"Those Who Remember"
Even before the door had slammed fully open, the Dire Wolf was in the smoky room and attacking. The nearest thug opened his mouth but didn't get a chance to yell. Bane threw a left backfist that spun the man completely around and dropped him to his knees. A second thug rushed right into a side kick to the stomach that doubled him up and made him retch. On the other side of the dingy room, one of the goons snapped off a shot but it got nowhere near its fast-moving target. The Dire Wolf swerved and lunged, closing fifteen feet in a split-second. Left forefist to the jaw, then a right sidefist to the chest connected almost at the same time. The guard crashed back against the wall behind him so hard that a framed picture fell to the floor.
That left only one thug still on his feet in that room. His expression was complete dismay and fear. A few seconds ago, he had been arguing listlessly with the other hired help about sending one of them out for sub sandwiches and beer, and now his three pals were on the floor. Standing in front of him was a gaunt man just six feet tall, dressed all in black, with cold grey eyes stabbing out at him from a narrow feral face. The gunman knew who this had to
"Forget about going for your gun," Bane said quietly. "Keep your hands where I can see them. Good." Behind the Dire Wolf, the thug who had only taken a backfist groggily managed to get to his feet, one hand reaching into his waistband where the butt of a .38 showed. Without showing how he knew the man was up again, Bane whirled on his right heel, whipping his left leg around in a reverse roundhouse kick that cracked his heel to the goon's jaw. This time, that man would stay down.
As though nothing had interrupted him, Bane returned his full attention to the gunman in front of him. "Let's get this over with," he said in a calm voice that did not need to threaten. "You and your boys here have just re-entered the country. We know you were bringing supplies to Cohen, we found the van you abandoned. The question now is, where is he? Where is the Stone Man?"
"I can't tell you that! He'd break me in half."
"No, I am the one you should be afraid of. Cohen won't be in any shape to hurt you. Where is he?"
As the man hesitated, he suddenly felt a sharp stinging pain on the end of his nose. Somehow, a silver-bladed throwing dagger had appeared in Bane's hand and nicked him. The Wolf held the knife so the light reflected off it. The thug gasped and abruptly there was an identical pain in the lobe of one ear, and he still had not seen Bane move.
"Where is he?" repeated Bane in the same even tone of voice.
The gunman's nerve broke. "Are you sure you can stop him?"
"I know I can. Where?"
"Up in Canada. Toronto. 1138 Chichester Road. But... it's like a nightmare. He has a death squad of things that aren't human. And he's a monster himself! He ain't flesh and blood- he's made outta STONE!"
Bane smiled tautly. "I know he is. We've met. The cops will be here in a few minutes. Long before you and your buddies go to trial, Simon Cohen will be destroyed. That's a promise." The Dire Wolf's Kumundu training had long ago reached the point where he could strike from any position without giving any warning. Faster than a real wolf, he lunged in and his stiff open hand cracked down like an axe blade to the side of the man's neck. As the gunman dropped to the floor, Bane swung to survey the situation. This was the supervisor's office of a construction company in Jersey City, drab and sparse with a desk, some chairs, two filing cabinets and a bathroom in one corner. The four men sprawled where they had fallen. His best judgement estimated they would be unconscious for a few more minutes and not able to get up and walk around for maybe twenty minutes after that. Since the police were already on their way, Bane felt a certain satisfaction in getting here first and getting the information he needed. His informants had been reliable so far.
He was being watched. In an instant, Bane snapped to full alertness and whirled around, the dart gun appearing in his left hand. There in the doorway loomed a manlike figure that filled the opening. Wide batlike wings were folded, but even so it was obviously a Kulan. The beast from Fanedral had red leathery hide, talons and claws and a head like a hound with upright ears and lambent yellow eyes. Bane held the dart gun on the demon, even though he knew the anesthetic darts would not pierce that tough hide. "What do YOU want?" he demanded.
To the Dire Wolf's utter surprise, the Kulan answered. "Justice," it said and laughed wildly before leaping out of sight. Bane rushed to the doorway and looked up just in time to see the demon speed away over the rooftops, wings beating and tail whipping from side to side. He holstered his weapon and stared as the Kulan was gone in the distance. Seeing a beast from Fanedral here, following him, could only mean that Simon Cohen was aware he was being hunted. Cohen was known to command a small army of creatures from adjacent realms. He must have had this demon tracking Bane all the while. There was no time to lose.
Jumping down the metal stairs to the gravel, Bane got in his car and fired it up, pulling out of the construction yard and out onto the highway. Before he had gone more than a mile, two New Jersey State Police cars sped past him toward the construction site. That was close. Maybe the thugs would tell the cops who had thrashed them but he doubted it and he certainly wasn't going to volunteer the information. Bane raced toward the George Washington bridge just below the speed at which he would get pulled over. It was just getting dark.
On the second floor of the KDF building on East 38th Street, Bane ran headlong into the conference room. On his way from New Jersey, he had sent a Blue Alert to summon the members available. Sitting around the long oak table were four remarkable men and, as he glanced over them, the Dire Wolf instantly began planning how to use their specific abilities in the coming battle. Sulak, Steven Weaver, Ted Wright and Shiro Mitsuru. He was in luck, this was a good combat team.
"Thanks for coming," he snapped as he dropped into the chair at the head of the table. "The situation is urgent, we can't wait for the others to finish their own activities and join us. We have a lead on the Stone Man case. A few minutes ago, I cornered some thugs working for Cohen and got an address from their leader. Toronto, 1138 Chichester Lane. We're leaving as soon as I get into my field suit. The rest of you are ready?"
"I need to buckle on my wings," Weaver said. He was a light-skinned black man with a thick mustache and a friendly face. His unprecedented ability at levitation had led the USAF to develop the Black Angel project for him.
"Let's head up to the hangar. My locker is there and the CORBY needs to warm up." Bane jumped to his feet again and led them from the room. Three of the KDF members got into the elevator but Bane started up the stairs to the tenth floor on foot, with Shiro beside him. The Tiger Fury was a master of Kumundu and many other fighting arts, and he kept up with Bane without trouble.
"Too bad Nebel's not here," Shiro said as they raced up the stairs. He was wearing a dark green tracksuit with a white stripe down the sides and white sneakers. Not a KDF member, he did not carry any of the weaponry or wear the armor, which he claimed slowed him down and threw his balance off. He said his skills were all he needed.
"I know. He reverted Cohen to normal human form and he could do it again. But there's no telling where Nebel might be." Bane spoke as easily as if they were standing still. On the tenth floor, they stepped into an big high-ceilinged space that held the black shape of a stealth helicopter without insignia. The others emerged from the elevator just before Bane and Shiro entered.
Stephen Weaver was already wearing the insulated black jumpsuit with red trim of Black Angel. His helmet sat on a work bench and he lowered it over his head as Sulak gave him a hand fastening the batlike wings to their mooring between his shoulder blades. He flexed them experimentally. The wings were red nylon over aluminum tubing, and he made sure they opened and closed properly before he made them fold flat on his back. Sulak was in his black arena suit, and carried no weapons or tools; the big Melgar relied solely on his superhuman strength and decades of combat experience.
A row of lockers stretched along one wall. Bane went to the first one, stripped off his outer clothes and stood there in the flexible Trom armor. It looked like dark silk, but offered better protection than ceramic plate. Long practice let him get quickly in the tough pants, boots and pullover, then to shrug into the waist-length jacket which had its own inner layer of the armor and was packed with various tools and gadgets. He checked the anesthetic dart gun and holstered it at his left hip. Fastening his war helmet on but leaving the visor up, Bane turned to face his team. The knights of Tel Shai, each one a marvel in his own right. He could not ask for better teammates.
Ted Wright stepped down from the CORBY. He was wearing a field suit identical to Bane's, but he did not have the ominous dangerous look in it that the Dire Wolf did. Wright was an American black man with a sad face and grey in his beard. As a Blue Guide, he was a healer and as a legitimate MD in civilian life, he was not happy being armed but accepted the necessity. "Everything is coming up to speed, Jeremy," he said. "We can leave in three or four minutes."
"All aboard, then." the Dire Wolf swung up into the pilot seat and, as everyone took their posts, he closed and sealed the pressurized hatch. Wright took the co-pilot seat. Steven Weaver had been a USAF pilot for eight years, he was much more skilled than Bane and logically might be expected to take the stick but the artificial wings were too awkward. "Systems look nominal, captain. Rotors moving at minimum, speeding up to hover."
"I'm clearing the floor and retracting the landing gear," Bane said. "We'll be leaving through the Eldar crystal. Stand by."
He reached up and slid a panel open to reveal a pale blue gem in silver setting. "Here goes." Placing his fingertips on the jewel, Bane focussed his full concentration and blue light flared up silently all around them. As it faded, the hangar was gone. Now the CORBY was hovering hundreds of feet above a forest. With no external lights, the black copter was almost impossible to spot in the night sky.
Weaver took a reading and announced, "Those are the Catskills beneath us. We're over a hundred miles north of Manhattan. You seem to be able to move the CORBY further each time."
"It sure doesn't get any easier," Bane grumbled. "Every time I use an Eldar crystal, I swear it'll be the last time." He took a deep breath. "Okay. I'm cutting in the Trom impulse engine and disengaging the rotors. We'll cruise at just under the sound barrier. Steve, you have the co-ordinates?"
"Getting them now, captain. The map of Toronto is up, give me a second..."
From the bench behind them, Sulak leaned forward. The big Melgar regarded the complicated array of gauges, screens and dials with disinterest. "Jeremy, perhaps you should tell us something of this Stone Man we rush to confront?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry, Sulak, you're right. He's one of our most dangerous enemies. In 1981, a warlock named Simon Cohen managed to absorb all the gralic power of the Stone of Malberon. It was an alchemist named Lee Hutchins who was to blame. Cohen became a being of living mobile rock. In our first encounter, he fought Khang to a standstill, something I didn't think that was possible, to be honest. Then Garrison Nebel reverted him to Human form. Somehow, it didn't last. Cohen regained his stone body and began recruiting a small army of nonhuman creatures for some nasty purpose. The mind of a powerful cabalist warlock in a body of living rock."
Sulak made a scoffing noise. "In me, he will meet his better. Do not worry, captain."
"Glad to have you on the team," Bane said. He had seen what Sulak was capable of. The CORBY spend on soundlessly through the overcast night, as the Dire Wolf brooded. He had not mentioned his suspicion that Simon Cohen was involved with Those Who Remember.
In the center of a hundred-acre estate was a three-story white frame house within a stone fence. Nearby stood a barn and tool shed. The CORBY circled the area silently, a shadow in the night sky. "Our sensors detect no burglar alarms, no proximity cables, no laser nets to trip," said Wright.
"Cohen may not be much for technology but he's sure to have mystic alarms. As soon as we set foot on the grounds, he will know it." Bane slowed the craft to hover. Suddenly, Ted Wright yelled, "JeremY! Move us away!" The interior lights flickered and dimmed. Bane responded without hesitation, swerving the helicopter far to one side and accelerating. They were a half-mile away when he brought the CORBY to a halt again.
"What was THAT all about?" the Dire Wolf demanded.
"Some sort of damping area," Wright answered. "Sorry I didn't sense it until we were right on top of it." The Blue Guide exhaled sharply. "Cohen has set up an area around that building where tech won't function. Electronics will just go dead. We would have dropped."
Bane growled as he set the CORBY down near some trees. The ground was covered with snow that had a layer of ice over it from daytime melt, and the helicopter made crunching noises. "Oh, he's cute. The CORBY, our Links, the night vision in our helmets.. all useless. I bet even the dartguns won't function. Damn him."
From the bench behind the pilot seats, Shiro chuckled. "Jeremy, calm down. Look at us. You, me, Sulak, Steve, Ted... all of us have innate abilities that aren't affected. We don't need gadgets, we're dangerous enough as we are."
"You've got a point," Bane said after a moment. "Whatever creatures Cohen has in there, we can handle them." He powered down the CORBY and popped open the hatch. "Here's our attack plan, it's as simple as usual. Steve, I want you in the air. Stay near the top of the building and stand by. Use your judgement. Ted, you and Shiro go in the back under a Veil. Stay unseen until the right moment. Sulak and I will storm in the front and draw all the attention. Sound good?"
"It's right to the point!" Shiro said. "I love it, let's go."
They climbed out into a night with a wind chill near zero. Stepping away, Steven Weaver spread his artificial wings and lifted up, soaring up into the darkness. The wings only helped steer and stabilize, his flight was a gralic power from his mind. In an instant, he was out of sight. Ted Wright in his insulated field suit looked dubiously at Shiro, who was only wearing a thin one-piece cotton track suit. "Aren't you freezing?"
"Discipline, Mr Wright," said the Tiger Fury. "Discipline. Let's sneak around to the back." They headed at a trot toward the big house less than a mile away, swinging far to one side. The two remaining members stood next to the cORBY. Sulak smiled and said, "There is something you did not tell us, Jeremy."
Bane raised the visor on his helmet and his breath showed as condensation in the bitter air. "Yes. When I questioned those losers in New Jersey, I caught a Kulan watching me. Cohen must have had him tracking me. If the Stone Man does has watchers on us, they saw me go into our underground garage but no one has come out of the building. We left by Eldar crystal from a hangar without windows, so any watchers will figure we are still at the headquarters. That's why I wanted to get here as fast as possible."
The big Melgar clapped Bane on the shoulder and started walking toward the mansion. He was wearing his arena uniform of blue silk, with white gloves and boots and a white mantle around his shoulders. sulak was the one member of his generation who inherited the Legacy of Malberon, a gralic charge giving him as much strength as flesh and blood could contain. He had been Champion of Androval for decades, and had joined the KDF so he would have membership in Tel Shai. There he could sit at the feet of the Teachers and learn much lore not available elsewhere. Bane marched alongside him. The thought crossed his mind that his own enhanced speed was a fit complement to Sulak's immense strength. They found the driveway up to building and strode boldly along it. When they reached the high stone wall, Sulak casually shoved the wooden gate with the palm of one hand and snapped it off its hinges.
On either side of the mansion's front door, two torches burned in holders at head level. No lights showed in any windows. Before Bane and Sulak had crossed the slick icy yard to the house, that door slammed open and three strange defenders rushed out. A Brumal raced directly at Bane, one of the vile assassins of Androval whose secrets were later adopted by the Japanese ninja. In that baggy black outfit were a dozen vicious weapons. Through a gauze veil, his eyes burned with visible yellow light. when almost within reach, he whipped out a short hooked weapon on a chain and whirled it around his head. In his armored uniform, Bane felt reasonably safe against poisoned blades but he was not inclined to take chances. The Dire Wolf crouched slightly to let the weapon whiz overhead, hopped in close and threw a blurringly fast backfist that smashed the Brumal's nose and snapped his head to one side. As the assassin reeled back, the Dire Wolf blasted a straight side kick to the head that dropped the man. The sound of the neck breaking was low but unmistakable.
Sulak encountered a bulky apelike creature bundled in loose robes. It resembled Dr Kobal so closely that there had to be some connection. As the brute growled and charged, the Melgar met him with a simple right jab that caught beast perfectly and broke its jaw. Badly hurt, the creature dropped to the ground and struggled to get away and Sulak let it go. He was disappointed at the lack of challenge.
Bane had his hands full with the third attacker, who turned out to far more dangerous than he seemed at first. This was a tall, thin American black man in a dark jumpsuit. Across the knuckles of his gloves were lead ridges. Bane had no way of knowing this was a Canalized Man. In a process devised by the government agency known as the Mandate, a volunteer's mind had been broken down and reconstructed by drugs and behavior reinforcement. All his thoughts were channeled into a singleminded urge to kill any designated target. Singleminded as no sane men could be, the Canalized subjects were walking murder machines.
This one was very good, surprising the Dire Wolf as they clashed. The Canalized Man did not feel pain and his hardened body could take a lot of punishment. Bane found a punch or two slipping past his defenses, something that seldom happened. Sudden anger flared up in him. He blocked the man's right fist down hard with own left hand. Then, in less than one-fifth of a second, Bane slammed out three solid punches. Left backfist to the jaw, right forefist to the same spot, then a full power side punch to the chest that slammed the Canalized Man skidding across the icy yard. Bane had felt bone crack under that final blow, seen the way the body dropped and the head hit the ground and bounced. He had killed with that last punch.
"Get the door," he told Sulak. "Let's take the party inside!"
At the rear of the house, Ted Wright and Shiro Mitsuru stood within a shimmer of blue light that covered them completely. This was the Veil, one of the disciplines Wright had learned at Tel Shai. They were not invisible in a physical sense; they would still show up if photographed or on video cameras. But Wright's power affected the perception of any living being who might otherwise see them. As they walked quietly up to the rear door, a big man in a down-filled jacket came around the corner of the house. He was holding a heavy axe and exhaling loudly in the cold. As he got near, Shiro struck once, an open-hand blow to the nape that sounded like a branch breaking. The Tiger Fury caught the body with one hand and grabbed the axe before it could clatter to the stone paving. Shiro was frowning. Striking down an opponent from within concealment like this did not appeal to him. He liked to fight.
Standing with his hand on the doorknob, Wright allowed himself a smile. He was sure Shiro would get enough combat to satisfy him before this was all over. Making sure the Tiger Fury was close enough to be concealed within the Veil, the Blue Guide opened the door and stepped in a warm kitchen filled with the aroma of spicy stew. The room was lit by gas lamps, since electric appliances would not function here. As the door seemed to open by itself, an obese man in a white smock and white trousers turned in puzzlement. Again, Shiro struck once and caught the limp body but he pulled his blow enough that the man would live. As he lowered the man to the floor, the Tiger Fury grinned and whispered, "Never kill a good chef," and thoughtfully turned out the gas flame beneath the stewpot.
Ted Wright strengthened the gralic aura around the two of them, now that they were within the enemy stronghold itself. He was sure a warlock the calibre of Simon Cohen had already sensed thieir presence unless his full attention was focused elsewhere, Wright opened the kitchen door and stepped out into a dining room with a long polished table, gleaming crystal and fine china. With Shiro beside him, the Blue Guide passed through the far door into a huge, high-ceilinged reception gallery dimly lit by overhead gas lamps. And here the Veil failed him.
As the two Tel Shai knights entered the gallery, something sniffed the air like a beast and suddenly two creatures of the night plunged toward them. The nearer one leaped for Wright. This was a gaunt, white-skinned ruin of a man, dressed in ragged black tatters. Wright had faced vampires before. He dropped the Veil and drew upon his full discipline. The Blue Guides were masters of controlling lifeforce. They could analyze its flow in others for diagnoses, strengthen it and help it run smoother to aid healing and siphon it from one body to another. In Wright's perception, the vampire was an empty shell holding stolen lifeforce like a scarecrow with a lantern inside it. In that instant before the undead thing would have reached him, Wright latched on to the stolen lifeforce and froze it in place. The vampire faltered and sagged to its knees. With a single gesture, the Blue Guide drew the lifeforce out and dispersed it. The undead body left behind fell apart into a stinking mass. The Blue Guide stepped back from the pile of decay, satisfied that at least he had restored the natural order.
Shiro's opponent crouched and growled, and the Tiger Fury had a quick glimpse of dark shaggy fur and gleaming fangs before the werewolf was upon him in a surge of killing lust. The beast's speed to strike was tremendous and Shiro reacted with a high side kick to the face that flipped the beast over onto its back. The Tiger Fury dropped back into a relaxed cat stance, a little surprised that his opponent wasn't hurt. He had felt that kick connect solidly and knew a Human enemy would have had his skull caved in by that. Snarling, the beast leaped out and slashed out with its clawed hands. Shiro swayed back, drew a deep breath and focused his Chi. He would NOT lose. He was Shiro Mitsuru, the Tiger Fury, raised on martial arts, and it would take more than this mangy brute to defeat him.
As Shiro edged in close, the werewolf roared and threw its head back. In that instant, the Tiger Fury stepped forward and smashed his elbow to the monster's heart with all his strength, then drove his other fist to the same spot an instant later. He felt bone crack beneath those blows but the werewolf slashed out with its talons even as Shiro leaped backward out of range. A normal person watching would only have seen a brief flash of motion, too quick to be followed. Both enemies were moving faster than than the eye could follow. The beast was hurt, it showed in his defensive posture but he was far from defeated. Shiro felt a stinging across his chest and glanced down. The green jumpsuit he wore was ripped open from shoulder to ribs and there was a long shallow gash across his body. Shiro touched the wound and slowly brought his fingers to his mouth, tasting his own blood as if he couldn't quite believe it. His bronzed face set in an emotionless mask.
The werewolf circled warily, its brutal mind wrestling with the concept of a prey that fought back. This was something new. The beast threw back his head and howled. Shiro replied with the whiplash roar only a Tiger Fury could produce. It sounded exactly like the challenge of a real tiger and the werewolf was even more confused, actually drawing back a little. In that second, it lost the initiative and the fight. Shiro came up from the polished wooden floor in a spinning reverse roundhouse kick that smacked the werewolf across the muzzle with a sound like a gunshot. Face to face, the Tiger Fury blasted a dozen alternating left-right punches to the body with all his strength, then shifted to hooking blows to the head. Stronger than any normal Human, he smashed home blows that came from every angle. The beast's face was softening under those impacts as the bones of its face fractured. Suddenly stepping to one side, Shiro grabbed the manbeast's long arm at the wrist and elbow, forcing it down on its face. In the same motion, the Tiger Fury dropped to one knee and drove the downward leopard-paw fist he used in tile-breaking demonstrations. With a dull cracking noise, the skull split. Shiro rose with blood and brains on his fist.
For the next few seconds, he seemed unaware of the situation as his breathing slowed to normal. His hair was damp with sweat. To his surprise, he saw that Sulak and Bane had turned up during the fight, although he had not noticed them. Shiro forced a crooked smile, and said, "Sorry it took so long, captain. Lucky this was not one of the howlers that can only be killed by silver."
Bane handed Shiro a piece of linen he had picked off a cabinet and the Tiger Fury wiped his hands clean. His knuckles were swollen and sore. The Dire wolf gestured at the dead werewolf and whistled. "Decent boxing, Shiro. I can't say I've ever seen better combinations!"
"Praise from the master is praise indeed," Shiro answered. He straightened his shoulders and slapped his hands together as if dusting them. "Who's ready for more?"
Ted Wright stepped forward, laying a hand on the Tiger Fury's arm. "First, I'm going to clean and dress that gash across your chest. You're not above getting an infection. Hold still, this will only take a minute."
As Shiro grudgingly allowed his wound to be treated and Wright nodded he was done, Bane started toward the main staircase. "We're going for bigger game... the Stone Man himself!"
Through the light-enhancing goggles in his helmet, Weaver saw his teammates race away from the stealth helicopter as he himself lifted up into the freezing air. The Black Angel suit was well insulated and he felt comfortable. Flying was not effortless, it took serious concentration to draw on the gralic force that gave him lift. Weaver spread the batlike wings and swung around toward the big house where the enemy waited. He glided toward it at his usual speed of about forty miles per hour, which he could maintain without tiring. The suit he wore had a sidearm in a flap a pouch small tools for repairs to the wings and short vanes on the boots and gloves to help steering while in flight. It had puzzled him at first why the Air Force had been willing to quietly discharge him and allow him to keep the Black Angel equipment after they had invested so much time and research into it. Someone with a lot of influence had been behind the scenes with that decision. He didn't think Jeremy Bane had that kind of pull with the authorities, in fact he knew Bane didn't. But then who? Who had wanted Black Angel to be free for the Midnight War?
As he was thinking this over, Weaver neared the house and the light enhancers in his goggles shut down. He slowed to almost a hover, letting his legs drop down. It must be that damping field. Technology wouldn't work in the area. Well, that was annnoying. The tiny motors which operated his wings had cut out. Weaver could still fly, of course; his levitation was innate in his mind. But without the wings functioning, it was much harder to maneuver. With a grumble of discontent, he started moving forward again, coming down toward the house that now was just a dark blot in the night. Some of the windows were dimly lit.
As he drew nearer, Weaver spotted a skylight that flickered as if a fire were burning inside. Slowly as he could, he lowered himself to the roof and landed lightly next to the skylight. For some reason, he felt sudden anxiety that was not a normal state for him. Cautiously, he moved his head over the edge of the skylight and gazed down into a throne room. There sat Simon Cohen.
On an iron throne, the Stone Man sat motionless. He looked like a statue roughly hewn from granite, huge and massive, with thick arms and legs. There were no toes; his feet were solid pads of stone. Each hand had a thumb and three blunt fingers without nails. The coarse black hair which hung down over his flat vertical forehead was really mineral fibers, and his cold amber eyes were crystal which reflected firelight with a yellow gleam. Years ago, Cohen's Human body had been transformed by the Stone of Malberon so that the carbon-based proteins in his make-up were replaced by silicon carbide. He had become a new monstrous form of life never seen before. For a time he had been a near-mindless brute. Then he had been changed back to Human by Garrison Nebel. Now, somehow, Cohen had regained his stone body while keeping his full intelligence.
Watching from above, Weaver felt his heart pounding. The Stone Man was over seven feet tall, more than a thousand pounds in weight but that gave no hint about the overwhelming aura of menace that the monster gave off. Cohen wore white shorts and an open white smock that had pockets sewn down its front. He sat as still a genuine unliving rock, staring into a brazier that burned directly in front of him. Oily smoke rose from the flame.
Suddenly, Stephen Weaver drew back from the window. His gun was useless in the damping field. The only other weapon he carried was a survival knife in a sheath on his boot. That would sure be no help against this monster. He had no idea what he could do to attack Cohen. As he tried to think, he heard a rustle above and behind him, coming closer fast. Purely on reflex, without conscious thought, Black Angel dove headlong off the roof and accelerated away parallel to the ground. As he sped away, he glanced back over his shoulder and saw two Kulan gaining on him.
Weaver cursed and sped up. He had fought those dog-headed demons before. Drawing on all his concentration, he hit his maximum speed, just over a hundred miles per hour. His head ached from the effort. Suddenly the light enhancers in his goggles clicked back on, which meant he was outside the damping field.. which meant his gun would work. Looking back, he drew and snapped off two shots at the nearer demon. The detonations of the resonance caps were dull thumping booms in the still air, and the Kulan spun wildly and started dropping, its batlike wings beating erratically.
But the other demon was closing in fast. It held a short rectangular shield in its left paw and a curved sword in the other. Weaver had never heard of Kulan using weapons. That had to be Cohen's idea! With that shield, the Kulan wouldn't be stunned by a resonance cap. The demon was almost within reach. Black Angel arched his back, swinging his arms up and lowering his wings. He shot straight up as fast as he ever had. Could he outfly the demons? He doubted it but he had some tricks up his sleeve. The Kulan was pursuing him, wings beating, growling like a beast, and Weaver abruptly double up and reversed, zooming straight down. The armed demon rushed past him, unable to react or change course as quickly. All those hundreds of hours spent training and refining his skills had been worth it and he was glad Bane had been so insistent on constant practice. Unused to fighting a prey that could also fly, the Kulan would need a few minutes to adjust their techniques and that might give Weaver the breathing space he needed.
swooping low over the snow-covered fields, careful not to approach the house with its damping field, Black Angel saw the Kulan he had shot had recovered and was joining the chase. Damn things sure were tough. He had four shots left in the airgun and he wanted to save them for the last moment. Followed by the howling beasts, he hurtled along, almost touching the ground, in hope the demons could not keep up but they were in fact gaining.
Just ahead, over a slight rise, he saw the bend of a small river and he got an idea. The river was not frozen over completely this early in the winter. Yes, it had to work. Weaver zoomed toward that river at top speed, beating his own record. Just a few feet above the cold dark waters, he looked back and saw the nearer demon almost close enough to grab his lefg. Weaver rolled over onto his back and fired three resonance grenades pointblank at the beast. The three explosions were deafening at that close range, doubling the Kulan up and sending its sword spinning away. Out of control, the beast tumbled toward Weaver with its momentum only slightly lessened. "Here goes," said Black Angel under his breath. Clicking shut the shutters in his helmet faceplate so his oxygen supply would cut in, he tackled the dazed Kulan like a linebacker and dragged the brute down into the water.
Even with the light enhancer goggles, Weaver could see almost nothing in the freezing dark river. Both arms locked around the demon, he held tight and dove down toward the bottom, using his levitation power to its fullest. The Kulan took into a mouthful of water and convulsed in panic, almost breaking free. But the resonance blasts had weakened him enough that Weaver was able to hold on. The water resistance slowed the demon's movements and the chilling cold quickly numbed the beast. Kulan were used to the volcanic climate of Fanedral. Weaver felt the beast suddenly shudder and go limp. Suspicious, he held on for a few more minutes until he was convinced the demon was dead. Letting go, he felt the Kulan sink to the bottom.
Exhausted, Black Angel floated for a moment. He adjusted his oxygen intake so he could catch his breath and he moved his aching arms with a wince. What a close call that had been. Then he realized he had killed a Kulan. By himself! Wait until he told the others about this. Weaver started drifting up to the surface as the cold started to seep through even his insulated suit. Then he remembered the other demon was still up there. Damn. Reluctantly, he rose up slowly and looked around as his head broke the surface. Not ten yards away, the second Kulan was crouched in a feral pose, barbed tail whipping back and forth. As it spotted Weaver, the beast howled, "Human scum! You killed Baruk!"
"Come on in, the water's fine," answered Weaver.
Flapping its leathery wings, the Kulan stepped closer. "Baruk, do not wail in the land of ghosts. Your brother Nuram will avenge you."
Rising up a little out of the water, Weaver had drawn the seven-inch survival knife. He had one tactic left. A few times in the past, he had overcome a more powerful opponent by getting on top and pressing down, using his levitation in reverse to exert bone-breaking force. It might work. But as he looked at the long curved talons and lupine fangs of the huge demon, he did not feel confident. Black Angel gripped the knife in his right hand and readied himself.
A third voice called out, Bagash hulag KU!"
The Kulan whirled at those authoritative words in the language of Fanedral. Just behind him stood a mortal Man, with blonde hair, dressed in a neat suit and tie in the bitter cold. He met the demon's glare without fear.
"Who are you?" roared the Kulan. "How does a low Human speak the forbidden tongue?"
"Have you so soon forgotten me? Or do I not remind you of the captain of your own Red Slashers?"
Forgetting Weaver for the moment, Nuram stepped toward this strange intruder. "The Red Slashers are the elite," he said. "The personal guard of the Dread One himself. Yes, I remember their captain. His name was Gornak, he was the most deadly of them all. But he is dead."
"I am not dead, fool." The blond man began to laugh as if the thought was sublimely funny. As he shook with that laughter, a wave of cold yellow flame swept over him. The fire faded and was gone, but the blond man was not there any longer. In his place stood a red-hided warrior demon larger and more powerfully built than Nuram and Baruk. The great beast threw back its head and roared. "I am Gornak! Flee now, flee for your life. Or would you match your fangs against mine?"
Shrinking back in blatant terror, Nuram leaped into the sky and flew off with his wings beating furiously.
Staring at the red beast, Weaver somehow felt relieved. "You- you're different than them?"
"Very different," Gornak answered. "Do not fear me. I am not here to harm mortal Men but to help them."
Black Angel slowly returned his knife to its sheath on his boot. "I don't understand."
"This is hard to explain," the winged demon said. "I am here as a refugee. I fled Fanedral, I fled the tyranny of Draldros. If you of Tel Shai offer me sanctuary, I will fight beside you. Mind, I have no love for Humans, nor do I hate them. I am motivated by self-interest."
Weaver smiled. "That sounds honest. Who isn't motivated by self-interest? All right, I'll take you to our captain. It's his decision whether to offer you sanctuary or not."
Stepping closer, Gornak grinned with fangs that gleamed in the dim winter night. "More than that. My goal is to become a member of your team and a knight of Tel Shai myself."
The door at the end of the hallway was a slab of black stone without handle, latch or ornamentation. As the four KDF members neared it, that door swung open on its own. Sulak instinctively took the lead, being nearly indestructible. Behind him came Bane and Wright in their armored field suits, with Shiro following.
In that huge, black-inlaid throne room, a fire blazed suddenly higher from the draft of the open door. Before a chest-high brazier stood a gigantic form like a statue carved of rough grey granite. In his amber eyes, the flame was reflected with sheer nonhuman hatred.
"I knew you would come here in time," the Stone Man rumbled ominously. "And in your ignorance, you are determined to do me harm."
Jeremy Bane knew he carried no weapon which could harm the monster before him, no way to defend himself if those stone hands closed on him. Yet he stepped forward as calmly and confidently as if he was facing a common burglar being taken in custody. "It's not just you, Cohen. It's your connection with Those Who Remember."
"How...?" Cohen began, then caught himself. "Of course. Three nights ago. It was you who captured the cult members in Buffalo and burned their house."
"It was," answered Bane. "A few of them talked. But why are you involved with Those Who Remember? That cult is so stupid I can't take it seriously. Mortal Men can't free the Sulla Chun and even if they could, no Humans would survive the return of those damned things. Not even the Darthim mess with Sulla Chun. You're not a fool, Cohen. What's your real game?"
The Stone Man went back to his iron throne and lowered his great bulk. "The Dire Wolf. You are so proud of your Tel Shai training and knowledge."
"With good reason," Bane shot back. "What's your point?"
"Oh, I do not deny the wisdom of the Teachers of Tel Shai, nor the history of their Order, which after all was founded by Jordyn Himself. What I say, and what you may not quite grasp, is that there are other mystic traditions in this world. There is Voodoo. There is the knowledge of the Visitors, the Greys. There is Chaos magic, and there is Cabalism. It was Cabalism that made me supreme among warlocks and it was alchemy which gave me this invincible stone body."
Beside Bane, his teammates listened and waited.
"The Sulla Chun are imprisoned deep 'within' the Earth," Cohen went on, "If only in a metaphoric way. They can be freed and I intend to so through Those Who Remember. Not even Jordyn, Regent of this world, can command the Sulla Chun. Few can even survive being in their presence. But I can. In this form I cannot be killed and I can meet with the Sulla Chun and learn what they have to teach." He leaned back and smiled stiffly. "True, all life will be swept from this planet. It will be cleansed, but no matter. The adjacent realms will be untouched. After I have learned the secrets of the Sulla Chun, I will bring Humans here from other realms to be my subjects and slaves. In time, my subjects will repopulate the Earth and worship no other gods but me."
"You," said Bane, "are REALLY sick. Ted, put up the shield."
Instantly, a faint blue haze spread over the entire chamber like a mist. The fire in the brazier went out, and much of the oppressive atmosophere lessened. Cohen rose to his full height and rumbled deep in his chest. "You dare..?"
"I do," answered Ted Wright. The Blue Guide's face was furrowed with concentration. "That Tel Shai knowledge you dismissed. As long as I maintained this safe zone, your gralic powers are deadened. You won't be blasting any of us with red bolts."
"Schvartze fool! I will pull your head off." The Stone Man lumbered forward, huge leonine paws reaching for Wright. Cohen saw Sulak leaping forward, but he dismissed what seemed to be only a Human athlete without weapons. He was rudely surprised. In a sudden smooth blur, the Melgar champion stepped in and blasted a right cross that sounded like a cannon booming. The Stone Man reeled back and almost fell. As he got his footing, he said, "Who are you? How can you have such power?"
"I am Sulak! Champion of Androval, heir to the Legacy of Malberon. Mark me well, monster, for I am he who will defeat you!"
Cohen's massive brow ledges lowered, almost hiding the amber eyes. "It is the Blue Guide's effect which hampers my gralic art, or I would simply blast you where you stand. Still, I do not need mystic power. With my hands alone, I will slay you, Melgar. Then the rest of you. My plan for cleansing the earth will not be halted by a simple gladiator."
Smiling, Sulak held up his fists. He seemed to be just a man a few inches over six feet in height, muscular and trim, with shaggy black hair over a rugged face. But with the Legacy of Malberon charging his body, he was the strongest flesh and blood creature who lived, and decades of experience in the arena and war had polished his skills. As he faced Cohen, his steps were light and nimble, almost dancing. Sulak came in fast, right fist shooting out to crack against Cohen's face. The Stone Man's head swung back from the impact but he did not fall. With surprising speed, he swung a backhand that caught the Melgar square on the jaw and Sulak was knocked off his feet.
Rolling as he hit the cold marble floor, the Champion of Androval hopped back a step and jumped up into a ready stance. He stood with knees slightly bent, most of his weight forward on his right leg. His right fist was partially extended, his left fist close to the chest. That slap had hurt, something rare for him to experience. His smug confidence had evaporated to be replaced by the grim determination of a final match in the arena.
He studied Cohen intently. The Stone Man was more than a foot taller and outweighed him by hundreds of pounds. If they had been normal Humans, the match would have been ludicrous. There was no way to estimate how strong the monster really was, but years ago he had fought Khang to a standstill and Khang had been considered invincible before that. I must break this enemy, Sulak thought, no one else can do it.
Cohen sudden threw a straight punch for the head with his huge right paw. He was too stiff and slow. Sulak brushed it aside with his left forearm, pouncing in close to deliver a right cross that sound like a gun firing. Quick and agile, the Melgar stepped back and out of reach before Cohen could react. The giant warlock made a rasping noise deep in that granite chest. Sulak frowned. The room was lit only by the blue haze from Wright, enough to show his opponent's movements but not his expression. Had that blow hurt him? It didn't seem so.
Again, the Stone Man attacked. Sulak ducked under a wide looping roundhouse but he underestimated how fast his enemy could move and a massive right fist crashed against the side of his head like a sledge hammer. Sulak lost his footing for the second time, he fell to the floor and rolled clear barely in time to escape a giant foot stomping down where his head had been. The Melgar leaped up and back ten feet, drawing deep breaths and trying to clear his thoughts. He raised his fists and waited with the first faint twinge of doubt.
Simon Cohen smiled, wide chisel-edged teeth gleaming in the blue light. Unhurried, he began to stalk toward the Melgar like an executioner stepping to the gallows. The crystal eyes had glints of red now.
In those few seconds, Sulak drove away the pain in his head. Suddenly everything seemed clear. Looking Cohen in the eye, he said, "My gift- the Legacy of Malberon- has ever made my fights too easy. I see that now. I took pride in striking down opponents who could in no way match my strength. I am grateful to you, Simon Cohen. You give me a foe I cannot slay with a half-hearted blow. This is a challenge I needed."
"You idiot!" laughed the giant. "That revelation won't do you any good, for you see, I am about to kill you."
"Victory is not yours to take nor mine to give. Do your worst, monster."
Cohen took a step forward and Sulak lunged to meet him. With his left hand, he seized the white smock and yanked hard, bringing the stone head down to his own level. In the same motion, the Melgar blasted a right cross with every bit of superhuman strength he had. The Stone Man went down. Cohen landed clumsily on his side, arms and legs flailing as he tried to get up. As the monster rose, Sulak met him with a left-right combination which had no real effect. It took a full power punch to harm the rocklike brute. Standing, Cohen swung his great open hands in an attempt to seize his smaller foe. The huge arms whooshed through the air like wrecking cranes. The Melgar danced out of the way, much lighter on his feet than his ponderous enemy. Sulak saw a wide roundhouse coming and tried to stop it with an upper block but the Stone Man was just too strong. The punch came right through the attempted block and hit Sulak in the middle chest, driving the wind from him. Close behind that blow came a smashing downward hammer punch that caught the Melgar's left shoulder and forced him down to one knee. Even through the pain and the effort of catching his breath, Sulak's decades of combat experience kept him clear. On one knee, he drove out a straight forefist to Cohen's stomach. The rocklike belly did not cave in before that fist as flesh and blood would, but the sheer force of the blow threw the Stone Man back, to land sitting up ten feet away.
Both opponents regained their feet, regarding each other with new wariness. Sulak flexed his arms and shoulders to keep them from getting stiff. They circled, drawing closer.
Suddenly Bane's voice broke as if from a distance. The Melgar had been so focused on his opponent he had forgotten his teammates were in the room. "Sulak!" said the Dire Wolf, "take a break. I'll soften him up with the silver daggers."
"No," shouted the Melgar in a tone he would not normally have used on his captain. It carried the full authority of his status as Champion of Androval. "This is my fight and mine alone!"
Historians of the Midnight War agree that Simon Cohen likely had more gralic-induced strength than Sulak and so should have been able to kill him. But Cohen had been a middle-aged scholar before gaining his stone body. Without the mystic arts he usually relied on, without any experience or training in how to fight, the Stone Man was not able to use his strength effectively. He found himself facing a toughened warrior with strength roughly equal to his own, who had fought in many wars and tournaments for decades, who had studied boxing under every great expert he could find, including the incomparable Teacher Chael of Tel Shai.
Cohen quickly discovered that he couldn't connect any more. Now that Sulak had judged the extent of his opponent's reach and skill, even if it had meant taking a knockdowns to do it, he could evade the Stone Man's blows with footwork. At the same time, he could lunge in like a fencer and land two good solid punches before Cohen could react. Again and again, Sulak punished the huge warlock with alternating backfist-forefist combinations. Cohen bellowed in pain and rage but the elusive Melgar seemed to be always just out of reach until two more blows landed. The Stone Man was swinging wildly, without technique, and Sulak simply danced and dodged, still crashing his powerful fists to Cohen's face.
Nothing on this world could long resist the destructive effect of blows like that. Simon Cohen wavered, the amber light in his eyes dimmed for an instant. Sulak was steering the fight for the kill, throwing more complicated combination strikes that slapped the stone head from side to side. Abruptly, Cohen broke away and reached for the extinguished brazier. He broke the heavy bronze stand loose and raised it like a spear... not to throw at Sulak but at the other Tel Shai knights watching the duel.
"Oh no you don't," Sulak said quietly. As the Stone Man drew back him arm to throw the brazier, the Melgar dropped into a low stance with feet well apart. He pulled his right fist back to his armpit and drove out a straight punch that had everything he could put into it. The impact of that blow had the decisive crunch of the slaughterhouse. Cohen reeled back wildly, arms waving, and landed with a crash on the marble floor. Deep cracks ran diagonally across the motionless rocklike torso.
As Cohen fell, Sulak dropped to his knees with his head lowered. His chest worked as he tried to slow his breathing. The Melgar flexed his sore and bloodied hands and studied them as if he had never seen them before.
Jeremy Bane came over and knelt beside his comrade. "I wouldn't have missed that fight for ten years off my life," he said. "Good work, sulak. Look at your hands. Ted! You want to check them out?"
The Blue Guide came over and examined the Melgar. His art of Kerwandu involved perceiving the flow of life force to promote healing but Wright had been a genuine MD working Emergency Rooms before joining Tel Shai. "The little finger on the right hand is broken, and the knuckles are a hair away from being cracked. Sulak, you're going to be bruised and sore for a week but with your Melgar metabolism, you'll be fine." He took some bandages and tape from his satchel. "Here, hold still."
Bane and Shiro stood over the motionless Stone Man. "Is he dead?"
Glancing up from bandaging Sulak's hands, Wright said, "As far as I can tell. There's no flow of lifeforce."
The Dire Wolf stared down at the rough-featured grey face, its eyes closed. "I've never been more relieved to see an enemy dead. With him gone, Those Who Remember will go back to being harmless cranks."
With Cohen destroyed, his damping field faded and the KDF equipment worked again. Bane flicked a switch on the wall and overhead recessed lights came on. "That's better," he said. "Okay, our next move is to go through this building and look for any talismans or books we need to claim. With someone like Cohen, I'm sure there are all sorts of forbidden sigils that we don't want anyone to find. If any cultists from Those Who Remember come here, the last thing we want is for them to find a Darthan blasting wand or some alchemy potions. Shiro, how do you feel about going to fetch the CORBY and bringing it here?"
"Not a problem," the Tiger Fury said. He had found a closet and was tugging on an overcoat that was much too large for him. The bottom edge touched the floor and he rolled the cuffs up several times. "I'll be back in a minute."
The Dire Wolf examined Sulak's bandaged hands. "Hurts a little?"
"I'm not used to taking damage like that," the Melgar admitted. "Now I understand how you and Shiro feel after a fight."
Ted Wright suddenly looked up. "Jeremy, I sense lifeforce. On the roof."
Bane reacted instantly, swinging around as the skylight opened from outside, hand dropping to his dart gun. The familiar black and red outfit reassured him. Steven Weaver climbed through and slowly drifted down to land next to him. As Weaver tugged off his goggled helmet, he said, "Listen, captain. Stay cool. Someone is going to come down behind me."
"What? What are you talking about--" the Dire Wolf began but stopped short as the red-hided form of a Kulan dove through the open skylight and descended, batlike wings flapping slowly. Bane drew his gun but Weaver put a restraining hand on that arm.
"Easy, Jeremy," Weaver said. "It's okay. Gornak is a friend."
Bane eyed the winged demon suspiciously, not holstering his gun. Both Wright and Sulak were also poised to attack. "A friend? Steve, that's a Kulan from Fanedral!"
"Give him a chance," Weaver said. "He saved me from another demon when I was unarmed."
"Let me speak for myself," Gornak said. It was strange to see that doglike muzzle open and hear perfectly correct English come from it. "I am indeed a Kulan, but not like others of my kind."
"Wait," Bane snapped, finally putting his weapon away. "It was you I saw in that doorway this afternoon. Back in Jersey. I asked you what you wanted and you said, 'justice.'"
The demon folded his wings and stepped closer, Black Angel beside him. "And it was true. I have come to this world to escape the tyranny of Draldros. I want to join you, to be a knight of Tel Shai and to fight alongside you."
"A Kulan as a hero?" Bane began, then caught himself. "But then... I guess you have free will and can make surprising decisions the same as we do. Membership in Tel Shai is not for me to grant, though. You will have to stand before the Teachers and convince them, as we all did."
"That is all I ask," said Gornak. The red demon grinned, an imposing sight considering his rows of fangs. "You will be glad you gave me this chance."
"I will never say I've seen everything," Bane replied. "There's always a surprise."