamber a round.

Putting the MP5 aside, Woods examined his Glock 19 and had just tucked his weapons away, when he heard a knock on the door and simultaneously feeling his mobile phone buzz.

Staring at the screen, he frowned and moved to the door, where through the peephole, he saw a man dressed similarly to him, nervously scanning the area, his hands falling back his side, as he finished knocking.

Woods opened the door, his right hand concealing the Glock behind his leg and felt his eyes widen in surprise.

Samir?

Khalid. This is urgent. You’ve been reassigned. We need to go now.

Samir, Wood’s local runner in Afghanistan stepped inside the room and handed him a burner phone. A heavyset man, with an impressive beard and dark enigmatic eyes, Samir was one of the many locals that helped SOG Officers like Woods gather extra intelligence, in exchange for money or extradition to the States.

Samir, was one of the very first that had signed up to the CIA informer program, and was extraordinarily good at his job, despite the dangers and lack of training. For him, to break cover and contact Woods in this manner, meant that this was serious.

Woods flipped the phone case open and keyed in the number his handler had reserved for emergencies. After a brief pause, a female voice came over the teeny speaker.

Woods. This is a full priority situation. We’re pulling you out and reassigning you to Europe. More details to follow. Samir will organise extract and sanitation. This is a FSA (Foreign Security Assessment) priority level 5.

Understood. said Woods as he heard the phone click and watched as the screen self-destruct into darkness.

Give me five, Samir.

Samir nodded and waited by the door, anxious. He looked out the tiny keyhole and noted that the weather had begun to worsen. Snow was now drifting lazily across the sky and the temperature was dropping further and further. Samir shivered involuntarily.

Taking out his large carry bag, Woods efficiently shoved the military laptop, his MP5, and spare surveillance equipment in, before zipping it tight. A well-rehearsed move, all traces of espionage equipment was gone in 2 minutes. Woods spent the last 3 minutes checking over his bed, desk and kitchen for anything he might have dropped or any incriminating evidence.

Pleased, he shouldered the heavy bag and walked over to Samir. The two left in silence, threading their way through the market that was closing up, before hopping into a decrepit white Toyota Corolla. As Samir pulled away into the traffic, Woods took a final look back at the place that had served as home for a while.

In doing so, he noted a large Toyota HiLux Ute also start up and begin to follow in the direction they were headed.

Scowling, Woods said quietly. We got company.

Samir looked in the mirror and felt the blood drain from his face.

I’m sorry Khalid. They must have followed me.

It’s alright Samir. said Woods reassuringly. Punch it. We can make it to airport. Go, go.

Samir nodded grimly and put his foot down, the Corolla jerking forward instantly and nearly hitting a donkey as it barrelled down the tight roads of Kabul. Despite its’ appearance, the car was actually well-maintained and had significant upgrades for emergencies such as the one Woods and Samir found themselves in.

Snow continued to pound the windshield. Their breathing fogged the glass and Woods began a breathing exercise, designed to expel stress. He always strove to remain clam, even in the most tense of situations. Samir, on the other hand, was hyperventilating, his eyes wide and fearful, as he wrenched the wheel to and fro through the narrow streets.

With a mixture of tight winding roads and super-highways, Kabul’s landscape was surprisingly modern, with many colourful buildings that were undergoing restoration and dozens upon dozens of stalls and vendors lining the streets, their kaleidoscopic flags and umbrellas forlornly weighed down with fresh snow.

To get to safety, Samir merely had to reach a super-highway and begin high-tailing down the long stretch of road for 5 kilometres, before they could be in the safe haven of the Hamid Karzai International Airport.

A simple task, but then the devil was in the details regarding execution.

Samir yanked on the handbrake, as he drifted the small car around a corner, nearly clipping an old woman, who ignored the reckless driving and continued her way down the alleyway. Even when the HiLux’s side mirror nearly hit her arm as it blasted after the Corolla, the Afghan native merely gave a fatalistic shrug and adjusted the basket of laundry she carried on her hip.

Woods kept his right arm outstretched on the dashboard, securing himself as the Corolla harshly jumped a small hump, and kept an eye on the Ute, who he now noted had 2 individuals inside, with one man gripping an Uzi submachine gun and the other manically concentrating on the chase.

Hold on Khalid! yelled Samir, as he ignored the stop sign at the exit of the road and cut in front of a truck, whose horn blasted angrily.

The Corolla skidded across the highway, smoke shooting from the tyres and brakes squealing in a high pitched whine.

Woods and Samir yelled in unison, as the car came sliding towards a minivan, and they collided with a sickening crunch. Both cars reeled with the impact, shattering the window and causing Samir’s head to lurch into the side of the minivan, effectively knocking him out.

Woods, groaned and looked out his window and saw the HiLux coming out of the alleyway. His eyes narrowing in clinical concentration, Woods felt his hands yank out the Glock 19 and he aimed the pistol at the large front right tyre and pulled the trigger rapidly.

The sudden gunfire immediately sent the experienced people of Afghanistan scrambling for cover. Those who had gotten out of their cars to help, were sent running back and taking cover immediately, their hands over their heads.

The HiLux drove on, intent on ramming the Corolla. However, the driver felt pressure immediately slacken on his front tyre and to his shock, the car lurched to the right and narrowly missed the stricken Corollla. Realising his mistake, the driver tried to brake, but the concrete barrier that separated the two sides of the highway was now too close.

The HiLux smashed into the barrier and both men felt their bodies lurch forward, before being brought to an immediate stop, the pressure of their seat-belts smashing into their chest, and their heads experiencing extreme whiplash.

Both men vainly attempted to get out, but couldn’t, their hands unable to depress the button for the seatbelt. The driver opened his eyes blearily, and saw the damaged Corolla drive away, before blacking out.

~

Woods kept his foot down, the Corolla’s engine ticking over angrily, as he sped down the highway and towards the airport. He looked at Samir, whose head had ceased bleeding, after Woods had dug out his first aid kit and applied battlefield superglue to the gash on his head. It had taken him considerable strength to move Samir from the driver seat and to the back of the car, his eyes wandering over the HiLux constantly but manage it he did.

Minutes later, Woods pulled up to the NATO RSM (Resolute Support Mission, the successor the ISAF in Afghanistan) Base at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, digging out his ID card and allowing the U.S. Marine on guard to call for a medic for Samir.

Squeezing Samir’s shoulder reassuringly, Woods allowed the paramedics take him away. As they wheeled Samir away on a gurney, a young Lieutenant came running up to him, and saluted, her hot breath misting the cold air.

Sir! If you would follow me to the command hub.

Woods nodded and shouldered his bag, following the Lieutenant through the maze of temporary buildings and barracks, refamiliarising himself with the layout of the base. It had been over 4 months since he had last set foot here, his usual stop being Bagram Airfield.

Walking past the mess hall and a platoon of Marines going about their daily exercises, Woods could hear snippets of German, Italian and English accents mesh together through the door, as men and women filed in and out of the hall. There was even a small hint of Australian, his native tongue, rising above the usual chatter.

The Lieutenant knocked on the door of the command hub and in entered Woods, placing his large duffel bag near the entrance of the door. As his eyes adjusted to the perpetual darkness of the room, Woods noted the three men in uniform and a woman in civilian garb standing around, talking to each other animatedly. They all looked up at the sight of Woods.

His CIA handler, an attractive redhead by the name of Jessica, stared at him, initially unsure who the bearded, rough looking Afghan man standing before her was, before walking over and giving him a friendly hug.

Gabriel. I didn’t recognise you for a second there.

Woods gave an ironic smile.

Means the Khalid disguise worked. Good to see you too Jess. Why was my extraction hot?

It wasn’t meant to be that way. But somehow Samir was compromised. I’m not sure how. We’re looking into it though. They were following him, and it was poor timing that we asked him to get you out.

Who is ‘they’?

Our old friends. The Haqqani.

Woods grimaced.

Jess noted his gesture and tried to reassure him. Samir will be on the first flight State-side. We own him that much. Anyway, I’ve got to talk to your about your reassignment. Don’t worry about those boys over there.

Jess gestured to the three men in uniform who were looking over at them, talking quietly to each other. I’ll handle the Colonel. He’s just upset about losing you, due to the quality of intel you’ve provided for RSM this rotation. However, I’ve already stressed to him about the FSA.

Jess walked over to her station, and bought up a PDF file on her screen. The profile of a man came up, but the picture was old. Woods noted his name and raised his eyebrow at the long list of sins that the report showed.

I’ll be uploading this onto a tablet soon. It’ll explain why you’re being reassigned. A C-17 Globemaster is about to finish loading up its’ supply run. That’s your flight out of this shithole.

You’ll be flying to Germany, where you’ll be provided gear and coordinates for a safehouse in London. We want you in as deep cover, thus no direct flight to London, I’m afraid. It’ll be a road-trip for you.

From there, you’ll have to do some detective work straight away to find Hassan Malik, code-named SPHINX. A local contact from SIS will link up and you’ll get more intel then.

Jessica took a breath and looked at Woods seriously.

You can read more about Sphinx in this brief. His resume is FUBAR. I mean it. This guy is serious business. For now, Langley just want close surveillance. Good luck Gabriel and watch your six. I’m staying here to monitor more movement on the Matthews case, so I won’t be joining you.

Woods nodded and took the military tablet from her station before shaking her hand warmly. He felt guilty about abandoning Karen Matthews to his handler, but there was nothing he could do.

Jess hugged him in return and whispered “Good luck” understanding how he felt. Ignoring the military men in uniform, Gabriel grabbed his bag, gave an ironic salute to Jess for a final time before searching for the nearest bathroom and a razor.

It was time to remove the beard, and look human again.

~

10 minutes later, Woods stared at his reflection in the mirror.

At a rugged 31 years of age, Woods’ face was unconventionally attractive, with piercing green eyes and dark hair. His skin was well-tanned and creased, an unfortunate side effect of his job, that would make him stand out in a much paler Europe. His facial hair was shadowy, despite his best efforts with a razor to grant him a clean-shaven look. He had even given himself a rudimentary haircut, lopping long locks of his obsidian black hair off, to resemble that of a crew cut.

His flawless ability to navigate the many dialects of Afghanistan had made him a natural choice for the region, his features almost indistinguishable from a local, once a thick beard was developed. To pull him out, and compromise his cover, meant that this wasn’t an ordinary operation.

Shrugging to himself, Woods slipped into clean civilian clothes that Jess had provided him; a white henley shirt, a thick navy woollen jumper, a grey waterproof jacket and black sturdy jeans to match the combat boots. Shouldering his bag again, Woods looked at the giant hulking military plane that was to take him to Germany.

At a monstrous 53 metres in length, with a wingspan of 51 metres, the dark matte grey plane was as long as it was wide, capable of accommodating a 69 ton M1 Abrams tank, and nearly 85 tons of weight. A true behemoth of the sky, the C-17 Globemaster earned every inch of its name.

This particular airplane housed a pair of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, IED damage evident on their exterior, no doubt being shipped back State-side for extensive repairs. Dozens upon dozens of palleted cargo covered in camouflage netting lined the hull of the Globemaster and an U.S. Air Force loadmaster waved him onboard, handing him a pair of headphones.

Nodding gratefully, Woods made a motion about eating and the loadmaster nodded and shouted:

Over there! Grab yourself some MREs! I’ve already placed a hammock for ya by the mess!

Giving him the thumbs up, Woods secured his bag in the webbing of the plane’s wall and walked over to the mess, ripping open an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) bag. He microwaved the contents, before tucking in to a hot meal of Sausage Peppers and Onions, chasing the main course with a trail mix recovery pack.

Looking over at the mess table, Woods felt the plane begin to move and threw away the packaging of the MRE into a nearby bin, before keeping the unopened food nearby. Strapping himself in the hammock, he closed his eyes and waited for the ride to end.

Chapter 2: The Prince

An anonymous man in a suitably non-descript black suit walked towards Woods, his hand gripping a briefcase.

Gabriel Woods watched from the corner of his eye, as the man stopped nearby and turned to examine the famous tourist square. The movement allowed Woods to see the the man’s hand on the briefcase, in which he was gripping it with just his index finger and thumb. The other three fingers were splayed out.

Three is good, two is bad recalled Woods.

Miming his surprise at seeing an old friend, Woods walked over to the man with a smile and an arm outstretched. The man responded similarly and they mimicked a conversation, whilst the man handed the briefcase in an effusive gesture. Woods smiled and walked away, the grin wiped away, the moment the charade was over.

Walking towards Berlin’s Alexanderplatz Station, past the famous Weltzeituhr (World Clock) which was displaying the current time in 148 major cities around the world, Woods rested the briefcase in one hand and popped the clasps with the other.

Taking out a small key, he walked over to the train lockers that lined the exterior of the station and searched for the number on the key.

Opening the locker, he placed the briefcase inside and looked at the contents proper.

Woods noted the new passport that had been issued to him, proclaiming his name to be Christian Taylor, a UK resident from Cornwall. Noting that the photo featured rather thick framed glasses, Woods looked inside for the pair of spectacles that would accompany him as a disguise. Opening a simple black case, Woods tried the glasses on, and was pleased with the fit.

Tapping the side of the glasses, he noted the thickness of the frame, a feature that allowed tiny pin-sized cameras to be installed on both sides of the spectacles. A simple unidirectional microphone also allowed remote recording of conversations up to 20 metres away, and with its’ wireless capability, it could transmit intel to his phone that would send the audio-visual footage to a CIA station nearby.

Woods also noted the new phone that would replace most of the capabilities of the military laptop he was used to. A nondescript Android design, the phone hid its true potential behind false apps, that Woods would have to explore, to unlock what each function would do.

The final spy-craft item in the briefcase was a pair of headphones, that disguised recording and transmitting abilities, allowing him to talk and report back, or listen in on conversations heard through his glasses. Shaped like any wireless headphones, they were a functional black colour, and fit in his ears snugly.

In addition to the gadgets, Woods found a wallet with 1000 English pounds and 1000 Euros, with plenty of different denominations, a car key fob that also featured another key to the safe-house and to his surprise, a spare pair of smokey lens for his glasses that would double as sunglasses.

Placing all these items into various pockets on his person, Woods left the briefcase in the locker and took out the key. He would head over to the Tiergarten, a huge national park that was near the US Embassy and deposit the locker key in an agreed spot for collection.

As he hopped aboard a yellow-white Strabenbahn tram to the park, Woods recalled the brief he had read onboard the C-17 from Afghanistan, about the target he was meant to observe and eventually stop.

Blessed with a photographic memory and near perfect recall, Woods replayed in his mind the personal call from the Station Chief in the CIA London’s operating centre, as the C-17 flew through the night sky, his hands gripping a headset that the loadmaster had given him.

Woods,

You’re probably wondering why we took you out of Afghanistan and transferred you to Europe. Well, we’re aware of your history there and this is priority one. Our Foreign Security Assessment (FSA) indicates that there is going to be a global terrorist attack happening on UK soil in a week from now.

Intelligence suggests that it will be occurring on the Valentine Day’s weekend where traffic is expected to be at an all time high. We’re putting every major asset in Europe on standby and we’ll be cooperating with your old crew, UKSF and the SIS on this.

The truth is, you were asked to come, because the UK PM specifically asked for your services. We know that you are on loan for us from the Brits, so we couldn’t refuse when they asked for you to come back.

Anyway, the bad news is that we don’t know the exact time of the attack. We suspect it is going to be in the evening because that is where traffic will be high. However, because Valentine Day’s falls on a Friday, we are not exactly sure whether they’ll be hitting Friday, Saturday or Sunday or worst case …. all three fucking days.

In any case, it is imperative that you make contact with your SIS contact and start covert surveillance on Sofia, a courier for Hassan Malik, an operative we’ve nicknamed the Sphinx, due to how well he seems to hide his tracks. We’ve been after this guy for nearly 2 years and have still been unable to properly track his whereabouts and movements. Sounds familar?

We know he is Europe based, because we’ve managed to extract limited intel about him from detainees and low-level HVTs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He’s been responsible for the recent train bombings in Paris, Madrid and Athens and we think it’s only a matter of time before he strikes in England.

As you can already see in the brief, actual photographs and intel on Malik is scarce. The only photo we have is approximately 5 years old, way back when he was in AQ training camps in Iran. At the moment, he’s considered a rogue terrorist for hire, a highly dangerous operative who offers his services to any groups linked to anti-Western agencies and government.

We don’t know who is backing him, as it could be any source ranging from Hezbollah, the Ayatollah or even Saudi backers. All we know is, he’s got a domestic network in Europe, and the logistics and capabilities to strike almost anywhere on the Continent.

Thus the key for you, is to find Sofia. Detainee reporting states that she is one of Malik’s most trusted couriers and sources.

Find Sofia, track her, and then eliminate Malik.

Currently, Sofia is under heavy surveillance. A team from 14th Det is tracking her 24/7. She has not made any suspect moves, but we’ve done the usual bugging and tracking on her phone, apartment and email.

I’m not gonna sugar-coat it Woods, the reason why you were chosen, is because we still think you’re the scalpel, you were in the past.

Europe could use help from a graduate of the Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Wing. The guy known as the Prince only 6 years ago.

Show the Sphinx, why Europe is really the Prince’s domain, not his.

Good luck Woods.

Woods snapped out his reverie when he heard the tram driver announce the stop for Tiergarten. The change from the mountains of Afghanistan to the well-oiled streets of Germany still played with Woods’ mind. He found himself unused to the sensation of comfortable footwear that didn’t drag in the snow and mud. The sharper, cleaner air that didn’t have the faint scent of petrol, oil and spice.

Even the atmosphere was different, the sounds of people chatting softly in German, slower and more measured. Conversations here were relaxed and safe, a far cry from the rapid-fire Dari and Pashto in Kabul, the type of discourse you knew you had to hurry, because you didn’t know when something would end it terminally.

Even the idea of being onboard a functioning tram was alien to Woods, who had spend so many months simply walking everywhere in Kabul.

Acclimatise quickly and blend in even quicker recalled a mantra taught to him long ago.

Hopping off, Woods walked towards the park and began to count down the trees, before hiding the key to the train locker underneath an auspiciously placed rock at the base of the 7th tree.

Walking away and taking the return tram back towards Alexanderplatz, Woods tried to relax slightly, but his mind was occupied on the Sphinx. The enormity of the task ahead of him was daunting. The idea of finding a professional terrorist who was hiding amongst 9 million people, in one of the world’s most densest mega-cities was almost laughable.

As Woods got off the tram at the Alexanderplatz station and began his walk to the long-term carpark for his car, out of the corner of his eye, he noted the odd shuffle of a man wearing a backpack nearby. He was making his way into the main entrance of the train station, pale and murmuring under his breath.

At first, Woods thought that it was just a homeless guy moving around the city. Berlin, whilst prosperous, still had its’ fair share of homeless people.

But usually, due to malnutrition and poor mental health, they would pick a spot and rarely move. They would beg along a popular street, they wouldn’t be out and about if they didn’t have to.

Besides, this man didn’t have the usual ragged clothing of a homeless person. He was dressed like an out-of-towner. A man who didn’t belong. A tourist. An outsider.

Woods frowned as he noted people seemed to subconsciously give this man a wide berth. Women would give double-takes upon seeing him, their eyes coming up from their phones more than once, unsure about why the man had his head down and was shuffling his feet so much.

Men would take an extra step to the right or left, unwilling to brush past closely, as if he smelled bad. They made the extra effort to sidestep him.

The stranger made people nervous.

An alarm bell began to signal in Woods head. The fresh scars from Afghanistan were still bleeding in his mind. He recalled his training, the impressions he had received on his very first tour of Afghanistan, embedded in him by a Israeli IDF Shin Bet operative.

The 12 ways to identify a suicide bomber.

They almost always exhibited the same behaviour.

They were all unprofessional at it.

After all, they’re amateurs at blowing themselves up.

This is their first time doing it.

No one gets another chance at doing it.

Nor does anyone get another chance at stopping it.

Woods dropped his carry bag, lifted his shirt to check the Glock 19 in his waistband and immediately starting running.

Chapter 3: Alexanderplatz

There are 12 ways to identify a suicide bomber, intoned the Israeli captain to the class. Woods recalled looking up at the dot points and the dark commentary that came along with them.

Point 1: If the suspect is male, check for a fresh shave.

Most of these men will be sporting a slight colour difference on their lower jaw. This is because they want to look less suspect. Keep an eye on whether the skin is lighter around the mouth and the jaw. They want to blend.

Point 2: IED-borne insurgents will be wearing suspect clothing.

Vests are awkward and so are belts. Large coats, outdoor jackets, those padded vests, all of them are suspect and are commonly employed to break up the form of the vest underneath.

Point 3: The suspect will have a robotic walk or shuffle awkwardly along.

There are 2 reasons for this. One, they are about to blow themselves up. Psyching yourself up to do something that rationally means not doing it, isn’t easy. But the real reason is because the vest is heavy. All that semtex, is fucking heavy. Not to mention all the other shit they have on there, like ball bearings, glass or even fucking cow-shit. Point is, if they’re walking slowly, or robotically, they’re loaded down and don’t want to detonate the damn thing early.

Point 4: Irritability

Point 5: Profuse sweating

Point 6: Tics

Point 7: Nervous behaviour

All of these are variations on stress. I don’t need to tell you boys, about stress. You know what it does and how it affects people. But combat stress is different to suicide stress. There is a lot to suicidal stress. Most of the time, it will take a normal person a lot of convincing and willpower to commit suicide. I mean, the damn act goes against the human survival instinct. But in this case, it’s about making sure you don’t get detected, it’s about slipping through the security net and not being held up by some well-meaning asshole that will cause you to detonate early.

Point 8: Most suicide bombers have been reported to have irregular breathing

Beyond the obvious weight of the vest, this is a psychological and physiological reaction to their task. Remember, everyone is new to suicide bombing. It’s their first time after all.

Point 9: Almost all suicide bombers have a blank stare before detonation

Opioids. This isn’t some 1000 yard stare because they are afraid of death. It’s the drugs in their system. We only know this, because usually the head is separated from the body in an suicidal blast. Especially with the way how these fuckers shape their charges. After all, the head is held mostly in place by gravity and limited neck muscles. All heads discovered about 100 yards from the site of detonation usually have an opium strip in their mouths. This is to calm them down and gives them extra motivation to go through with the deed.

Point 10: Most survivors report hearing mumbled prayers from the bombers

Prayers are normal. It is normal to hear repeated surahs and phrases from the Bible or the Qu’ran before detonation. It will often be said in a monotone, and serves as an enhanced psychological method to rile yourself into a religious fervour.

Point 11: Almost all bombers carry a large bag

Beyond the vest, there is usually a secondary amount of explosives in a bag. After all, you only get one chance of blowing yourself up. Might as well, go big. You can pack a lot more in a bag, with all the extra shit they love loading in. Shrapnel kills just as much as the explosive does. If you don’t die from the explosion, then it’s the infection that gets you later.

Point 12: Their hands are almost always either in the bag or holding a switch in their pocket.

We used to be able to stop guys from blowing themselves up. Pin them in a bear hug and they can’t reach the detonator. But now, they play it safe. They got it on a dead man’s switch or their hand is already ready to go without reaching for anything.

Woods remembered a student asking the Shin Bet expert on how the IDF dealt with such issues.

Easy said the Israelite with a fatalistic shrug

Gun them down in the head before they blow yours off. If you don’t …. it won’t matter either way then.

Woods felt this advice was keenly impressed upon his mind, as he moved through the Alexanderplatz Station, one of the busiest terminals in Berlin. Looking at his clock, he knew this was prime time.

Rush hour. 1745 HRS. A familiar time to hear IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) go off in Afghanistan.

Not quite so common in the heart of Europe.

The end of your shift. Everyone rushing home, eager to get some R&R, their attention on getting there, causing them to lose crucial awareness. Traffic was flowing hard and fast in both directions. People eager to make the train home and people eager to get out of the station towards home.

With 3 regional trains, 4 inner Berlin S-Bahn and 3 outer Berlin U-Bahn lines, there could be upwards of 2000 people alone in the station at any given time.

Taking out his recently acquired phone and slipping on the new glasses he had received, he activated both, going to a auspiciously named app “Handle Me!” and depressing the frame of the glasses to begin broadcasting his live tracking of the suicide bomber.

Checking that the glasses and the phone were connected, he immediately heard a slight crackle, as he placed the new headphones in one ear, the other one left aside to maintain situational clarity.

G. Woods, Whiskey Oscar Oscar Delta Sierra. Situation: Imminent ITA (International Terrorist Activity). Need TACINTEL on suspect stat. Get German BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst – Federal intelligence Service) up now.

A calm female voice immediately came through.

Wait one, Whiskey. London Station Chief coming online. Patching through your feed now.

Woods scowled to himself at the delay and mentally ran through the list in head one more time, just to be sure he wasn’t targeting a random person. The timing fitted all too well but he had to be sure.

Walking past a couple who were admiring the architecture of the attractive station, he angled his head and aimed his glasses at the profile of the man, before walking quickly further up, stopping down to pretend to tie his shoe and getting a front on view of the man’s face.

Everything screamed suicide bomber. Points 1 down to 12.

Woods felt his fingers brush the Glock 19 in his waistband instinctively.

~

In London, the CIA’s CTC (Counterterrorism Centre) Station Chief, a Machiavellian type political operator and former U.S. Army Ranger Captain, Richard Washington stared aghast at the huge Screen One that dominated the room, displaying Woods’ livestream of the events unfolding in Germany.

With over 50 people in the room, monitoring almost the entirety of Western Europe, the London CTC was home to some of the CIA’s best, brightest and ruthless intelligence analysts and hackers. More coverage, analytics and surveillance footage filtered on and off the 7 huge screens along the wall in a day, than a Wall Street firm, and Washington’s team was as adept as they came at processing raw information.

Give me CCTV’s eyes. I want to see if there are any more at Alexanderplatz. Screen Two.

Copy sir said one of the female technicians as her computer flickered through a dozen surveillance cameras.

I want a direct line to German BND, stat, and immediate coverage of all other major Berlin transport hubs. Screen Three. Patch BND to 2IC.

On it sir! yelled a male technician as his fingers immediately began hacking into a myriad of German transport hubs and bypassing firewalls.

Find out who is that asshole Woods is following. I want everything. Name, phone, emails, give me all of it, and put it on Screen Four. Any contact he’s made in the recent weeks, anyone he’s fucking travelled with. How he got there. Give me all of it.

Washington’s aide came beside him, a fellow Ranger who had served under his command, as a reliable 2IC (2nd in Command) as they came, John Watts.

Watts. I want you talking to BND. See if they got anything.

On it sir. Watts ran over to a technician who handed him a headset as he continued to ping the German intelligence service.

Give me a direct line to Woods. I want to talk to him.

~

Woods?

Sir.

I want you to be my eyes on this guy, follow him. If he tries anything … take him down. We’re gathering immediate actionable intel on him now. BND will be on record in 1 mike. Do you copy?

Copy Sir. repeated Woods robotically. He was too busy navigating the crowds to say any more. His eyes were glued to the bomber.

With his freshly shaven face, the bomber looked young, in his mid-20s. He could have been considered handsome, if it weren’t for the pockmarked acne scarring across his cheeks and mouth.

His brown eyes were glazed over, his jaw heavy as he sucked on an opioid strip and tried to murmur prayers at the same time. Beads of sweat ran down from his temple and onto his collarbone, into his clothes. The jacket looked heavy, and far too warm.

The backpack arced his back slightly, causing him to stoop slightly forward to compensate for the weight. His hands were tucked deep into the pockets of his jacket and there was even a visible wire bulging through the jacket’s sleeves as it led up into his body.

Woods’ every instinct screamed at him to pull the trigger.

Washington’s voice came over the earpiece.

Woods, BND has confirmed that they have been tracking this terror cell for the past 2 weeks, but did not receive any actionable intel on these guys. GSG-9 and SEK are on-route now. ETA 10 mikes.

We don’t have 10 mikes to spare. Where are the station cops?

Wait one.

Woods kept the bomber in his peripheral vision as he tried in vain to look less inconspicuous. However, the bomber seemed too focused on putting one step forward at a time, to notice the CIA operative standing less than 10 metres away from him.

Gun them down in the head before they blow yours off. thought Woods.

The Shin Bet operator’s advice rang clearly in his head.

Don’t stop at double-taps. Shoot them repeatedly in the head. Even the smallest amount of brain functioning, can depress a button. The only way to stop that, is to keep shooting.

Woods? interrupted Washington in his voice. Two undercover SEK operatives are making their way to you now. They should be coming up to your position in 2 mikes. South-entrance.

Copy. Tell them to get their weapons ready. The attack is coming soon. I can feel it.

Signing off, Woods kept following the bomber as he walked up a flight of stairs to the upper level.

To his horror, as the bomber neared the centre of the station, he noted 4 more similarly dressed men start to converge into the middle.

~

Washington’s face immediately paled as he noted Woods’ livestream focus in on the 4 other terrorists.

The entire CTC room grew quiet, as they realised the magnitude of the situation. The silence was a moment of sheer dismay, shock and the dawning of failure.

Then Washington heard Woods’ calm voice come clearly through the speakers and immediately, everyone sprung back into action, their hands moving in a blur across keyboards as they did whatever they could to prevent the incoming catastrophe.

I need execute authority. I can take out 4. But not the last guy. I need it now. Someone give me a sitrep on those SEK boys.

Washington paused. Every instinct screamed at him to hurry the fuck up. He looked over at Screen Four and began scanning the information gathered on the first suicide bomber.

He had to be sure. Executions weren’t decisions to be made in a haste.

Fara Harut.

Iranian born. An orphan. Adopted early by a state sponsored religious school with suspected strong anti-Western indoctrination practices. The perfect candidate for terrorists cells.

Washington skipped ahead to Harut’s last recorded movements, facial recognition placing him entering Germany via Czech Republic. He was last seen with the four other men that were now converging upon each other in Alexanderplatz Station, over a month ago in Athens. They had split up upon crossing the border into Europe and made zero contact with one another until now.

Coincidences in the world of spies didn’t exist. Connections could always be traced back. Deja vu acted as confirmation not coincidence.

5 men, following basic operational security, to prevent detection. A busy train station at the peak of rush hour and nearly a month since the last attack in Spain. Enough time had elapsed to relax security services and thus, slip past the net.

All the hallmarks of a Sphinx’s train station attack.

Washington gritted his teeth and said the fatal words.

Whiskey. You have execute authority.

~

Woods kept his eyes focused on all five of the suicide bombers. They were not identically dressed. But all had the 12 boxes ticked. One of them, even had the decency to look nervous and afraid.

Looking behind him, Woods noted the undercover SEK (German SWAT Unit) policemen coming up the stairs, and was pleased to see how well armed they were with MP5 submachine guns. With their civilian clothing boosted by ballistic armour and balaclavas, they looked more paramilitary than regular armed forces, but that was the idea.

The crowd parted for them like Moses in the Red Sea.

Woods motioned towards them and waved them forwards. The officers, having been briefed by BND, immediately closed in behinds Woods as he pointed out the five men.

Both pairs of the SEK officers’ eyes widened and stiffened into shock. Both men had never dealt with suicide bombers before. One of them, the younger Officer, asked Woods shakily on how to deal with such a threat.

Woods replied coldly back with an echo from his past lesson: Gun them down in the head before they blow yours off.

Motioning that one of the officers had to stay back and warn civilians away, Woods took the other officer and told him to stay at the right flank, whilst he moved left of the group of 5 men. He also stole an extra magazine for his Glock from the officer’s belt as he moved past the crouched policeman.

Anyone I miss … you kill. said Woods firmly to the SEK Officer who nodded nervously and tried to hide his shaking hands.

To his relief, Woods noted that the five men were still standing near each other, their chanting and prayers beginning to pick up in volume slightly.

People were beginning to catch on and whilst panic had not quite set in yet, it was a hair-trigger away from full blown pandemonium.

Woods knew this was his only chance.

In his appendix holster, he had 1 spare magazine. 17 rounds + 15+1 in his actual Glock 19.

Another 15 rounds in his back pocket, from the SEK Officer who didn’t realise he was missing a magazine from his belt.

47 bullets.

This was going to be close.

Woods moved directly towards the five men, as they began to split up. There was no point in detonating all at once. You didn’t kill as many people if you all went up together. Structural damage and psychological terror could only be achieved through multiple blasts that threw people in every single direction.

This would buy Woods time.

Precious seconds.

The closest terrorist began moving closer to Woods, his eyes focused on the floor, his hands coming out of his pocket, as the station’s clock began the final countdown to 6pm exactly. A mental countdown started in Wood’s mind. He had a total of 10 seconds.

Woods felt his Prince persona shine through and without hesitation, he lifted up his henley shirt with his left hand, and gripped the Glock 19 with his right.

The palm of his hand smacked into the butt of the dark pistol, and his fingers curled around and snatched the weapon up and outwards, his left hand meeting both the pistol and right hand halfway through, before they continued in unison into a firing position, elbows slightly crooked, the back sight and front sight lining up level to his green eyes.

4 sharp cracks in rapid succession, echoed dominantly around the central chamber of Alexanderplatz.

Bame! Blam! Blam! Blam!

The atmosphere of the entire station changed in an instant.

The muted German pop music that once dominated the station’s rhythm; aiding in people getting home in a hurry and creating a sensation of safety, was suddenly drowned out by screams, mass hysteria and the sounds of thousands of feet moving in unison.

The sound of hundreds of people running in every direction, activated in everyone a primal urge to flee. It didn’t matter what the threat was, the average brain was locked in a rictus of fear and panic, and that was all Washington could see on the screen, as what was once orderly was now chaotic.

Countless people were screaming, running, jogging, sprinting in every which way, hysterical and panicked. Just as many were standing equally still, frozen before the mass of movement, unable to comprehend the situation before them.

People were bowled over in the stampede. Bags flew in the air, as did bodies, as the crowd tripped and fell atop of each other. A man could be seen desperately tucking his feet up on the station bench, his newspaper torn in two by careless limbs.

Confusion reigned supreme, as the CTC staff looked on in horror. Then one of the technicians noted Woods advancing through the crowd, the lone SEK officer doing his best to follow with his clunkier MP5 submachine gun and placed the CCTV grainy footage on Screen 1.

Washington noted the bleeding corpse that the Prince had casually stepped over, as he moved through the crowd with ease, the blood rapidly spooling out from the four headshots that the Prince had inflicted within a blink of an eye.

Squinting hard, Washington watched with concentrated horror and encouragement as the Prince moved within five metres of the next terrorist.

He cheered inwardly, as another 5 rounds were expelled from the Glock 19 in the Prince’s hands, somehow magically missing everyone that ran in between and beyond, and slamming directly into the second terrorist’s head.

The rounds, snapped the terrorist’s head to the side, flinging him down to the floor, his finger unable to depress the button that would activate the detonator.

By now, the crowd was slowly beginning to thin out, people aware that the action was all occurring in the middle of the station and learning to avoid it.

The SEK officer was still desperately to try and aim at the target Woods had told him to, but his fear of hitting a civilian was too great and he couldn’t press the trigger. He froze, his finger desperate to press inwards, but his mind unable to commit to such a dangerous action. None of his training had prepared him for this moment.

But he kept moving closer towards the threat. His duty overriding his fear.

He looked across at the Prince, gasping as he watched the Prince ruthlessly trip a sprinting woman to the ground, causing her to fall heavily, but open up his line of sight to the third terrorist who was slowly catching on to what was happening and beginning to turn around to face the Prince.

The Prince’s seven rounds crossed the 10 metres that separated them in a split second and impacted heavily across the man’s face, ripping through his eyes, brain, jaw and cheeks, the final round neatly severing the medulla oblongata, causing the terrorist’s outstretched hand to never function again.

With his immediate twelve, two and eleven o’clock target dealt with, there were now only two terrorists left, his original suspect, Fara Harut and the final terrified bomber in front of him.

The execution of the three men had elapsed the Prince’s precious inner timer down to 4 seconds remaining.

An example had to be made. The Prince’s right thumb depressed the magazine catch, as his left hand swept down, and took out the spare magazine in a smooth and robotic motion, a rehearsed manoeuvre that took only a precious second.

The Prince’s left hand swept upwards and into the base of the pistol, before wrapping around the right hand again. His right thumb released the slide catch, and the Glock’s slide slammed forward, chambering the first round.

The green eyes never wavered behind the pistol sights and the Prince kept moving forwards, his right index finger a blur, as the scared terrorist, in a sacrificial gesture, stepped between the Prince’s Glock and Fara Harut behind him.

The entirety of all 17 rounds of the Prince’s Glock slammed into the terrified man’s head, somehow the terrorist’s body staying upright under the onslaught of 9mm rounds. His face completely disappeared under the weight of the fire, chunks of flesh, brain, blood and bone spraying outwards as round after round slammed in a move so fast, that it actually stunned Fara Harut, whose fear was now palatable as he beheld the Prince.

However the Prince’s final reload would take too long. He had reach into his back pocket for the final 15 round magazine he had taken from the SEK Officer.

The SEK Officer in question, who had only just received an emergency call from BND and was looking forwards to a hot dessert after his shift. A man who told his younger partner to take the safer job of warning away civilians.

It was he who noted that it was now too late for the Prince to do anything about Harut. The Officer was only a mere 3 metres away from the S-bomber, having fought his way through the crowd to get a shot in with his MP5.

He knew the Prince’s plan, had prayed that it was going to work without his cooperation, but could see it was going to fail and was resigned for this very eventuality.

With a final look at the Prince, whose hands were blurred in a reload, the SEK Officer gritted his teeth, sprinted forward and tackled the bomber. The momentum slid them towards a support pole, that would take most of the blast.

He closed his eyes, as Fara Harut opened his and screamed despairingly.

The terrified terrorist pressed the button.

The Prince’s persona left Woods as his survival instinct took over the moment, he saw the SEK Officer make his move.

Dropping his pistol, he spun on his heels, dove for the floor, and rolled behind a sturdy food stall selling snacks and drinks.

Clamping his hands over his ears and burying his head as low as it could get into his knees, Woods shut his eyes.

He felt it first in his chest, then he heard a cavernous roar and then nothing.

The Prince sunk into an eternal darkness where nothing could hurt him again nor would anything comfort him for an eternity.

Chapter 4: Londonistan

Richard Washington looked at menu of the high-end London restaurant and found that he couldn’t quite stomach anything rich or hearty.

Grimacing, he ordered the overpriced eggs benedict, with sliced cherry tomatoes and an extra serving of hash browns. It was too filling of a breakfast, but there was nothing else simpler on the menu. Checking his watch, an elegant yet striking all-steel Doxa SUB300 Professional with an orange face, he frowned when he realised that his English counterpart was running a minute late.

Spies, whenever possible did not run late. In a world, where so many things happen so quickly and rapidly with huge ramifications, precision and timing was the key to success.

To be late, was to take chances.

To take chances in this business, was to play with lives.

Washington smiled with relief when he finally saw a man with impeccable English tailoring enter through the front door, his grey hair shorn short for style and ease of maintenance.

His suit was double breasted, and cast in an elegant dark navy blue, with a classic English striped necktie to complete the look. He shrugged off his coat and handed his umbrella to the waiter who nodded and gestured towards Washington.

Washington stood and beheld the head of the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service), James Ashford, a descendant of a legendary Cold War spy now striving to prove his own value.

An old school patrician and classically trained in Oxford, Ashford seemed like the typical public servant, were it not for his own exploits across Asia, where he rose to prominence and notoriety during the handover of Hong Kong in 1997.

He had vehemently opposed the move, having seen the threat China posed to the people of Hong Kong early on, but was overruled.

Incensed, Ashford, under the noses of his masters, continued to operate his secret network of spies and sources, providing the SIS with valuable intelligence on Chinese trade movements and development in Hong Kong.

It was not until one of his most trusted sources finally broke cover that Ashford revealed the extent of his network to his paymasters, who were shocked by the extent of the deception and high grade intelligence.

The daring management of such valuable intel, earned him the most vaunted seat of Chief of the SIS and new headaches. Washington and Ashford got along well, having fast become friends after recognising similar values in each other.

Sitting down, Ashford motioned for the waiter to bring a strong cup of fresh coffee and he swiftly ordered a full English breakfast. The waiter nodded and walked away to fulfil his order.

Richard. You look awful.

Same could be said about you, James.

Ashford smiled wryly. Just as well I don’t have any plans for heirs.

I don’t think any self-respecting woman would consider you Ashford. You’re too much of a hard bastard for them.

Speaking of hard bastards murmured Ashford quietly. How is the Prince?

Washington waited as the waiter came around and delivered a fresh jug of coffee and orange juice. Just as the first waiter disappeared, a second efficiently came from the kitchen, her hands holding aloft their breakfast. With a flourish, she handed Washington his eggs benedict, and Ashford his English breakfast, before asking whether they wanted pepper.

Both men nodded and took appreciative bites out of their breakfast before continuing.

He’s already out.

Ashford’s hands paused mid-fork, momentarily stunned by the three words.

He’s discharged already?

Yeah. He just had a mild concussion. That stall he hid behind took the brunt of the damage. The SEK Officer, Bruno Muller, saved the station and his life. The blast was definitely smaller because of Muller’s sacrifice, however Alexanderplatz Station will be undergoing major reconstruction work to replace the support beam.

I’m sure you’ve already seen the footage we’ve sent over. The Chancellor is furious about this whole debacle.

Ashford grimaced and sipped his coffee. The footage captured on CCTV was horrific. But were it not for the actions of Muller and Woods, things would have been catastrophically worse.

As it stood, the death toll was limited only to the 20 people who were nearby the blast at the time. A miracle by all means.

Yet despite rigorous electronic scrubbing, they had been unable to catch all the footage that showed Woods coldly drawing and gunning down multiple terrorists in a hail of rapid gunfire.

It was fortunate for his OPSEC (Operational Security) that most of the footage was extremely blurry and within minutes of random posting on various sites, the NSA (National Security Agency) stepped in. With an advanced program, they effectively scrubbed Wood’s digital footprint off the internet with no-one really being the wiser.

What footage did remain was highly censored and doctored. Political parties on both sides were clamouring for Woods. Most were proclaiming he was a hero and whilst others decried him as a murderer.

Several fringe terrorists groups were eager to claim responsibility for the attack and had already revealed the names of the terrorists, lauding them as martyrs for the cause.

The fallout after the attack, politically wise, was intense. Washington was expected to appear before a Senate hearing within 2 weeks for his actions. He looked forwards to it, as much as he did a kick in the teeth.

But the intelligence community were quick to rally. To obscure and obfuscate the truth and leave the public in blissful ignorance. Already the London CTC had created an alibi and turned the truth of the incident into a digestible lie.

Richard Washington would keep his job, despite the Alexanderplatz debacle.

To aid in furthering cloud Wood’s OPSEC, the NSA even leaked a story about Woods being an Israeli intelligence agent through several Facebook alt-right groups they controlled.

Within hours, the Mossad denied it, fuelling the fire for many of the conspiracy theorists who were all too aware of Israeli techniques when it came to suicide bombers.

The feared Israeli intelligence service’s staunch denial served only to convince the conspiracy theorists that it was the doing of the feared and much vaunted Mossad assassins.

Ashford looked at Washington bemusedly, keenly aware that it was he who cleverly twisted the narrative and pinned the blame on Mossad.

Doubtless there was an angry phone call from Tel Aviv in the morning regarding such political scapegoating, but it was harmless and done out of protocol. After all, the Israelis had created the playbook when it came to terrorists, and privately it was assumed they approved of such tactics and deception.

One could even interpret the phone call as congratulatory instead of a critique.

How’s Schindler? Ashford asked as they continued their breakfast.

Washington dabbed the corner of his mouth and replied.

Rumour has it, he might be stepping down from the BND. But that’s sort of thing always spread after an attack. I doubt it will happen. He’s too important for this fight. Watts is on his way to Berlin now to debrief the TIOC (Terrorism and International Organised Crime).

Ashford nodded approvingly.

Tobias Schindler is too clever to get politically ambushed. I agree with you, Richard. He’ll survive this one. Besides if the stories are to be believed, he has far too much information of the Parliament to lose his seat.

There’s a grain of truth to that. I’ve heard enough chatter to be aware. said Washington wolfishly. What’s new on your end though? Whiskey will be your asset in a couple of hours soon.

Ashford met Washington’s eyes and said coldly, Under no circumstances, are we going to allow something like Alexanderplatz happen in London. We’ve only got 3 days till Valentine Friday and I’ll be damned if the Sphinx is allowed to detonate anything here.

You know that he’s going to be more ambitious right? For him, London is personal.

How so? asked Ashford confused. He’s never struck on British soil before.

Washington looked at Ashford seriously and shook his head.

Never mind. The timing of the upcoming attack, is going to make Alexanderplatz look like a picnic.

Ashford looked at Washington suspiciously, but let strange remark go.

I know. It’s why the Prime Minister has given me special consideration for the Prince.

It was Washington’s turn to pause, his fork frozen in limbo between his plate and mouth.

It’s that serious, is it?

Ashford nodded. Things have not been this tense since 2017 Manchester. The PM is adamant that no terrorist attack on London is to take place under any circumstances.

Washington shook his head. The 2017 Manchester terror attacks were the reason why these two men were so close. Joint failures from both of them, resulted in too many lives lost. It was an unmitigated disaster for both men, their failure to prevent the attacks from happening, bringing them closer in guilt.

Ashford held himself accountable and the subsequent guilt-riddled work lifestyle since, had destroyed his marriage of 20 years. Another sacrifice in the name of Queen and Country.

Washington sighed, knowing that he couldn’t keep important intelligence from his friend and slipped across the table, a thumb drive.

Ashford gave his old friend a puzzled look.

Destroy it after you’ve finished reading. warned Washington. The Sphinx’s Riddle might be a little less puzzling after you’ve read it.

~

Gabriel Woods stared at the small TV screen reliving the moment that had nearly killed him.

Sequestered away from the outside world, in a small flat in East London, Woods was flown into country by a private military contractor whose private helicopter was often requested by the CIA for covert insertion.

Upon landing at Heathrow Airport, Woods had immediately made his way to the long-term parking area and acquired new transportation in the form of an elegant but powerful grey Audi A6 sedan.

A common workhorse in the CIA stable, Audis were favoured for their reliability, ease of maintenance, discreet looks and ample functionality. The boot was one of its most attractive features, large enough to load bodies or weapons in without sacrificing horsepower for quick getaways.

Its’ exceptional handling was a godsend in the maze like streets of Europe and the spacious interior design also meant that comfort for certain SAC (Special Activities Centre) paramilitary types loaded for bear, wasn’t an issue either.

Fleets of these cars were readily available for all type of CIA personnel across Europe.

However, as Woods was reminded when he received his first ping from his new spymasters, he was now serving the SIS, the famed MI6 of English fame and notoriety.

Back under the pay of Queen and country.

Woods wondered what the Queen would make of his actions in Alexanderplatz, as he stared at the grainy image of him, gunning down 4 men in less time than it took for people to board a train home.

His stomach twisted when he saw the SEK Officer, Bruno Muller save his life by diving on top of the final suicide bomber, the original man who had set everything into motion and counter-motion.

Fara Harut.

Woods continued to remain transfixed to the screen, as he saw himself roll behind the stall, and then a second later, a white hot glare from the suicide vest vaporised Harut’s body and Muller was blown apart into disgusting chunks everywhere, his limbs flying in all different directions, as his chest remained on top of the primary blast, protected by his kevlar vest.

The explosion still had enough force to nearly disintegrate the food stall Woods was hiding behind and he watched as the walls folded over and crashed heavily onto his crouched body, knocking him down onto the floor that was beginning to run slick with blood.

He continued to watch as 10 minutes later, paramedics streamed in and began helping the wounded, with another pair of SEK Officers rushing in and identifying Woods. They carried him bodily to a stretcher and the ambulance that took him away, went in a different direction to the others.

The intelligence apparatus at work, eager to hide the involvement of one of their own.

However, there were dozens of grainy doctored images of him floating around everywhere. Already, a huge shitstorm on the internet had erupted over his actions, with people defending and contesting his actions. Thousands of comments on Facebook and Twitter called for him to be arrested alongside the terrorists responsible and hundreds more jumped on those comments to label him a hero.

The news was having a field day, interviewing several university professors who had already come forward, with the overall opinion seemingly expressing disapproval for Woods’ actions.

Woods winced inwardly as he heard a lecturer describe him as a “barbarian, a terrorist in his own right who violated the Geneva conventions and a stain on Western intelligence services.”

“What is the point of paying these intelligence services so much of our taxpayer money when they can’t prevent attacks like this? Are they so desperate and late to the crisis that they have to engage in a gunfight in a public train station? What if he hit an innocent person?” decried an outraged woman.

Uglier scenes followed, with footage of people being wheeled out from Alexanderplatz on stretchers and several eyewitnesses shakily telling their story on the news in unsteady German with poorly dubbed English.

“When I heard the gunshots … I thought it was a car misfiring. But then people came at me, screaming and running. I didn’t know what to do, so I also ran out and then I heard the explosion. It was horrible. I was praying the whole time.” cried a woman as a microphone was shoved in her face.

Switching channels, Woods saw footage from another media outlet, where a bespectacled and dishevelled man waved his arms animatedly and shook his head furiously at the notion whether Woods was a terrorist.

“He saved us, the man with the pistol and the glasses. I couldn’t see him, but he saved us. Wherever you are, thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. He deserves better than to be called a terrorist”

Sighing, Woods switched off the TV and stared blankly at the empty screen. He recalled the extremely quick debrief that Washington put him through, the London Chief reassuring him that he had made all the right moves.

Woods could only imagine the political snafu (situation normal: all fucked up) that was occurring in Berlin, Washington D.C. and London. Doubtless there would be ramifications for all parties involved, but as Washington had told him

You’ve got a job to do. Prevent the Sphinx from striking again. Focus on that.

Thumbing through the dossier that the SIS had given him on the Sphinx, Sofia and Harut, Woods placed it down and committed large chunks of crucial information to his memory before deciding on a plan of attack for tomorrow. His body had not fully recovered as well as he had liked on the private flight to England, and he knew he had to rest to prepare for the fight ahead.

Leaving the dossier open while he prepared dinner, a simple meal: spaghetti aglio e olio, Woods looked at the open photo of Sofia, the woman who was the courier to one of the most wanted terrorists in the world.

Attractive, svelte and non traditional for a Muslim woman, Sofia Sumarwata’s surveillance photos indicated a lot of independence for a woman who was raised in the oppressive environment of Iran.

She refused to wear a headscarf, was unashamed about baring her smooth, olive skin and was unapologetically Westernised.

However, closer examination of her records indicated that she was extremely devout to her Islamic faith and often practised all the rituals and tenets privately when she thought she was alone. Despite her Westernised appearance, she didn’t sleep around, nor did she spend a lot of time out partying at pubs.

A clever operative then. Perhaps not as classically trained as Woods, but capable of fooling the outside world.

Woods continued to read her profile, as he twirled spaghetti on the end of his fork, appreciating the meal, pleased to get away from Afghan food after months of undercover work in Kabul.

It was the little things that made life more bearable, thought Woods. For him, it was the spice and zest of home-made spaghetti, for Sofia, it was the time when she spent praying, facing Mecca.

Her signs of radicalisation began early, when she was engaged to a suicide bomber who detonated himself during the Iraq War, taking with him, 7 American soldiers guarding a checkpoint. After her betrothed’s death, she was bounced from terrorist camp to terrorist camp, moving all around the Middle East. Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine …. a courier for hire.

It was her skills as a honey pot, and a discreet messenger that caught the attention of Hassan Malik, the Sphinx. She fell under his spell, and it was her skills at managing and handling communication between terror cells that allowed the Sphinx to strike so often and ruthlessly.

The only issue was … there was no real sign of her being a courier for the Sphinx. The usual evidence of emails, phone records and paperwork turned up nothing for the boys and girls at London’s CTC. She was conspicuously clean.

Wood’s job was to discover what method she was using to communicate with terror cells and the Sphinx, then to go after the Sphinx himself directly.

Hearing a buzz at the door, Woods frowned and reached for his Glock 19. Holding it in his right hand and hiding behind his leg, he looked through the peep hole and slowly opened the door to reveal James Ashford with a pair of bodyguards in suits.

Evening Woods. May I come in?

Woods gestured with his head and allowed the head of the SIS into the safe room.

Chapter 5: The Queen’s Assassin

James Ashford looked at Gabriel Woods, aka the Prince, the assassin made famous for the murder of a member of the Royal Family and nodded brusquely before walking into the safehouse.

To explore Wood’s past, was to acknowledge that the best men for this particular lifestyle, had often been the most unsavoury types humanity had to offer. Criminals, dealers, murderers, hackers, assassins … the worst were often recruited for the endless meat grinder. Fringe elements of society that were sharper and smarter than the average citizen.

Not because they were inherently more skilled or blessed in terms of genetics, but because the environment they grew up in, combined with their willpower made them different. Deadlier, more likely to view violence as another means of communication than an abnormal act of aggression.

They survived, thrived even, on violence because only these types of people could survive for that long on the edges of civilisation. It was a life of predator besting another predator. Apex animals battling it out for the ultimate gift of living for another day.

But with Woods, it was a voluntary exile into the wilderness. He chose that life, and had become all the more skilled and terrifying because of it. He had all the opportunities that were provided for any child of a middle-income family.

A prestigious university degree, money to spend thanks to generous parents, popularity amongst his peers and friends, an long-term relationship with a gorgeous woman who had a statuesque figure and brains to match. Woods was even granted entry into the 22nd SAS, the most elite special forces unit in the world …

But the moment he could, he abandoned it all for the dark edges of society. He had a strange twisted sense of justice and he wanted to see it through, to test his mettle and will against something greater.

Woods dove so completely off the radar, it was largely presumed he was dead.

His family gave him a grave in a prestigious cemetery. His girlfriend of 5 years wept for him and maintained a photo of their time together on her study. His friends toasted him mournfully and moved on with their lives.

Woods gave it all up on a dare he made himself.

Years after his death, rumours of a prolific and skilled assassin began to emerge from the shadows.

It took the NSA and the CIA nearly 2 years to uncover his true identity.

2 years is equivalent to generations in the intelligence community. Whole family trees were wiped from memory in a month. To best the Western Intelligence community for 2 years was an achievement in of itself.

But, as a retired CIA Director once stated,

“There’s a reason why he’s called the Prince. He’s the best we’ve ever come across. A prince amongst thieves.”

His mind was blessed with a photographic memory, his tongue could twist languages and hearts with ease. His hands made him a natural marksman and he possessed enough calm temperament and patience to outlast and and outsmart his targets.

He was a once in a generation skilled assassin.

Legends of his kills spread quickly through the underworld. A high-ranking corrupt French officer here. An Iranian terrorist cell leader there. A Columbian cartel leader over there. He was untouchable. Unstoppable.

Both sides turned against him, but desperately wanted to hire him.

Then came his crowning achievement.

The murder of a Prince, and the new nickname bestowed upon him, as befitting one of the most dangerous men in the world. Upon murdering a corrupt Prince, the intelligence apparatus gave him the deceased’s title.

It was one of the most shocking assassinations in the 21st century. Not only was the Prince killed in his sleep next to an unknown woman, who mysteriously disappeared 4 hours later, his entire history was exposed to the world.

A Royal pervert unveiled to the world, a molester of underage children, a secret admirer of the occult and a world class manipulator of facts and lies.

This assassination took more than just his life …. the Prince’s character was torn to shred by the outraged public. A rampaging British public whose love for the Royal family was shaken to the core by the scandal, nearly resulted in a lockdown for London and Windsor Palace.

The SIS wanted Wood’s head on a platter. Airing out the dirty laundry was not the job of a complete stranger, especially because the secrets surrounding the Prince was theirs to keep and maintain and reveal at the opportune moment.

The next 6 months was spent searching under every rock, alleyway and city. Ashford himself headed the manhunt that saw him travel across every continent, always a step behind as he struggled to trace Wood’s movements.

A political rival’s death in Mumbai put Ashford close, literally a second’s hesitation meant Woods gave the SAS grab team the slip.

A Naval Officer’s expose and subsequent suicide in Argentina threw Ashford off completely.

The highly publicised death of a prominent nuclear engineer by his wife, after she found out his indiscretions in Iran shocked Ashford to the core with Woods’ brilliant manipulation of lies, facts and the truth.

The hunt finally drew to a close when a high ranking Politburo from the Xinjiang province mysteriously disappeared after his helicopter crashed mid-flight. Ashford was incredulous when his analysts came back with the report that this was the work of Woods.

The report was waiting from him on his desk, along with a handwritten note from his senior analyst.

Woods just made contact with me. Use this number to talk to him. Be careful boss …

James Ashford remembered how his hand had trembled slightly as he traced the call to a tiny house in rural Victoria, Australia, at a place called Tidal River.

It was as remote a town as could be, near the bottom of the world, a popular retreat for Victorians.

Ashford couldn’t believe it, when he heard the invitation to come down and visit him, Wood’s strange Melburnian accent throwing him off further. His paranoia was overwhelming him, but there was a innate sense of trust. After all, if Woods had willed it, he would have killed Ashford already.

So the head of British intelligence packed an overnight bag, flew down to Victoria, armed with only a single bodyguard, rented a Ford Explorer and drove for nearly 4 hours before reaching the tiny town.

They drove past the tiny retreat with its’ picturesque river cabins and stunning ocean views and onto a private road that plunged deep into the Australian bush. Ashford recalled slamming on the brakes several times for native fauna, as emus, wallabies and full sized kangaroos sped past.

When they finally arrived, they noted the ramshackle fence that separated bush from property and that the metal gate had been opened for them. Driving through, Ashford looked around and noted the twilight hours in which they had arrived. His bodyguard was scanning the surroundings nervously, uncomfortable with how exposed they were, as the car trundled along the dirt road, across flat, burnt grass.

After nearly a kilometre of driving, they noted the large lush green English oak tree that guarded the left side of the house that was perched atop a cliff, overlooking the ocean. A tiny staircase was visible beside the massive tree, no doubt leading down to the docks below where Ashford would later discover a Cessna 206 Seaplane and a Zodiac Milpro dinghy.

The house itself was moderately large, with a modern design aesthetic; large glass walls and a squarish design, the colours and materials matching the ocean. Dark grey stacked stone walls, were intersected with large glass panels to allow maximum visibility to the ocean.

Ashford could even tell that they were able to dim themselves in a instant, to give the house a cloudy look, allowing the occupants to see out but no one could look in. A structural defence mechanism.

It was an impressively contemporary house, a rugged and sturdy design, almost ugly in how it served to stand against nature instead of blending with the surroundings. During a storm, the building would be atmospheric in its brutality.

Ashford and his bodyguard parked the Explorer in front of the garage and walked out cautiously. The bodyguard was taking zero chances and had a compact MP5K on a sling under his outdoor jacket, gripping it nervously as they walked to the front door.

Ashford pushed it open, surprised at the little resistance the door offered and they entered the house of an assassin.

The decor was sparse but tasteful, with minimalist modern styling that made the house more spacious than it seemed. A handwritten note was left on the front desk, with a metal rack next to it.

Please leave your weapons here.

The bodyguard looked at Ashford who nodded. The man reluctantly unslung his MP5K and deposited his Glock service weapon on the metal rack.

As the pair of them walked through into the living room, Ashford noted that the fireplace was roaring and a still figure was tending to the logs.

Gabriel Woods turned and faced James Ashford and said casually.

Evening. Welcome to my humble abode.

Ashford asked slightly breathlessly

Are you the Prince?

Only in name and legend.

Ashford sunk into the comfortable Ottoman lounge and stared at the man who had caused so much chaos with his death. Taking a deep breath, Ashford started down the long list of questions he had built up over the past 6 months of the most intensive manhunt the British intelligence service had ever conducted.

The subsequent conversation covered both men’s upbringing, their history, their skills and Wood’s exploits. The list of crimes that Wood had committed across all 7 continents were almost too many to count. The beauty of death meant that Wood was a ghost, with the ability to breeze through customs and borders with all the ease and benefits of an actual apparition.

It was nearly 7am in the morning when Ashford sipped at the tea provided for him and finally came to the real reason why he had travelled all this way to the end of the world.

There must be a reason why you allowed yourself to get caught Gabriel.

I just wanted to meet my opposition. You came close several times. I can respect that.

You want back into the game again don’t you?

Woods shrugged as if to say What offer do you have?

Ashford laid out his terms. Woods countered. The discussion went on for another night.

But in the end, Ashford got what he wanted.

The Queen got her assassin

Woods also got his wish.

He was allowed to remain dead.

The loan to the CIA occurred after 4 years operating for Her Majesty’s branches, in which Woods would only ever report to Ashford directly. Upon hearing the success the SIS had been having after a mysterious operative had joined their ranks, the CIA pulled several strings and managed to secure the Prince’s services, putting him to work in Latin America before employing him to Afghanistan.

The bureaucracy and mammoth nature of the American war machine however, meant that the CIA could never quite replicate the success their British counterparts enjoyed with the Prince.

To be welcomed back into the arms of the British was something Woods was appreciated. After all, his deal was with Ashford and he much preferred the low-key operating style of the Brits over the Yanks’ more brash approach.

Woods politely greeted the two bodyguards that came with Ashford as they filed into the safehouse, leaving the standard issue Jaguar XJ L SUV outside.

As he followed them in, Woods noted the paper dossier in Ashford’s hands.

Noting Woods’ puzzled look, Ashford handed it over silently.

A gift from Langley. Insight into the Sphinx. Burn it once you are done. I’ll be over here, making some tea.

Woods frowned and sat down in the armchair, opening the dossier to reveal two pieces of paper, all that was left of the Washington’s thumb drive that he had handed to Ashford earlier that day.

James Ashford rummaged through the safehouse’s pantry, grumbling softly under his breath as he realised that it had not been restocked in a while. In the end, after an exhaustive search, he only managed to find a near expired package of McVitie Original Digestive biscuits, and four teabags of some weak English Breakfast brew.

Putting some water into the kettle and waiting for it to boil, Ashford looked over at his top assassin and wondered just how at the tender age of 31, Gabriel Woods had managed to carve such a large slice of history for himself. He wasn’t even near the end of his operational tenancy either, with at least another six more years in the field.

Thank God, he’s on our side thought Ashford. Imagine two Sphinxes or Princes working together.

Bringing the tea over to Woods and his bodyguards, Ashford sipped at his cup patiently as he saw Woods commit the document to memory before heading over to the kitchen stove. Placing a saucepan atop with the papers inside, he set the entire dossier on fire and tossed the ashes into a bin.

Any questions? asked Ashford.

Seems like I’m finding a mirror.

Ashford nodded.

Where can I find William Aitken nowadays?

Dead said Ashford bluntly. I attended his funeral last year. Heart attack.

Left any records of this?

None to my knowledge. William was a different breed of spy. His paranoia was intense, almost Stalinist. I am certain he would have taken this to his grave. He never made any mention of this while I have been running things. But he hasn’t worked for us in a very long time. Left in ’02. He was a strange type of handler. Almost too lenient to a lot of different things.

Sounds like it. A teenage recruit … this was always going to come back to bite you.

It was the 80s, our moral compass wasn’t exactly as strong as it is now.

Woods snorted sarcastically.

Right. Well, I’m shocked Aitken managed to turn him. I thought the Sphinx was too indoctrinated since he was trained in AQ (Al Qaeda) camps at an early age?

Aitken got to him before the AQ camps. He was the guy who told the Downing Street that we got a source in AQ when UBL (Usama bin Laden) was running things. Aitken recruited a young kid, trained him, turned him and let him loose into AQ.

Woods shook his head. A child-soldier … not exactly an asset worth revealing in a COBRA meeting.

I know it’s mentioned in the dossier, but what really went wrong? asked Woods.

We’re not sure, replied Ashford. That’s up to you to find out. Aitken is dead. Whatever relationship he might have had with Hassan Malik, he took to the grave and left us no actionable intel. I’m not even sure how the Americans found out about this. It’s not often Washington gets to pull something over me.

Woods nodded.

Well, whatever Aitken did to Malik, it was damn effective. The guy is just as much of a ghost as I am. Explains his vendetta against the UK though. We made him. What makes you think we’ll find him in a couple of days?

Ashford looked at Woods in the eyes and replied calmly.

You don’t hire a saint to catch a sinner and you’re the Prince amongst them all.

Chapter 6: With Love.

Being invisible in today’s world is not difficult. With the advent of smart-phones, wireless earbuds and ever increasingly feelings of self-isolation, a spy could be wearing an outlandish outfit and still be unnoticed for hours.

Dressed in a smart suit, Gabriel Woods stared out from a cafe on the corner of a busy London street, a newspaper in his hand, with a coffee mug in front of him. As stereotypical a “spy” pose this was, in the city of London, such behaviour was almost obligatory once you entered a English cafe.

With his deep cover now assured by the SIS and stripped of any American gadgetry, Gabriel Woods was now operating as quietly and efficiently as he used to in the days of his Prince career. Anonymously, low-tech and armed only with his instincts and the Glock 19 in a shoulder holster, hidden underneath his dark navy blazer.

Gone were the smart surveillance glasses, the disguised earbuds that acted as a microphone and recorder and the voices of handlers in his ears. The British were stubbornly steadfast in their old-school spycraft, and James Ashford trusted his man to such a level, that he allowed Woods to operate completely on his own and instructed the Queen’s Assassin only to report to him if absolutely necessary.

It was this unique freedom and trust that made Gabriel Woods agree to come back into the intelligence community. Only the British would give him this amount of leniency. There weren’t even any support units to assist him, the 14th Det, the usual grey men that tracked terror suspects across the UK, having been repositioned elsewhere to track other elements of the Sphinx’s cell.

The Prince was finally allowed to operate on his own, to his own discretion and rules.

Woods kept his eyes alert as he scanned the streets, occasionally turning the page of his newspaper to mime the act of reading and relaxing with his morning coffee. Le Petite Cafe made decent coffee, but it was their fresh baked goods that enticed the likes of Sofia Sumarwata, courier to one of the world’s most feared terrorists.

Situated as he was, outside the cafe, with very little opportunities to miss him, the moment Sofia Sumarwata made entry into the cafe, she would notice him. The Valentine’s Day deadline was approaching ever faster and Woods had to be bolder in his attempts to track down the Sphinx.

As his watch ticked over to 10am, Woods saw an attractive woman come down the street, her long shapely legs encased in figure hugging jeans and calf-length brown boots. Her svelte figure was accentuated by a matching brown long coat, and a flattering cream turtleneck.

As she drew closer to Woods, he felt his breath catch slightly, noting that photos of her in the dossier, did little justice to attractiveness of the woman walking towards him in reality. With her curly brown hair, tied loosely in a bun, soft brown eyes, full lips, and an attractive straight nose, Sofia Sumarwata stood out from the more conventional English Rose beauties around her, like a warmer sunrise.

Nodding politely to Woods, she went inside and ordered her baked goods in a English accent that sounded natural. Woods paid an absent ear to the exchange but there was nothing untoward about the conversation. As Sofia waited, Woods continued to look at his newspaper, resisting the urge to look behind him and into the cafe.

Holding her brown bag of baked goods, Sofia walked out and went back in the direction she came. Woods waited patiently for a good minute, when she had almost disappeared in the distance, before folding up the newspaper, and waving goodbye to the shop-keeper, who nodded politely.

For Woods, urban tracking was a skill that came naturally to him. He instinctively understood body language and a key component of ensuring you were never spotted following someone, was to read the target’s behaviour with great skill and perception.

Little gestures like slowing down their pace, hesitating before stops … turning around … Woods could anticipate and predict these gestures and knew how to break line of sight, often dodging into shops or simply hiding behind poles, turning his back on the target.

Such skill was often underappreciated by the target themselves, unless they were a professional, which to Woods’ suspicion, Sofia Sumarwata was. Her elegant pace never changed once, but her alertness was high, as judged by her constant scanning of her surroundings. Woods also noted that she was a taking very circuitous route to her home, which to his concern, was not where she was heading at all.

The distance between her flat and Le Petit Cafe was no less than 4 kilometres, a simple right angle route that would take her only 20 or so minutes to cover.

They were now in the opposite direction to her flat and Woods could sense that Sofia Sumarwata was heading somewhere else, somewhere where her every movement wasn’t observed by UK intelligence services and every single electronic item in her home wasn’t teeming with bugs.

Woods’ original plan was to introduce himself her at her home, stating that he had only just moved in to the flat near hers, using his considerable charm to present himself as the “affable neighbour” but now that plan was scrapped.

As his mind raced to determine where exactly Sofia was going, Sofia herself, made the answer known.

Stopping in front of a completely unknown building to the SIS, Sofia fished out an electronic fob and waved it in front of the card reader.

In the 30 seconds that the entire process had taken Sofia to enter the building, a myriad of things happened in Wood’s mind.

The apartment building that Sofia was entering, was extremely upscale. It was christened the Londowntowne, and was promoting itself to be a home away from home, one of those new fads where people could rent an expensive place out for a week and enjoy luxuries that couldn’t normally be afforded at home.

With its’ contemporary design, all glass, steel, obsidian rock and carefully placed greenery, the Londontowne was a symbol of modernity amidst all the history that ruled much of the capital that had stood for 2000 years.

Naturally, it was an affront of English sensibilities and was an attractive eyesore to all that beheld it.

Owning to the newness of the building, Woods realised that he could still enact his plan.

As Sofia was about to let the shiny, automatic doors close behind her, Woods rushed forwards and banged on the glass.

The sound startled her and she turned around, nearly dropping the bag of baked goods.

Sorry! I forgot my key fob … do you mind letting me in? half shouted Woods.

Sofia nodded, and opened the door for Woods to enter.

Thanks so much. I only just moved in here. said Woods breathlessly, as he mimed a man in panic.

It’s not a problem. replied Sofia as she balanced the bag in her hand, whilst reaching for the elevator button.

Woods and Sofia stared at each other as they waited for the elevator to arrive, before Woods made the first move.

Say …. weren’t you at the cafe earlier today?

Sofia looked at him puzzled.

I only say that, because I recognise that bag. Le Petit Cafe right? queried Woods.

Yeah …. oh wait, you were the guy at the front weren’t you? said Sofia, as recognition dawned in her eyes, along with what seemed to Woods, a trace of suspicion

Yeah that was me. smiled Woods in a placating manner.

Sofia looked at Woods more closely and sighed.

It’s not going to work. she said softly and quietly with an air of resignation.

There was a weariness in her tone, a quiet sadness that hinted at something darker within.

Any good spy knew instantly when their cover was blown. Woods hadn’t anticipated to be uncovered so soon, but then he was dealing with a fellow professional. Coincidences didn’t exist in the world of shadows. Both of them who each other was.

No more lies. Only the truth and a plea directly to the heart.

Woods didn’t reply to her, but merely ushered her in the elevator silently and looked at the buttons expectantly. Sofia pressed the button for the 9th floor. As they rode up in silence, Woods looked at Sofia with a blank expression, revealing nothing that was going on in his mind.

For the first time, in her life, Sofia felt a strange mixture of fear and hope blossom in her heart.

As the doors slid open, Woods checked both aisle of the corridors quickly before taking Sofia by the arm and leading her out gently. As they walked to the room 904, Woods kept his hands loose, ready to draw his pistol at any second.

How many inside? asked Woods intensely.

She shook her head. Woods glared at her and held out his hand for the electronic fob.

As the door beeped open, Woods motioned for Sofia to go in first, as he followed closely behind, his paranoia almost at a feverish pitch.

After a thorough search of the apartment, which was luxuriously furbished with contemporary aesthetics, Woods only found Sofia’s overnight bag. Going back, he motioned her to stretch out her arms. To his surprise, Sofia was completely clean. There was only her phone, wallet and keys.

Everything so far matching the intelligence gathered on her … whatever methodology she was using to communicate with the Sphinx was well-disguised. Her movements might be suspicious, but then so was the behaviour of people who cheated on spouses and that didn’t indicate mass murder on a international scale.

Motioning her to sit on the couch in the centre of the room, Woods took his place opposite her. He adopted a comfortable position, crossing his legs and leaning back. This only seemed to put her on edge further.

It was the tan, wasn’t it? asked Woods with a cold ironic sense of humour.

Sofia looked at him puzzled. She didn’t know how to respond.

Yeah I figured … answered Woods to his own question. Do you mind if I ask you something?

Sofia didn’t respond.

Do you love him?

Her brown eyes widened in surprise. She was unable to hide her true feelings

Of course you do surmised Woods. Why go through all of this if you weren’t in love?

It can’t be out of revenge. Your husband’s ghost has longed been silenced in your mind …

It definitely can’t be out of religious zealotry. I know you pray everyday, but your clothes, your lifestyle … it fights who you see yourself before God.

There’s no real money in all of this either … I mean …. all of this Woods gestured at the phoney apartment they were sitting in. I know you didn’t pay for.

So … if it’s not money, revenge, fanaticism or patriotism … why be a courier Sofia?

Sofia Sumarwata looked at the spy before her, his emerald eyes boring into her own, eager to uncover the truth behind her actions, her long career as a enabler of terrorist acts.

She was certain that he was working for the other side. He was far too well dressed, and had an strange accent that seemed to blend American, English and Australian inflections. Then there was the suspicious timing of their meeting. Why, with only 2 days until the Valentine Day deadline was a person meeting her, at her safehouse?

That was, until Woods asked her in fluent Farsi

When did you fall in love with Hassan Malik?

Sofia Sumarwata did a double-take at the change in language. The man before her was speaking in her mother’s Iranian tongue with a curious dialect that could only be mistaken for a native. Now confusion reigned supreme in her mind. She was unsure how to respond to the man before her.

It’s OK, Sofia, I am a friend. But I need to know that you are still loyal to the cause said Woods beseechingly in Farsi.

He was committed to this lie now. It was the only way forwards.

So tell me … when did you fall in love with Hassan Malik?

Sofia tore her eyes away from Woods, unable to speak. For some compelling reason, she believed him. Of course Hassan would send someone to test her on the eve of his biggest event. She had never felt lonelier than the past 6 months without him and here was a man who was part of the cause and wanted to know, so that he … no, Hassan could trust her still.

Holding back a big emotional sigh, Sofia told the Queen’s Assassin the whole story.

~

My husband was a man who looked after his family. For Hakim, there was nothing more important than his younger brother, Assad who loved to make trouble.

It all started with Assad, when he decided to join the Taliban in their fight against the Americans. Hakim didn’t want any part of it, because he was betrothed to me. He made Assad promise to only join, after we got married so that he could look after him better.

But Assad didn’t listen. Only a week later, he got into a firefight with an American squad patrolling our area. He managed to escape, but was wounded in the fight. This was on the night of our wedding. Hakim heard what happened, kissed me once and ran into the night to rescue his brother.

I was left alone, in my wedding dress, screaming for him to come back. He didn’t once look back at me.

Hakim never returned.

Because when he finally found his brother, Assad had bled out in a ditch, alone. That very night, he marched into the caves and demanded a vest. Of course they gave him one …. and he immediately walked over to the checkpoint that had been set up near where we were getting married and killed seven soldiers.

I heard the blast from my home and at that moment, I knew I had lost him.

My brothers later told me, that he was still wearing his wedding suit when he died.

I knew Hakim for 10 years. We grew up together, played football together, shared tea … He was my first and only ever crush. We kissed each other when we were 16.

Hakim and I made a promise to each other to stay together forever.

Then in one night, he was stolen away from me. By the Americans. By the soldiers who can’t seem to understand us, by men who think they have the right to decide what is good for our people.

Four months after Hakim’s sacrifice … someone came to my family’s home and asked for me.

They told me that if I wanted to honour Hakim, I was to enter the caves and be reborn a fighter.

They gave me a week to consider it.

I only needed two days.

The next six months, changed me forever. By the time I left the caves, I wasn’t a girl anymore. I had become a warrior.

My very first mission was when I first met Hassan Malik.

I never thought I would ever meet anyone like Hakim.

Hassan changed all of that. He knew I would be nervous and afraid. My mission was to lure an American Officer away from the base, so that we could capture him and demand a ransom. But I didn’t know how to.

Hassan showed me the way. How I could be more of a weapon, how I could use my feminine wiles to further the cause. How much of an asset I could be. How I could bring justice to the memory of Hakim.

How I could be loved again.

I’ve never made love to a man as skilled and gentle as him. I felt like a woman reborn under him. Hassan gave me more than purpose, he gave me life.

After that first mission, I didn’t see him again for months. I did what he asked and maintained a low profile. But I missed him terribly.

It was only in the spring of that year, that I finally saw him again. He was just as gentle as I remembered, as beautiful as the green grass that surrounded us and as warm as the desert sun.

I am forever his. I will never love another man, as deeply as I love Hassan now.

We used to chat online, but that became too dangerous.

Now … we just deliver food to each other. It is not the same, but that is the only way I can continue to communicate with my love.

~

The Queen’s Assassin left the latest eyesore of London and the beautiful, grieving, romantic widow only minutes later, his mind racing at the genius of the Sphinx’s terrorist cell communication method.

Before he left, he had comforted Sofia the best he could, with one hand around her heaving shoulders, throughout her lonely sobs. But his other hand was hacking into her cell-phone to extract all the meta-data hidden in her apps.

Somewhere, deep down, he pitied her, but he couldn’t afford to spare any true sympathy for her. Her love made her vulnerable to manipulation and at the end of the day, no matter how tragic her story was, it didn’t give her the right to create more widows like herself.

The genius of their communication methodology could not be denied though.

Through the use of Just Eat food delivery service, Sofia had been coordinating all the individual cells, at their safe houses, with encrypted messages added onto the food delivery in the meals. It would be brief sentences that would contain the encryption key for cells to unlock further instructions online.

This avoided unnecessary online communication that could be intercepted, and also made everything subtle, as delivering food could be seen as a kind gesture.

Even so, as Woods trawled through Sofia’s order history, she only made food deliveries occasionally, no more than once a day, to ensure the operational security was tight.

Hence why everyone missed the significance of this humble food app.

Gabriel Woods smiled coldly to himself. It was still early in the chase but he was closer to the Sphinx than anyone before him.

As he climbed back into his car, Woods checked his tail several times, making random loops around London to ensure no other operatives were following him, before driving back to his safe house in St James.

As Gabriel Woods began to make his dinner for the night and prepare his next steps for the subsequent 24 hours, he wondered what was going on in the Sphinx’s mind right now.

Chapter 7: The Riddle of the Sphinx.

The blue light from the laptop highlighted Hassan Malik’s sharp cheekbones as he stared at the screen intently. Reaching upwards with his left hand, he scratched his freshly shaved cheek thoughtfully, missing the feel of his beard.

With his intelligent brown eyes, olive skin, dark hair and square jaw, Malik was as charismatic as he was handsome. Adept at both charming his way through life and wielding a Beretta 92, Malik was an fervent study of history and military leaders. He almost always led the way in battle, his iconic royal green cloak, a rallying cry for lesser men across the chaos of a battlefield.

Muscular, tall and intelligent, Hassan Malik was the gentleman archetype, a jack of all trades, master of none, his smarts only matched by his prize-fighter like body. Sofia Sumarwata once described her beloved, as a man blessed in all facets of his life, an angel ordained by Allah himself to do His bidding.

As magnificent as a fighter he was, it was spy-craft that really spoke to Malik’s talents. His assassinations and deviously brilliant guerrilla attacks on NATO forces across the bloody fields of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria earned him the moniker of The Sphinx, simply because there was no one better at disguising his intentions and self.

His work set back NATO forces several months alone in their work across the Middle East, and with the backing of his Iranian paymasters, he was soon called to Europe, to strike at the heart of the beast.

A master linguist, he mastered French, German, Spanish and English during his conquest of Europe, and took great pleasure in outwitting the Continent’s finest, disappearing as rapidly as he appeared. His terror cells were so small and well incorporated into society, that it was nearly impossible to predict when or who would strike at any given time.

It was a compliment to his fearsome reputation, when Malik discovered that, within four months of his arrival in Europe, he shot to #4 on Interpol’s Most Wanted list. After 2 more attacks within a fortnight of each other, he claimed the number #1 spot.

It was Malik who devised the food delivery system of communication. For local attacks, Malik would use the country’s most popular food delivery service, but when it came to coordinating cells scattered across Europe, Malik had a much simpler solution.

The phenomenon known as football gripped the entire world with a manic energy that was unmatched in any other sport. But it was in Europe where football obsession hit its’ peak. Leagues in each country could count on scores of talent, passion, money and fans.

To disguise his movements and communicate safely with his cells, without any need for electronic means, Hassan Malik used multiple football games to provide lengthy 90 minute briefings in the safety of the crowd, with a particular short-hand language that was unique only to football. Travelling to and from the Continent, to support his favourite English Premier League team, was a move that thousands of others did with impunity on weekends.

Conversely, his cells could send a man over, sporting a La Liga uniform into England, to discuss any further attacks, with much of their conversation disguised into the vernacular of the game. Dates, times, locations and casualties estimations were disguised with scores, and statistics of the team.

A typical exchange between Malik and his terror cell leader could be:

We shall win in our game on the 12 of August against Madrid. There is no way, it won’t be a huge bloodbath, if we got the numbers on our side. (Strike at the heart of Madrid on the 12th of August)

What sort of numbers are those, mate?

You know, team player 90 and the two rookies, 15 and 7. (90 dead, if you strike at 15 past 7pm)

The meetings would continue onward, with Malik providing precise instructions months in advance at a single game, and the terror cell leader making notes on a piece of paper, that would soon be burnt in the comfort of the safehouse.

By using the 90 minutes of a football match efficiently and disguised amongst thousands of fans that looked exactly like them, Malik could easily slip in and out of countries with ease. In the case of an emergency, the game known as Fantasy Premier League provided an direct means of communication that was completely disguised behind the language of football.

For months now, Hassan Malik had waged war across the Continent, costing hundreds of lives and racking up billions in damages and political capital using food and football as his secret carrier pigeon. His entire campaign however had led up to this moment. His final decisive strike against the British, with the world bearing witness to the price the United Kingdom would pay for its’ hypocrisy.

All the soft attacks he had conducted across Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany and France and a brief venture into Austria and Portugal had left the British complacent. They felt reassured that the attacks were not happening on their home soil. That the war was a Continent concern only.

Hassan knew all too well the unique cultural psychology behind the British, and was keen to play their ideals of sportsmanship against them.

With each attack, he generated more and more concern amongst the likes of James Ashford and Richard Washington, but soon after months of stress and reassurances, Downing Street began to believe their own lies and dismiss Ashford’s concerns as paranoia.

As a result, security measures across the United Kingdom were relaxed somewhat, and to Hassan’s great pleasure all 7 terror cells that had caused so much destruction across Europe, were able to take a first class train ride into the heart of London, without a single security check.

For 3 weeks, the 14 hand-picked men for the greatest terrorist attack on a Western country since 9/11 stayed in pure isolation across London in their safe-houses, communicating only through bursts of Fantasy Football and one man from every pair occasionally meeting Malik at a football match.

The plan was 3-fold. Each pair were in possession of a rental van that would be fitted with explosives. Targeting specific popular tourists locales and high-end restaurants suburbs, they would trigger the explosives on the van, before taking advantage of the chaos to employ their AK-47 assault rifles, indiscriminately firing into the crowd. With 8 magazines each, and then a final suicide vest, the death toll would be in the thousands.

London would be left burning.

The perfect tribute to a woman he had lost in another life, fighting for a lie, a false country and an apocryphal Queen.

It was also the perfect message for the man who he wanted dead very badly.

With less than 48 hours until the scheduled attack on Valentine Day, Hassan found sleep elusive and wracked with dreams of failures. For months, he had been plagued by a spectral figure in his dreams, whose very presence unnerved him to the core and would leave him jerking awake, gasping for breath.

Malik knew better than to worry anyone about these strange dreams. However, he could not help shake off the ill feelings he had. There was a strange sense of inevitability about the spectre, that this figure would be the death of his work. He could only hope that this phantom wouldn’t stop him before he completed his mission.

Sighing, knowing that he would not find any more sleep, until the attack came, Malik shut the laptop down, closing the Fantasy Football app. Reaching out for his phone, Malik paused before calling Sofia, a strange sense of disquiet rustling his consciousness.

However, his emotional and physical needs overwhelmed the niggling sense of discomfort.

The ringtone sounded harsh in the sterile safehouse. It also went on for far too long.

Malik frowned when he got Sofia’s voicemail. She was always so quick to respond, no matter the hour of the day or night.

Texting her through the Just Eat app, he ordered a simple Lebanese dish that he knew she loved, kibbeh, and sent it through to her apartment. Now his paranoia was spiking furiously.

Could she be compromised? wondered Malik. Impossible. Malik concluded, but he knew deep down what he had to do. This operation was far too important to risk for a woman, no matter how much she meant to him.

Without hesitation, Malik shattered the phone and broke the SIM card, before slipping on a long coat. Looking at his reflection in the mirror, he propped the collar up to shield his face and his grief and walked outside with the remains of the phone, to throw into the Thames.

~

Gabriel Woods had his seat all the way down in his silver Audi A6, lying as flat as possible, watching the movements of Hassan Malik through the feed of a tiny Black Hornet Nano drone.

At only 10×2.5cm in size, the nano UAV was as surreptitious as they come, and could be controlled via a specialised app on a phone. Woods kept the drone as high as he could, aware of the noise it could create, despite the busy soundscape of London.

Woods frowned as he watched Malik made a circuitous route to throw the remains of his phone into the Thames. He was a consummate professional, always scanning his surrounding and pausing frequently to ensure no tails were following him. As Woods watched the splash from the phone recede, he knew that Sofia’s non-communication had alerted Malik.

Will he call it off? wondered Woods, as he kept watching Malik hustle past smiling couples through the tiny feed on his phone.

No. This is too important for him. The attack is too soon. He’s committed now. As is everyone else.

An effusive Ashford had already congratulated Woods on his work. Thanks to Woods’ interrogation on Sofia, the exact locations and timing of the attacks had been worked out. Sofia, herself, was held captive in a safehouse, unable to communicate with the Sphinx any longer. A four man protection detail patrolled the safehouse constantly.

Despite all this though, they were still in the dark where the safe houses that contained these men were.

This meant that they would have to stop the attack at the target. High risk.

It was time to call in Woods’ old unit, the infamous 22nd SAS to come in, and mop up the mess.

If SOP (Standard Operation Procedure) were to be followed, the next 24 hours would have the kill-teams furiously training in mock-ups of the area that they were assigned. 7 targets, 7 different locations, 7,000,000 ways for things to go wrong. The SAS teams would know each area like the back of their hand, aware of the millions of alleyways, sewers, bus routes, traffic patterns and a thousand other variables.

To stop a suicide attack, the men would be sharpening their marksmanship skills. Headshots only.

They would seek to limit the number of civilians around, and ideally take out the terrorists before they detonated the vans. To shoot them in the car, was too risky. Glass had a strange way of disrupting bullets and there was always a chance that there was a switch in the van that could be triggered by a dying body spasm.

This meant that the team had to ID the correct van, wait for the terrorist to jump out, then nail them all in one go, amidst a busy civilian population.

As one of the captains of the kill teams said bluntly in his concluding statement after a briefing.

7 million ways for this to go tits-up boys. So let’s get evil lads.

Woods though, had faith in his old Squadron. They were the best in the world. No other fighting man came close to the warrior that was a Blade. If anyone could prevent a Valentine Day massacre, it would be the 22nd SAS.

It was Malik that concerned him though. Whilst the attacks were going on, what was Malik going to do?

What are you thinking, you bastard? pondered Woods as he watched Malik thread his way effortlessly through London before disappearing from sight.

Woods frowned, confused as to how the Sphinx got away from his drone. Then he noted the London Tube entrance.

Shit.

The Sphinx was gone.

Chapter 8: Counter Revolutionary Warfare

1630HRS GMT – THE SAVOY HOTEL, STRAND, LONDON. 51.5101° N, 0.1205° W

2 Hours before the V-Day Attack.

Sergeant Will Anderson shifted in the seat of the blacked out Range Rover that held his fellow squadmates. As he looked out the window at the masses of people that were celebrating Valentine’s Day, he was reminded of the view he took in from the helicopter, as it inserted them into the capital city of England.

Flying through the darkness of dawn in a large CH-47 Chinook helicopter, Anderson watched as the green hills of Hereford slowly faded before the onslaught of civilization and roads began to appear more in earnest. His body was tired from the endless contact drills they had performed in the Kill House the day before, but his mind was still sharp.

The 50 man chalk in the Chinook were armed with a large variety of weapons, most of them sporting the iconic MP5 submachine gun newer and sexier replacement; the Sig Sauer MPX. Other members of the squad were using heavier, longer Sig Sauer MCX rifles and just a designated few, were armed with HK417 DMRs that were going to be crucial to preventing any escapees.

What was strange though, was their civilian clothes. Instead of battle dress uniforms, every single trooper was in casual clothing, with tactical vests, headphones and thigh-rigs strapped over a variety of jeans, cargo pants, hoodies, polo shirts and windbreakers. One man even wore a pair of chinos, a particular source of amusement amongst the lads, as they ribbed him endlessly about it throughout the whole flight.

Whilst some of the men chose to wear baseball caps, many preferred to strap their trusted bump helmets to their vests and backpacks and go without headwear.

Despite the fashion differences though, every single SAS trooper was heavily tattooed, and had on their person, a balaclava to conceal their identity and an IR Union Jack patch that could slapped on their vest to be identified as a friendly. They were all supremely fit men, striking the perfect balance between strength, speed and stamina.

Anderson, looking out the window, beheld the familiar skyline of London. He felt a surge of anger at the idea that someone was going to conduct a terrorist attack on home soil, and looked around the helicopter to see that the men had gone silent, their thoughts preoccupied with the job ahead.

Landing at a private airfield close to London, 50 of the most lethal soldiers on Her Majesty’s payroll strolled off the ramp of the Chinook casually, to split into 4 man teams. A CO and his 2IC peeled off into a fast Jaguar sedan that would take them to the control centre at the SIS HQ.

Anderson looked at his team, Bravo 2 to 4 and they quickly checked their personal radios so that they could hear each other on their discreet earpieces.

Bravo 2. Check.

Bravo 3. Check.

Bravo 4. Check.

Bravo 1. Copy all.

Anderson climbed into his car and stowed his MPX beside his leg, before shimmying in his seat, in a vain attempt to get comfortable.

The 7 SAS Range Rovers peeled off to their respective target areas, with the remaining 5 cars behaving like a QRF to wait in-between targets, ready to assist in any direction.

As Bravo 3 drove Bravo Squad to their target, the Savoy Hotel, Bravo 2 was busy in the rear, checking the squad radio that would allow them to coordinate with the SIS HQ, local Police and the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) teams waiting on standby for their signal.

It’s going to be a long wait, thought Anderson as they arrived at their spot early, parking the Rover in the best surveillance spot possible.

Nodding at the men, Anderson and his squad stripped off their vests, clipped their radios to their belts and buried their sidearms under shoulders or belts.

Piling out of the car in unison, Bravo 2 and 4 walked out, disappearing instantly into the crowd that would only build to a feverish pitch by 1830HRS.

Anderson pulled out a tablet and patched himself into the myriad of surveillance options that covered the surrounding 5 blocks. Meanwhile, Bravo 3 began to drum his fingers on the wheel, anxiously scanning the crowd around them, a rhythm that would slowly grate on Anderson’s patience, but he was too busy to tell him to shut it.

The tablet flickered constantly, as it flicked through hundreds of live footage, little squares appearing over people’s faces as it scanned them for any distinguishing features.

Thanks to the Prince’s intelligence, the SAS kill-teams had memorised the faces of every single terrorist member that threatened to wreak havoc. Bravo squad’s particular terror cell, comprised solely of 2 men, Abdul Hussain, an Saudi national and Yusuf Amin, a devout Pakistani. Whilst Abdul was tall, handsome and lithe, with a trendy haircut, Yusuf was stockier and quiet, and walked with a limp, the result of a brush with a landmine as a child.

It was also thanks to the Prince, that the SAS teams knew the timing and location of all the attacks. They were even aware of the vans that had been loaded with high explosives, the fact that both men would be armed with AK-47s and suicide vests and the exact timing of when it would all occur. For the SAS kill-teams, this was intelligence of the highest order, the critical difference between mission failure and success.

The only thing now, was to wait for the van to appear.

What made their job highly difficult, was the van. The terrorists had to get to a safe distance before detonating, thus buying the team precious time to defuse. However, Woods had been unable to ascertain the type of bomb that had been placed inside.

Which meant that EOD teams had to work fast. It would not take long for the terrorists to get clear, before remote detonating the bomb. Even then, there was a possibility that it was on a timer and the bastards were just going to run clear and then start shooting everyone on sight.

Anderson didn’t like any of this. His team could handle 2 trigger-happy ragheads, but the van was the real problem. They needed that intelligence on the bomb, but there was no real way to figure it out. The poor EOD boys would have their work cut out for them. There was every chance that they weren’t going to make it.

~

Anderson and his squad rotated throughout the day, as they watched the entrance of the Savoy through various “eyes”, around the area; drones, CCTV and actual eyes on the site. Then, as Anderson’s tactical watch ticked over to 1840, shit got real very fast.

A white Ford Transit Van, one of the common vans in the world, appeared out of traffic like a slow-moving spectre. Bravo 4 clocked it instantly and whispered into his throat mike.

Bravo 4, to all elements. Target Van in sight. Approaching AO from South side.

Bravo 1 copy all. Anderson looked over at Bravo 3 and they both slipped on their tactical vests. Things were happening fast now.

Bravo 4, tracking the van now. It’s driving really slow.

What the fuck?! came the voice of Bravo 2 from the other side. All elements, there’s another van! West junction.

Sergeant Will Anderson’s blood ran cold at the message. He flicked on the surveillance footage from his tablet and audibly gasped. Nearby, Bravo 3’s finger drumming got even more intense as he realised the situation.

There were 4 vans, all converging slowly towards the Savoy Hotel, from all the major compass points. North, East, West and South.

How the fuck are they doing this? screamed Anderson internally. Did we really get bad intel?

It was then, the calm, stern voice of James Ashford came over all of the SAS troopers’ microphones.

All UK elements, we’ve only just received new intelligence from the Prince. The terror cells are using drones to guide their vans to the target area. Remote detonation has been confirmed, as has the type of bomb kit they are using. Schmatics are being uploaded to your tablets now. Hurry lads, you’ve got 10 minutes before these vans detonate. As for the whereabouts to the terror cell, assume they are in the immediate vicinity, using remotes to control the vans.

Anderson watched as his tablet flickered to show the blueprint of the bomb. As it flickered, both men in the Range Rover began setting timers on their watches.

All Bravo Elements, we have 4 vans, 4 bombs. We need to split up and get each one. We now have 9 mikes to defuse. Get aboard that van and get those bombs. Once we get those bombs, rallypoint Charlie. Final things lads, the detonator is your standard IED electronic fuse. Cut Red, Green, Yellow in that order.

Bravo 2, Red, Green, Yellow. Copy all.

Bravo 4 copy. Boarding vehicle now.

Anderson made a call to the control centre.

Control, this is Bravo 1, I need a tech on hand to guide my lads through everything.

Bravo 1, Control. Affirm. Oscar 1 through 4 shall guide Bravo 1 through 4.

Bravo 1, Oscar 1 to 4. Affirm. Out.

Beside him, Bravo 3 gave a final nod to Anderson before dashing out, making his way for the North van. Anderson, clambered out of the Range Rover and yanked his MPX submachine gun around his neck, before he began sprinting for the East van, his breath roaring harshly as he yelled at people to get out of the way.

Move! Police coming through. Move! Move!

A feminine voice came crackling through his mike, her tone serious and emotionless.

Bravo 1, this is Oscar 1. Continue for another 100 metres then turn right, suspect van will be directly at 12.

Anderson didn’t waste his breath, instead pressing a button on his microphone to confirm the message.

Seconds later, the SAS trooper rounded the corner, and beheld the van, which was now idling in traffic, ignoring the chorus of horns that were blaring behind it. Time was running out.

In normal circumstances, Anderson would have gaped at the sight of a driver-less van, powered by an intricate remote steering mechanism. But his training had taken over.

This was the key difference between an ordinary soldier and special forces. The indoctrination and intense training in the SAS, had created an Anderson that could rationalise, identify and assess situations in a split second and perform fine motor skills without hesitation or fear.

Anderson didn’t stop or hesitate. He ran around the back of the van, and unclipped his multitool from his tactical vest.

Using the window-breaker, he smashed open the back windows and roughly brushed aside the shattered glass with a gloved hand, reaching in to open the door latch.

As the door swung open, Anderson caught it before it opened too wide, swearing in a monotone as he noted the wire that was attached to the door to the bomb. Had he not caught it, it would gone off prematurely.

Bravo 1 to all elements. Watch for booby traps. My door was rigged to explode if opened too far. Proceed with caution for defusal.

Bravo 2 copy.

Bravo 3 affirm.

Bravo 4, understood.

As Anderson jumped into the back of the van, shutting the door behind him, he snipped the wire that linked the bomb to his only exit.

The bomb looked bloody big as he crouched before it. Anderson felt fear and nervousness began to course through his body.

Every single SAS trooper had done the same course. But back then, the lads were fucking around and knew that the detonator wasn’t wired up to real explosives. Many guys mimed being blown apart, and the insane number of yelling “BOOM!” as a newbie tried to defuse one was too many to count.

That was in the safety of Hereford. However, the moment when a trooper had to defuse an IED in the real world, nothing felt funny anymore. With each year into the Afghan war, more IEDs were claiming the lives of Blades, and the jokes soon disappeared. Demands for the course became more and more extensive and realistic, to the point where the “bomb” would actually create a wisp of smoke and enter the final phases of detonation to hammer in the stress.

It was this training, constant repetition and quashing of nerves and fear, that ensured Anderson’s gloved hands were steady, as they touched the huge bomb inside of the van.

Occupying the entire back wall of the van, the bomb was crudely but ingeniously designed. There were a dozen cheap blue barrels of stolen ammonium nitrate that lined the walls of the bomb, and were clustered in the centre of the cargo hold. Whilst he couldn’t see inside the barrels, experience warned him that they were doubtless packed with sewage, ball bearings, nails, marbles and glass, to ensure maximum damage and carnage.

After all, the initial blast was small for what it was, because the van’s shell would take a lot of the initial blast within itself. But the millions of frag pieces (fragmentation) was the true destructive force. Dirty shards of glass and metal would fly everywhere, piercing skin at the speed of a bullet, horribly infecting the wound and thus leave any survivors with less chances to survive.

Anderson, like many of his fellow troopers, took some small consolation that if the bomb was to go off, their end would be instantaneous.

Peering at the bomb’s primary unit, and the masses of wires behind it, Anderson silently thanked the Prince for his timely intelligence, as even an EOD team would struggle to defuse the bomb. A part of him wondered how the intelligence asset managed to obtain such intel, but that wasn’t the priority now.

All he had to do, was cut the wires, Red, Green and Yellow.

As he snipped the first red wire that led into the primary detonator, a triangular unit that held the two primary fuses together, he felt his heart accelerate as the small digital readout went from a solid red “ARMED” to blinking scarlet rapidly.

Then to his shock, the van began to roll forwards, throwing him back into door of the van. The terrorists, aware of his plans, and eager to put a stop to it, was now sending the vehicle straight towards the Savoy.

Diving forwards and swiftly cutting the green wire, then the yellow one, Anderson heaved a huge sight of relief when the blinking readout cut out and went completely black.

Gingerly pulling the fuse out, Anderson slowly backed out of the van and shut the door behind him, as uniformed police officers came running up, the infamous SCO19, late to the party.

Anderson pointed at the van and his IR UK patch, emblazoned across his tactical vest, before remembering that he still had 2 murderous terrorists in the immediate area. He yelled at the officers that the bomb was defused, and that the van was inert.

Despite the van still continuing to roll forward, Anderson took off, ignoring the confused cries of the officers behind him, and the fact that one brave SCO19 officer, threw his rifle to the ground and had run alongside the van, smashing the driver window with his elbow and stomped on the brakes, by throwing his body half in the van’s cabin.

Sprinting back to the car, which was designated rallypoint Charlie, Anderson keyed in his throat mike.

Oscar 1, sitrep.

All Bravo elements have defused their bombs. Bravo 2 is already back at rallypoint Charlie, Bravo 3 & 4 are on track to meet you there at the same time. When you are at the rallypoint, check West, we’ve traced the signal from the vans to a building there. Wait, is that you running, no, no, no … Bravo 1, STOP!

Sergeant Will Anderson, Bravo 1, SAS soldier and decorated veteran, heard the warning of his SIS handler, and immediately dove behind a car, as he saw one of his team members, Bravo 2, take a fusillade of bullets that caused explosions of blood to erupt all over his body.

His tactical watch ticked over to 1900HRS.

The attack on London had begun.

~

Enraged that their initial attack had failed, the terror cell poured out of the building that they were hiding in and immediately located the SAS team that had foiled their plans. Seeing one of the members alone, Abdul Hussain tapped Yusuf Amin on the shoulder and together they racked their AK-47s’ charging handles.

Whilst Hussain’s eyes were wide with an incredible narcotic injection of opium and PCP, all designed so that he could fight longer, Yusuf’s religious zeal was more than enough to sustain him through pain, violence and death. With their bomb vests strapped around their chests, and approximately 540 rounds of ammunition on each of their bodies, they were a formidable force to be reckoned with. The Sphinx had even provided the men with primitive ballistic face masks, to ensure that headshots were even more difficult for Coalition forces.

The AK-47s that the Sphinx had smuggled in for them, were also heavily customised. The barrels were skeletal, and the traditionally heavy wooden stock was replaced by a sleeker, folding butt stock. Foregrips granted the two men better accuracy and the weapons were personally cleaned by the Sphinx to ensure that they could chew through all 540 rounds in a matter of minutes.

Even their initial magazines had been modified, with three of the curved banana mags taped together, to ensure that the Saudi and the Pakistani had 90 rounds ready to go straight away, with reloads being a snap of the finger to perform.

In short, the weapons were lighter, harder to fuck-up under stress and more accurate.

It was this army of two that now opened fired on London and Bravo squad.

Anderson roared in anger, as he watched Bravo 2 get ripped apart, under the combined weight of sixty 7.62mm bullets. He danced gruesomely, in a horrible version of a marionette, as round after round tore through his body, before landing with a wet splat on the concrete pavement, unrecognisable.

Anderson looked in the direction of the terrorists who, in under a second, had already finished reloading. Hussain, spotting Anderson from behind a shiny black BMW sedan, grinned manically and began to unload a torrent of bullets towards him.

Yusuf, ignoring his crazy partner, calmly began to fire in punctuated bursts, at innocent civilians. A woman in her mid thirties, spun around, as a round entered her pelvis and came out through her friend’s knee. A man, shielding his son, gasped as a round went through his shoulder and he fell forward, determined to protect his son from more incoming fire.

A boyfriend stood frozen, unsure what to do as his girlfriend laid flat on the floor, her hands over her head. A bullet nearly entered his chest, but he was saved when his girlfriend yanked on his pants leg, causing him to trip and fall on the ground. Elsewhere, a couple showed their true colours when the boyfriend immediately let go of his girl’s hand and sprinted for his car, only to get shot in the back for his trouble.

Valentine’s Day … acts of love, acts of courage … acts of cowardice. All was revealed before the face of death.

People ran every which way. It was pandemonium. Streets away, people heard the gunfire and froze. More worldly restaurants immediately launched their evacuation procedures, scars by attacks that happened years before, now saving lives in the present. Police officers controlled crowds and desperately sought to help their much more lethal SAS brothers restore safety and order.

A poor couple ran from the ugly scene at Bravo’s squad, only to venture into a bigger firefight that had Charlie squad pinned and wounded. One of the SAS troopers saw them, and despite the wound in his leg, sprinted towards them and crash-tackled both, before bullets could find them. He stayed atop the terrified couple, his blood dripping onto the girl’s pretty white dress, shielding them from harm.

Gunfire echoed everywhere. Screams rose above them, as blood, fire and metal merged into the urban jungle, to create a terrifying environment of endless white noise that battered the senses.

London, within the space of 3 minutes had turned into a hellish nightmare that was more commonly associated with Afghanistan.

The war had come home.

~

Anderson was yelling into his microphone.

Bravo 1 to all elements, Bravo 2 is down, KIA. Under heavy suppressing fire. Need assistance now!

Bravo 3, engaging now. said the trooper, his voice strained but professional.

Bravo 4, flanking. replied the Blade, cold and emotionless. There was an edge to this soldier’s voice. Anderson was pleased to hear it.

As he remained crouched behind a car, Anderson waited until he heard Bravo 3’s suppressed MPX whir to life.

The tch, tch, tch sounds of the MPX could barely be heard above the thud of the AKs, but it was enough. Hussain, hit twice in the shoulder, spun around angrily at Bravo 3, who was behind him and began firing in earnest, as the SAS trooper swore and ducked behind a large Mercedes sedan.

All elements, be aware, tangos are heavily armoured. Multiple headshots are required to take them down! My rounds just bounced off their face masks!

Anderson cursed loudly, as he realised that the Sphinx had performed his research. Technology in ballistic face masks offered limited protection, mostly only against 9mm rounds. Using anything higher, was guaranteed to penetrate through.

However, 9mm were the exact type of bullets that the SAS teams were currently rocking in their MPXs, to ensure that their rounds did not over-penetrate and go beyond their targets, as personally experienced by the woman and her friend who got shot by the much more powerful 7.62mm, as they clutched their respective hip and knee in agony.

Simply put, the Sphinx had covered for a lot of the SAS’s capabilities.

However, these men were not one of the most feared and deadly units in the world for all their gear and equipment. They were the best in the world, the ultimate fighting man in mankind’s short history, because of their ingenuity, tenacity, unique training and pedigree.

Their ancestors held back the Romans. Men by their age, had created an island stronghold that have never been invaded since Hastings. Their forefathers established an Empire and could find no equal anywhere on Earth or Water. Their grandfathers played major roles in every single conflict across the globe since the 20th Century.

These fighting men came from the finest fighting stock and regiments in the world.

The turn-around in the flow of the combat, was swift, efficient and terrifying.

Who Dares Wins.

At first, it was Hussain who dominated the streets of London. Pivoting constantly to suppress Bravo 1 and 3, whilst Yusuf was slowly leading the pair through the streets, gunning down civilians cowering behind cars, shops and street-lights, it came to a point where he had to drop the three taped magazines to reach for a fresh one on his chest.

As the three taped magazines fell, Bravo 1 and 3 whipped their guns up, moving fast, and sprayed their MPXs at his legs.

Hussain’s knees exploded simultaneously, and the Saudi roared in pain, the intensity of his injuries even punching through the protective mental layer PCP had created in his mind.

As the Saudi dropped like a stone, Yusuf spun around, astonished by the new tactics. He yelled in agonised Arabic as bursts blasted through his thighs and he joined his fellow terrorist on the ground, his legs mangled beyond recognition.

Hussain and Yusuf looked at each other and desperately sprayed their guns in unison at Bravo 1 and 3, keen to hold the two troopers off, so that they could reach in and detonate their vests.

As they fired at opposite ends, they failed to see Bravo 4 appear in between them, a big Sig Sauer P320 pistol in his right hand and a serrated tanto knife in the other.

Swiftly walking up to the pair of terrorists, Bravo 4 assessed the pair in a nanosecond and noted the intensity of Yusuf versus the drugged out Hussain. As Bravo 4 made his decision, Yusuf turned around and gasped at the sight of the blacked out SAS trooper wearing a balaclava and a baseball cap, with a pistol and knife in each hand.

He tried to turn his AK-47 around with his one hand, whilst the other fumbled for the detonator.

Bravo 4, moving coldly and quickly, kicked the AK-47 away, before firing his Sig at point blank into the terrorist’s fumbling arm. Yusuf wailed as over seventeen 9mm rounds tore his arm to shreds, but the scream was quickly extinguished by a gurgling noise as Bravo 4’s tanto knife ripped through the exposed throat, underneath the ballistic mask.

The move was so savage and heavy, that Yusuf’s neck actually tilted backwards and the two folds of skin flapped gruesomely in the open air, as blood sprayed outwards.

Hussain, entirely focused on his target, Anderson, and hopped on battle rage and PCP, never noticed Bravo 4 reloading his pistol in a single second, rack the slide back. Without hesitation, Bravo 4 reached down and flipped the ballistic mask off Hussain’s face.

Hussain paused in shock as the mask fell off his face and he looked behind him to see who did it. His handsome face registered shock before it melted under the weight of all the firepower Bravo 4 could muster.

By the time the final shot finished echoing loudly off the corridors of London, Hussain’s head was essentially mush. There was nothing left facially, to identify the two men. The SAS trooper had remembered the Prince’s warning.

Gun them down in the head before they blow yours off.

The attack on the Savoy had been stopped.

Anderson and Bravo 3 ran up to Bravo 4 and they assisted each other in disarming the suicide vests. Fortunately these were a lot less complicated than the bombs in the van, just your standard issue s-vests seen everywhere in the Middle East. They had defused hundreds of these over their long tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Bravo 3 spiked the AK-47s and threw all the spare magazines in a dump bag. Bravo 1 and 4 carried the vests away for disposal.

Overall, the attack saw nearly 700 rounds expended in a matter of terrifying minutes.

Leaving the bodies of the terrorists to rot on the street, the SAS kill-team walked over to their fallen comrade, Bravo 2, and respectfully covered him up with a sheet from their damaged Range Rover, now pockmarked with bullets.

Anderson called in the paramedics and trauma crew, and the team set about rendering first aid, tending to the numerous wounded surrounding them. They soon ran out of tourniquets, bandages and gauze, and were relieved when the first paramedics arrived on scene, only seconds after they used up all their medical equipment.

Whilst the terror cell had only managed to walk 100 metres, the carnage they had wreaked was awful. Over 70 people had been shot and wounded, with 34 more dead. Anderson waited with baited breath, as he heard the echos of gunfire slowly dissipated after his own gun battle.

As he applied pressure to a wounded father’s shoulder, he looked over at the small boy, whose face was covered in blood. Smiling kindly at the lad, Anderson took the boy by the hand, as a paramedic took over and fussed over the father. No-one this young deserved to see this.

Reaching into his tactical vest, Anderson cracked a green chem-light and handed it to the boy, watching as the glow of the light slowly removed the shock from the boy’s blue eyes, replacing the traumatized expression with wonder and awe.

Tousling the boy’s head gently, Anderson looked over at Bravo 4, who nodded and took the boy over to the trauma crew, who were dealing with a mass of hysterical people.

Oscar 1, Bravo 1. Sitrep. barked Anderson harshly as he beheld the damage around him.

Bravo 1, situation has now been contained. All terror cells have been eliminated. Estimated death toll, 154, casualties approximately 357. UKSF casualty report is looking like 5 wounded and 1 KIA. It would have been a lot worse if you guys weren’t here.

What happened to the other squads?

Alpha team managed to kill their cell before it got out of hand. Because yours was the first attack, I was able to relay intel to Alpha, whose cell was the last to attack. Alpha 3 got shot in the shoulder, but no-one else was injured.

Charlie squad needed assistance from the QRF, Charlie 1, 3 and 4 all got wounded in their firefight. It turned out, that once they found out about us knowing the van trick, the Charlie, Delta and Echo cells regrouped together to fight. That’s where the bulk of the civilians casualties were inflicted. Echo 4 was also wounded in the fight but they’re all looking stable.

Foxtrot actually found their cell, before the vans. So they nailed the two guys and then disarmed the vans remotely. They got extremely lucky and then went to help the Charlie, Delta and Echo squads.

Golf had a similar story to yours, they got the vans, but had a long fight with their cells. A lot of casualties there too, because their cell fired into restaurants.

I’m sorry, Bravo 1.

Anderson stayed silent, his mind trying to comprehend the enormity of what had just happened. The SAS were not used to failure. Whilst this would be touted as some kind of victory by Downing Street, the men would know better … it was their job to make sure the war never touched down home.

Innocents had died and now, the SAS would go on the offensive. Someone had to pay for the blood spilled today. Already, Anderson was considering what gear he needed for a return tour to ‘Stan.

Anderson’s mind remembered the question he had posed for himself about the intelligence that had saved London from a more devastating attack. If it wasn’t for the Prince’s intel on the van bombs …

Oscar 1, Bravo 1 … thank the Prince for us. Let us know when he’s hunting. We’ll get evil with him. Bravo 1 out.

~

3 Hours before the V-Day Attack

In the hours leading up to the attack, Gabriel Woods was also riding in a helicopter, like the SAS kill-teams. However instead of a powerful Chinook CH-47, his ride was much smaller, nimble and fast. The dark grey sleek outline of the Bell 407 helicopter, melded into the night sky of England, and its rotors had been dampened for sound, giving it a stealthy signature.

A common sight across skyscrapers and civilian utility, the Bell 407 was often used to assist in search and rescue operations or ferrying CEOs from airports to offices. What was uncommon about this Bell 407 was the spindly arm that jutted out from the right cargo door, just underneath the rotors.

Woods looked over at the skyline of London and recalled his prerogative. After losing the Sphinx, Ashford had tasked him with discovering exactly what type of bomb the Sphinx had equipped his terror cells with. To do so, meant going straight to the source, a close associate of the Sphinx, and local bomb-maker, a nasty piece of work, who went by the name Ryan “Jacket” Singh.

Jacket had earned his epithet as an amusing play on “bomber jacket” and his habit of wearing his own custom one everywhere. A garish red, cream and purple combination, the jacket had his name emblazoned across the back, along with a huge explosion going off with an evil smiley face in the centre.

Tasteless and tacky, were just two words that could describe Singh’s brand of humour and style.

Raised in the badlands of New Delhi to English and Indian parents, Singh’s obsession with explosives started early when he first set off a firework that blew open an ex-girlfriend’s toilet. It grew to letter-bombs, then finally her car exploded with her in it one day, causing Jacket to go underground with his new skill-set.

Owning to his extraordinary skill in sourcing explosive materials and placing them together, Jacket soon relocated to Londonistan where his talent was soon put to work across Europe, under the Sphinx’s guidance and recognised for the genius he was.

But like most geniuses, his reign at the top was going to be short-lived.

As the Bell 407 crested past the London Eye, gunning for Croydon, Gabriel looked down at his armament. He was dressed like a terrorist. There was no mistaking the dark jeans, the black combat boots, black v-neck t-shirt and red & white tartan plaid shirt.

It was the universal, functional uniform of military men off-duty everywhere. But instead of rocking the Westernised approved baseball cap, Woods had covered his head with a red/white shemagh, the traditional headscarf worn by men across the Middle Eastern region.

Tying it in a turban style, that covered his entire face, barring his eyes, Woods was comfortable operating in this outfit, owning to his numerous Afghanistan tours. What was surprising though, was him wearing this kit in London. But Woods wanted nothing to be traced back, hence the generic terrorist garb.

It also gave him no small amusement that Singh was about to get a visit from one of his customers.

In addition to this kit, Woods was armed with his trusted Glock 19 on a right thigh holster and a high-tech suppressed MP7A1 personal defence weapon (PDW) with an EOTech sight and PEQ-15 laser designator.

Woods felt, rather than saw the Bell 407 begin its descent, as they neared the target apartment. With his immense resources and connections, Jacket had managed to convert the north-west corner of a poor apartment block into his own personal bomb-making workshop.

According to the SIS, Singh had gutted three floors, to carve out his own twisted version of a penthouse amongst the boroughs in Croydon. The top floor featured his apartment, where a staircase led down to the living area and kitchen, before featuring the bomb workshop itself, and a huge safe/escape room where Jacket kept most of his treasures out of reach from his greedy lieutenants.

Woods would be entering from the roof and snaking his way down, floor by floor.

The pilot held up 2 fingers. 2 minutes to drop.

Putting on fast-rope gloves, Woods checked the coil of rope by his feet and tugged the two guns on his twin thigh holsters.

Woods was running light.

There wasn’t even a tactical vest on him to cover his vitals.

This was an old-school hit and run affair.

The only piece of kit to slow him down was a warbelt that had 3 flashbang grenades, 2 spare magazines for his pistol and 4 spares for his PDW, cable ties, a multitool and a rudimentary first aid kit.

The Bell 407 swooped down to the rooftop of the Jacket’s apartment and moving quickly, Woods kicked the rope out of the door and watched as the spindly arm went taunt.

Leaping out of the helicopter cargo door, Woods fast roped down to the building, wrapping his legs around the rope, and maintaining a gentle pressure with his hands.

As he neared the building, a man opened the door to the rooftop recess, pistol in hand.

Without pausing, Woods slowed his descent with his right hand, whipped the MP7A1 from his thigh holster with his left and zipped him with three rounds.

The scout dropped like a sack of shit.

Landing lightly on the roof, he waved off the pilot, who let the rope tumble away from the helicopter before powering up and away. Woods watched the Bell 407 go, before walking slowly over to the corpse.

It was one of Singh’s underlings. His unseeing brown eyes stared at nothing and Woods kicked away his pistol, before venturing into the dark recess of the Jacket’s workshop.

~

The fight for Jacket’s workshop was slow, intense and fierce. Woods was methodical in his approach, using all his senses to detect enemies before they found him. He was so quiet and smooth, that often Jacket’s men were unable to get a single shot off before they died with multiple 4.6mm rounds in their hearts and minds.

However, by the time Woods had cleared the second floor, Jacket was now all too aware of the bodies that were dropping with loud thuds above him. He only had 3 men left and owning to the timing of the attack, he was in the middle of constructing a bomb, that he was unable to take his eyes off.

Sweat poured down his fat face, as his pudgy but nimble fingers tried to make the bomb inert before the Prince arrived. He eyed the open door of the safe room to his left, but the process was too delicate now. He was trapped by his own creation.

Seconds passed and the 3 men aiming their machine guns at the door were breathing heavily. An assassin to their front and a live bomb behind them. They had nothing to lose.

Singh whelped with delight as he put the finishing touches to the bomb. All he had to do was secure the detonator and all would be well.

It was then, the Prince struck.

The front door to the workshop creaked open, a pair of weakened cable ties popping off their link to swing it outwards.

The doorway was blasted to shit, by the three goons.

As they reloaded, they exchanged nervous smiles when nothing happened

It was at that moment, mid-reload, the window behind them and in front of Singh’s shocked face, was blasted open and a pair of flashbangs sailed through.

BANG! BANG!

With a deafening roar and blinding light, the three henchmen staggered around, as Woods came crashing through the window, having used the rope from the Bell 407 to abseil down the side of the building and make a breach point right in front of the stunned Jacket!

Woods kicked Singh square in the face and using his momentum, unhooked himself over the bomb table and before he landed properly, shot all three henchmen in the head with precise bursts. Before the bodies had even slumped to the floor, Woods spun around and cracked the collapsible stock of the MP7 across Singh’s nose, breaking it instantaneously.

The pudgy man screamed, both in despair and in a weird action, grabbed at the air, towards the bomb, as he fell backwards.

Looking at the bomb and exposed door to the safe room, Woods acted fast and threw the entire package in, before rushing to the door and sealing it shut.

3, 2, 1 … BEEP!

A muffled WHUMP resounded through the entire apartment block, the safe room shuddering as the bomb went off inside its’ all-steel construction, incinerating all of Jacket’s precious stolen goods in an instant.

Singh stared in horror at the green eyes that stared out angrily at him from beyond the shemagh. He began to back up slowly, as the Prince approached him slowly, his MP7 held lazily in his hands.

Jacket had only heard rumours, but never put any trust in them.

He was a believer now.

The Prince was real.

With his back pressed up against the wall, and his right hand cuffed to a table, Singh broke down immediately and told Woods everything he needed to know about defusing the bombs that were about to scorch London.

As Singh grovelled before Woods, his left hand very surreptitiously crept to the small pistol he held in the back of his pants.

Come on man, I told you what you wanted to know. Just let me go. What are you waiting for? I told you everything you needed to know about the Sphinx. I just made bombs for him. I swear by it, I did nothing else. I’m just a bomb-maker … come on bro, let me go.

Woods, inspecting the bombs-in-progress around the workshop and taking photos to send to the SIS, did not see the suspicious hand movement. Jacket continued to blab to keep his attention occupied.

Wait, I know why you haven’t let me go, it’s because I’m still valuable to your bosses aren’t I? You can’t touch me, because I got information they need to know right? Well, come on then, take me in, big man. I’m worth a lot right?

Jacket, smiling at his own cleverness, whipped his hand around the gun and bought it to bear at Wood’s chest.

To his shock, Woods had already clocked the move, and as fast as a rattlesnake, drew his Glock 19 and hip-fired once, drilling a neat hole in Singh’s forehead.

Looking at the fat, dead bomb-maker’s shocked expression and glazed over eyes, Woods holstered his pistol and said softly to himself.

Yes, considerably.

Ignoring the corpse, the Prince turned around and continued his search for clues left behind by the Sphinx.

~

Around the same time, at a SIS black site in Camberwell.

Sofia Sumarwata was strapped to a chair, her wrists and ankles bound with strong tape.

It was pitch black in her room, the sensory deprivation playing with her senses. She didn’t even know if she was awake or not, it was that dark.

She couldn’t even see her hand in front of her face, despite her body moving it.

What she did know though, was that she was shivering furiously, her olive skin still damp after the latest round of torture by her two captors. Whether it was water or sweat, she had no idea.

She no longer cared.

Sofia had lost track of all time and sensation.

This interrogation chamber was limbo and hell rolled into one.

~

The two men were as different as could be.

One was a shorter, vicious type, reminiscent of Joe Pesci if he was Welsh.

The other man was tall, lean and almost gentle in how he treated her.

He was the more terrifying of the pair, because like any attractive woman, Sofia had developed a sixth sense for perversion.

And this asshole was dripping in it.

She nicknamed her two torturers, Dog and Cat.

It made the torture easier to bear in a strange way. With such belittling names, it made their actions seem less painful, less significant.

Dog preferred to beat her, his open handed blows rarely making a mark on her. He was an expert in pain and was more often than not, the man who held her underwater or poured water over her face, as she gagged underneath a mesh.

He was clearly experienced in hurting people without leaving any signs.

The beatings administered by Dog were easier to deal with though. She had dealt with physical pain before. Her upbringing in Iran and the multiple terrorists camps she trained at across the Middle East made her tough.

So Sofia preferred her harsh treatment under Dog. She would prolong it as much as she could, because the moment Dog finished, Cat would come in.

Even now, alone in her black room, her skin crawled at the thought of Cat.

Cat loved to stroke her skin. He would run his fingers across her collarbone, down her back and across her stomach.

She hated it.

She could tell that he longed to go other places and perhaps soon he would.

It was under his administrations that Sofia came the closest to breaking. She couldn’t stand his touch. He made her want him to go all the way, just to get it over with.

Frustration, revulsion and perverse guilt gnawed at her.

These confusing feelings played havoc with her mind and wore Sofia down. She was completely alone, with no ways the Sphinx could find her. Dramatic rescues didn’t happen in reality, especially at black sites like these.

As Sofia sat there, in the perpetual dark void, she wondered at what lead to this moment.

She recalled Hakim, her long lost fiance, his laugh and smile. They way he had lifted her in his arms when she agreed to marry him. The sorrow and rage that had transformed his face when he realised his brother was gone.

Sofia remembered the intense sorrow, the grief that had followed, as she vowed vengeance. Faces of countless men she had seduced flashed before her, all of them gone because they fell for the wrong woman.

She had spent years as the terrorist’s favourite honey pot, her skill at drawing men to their death, unmatched by anyone else. The way how men had treated her was as disgusting as Cat’s behaviour. At times, she wanted to end her life, but she forged on, knowing Hakim would want her to.

All of that changed though when she met Hassan Malik. He reminded her of how it felt to be loved, to be respected. He rescued her from the endless depravity, the menial work that was poisoning her soul.

He gave her a sense of purpose that didn’t involve selling her body. With the Sphinx, she could be whole again, be the proud Arab woman that she always longed to be, and really make a difference in the fight.

In that moment, Sofia knew that, no matter what happened, she would endure for him. Because there was nothing else for her to hold on to. She loved the Sphinx with all her heart and she would rather die than betray him.

Tears ran down Sofia’s cheeks, but she didn’t know whether they were real or not, because the darkness was so complete.

~

Cat smiled as he watched the half-naked Sofia begin to cry.

He was close to breaking her. He motioned to Dog and with cruel swiftness, Dog turned on the harsh fluorescent light that assaulted her like a flashbang after spending so much time in the dark.

Cat began to walk to the interrogation chamber, rubbing his hands in anticipation.

Dog watched, a cold smile etched across his ugly face.

~

The Sphinx looked at the SIS “safehouse”, in reality an interrogation black site, where detainees could be “processed” for information.

It looked like any ordinary private garage in Camberwell. An old-school brick and mortar affair, with a triangular roof and plenty of clearance for a van to pull in.

However, the Sphinx knew better. There were no less than seven security cameras aimed at the garage front door and the van that was parked in the space was blacked out.

The Sphinx climbed out of his car, and walked brazenly to the front door of the garage, kicking it in with his heel.

Inside the garage, the 4 man security detail were playing a game of blackjack, with chips, beer and ciagrettes blazing away. They spun around to the sight of the Sphinx, dressed in a classic tuxedo.

What the fu- said one of the guards before the Sphinx raised his Beretta M9A3 and shot him twice in the face.

Thud! the faceless guard’s upper body crashed onto the table, scattering chips everywhere.

Hands blitzed into motion as the three remaining guards went for their guns, but were all gunned down before they could even process any more irrational moves.

The Sphinx walked up to their table, grabbed the security tag off the head guard, before walking into the back office where a strange elevator beckoned to a disturbing basement secret.

Scanning the tag, the Sphinx reloaded his Beretta and ventured down.

~

The Dog was enjoying the show behind the one way mirror.

His hands were shoveling a packet of chips in his mouth, as he watched Cat ripped Sofia’s bra off and exposed her breasts.

Dog smiled lasciviously as he watched his partner lean forward, his face close to Sofia’s own, smelling her fear and disgust.

For the briefest of seconds, the lights flickered and both Dog and Cat froze.

Cat shrugged when nothing happened and smiled at Sofia. She tried to move her head away from him, straining to be as far away as possible. But there was nothing she could do. Tears began to flow freely down her face.

Dog felt his breath quicken as he watched Cat move onto Sofia. Suddenly the mirror darkened, as the switch turned off and he felt something move behind him.

Spinning around, Dog came face to face with a furious Sphinx.

The Sphinx, his handsome face twisted in a deadly scowl, lifted the small torturer up in the air with one hand, his fingers digging deep into the folds of Dog’s neck. As Dog began to choke for breath, the Sphinx lifted up his other hand, to reveal his big Beretta M9A3 pistol.

Dog’s eyes widened in shock, before shaking his head furiously. He kept shaking, as the Sphinx shot round after round through the small man’s body, emptying the entire magazine, before taking a step back and with two hands, threw the corpse of the vicious torturer right through the mirror.

The explosion of glass, blood and flesh froze Cat instantly, as he was bending over Sofia, his hands hovering over her exposed breasts.

He stared at the corpse of Dog, the torso riddled with bloody holes, and looked up at the broken mirror.

No! No! screamed Cat as the Sphinx vaulted into the room and charged forwards, tackling Cat to the floor.

Cat’s hands came up ineffectually. The Sphinx batted them away and delivered a swift uppercut to the torturer’s jaw. The punch broke Cat’s jaw instantly, blood pouring through and out his mouth, as he tried to scrabble away on the floor.

The Sphinx, moving fast, grabbed him by the hair and kicked at the back of his knees, forcing the lanky torturer down before Sofia.

Pulling a knife out of his pocket, the Sphinx elbowed Cat roughly in the head, as he freed Sofia with four swift cuts.

Touching her cheek gently, the Sphinx kissed Sofia’s forehead tenderly, before opening her hands and placing the knife in her right palm and closing her fingers over it.

With a serious and encouraging look, the Sphinx smiled at Sofia, before resuming his position behind the man.

Sofia looked down at the knife in her fist, before looking over at Cat, cold vengeance etched across her attractive features.

The Sphinx grabbed the man’s dark hair and pulled it back, exposing the bulging neck muscles. Cat began to struggle, his eyes wide in terror as Sofia advanced on him, an angel of death.

No! No! Please! I didn’t do anything! Please! No! No! Urkkkk!

Sofia rammed the point of the knife into Cat’s throat and with all her anger, ripped the knife across. Blood sprayed and hissed out of the wound in an explosive jetstream. Air could be heard escaping from the torn jugular as Cat gagged and gasped at the sensation of blood pouring down into his gullet.

Just as Cat was about to die, Sofia looked down at her troturer and slammed the knife down, right through the forehead.

The Sphinx nodded approvingly and tossed the lanky torturer’s corpse to the floor.

Sofia spat on the dead body, before she ran into the Sphinx’s arms sobbing in relief.

They stayed that way for a good few minutes, before Hassan took out some spare clothes for Sofia, that he had stolen from her apartment.

How did you find me, Hassan? she asked him after she had recovered and they were making their way out of the black site.

Malik, his Beretta held loosely in his right hand, whilst his left firmly clasped Sofia’s hand, replied simply.

They brought your phone here. As stupid as that is to believe. I’m sorry, I didn’t come earlier but I had to lose someone.

Sofia shook her head as they walked past the corpses of the 4 man security detail that guarded the black site.

Thank you, my love.

The Sphinx led his lady out into the night where they were about to get a front row seat to London burning.

Chapter 9: Into the Woods

20 minutes into the V-Day Attack.

Gabriel Woods stared at the crowd surging and pushing towards him, a primal fear coursing through his system, as the stampede of bodies barrelled down the London street, panicked and terrified.

Having rushed from Ryan “Jacket” Singh’s Croydon safe-house to London in the bomb-maker’s car, Woods was eager to assist the SAS kill-teams already operating there. However, he was forced to abandon the car on the A23 when he saw the thousands of police checkpoints that blocked entry to London.

Slipping surreptitiously past the checkpoint, as policemen argued sternly with the hundreds of cars that were lining up for kilometres back, Woods made his way through the millions of alleyways that marked London’s cityscape, before finally entering the CBD properly after a long hour walk.

As he made his way through the city, he could hear the screams and echoes of gunfire. With his MP7A1, Glock 19 and warbelt looking decidedly terrifying, Gabriel wasn’t keen for anyone to see him, as he had no friendly identifying features on him. He regretted the terrorist kit now, and kept the shemagh tucked in his pocket, in a vain attempt to hide his supposed affiliation.

Already several minutes had elapsed in the V-Day attacks as he rounded the corner of a street cautiously. The street sneered emptily at his vigilance for one single minute, when bam! The crowd came rushing down.

Falling back around the corner, Woods ducked into an alcove as the crowd kept running past him. No one saw the quiet assassin watching them, as they ran away in their fear. As he stepped out, one of the stragglers nearly collided into him, a petite woman clutching her arm and looking back in the direction she had came in horror.

She nearly screamed at the sight of Woods, but Woods was quicker, and with a firm but gentle grip, he slowly moved her around the corner. Woods sat her down on the floor and said soothingly in a British accent

It’s OK. I’m UK Special Forces. I’m friendly. Here, let me look at that arm.

The petite woman was shaking heavily, the shock of a terrorist attack still apparent in her nervous system. Tears of relief streaked down her cheeks, as she felt some semblance of comfort at a soldier tending to her wound.

What’s your name? asked Woods softly, as he opened his first aid kit.

Liz. said the woman shakily. Woods nodded and smiled reassuringly.

Hi Liz. My name is George. I’m a medic with the 2nd Paras. We’ll have you patched up in no time OK? Just try to stay calm with me and do not move too much OK? Everything is going to be alright, Liz.

As Gabriel inspected the wound, a nasty piece of frag that had embedded itself in Liz’s arm, a tiny part of him marvelled at how quickly he had lied and created a false military persona.

George from the 2nd Paras …. that was something he would have to tell Ashford later, so that the illustrious 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, one of Britian’s first airborne troops units founded in the Second World War, could prepare an appropriate story for the press.

It was a typical SAS ploy, to pass off their deeds to the Regiment where most SAS members were sourced from piror to Selection. Anyhow, in most cases, the Paras were all too happy to take the credit.

Gabriel looked at the piece of metal shrapnel that had lodged itself in this attractive blonde’s arm and winced at the flow of blood that was oozing out. To remove this, was to risk further blood loss, but who knew what sort of shit was in that open wound right now.

Taking out some disinfectant, Gabriel maintained gentle eye contact with Liz, as her blue eyes locked onto his green trustingly.

OK Liz, so I can’t remove this piece of metal, because to do so, would mean that you might incur more blood loss. What I am going to do, is disinfect this wound, so it’s going to sting a lot. Then I’m going to bandage you up and get you to a hospital ASAP. Hold onto me Liz, because this is going to hurt OK?

Liz nodded and started to breathe heavily, as she gripped Gabriel’s shoulder with her good hand. Dabbing the disinfectant onto a gauze pad, Gabriel started to clean the wound, ignoring the moans of pain as Liz began to writhe in his grip and tighten the pressure on his shoulder with her fingers.

Come on Liz, nearly there! said Woods encouragingly, as he continued to dab away at the wound and avoid touching the metal.

After what seems like hours, but was in reality, minutes, Liz relaxed as Woods finally stopped and took out his bandage roll.

OK, hold still Liz.

She nodded gamely, as Woods began to bandage the wound, allowing the piece of metal to stick out from beyond the protective white tape. She winced in pain as the bandage pricked at the metal shrapnel but felt a lot better.

OK, all done Liz. Attagirl. Now we got to get you to a hospital. Can you stand?

I … I think so.

It’s only a short hop, and skip away. Let’s go.

Gabriel gently looped Liz’s good arm around his neck and together they began to walk to the nearest hospital, which was the St. Thomas’ Hospital.

As Woods half carried and half supported Liz, he made idle conversation to take her mind off the pain and the sight of white bandages slowly becoming more infused with red.

Tell me more about yourself Liz. What do you normally do for a living?

I’m a bartender. I was serving drinks at the Beaufort, near the Savoy when out of nowhere I heard all this gunfire. At first I thought it was some type of sick joke, but when our bar’s windows got shot through and I saw people falling over …

Liz’s voice trailed off, as she relived the moment.

It’s OK Liz. You don’t have to continue. said Woods softly.

No, I’m OK. But yeah, when I saw what was really going on … I ducked behind the bar, but that was when the terrorists shot at the glasses above me and people starting running out. One of the bullets must have shattered something, because the railing that held up the drinks just fucking broke apart and I got that in my arm as I was hiding.

Liz took a shaky breath, as they continued their slow journey to the hospital.

You know George, I was there in 2017, when the Bridge attacks happened. I thought I was going to die when the van came near me. But this shit is way worse. I can’t believe it happened to me again. I only just got over that damn bridge attack and now .. I’ve been fucking shot. When is this shit going to be over?

Gabriel looked sympathetically at the waiter. She was tough and unlucky. To have 2 terrorists attack occur within the span of 5 years, with Liz at the centre of both, was sheer galactic unluckiness. He didn’t know what to say.

Take it easy Liz, Woods heard himself say We’re nearly there.

God … I’m going to have to spend a ton more on therapy again said Liz half jokingly and half seriously.

Woods smiled. A sense of humour meant that her spirit wasn’t truly broken yet. As they rounded the corner and beheld St Thomas, Woods was relieved to see that the hospitals had not quite gotten full yet. Walking through the emergency doors, Woods looked at a nurse and a security guard who was rushing forwards.

UK Special Forces. I’m here to drop off a casualty. Frag wound to the arm. I’ll leave her in your care. Give me a quick trauma kit, I’ve got to get back out there.

The nurse nodded and yelled at the security guard who immediately ran off to get a fresh trauma kit whilst she looked at Liz.

Liz smiled at Woods gratefully as the nurse fussed over her.

I don’t know how to thank you George.

Just doing my duty ma’am. said Woods charmingly.

Thank you. Oh and one more thing, as I was running out of the Beaufort, I thought I saw something strange.

Woods knelt in front of Liz and looked at her seriously.

What was it? he asked intensely.

Maybe it was nothing, but just before the attack happened, I was serving this couple. They were this good-looking Middle Eastern couple. The girl looked really nervous, and she also looked pregnant but the guy seemed chill about everything. I only remembered them, because they never ordered any proper drinks, just mocktails and finger food. But they kept looking at their watches and I noticed at around 10 to 7, they left.

As they left, I saw the guy nod to someone who was also eating there.

This guy was the one who later shot up my bar.

Woods looked at Liz, scrutinising her. Are you sure?

Yes.

Which way were they going?

I’m not sure, but I think it was towards the Charing Cross.

Woods smiled gratefully.

Thank you Liz. he said, holding her non-injured hand gently and squeezing it warmly. Now heal up. I’ll be back to visit you sometime.

As Woods ran off, he knew that he would never keep that promise. Such was the nature of this business. She would live her life, none the wiser about the identity of the Prince that had saved her arm from amputation with his quick first aid.

To her, he was just another 2nd Parachute Regiment trooper named George.

~

To cross the River Thames, Woods was going to need to run directly across the famous Westminster Bridge where Big Ben watched over it, ever vigilant. To the North of these iconic institutions, stood equally famous landmarks, like 10 Downing Street, Whitehall and the National Gallery.

To the North-east of Big Ben, sat the Savoy and the Beaufort Bar, where Gabriel and Liz had walked from, as well as Charing Cross Station.

If Woods was any predictor of the Sphinx’s target, it would be any of those key icons or Big Ben itself. However, suicide bombing was not in his nature.

This was the task of his underlings. Soldiers who would die for the cause.

Men who had already set London on fire, as Woods ran across Westminster Bridge, seeing flames and smoke rising from the numerous shops that had been fired upon.

What struck Woods though, was the constant cacophony of noise. Screams of the wounded blended into the whoop, whoop, whoop of emergency sirens. The occasional pop of gunfire echoed through the skyward corridors of London, the sound reverberating harshly as it bounced everywhere.

It was eeriely reminiscent of his experience in Afghanistan.

There were people were running everywhere, as their panicked eyes sought safety anywhere away from the guns and fire. As people ran past him, Woods could see signs of bloodied clothes, torn dresses and abandoned heels down every street.

A man walked past him, his eyes dazed by the horror of what he had just witnessed, a zombie in a neat tuxedo. Nothing was registering on his face, just an empty blankness.

Others were crouched and lying on the floor, as they hyperventilated through the shock and fear, struggling to breathe properly whilst their friends sobbed into their shoulder.

A woman and her child were hugging each other tightly, and as Woods jogged past them, the mother screamed in horror at the sight of his guns and buried her face into her son’s head.

No! No! NO! Don’t take him please!

Woods ignored her and kept moving, his green eyes scanning everywhere for Malik and Sofia. If they weren’t going to attack Big Ben, then it had to be something else. Sooner or later, he would come across them.

~

The V-Day attacks were now at its height.

SAS Kill Teams were engaging the remaining terrorist cells in pitched gunfights.

Woods wanted to help his old unit, but he had to find Malik and Sofia first.

More people ran past him. Shops burned. Woods kept desperately searching for the two lovers.

But he only saw chaos everywhere.

A teen in a hoodie was rummaging through a smashed in store. Woods walked up to him and raised his MP7A1, nudging him in the shoulder.

The teen jumped backwards in fright, and promptly tripped over the broken glass that littered the floor.

Falling over, he instantly banged his hooded head against the floor, knocking him out cold. Woods flipped him over, and with a spare cable-tie, cuffed the teen to a floor-mounted table before sending an anonymous tip to the police.

Pushing on, Woods kept moving through the city that had been touched too many times by fundamentalism. To his great relief, Woods had yet to see any bomb damage, which meant that his intelligence and the SAS kill-teams had saved the city from further destruction.

Whilst it would have been more ideal if all elements of the attack had been stopped, there was only so much that could be done.

After all, the Sphinx had planned for all eventualities. Casualties in every single one of his attacks were to be expected. This was his biggest one, and to assume that they could properly prevent an attack, planned by one of their own, was arrogant and short-sighted.

Woods recalled the conversation he had with Ashford, in the hours before this attack.

~

You know that we can’t stop this attack cleanly right?

I know, Gabriel. There are still too many variables in this scenario. The SAS teams are all prepped and ready to go. They’ll be inserting in ASAP. But …

Ashford’s voice trailed off into silence as he tried to contemplate all of the Sphinx’s moves.

We still know too little.

Yes. said Ashford defeated. The lads at Hereford are the best, but even they are no guarantee.

Woods looked on quietly, as one of the most powerful and intelligent men in the world, buried his head in his hands. Every death that was going to occur in the attack, was going to haunt him for the rest of his career. Not even his American counterpart, Richard Washington had been able to provide much assistance.

The Sphinx was going to strike, regardless of their actions from now till the Valentine Day Attack.

What the hell am I going to do Gabriel?

Woods looked at Ashford and coldly said one word

Retribution.

Ashford looked up sharply at his best asset.

You know sir, it’s time you put me to good use. The Americans never quite understood how to use me to the best of my ability. I gathered intelligence for them, hid amongst the locals and spied on village leaders and warlords.

To be honest with you, I didn’t become the Prince to spy on people. I definitely did not expect months of service to the Americans either.

You found me for a reason. I’m not in the business of preventing attacks.

I’m in the business of hunting

The information I gather is to kill a target, not to be used for any other type of reconnaissance.

Don’t make the same mistake as the Americans. You’re better than that. You have under your command, someone who stalks and kill their prey before they can commit some heinous crime.

I don’t exist anywhere. No-one knows who I really am, or who I work for.

It’s too late to prevent this attack, but you can stop the next one.

Unleash me, sir.

Ashford nodded and realised that he had foolishly categorised this man as another intelligence asset.

What Gabriel Woods should really be designated as, is England’s only assassin.

James Ashford, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, looked at Woods with a cold fury behind his eyes.

You have execute authority. I want Malik’s head. Bring it to me. Don’t make tomorrow’s chaos be in vain.

Woods looked back at his boss and nodded.

With pleasure, sir.

~

As Woods rushed from Westminster Bridge to 10 Downing Street, following nothing but his instincts, the Sphinx was gripping the hands of Sofia Sumarwata, whose serene beauty was now flushed with excitement.

They looked like any Valentine’s Day couple, well dressed and attractive in their romance. Malik was dressed in a casual suit, with a black collared shirt, matching his black pants and sports jacket. His hair was slicked back, and his clean shaven face showcased his strong jaw and straight nose. The only thing that betrayed his romantic sheen, was the intense focus behind his brown eyes, that scanned the environment intently and displayed a strange excitement.

Sofia’s outfit was startlingly bold. Her red dress plunged daringly at the front and perfectly set off her olive skin. Her dark hair was tossed and tousled just so, giving it volume and bounce, as she ran next to her lover. Sofia’s long legs were brilliantly displayed in a pair of red Louboutin heels, and there was a strange air of carelessness to her that was completely at odds with the chaos surrounding the couple.

They were racing down the Parliament Street, as people screamed and scattered around them. The entire city was gripped in a panic and it was imperative that they use this opportunity to strike.

The Sphinx was armed to the teeth, a collapsible AKS-74U assault rifle with modern Zenitco rails and a compact Aimpoint T-2 affixed towards the front of the gun. In addition, the Sphinx had attached a DBAL-I2 laser designator to the right side of the gun, and in a holster on his belt was his trusty Beretta M9A3 with a suppressor.

It was this large pistol that was currently gripped in the Sphinx’s hands, as he held it low and behind his leg, the AKS-74U hidden just so, underneath his stylish black blazer.

Sofia was unarmed, but there was something strange about the way how she moved, how she clutched at her belly that betrayed her intentions.

At 100 metres away from the checkpoint at 10 Downing Street, the pair of them slowed down, holding each other’s hands tightly, Sofia savouring the moment with Malik.

Then it came into proper view, the simple black gates that protected one of the most iconic residences in the world. Understated and manned by 5 police officers, wielding G36 assault rifles, the gates looked strangely unimposing for so important a residence.

All the officers were at the front of the gate, anxiously looking out at the chaos that was happening all around them, their assault rifles held nervously in their hands.

The Sphinx counted them and rehearsed a move in his head

One of the officers saw the Sphinx and Sofia walking towards them and motioned to them to stop.

Halt!

Sofia stopped and put her hands up, reassuring the officers somewhat. She smiled sweetly at them and for a split second they relaxed, betwitched by her beauty.

It was then, the Sphinx made his move. What happened next was swiftly and violent.

The Beretta whipped up from behind his leg and shooting between the gate’s frame, the pistol spat five rounds in a matter of two seconds.

The officers didn’t even get a single shot off. They all crumpled to the floor, like puppets that had their strings cut, blood seeping out of the holes in their heads. The Sphinx walked over to the gate and peered in, before nodding to himself satisfactorily.

Reaching into his pocket, the Sphinx took out a wad of C2 explosive, a less powerful version of C4, traditionally used for breaching. Lining the strip along the seam of the gate, he stepped back and set it off with a detonator, smiling in delight as the gates swung inward viciously.

With a victorious look on his face, the Sphinx, stepped foot onto hallowed grounds of the British Parliament for the first time.

~

As the two lovers crossed the gate to Downing Street, Woods spotted them, further down the road, on the opposite end of Parliament. He saw the flash of Sofia’s dark hair and her red dress as she disappeared from sight a second later, past the police checkpoint’s gates

Fuck! swore Woods as he switched from a jog to a full blown sprint.

~

Hassan Malik looked at one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen, and pressed her lips to his. Sofia looked deep into his eyes, tears and love mingling together in a coalescence of heavy emotion. They savoured each other for a second, before she began to walk towards the iconic black door of 10 Downing Street.

~

For all it’s importance, as the residence of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minster, Number 10’s black door was classically British in its’ simplicity, elegance and refinement. There was nothing particularly flashy about it, nor ornate. It was perfect in its unobtrusiveness.

But within the doors, housed many different rooms steeped deep in history.

300 years old, with 100 rooms for dignitaries, world leaders and influential folk of all sorts, the house called 10 Downing Street, was home to Britain’s most iconic leaders, Thatcher, Churchill, Pitt the Younger and was in many ways, a true holdover of old English traditions.

Cabinet and War Rooms could be found within its’ halls and in 1991, the place was bombed by the IRA, during a particularly vicious era of British history, leading to the installation of the police checkpoints that the Sphinx had so comprehensively attacked.

In the words of Margaret Thatcher, Number 10 had become “one of the most precious jewels in the national heritage.”

A jewel that would very soon be besmirched by the latest brand of terrorism.

~

Sofia Sumarwata walked slowly towards the centre of 10 Downing Street. The image of such a striking woman standing in the centre of the home for the British Parliament was burned into the minds of all who saw it.

The security officers watching from cameras, their faces aghast at what was to come.

The five other officers who had turned around too late to see what was going on on the other side Downing Street and were now charging forwards to tackle Sofia, unaware of the danger she posed to them.

The Prime Minister and his cabinet who were in the process of diving for the floor as their security guards threw themselves on top of their charges.

The Sphinx taking cover nearby, a sad and proud smile on his face as he beheld his lover take her final steps into oblivion.

And finally the Prince himself, as he dashed past the gate, his weapon up, his eyes affixed through the gun sight.

Sofia knocked on the door of Number 10 Downing Street politely, once.

The sight of such an attractive woman in red, knocking in a picturesque British setting would have beautiful, if not for the intent.

No! Sofia, don’t! yelled Woods as he desperately tried to reach her in time. The image of her standing there, with a sad but content expression was enough for Woods to curl his finger around the trigger. But there was no time left.

She was gone.

~

The explosion that ripped from her stomach was huge. She had worn a modified vest that resembled a pregnant belly. It was directed outwards and immediately blew her apart in two. Nothing remained of her body.

One second she was there, the next she was gone.

Only her actions remained, to be remembered forever in history.

The black door at Number 10 was eviscerated. Vapourised along with anything within 10 metres of the initial blast. Glass melted before the intense heat, bricks shattered and burned along with the carpet that lined the interior of the house. Priceless art dropped from their hooks and blew apart, as did tasteful furniture that was reduced to ash instantly.

The buildings around the explosion buckled heavily, as windows shattered and showered the immediate area with shards of glass and wood splinters, causing the Sphinx to roll from behind a car he was hiding behind to avoid the shower.

The Prime Minister yelled as the roar of the blast could even be felt in his War Room, the reinforced bunker holding up easily to the blast.

The officers who had come running from the other side of Downing Street were flung aside, their bodies rag-dolling against cars, walls and for one poor officer, a hard red London post box that cracked his head open. They all laid still, their heroics rewarded with unceremonious unconsciousness.

Woods was also flung backwards by the concussive force, the shaped charge saving his life in a strange way, as most of the explosive force was directed towards the residence, and the fact that he was further away.

He crashed heavily against the black fence of the gate, the force of the impact stunning him viciously. Groaning, Woods looked up from his prone position to see the sharply dressed Sphinx get up from his position, whip his AKS-74U up and charge headlong into the breach that his lover sacrificed herself for.

What the hell is he doing? thought Woods. He knows he can’t get to the Prime Minister once he is in the War Room. What is he searching for?

Moments later, the gunfire from the building screamed at Woods to get up.

A cold instinct switched on inside his mind.

Gritting his teeth and despite the intense ringing that was shooting through his head and ears, the Prince jumped up and ran into the breach after the Sphinx.

Final Chapter: The Sphinx and the Prince

The Prince charged through the smoke and fire of what remained of 10 Downing Street’s entrance, blown up only seconds ago by Sofia’s bomb, hunting for the Sphinx.

Pulling out the shemagh that he had used on the Jacket raid, he wrapped the bottom half of his face in a smooth motion that would help him to breathe.

Already sirens and alarms were blasting loudly, but above the din was the distinct sound of an AKS-74U rifle clattering and pitched screams following the gunfire.

Gripping his MP7A1 tightly, the Prince moved cautiously through hallowed British ground. The rooms in 10 Downing Street were exquisitely refined and spoke of simple luxury. Everything was comfortable, clean, pristine and without a single element out of place.

A sitting room had comfortable, but expensive mahogany furniture that faced a fireplace which complimented the creamy colour that lined the carpet, and walls. It was marred only by the body of a maid, who was clutching her stomach in agony, as she wept and bled in the room alone.

The Prince, all former traces of the more compassionate Woods extinguished in his mind, ignored the maid and kept moving down the corridor, where he came across a grisly scene only 10 metres later.

Four Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection (PaDP) Officers were in the midst of eating their meal and going for their guns, when the Sphinx chanced upon them. He had sprayed his weapon in an accurate, long burst that raked the entire standby room.

An Officer had his head on the table, his body slumped over a bowl of porridge, as blood seeped through the gaps in his armour. Another was deathly still on the floor, the back of his head blown apart by the powerful 5.45mm round of the Sphinx’s AKS-74U, vainly reaching for his pistol belt that was hanging on a coat-hanger nearby.

The Prince whipped his MP7 up as he heard a gurgling sound. In the corner of a room, an Officer had tried in vain to save his fellow PaDP, his body riddled with holes, as he laid over a severely wounded, gasping fellow Officer who had a MP5 lying forlornly next to him.

The wounded PaDP was clutching at his perforated throat, blood pouring out in buckets over his slowly weakening hands. His eyes widened at the sight of the Prince, in his terrorist-styled clothes and choked once more, before his eyes glazed over.

The Prince moved past the waiting room with a clenched jaw. This was going to end tonight.

Muffled gunfire resonated ahead and the Prince moved faster, leapfrogging the body of another dead PaDP whose corpse was slowly staining the carpet and the precious framed photograph of Churchill leaving Downing Street in WW2.

~

The Sphinx was trained by the best. The poor PaDP, essentially well-trained policemen, were completely outclassed. None of them had much combat experience and despite their rigorous training, they were unable to tap into any of that knowledge, because fear crippled their bodies and clouded their minds.

Speed

Surprise

Violence of action

The key 3 principles of warfare.

The Sphinx was using all his considerable years of war-fighting to maintain the upper hand. Much like the Prince’s terrifying one man army action on Singh’s forces in Croydon, the Sphinx was now unleashing his fearsome skills as a warrior on the PaDP.

Officer after officer fell, as the Sphinx continued his relentless advance towards the War Room. In some cases, the Sphinx even used the bodies he had just kill as a human shield to confuse the Officers who were waiting for him. In their panic, they would shoot at the dead policeman, whilst the Sphinx slotted his AKS-74U on the shoulder of the dead Officer and blazed away, the fight ending in the room almost as quickly it began.

After minutes of vicious CQB fighting, the Sphinx waited for a moment and took his bearings, as he reloaded his gun. If he knew his floor plan, he was only 2 corners away from the security room that guarded the entrance to the War Room.

The Sphinx scowled and began to psyche himself up. Unlike his fanatics, he didn’t resort to prayers to better himself. Instead, he was using a tried and true tactic that was taught to him by his mentor.

Meditation.

By performing deep breathing techniques, it allowed him to quell the overwhelming amount of information that was flooding his brain. In clearing his mind, the Sphinx could react and analyse combat situations more accurately, limiting the amount of mistakes that could lead to his death.

It was a new technique that was slowly gaining ground in the military. Instead of hard and fast charges into combat scenarios, military men were now taught to be more cautious, methodical and limit their exposure to gunfire.

Battlefield meditation allowed soldiers to clear their mind of the chaos happening around them and, with enough training, suppress feelings of fear, anxiety and confusion.

The Sphinx looked around the corner and noted that an officer was holding a riot shield, his MP5 submachine gun outstretched in front of him shakily. Smiling grimly, the Sphinx bought out another wad of C2, and rolled it into a ball. Sticking a blasting cap inside of it, the Sphinx underhand tossed it, and watched as it stuck to the riot shield, whilst the officer let loose with a burst from his submachine gun.

Ducking back coolly, the Sphinx flipped open his detonator and slammed his index finger down.

Whump!

The officer was flung backwards, as the shield combusted into a thousand pieces of reinforced glass, shredding the officer’s face into strips of bloody meat. The scream that came from the officer was horrific, freezing the 7 Officers who were waiting around the other corner, their guns aimed out from beyond the security station’s cage.

Then a small object flew through the air, identical to the last and it affixed itself to the metal cage.

All seven pairs of eyes looked at it.

Whump!

The second ball of C2 was even more devastating than the last. Fragments of metal flew everywhere and the three Officers who were closest to it, were instantly cut down, their bodies lacerated by burns and shrapnel.

The other four weren’t so lucky.

One of the officers, was flung backwards into a computer panel, and in maintaining poor trigger discipline, had inadvertently pulled the trigger as he flew through the air. The Officer next to him was immediately struck in the back of the head and he dropped to the floor, dead with a big hole where his nose should be.

The other two remaining PaDP struggled to get their bearings and were unable to hear or comprehend anything.

It was then, a red visible laser punched its’ way through the cloud of debris and melted frag and found their chests and head.

Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!

The Officers dropped instantly, and the Sphinx himself came through and looked at the man who had just killed his own buddy, now desperately trying to bring his gun to bear.

The laser found his head and three shots later, the Sphinx was in control of the security station that protected the British Prime Minister in his War Room bunker.

~

The Prime Minister stared at the screen, terrified as the Sphinx walked up to the computers and with a eerie smile at the camera, began to tap away at the laptop, ignoring the blood splatters on the screen.

Everyone in the War Room stared intently the screen that showed what was happening, literally metres away from them.

Minutes passed, then to the extreme shock of everyone inside the War Room, the Sphinx finished up at the computer, gave a final ironic salute to the camera and ran off for the secondary exit out the back of Downing St.

What the bloody hell was that? asked the Prime Minister.

No one could answer him. They just stared at the screen in shock as another terrorist came into view.

~

The Prince had only just come across the corpse of the riot shield officer, when he saw the Sphinx dash away for the back exit.

Cursing, the Prince ran over to the security station and was confused when he saw an GPS map splashed across the screen.

Frowning, the Prince looked more closely at the details and realised that the Sphinx had just performed a search for someone. He had only just saw the name, when suddenly the screen flickered and an ominous timer began to appear on the screen.

20 seconds to upload.

Cyber attack! thought the Prince instantly and he began to look over the computer, to see an innocuous USB sticking out from the side. Yanking it out, the Prince swore when the timer continued to tick downwards.

Shit! said the Prince as he continued to type furiously away at the computer, trying to isolate the virus.

However, despite his best efforts, the timer continued to tick ever downwards.

5

4

3

2

1

Beep!

Nothing happened.

The Prince frowned.

Then a hissing noise began to issue from the all steel door that barred the War Room from the outside world.

In a split second, the Prince realised what had just happened.

The door for the War Room was opening and there he was, in terrorist gear, looking like he was hacking away to gain entry to the British Prime Minister. It didn’t matter to the men inside whether the Sphinx or the Prince had killed the PaDP Officers inside, they were going to go out guns blazing.

The Sphinx had just bought himself some very valuable time from the Prince’s wrath.

The Prince whirled around and began to sprint for all it was worth, as the UK PM’s bodyguards came out of the door, their guns tearing everything to shreds.

~

The Sphinx only had 2 spheres of C2 left, and he used one on the back gate of Downing Street, sprinting as fast as he could for the coordinates he had just hacked from one of the most secure and powerful computers in the United Kingdom.

Using a worm, he had piggy-backed off the greater London’s CCTV surveillance system and intelligence network and began a facial and name recognition search.

The man who had fuelled so much of the Sphinx’s hate and anger came up as a match on the screen, literally only seconds later.

The location?

St. James Square.

A mere 5 minutes run away, if you cut through St. James’ Park.

The Sphinx tucked his AKS-74U underneath his blazer and started running the moment he left the gates, ignoring the sirens and chaos he had left behind.

He began his north-westerly run, as, nearly a minute later, the Prince sprinted out, chased by the furious PM’s bodyguards who were intent on revenge.

Spraying his MP7A1 in an accurate burst, the Prince covered the doorway, that the bodyguards were about to come out from, in bullet holes, causing them to crash into each other and hustle back into cover.

Using those precious seconds to sprint further away, the Prince saw the Sphinx ahead, running furiously through St. James Park, his handsome face etched in a concentrated scowl.

Pulling out the empty magazine for his MP7A1 and reaching down for his warbelt, the Prince realised that he had no more spare magazines for his PDW. Tossing it away as he chased after the Sphinx, the Prince knew he was down to his trusted Glock 19 and 3 spare magazines.

How the hell does this keep happening to me? Never enough ammo for these fucking terrorists thought the Prince as he made his way furiously through the heart of London.

~

The Prince and the Sphinx dashed their way through Pall Mall, the iconic street that led to St James’s Square, the area of London they were currently waging war in, a very posh area.

Beautifully maintained old classic Napoleonic and Regency-era houses and buildings clashed with the more modern brick styles that dominated that Industrial Revolution. This juxtaposition was only further enhanced with the glass and steel aesthetics synonymous with contemporary styles and the effect was as jarring, as it was interesting.

One could literally trace architectural lineage and styles from the 18th Century to the 21st.

However both men’s targets was the singularly drab building, known simply as 22 St James’s Square. There was nothing remarkable about the styling from the exterior.

Endless windows were intersected with fading white concrete in a style that was as anonymous a building could be in London. Glass doors showed the way to a boring, corporate style interior that emphasised taupe as a colour.

A sign outside told people that there were 79 office spaces that could be rented to the public for use.

What it did not disclose was that the first four floors were completely booked out by a shell company, and that the building had three basement levels that were not accessible by normal elevators.

22 St James’s Square also featured a very strange central staircase, which served as the only access to the first basement floor, and then another two set of staircases that led to the final two basement levels. The building also had a few hidden upgrades: it had been soundproofed and there was always a 4-man security team of ex-soldiers guarding the place 24/7.

To men like the Sphinx, it was just one of the many London training facilities that were nicknamed “The Institute.” It was where he learnt how to be the most professional terrorist in the world and how he became the Sphinx.

It was within the bowels of the Institute that the Sphinx planned to end a very private chapter in his life.

Every single attack, had lead up to this moment. Nothing was coincidental. Every station that had burned across Europe, to the timing and date of the Valentine Day massacre was symbolic to a dark history.

The Sphinx looked at the simple glass doors of the Institute and walked in, his AKS-74U up.

~

William Aitken was one of the most formidable men that had ever served the British intelligence apparatus. A former SBS (Special Boat Service) operator, Aitken was as much at home in the sea as he was serving in the shadows.

The beauty of light owns itself to dark places he once famously said, during a training briefing.

A monster borne out of necessity during the Cold War, Aitken had cut his teeth serving for MI6 as a deep cover agent in East Berlin, gathering intelligence on Soviet troop movements and performing assassinations on high value targets. He was also the agent responsible for personally escorting over 200 illegal migrants across the Berlin Wall, to be reunited with their families.

What the heroics failed to discern though, was the sheer number of bodies that Aitken had left behind during these illegal crossings. The Soviet High Command were all too aware of this cruel British agent who would collect personal belongings of soldiers he had killed and mail them tauntingly to the Soviet Army barracks.

The number of rings, watches and precious trinkets ventured into the hundreds by the time the Berlin Wall fell.

The nickname, Volk (Wolf) was soon assigned to Aitken, a call-sign that he would wear with pride for the rest of his life, as did the 9 million dollar bounty than followed him everywhere until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

His years of service though did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Transitioning from the grey, cold climates of Russia and Germany, Aitken went to work once more against the Soviets in Afghanistan and Iraq, where late in the war, he met a young orphan named Hassan Malik.

~

It was 1989, the final year of the Soviet-Afghan War.

The Mujahideen had, in essence, recaptured back their country, save for one formidable stronghold that was protecting the Soviet’s last stand in the bloody conflict that had raged for 9 years.

Aitken was one of the most pre-eminent military advisors to the Mujahideen guerrilla force and had gone completely native.

A strong black beard covered his face and his normally pale skin, was now leathery with a deep tan. He was limping in one leg, a previous engagement with a Soviet sniper, causing him to fall and roll into a deep ditch that cut open his thigh.

However, despite the thick robes that shielded him from the Afghan chill, there was no mistaking the piercing blue eyes, the confident English accent and the professional casualness in which he held his AKM with jungle taped double magazines.

It was Aitken that lead the charge against the stronghold, using heavy cover fire, smoke grenades and accurate mortar strikes to shield their approach. It was an old-school method for an ancient country fighting another conflict that would fell another empire.

50 Mujahideen charged the wall of the stronghold that was etched into the side of a mountain, an ancient fort that had crumbling walls and a big open clearing inside for helicopters and trucks.

Only 30 made it. The men sprayed the upper parts of the wall with gunfire, desperately trying to stop the Soviet troops from firing down at them. One man fell on his back screaming in pain as a Soviet soldier blind-fired wildly over the lip of the wall.

Seconds later, a RPG smashed into the trooper, spraying dust, bricks and blood over the men crouched below, swift vengeance coming in for their fallen comrade.

Aitken placed a satchel charge at the wall and set the timer for 10 seconds.

Running back laterally and firing his AKM furiously at the troops above, Aitken slammed his body against the wall and waited for the blast.

Crack!

Bodies, brick, mortar flew upwards. Even a truck was overturned as the satchel charge blew open a gap in the wall with deafening violence.

Go! Go! Go! yelled Aitken at his troops.

The Mujahideen yelled as one and guns blazing, charged into the breach, where they were instantly met with hyper-machine gun fire from a crazed General, who was manning the side door gun of a large Russian Mil Mi-24 Gunship.

10 Mujahideen were instantly cut down, the bodies blown away by the intense fire. Before Aitken could react to the death of his men, a maelstrom of sand, dirt and debris began to whip at everyone in the fort, as the pilot began to lift off.

Soviet soldiers, seeing their opportunity for escape flying away, abandoned their posts and leapt for the open doors of the gunship, hitting it from all sides.

But they were met with fire from inside as the crazed General in his panic, began to shoot at his own troops, unwilling to let his men weigh down the helicopter. The desperate soldiers were also assaulted outside the helicopter as the Mujahideen regrouped and were now peppering the chopper with rounds.

Men died, screaming and scrabbling to get in the chopper. In a grotesque display, bodies began to fall from the helicopter, as the pilot struggled to concentrate and lift the cumbersome beast away from the ground.

Gunfire raked the entire compound in a 360 degree arc, as chaos reigned over the battlefield. Several rounds punched right through a jail where locals assisting the Mujahideen had been captured and tortured. Their cries of help were overwhelmed by the cacophony that was happening in the clearing.

Just as the Mi-24 was rising above the ancient fort’s wall, a Stinger missile shoomed from the nearby Mujahideen controlled hill and smashed its way into the helicopter, causing the whole thing to reel in midair and fall back into the compound.

Aitken looked up in horror at the helicopter that was about to crash right on top of him.

Just as it was about to decapitate him, someone crash-tackled him out of the way and he was sent sprawling back behind the wall, through the breach point.

The Mi-24 crumpled into the ground, and the rotors snapped, sending huge blades of metal flying every which way. One poor Soviet soldier was literally cut in half as the blade sliced towards him and his legs stood still for a full second, before toppling over, as the upper half of his body slammed against a wall.

William “Wolf” Aitken, a veteran of some of the bloodiest conflicts in the Cold War, looked at the young boy who had saved his life.

The boy looked old for his age. The fact that he was mature, didn’t show on his boyishly handsome face or the strong lean body that still showed fresh wounds from torture …. it was apparent in his eyes.

The brown eyes that looked back at Aitken showed a focus, determination and anger that could only come from a man.

War had accelerated the boy’s mental growth. He had went from being a child to a man in the span of 9 years, a process that would take some 20 years and others their whole lifespan.

Hassan Malik was only 12 when he met William Aitken. The Wolf, out of gratitude and perhaps something else, informally adopted him soon after the assault on the final Soviet stronghold in Afghanistan.

He had plans for the young Afghan boy.

Even in the waning days of the Soviet-Afghan War, Aitken could see a new threat emerging for the heat of the Arabian desert. He was going to need a new breed of soldier to defeat a new breed of terrorists.

By the time Malik left the Institute at age 15, Aitken knew that he had created one of the most dangerous men in the world.

The Sphinx was the Wolf’s crown jewel.

The ultimate result of warfare, distilled and refined by Aitken’s careful tutelage and brutal indoctrination methods.

~

For a man who was almost Stalinist in his paranoia, Aitken trusted Malik completely. It was entirely out of character for the old spymaster and soldier, but he had spent so long on his own, that he needed a release.

In Malik, he found that release. Over the course of 3 years, Aitken honed, shaped and crafted Malik into the ultimate terrorist.

To defeat terrorists meant learning how to be one. The Wolf ensured that the Sphinx was the most professional in the world.

Every piece of knowledge, no matter how trivial, Aitken entrusted to Malik. It was as if Aitken knew that the Global War on Terror was coming soon and he didn’t want to waste any of his experience and lessons learnt.

Malik was the perfect student. He excelled in every aspect of warfare. Marksmanship. Guerrilla training. Enhanced interrogation techniques. Subterfuge. No matter how difficult the training, Malik was aced the test.

Then came the first field exercise.

Aitken took Malik to Alexanderplatz Station and made him practice how to spot a suicide bomber.

Then he told him to kill the target.

Malik, spotted the S-bomber within 2 minutes of the exercise. Armed with a hypodermic needle laced with an enhanced digitalis poison, he stabbed the man through the heart, whilst pretending to trip over his feet.

The S-bomber died with vomit in his throat, within 20 seconds of ingestion.

The whole exercise was over in 10 minutes. Aitken was pleased.

More exercises across Europe were conducted with brazen arrogance. A Spanish target was killed whilst boarding his plane. A Saudi national lost control of his car whilst holidaying in Saint-Tropez. A Russian oligarch and his trophy wife killed each other in a double suicide, whilst relaxing in their Swiss Alps retreat.

But it was the Valentine Day exercise that truly showcased the rigours of the Wolf’s training.

Hassan Malik, for the majority of the years he had spent in England, was allowed to venture out of the safehouse during a strict curfew. What he wasn’t aware of though, was that Aitken had known every time Hassan had snuck out to explore the city and taste the nightlife.

The Wolf was far too smart and cunning to not keep track of his pseudo-son.

However, Hassan was none the wiser. He thought he was getting away with breaking curfew.

One night, whilst it was still early in Hassan’s training, and he was getting bolder with his escapes, he met a beautiful girl his age, who was also escaping from her troubles.

A pretty Irish girl who went by the name Niamh.

Niamh had alabaster skin, cute brown freckles on her cheeks and nose and stunning blue eyes.

When she laughed, her nose would crinkle just so and she had the most disarming smile that revealed her braces.

Hassan was smitten.

Niamh’s story was almost as tragic as Hassan. Her parents were a casualty of the Troubles and its’ bloody history between Ireland and Britain. She was fending for herself on the streets of London and making trouble for the British whenever and with whatever she could find.

Hassan likened her struggles to his own against the Soviets.

Their friendship only deepened as they grew older.

Hassan was 14 when he finally asked her out on a date for Valentine’s Day.

Niamh didn’t even bother answering him. They shared their first kiss that night and more. For once in their young lives, they both felt something different other than hate for the world. They were in love.

The first date was going beautifully. They had dinner together, a simple Chinese takeaway meal that they shared together, sitting at a park. Niamh squealed with joy when she saw the flowers that Hassan had bought her, a bundle of red roses.

It was 7pm when they were walking hand in hand around Hyde Park. Niamh was laughing at a joke Hassan had just told her, her hands wrapped around his arm.

Then it happened.

A black van pulled up alongside the teenagers and four men with Uzis and pistols ran out from the side of the van, balaclavas disguising their features. Hassan tried to go for the Browning Hi-Power pistol that he always kept on him, the weapon that Aitken told him to always wear.

But it was too slow. He had never quick-drawn the Hi-Power in a panic before and especially with a girl slowing down his gun arm.

The men clubbed both of them with the back of their guns and barrelled them unceremoniously into the van.

When Hassan came to, harsh light assaulted his retinas. They were in an non-descript room, with plain tiles for the floor and ceiling. Only a one-way mirror lined the east side of the room.

Hassan saw Niamh bound and gagged before him. Her blue eyes were pleading with Hassan’s brown. He trashed around in his chair, desperate to get out, desperate to do anything to get them out of here.

He couldn’t even fall over, because the chair was bolted into the ground.

From behind him, a door opened and Hassan froze in place.

Niamh’s blue eyes went wide at the sight of the man standing behind Hassan. She seemed to recognise him.

Then two men hovered into view. Hassan recognised both of them immediately. To his right, was Aitken, a scowl across his face. To his left, was a large man with a ruddy complexion and a scar across his right cheek. His name was Paddy Conaill, one of the IRA’s most lethal enforcers.

The two men stood between the teens staring at each other.

Fucking lovebirds. Would be sweet if it weren’t so stupid. drawled Conaill.

Hassan kept wriggling. He didn’t like any of this. Hope flared inside him when he felt one of the bonds, strong duct tape, loosened around his right hand. He kept at it, one minute movement at a time.

I’m sorry to involve you Paddy. But this is a situation isn’t it?

Yes, yes, it bloody is Wolf.

Conaill cuffed Niamh across the face. Tears welled in her eyes and a red mark marked her smooth pale skin. Hassan began to wriggle faster.

You stupid bitch. Fucking fell for one of these Arabs. You should have been more careful. He’s working for the fucking English. You know what we do to traitors?

Niamh’s blue eyes couldn’t control the tears of terror.

That’s right. We’re going to give you the Treatment. No good Irish woman can be consortin’ with the enemy. You’re lucky that the Wolf here is allowing you to go back with me. You’ve got no idea what he would have done to you.

You’re fookin’ lucky we go way back before the troubles started. He found out about you and the raghead here. So he called me in to clean up this fookin’ mess.

You’re done. You’re my mess to clean-up.

Goddamn stupid bitch.

Conaill, with shocking swiftness, pulled a large Beretta 92FS from the waistband of his pants and levelled it at Niamh.

Blam!

Niamh’s blue eyes closed as her head rocked back in the chair, blood slowly dripping from the entry wound like a tear down her cheek.

Conaill snorted dervisively and tucked the Beretta in the back of his pants. Aitken remained silent and looked at Malik with calculating eyes.

Hassan Malik, with a primal scream, ripped through the tape that secured his hand to the armrest of his chair and using brute strength, forced his way out from his captivity and lunged at Conaill.

Conaill, astonished by the move, fell ass over backwards, his hand reaching for the Beretta, but unable to find any purchase on the pistol grip.

He landed awkwardly on his hand, causing him to roar with pain as the wrist broke. But Malik was already all over him. He delivered blow after blow that smashed through Conaill’s pathetic one handed defence.

When Malik couldn’t strike at the throat, he would slam his fist into Conaill’s kidney or liver. The big Irishman would curl up in pain, only to reel instantly back to the floor as another blow slammed into his head.

Bloody sprayed into the air, as Conaill’s nose broke and in his desperation, he made one final move. He rolled and pushed Malik off him.

However, Malik was ready, instead of continuing his hand to hand assault, he grabbed the pistol from Conaill’s waistband and stood up, the Beretta shaking slightly in his anger.

Conailled looked at the young, heartbroken man before him and trembled at the sight of Malik’s brown eyes looking deadly over the sights of the pistol.

Conaill stared at the Wolf. His eyes were pleading. Trying to hearken back to some previous relationship they shared.

The Wolf merely smiled coldly.

Wolf! Please do some-

Blam! Blam! …. Blam!

The Mozambique drill was executed with clinical precision. Two to the chest and one to the head. Conaill’s head listed aimlessly as his eyes sightlessly stared at Aitken.

Malik spun around, the Beretta moving fast. But the Wolf was too quick for him and he disarmed the pistol out of his protege’s hands and tapped him in the side of the head once.

Malik slumped to the floor, losing consciousness. He reached out for Niamh, but all he heard was Aitken’s gruff voice.

Sleep with one eye open. Never trust your enemies or your friends. Remember this lesson, son.

Malik’s final thought was defiant and angry. Any trace of the boy named Hassan Malik was extinguished in its entirety now.

One day, you’ll pay, Wolf. I swear to God, I’m going to kill you.

~

The Sphinx fought to control his emotions as he walked down the familiar white, plain hospital-styled corridors that only served to enhance the unnerving effects of the violence that had been committed within these walls.

The Institute would forever be the darkest chapter of the Sphinx’s history. There was no escaping the fact that he had learned how to torture a man here. Even now, he could recall the way how blood looked brighter against the searingly white rooms, and the sound water made when congealed with blood, as it trickled slowly towards a drainage pipe in the centre of a room.

Those skills had come back to bite the Western forces though. The Sphinx lost count of the amount of Coalition soldiers he had tortured under UBL’s leadership but the information he had amassed was incredible. It was one of the main reasons why UBL had escaped detection for so long.

The Sphinx even remembered his first execution.

A man with a hood over his head, was sitting forlornly in the corner of a room. He was dressed in typical military fashion, with baggy camo pants and a plain brown shirt.

The Sphinx remembered being handed a pistol, a chunky Sig Sauer P226 by the Wolf. It was too big for his hands but grip it he did.

What has he done? he asked.

It doesn’t matter what’s he done. He’s against us. the Wolf had replied coldly.

Who is he?

It doesn’t matter. What matters is the will to make things right.

The Sphinx recalled the way how he stared at the man.

The man was a complete stranger. But he was breathing. He was alive. He might have had a family. Children, even. He could even be him in the future.

But it doesn’t matter echoed the Wolf’s answer in his mind.

The Sphinx had no idea how long it took him, but when he made the final decision, something inside of him clicked.

Something dark. Something apathetic and cruel.

The final necessary mental step that all assassins need to kill a complete stranger without any due reason.

The Sphinx stood up from his chair, wrapped his 14 year old hands around the pistol and without hesitation walked up to the target, who flinched slightly, and pulled the trigger three times.

The Wolf looked at his protege approvingly. He nodded seriously and the Sphinx remembered seeing smallest hint of a smile.

This approval was something that the Sphinx craved. The execution of a stranger conjured up an unique mixture of guilt and pride in his actions. But the feelings of guilt wouldn’t last. To get the Wolf’s approval, he would kill for this man.

The Sphinx felt his breath quicken, as he continued his search for the Wolf in the bowels of the Institute.

Even in this state, the Institute was clean. It was undeniably empty, with only a few trace evidence of the horrors that were conducted here. A stretcher in the corner of an empty room. The reinforced glass that prevented escapees. The keypads that could only be opened from the outside.

But to the uninitiated, it was as bare as could be. Nothing really showed that it was an enhanced training facility for one of the world’s most feared terrorists. The entire place reeked of deniability. It didn’t exist anywhere.

The Sphinx moved with the familiarity of memory. He knew where the Wolf would be. Not dead of a heart attack, that James Ashford had claimed to the Prince.

He would be working in his office. It didn’t matter that the Wolf was in his mid-60s. His commitment to the cause would have him working to his actual death.

Like the Prince, the Wolf also enjoyed anonymity from the grave. The only people who knew of his true existence were a secretive group of influential Englishmen who liked to ensure their secrets remained within their fraternity.

The Sphinx hadn’t known it at the time, but every action and exercise he had undertook was for this elite fraternity. These men would occasionally work with the government, sometimes against, but it was always in their best interests.

Their motto was simple: sunt superis sua iura – the gods have their own laws.

Known simply as The Round Table, they were the shadowy organisation who funded the Institute, the Wolf’s training programs and sponsored his death.

But the Sphinx didn’t care. He was here only for one man. He kept moving through the Institute, his gun up, aware that the 4 man security team could be anywhere and were watching him through cameras.

Approaching the final staircase that would lead to the final 3rd basement floor, he spun around, thinking he had heard something. Silence and emptiness sneered at him and his AKS-74U.

The Sphinx frowned but shook off the feeling of disquiet and began to descend the final flight of stairs to confront the man who had controlled his destiny for so long.

~

The Prince shadowed the Sphinx the entire time as they descended further and further down. He was completely lost and disturbed by the Institute.

Initially, after entering the foyer, they had first gone up into the floors where the building’s empty office spaces had been rented.

Rows and rows of empty cubicles stared at them, devoid of life. The Prince watched as the Sphinx ignored the cubicles and headed to a curiously placed fire-escape in the centre of the building. Silently following him, the Prince caught the door before it fully shut and hugged the wall as he looked down.

The Sphinx was walking down the flight of stairs. They seemed to descend forever into the depths of the ground. It was highly disorienting. He watched as the Sphinx reached the bottom of the stairs and smoothly open the door, his AKS-74U up and ready to confront any threat.

Moments later, the Prince silently opened the same door and was shocked to see a hospital-styled level, with a long central corridor and many rooms with reinforced plexiglass, and one-way mirrors.

It was a classic interrogation wing.

The Prince stayed back, watching the Sphinx professionally clear the area, before disappearing around a corner.

The Prince hurried after him, noting the familiarity that the Sphinx’s body language showed in these strange surrounding. There were no hesitation in his movements. Every corner was “pied” off to perfection. Every door anticipated and cleared professionally.

He’s been here before realised the Prince.

Minutes continued to crawl, as they went through another basement level, this one an advanced gun-range with a Kill-House mock up, similar to the one that the Prince had trained in countless of times during his tenure in the SAS.

However, what set this basement level apart was the sheer height of it, with catwalks running across for observation and examination.

As the Prince watched the Sphinx cautiously move his way through the Kill-House, he became aware of a strange detail in the CQB-training area.

The targets weren’t just cardboard cutouts. They were full blown silhouettes of both terrorist and counter-terrorists units, with realistic images of hostages. Empty chairs also lined the kill-house’s many rooms, with blood-rusted bullet holes behind them indicating that they had used live rounds against live targets here.

The Prince didn’t like any of these ramifications.

Where the hell am I? he thought as he continued to move his way through the Kill-House silently.

As they came across the final staircase that would lead the final floor, in the north-east corner of the training level, the Sphinx nearly spotted the Prince following him.

In a hyper-fast move, the Prince ducked down and was relieved when the Sphinx continued on his way.

Keeping his Glock 19 close to his chest, the Prince continued to stalk the Sphinx, as he ventured deeper into the final level of the Institute.

~

The final floor of the Institute was a constant. An aberration of time and space. It was always perpetually dark and quiet. Day or night cycles weren’t registered here. Only the barely audible hum of supercomputers and the flickering of thousand of TV monitors disrupted the shadows and silence.

This final floor was much smaller than the upper interrogation and training wings. In spite of that fact though, it was still a huge office for a single man. Measuring roughly 20×20 metres, it featured a central hub where the Wolf could observe a wall of large monitors that showcased feeds from operations around the world.

An assassination in Poland. A bombing in Syria. A governmental collapse in Argentina. A turf war between rival gangs in Los Angeles. A chemical factory explosion in Ukraine. A pirate raid on a supertanker off the coast of Africa.

The Wolf watched and processed them all through 4 supercomputers that allowed him to process and analyse data at an incredible rate. Currently, the Wolf was coldly eyeing the progress of the Sphinx and the Prince as they neared his command centre.

Along the east wall was the personal collection of the Wolf’s many escapades. An array of guns, swords, bows and even a large taxidermist Afghan horse were on display. Across from this collection though, along the west wall, was something far more gruesome.

Rows upon rows of index fingers lined the span of the wall. They were all perfectly lined up straight, with only one centimetre separating them. Some were slender and long, others short and stubby. A few had nail polish on them, others were painted. In some cases, the finger had suffered badly with cracked nails, broken bones, shrapnel damage, all left as they had been found when removed. For one specimen, torn flesh billowed softly from an open wound from what looked like a dog bite.

The entire index wall was encased in a yellow fluid, the stench of formaldehyde quickly consumed by strong vents that removed the smell elsewhere in the facility.

All 744 fingers were a memento of one of the Wolf’s kills. Each of them unique, each of them a strong memory.

Behind the central hub was a security station that separated the main entrance to the command centre. A large mounted machine gun provided a final stand of defence and the entire wall that filled most of the central space, except the two sides, was made of bulletproof opaque glass.

This was the Wolf’s lair, the place where he resided for much of his death.

It was the perfect Ops centre for conducting operations and easily defensible.

His loyal 4 man security team were at the security station desk, ready to fight till the end.

One man had his finger on the large mounted M240 Bravo machine gun that could tear through anything in seconds. The other three men were crouched beside him, submachine guns ready, fingers on the trigger.

They all stared at the door and waited anxiously.

Minutes passed when they heard a strange sound, like a suppressed pistol shot.

The Wolf said nothing to his men as he saw the camera feed outside the main door turn to hash.

~

The Sphinx placed his final C2 sphere on the door as quietly as he could.

There was nothing to it, but to go in guns blazing and make sure his fire was more accurate than the men inside.

The Sphinx looked over at his AKS-74U and thumbed the paddle to release the magazine. Looking at the bullets inside, the Sphinx sighed and noted that he had one full magazine left, one full spare on his belt and his Beretta with a half magazine.

It’s enough to finish this fight. thought the Sphinx as he reinserted the magazine into the gun and pulled out the detonator for the C2.

For Niamh

Crack!

The C2 sphere blasted the door open and the four men inside ducked instinctively. Within half a second, the M240B machine gunner instantly began pumping rounds through the door, firing blindly in a panic as his teammates soon unleashed their own torrent of fire.

The walls next to the door was soon perforated with hundred of holes.

As the three men ran dry and began their reloads, whilst the machine gunner continued to pump bullet after bullet, the Sphinx, crouching low near the door, risked a peek through one of the larger bullet holes that was created.

Slotting his AKS-74U in the hole, the Sphinx let loose a burst that chewed off the machine gunner’s head and froze the other three men, as the comforting thump-thump-thump of the M240B ceased.

Seizing his chance, the Sphinx ran through the door and with three bursts put all the remaining men down.

One man, his chest ripped apart, looked at the Sphinx in fear. The Sphinx smiled coldly, and with the final rounds in his AKS-74U’s magazine, shredded the man’s face, before dispassionately reloading.

As the Sphinx stood there, breathing heavily, on the cusp of entering the Wolf’s Lair, the Prince watched as he rolled swiftly to duck a 40mm grenade that was launched from the centre of the room.

The Prince swore as he realised that it was aimed at him. He dove under the grenade and tumbled down the stairs, as the staircase above him exploded spectacularly and a large chunk of debris slammed into the side of his head.

The Prince laid face-down, seemingly dead, as blood slowly crept out of the side of his head.

~

The Sphinx glared at the Wolf, who stood still in the middle of his command centre, a M4A1 rifle with a smoking underslung M203 grenade launcher aimed right at the Sphinx who was still crouched after his desperate roll.

Hassan. said the Wolf coldly.

The Sphinx chose to say nothing. Words were a waste of time. Instead, he was desperately trying to think of a way to get the upper hand from his vulnerable position.

You saved my life once Hassan. Consider this mercy as us, even.

If you make one foolish move, don’t think I won’t kill you. You were stupid to come here. Look at you, repeating history again, bringing an outsider into our world. You didn’t even know that the Prince was following you the whole time.

I once thought you to be my greatest student.

Perhaps, a long time ago, I might have considered the notion that you would be my son.

But you’re sloppy. You let your emotions control you again. Revenge has clouded your decision-making.

It’s pathetic. Have you learned nothing from me?

The Wolf tightened his trigger finger and coldly blew off the Sphinx’s left index finger which was by his hip.

Blood sprayed from the Sphinx’s hand as he roared in pain. He looked down at his hand in shock. It was mangled beyond recognition, blood oozing from the wound and he could see the white hint of bone where the finger had been separated.

The feared terrorist looked around in morbid fascination for the missing digit as he gripped his bloody hand angrily.

There it was, only 2 metres away, his severed index finger, another trophy for the Wolf, weeping blood unceremoniously on the dark floor. For some odd reason, it was only when he saw the finger, the pain really started to hit him.

The Sphinx began to breathe heavily, as he prevented a scream from coming out. He wasn’t going to give the bastard, Wolf, the satisfaction. Instead, he glared up at the Wolf defiantly.

The Wolf allowed himself the smallest of smiles in respect as he tilted the M4A1 up and aimed at the Sphinx’s head. His finger closed around the trigger and was about to pull it all the way …

When the Prince groaned.

The sound was enough.

It distracted the Wolf for the smallest of seconds.

The Sphinx lunged into action and swept up the AKS-74U he dropped when the Wolf blew off his finger.

Gritting his teeth, the Sphinx loosed everything he had in the magazine at his enemy, at the man he once called a father. He didn’t even fire in bursts, he just held down the trigger, desperate to kill the big, bad Wolf.

But the Wolf was too quick. He was already moving when he realised his mistake. The Wolf dove out of the way and gasped as one of the Sphinx’s bullets slammed into his M4A1, rendering the weapon useless.

The Sphinx’s crazed burst lasted for 4 seconds. The rounds echoed in the small room viciously, joined soon after by the sounds of computers and monitors sparking into death.

Fuck! yelled the Sphinx as the AKS-74U ran dry and began to click uselessly.

Whipping out his Beretta, the Sphinx rolled for cover, adrenaline-soaked revenge causing him to forget his wound, as the Wolf pulled out a big and rare Arsenal AF2011A1 pistol and let loose.

A very odd pistol and the personal favourite of the Wolf, the Arsenal AF2011A1 wasn’t just any ordinary 1911 clone. It featured another .45 barrel next to the original, making it a weapon that had twin barrels that could be pulled with one trigger. With a special double magazine, the weapon featured 16 rounds and could easily blow fist-sized holes in a target.

Which is exactly what the Sphinx discovered when the flimsy table he was hiding behind blew open in a shower of wood and plastic, and nearly took his head off. Peering through the hole and ignoring the splinters that had raked his face, the Sphinx loosed several rounds from his puny Beretta that caused the Wolf to duck.

They traded rounds after rounds, the ops centre viciously reporting each crack of gunfire at a headache inducing volume.

Suddenly, the exchange of fire stopped as both men ran dry.

Metallic clangs were heard as magazines were dropped to the floor and new ones were inserted with a sharp click.

Both men were breathing heavily, the Sphinx looking down at the blood that was dripping from his left hand hitting the floor, only for another drop to follow from the frag wound to the side of his face.

This ends now Wolf! called out the Sphinx.

The Wolf only snorted derisively.

Join her in hell … Sphinx.

With a primeval battle-cry, the Sphinx whirled from behind the table and raced towards the Wolf, just as the Wolf did the same.

Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! … Blam!

The Sphinx and the Wolf stood stock still in the centre of the room, mere metres apart, their guns outstretched.

The Sphinx collapsed first, his head blown apart by the final round that the Wolf fired.

The feared terrorist who had wreaked so much havoc across Europe because of revenge was dead. His chest was blown open by three powerful shots from the Wolf’s Arsenal.

No-one was getting up from that, not even the Sphinx’s desire for revenge. But ever the professional, the Wolf executed his protege with a headshot that created a huge exit wound, spraying brain matter everywhere in a gruesome, grisly grey-red mist.

The Wolf looked down at his own body and saw that the Sphinx had gotten him twice. Once in the left shoulder and another in the stomach.

Sinking to one knee, the Wolf looked at the Sphinx and shook his head.

Revenge. So petty. he said disdainfully as he clutched at his stomach.

Such a waste …

The Wolf breathed calmly as he began to assess the situation. The stupid emotional little shit was dead. He was wounded but nothing a Round Table medical team couldn’t patch up. Everything should be under control …

It was then the Prince arrived, his head bloody, his cold green eyes emanating curiosity, his Glock 19 aimed straight at the Wolf’s head.

~

The Wolf spat on the ground disrespectfully.

Gabriel Woods. 31 years old. Australian. Former member of the 22nd SAS. Now an assassin. 79 confirmed kills in 4 years.

Renowned for killing a member of the Royal Family. Earned the sobriquet “The Prince” because of it. Two fucking years later, through some quirk of fate, ends up working for Her Majesty anyway.

Talk about irony.

The Wolf laughed.

You know, we thought about hiring you. But when you killed one of us in Argentina, we figured you were too principled for our taste. Such a pity. We were big fans of your kill on the Prince. Probably one of the best we’ve ever seen and trust me, I’ve seen plenty to be impressed. We could have used a man like you.

The Prince looked down at the Wolf and cocked his head.

Could?

The Wolf smiled coldly.

You didn’t really think that I was going to tell you everything as I laid here dying did you? Who do you take me for?

The Prince looked up at the monitors that dominated so much of the room. His green eyes widened in anger and shock.

Depicted across the massive wall of monitors, was live footage of a 12-man SWAT team was making their way through Institute. They had just cleared the interrogation wing. In minutes, they would be at the training floor, where the Kill-House was.

The Wolf began to laugh.

You’ve got nowh-

Blam! Blam! Blam!

The Prince shot him three times in the head.

The Wolf’s head lolled lifelessly and then fell over, meeting the same fate as his protege.

Master and apprentice, dead in the same room, their brains missing.

It was almost poetic if one knew their history. But the Prince didn’t, nor did he care.

They were just two more dead assholes.

Staring at the screen and seeing the Round Table SWAT team get closer, the Prince gritted his teeth and walked over to the Wolf’s weapon arsenal on the east wall.

~

The 12 man SWAT team was anything but ordinary. For starters, their uniform was entirely black, instead of the normal dark navy blue that normal Police teams would wear.

Large, bulletproof gas masks covered their faces, and they were armed to the teeth with breaching shotguns, assault rifles, submachine guns and large calibre pistols. Two of the men out front were holding large assault shields, with rare fully automatic Glock 18 machine pistols.

Whilst a normal SWAT team would be carrying cable-ties, non-lethal grenades and equipment for arresting suspects, the Round Table team was suspiciously absent from any such kit. Instead they were carrying large body bags, and were equipped with thermite grenades, which, when activated, would burn anything to ash.

They were here for one purpose … the complete destruction of the Institute.

Sanitize and sterilize all traces of evidence.

The team leader, call-sign: Gawain, stepped up to the door that lead to the training floor. Placing a breaching charge, he waited until the men were safely behind the riot shielded men before counting down.

3, 2, 1 … Mark.

Crack!

The door blew open and the men rushed in to begin their assault on the Kill House, where the Prince was waiting for them.

~

Having taken a spare backpack and stuffing it full of hard drives from the supercomputers that lined the back wall of the Ops Centre, the Prince was moving quickly. He knew that he didn’t have enough energy, nor firepower to defeat this SWAT team.

So this was all going to hinge on how stealthily he could sneak past the team.

Grabbing the quietest gun on the Wolf’s arsenal and his personal favourite, a familiar MP5SD, and stuffing his war-belt with 4 spare magazines, the Prince also grabbed a suppressor for his Glock 19, stowing it in a pocket, before grabbing 3 big packets of C4 explosive and a detonator.

Taking position on the far side of the Kill House and recalling the layout, the Prince crept forward as he heard Gawain blow open the door. He was making his way for the catwalk that was high above the Kill-House. But to get there, he had to go through the Kill-House’s North-west corner.

The Kill-House was atypical of those seen in training facilities everywhere. Sturdy plywood lined with bulletproof material were used for walls, and the doors had multiple holes in them to practice breaching. This one featured over 20 rooms that were variously conjoined and interconnected.

The Round Table SWAT Team moved swiftly through the Kill-House. They were evidently well trained, leap-frogging one another with precision and speed. They were already a third of the way through the Kill-House.

The Prince set down one of the C4 explosives in one of the rooms closest to the entry of the staircase that lead to the Ops Centre before moving into the Kill-House, where he waited in the adjoining room that would lead to the catwalk.

Bang!

With shocking swiftness, the door swung inwards to the room the Prince was waiting in. An assault shielded man came through, with 2 men behind him shooting over the shield into the corners of the room.

But what they didn’t anticipate was the Prince lying on the floor and he shot the shit out of their legs.

Slit! Slit! Slit! Slit! whispered the MP5SD.

All three men collapsed on the floor, their shins exploding in sprays of blood.

The Prince, acting quickly, grabbed the riot shield, flipped it and rammed all three men back through the way they came, causing them all to stack on top of each other.

The Prince kicked away their guns before ramming the edge of the shield into each of their heads, knocking them out cold.

Sprinting for the catwalk staircase, the Prince pulled out his detonator and pressed the trigger viciously.

Shoom!

The C4 explosive blew apart the southern end of the Kill House, launching the remaining nine men backwards with the blast.

As they staggered to their feet, Gawain looked around blearily and saw the Prince sprinting above them, gunning for the staircase entrance that would lead to freedom.

Gawain bought his HK416 assault rifle to bear, only for the Prince to dive off the catwalk and onto the ground, where he rolled across the floor and to the only exit out of the training ground.

Fuck! swore Gawain. All elements! Back to the south entry now!

The Prince placed his second C4 at the door, before sprinting all the way up and placing his final one on the top of the staircase.

Then he ran right through the interrogation wing and at the end of the hall, smiled coldly and pressed down on the detonator.

Chunk!

From the Prince’s angle, fiery smoke billowed out through the open doorway he had just run through.

From Gawain’s angle, his team were launched backwards once more and they stared at the destruction the Prince had wreaked upon them, ensuring that they were stuck down here for a long time. They couldn’t even go to the Ops Centre, because his initial C4 blast had destroyed the staircase leading to it.

Now with two more blasts, he had trapped the entire Round Table SWAT team and gotten away scot-free.

Gawain furiously punched the wall of the Kill-House and radioed in a report that was met with an angry but cold response.

Mediocre, Knight. Very mediocre.

~

The Prince ran outside, and saw the driver of the SWAT van that had just deposited the team sent in to kill him. He had just heard Gawain and his team request assistance and was climbing out of the van.

Not one to waste time or opportunity, the Prince whipped up his MP5SD and blew out the driver’s kneecaps with two shots.

Slit! Slit!

The man staggered face first onto the floor, where the Prince shot him again through the top of his head for good measure.

Pulling out his phone, the Prince called James Ashford as he walked away from the Institute, his head reeling from everything that had just transpired.

It was imperative that he go underground as soon as possible.

Ashford answered on the second ring.

Make me disappear, now.

~

Epilogue

It was shaping up to be another beautiful day in Tidal River, rural Victoria. The bright golden sunshine was cresting the horizon, the orange sky complementing the yellow grass that ended on a cliff that jutted out to the Pacific Ocean.

Iconic Australian waves crashed against the cliff and the noise they generated created a soothing natural soundscape to the stunning vistas.

Gabriel Woods looked out from the second floor balcony of his house and sighed quietly. He could hear the TV behind him, reporting on the brave rescue of Karen Matthews and her news team from an Afghan drug-running group by the elite U.S. Army Delta Force.

Karen Matthews reminisced Woods. The original mission way back in Afghanistan. Good on you, Jess. You got her out.

His CIA handler’s mission to find the American journalist who got kidnapped, seemed so long ago and quaint.

It was now nearly six months since the V-Day Attacks in London, and the world had not quite recovered.

The immediate aftermath of the Valentine Day Attacks was extensive and invasive for the secret world of espionage.

After all, this was one of the biggest failures in Western security services since 9/11.

James Ashford was simultaneously praised and criticised for his role. Publicly, he was lambasted for not stopping the attacks altogether, but privately he was considered safe, because of a powerful testimony from his friend and counterpart in the CIA, Richard Washington.

The subsequent investigation held into the actions of the SIS and whether they could have done more, proved that Ashford did everything in his power, but was simply outsmarted by a much more cleverer terrorist.

A terrorist who became the latest global celebrity for all the wrong reasons.

Much was discussed about Hassan Malik for months and years after.

A leaked photo, stolen from Woods’ surveillance footage, became the most famous photo of a terrorist leader since UBL.

It looked more like a Burberry advertisement, than a professional spy photo by one of the world’s most dangerous assassins.

The snapshot depicted Malik looking over his shoulder, his black coat obscuring his cheek, the strong profile of his nose, intense brown eyes and stylised haircut, looking sharp against the backdrop of an London street.

Even in death, the Sphinx cut a dangerous and exotic figure.

When placed together with Sofia Sumarwata’s photos, the news agencies ate it up. This was too good to make up. They were the “Romeo and Juliet of Terror” proclaimed one particularly enraptured tabloid on page one.

Forums, fan-pages, and terrorists groups sprung up after his death.

University experts wrote theses and books about his life and impact on Western society.

Copy-cat groups tried to replicate his success in Europe, but were unable to get anywhere, their ambitious plans lacking the Sphinx’s genius and networks.

One particularly, uninventive terror cell called themselves the “New Sphinxes of Iraq.”

Literally a month after their formation, they were all unceremoniously gunned down in a gun-battle with the 22nd SAS. The Reigment was now mobilising against terrorist groups faster than ever before in the unit’s history. Demand for their services were now at an all time high.

The gloves were off.

Troops were now deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq in greater numbers than ever and rumours of a special “hunter-killer unit”, called Task Force: 10th Legion spread across the Middle East.

Task Force: 10th Legion, named after Julius Caesar’s legendary cohort, was unofficially comprised of the best Tier One units found in the US and UK military. Their status was highly secretive and were often denied by all involved.

However their effectiveness spoke for itself. For within a month of deployment, the 10th Legion carved out a vicious path from Syria to Kuwait in some of the most dangerous and deadly raids of the war, with the body count numbering in the thousands.

No-one questioned their thirst for revenge.

Back home, the image of Sofia in her red dress knocking on 10 Downing Street, moments before her death, became one of the most haunting images of the renewed war of terror.

Inspired by feelings of paranoia and infuriated with his brush with death, the British PM rode a wave of popular nationalism. British Army recruitment stations recorded historically high numbers, and the PM’s hardline stance on immigration and domestic terrorism ensured that he would stay on for another term.

When people questioned his leadership, the PM would milk the destruction of his home for months after, stoking Islamophobic fears across the nation whilst avoiding blame.

For the next six months, the poor Islamic community in England suffered horrible racial abuse and alienation. Muslim women had their hijabs torn off their heads, innocent men and women were barred from entering shops and restaurants, and ugly fights between young angry men of all denominations were now all too common.

Embittered by these injustices. some of those angry men would sign up to fight elsewhere, further feeding the war abroad with more bodies.

London, despite the extensive repairs and pleas to return to the city, would remain a little emptier.

For years after, people would feel conflicted about the Valentine Day holiday, with a petition to change the date recieving over 2 million votes.

It never passed.

~

The Institute was never revealed to the public. They were too busy looking at the public war on terror and the death and destruction that had occurred at so many iconic British institutions.

No-one was any the wiser about the private gun battle that happened between the Wolf and the Sphinx or the Round Table and the Prince at 22 St James’s Square.

In fact, the Prince’s raid on Singh’s bomb-making workshop in Croydon barely got a passing mention in the newspaper. And it was the only time an actual suicide vest went off on the day of the attack.

In a strange quirk of fate, the circumstances surrounding the Sphinx’s actual death and what happened at 22 St James’s Square was deliberately vague and understated.

It was better that way.

To further disguise the issue, the public was informed that the Sphinx died in a Syrian drone attack months later.

~

It had taken all of Ashford’s considerable powers and resources to hide Woods from the new threat he had uncovered.

The Round Table.

Only Gabriel Woods and James Ashford were aware of their existence. Ashford couldn’t even trust his own beloved SIS, assuming, rightly so, that the entire intelligence agency was compromised.

At first, Ashford didn’t know what to make of the intelligence that Woods had secured off four supercomputer hard drives that once belonged to a man named Wolf.

It was too extensive, too shocking, too deep. The data was too unbelievable and outlandish.

It took five separate one-on-one meetings between Woods and Ashford, but it slowly dawned on the old spymaster just how bad the situation was. The truth was undeniable.

A rogue organisation of British origins was directly responsible for the creation of the Sphinx. They had a hand in all the key elements of society. From politics to the military, they had controlling stakes in it all.

They wanted the Sphinx to attack London, so that they could have their war.

What the bloody hell are we going to do? asked Ashford incredulously, in their final debriefing.

You know what you have to do. Woods had replied evenly to the question.

A long silence followed, as Ashford looked at the man standing before him with a sense of despair, hope and faith. Rare emotions for any spook.

A sense of finality hung over the two men. The spy and the assassin at a crossroad.

The head of British Intelligence would nod once and leave, never to contact Woods again.

He would do what he had always done for the Prince for so many years.

Protect the Queen’s only assassin remotely and leave him alone.

If the Prince needed help, he would ask. Ashford would do nothing to hinder him, until he made that call.

The ultimate sign of trust amongst men who operate in the dark.

~

As he leaned on the balcony of his home, taking in the fresh ocean spray, Gabriel Woods felt a sense of relief that he was now truly alone in the fight.

The Prince was now back in the shadows and eager to rule once more.

Staring out at the end of the world, the Prince turned his back to the view and walked back inside his dark house.

It was time to begin research on his latest target: Gawain of the Round Table, a Maltese Knight.

With the death of a Knight, the Prince would establish his reign once more.

Let the hunt for the Arthurian Knights begin.

~ The End

Author’s Note: Found here!

The Sphinx and the Prince …. (Espionage 10: Finale)

The Prince charged through the smoke and fire of what remained of 10 Downing Street’s entrance, blown up only seconds ago by Sofia’s bomb, hunting for the Sphinx.

Pulling out the shemagh that he had used on the Jacket Malik raid, he wrapped the bottom half of his face in a smooth motion that would help him to breathe.

Already sirens and alarms were blasting loudly, but above the din was the distinct sound of an AKS-74U rifle clattering and pitched screams following the gunfire.

Gripping his MP7A1 tightly, the Prince moved cautiously through hallowed British ground. There rooms in 10 Downing Street were exquisitely refined and spoke of simple luxury. Everything was comfortable, clean, pristine and without a single element out of place.

A sitting room had comfortable, but expensive mahogany furniture that faced a fireplace that complimented the cream interior of carpet, walls and coffee tables. It was marred only by the body of a maid, who was clutching her stomach in agony, as she wept and bled in the room alone.

The Prince, all former traces of the more compassionate Woods extinguished in his mind, ignored the maid and kept moving down the corridor, where he came across a grisly scene only 10 metres later.

4 Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection (PaDP) Officers were in the midst of eating their meal and going for their guns, when the Sphinx chanced upon them. He had sprayed his weapon in an accurate, long burst that raked the entire standby room.

An Officer had his head on the table, his body slumped over, a bowl of porridge, as blood seeped through the gaps in his armour. Another was still on the floor, the back of his head blown apart by the powerful 5.45mm round of the Sphinx’s AKS-74U, vainly reaching for his pistol belt that was hanging on a coat-hanger nearby.

The Prince whipped his MP7 up as he heard a gurgling sound. In the corner of a room, an Officer had tried in vain to save his fellow PaDP, his body riddled with holes, as he laid over a severely wounded, gasping Officer who had a MP5 lying forlornly next to him.

The wounded PaDP was clutching at his perforated throat, blood pouring out in buckets over his slowly weakening hands. His eyes widened at the sight of the Prince, in his terrorist-styled garb and choked once more, before his eyes glazed over.

The Prince moved past the waiting room with a clenched jaw. This was going to end tonight.

Muffled gunfire resonated ahead and the Prince moved faster, leapfrogging the body of a dead PaDP whose corpse was slowly staining the carpet and the precious framed photograph of Churchill leaving Downing Street in WW2.

~

The Sphinx was trained by the best. The poor PaDP, essentially well-trained policemen, were completely outclassed. None of them had much combat experience and despite their rigorous training, they were unable to tap into any of that knowledge, because fear crippled their bodies and clouded their minds.

Speed

Surprise

Violence of action

The key 3 principles of warfare.

The Sphinx was using all his considerable years of warfighting to maintain the upper hand. Much like the Prince’s terrifying one man army action on Malik’s forces in Croydon, the Sphinx was now unleashing his fearsome skills as a warrior on the PaDP.

Officer after officer fell, as the Sphinx continued his relentless advance towards the War Room. In some cases the Sphinx even used the bodies he had just kill as a human shield and confuse the Officers who were waiting for him. In their panic they would shoot at the dead policeman, whilst the Sphinx slotted his AKS-74U on the shoulder of the dead Officer and blazed away, the fight ending in the room almost as quickly it began.

After minutes of vicious CQB fighting, the Sphinx waited for a moment and took his bearings, as he reloaded his gun. If he knew his floor plan, he was only 2 corners away from the security room that guarded the entrance to the War Room.

The Sphinx scowled and began to psyche himself up. Unlike his fanatics, he didn’t resort to prayers to better himself. Instead, he was using a tried and true tactic that was taught to him by his mentor.

Meditation.

By performing, deep breathing techniques, it allowed him to quell the overwhelming amount of information that was flooding his brain. In clearing his mind, the Sphinx could react and analyse situations more accurately, limiting the amount of mistakes that could lead to his death.

It was a new technique that was slowly gaining ground in the military. Instead of hard and fast charging into situations, military men were now taught to be more cautious, methodical and limit their exposure to gunfire. Battlefield meditation allowed soldiers to clear their mind of the chaos happening around them and, with enough training, suppress feelings of fear, anxiety and confusion.

The Sphinx looked around the corner and noted that an officer was holding a riot shield, his MP5 submachine gun outstretched in front of him shakily. Smiling grimly, the Sphinx bought out another wad of C2, and rolled it into a ball. Sticking a blasting cap inside of it, the Sphinx underhand tossed it, and watched as it stuck to the riot shield, whilst the officer let loose with a burst from his submachine gun.

Ducking back coolly, the Sphinx flipped open his detonator and slammed his index finger down.

Whump!

The officer was flung backwards, as the shield combusted into a thousand pieces of reinforced glass, shredding the officer’s face into strips of bloody meat. The scream that came from the officer was horrific, freezing the 7 Officers who were waiting around the other corner, their guns aimed out from beyond the security station’s cage.

Then a small object flew through the air, identical to the last and it affixed itself to the metal cage.

All 7 pairs of eyes looked at it.

Whump!

The second ball of C2 was even more devastating than the last. Fragments of metal flew everywhere and the three Officers who were closest to it were instantly cut down, their bodies lacerated by burns and shrapnel.

The other four weren’t so lucky. One of the officers, was flung backwards into a computer panel, and in maintaining poor trigger discipline, had inadvertently pulled the trigger as he flew through the air. The Officer next to him was immediately struck in the back of the head and he dropped to the floor, dead with a big hole in his forehead.

The other two remaining PaDP struggled to get their bearings and were unable to hear or comprehend anything.

It was then, a red visible laser punched its way through the cloud of debris and melted frag and found their chests and head.

Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!

The Officers dropped instantly, and the Sphinx himself came through and looked at the man who had just killed his own buddy, now desperately trying to bring his gun to bear.

The laser found his head and 3 shots later, the Sphinx was in control of the security station that protected the British Prime Minister in his War Room bunker.

The Prime Minister stared at the screen, terrified as the Sphinx walked up to the computers and with a eerie smile at the camera, began to tap away at the laptop, ignoring the blood splatters on the screen.

Everyone in the War Room stared intently the screen that showed what was happening, literally metres away from them.

Minutes passed, then to the extreme shock of everyone inside the War Room, the Sphinx finished at the computer, gave a final ironic salute to the camera and ran off for the secondary exit out the back of Downing St.

What the bloody hell was that? asked the Prime Minister.

No one could answer him. They just stared at the screen in shock as another terrorist came into view.

~

The Prince had only just come across the corpse of the riot shield officer, when he saw the Sphinx dash away for the back exit.

Cursing, the Prince ran over to the security station and was confused when he saw an GPS map splashed across the screen.

Frowning, the Prince looked more closely at the details and realised that the Sphinx had just conducted a search for someone. He had only just saw the name, when suddenly the screen flickered and an ominous timer began to appear on the screen.

20 seconds to upload.

Cyber attack! thought the Prince instantly and he began to look over the computer, to see an innocuous USB sticking out from the side. Yanking it out, the Prince swore when the timer continued to tick downwards.

Shit! said the Prince as he continued to type furiously away at the computer, trying to isolate the virus.

However, despite his best efforts, the timer continued to tick ever downwards.

5

4

3

2

1

Beep!

Nothing happened.

The Prince frowned.

Then a hissing noise began to issue from the all steel door that barred the War Room from the outside world.

In a split second, the Prince realised what had just happened.

The door for the War Room was opening and there he was, in terrorist gear, looking like he was hacking away to gain entry to the British Prime Minister. It didn’t matter to the men inside whether the Sphinx or the Prince had killed the PaDP Officers inside, they were going to go out guns blazing.

The Sphinx had just bought himself some very valuable time from the Prince’s wrath.

The Prince whirled around and began to sprint for all it was worth, as the UK PM’s bodyguards came out of the door, their guns tearing everything to shreds.

~

The Sphinx only had 2 spheres of C2 left, and he used one on the back gate of Downing Street, sprinting as fast as he could for the coordinates he had just hacked from one of the most secure and powerful computers in the United Kingdom.

Using a worm, he had piggy-backed off the greater London’s CCTV surveillance system and intelligence network and began a facial and name recognition search.

The man who had fuelled so much of the Sphinx’s hate and anger came up as a match on the screen, literally only seconds later.

The location?

St. James Square.

A mere 5 minutes run away, if you cut through St. James’ Park.

The Sphinx tucked his AKS-74U underneath his blazer and started running the moment he left the gates, ignoring the sirens and alarms he had left behind.

He began his northwesterly run, as, nearly a minute later, the Prince sprinted out, chased by the furious bodyguards who were intent on revenge.

Spraying his MP7A1 in an accurate burst, the Prince covered the doorway that the bodyguards were about to come out from in rounds, causing them to crash into each other and hustle back into cover.

Using those precious seconds to sprint further away, the Prince saw the Sphinx ahead, running furiously through St. James Park, his handsome face etched in a concentrated scowl.

Pulling out the empty magazine for his MP7A1 and reaching down for his warbelt, the Prince realised that he had no more spare magazines for his PDW. Tossing it away as he chased after the Sphinx, the Prince knew he was down to his trusted Glock 19 and 3 spare magazines.

How the hell does this keep happening to me? Never enough ammo for these fucking terrorists thought the Prince as he made his way furiously through the heart of London.

The Prince and the Sphinx dashed their way through Pall Mall, the iconic street that led to St James’s Square, the area of London they were currently waging war in, a very posh area.

Beautifully maintained old classic Napoleonic and Regency-era houses and buildings clashed with the more modern brick styles that dominated that Industrial Revolution. This juxtaposition was only further enhanced with the glass and steel, synonymous with contemporary styles and the effect was as jarring as it was interesting.

One could literally trace architectural lineage and styles from the 18th Century to the 21st.

However both men’s targets was the singularly drab building, known simply as 22 St James’s Square. There was nothing remarkable about the styling from the exterior.

Endless windows were intersected with fading white concrete in a style that was as anonymous a building could be in London. Glass doors showed the way to a boring, corporate style interior that emphasised taupe as a colour.

A sign outside told people that there were 79 office spaces that could be rented to the public for use.

What it did not disclose was that the first 4 floors were completely booked out by a shell company, and that the building had 3 basement levels that were not accessible by normal elevators and it had been soundproofed and that there were always a 4-man security team of ex-soldiers guarding the place 24/7.

To men like the Sphinx, it was just one of the many London training facilities that were nicknamed “The Institute.” It was where he learnt how to be the most professional terrorist in the world and how he became the Sphinx.

It was within the bowels of the Institute that the Sphinx planned to end a very private chapter in his life.

Every single attack, had lead up to this moment. Nothing was coincidental. Every station that had burned across Europe, to the timing and date of the Valentine Day massacre was symbolic to a dark history.

The Sphinx looked at the simple glass doors of the Institute and walked in, his AKS-74U up.

~

William Aitken was one of the most formidable men that had ever served the British intelligence apparatus. A former SBS (Special Boat Service) operator, Aitken was as much at home in the sea as he was serving in the shadows.

The beauty of light owns itself to dark places he once famously said, during a training briefing.

A monster borne out of necessity during the Cold War, Aitken had cut his teeth serving for MI6 as a deep cover agent in East Berlin, gathering intelligence and performing assassinations on high value Soviet targets. He was also the agent responsible for personally escorting over 200 illegal migrants across the Berlin Wall, to be reunited with their families.

What the heroics failed to discern though, was the sheer number of bodies that Aitken had left behind during these illegal crossings. The Soviet Command at the time were all too aware of this cruel British agent who would collect personal belongings of soldiers he had killed and then mail them tauntingly to the Soviet High Command barracks.

The number of rings, watches and precious trinkets numbered in the high hundreds by the time the Berlin Wall fell.

The nickname, Volk (Wolf) was soon assigned to Aitken, a callsign that he would wear with pride for the rest of his life, as did the 9 million dollar bounty than followed him everywhere.

His years of service though did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Transitioning from the grey, cold climates of Russia and Germany, Aitken went to work once more against the Soviets in Afghanistan and Iraq, where late in his career, he met a young orphan named Hassan Malik.

It was 1989, the final year of the Soviet-Afghan War. The Mujahideen had in essence recaptured back their country, save for one formidable stronghold that was protecting the Soviet’s last stand in the bloody war that had raged for 9 years.

Aitken was one of the most pre-eminent military advisors to the guerrilla force and had gone completely native. A strong black beard covered his face, and his normally pale skin, was now leathery with a deep tan. He was limping in one leg, a previous engagement with a Soviet sniper, causing him to fall and roll into a deep ditch that cut open his thigh.

However, despite the thick robes that shielded him from the Afghan chill, there was no mistaking the piercing blue eyes, the confident English accent and the professional casualness in which he held his AKM with jungle taped double magazines.

It was Aitken that lead the charge against the stronghold, using heavy cover fire, smoke grenades and accurate mortar strikes to shield their approach. It was an old-school method for an ancient country.

50 Mujahideen charged the wall of the stronghold that was etched into the side of a mountain, an ancient fort that had crumbling walls and a big open clearing inside for helicopters and trucks.

Only 30 made it. The men sprayed the upper parts of the wall with gunfire, desperately trying to stop the Soviet troops from firing down at them. One man fell on his back screaming as a Soviet soldier blind-fired wildly over the lip of the wall. Seconds later a RPG smashed into the trooper, spraying dust, bricks and blood over the men crouched below, swift vengeance coming in for their fallen comrade.

Aitken laid a satchel charge at the wall and set the timer for 10 seconds.

Running back and firing his AKM furiously at the troops above, Aitken slammed his body against the wall and waited for the blast.

Crack!

Bodies, brick, mortar and even a truck was overturned as the satchel charge blew open a gap in the wall with deafening violence.

Go! Go! Go! yelled Aitken at his troops.

The Mujahideen yelled as one and with war cries, charged into the breach, where they were instantly met with hyper-machine gun fire, from a crazed General who was manning the side door gun of a large Russian Mil Mi-24 Gunship.

10 Mujahideen were instantly cut down, the bodies blown away by the intense fire. Before Aitken could react to the death of his men, a maelstrom of sand, dirt and debris began to whip at everyone in the fort, as the pilot began to lift off.

Soviet soldiers, seeing their opportunity for escape flying away, abandoned their posts and leapt for the open doors of the gunship, hitting it from all sides.

But they were met with fire from inside and outside as the crazed General in his panic, began to shoot at his own troops, unwilling to let his men weigh down the helicopter and the Mujahideen who had regrouped and were now peppering the chopper with rounds.

Men died, screaming and scrabbling to get in the chopper and in a grotesque display, bodies began to fall from the helicopter, as the pilot struggled to concentrate and lift the cumbersome beast away from the ground.

Gunfire raked the entire compound in a 360 degree arc, as chaos reigned over the battlefield. Several rounds punched right through a jail where locals assisting the Mujahideen had been captured and tortured. Their cries of help were overwhelmed by the cacophony that was happening in the clearing.

Just as the Mi-24 was rising above the wall, a Stinger missile shoomed from the nearby Mujahideen controlled hill and smashed its way into the helicopter, causing the whole thing to reel in midair and fall back into the compound.

Aitken looked up in horror at the helicopter that was about to crash right on top of him.

Just as it was about to decapitate him, someone crash-tackled him out of the way and he was sent sprawling back behind the wall, through the breach point.

The Mi-24 crumpled into the ground, and the rotors snapped, sending huge blades of metal flying every which way. One poor Soviet soldier was literally cut in half as the blade sliced towards him and his legs stood still for a full second, before toppling over, as the upper half of his body slammed against a wall.

William “Wolf” Aitken, a veteran of some of the bloodiest conflicts in the Cold War looked at the young boy who had saved his life.

The boy looked old for his age. The fact that he was old, didn’t show on his boyishly handsome face or the strong lean body that still showed fresh wounds from torture …. it was his eyes.

The brown eyes that looked back at Aitken showed a focus, determination and anger that could only come from a man.

War had accelerated the boy’s mental growth. He went from being a child to a man in the span of 9 years, a process that would take some 20 years and others their whole lifespan.

Hassan Malik was only 12 when he met William Aitken. The Wolf, out of gratitude and perhaps something else, informally adopted him soon after the assault on the final Soviet stronghold in Afghanistan.

He had plans for the young Afghan boy. Even in the waning days of the Soviet-Afghan War, Aitken could see a new threat emerging for the heat of the Arabian desert. He was going to need a new breed of soldier to defeat a new breed of terrorists.

By the time Malik left the Institute at age 15, Aitken knew that he had created one of the most dangerous men in the world.

The Sphinx was the Wolf’s crown jewel.

The ultimate result of warfare, distilled and refined by Aitken’s careful tutelage and brutal indoctrination methods.

~

For a man who was almost Stalinist in his paranoia, Aitken trusted Malik completely. It was entirely out of character for the old spymaster and soldier, but he had spent so long on his own, that he needed a release.

In Malik, he found that release. Over the course of 3 years, Aitken honed, shaped and crafted Malik into the ultimate terrorist.

To defeat terrorists meant learning how to be one. The Wolf ensured that the Sphinx was the most professional in the world.

Every piece of knowledge, no matter how trivial, Aitken entrusted to Malik. It was as if Aitken knew, that he would die soon and he didn’t want to waste any of his experience and lessons learnt.

Malik was the perfect student. He excelled in every aspect of warfare. Marksmanship. Guerrilla training. Enhanced interrogation techniques. Subterfuge.

Aitken even took Malik to Alexanderplatz Station and made him practice how to spot a suicide bomber. Then he told him to kill the target.

Malik, spotted the S-bomber within 2 minutes of the exercise. Then with a hypodermic needle laced with an enhanced digitalis poison, he stabbed the man through the heart, pretending to trip over his feet.

The S-bomber died with vomit in his throat, within 20 seconds of ingestion.

Aitken was pleased.

More exercises across Europe were conducted with brazen arrogance. A Spanish target was killed whilst boarding his plane. A Saudi national lost control of his car whilst holidaying in Saint-Tropez. A Russian oligarch and his trophy wife killed each other in a double suicide, whilst relaxing in their Swiss Alps retreat.

But it was the Valentine Day exercise that truly showcased the rigors of the Wolf’s training.

Hassan Malik, for the years he had spent in England, was mostly allowed to venture out of the safehouse at his whim. What he wasn’t aware of though, was that Aitken had known every time Hassan had snuck out to explore the city and taste the nightlife.

The Wolf was far too smart and cunning to not keep track of his pseudo-son.

Hassan however was none the wiser. He thought he was getting away with it.

One night, whilst it was still early in Hassan’s training, and he was now getting bolder with his escapes, he met a beautiful girl his age, who was also escaping from her troubles. A pretty Irish girl who went by the name Niamh. She had alabaster skin, cute brown freckles on her cheeks and nose and stunning blue eyes.

When she laughed, her nose would crinkle just so and she had the most disarming smile that would reveal her braces.

Hassan was smitten.

Niamh’s story was almost as tragic as Hassan. Her parents were a casualty of the Troubles and its bloody history between Ireland and Britain. She was fending for herself and making trouble for the British whenever and with whatever she could find.

Hassan likened her struggles to his own against the Soviets.

Their friendship only deepened as they grew older.

Hassan was 14 when he finally asked her out on a date for Valentine’s Day.

Niamh didn’t even bother answering him. They shared their first kiss that night and more. For once in their young lives, they both felt something different other than hate for the world.

The date had gone beautifully. They had dinner together, a simple Chinese takeaway meal that they both shared together, sitting at a park. Niamh had squealed with joy when she saw the flowers that Hassan had bought her.

It was 7pm when they were walking, hand in hand around Hyde Park. Niamh was laughing at a joke Hassan had just told her.

Then it happened. A black van pulled up alongside the teenagers and 4 men with Uzis and pistols ran out the side, balaclavas disguising their features. Hassan tried to go for the pistol that he always kept on him, that Aitken told him to always wear.

But it was too slow. He had never quick-drawn in a panic before and with a girl slowing down his gun arm.

The men clubbed both of them with their guns and barrelled them unceremoniously into the van.

When Hassan came to, harsh light assaulted his retinas. They were in an non-descript room, with plain tiles for the floor and ceiling. Only a one-way mirror lined the East side of the room. Hassan saw Niamh bound and gagged before him. Her blue eyes were pleading with Hassan. Hassan trashed around in his chair, desperate to get out, desperate to do anything.

He couldn’t even fall over, because the chair was bolted into the ground.

From behind him, a door opened and Hassan froze in place.

Niamh’s blue eyes went wide at the sight of the man standing behind Hassan. She seemed to recognise him.

Then two men hovered into view. Hassan recognised both of them immediately. To his right was Aitken, a scowl across his face. To his left was a large man with a ruddy complexion and a scar across his right cheek. He was Paddy Conaill, one of the IRA’s most lethal enforcers.

The two men stood between the teens staring at each other.

Fucking lovebirds. Would be sweet if it weren’t so stupid. drawled Conaill.

Hassan kept wriggling. He didn’t like any of this. Hope flared inside him when he felt one of the bonds, strong duct tape, loosened around his right hand. He kept at it, one minute movement at a time.

I’m sorry to involve you Paddy. But this is a situation isn’t it?

Yes, yes it bloody is Wolf.

Conaill cuffed Niamh across the face. Tears welled in her eyes and a red mark marked her smooth pale skin. Hassan began to wriggle faster.

You stupid bitch. Fucking fell for one of these Arabs. You should have been more careful. He’s working for the fucking English. You know what we do to traitors?

Niamh’s blue eyes couldn’t control the tears of terror.

That’s right. We’re going to give you the Treatment. No good Irish woman can be consortin’ with the enemy. You’re lucky that the Wolf here is allowing you to go back with me. You got no idea what he would have done to you. You’re lucky we go way back before the troubles started. He found out about you and the raghead here. So he caled me to clean up this fookin’ mess.

You’re done. You’re my mess to cleanup.

Goddamn stupid bitch.

Conaill, with shocking swiftness, pulled a large Beretta 92FS from the waistband of his pants and levelled it at Niamh.

Blam!

Niamh’s blue eyes closed as her head rocked back in the chair, blood slowly dripping from the entry wound like a tear down her cheek. Conaill snorted dervisively and tucked the Beretta back in his pants. Aitken remained silent and looked at Malik with calculating eyes.

Hassan Malik, with a primal scream, ripped through the tape that secured his hand to the armrest of his chair and using brute strength, forced his way out from his captivity and lunged at Conaill.

Conaill, astonished by the move, fell ass over backwards, his hand reaching for the Beretta, but unable to find any purchase on the pistol grip.

He landed awkwardly on his hand, causing him to roar with pain as the wrist broke. But Malik was already all over him. He delivered blow after blow that smashed through Conaill’s pathetic one hand defence.

When Malik couldn’t strike at the throat, he would slam his fist into Conaill’s kidney or liver. The big Irishman would curl up in pain, only to reel instantly back to the floor as another blow slammed into his head.

Bloody sprayed into the air, as Conaill’s nose broke and in his desperation, he made one final move. He rolled and pushed Malik off him.

However, Malik was ready, instead of continuing his hand to hand assault, he grabbed the pistol from Conaill’s waistband and stood up, the Beretta shaking slightly in his anger, his brown eyes looking deadly over the sights of the pistol.

Conaill looked at the Wolf. His eyes were pleading. Trying to hearken back to some previous relationship they shared. The Wolf merely smiled coldly.

Wolf! Please do some-

Blam! Blam! …. Blam!

The Mozambique drill was executed with clinical precision. Two to the chest and one to the head. Conaill’s head listed aimlessly as his eyes sightlessly stared at Aitken.

Malik spun around, the Beretta moving fast. But the Wolf was too quick for him and he disarmed the pistol out of his protege’s hands and tapped him in the side of the head once.

Malik slumped to the floor, losing consciousness. He reached out for Niamh, but all he heard was Aitken’s gruff voice.

Sleep with one eye open. Never trust your enemies or your friends. Remember this lesson, son.

Malik’s final thought was defiant and angry. Any trace of the boy named Hassan Malik was extinguished in its entirety now.

One day, you’ll pay, Wolf. I swear to God, I’m going to kill you.

~

The Sphinx fought to control his emotions as he walked down the familiar white, plain hospital-styled corridors that only served to enhance the unnerving effects of the violence that had been committed within these walls.

The Institute would forever be the darkest chapter of the Sphinx’s history. There was no escaping the fact that he had learned how to torture a man here. Even now, he could recall the way how blood looked brighter against the searingly white rooms, and the sound water, congealed with blood made as it trickled slowly towards a drainage pipe in the centre of a room.

Those skills had come back to bite the Western forces though. The Sphinx lost count of the amount of Coalition forces he had tortured under UBL’s leadership but the information he had amassed was incredible. It was one of the main reasons why UBL had escaped the detection for so long.

The Sphinx even remembered his first execution. A man, with a hood over his head, was sitting forlornly in the corner of a room. He was dressed in typical military fashion, with baggy camo pants and a plain brown shirt.

He remembered being handed a pistol, a chunky Sig Sauer P226 by the Wolf. It was too big for his hands at the time, but grip it he did.

What has he done? he remembered asking.

It doesn’t matter what’s he done. He’s against us. The Wolf had replied coldly.

Who is he?

It doesn’t matter. What matters is the will to make things right.

The Sphinx remembered the way how he stared at the man.

A complete nobody. But he was breathing. He was alive. He might have had a family. Children. He could have been him in the future.

But it doesn’t matter echoed the Wolf’s answer in his mind.

It took him nearly 5 minutes, but when he made the final decision, something inside of him clicked.

Something dark. Something apathetic and cruel.

The cold inner workings of any assassin.

The Sphinx stood up from his chair, wrapped his 14 year old hands around the pistol and without hesitation walked up to the target, who flinched slightly, and pulled the trigger three times.

The Wolf looked at his protege approvingly. He nodded seriously and the Sphinx remembered the smallest hint of a smile.

This approval was something the Sphinx had craved. He remembered the unique mixture of guilt and pride in his actions. But the feelings of guilt wouldn’t last. To get the Wolf’s approval, he would kill for this man.

The Sphinx felt his breath quicken, as he continued his search for the Wolf in the bowels of the Institute.

Even in this state, the Institute was clean. It was undeniably empty, with only a few trace evidence of the horrors that were conducted here. A stretcher in the corner of an empty room. The reinforced glass that prevented escapees. The keypads that could only be opened from the outside.

But to the uninitiated, it was as bare as could be. Nothing really showed that it was an enhanced training facility for one of the world’s most feared terrorists. The entire place reeked of deniability. It didn’t exist anywhere.

The Sphinx moved with the familiarity of memory. He knew where the Wolf would be. Not dead of a heart attack, that James Ashford had claimed to the Prince.

Instead, he would be working in his office. It didn’t matter that the Wolf was in his mid-60s. His commitment to the cause would have him working to his actual death.

Like the Prince, the Wolf also enjoyed anonymity from the grave. The only people who knew of his true existence were a secretive group of influential Englishmen who liked to ensure their secrets remained within their fraternity.

The Sphinx hadn’t known it at the time, but every action and exercise he had undertook was for this elite fraternity. These men would occasionally work with the government, sometimes against but it was always in their best interests.

Their motto was simple: sunt superis sua iura – the gods have their own laws.

Known simply as The Round Table, they were the shadowy organisation who funded the Institute and the Wolf’s training programs and sponsored his death.

But the Sphinx didn’t care. He was here only for one man. He kept moving through the Institute, his gun up, aware that the 4 man security team could be anywhere and were watching him through cameras.

Approaching the final staircase that would lead to the final 3rd basement floor, he spun around, thinking he had heard something. Silence and emptiness sneered at him and his AKS-74U.

The Sphinx frowned but shook off the feeling of disquiet and began to descend the final flight of stairs to confront the man who had controlled his destiny for so long.

~

The Prince shadowed the Sphinx the entire time as they descended further and further down. He was completely lost and disturbed by the Institute. They had first gone up into the floors where the building’s empty office spaces had been rented.

Rows and rows of empty cubicles stared at them, devoid of life. The Prince watched as the Sphinx ignored these cubicles and headed to a curiously placed fire-escape in the centre of the building. Silently following him, the Prince caught the door before it fully shut and hugged the wall as he looked down.

The Sphinx was walking down the flight of stairs. They seemed to descend forever into the depths of the ground. It was highly disorienting. The Prince watched as the Sphinx reached the bottom of the stairs and smoothly open the door, his AKS-74U up and ready to confront any threat.

Moments later, the Prince silently opened the same door and was shocked to see a hospital-styled room, with a long central corridor and many rooms with reinforced plexiglass, and one-way mirrors.

It was a classic interrogation wing. Only like the Sphinx had noted, it was studiously clean.

The Prince stayed back, watching the Sphinx professionally clear the area, before disappearing around a corner.

The Prince hurried after him, noting the familiarity that the Sphinx’s body language seemed to exhibit in these strange surrounding.

He’s been here before realised the Prince.

Minutes continued to crawl, as they went through another basement level, this one an advanced gun-range with a kill-house mock up, similar to the one that the Prince had trained in countless of times during his tenure in the SAS. However what set this basement level apart was the sheer height of it, with catwalks running across for observation and examination.

As the Prince watched the Sphinx cautiously move his way through the kill-house, he became aware of a strange detail in the CQB-training area.

The targets weren’t just cardboard cutouts. They were full blown silhouettes of both terrorist and counter-terrorists units, with realistic images of hostages. Empty chairs also lined the kill-house’s many rooms, with blood-rusted bullet holes behind them indicating that they had used live rounds against live targets here.

The Prince didn’t like any of these ramifications.

Where the hell am I? he thought as he continued to move his way through the kill-house silently.

As they came across the final staircase that would lead the final floor, in the north-east corner of the training level, the Sphinx nearly spotted the Prince following him.

In a hyper-fast move, the Prince ducked down and was relieved when the Sphinx continued on his way.

Keeping his Glock 19 close to his chest, the Prince continued to stalk the Sphinx, as he ventured deeper into the final level of the Institute.

~

The final floor of the Institute was a constant. An aberration of time and space. It was always perpetually dark and quiet. Only the barely audible hum of supercomputers and the flickering of thousand of TV monitors disrupted the shadows and silence.

This final floor was much smaller than the upper interrogation and training wings. In spite of that fact though, it was still a huge office for a single man. Measuring roughly 20×20 metres, it featured a central hub where the Wolf could observe a wall of large monitors that showcased feeds from operations around the world.

An assassination in Poland. A bombing in Syria. A governmental collapse in Argentina. A turf war between rival gangs in Los Angeles. A chemical factory explosion in Ukraine. A pirate raid on a supertanker off the coast of Africa.

The Wolf watched and processed them all through 4 supercomputers that allowed him to process and analyse data at an incredible rate. Currently, the Wolf was coldly eyeing the progress of the Sphinx and the Prince as they neared his command centre.

Along the east wall was the personal collection of the Wolf’s many escapades. An array of guns, swords, bows and even a large taxidermist Afghan horse were on display. Across from this collection though, along the west wall, was something far more gruesome.

Rows upon rows of index fingers lined the span of the wall. They were all perfectly lined up straight, with only one centimetre separating them. Some were slender and long, others short and stubby. A few had nail polish on them, others were painted. In some cases, the finger had suffered badly with cracked nails, broken bones, shrapnel damage, all left as they had been found when removed. In one case, torn flesh billowed softly from an open wound from what looked like a dog bite.

The entire index wall was encased in a yellow fluid, the stench of formaldehyde quickly consumed by strong vents that removed the smell elsewhere in the facility.

All 744 fingers were a memento of one of the Wolf’s kills. Each of them unique, each of them a strong memory.

Behind the central hub was a security station that separated the main entrance to the command centre. A large mounted machine gun provided a final stand of defence and the entire wall that filled most of the central space, except the two sides, was made of bulletproof opaque glass to shield the Wolf from any damage.

This was the Wolf’s lair, the place where he resided for much of his death.

It was the perfect Ops centre for conducting operations and easily defensible.

His loyal 4 man security team were at the security station desk, ready to fight till the end.

One man had his finger on the large mounted M240 Bravo machine gun that could tear through anything in seconds. The other 3 men were crouched beside him, submachine guns ready, fingers on the trigger.

They all stared at the door and waited anxiously.

Minutes passed when they heard a strange sound, like a suppressed pistol shot.

The Wolf said nothing to his men as he saw the camera feed outside the main door turn to hash.

~

The Sphinx placed his final C2 sphere on the door as quietly as he could.

There was nothing to it, but to go in guns blazing and make sure his fire was more accurate than the men inside.

The Sphinx looked over at his AKS-74U and thumbed the paddle to release the magazine. Looking at the bullets inside, the Sphinx sighed and noted that he had one full magazine left, one full spare on his belt and his Beretta with a half magazine.

It’s enough to finish this fight. thought the Sphinx as he reinserted the magazine into the gun and pulled out the detonator for the C2.

For Niamh

Crack!

The C2 sphere blasted the door open and the 4 men inside ducked instinctively. Within half a second, the M240B machine gunner instantly began pumping rounds through the door, firing blindly in a panic as his teammates soon unleashed their own torrent of fire.

The walls next to the door was soon perforated with hundred of holes.

As the three men ran dry and began their reloads, whilst the machine gunner continued to pump bullet after bullet, the Sphinx, crouching low near the door, risked a peek through one of the larger bullet holes that was created.

Slotting his AKS-74U in the hole, the Sphinx let loose a burst that chewed off the machine gunner’s head and froze the other three men, as the comforting thump-thump-thump of the M240B ceased.

Seizing his chance, the Sphinx ran through the door and with three bursts put all the remaining men down.

One man, his chest ripped apart, looked at the Sphinx in fear. The Sphinx smiled coldly, and with the final rounds in his AKS-74U’s magazine, shredded the man’s face, before dispassionately reloading.

As the Sphinx stood there, breathing heavily, on the cusp of entering the Wolf’s Lair, the Prince watched as he rolled swiftly to duck a 40mm grenade that was launched from the centre of the room.

The Prince swore as he realised that it was aimed at him. He dove under the grenade and tumbled down the stairs, as the staircase above him exploded spectacularly and a large chunk of debris slammed into the side of his head.

The Prince laid face-down, seemingly dead, as blood slowly crept out of the side of his head.

~

The Sphinx glared at the Wolf, who stood still in the middle of his command centre, a M4A1 rifle with a smoking underslung M203 grenade launcher aimed right at the Sphinx who was still crouched after his desperate roll.

Hassan. said the Wolf coldly.

The Sphinx chose to say nothing. Instead he was desperately trying to think of a way to get the upper hand.

You saved my life once Hassan. Consider this mercy as us, even. If you make one foolish move, don’t think I won’t kill you. You were stupid to come here. Look at you, repeating history again, bringing an outsider into our world. You didn’t even know that the Prince was following you the whole time.

I, once thought that you were my greatest student.

Perhaps once, I might have even thought you would be my son.

But you’re sloppy. You let your emotions control you again. Revenge has clouded your decision-making.

It’s pathetic. Have you learned nothing from me?

The Wolf tightened his trigger finger and coldly blew off the Sphinx’s left index finger which was by his side.

Blood sprayed from the Sphinx’s hand as he roared in pain. He looked down at his hand in shock. It was mangled beyond recognition, blood oozing from the wound and he could see the white hint of bone where the finger had been separated.

The feared terrorist looked around in morbid fascination for the missing digit as he gripped his hand furiously.

There it was, only 2 metres, his severed index finger, another trophy for the Wolf, weeping blood unceremoniously on the dark floor. For some odd reason, it was only when he saw the finger, the pain really started to hit him.

The Sphinx began to breathe heavily, as he prevented a scream from coming out. He wasn’t going to give the bastard Wolf, the satisfaction. Instead, he glared up at the Wolf defiantly.

The Wolf allowed himself the smallest of smiles in respect as he tilted the M4A1 up and aimed at the Sphinx’s head. His finger closed around the trigger and … was about to pull it all the way …

When the Prince groaned.

The sound was enough.

It distracted the Wolf for the smallest of seconds.

The Sphinx lunged into action and swept up the AKS-74U he dropped when the Wolf blew off his finger.

Gritting his teeth, the Sphinx loosed everything he had in the magazine at his enemy, at the man he once called a father. He didn’t even fire in bursts, he just held down the trigger, desperate to kill.

But the Wolf was too quick. He was already moving when he realised his mistake. The Wolf dove out of the way and gasped as one of the Sphinx’s bullets slammed into his M4A1, rendering the weapon useless.

The Sphinx’s crazed burst lasted for 4 seconds. The rounds echoed in the small room viciously, joined soon after by the sounds of computers and monitors sparking into death.

Fuck! yelled the Sphinx as the AKS-74U ran dry and began to click uselessly.

Whipping out his Beretta, the Sphinx rolled for cover, adrenaline-soaked revenge causing him to forget his wound, as the Wolf pulled out a big and rare Arsenal AF2011A1 and let loose.

A very odd pistol and the personal favourite of the Wolf, the Arsenal AF2011A1 wasn’t just any ordinary 1911 clone. It featured another .45 barrel next to the original, making it a weapon that had two barrels that could be pulled with one trigger. With a special magazine, the weapon featured 16 rounds and could easily blow fist-sized holes in a target.

Which is exactly what the Sphinx discovered when the flimsy table he was hiding behind blew open in a shower of wood and plastic and nearly took his head off. Peering through the hole and ignoring the splinters that had raked his face, the Sphinx loosed several rounds from his puny Beretta that caused the Wolf to duck.

They traded rounds after rounds, the ops centre viciously reporting each crack of gunfire in a headache inducing volume.

Suddenly, the exchange of fire stopped as both men ran dry.

Metallic clangs were heard as magazines were dropped to the floor and new ones were inserted with a sharp click.

Both men were breathing heavily, the Sphinx looking down at the blood that was dripping from his left hand hitting the floor, only for another drop to follow from the frag wound to the side of his face.

This ends now Wolf! called out the Sphinx.

The Wolf only snorted derisively.

Join her in hell … Sphinx.

With a primeval battle-cry, the Sphinx whirled from behind the table and raced towards the Wolf, just as the Wolf did the same.

Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! … Blam!

The Sphinx and the Wolf stood stock still in the centre of the room, mere metres apart, their guns outstretched.

The Sphinx collapsed first, his head blown apart by the final round that the Wolf fired.

The feared terrorist who had wreaked so much havoc across Europe because of revenge was dead. His chest was blown open by three powerful shots from the Wolf’s Arsenal.

No-one was getting up from that, not even the Sphinx’s desire for revenge. But ever the professional, the Wolf executed his protege with a headshot that created a huge exit wound, spraying brain matter everywhere in a gruesome, grisly grey-red mist.

The Wolf looked down at his own body and saw that the Sphinx had gotten him twice. Once in the left shoulder and another in the stomach.

Sinking to one knee, the Wolf looked at the Sphinx and shook his head.

Revenge. So petty. he said disdainfully as he clutched at his stomach.

Such a waste …

The Wolf breathed calmly as he began to assess the situation. The stupid emotional little shit was dead. He was wounded but nothing a Round Table medical team couldn’t patch up. Everything should be under control …

It was then the Prince arrived, his head bloody, his green eyes cold and strangely curious, his Glock 19 aimed straight at the Wolf’s head.

~

The Wolf spat on the ground disrespectfully.

Gabriel Woods. 31 years old. Australian. Former member of the 22nd SAS. Now an assassin. Never worked for any bidder. 79 confirmed kills in 4 years.

Renowned for killing a member of the Royal Family. Earned the sobriquet “The Prince” because of it. 2 fucking years later, through some quirk of fate, ends up working for Her Majesty anyway.

Talk about irony.

The Wolf laughed.

You know, we thought about hiring you. But when you killed one of us in Argentina, we figured you were too principled for our taste. Such a pity. We were big fans of your kill on the Prince. Probably one of the best we’ve ever seen and trust me, I’ve seen plenty to be impressed. We could have used a man like you.

The Prince looked down at the Wolf and cocked his head.

Could?

The Wolf smiled coldly.

You didn’t really think that I was going to tell you everything as I laid here dying did you? Who do you take me for?

The Prince looked up at the monitors that dominated so much of the room. His eyes widened in anger and shock.

Through the security camera footage, a 12-man SWAT team was making their way through Institute. They had just cleared the interrogation wing. In minutes they would be at the training floor, where the Kill-House was.

The Wolf began to laugh.

You’ve got nowh-

Blam! Blam! Blam!

The Prince shot him three times in the head.

The Wolf’s head lolled lifelessly and then fell over, meeting the same fate as his protege.

Master and apprentice, dead in the same room, their brains missing.

It was almost poetic if one knew their history. But the Prince didn’t, nor did he care.

They were just two more dead assholes.

Staring at the screen, and seeing the Round Table SWAT team get closer, the Prince gritted his teeth and walked over to the Wolf’s weapon arsenal on the east wall.

~

The 12 man SWAT team was anything but ordinary. For starters their uniform was entirely black, instead of the normal dark navy blue that normal Police teams would wear.

Large, bulletproof gas masks covered their faces, and they were armed to the teeth with breaching shotguns, assault rifles, submachine guns and large calibre pistols. Two of the men out front were holding large assault shields, with rare fully automatic Glock 18 machine pistols.

Whilst a normal SWAT team would be carrying cable-ties, non-lethal grenades and equipment for suspects, the Round Table team was suspiciously absent from any such kit. Instead they were carrying large body bags, and were equipped with thermite grenades, which when activated would burn anything to ash.

They were here for one purpose … the complete destruction of this Institute.

Sanitize and sterilize all traces of evidence.

The team leader, going by Gawain, stepped up to the door that lead to the training floor. Placing a breaching charge, he waited until the men were safely behind the riot shielded men before counting down.

3, 2, 1 … Mark.

Crack!

The door blew open and the men rushed in to begin their assault on the Kill House, where the Prince was waiting for them.

~

Having taken a spare backpack and stuffing it full of hard drives from the supercomputers that lined the back wall of the Ops Centre, the Prince was moving quickly. He knew that he didn’t have enough energy, nor firepower to defeat this SWAT team.

So this was all going to hinge on how stealthily he could sneak past the team.

Grabbing the quietest gun on the Wolf’s arsenal and his personal favourite, a familiar MP5SD, and stuffing his warbelt with 4 spare magazines, the Prince also grabbed a suppressor for his Glock 19, stowing it in a pocket, before grabbing 3 big packets of C4 explosive and a detonator.

Taking position on the far side of the Kill House and recalling the layout, the Prince crept forward as he heard Gawain blow open the door. He was making his way for the catwalk that was high above the kill-house. But to get there, he had to go through the kill-house’s south-west corner.

The Kill House was atypical of those seen in training facilities everywhere. Sturdy plywood lined with bulletproof material were used for walls, and the doors had multiple holes in them to practice breaching. This one featured over 20 rooms that were variously conjoined and interconnected.

The SWAT Team moved swiftly through the Kill-House. They were evidently well trained. They leap-frogged one another with precision and speed, already they were a third of the way through the Kill-House.

The Prince set down one of the C4 explosives in one of the rooms closest to the entry of the staircase that lead to the Ops Centre and moved into the Kill-House, where he waited in the adjoining room that would lead to the catwalk.

Bang!

With shocking swiftness, the door swung inwards to the room the Prince was waiting in. An assault shielded man came through, with 2 men behind him shooting over the shield into the corners of the room.

But what they didn’t realise was the Prince was lying on the floor and he shot the shit out of their legs.

Slit! Slit! Slit! Slit! whispered the MP5SD.

All three men collapsed on the floor, their shins exploding in sprays of blood.

The Prince, acting quickly, grabbed the riot shield, flipped it and rammed them all back through the way they came, causing them all to stack on top of each other, before ramming the edge of the shield into each of their heads, knocking them out cold.

Sprinting for the catwalk staircase, the Prince pulled out his detonator and pressed down viciously.

Shoom!

The C4 explosive blew apart the southern end of the Kill House, launching the remaining 9 men backwards with the blast.

As they staggered to their feet, Gawain looked around and saw the Prince sprinting above them, gunning for the staircase entrance that would lead to freedom.

Gawain bought his HK416 assault rifle to bear, only for the Prince to dive off the catwalk and onto the ground, where he rolled across the floor and to the only exit out of the training ground.

Fuck! swore Gawain. All elements! Back to the north entry now!

The Prince placed his second C4 at the door, before sprinting all the way up and placing his final one on the top of the staircase.

Then he ran right through the interrogation wing and at the end of the hall, smiled coldly and pressed down on the detonator.

Chunk!

From the Prince’s angle, fiery smoke billowed out through the open doorway he had just run through.

From Gawain’s angle, his team were launched backwards once more and they stared at the destruction the Prince had wreaked upon them, ensuring that they were stuck down here for a long time.

Gawain furiously punched the wall of the Kill-House and radioed in a report that was met with an angry but cold response.

Mediocre, Knight. Very mediocre.

~

The Prince ran outside, and saw the driver of the SWAT van that had just deposited the team sent in to kill him, who was in the midst of getting out.

Not one to waste time or opportunity, the Prince whipped up his MP5SD and blew out the driver’s kneecaps with two shots.

The man staggered face first onto the floor, where the Prince shot him again through the top of his head for good measure.

Pulling out his phone, the Prince called Ashford as he walked away from the Institute, his head reeling from everything that had just transpired. It was imperative that he go underground as soon as possible.

Ashford answered on the second ring.

Make me disappear, now.

~

Epilogue

It was another beautiful day in Tidal River, rural Victoria. The bright golden sunshine complemented the yellow grass that ended on a cliff that jutted out to the Pacific Ocean.

Big waves crashed against the cliff and the noise they generated created a soothing natural soundscape to the environment.

Gabriel Woods looked out from his brutally modern house from the second floor and sighed quietly.

It had been nearly 2 months since the V-Day Massacre in London, and it had taken all of Ashford’s considerable powers and resources to hide Woods from the new threat he had uncovered.

The Round Table.

Only Gabriel Woods and James Ashford were aware of their existence. Ashford couldn’t even trust his own SIS team, assuming, rightly so, that the entire intelligence agency was compromised.

At first, Ashford didn’t know what to make of the intelligence that Woods had secured off the 4 hard drives that once belonged to a man named Wolf. But it slowly dawned on him just how bad the situation was.

What the hell are we going to do? asked Ashford, aghast at the entire situation.

You know what you have to do. replied Woods evenly to the question.

Ashford looked at the man standing before him. Then the head of the British Intelligence nodded once and left, never to contact Woods again. He would do, what he had done for Gabriel for so many years, protect the Queen’s only assassin remotely and leave him to his devices.

The ultimate sign of trust amongst men who run in the shadows.

Gabriel Woods was now all alone in the fight.

The Prince was back and eager to rule once more.

Staring out at the landscape, the Prince turned his back to the view, turned on his laptop and began to research the latest target’s death:

Gawain of the Round Table, a Maltese Knight.

Let the hunt begin.

~

Author’s Note

And … I’m finished!

I know I let it end on a sequel-bait, but honestly, it’s more fun that way.

I might revisit this character later, but for now I’m pretty happy with the way how everything went.

I shall be writing a post-mortem entry for this whole short story, so hopefully that will be up soon! I can’t believe that this is only the second one I’e finished on this blog. Anywaw I hope you guys have had a blast reading it, as much as I did writing it.

I shall also be compiling and editing the entire thing into one big blog post, so you can read it from end to end!

Stay tuned for the reflection post on this story!

Big thanks to those who have been following this story since Espionage 1, way back in 2020!

I hope this ending was fun for you!

~ Damocles.

Into the Woods …. (Espionage 9)

20 minutes into the V-Day Attack.

Gabriel Woods stared at the crowd surging and pushing towards him, a primal fear coursing through his system, as the stampede of bodies barrelled down the London street, panicked and terrified.

Having rushed from Ryan “Jacket” Malik’s Croydon safe-house to London in the bomb-maker’s car, in a vain attempt to assist the SAS kill-teams already operating there, Woods was forced to abandon the car on the A23 when he saw the thousands of police checkpoints that blocked entry to London.

Slipping past surreptitiously the checkpoint, as policemen argued sternly with the hundreds of cars that were lining up, Woods made his way through the millions of alleyways that marked London’s cityscape, before finally entering the CBD properly after a long hour walk.

As he made his way through the city, he could hear the screams and echoes of gunfire. With his MP7A1, Glock 19 and warbelt looking decidedly terrifying, Gabriel wasn’t keen for anyone to see him, as he had no friendly identifying features on him.

As he rounded the corner of a street cautiously, it was then he was confronted with a crowd.

Falling back around the corner, Woods ducked into an alcove as the crowd kept running past him. No one saw the quiet assassin watching them, as they ran away in their fear. As he stepped out, one of the stragglers nearly collided into him, a petite woman clutching her arm and looking back in the direction she had came in horror.

She nearly screamed at the sight of Woods, but Woods was quicker, and with a firm but gentle grip, Woods slowly moved her around the corner, sat her down on the floor and said soothingly in a British accent

It’s OK. I’m UK Special Forces. I’m friendly. Here, let me look at that arm.

The petite woman was shaking heavily, the shock of a terrorist attack still apparent in her nervous system. Tears streaked down her cheeks, as she felt some semblance of relief at a soldier tending to her wound.

What’s your name? asked Woods softly, as he opened his first aid kit.

Liz. said the woman shakily. Woods nodded and smiled reassuringly.

Hi Liz. My name is George. I’m a medic with the 2nd Paras. We’ll have you patched up in no time OK? Just try to stay calm with me and not move too much OK? Everything is going to be alright Liz.

As Gabriel inspected the wound, a nasty piece of frag that had embedded itself in Liz’s arm, a tiny part of him marvelled at how quickly he had lied and created a false military persona. George from the 2nd Paras …. that was something he would have to tell Ashford later, so that the illustrious 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, one of Britian’s first airborne troops units, founded in the Second World War, could prepare an appropriate story for the press.

It was a typical SAS ploy, to pass off their deeds to the Regiment where most of the SAS members had come from, and in most cases the Paras were all too happy to take the credit.

Gabriel looked at the piece of metal shrapnel that had lodged itself in this attractive blonde’s arm and winced at the flow of blood that was oozing out. To remove this, was to risk further blood loss, but who knew what sort of shit, bacteria wise, was in that open wound right now.

Taking out some disinfectant, Gabriel maintained gentle eye contact with Liz, as her blue eyes locked onto his green trustingly.

OK Liz, so I can’t remove this piece of metal, because to do so, would mean that you might incur more blood loss. What I am going to do, is disinfect this wound, so it’s going to sting a lot. Then I’m going to bandage you up and get you to a hospital ASAP. Hold onto me Liz, because this is going to hurt OK?

Liz nodded and started to breathe heavily, as she gripped Gabriel’s shoulder with her good hand. Dabbing the disinfectant onto a gauze pad, Gabriel started to clean the wound, ignoring the moans of pain as Liz began to writhe in his grip and tighten the pressure on his shoulder with her fingers.

Come on Liz, nearly there! said Woods encouragingly, as he continued to dab away at the wound and avoided touching the metal.

After what seems like hours, but was in reality minutes, Liz relaxed as Woods finally stopped and took out his bandage roll.

OK, hold still Liz.

She nodded gamely, as Woods began to bandage the wound, allowing the piece of metal to stick out from beyond the protective white tape and she winced in pain as the bandage pricked at the metal shrapnel.

OK, all done Liz. Attagirl. Now we got to get you to a hospital. Can you stand?

I … I think so.

It’s only a short hop, and skip away. Let’s go.

Gabriel gently looped Liz’s good arm around his neck and together they began to walk to the nearest hospital, which was the St. Thomas’ Hospital.

As Woods half carried and half supported Liz, he made idle conversation to take her mind off the pain and the sight of white bandages slowly becoming more infused with red.

Tell me more about yourself Liz. What do you normally do for a living?

I’m a bartender. I was serving drinks at the Beaufort, near the Savoy when out of nowhere I heard all this gunfire. At first I thought it was some type of sick joke, but when our bar’s windows got shot through and I saw people falling over …

Liz’s voice trailed off, as she relived the moment.

It’s OK Liz. You don’t have to continue. said Woods softly.

No, I’m OK. But yeah, when I saw what was really going on … I ducked behind the bar, but that was when the terrorists shot at the glasses above me and people starting running out. One of the bullets must have shattered something, because the railing that held up the drinks just fucking broke apart and I got that in my arm as I was hiding.

Liz took a shaky breath, as they continued their slow journey to the hospital.

You know George, I was there in 2017, when the Bridge attacks happened. I thought I was going to die when the van came near me. But this shit is way worse. I can’t believe it happened to me again. I only just got over that damn bridge attack and now .. I’m fucking shot. When is this going to be over?

Gabriel looked sympathetically at the waiter. She was tough and unlucky. To have 2 terrorists attack occur within the span of 5 years, with Liz at the centre, was sheer galactic unluckiness. He didn’t know what to say.

Take it easy Liz, Woods heard himself say We’re nearly there.

God … I’m going to have to spend a ton more on therapy again said Liz half jokingly and half seriously.

Woods smiled. A sense of humour meant that her spirit wasn’t truly broken yet. As they rounded the corner, Woods was relieved to see that the hospitals had not quite gotten full yet. Walking through the emergency doors, Woods looked at a nurse and a security guard who was rushing forwards.

UK Special Forces. I’m here to drop off a casualty. Frag wound to the arm. I’ll leave her in your care. Give me a quick trauma kit, I got to get back out there.

The nurse nodded and yelled at the security guard who immediately ran off to get a fresh trauma kit whilst she looked at Liz.

Liz smiled at Woods gratefully as the nurse fussed over her.

I don’t know how to thank you George.

Just doing my duty ma’am. said Woods charmingly.

Thank you. Oh and one more thing, as I was running out of the Beaufort, I thought I saw something strange.

Woods knelt in front of Liz and looked at her seriously.

What was it? he asked intensely.

Maybe it was nothing, but just before the attack happened, I was serving this couple. They were this good-looking Middle Eastern couple. The girl looked really nervous, and she also looked pregnant but the guy seemed chilled about everything. I only remembered them, because they never ordered any proper drinks, just mocktails and finger food. But they kept looking at their watches and I noticed at around 10 to 7, they left.

As they left, I saw the guy nod to someone who was also eating there.

This guy was the one who later shot up my bar.

Woods looked at Liz, scrutinising her. Are you sure?

Yes.

Which way were they going?

I’m not sure, but it was towards the Charing Cross.

Woods smiled gratefully. Thank you Liz. he said, holding her non-injured hand gently and squeezing it warmly. Now heal up. I’ll be back to visit you sometime.

As Woods ran off, he knew that he would never keep that promise. Such was the nature of this business. She would live her life, none the wiser about the identity of the Prince that had saved her arm from amputation with his quick first aid. To her, he was just another 2nd Parachute Regiment trooper named George.

~

To cross the River Thames, Woods was going to run directly across the famous Westminster Bridge where Big Ben watched over it, ever vigilant. To the North of these iconic institutions, stood equally famous landmarks, like 10 Downing Street, Whitehall and the National Gallery.

To the North-east of Big Ben, sat the Savoy and the Beaufort Bar, where Gabriel and Liz had walked from, as well as Charing Cross Station.

If Woods was any predictor of the Sphinx’s target, it would be any of those key icons or Big Ben itself. However, suicide bombing was not in his nature.

This was the task of his underlings. Soldiers who would die for the cause.

Men who had already set London on fire, as Woods ran across Westminster Bridge, seeing flames and smoke rising from the numerous shops that had been fired upon.

What struck Woods though, was the constant cacophony of noise. Screams of the wounded blended into the whoop, whoop, whoop of emergency sirens. The occasional pop of gunfire echoed through the skyward corridors of London, the sound reverberating harshly as it bounced everywhere.

There were people were running everywhere, as their panicked eyes sought solace anywhere. Woods could see bloodied clothes, torn dresses and abandoned heels. A man walked past him, his eyes dazed by the horror of what he had just witnessed, a zombie in a neat tuxedo. Nothing was registering on his face, just an empty blankness.

Others were crouched and lying on the floor, as they hyperventilated through the shock and fear, struggling to breathe properly, their friends sobbing into their shoulder.

A woman and her child were hugging each other tightly, and as Woods ran past them, the mother screamed in horror at the sight of his guns and buried her face into her son’s head.

No! No! NO! Don’t take him please!

Woods ignored her and kept running, his green eyes scanning everywhere for Malik and Sofia. If they weren’t going to attack Big Ben, then it had to be something else. Sooner or later, he would come across them.

More people ran past him. Shops burned. Woods kept desperately searching for the two lovers.

But he only saw chaos everywhere.

A teen in a hoodie was rummaging through a smashed in store. Woods walked up to him and raised his MP7A1, nudging him in the shoulder.

The teen jumped backwards in fright, and promptly tripped over the broken glass that littered the floor. Falling over, he instantly banged his hooded head against the floor, knocking him out cold. Woods flipped him over, and with a spare cable-tie, cuffed the teen to a floor-mounted table and sent an anonymous tip to the police with his phone.

Pushing on, Woods kept moving through the city that had been touched too many times by fundamentalism. To his great relief, Woods had yet to see any bomb damage, which meant that his intelligence and the SAS kill-teams had saved the city from further destruction.

Whilst it would have been more ideal if all elements of the attack had been stopped, there was only so much that could be done. After all, the Sphinx had planned for all eventualities. Casualties in every single one of his attacks were to be expected. This was his biggest one, and to assume that they could properly prevent an attack, planned by one of their own, was arrogant and short-sighted.

Woods recalled the conversation he had with Ashford, in the hours before this attack.

~

You know that we can’t stop this attack cleanly right?

I know, Gabriel. There are still too many variables in this scenario. The SAS teams are all prepped and ready to go. They’ll be inserting in ASAP. But …

Ashford’s voice trailed off into silence as he tried to contemplate all of the Sphinx’s moves.

We still know too little.

Yes. said Ashford defeated. The lads at Hereford are the best, but even they are no guarantee.

Woods looked on quietly, as one of the most powerful and intelligent men in the world, buried his head in his hands. Every death that was going to occur in the attack, was going to haunt him for the rest of his career. Not even his American counterpart, Richard Washington had been able to provide much assistance.

The Sphinx was going to strike, regardless of their actions from now till the Valentine Day Attack.

What the hell am I going to do Gabriel?

Woods looked at Ashford and coldly said one word

Retribution.

Ashford looked up sharply at his best asset.

You know sir, it’s time you put me to good use. The Americans never quite understood how to use me to the best of my ability. I gathered intelligence for them, hid amongst the locals and spied on village leaders and warlords.

I didn’t become the Prince to spy on people. I definitely did not expect months of service to the Americans either.

You found me for a reason. I’m not in the business of preventing attacks.

I’m in the business of hunting

The information I gather is to kill a target, not to be used for any other type of reconnaissance.

Don’t make the same mistake as the Americans. You’re better than that. You have under your command, someone who stalks and kill their prey before they can commit some heinous crime.

I don’t exist anywhere. No-one knows who I really am, or who I work for.

It’s too late to prevent this attack, but you can stop the next one.

Unleash me, sir.

Ashford nodded and realised that he had foolishly categorised this man as another intelligence asset.

What Gabriel Woods should really be designated as, is England’s only assassin.

James Ashford, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, looked at Woods with a cold fury behind his eyes.

You have execute authority. I want Malik’s head. Bring it to me. Don’t make tomorrow’s chaos be in vain.

Woods looked back at his boss and nodded.

With pleasure, sir.

~

As Woods rushed from Westminster Bridge to 10 Downing Street, following nothing but his instincts, the Sphinx was gripping the hands of Sofia Sumarwata, whose serene beauty was now flushed with excitement.

They looked like any Valentine’s Day couple, well dressed and romantic in their attractiveness. Malik was dressed in a casual suit, with a black collared shirt, matching his black pants and sports jacket. His hair was slicked back, and his clean shaven face showcased his strong jaw and straight nose. The only thing that betrayed his romantic sheen, was the intense focus behind his brown eyes, that scanned the environment intently and showed a strange excitement.

Sofia’s outfit was startlingly bold. Her red dress plunged daringly at the front and perfectly set off her olive skin. Her dark hair was tossed and tousled just so, giving it volume and bounce, as she ran next to her lover. Sofia’s long legs were brilliantly displayed in a pair of red Louboutin heels, and there was a strange air of carelessness to her that was completely at odds with the chaos surrounding the couple.

They were racing down the Parliament Street, as people screamed and scattered around them. The entire city was gripped in a panic and it was imperative that they use this opportunity to strike.

The Sphinx was armed to the teeth, a collapsible AKS-74U with modern Zenitco rails and a compact Aimpoint T-2 affixed towards the front of the gun. In addition, a DBAL-I2 laser designator was affixed to the right side of the gun, and in a holster on his belt was a large Beretta M9A3 with a suppressor.

It was this large pistol that was gripped in the Sphinx’s hands, as he held it low and behind his leg, the AKS-74U hidden just underneath his stylish black blazer.

Sofia was unarmed, but there was something strange about the way how she moved, how she clutched at her belly that betrayed her intention.

At 100 metres away from the checkpoint at Downing Street, the pair of them slowed down, holding each other’s hands tightly, Sofia savouring the moment with Malik.

Then it came into proper view, the simple black gates that protected one of the most iconic residences in the world. Understated and manned by 5 police officers, wielding G36 assault rifles, the gates looked strangely unimposing for so important a residence.

All the officers were at the front of the gate, anxiously looking out at the chaos that was happening all around them, their assault rifles held nervously in their hands.

The Sphinx counted them and rehearsed a move in his head

One of the officers saw the Sphinx and Sofia walking towards them and motioned to them to stop.

Halt!

Sofia stopped and put her hands up, reassuring the officers somewhat. She smiled reassuringly and for a split second they relaxed.

It was then, the Sphinx made his move. Swiftly and violently.

The Beretta whipped up from behind his leg and shooting between the gate’s frame, the pistol spat 5 rounds in a matter of 2 seconds.

The officers didn’t even get a single shot off. They all crumpled to the floor, like marionettes that had their strings cut, blood seeping out of the holes in their heads. The Sphinx walked over to the gate and peered in, before nodding to himself.

Reaching into his pocket, the Sphinx took out a wad of C2 explosive, a less powerful version of C4, traditionally used for breaching. Lining the strip along the seam of the gate, he stepped back and set it off with a detonator, watching as the gates swung inward viciously.

Smiling victoriously, Hassan Malik, the Sphinx stepped onto the hallowed grounds of the British Parliament.

~

As the two lovers crossed the gate to Downing Street, Woods spotted them, further down the road, on the opposite end of Parliament. He saw the flash of Sofia’s dark hair and her red dress as she disappeared from sight a second later, past the police checkpoint’s gates

Fuck! swore Woods as he switched from a jog to a full blown sprint.

~

Hassan Malik looked at one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen, and pressed her lips to his. Sofia looked deep into his eyes, tears and love mingling together in a coalescence of heavy emotion. They savoured each other for a second, before she began to walk towards the iconic black door of 10 Downing Street.

~

For all it’s importance, as the residence of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minster, Number 10’s black door was classically British in its simplicity, elegance and refinement. There was nothing particularly flashy about it, nor ornate. It was perfect in its unobtrusiveness.

But within the doors, housed many different rooms steeped in history. 300 years old, with 100 rooms for dignitaries, world leaders and influential folk of all sorts, the house had long been the home to Britain’s most iconic leaders, Thatcher, Churchill, Pitt the Younger …

Cabinet and War Rooms could be found within its halls and in 1991, the place was bombed by the IRA, during a particularly vicious era of British history, leading to the installation of the police checkpoints that the Sphinx had so comprehensively attacked.

In the words of Margaret Thatcher, Number 10 had become “one of the most precious jewels in the national heritage.”

A jewel that would very soon be besmirched by the latest brand of terrorism.

~

Sofia Sumarwata walked slowly towards the centre of 10 Downing Street. The image of such a beautiful woman standing in the centre of the home for the British Parliament was burned into the minds of all who saw it.

The security officers watching from cameras, their faces aghast at what was to come.

The 5 other officers who had turned around too late to see what was going on on the other side Downing Street and were now charging forwards to tackle Sofia, unaware of the danger.

The Prime Minister and his cabinet diving for the floor as their security guards threw themselves on top of their charges.

The Sphinx taking cover nearby, a sad and proud smile on his face as he beheld his lover take her final steps into oblivion.

And finally the Prince himself as he dashed around the gate, his weapon up, his eyes affixed through the gun sight.

Sofia knocked on the door of Number 10 Downing Street politely, once.

The sight of such an attractive woman in red, knocking in a picturesque British setting would have beautiful, if not for the intent.

No! Sofia, don’t! yelled Woods as he desperately tried to reach her in time. The image of her standing there, with a sad but content expression was enough for Woods to curl his finger around the trigger. But there was no time left.

She was gone.

~

The explosion that ripped from her stomach was huge. She had worn a modified vest that resembled a pregnant belly. It was directed outwards and immediately blew her apart in two. Nothing remained of her body, one second she was there, the next she was gone.

Only her actions remained, to be remembered forever in history.

The black door at Number 10 was eviscerated. Vapourised along with anything within 10 metres of the initial blast. Glass melted before the intense heat, bricks shattered and burned along with the carpet that lined the interior of the house. Priceless art dropped from their hooks and blew apart, as did tasteful furniture that was reduced to ash instantly.

The buildings around the explosion buckled heavily, as windows shattered and showered the immediate area with shards of glass and wood splinters, causing the Sphinx to roll from behind a car he was hiding behind to avoid the shower.

The Prime Minister yelled as the roar of the blast could even be felt in his War Room, the reinforced bunker holding up easily to the blast.

The officers who had come running from the other side of Downing Street were flung aside, their bodies rag-dolling against cars, walls and for one poor officer, a hard red London post box that cracked his head open. They all laid still, their heroics unrewarded with unceremonious unconsciousness.

Woods was also flung backwards by the concussive force, the shaped charge saving his life in a strange way, as most of the explosive force was directed towards the residence, and the fact that he was further away.

He crashed heavily against the black fence of the gate, the force of the impact stunning him viciously. Groaning, Woods looked up from his prone position to see the sharply dressed Sphinx get up from his position, whip his AKS-74U up and charge headlong into the breach that his lover sacrificed herself for.

What the hell is he doing? thought Woods. He knows he can’t get to the Prime Minister once he is in the War Room. What is he searching for?

Moments later, the gunfire from the building screamed at Woods to get up.

Gritting his teeth and despite the intense ringing that was shooting through his head and ears, Woods jumped up and ran into the breach after the Sphinx.

Author’s Note

I’ll keep it brief …

I’ve already started on the next and final installment of this series.

Till then!

~ Damocles.