“They just killed another hostage.”
Noah closed his weapons case. “Who was it this time?”
Commander Ellis tapped on her headset. “Wallace Moore. The helmsman.”
“Moving up the chain of command. They’re getting serious.”
“In my day, we called that desperation.”
Something metallic in the distance sounded – a flash of orange-red – and the entire jet shook. Ellis gripped tight on the railing. Noah, on the other hand, didn’t even blink, instead continuing to put on his parachute, tying each leather strap meticulously over his chest.
“Jesus Christ,” said Ellis, pulling herself upright. “I still can’t get used to that.”
“Nothing reassuring about being blown out of the sky.”
He tightened the final strap. “It means we’re close.”
“Crazy bastard,” Ellis cursed under her breath. She turned back towards the monitor. “Alright, target’s the MV Protesilaus, a British container ship bound for Yangon, Myanmar when pirates snatched them. Provided they didn’t kill more people than they said they did, we’re looking at nineteen hostages.”
“The pirates claim they’re Seriphaph but the top brass are thinking it’s probably a copycat,” Ellis continued. “Course, we don’t want to send in a regular squad only for them to find Xayl on the deck, so that’s why you’re here. Better safe than sorry.”
“Why do they think it’s a copycat?”
“This isn’t Seriphaph’s M.O. Shipjacking doesn’t exactly scream ‘freedom from oppression’, does it?”
“Even terrorists need funding here and there.”
“You ever seen a Seriphaph op screw up this badly?”
Noah pulled down the lever and the back of the jet began to open up. Cold wind blasted inwards like a torrent, filling the inside of the aircraft with the smell of ocean salt.
“You know I’m right, soldier!” Ellis shouted over the wind, one hand against the wall to keep herself upright. “If an old dog like me realises, so have you! You’re wasting your time– Xayl’s not there!”
Noah pulled down his goggles, making no effort to reply and with one step forward, the floor disappeared under him. Now, there was only gravity. Gravity, and the dark ocean below.
He pressed his weapons case close to his chest so it wouldn’t rattle. The wind still rang with the commander’s last words. Xayl’s not there.
He has to be, Noah thought. It was getting harder to keep his eyes open, even with the goggles shielding them. Thankfully, the MV Protesilaus was in sight– a monstrosity of iron and steel, lit by its navigation lights. Even from this high up, the rust across its hull sat like massive brown blots in a field of grey.
Noah pulled on a cord and his parachute blossomed behind him, instantly halting his momentum. The whiplash was a familiar feeling. Once he was close enough to the ship, he released and parachute and once again gravity took over.
The metal plating of the ship crackled as he landed, then dived into a roll. It was a swift motion, and though unsubtle, by the time the nearest guard turned his head to the noise, Noah was already behind him. He wrestled the man to the ground with one arm around his neck. It took all of five seconds for the terrorist to go limp.
Suddenly a voice called out. The language was foreign but its intentions unmistakable.
Noah opened his weapons case and drew its contents up to the floodlights. The terrorist that spotted him raised his rifle, prepared to kill the invader. He never had the chance.
The Cerafex left Noah’s hand and with a light whistle, flew across the deck. Its three turquoise heads pierced the terrorist’s chest, driving him backwards. His gun dropped harmlessly from newly crimson fingers.
By the time Noah strolled over and plucked the trident from the corpse, a dozen more soldiers had surrounded him. They wore bulletproof vests over dirty and tattered clothes. There were untied shoes, hair not tied back, even wiry unkempt beards. They were just people. Not soldiers. Not Seriphaph.
And so there would be no pleasure in the fight. Without looking, Noah spun his trident, hefted it, and threw. He made his way to the new corpse, dancing through gunfire, reclaimed his weapon and repeated it on the next terrorist. There was no pause to aim or sight, only to stroll from body to body.
A few charged him, dropping their rifles for knives and swords. The first’s gait was too wide and Noah swept his feet from beneath him, using a free hand to steal the man’s knife. Noah plunged it into his neck. Then, still freshly wet, Noah pulled the blade out and let it fly from his fingers. It pierced into the forehead of a second terrorist. That man fell, limp.
The last terrorist emptied himself of all weapons and raised his hands high.
“I surrender! I surrender!” he cried in a slight accent.
Noah rested his trident. “Where’s Xayl?”
“Ah!” His eyes gleamed. “You want to see Chailai!”
“Chailai? Is that your leader?”
“Yes! Yes! You find her on bridge. Door code is 487.”
Her. It seems Ellis was right after all. Noah’s trident blurred and the terrorist crashed to the ground, three prongs stabbed near his stomach. A scream.
“I didn’t go deep,” said Noah. He ripped his weapon out. “Keep pressure on it, and with some luck, you might not bleed to death.”
He left the man behind. If he was weak, he would die there. If he was strong, he would live. Of course, he would also live if he was lucky.
Though having such luck, Noah reminded himself, is itself a form of strength.
The walk up to the bridge was strangely quiet. The recent skirmish should have been more than loud enough to draw reinforcements and yet there wasn’t another terrorist to be seen. Was it just the dozen that managed to take over the ship?
The answer became clear as soon as Noah got to the top of the stairs. An empty room, save for the bodies on the floor. No, not empty. There was a woman near the command deck, the darkness clinging to her like cobwebs. The clouds were finally passing by now, and the newfound moonlight burnt away the shadows. Enough for him to see her, and for her to see him.
Stygian black hair fell to her cheeks, framed by freckles and a bandage across the bridge of her nose. She wore a military uniform pinned with foreign colours. One hand was wrapped around a broadsword, the other kept behind her.
“You’re late,” the woman teased.
“This is a British vessel,” said Noah. “What is a United States special ops doing here?”
“Half the hostages are American. Even if they weren’t, I think a little help wouldn't hurt."
She dragged something out of the shadows: the corpse of another woman, dead from one clean cut across the neck, so quick and precise that there was not a dribble of blood anywhere on her skin. “Got the boss here. Oversaw the whole hijacking.”
“Chailai,” Noah stated.
“Is that her name? Guess I’ll write that in the mission report.”
“So this wasn’t Seriphaph?”
“They got wing tattoos, but they’re fake ones. Must’ve had a good forger 'cause they look almost real.”
That was the final straw. Noah breathed deeply and mouthed a curse.
“What’s wrong?” asked the woman, wrestling a broad grin under control. “Pissed that the Yankee got here first?”
She lifted the corpse’s head by the hair. “If you ask real nicely, I’ll give you half credit.”
“I want to – need to – fight Xayl.”
“Who’d he kill? Your parents? Best friend?”
“If you’re not out for revenge, then what?”
“Because he’s the strongest,” said Noah.
“Oh.” The woman rested her blade on her shoulder. “You’re just stupid.”
He turned to walk away. “I don’t expect you to understand. I’ll let the Americans handle the clean-up.”
“Wait wait wait.” She dropped her sword in exchange for his shoulder. “I’m just kidding. C’mon, I wanna hear what you have to say. Please.”
The woman dragged him up to the command panel, booting the side of the officer’ chairs until it swivelled open to their rest. She sat first, her feet kicked up on the buttons and levers, hands cushioned behind her head. Then, she gestured for him to do the same. Despite this being both their first times here, it was clear this was her court: she was the Queen, and he was but a guest.
“Sit, sit,” she said. “It’s not every day I get to meet the SAS’s poster boy. What do they call you again? Aquaman? Neptune?”
“I don’t think you, of all people, have the right to mock anyone’s epithet.”
“Daughter of Dragon,” she quoted, chuckling. “I don’t even know if it’s an insult or a compliment. Either way, at least your nickname doesn't have you playing second fiddle to your mum.”
Noah finally submitted and sat. “I joined the military because I wanted a challenge.”
“Was it not?”
“It was at first. But then everything just started becoming easier and…more boring. I need someone stronger. The strongest.”
“In that case, just skip Xayl and go for my old lady.”
“Dragon?” For the first time in a long while, he laughed. “I want a challenge, not a massacre.”
The Daughter looked out over the rest of the ship, the floodlights of helicopters beginning to approach in the distance. “Xayl’s strong, but he’s not the only strong one out there in the world. How important is this ‘quest’ to you?”
“I don’t know,” said Noah. “I have nothing else.”
“Is it more important than the military?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you join the army because you wanted to protect people? Save lives, be a hero, all that pizazz.”
It took him a moment. “No.”
“Then why stay?” Her smile grew. “You can only chase Xayl for as long as your government lets you. As long as it's within the reach of the law. Do you want to go through all that bureaucratic red tape for just one person? There are other challenges out there, if only you had the freedom to find them.”
At the start of this conversation, Noah was sure to take everything the woman said as sarcasm. Random, incohesive strings of words designed only to annoy him; nothing with heart or genuine passion. Maybe that was still the case. She made no effort to hide how much fun she was having, yet what she said made sense.
Freedom. It sounded so much more appealing from her lips.
Noah stood, flashing his trident. Its prongs rested just under the woman’s chin. “They say the Dragon’s daughters each share a third of her powers. Maybe I should start with you.”
“Mostly just propaganda bullshit,” said the woman. With one finger, she guided the weapon away. “But still enough power that they put a bomb in my neck. Trust me, if I wouldn’t get my head blown off, I’d take you up on that duel. But, if you’re really serious, and I mean really serious about this, I can give you an alternative.”
From behind her bulletproof vest, she produced a cell phone and started typing. When she showed the screen, there was a man in a mask, bone-white and curved to resemble some sort of animal. The mouthpiece seemed to protrude slightly, almost like the proboscis of an insect, though the photo was too blurry for exact details. Practically, Noah deduced that it was likely an air filter, in case of gas attacks.
“Department of Homeland Security labelled him an S+ class threat, the highest that’s currently active in America,” the woman explained. “If he wasn’t systematically screwing over every criminal organisation on the East Coast, they might’ve even raised him another class.
“Minerva has seven key gangs: the Crowns. Each one has at least a few A-class threats, metahumans, Cerafex. The police and FBI spent years trying to put them down, but this guy? Crippled the whole empire in a weekend. Body count nearing triple digits.”
“If he’s S+, what threat class is Dragon?” asked Noah.
“The DHS’s threat assessment is for humans only. I think they classify her as a natural disaster.”
Noah studied the next picture, similarly blurry. The same man now with a bladed weapon, caught in the midst of a swing. Even from a single grained photo, it was clear he wielded his weapon with expertise: the angling of the blade-edge and precise bend of his wrist. A single move, but one practised to perfection.
This was not Xayl, but it was just as good.
“What’s his name?” asked Noah.
“Nabi,” said the woman, as if that word meant something.
Nabi. He repeated the name twice over in his mind. That was his next target. An American serial killer, far from the jurisdiction of the SAS.
“There’s two more you might wanna care about,” the woman added as Noah rose from his chair. “Xayl had two proteges. Child soldiers. We captured them a few years back and kept them in Nox Penitentiary, but they escaped in a recent jailbreak. Now, they’re running with one of the Crowns.”
“All this information,” said Noah. “Nabi and Xayl’s protégés. These are classified, aren’t they?”
A pause. “Why?”
She shrugged, and her broadsword caught the floodlight. “Can’t stand the thought of you staying in the army because your dumb ass tricked yourself into thinking there are no other options. You don’t even have the excuse of a bomb in your neck.”
It was too simple an answer. Was this a ploy to weaken the British military? Or to manipulate a foreign agent into cleaning their mess? Maybe it was really just that simple. Either way, it didn’t matter anymore.
Noah took one last look at her, intent on burning her features into his mind. Those verdant green eyes that he barely noticed at first, now seemed to jump at him. The helicopter outside strafed close to the bridge, and her eyes trapped the sudden flush of light like fireflies in a jar.
Should fortune be so kind, maybe they’d have their duel one day after all.