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Chapter One

"Anybody got a fucking clue?"

The meeting was unusual. The group had all met each other before, even had meetings together, but there was one person missing and that threw the whole balance out.

Nielson looked around at the faces, searching for an answer to his question.

All six of the Keldara Fathers were present as well as two of the Mothers.

The Keldara were an ancient race of mountain warriors, descendants of the Norse guards of the Byzantine emperors, the Varangians. Marooned by the flow of history as the empire receded, they had endured a series of conquerors over the years but always maintained their traditions. Forced, like the Ghurkas and the Kurds, to be farmers for survival, they had, nonetheless, kept up their warrior tradition. In part this was due to a quiet and subtle breeding program.

Over the years they had had many "lords" occupy the caravanserai where the meeting was taking place. Some of them were courtiers exiled from centers of power but most had been foreign adventurers attached to whatever empire "owned" the Keldara at the time. The courtiers didn't tend to last. They died mysteriously of diseases or sudden heart attacks or hunting accidents.

The other lords, the warriors, well, "a soldier that won't fuck, won't fight." Those lords, naturally, wanted to sample the beautiful Keldara girls. And they were beautiful, so much so that people who met them commented on it constantly. Most such lords assumed the right as part of their position.

The Keldara had made that right their own, though, sending only girls who were about to be married and also in their period of maximum fertility. And they had insisted, quietly, subtly, but very determinedly, that the "lord" pay for his "rights" by presenting a dowry to the young lady.

Called the "Rite of Kardane," over the centuries it had been used to carefully breed to dozens of different races, but every bit of that genetics had been from proven warriors. Those that weren't . . . Well, so many accidents can befall a person.

Tartar eyes, a legacy of Genghiz's hordes, blond and red hair from the Norse, black from the Turks and Ottomans; the men were powerful and handsome, fell beyond belief in battle; the women gorgeous and fey and nearly as dangerous.

But they needed their lord, their Kildar. They needed his genes, yes, but very nearly as good sat in the room with them. What they needed, most, was his leadership and the knowledge that each generation had brought to the Keldara of the best, most modern, way to destroy his enemies. The Keldara had been axemen from the North, bow-men riders and armored knights in their time. They had swung swords and fired long jazeels. They lived on the cutting edge of the blade; whatever would kill the most enemies was fine by them.

Now they armed themselves with M4s and machine guns, MP-5s and sniper rifles. Their armor was Kevlar and composite.

None of it was any good without the Kildar, though.

"I could beat him up," Master Chief Charles Adams said.

The burly and bald-headed former SEAL had known the Kildar for years, since both were in BUDS together in the infamous Class 201. They'd been on the same team, briefly, then the Kildar had gone off to teach meats while Adams climbed the ladder of rank. Adams had next run into his old buddy in a stinking underground fortress in Syria, finding him shot to ribbons after holding off, with very little support, a Syrian commando battalion.

Later his "friend" had called him up and asked him to assemble a team and come train some weird group of mountain people in the country of Georgia.

Adams had been hanging out ever since. The Keldara were great people, the scenery was awesome, the living conditions, given that there were three hookers in-house, were great and the beer was fucking awesome.

He acted as the Kildar's field second and had been at his side for several hairy ops. But it wasn't the ops, directly, that had led to this fuck-up. Just one fucking casualty. You'd think a big guy could get over one fucking casualty, no matter how good a piece of ass it had been.

"I don't think that would help," Colonel David Nielson said dryly.

The colonel was a former infantry and civil affairs officer, Ranger tabbed, airborne qualified and once an instructor at the War College. The only professional officer in the group, he acted as the Kildar's chief of staff. Short, with black hair going gray and green eyes that worked remarkably well on the ladies, he was about ready to go for the master chief's suggestion.

"It'd help me," Adams argued. "I'm about sick of his pouting."

"The Kildar is soul damaged," Father Kulcyanov said wheezily. The oldest remaining Father, Kulcyanov was a veteran of WWII, in the Red Army. He'd been in every major campaign, to include Stalingrad, and had so many medals he kept them in a very large box. In addition, he acted as the Keldara's high priest. Given that that position had to be held by a warrior, it made sense. "It has happened before."

"I hate to say this, but I have to question this whole Rite thing," Captain Kacey Bathlick said. One of the pilots recently hired to support the Keldara, she knew she was the most junior member of the group, at least in experience. But not only had she proven her merits on the last mission, she wasn't the sort to just keep her mouth shut. And, hell, Gretchen had been her crew-chief. She was pissed about her getting blown away but she wasn't sitting crying in her fucking room! She'd just sent the Chechens who did it to meet Allah. Blasted the hell out of them, actually. "I mean, I get the whole point and the history. But fraternization is never a good idea."

"That is, unfortunately, a point that is past," Anastasia Rakovich pointed out. The "house manager" for the Kildar, she was a former harem slave and harem manager hired to fulfill much the same role. She had more or less inserted herself into the position of "house manager" since the Keldara housekeeper, Mother Savina, was less than experienced in managing the household of a lord. Anastasia had been a junior manager from the time she was seventeen and the manager of an Uzbek sheik's household from the time she was twenty-one. Still only twenty-seven, she was model beautiful with long blonde hair and blue eyes, much like the late Gretchen Mahona. But while she regularly warmed the Kildar's bed, and he her back, given that she was a high-level sexual masochist, the Kildar had never been infatuated with her as he had become with Gretchen. "And, frankly, if he'd had more time with her the hurt might have been less. Or more, I don't know," she added with a sigh.

"The reason we originally gave for the Rite is, of course, no longer . . . effective," Mother Mahona said. "Which is well, since I don't think the Kildar is willing to continue with the Rite."

The previous mission had involved the sale of WMD by the Russian mob to Al Qaeda. The mob had the WMD, the Al Qaeda members had a very large quantity of portable currency and gems. Most of that had been captured and brought back, despite the battle. Mike had stated, bluntly, that dowries, now and for the foreseeable future, were covered.

Gretchen had not been her daughter by body but held her name due to being of the extended "Family" of the Mahonas. Mother Mahona and Mother Silva, Gretchen's birth mother, were both at the meeting to see if they had any idea how to pull the Kildar out of his depression. Neither had come up with anything.

"I'd be more than willing to let him sit in there until his liver gave out," Nielson continued. "But the point is we've got a mission. Pierson is really exercised."

"What?" Patrick Vanner asked. The crew-cut and stocky former Marine, former NSA analyst and current electronic intel chief wasn't sure what to do about the Kildar. The problem was, well, he was the Kildar. He owned the damned place, he was a total free agent and he had more money than God. There wasn't any way to shake him out of his depression unless the guy did it himself. And that didn't look to be happening any time soon.

"WMD, inbound to the States," Nielson said. "That's all I've got right now."

"So we'd be operating in the States?" Adams asked. "They don't have enough people?"

"The Boss asked," Nielson said.


"But I suspect he asked for the Kildar, yes?" Father Kulcyanov said.

"Yeah, but what the hell," Adams replied. "Kildar, Keldara, big diff. So he sits this one out. I can lead the teams, Nielson does the mission planning. Heck, I can do most of that. We bring a couple of teams, keep the rest here for positional defense. Not that we need it much, given the condition of the Chechens."

The last mission had been "the world's most successful fuck-up." Due to "insufficient data," notably that a large and professional Chechen brigade was moving into the area, the Keldara had ended up in a pitched battle. It was there that Captain Bathlick and her "co" captain, Tamara Wilson, had won their spurs. It was also the reason Gretchen Mahona had been killed.

The battle had broken the back of the Chechens—their main local threat—when the Chechens assumed that four thousand fedayeen could easily wipe out a hundred "pagans." In that, they had been so very very wrong. The battle had left the cream of the Resistance's most elite force scattered for the ravens. Patrols had not picked up any sign of Chechen movement in their sector in the two months since the battle.

"The Keldara are not the Kildar," Father Kulcyanov said cautiously. "If you choose to take the Keldara, if the Kildar approves, we will not stand in your way. They will, undoubtedly, win glory and those that fall will be lifted to the Halls. But do not mistake the Keldara for the Kildar. We do not."

The Keldara had masked as Islamics and Christians over the years. They did not care what religion their masters wanted them to practice. But they had retained their true faith in the Old Gods of the Norse and traditions drawn from both Norse and Celts. Since the Kildar did not seem to care, they had, slowly, come "out of the closet" about their beliefs. One of those was that a person could not enter the Halls of Feasting, Valhalla, unless they had been proven in battle.

To Father Kulcyanov the last battle had been a mixed blessing. Far too many of the Keldara had entered the Halls, but for the first time in a generation Keldara were entering the Halls. The dun of the Keldara, their massive burial mound that most people mistook for a gigantic glacial hill, had been added to. The Keldara had added to their glory and had found favor before the Father of All. He would see his fallen children, nieces and nephews, in the Halls. His place was assured by the slaughtered crews of German Tiger tanks and broken units of the Wehrmacht and SS.

He had warned the Kildar, whom he had seen falling into soul-death, not to lose the path of the warrior. For the Kildar's sake, who was warrior born, and for the Keldara. The Keldara were nothing without war.

But his words had, apparently, been insufficient.

"He's got a point," Vanner said. "Master Chief, you're a good shooter and the Keldara will follow. And Colonel, you're a good planner. And I can, as always, handle the intel and commo. But ain't none of us the Kildar."

"I've known Mike since he was a wet behind the ears BUDS recruit," Adams said. "Of course, so was I. But the point is, he's human. God knows he's human. And he's replaceable. Everybody is. We do the mission. Maybe we find the WMD, maybe we don't. But if the Boss calls, we do the damned mission. Period fucking dot."

"Okay," Nielson said, sighing. "You take the teams. I'll stay back here and handle the details. I can do that long range. Who do you want?"

"I'm going," Vanner said. "There's some tech I've wanted to pick up in the States for a while, anyway. And I'd rather be on site to handle tricky stuff. I'll take four of the girls."

Vanner's staff was mostly Keldara females, most of them under twenty. They had soaked up the details of communications and intelligence as if they'd been training in it from birth. Lately, Vanner had been picking up some pieces of intel that made him wonder if that wasn't truth. While the Keldara men were top-flight warriors and many of them smart as hell, the Keldara girls were so smart it was scary. And they were sneaky in ways he was just beginning to souse out.

"I'll take Oleg . . . shit," Adams said, pausing. The Keldara's top team leader had had his leg blown off by a mortar in the battle. He'd gotten a state-of-the-art prosthetic, but he still wasn't in top shape. And his Team was shaky without him. His other top choice, Team Sawn, had lost its leader in the battle and was still shaking down. Padrek, another he would have liked for their technical expertise, had been ravaged. About half of them were dead or still recovering.

"I'll take . . . Vil and Pavel. Daria? I could use somebody to handle the—"

"Details," Daria said, dimpling. The Ukrainian girl had been picked up on a mission, a kidnappee being held in a snuff house in Montenegro, while the teams were hunting for another girl. A trained but out-of-work secretary, she was still kicking herself for accepting the offer of "a good job in Europe." That was a well known ploy that slavers used to capture females. But the con, and that was the only way to put it, had been well laid. She had been awaiting death when the Keldara showed up. She'd been hired while still on the mission to handle the burgeoning administrative details of the Kildar and stayed around ever since. The pay was good, the living conditions excellent and it wasn't like she had to worry about slavers. "I'll put in a call to Chatham for a plane big enough to handle two teams and support staff. And I'll coordinate with the BCIS for entry of the teams and their equipment."

"I'll go as well," Dr. Tolegen Arensky said. "If you'll have me."

The Russian WMD specialist, short, round with balding black hair, was a recent addition to the team. He'd been picked up during the previous mission after having been forced to betray the Russians and smuggle out samples of weaponized smallpox. He'd stayed on because he was also a trained physician and, well, not particularly welcome in Russia at the moment.

"With it being WMD, hell yeah!" Adams said.

"Okay," Nielson said. "You go break it to the Kildar. When you get his okay, I'll call Pierson."

"We taking Katya?" Vanner asked. "And has anyone seen J?"

"Two very good questions," Nielson replied, smiling grimly. "You're not him, are you?"



Martya Dzintas wasn't happy to be knocking on the girl's door. But the noise was disrupting class.

Martya was fifteen, a harem girl and proud of it. She had been raised on a small farm not far from the caravanserai and at fourteen she'd been sold by her parents to a group of Chechens. She didn't hold it against her parents; being "sent to town" was just one of those things. Not only did the Chechens have guns and a serious interest in buying the beautiful fourteen-year old, her parents needed the money.

She didn't want to be a whore, which was what the Chechens intended for her, but there wasn't much anyone could do about it. Except the Kildar. When the Chechens made the mistake of kidnapping one of the Keldara girls, the Kildar had responded with his usual understated manner.

After he had the girls in the van cleaned of the blood, though, he had a problem. None of the girls had homes to go back to. To their parents they were "no deposit, no return." Not only were they, presumably, no longer virgins, the farms in the area were too marginal to bring another mouth back to feed.

The Kildar had, therefore, brought them into his own household as concubines. But he had a very odd view of what to do with harem slaves. The first rule he'd laid down, damn him, was that the girls had to be sixteen before he'd bed them. It was, as he pointed out, younger than his culture would consider "okay" but given that twelve was considered marriageable in the area it was a good median. The second rule he'd laid down was that the girls had to learn. When they were old enough he intended them to move on, to go get a job, go to university, get a husband, have kids, have a "real life."

And he'd been careful and considerate in bedding them. Yes, he occasionally had an evening just to relieve his need, but most of the time the girls returned to the harem half unconscious with endorphins and ready to go back as soon as they recovered. The Kildar was as good in bed as he was in battle. None of the girls who had done so minded bedding him, not one bit.

And then there was the matter of status. This region was very backward and she'd come to understand that. It was not a normal place compared to the U.S. or Europe. But it was the culture she had been raised in. And in that culture, the Kildar had very high status. The Keldara, and the Kildar, were legends in the region long before the present Kildar arrived. It had been a long time since a true Kildar was in the valley, and the old people had bemoaned that. The new Kildar, furthermore, truly had brought back the good times. The Chechens no longer extorted "taxes" and burned farms when they didn't pay up. They no longer stole children. They no longer took the food and livestock. And the money the Kildar brought in—often through killing Islamics which to the mostly Orthodox believers in the area was a good thing—spread out. Things were looking up in the region.

Thus, Martya's status, even as a "harem slave," was far higher than it had been as the daughter of a penniless farmer, much less as a whore. She loved the Kildar for bringing her into his household, for feeding her febrile mind through learning, for giving her status even in her parents' eyes. And she was counting the days to her sixteenth birthday.

But at the moment, she had a problem. The noise from Katya's room was disrupting class. Especially the whooping.

Katya was the one thing in the Kildar's household Martya did not enjoy. The Russian whore was . . . evil. Mean didn't begin to describe it. She would do small, petty, things that she could get away with to hurt the other girls. And there was little they could do about it. The whore was being trained by the Kildar as an "insertion agent," a spy. And the Americans had given her special powers and, notably, poisoned fingernails. Even before she'd started training, all of the girls had feared her. Now they were terrified of her.

But she had changed after the last battle. She hardly put on anyone at all anymore and occasionally did nice things for them. She had fixed Nikki's broken CD player. She had helped Martya with her English lessons.

But the girls weren't willing to place too much faith in the unexplained change. Not with Katya.

So knocking on her door to ask her to turn down the stereo was the last thing that Martya wanted to do. But Tinata had insisted. Nobody was getting anything done.

The music cut off and the door was yanked open. The sight left Martya staring.

Katya was a very beautiful blonde, just medium height with bright blue eyes that could be cold as a shark or innocent as a virgin depending on her choice and mood. At the moment she was looking pissed, but not deadly. What had Martya's attention, though, was that she was wearing a two-piece bathing suit and the top was dangling from her hand, leaving her topless.

The girls, naturally, had often seen each other naked. But answering the door holding the top of your bathing suit was unusual. As was wearing one in the depths of the Georgian winter. It was below zero Celsius outside and blowing hard. A bathing suit didn't make much sense. Even with the heaters, the caravanserai was cold.

"Katya, please," Martya said. "We cannot study with all the noise."

"That's a problem," Katya admitted, lowering the suit. "Because I'm studying."

"What?" Martya said, then noticed that there was another woman in the room. She was older and dressed in Western clothes. Not very pretty even when she was younger, Martya was sure.

"That you don't need to know," Katya replied.

"Can you at least stop the whooping?" Martya asked. "That is what is getting us."

"No, I need to do the whooping," Katya said. "I won't be doing this much longer. I think."

"Okay," Martya said with a sigh. "Sorry to have bothered you."

"No problem," Katya said. "I just need to get back in character."

"Okay," Martya said as the door closed in her face. "What did that mean?"


"I have to wonder if this is really necessary," Katya said, waving the bathing suit back and forth. "And I'm freezing."

"You'd be surprised how cold it can get at Daytona Beach in spring," Jay replied, gesturing with his chin at the muted TV set. "Look at the nipples. Most of those girls are quite cold."

"Yeah?" Katya said, striking a pose. "Well, look at mine."

"I've seen them," Jay replied evenly. "If you're prepared to continue?"

"Why in the hell would I want to be on a 'Girls Gone Wild' video?" Katya asked.

"You don't," Jay replied. "Ever. Be assured of that. But you do need to learn to mimic the actions. Girls like that can get into virtually anywhere but a shield room, and you'd be surprised how many have made it that far. Playing the stupid, wild, partying slut is a very good cover. Among other things, if you have to avoid capture, slipping into that guise is a good way for a girl as good looking as you to disappear. Change your appearance slightly, go into a club and be the sluttiest slut there. Pick up one of the many guys who are hankering for you, take him home and stay there overnight. No hotel room, no traceable apartment. I can think of a thousand reasons to learn this particular cover. That you cannot troubles me."

"This padwan asks the Master's apology," Katya said, bowing with a smirk. "I see what you mean, though."

"Now, let us work on removing the top again," Jay said with a sigh. "I will admit that I'm enjoying the sight, I am heterosexual, but you are just not doing it right. If you'd only spent some time as a stripper it might help. With mental conditioning if nothing else. You have to feel the need to expose yourself and you so dislike the very thought that it is interfering."

"I've been naked in front of many men," Katya said, coldly. "And none of them have ever known I was not happy about it."

"I do," Jay said. "Any trained observer would see it in you. Most men, yes, are not so trained. But it is not those you need fear. If you are in a situation like this the most you need to worry about is a Rohypnol slipped in your drink or date-rape. Don't drink anything you don't see poured by the bartender for the former. Since you are intending to fulfill your side of an implied contract inherent in going home with a male from such a party, you need not fear the latter. You, in fact, need to let go of your fear. That is what is trapping you. You will not be the agent you could be until you stop fearing men."

"I don't fear men," Katya said. "I just want to kill them all."

"Are you refusing to accept my training?" Jay asked calmly.

"No," Katya replied. That was the one agreement between them. Katya would do whatever Jay told her in training and the only punishment was that, if she stopped learning, if she decided she knew more than he, he would simply stop training her.

Since Katya wanted to know it all, she was very careful to be on her best behavior with the master spy.

"Then do not challenge that statement," Jay said. "Especially since it's true. Are you unaware that you fear men or unwilling to admit it?"

"Unwilling to admit it," Katya said after a moment.

"You cannot carry that baggage and be who you should be," Jay said. "Almost all women fear men at some level. It is one part of their nature, one you should be aware of. Men are, by and large, bigger, stronger and more aggressive. Men go through life with a predator mindset, women with that of prey. But you, Katya, need never fear them again. You are the predator. What do you fear? Being beaten? You have survived beatings and more. Being raped? You have survived that. Dying? If it came to that, most men would have a hard time killing you unless they surprised you. As you know having killed a few who were trying to do that. You are not one of the girls in this video. You are not virtually defenseless before a stronger male. But you still fear."

"Yes," Katya admitted.

"But these women, these girls, these do not," Jay said, restarting the video. "Watch them carefully. They are enjoying themselves. They have no fear of the stares, of the shouts, of the attention. Oh, a few do. That mousey girl on the left, brown hair and nipples. She is afraid of the attention. Basically introverted I suspect or just raised in a prudish environment. Generally not a problem unless you're in a situation like that. I have no clue why she is up there having ice water dashed on her. A dare from friends? A boyfriend who has psychological power over her? Drink? But she fears. Could you be her? You would have to wrap yourself around your fear, show it, use it, let it blossom in your eyes? Could you do that? And still be the predator you truly are?"

"No," Katya said.

"Then, again, you are not the person you must be," Jay said, stopping the video again. "When you can be that girl, up there on stage in a wet T-shirt contest, on TV no less, afraid of all the consequences, the men suddenly charging the stage, her parents seeing the video, her friends back at college whispering behind her back, guys figuring she's a slut and only after her body, then, padwan, you will be on the road to perfection. But we will concentrate on the blonde in the striped bathing suit again. Now, in character . . . Whoop!"


"Mike, open the damned door," Adams said. The damned wood was hurting his knuckles.

He stepped into the room and looked around. He hadn't been up to Mike's sanctum before but it was pretty cozy. A radiator kept it warm, it had nice paneled walls, the chair looked comfortable. On the other hand, it smelled. Stank, really. Booze—the bottles were all over the place—and just the reek of a person who hadn't washed enough holed up in a small room too long.

"I gotta ask," Adams said. "What's behind the steel plate? Everybody is dying to know. A black hole? A TV? What?"

"None of your God-damned business," Mike said.

Mike Harmon was thirty-seven years old, brown of hair and eye, medium height with a muscular build due to years as a SEAL instructor. An almost prescient talent for silent-kill had earned him the nickname "Ghost" while on the SEAL teams. After sixteen years as a SEAL, mostly an instructor in everything from "direct action" to HALO, he had found himself physically beaten and psychologically unsuitable to the Teams. So he'd gotten out and gone to college. It was a long road to being the Kildar, one with half the terrorists on earth searching for a guy code-named Ghost, but he'd made it every step of the way. The scars on his body, and in his heart, were proof.

"What do you want, Ass-boy?" Mike asked.

"Ass-boy yourself," Adams replied. "We've got a mission."

"I heard," Mike said. "We really don't need the money and I'm tired of laying it on the line over and over and over again. So . . . no."

"I want to go."


"I want to take two teams."

Mike finally looked at him, then back at the wall.


"Is that a 'yes,' O Kildar?" Adams asked angrily.

"Just try not to fuck up too much," Mike said. "Now get out."

"Christ, I really should beat the crap out of you," Adams said.

"Do you really think you could?" Mike asked, his teeth grinding.

"In your current condition?" Adams said. "Hell, yeah. Let me tell you something, Kildar. I had a talk with your team chief after you quit. I wanted to know how such a God-damned good operator could have had his ass fucking fired by a chief I knew had his head on his shoulders. And do you want to know what he said? It had dick all to do with the AD, by the way."

"I could give a fuck less," Mike said. "Now would you get the fuck out?"

"He said you weren't hard-core enough," Adams replied. "Simple as that. You'd gotten soft playing big boy instructor with the meats. You thought it was all a big game, that you could just wave a fucking stress card and get a point for effort. He called you a fucking crybaby. When I pulled you out of that fucking bunker, I couldn't figure what the fuck he was talking about. But he saw it when I didn't. You're a fucking crybaby. So you lost a piece of ass. Ass is cheap, buddy. You got a dozen pieces here in the house. There's more in the Keldara and they're all willing and you know it. So get off your fucking ass!"

"You done?" Mike asked calmly.

"Yeah," Adams said, sighing.

"Go do the mission," Mike said. "Collect a bonus. Then stay in the fucking States. I don't want to see your face again after that door shuts."

"You're fucking firing me?" Adams said, incredulous. "Well then, fuck you, I'll just leave."

"Big mission," Mike pointed out. "American civilians might die. You might stop that. And do you really want the Keldara wandering around the U.S. alone?"

"Fuck," Adams said. "You know just where the buttons are, don't you?"

"You weren't hired for your brains," Mike replied. "By the same token, you should know when you're out of your depth on something. And you just proved you don't. So I don't want you around."

"What the fuck does that mean?" Adams asked.

"You've been married, what? Six times? Which means that you're the perfect SEAL, more balls than brains and no fucking heart at all. It's just a piece of ass. Big fucking deal. Which meant you had no clue what you were just saying. No fucking clue at all. Since you don't even have the introspection to realize that, please leave this room and get the fuck out of my life. Go do the mission and then just . . . leave."

"I should have left you to die in that damned bunker," Adams said, hitting the door control.

"I wish you had," Mike whispered after the door was closed. Then he raised the plate . . . . 


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