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"Did you hear that?"
Annja glanced across the platform to where her cameraman, Lenny Davis, was seated. In the dim light he was hard to seehis dark skin and hair blended nearly perfectly with the night around thembut she knew where he was because they'd both been sitting in the same place for two weeks. Right now, though, the vibe he was giving off was very different from his usual laid-back attitude. Something clearly had him spooked.
"I didn't hear anything," she told him, which was the truth, though that was most likely because she'd been daydreaming about getting out of this fetid swamp. After being here for this long, who could blame her?
The two were deep in the Jiundu swamp in northwestern Botswana, following up on a recent rash of bat men sightings and trying to catch some footage of the alleged creature. It was their latest assignment for Chasing History's Monsters, the cable television show Annja cohosted. The show focused on exactly what its name indicatedhistorical madmen, psychopaths, serial killers and even legendary monstershence the reason they were on a platform ten feet off the ground using low-light cameras to try to catch a glimpse of what their producer, Doug Morrell, was calling the "scoop of the century." Of course, he'd said the same thing about the past three assignments he'd sent them on. Including one where he'd had them trying to film the ghost of a man-eating great white shark off the coast of Indonesia, which was why Annja didn't place much stock in his assessment. Investigating murderous ghosts was one thing; investigating the ghosts of murderous sharks was something else entirely.
Annja was five feet ten with chestnut hair beneath her favorite Yankees baseball cap. Dressed in a pale blue tank top, khaki shorts and hiking boots, she stretched her legs out in front of her, trying to keep from cramping.
"There it is again!" Lenny climbed to his feet, silhouetted in the dim moonlight. "Listen."
This time, Annja did hear something. It was faint, hard to decipher over the typical night noises coming out of the swamp. Like the sound of the flapping of large wings?
"I hear it," she told him.
But what the heck was it?
She didn't think for a moment that it was an actual bat man; she was expecting to find a perfectly natural explanation for the so-called sightings that had occurred over the past several months. An unusually large vulture, perhaps, or maybe some unknown species of bird, driven out of the deeper swamps by the recent rainy season. Either would make far more sense than the mysterious bat people Doug was convinced were hiding here.
She rose to her feet and tried to get a fix on the sound. It was getting louder, and therefore closer, but she couldn't pin down which direction it was coming from. It seemed to bounce off the trees and water all around them. The quarter moon wasn't much help, either; what little light it cast added more shadows than it illuminated.
"Behind you!" Lenny cried, and Annja turned just in time to see a dark winged shape swoop down at her from the nearby tree line with stunning speed.
She didn't stop to think, dropping into a crouch and bringing her arms up over her head to protect herself as the thing flew past. She quickly got back to her feet, but it had already disappeared into the darkness.
"What the hell was that?" Lenny asked in shock.
Annja didn't have any answers. She'd barely gotten a glance at it. What she had seen left her with the impression of a winged creature about the size of a large child, but that could just as easily have been her imagination filling in the blanks for what she hadn't seen.
Of course, it could also be the very thing they'd come here to find.
The bat men of Botswana.
"Get those cameras rolling, Lenny," she said as she moved from side to side, trying to catch a glimpse of the creature.
Her suggestion was unnecessary. Lenny was already all over his equipment. "Cameras one, two and three are live," he reported. "Four is giving me some trouble but I should have it online in another moment or two."
"Good. We don't want to miss this thing a second"
"Look out!" Lenny yelled, but his warning came too late. Annja was turning when she felt claws rake her left shoulder. Pain flared down her arm. And then the thing was gone again. Quickly taking stock, she could feel blood beginning to seep down her back but didn't want to lose her night vision by turning on a light to inspect the injury. She'd deal with it later. First things first.
If it came back, which it most likely would, this time she would be prepared to meet it on its own terms. She'd been using a walking stick to help her navigate the uncertain terrain of the swamp for the past few days and she snatched it up now, holding it before her in two hands like a baseball bat.
"Do you see it?" she asked.
Lenny didn't respond. He was standing with his back to her, fumbling with something in front of him that she couldn't see and muttering darkly under his breath.
Something wasn't right.
The strange buzzing sound the creature made whenever it swiped at them. The lack of aerobatics from a creature supposedly born to fly. Her companion's current distraction.
The answer, when it came to her, seemed so obvious she was surprised it had taken her so long to figure it out.
Lenny straightened and, without turning, said, "It's coming back, I think!"
This time, Annja was ready for it.
She could hear the swoop of its wings as it approached. Underneath that, though, was the same dull whine she'd noticed before. She had some idea what was causing that sound now and she intended to put her theory to the test.
"Here it comes again!" Lenny yelled, and suddenly the creature was diving at them for the third time that night.
This time, Annja was ready for it. She brought her staff around in a vicious swing, getting the full force of her hips into it, like a baseball batter determined to knock the ball clear out of the park.
"No, Annja!" Lenny shouted, but it was too late.
Her strike was right on the money.
She heard a loud crunch, felt the shock of the blow reverberate all the way up her arms and saw the creature go careering off in an uncontrolled spin. A moment later there was a loud crash ten feet below them.
Not a thud, but a crash.
Annja headed for the ladder.
"What are you doing?" Lenny called.
"Putting an end to this right now," she replied. She descended from the platform and then pulled her flashlight out of her pocket. Flipping it on, she cast about for a few minutes before locating the object she'd struck with her staff. She hurried over and shone her light on the wreckage.
The so-called bat man was in reality nothing more than a medium-size drone with a pair of motorized wings and some special effects added to give the suggestion of something more when glimpsed in the near-dark. Knowing that, it didn't take a genius to put two and two together. After spending days on end with nothing to show for it, Lenny must have been ordered to use the drone so the trip wouldn't be a complete waste. After all, footage of some barely seen flying creature was better than no footage at all, right? She knew just the producer who would think that way, too.
She looked up as Lenny finally joined her. Her expression must have reflected a fair bit of what she was feeling, because he winced.
"I think you have some explaining to do," she said through clenched teeth.
He held up his hands in a placating gesture. "Would you believe this was all Doug's idea?"
She would, she would indeed.
The sun woke Annja just after nine the next morning. She tried to go back to sleep, thinking she deserved a few more hours after the fiasco of the night before, but found she just couldn't. Bowing to the inevitable, she rose, dressed and ran through her usual routine of morning stretches to awaken her body in preparation for the harder exercise to follow.
After listening to Lenny's explanation about the drone the night before, Annja had decided she was done with the episode and stalked back to their rented Nissan SUV. Lenny had followed sheepishly in her wake. The ride back to their hotel had passed in silence, and Annja had retired to her room as soon as they arrived. There she finally got a chance to look at the shoulder wound. It turned out to be minora deep scrape most likely caused by the outer edge of the drone's wing as it swept past her. She cleaned it out, bandaged it and fell into bed exhausted.
This morning her arm was a little stiff but she quickly worked out the kinks as she ran through her warm-up exercises. When her muscles were good and limber, she reached into the otherwhere and drew forth her sword. It sprang into being in her hand with the speed of thought, fully formed, the hilt already warm to her touch as if she'd only been holding it seconds before. Who was to say she hadn't been? For all she knew time ran differently in the otherwherethe mysterious place where the sword stayed until she pulled it out. Days here might be the merest microseconds there. Only one thing was certain. The sword was always there, waiting for her.
Her life hadn't been the same since that fateful day when she'd brought the broken, scattered pieces of the sword together for the first time since their original owner, Joan of Arc, had been burned at the stake five hundred years earlier. The sword had miraculously reformed in a flash of power right before her very eyes and, in some strange way she still didn't understand, had chosen her to be its next bearer.
The role came with its own unique set of responsibilities, protecting the innocent first and foremost among them. Her innate sense of justice seemed amplified when she carried the sword and as a result she'd found herself in any number of situations others would have walked away from. Numbers didn't matter, nor did the odds; what mattered was that she acted whenever possible to defend those who couldn't defend themselves.
It wasn't a life she would have chosen for herself, but now that she was in it, she couldn't imagine doing anything else.
Annja slipped into a series of movements designed to continue honing her already considerable skills with the weapon. Kata after kata flowed out of her as naturally as water from a spring and Annja quickly found herself lost in the synergy of thought and motion, becoming one with the sword in such a way that it ceased being a separate object but was instead an extension of herself. When she finally slowed to a stop over an hour later, she felt energized and ready to take on the day.
She released the sword back into the otherwhere, marveling at the way it vanished in the blink of an eye. She showered, changed and left the hotel behind, looking for a place to eat.
Upon arrival in Botswana, they had set up a base of operations in Maun, the district capital of northwestern Botswana that served as the jumping-off point for exploration of the Okavango Delta to the north and the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans to the east. What had once been a small village along the wide banks of the Tha-malakane River had grown over the past couple of decades into a town of some forty thousand people. It was an interesting mixture of the old and the new, where hotels, lodges and even a rental car facility vied for room with square cinder-block homes with tin roofs and an infestation of donkeys and goats every morning when the local farmers brought their goods to market. Annja found a small cafe just down the street from the hotel and had a leisurely breakfast of fresh fruit and toast.
While she ate she eyed her cell phone, debating whether to call Doug now or wait until later. She was still pretty ticked off about the events of the night before but the sooner she dealt with this, the sooner she could move on to whatever was next on the agenda. She couldn't imagine going back to the swamp again.
When her breakfast was over, she snatched up her cell phone, dialed the familiar New York number and waited.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Doug recognized her voice, but not her tone. "Right now?" he asked. "I'm drafting a memo to Marketing about"
"Don't give me that nonsense," Annja interrupted. "You know exactly what I'm talking about."
"Um, actually, I don't," Doug said. "I can hear that you're upset, Annja, but"
"Of course I'm upset! Did you think I wouldn't find out?"
"Find out about what? I really don't understand"
"You had the special-effects department create a simulated bat man and coerced my cameraman into using it when it looked like we wouldn't get any real footage. Something I told you would happen before we even left the States."
There was a moment of silence, and then Doug said, "I have no idea what you are talking about, Annja."
The smile that crossed her lips at his suddenly flat tone was almost predatory. "Good," she said. "Then you certainly won't mind that I practiced my Babe Ruth impression on it with my hiking staff and knocked it out of the sky in midflight."
"Wha-a-at?" Doug shrieked. "Are you insane? Do you have any idea what that thing cost? Effects is going to kill me, never mind what Accounting will do to my budget "
"I thought you had no idea what I was talking about?"
"Um, you see.. " Doug finally stuttered.
This should be good.
"Ah, it was strictly a backup plan. You know, just in case the bat men were migrating or something ."
Annja let him babble for several minutes as she sipped her coffee. Doug had tried to enhancehis word, not hersher shows with special effects in the past and each time she'd soundly shot him down. This time he'd conspired to do it behind her back, with her cameraman, no less.
A message needed to be sent.
" and so I took it upon myself to support you"
"I'm taking the day off, Doug. I'm going to do a little shopping, eat out at an expensive restaurant and generally enjoy myself in an effort to forget that you just tried to pull off a mechanical bat man. All of which will be coming out of your budget, of course. Come tomorrow, when I'm in a better mood, we'll talk about what we're going to do next. Understood? Good."
She could hear Doug spluttering for a reply in the background as she disconnected.