The night sky was bedazzled by the countless stars from the faraway galaxy.
An Il-76 appeared above Siberia.
The cargo plane had its hatch opened, allowing the bone-chilling wind to waft through the insides.
Everyone on board had their parachutes along with their gear strapped on. They were ready.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re approaching your requested jump-off point. You may start jumping now. I wish you all a safe trip,” announced the Russian pilot through the speakers.
The man was oddly courteous because Xia Lei and Sa’im had bribed him with more money than he requested. He wanted ten thousand USD but Xia Lei had paid him a generous twenty thousand USD.
Now that it was time to jump, Xia Lei felt like he was about to burst. This was his first-time sky-diving for fuck’s sake. Despite having the reassurance of a parachute, a thousand-meter freefall was no laughing matter.
Sa’im was first to stride towards the platform and leap off. He closed his legs and contracted his shoulders for the fall, looking like a javelin falling from the sky.
Anjum Khan was next, then followed was Yelena, Alessio and the rest of them.
As more of them departed, Xia Lei got increasingly anxious.
Without hesitation, the Russo and Grey sisters followed suit. Before they had even made it to the platform, Xia Lei had thought that they were also first-timers. Sadly, he was the only one. The four just dove straight out of the hatch one by one. Their form looked like dumplings from above.
Now, Xia Lei and Tsukino Kyoko were the only ones left. Xia Lei wasn’t sure why the latter was still here, but he had made up his mind to finally take the leap after her.
“Is this your first time?” The woman approached him.
Xia Lei nodded his head sheepishly. “Yeah, it is.”
“Are you scared?”
“A little.” Xia Lei screamed in his heart. “Isn’t it obvious?! I don’t believe that your first sky-diving experience was as relaxed as now.”
“Oh, shit. Look at that. Is that a plane?” Tsukino Kyoko abruptly pointed in a direction.
Xia Lei’s eyes followed her fingers.
At that very moment, she took a step back then ran forward to kick him in the ass.
“AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Xia Lei screamed as he flew out of the hatch.
Tsukino Kyoko strode forward and followed suit. Her body was as light as a swallow, flying downwards with grace.
Xia Lei was tossed around in the air unceremoniously. He was panicking as he did not know what to do! As he hesitated whether to unleash his parachute, Tsukino Kyoko suddenly steadied him from behind. Her thighs enveloped his waist and her arms were tucked firmly under his armpits to hug his chest.
“Wait a bit before pulling the cord. If you open it now, you’ll be blown far away from the landing point,” exclaimed Tsukino Kyoko into his ear.
“Do you always do this?” Xia Lei was still a little angry.
“What do you mean?”
“Pranks like this.”
“That was my first.”
They descended very quickly. With someone on his back, Xia Lei was no longer shaken with fear. Soon enough, snowflakes were flying around them and he could vaguely make out the snowy trees and forest down below. There were a few of his people that had already released their parachutes too.
“Alright, pull it.” Tsukino Kyoko loosened her grip on Xia Lei. With a push of her palms against his back, she flew several meters away from him. She then opened her parachute.
Xia Lei opened his parachute as well. His first sky-diving experience was certainly something he’d never be able to forget. If there was still next time, he was certain he wouldn’t end up as ungraceful as his first.
Falling onto the designated point, Xia Lei stripped off his parachute gear.
Theresa approached him. “I thought you’d wait till the plane reaches Moscow before jumping off,” she mocked in Italian.
She was still very much upset about the molestation, finding every possible chance to irritate Xia Lei.
Xia Lei raised his right arm and gave her the middle finger. He replied in Italian, “Don’t make me do that again to you. I quite fancy the smell of salted fish.”
“You’re definitely going to hell!” screamed Theresa angrily.
Xia Lei laughed. “If someone like me goes to hell, I’m sure they’ll end up as hell’s most important guest.”
Theresa refused to back down but Giovanna quickly halted her to announce something. “Our people will be here to pick us up soon. Please inform your team to stand down.”
Xia Lei nodded. “Sure, I’ll make sure of that.”
Giovanna pulled Theresa aside. “Why are you still trying to provoke him? You’re acting like a child now! Have you forgotten all about our mission?”
“But…” Theresa wanted to say more but decided against it. Her displeasure was evident.
Xia Lei motioned for the six Chinese Zodiac Battle Team members to come over. “The Knight Hospitaller members will be here to pick us up. Please be careful to not shoot them but I urge you all to stay vigilant.”
Anjum Khan scowled. “They better not have other motives or else my guns will not spare them mercy.”
In about ten minutes, a few snowmobiles emerged from the forest. Giovanna went forward to greet them before she motioned everyone over to hitch the ride.
Each snowmobile had its own driver and a sleigh that tailed behind it. There was enough space for a seat or to hold their weapons. Xia Lei and the others took a seat on the vehicle and off they went. The snowmobiles zoomed through the forest to arrive at a frozen lake. From afar, they could see a wooden house that was surrounded by about ten military tents.
The snow rained heavily, but Xia Lei could see the camouflaged snipers hidden in the woods behind the house and the gunners that were on watch around it.
“This is the FA Organization’s Siberia Camp,” Yelena told Xia Lei. She continued, “But this is just one part of it. Your father went through his training here.”
Have you been here?” asked Xia Lei.
“Yeah, I came with your father. I almost died here back then.” Yelena seemed to have spiralled down into her dark memories as her expression hardened.
It didn’t take long for the snowmobiles to make it to the front of the wooden house. The cautious gunners immediately had their eyes glued to their guests. The mouth of their guns was raised slightly, ready for immediate action. On the other hand, the Chinese Zodiac Battle Team members also got into position. They were equipped with a gust assault rifle, an XL2500 sniper rifle and a Viper Pistol on them. Their gust assault rifles were on stand-by with their mouths raised slightly and safety pins open in anticipation of an ambush.
Xia Lei jumped off the sleigh, his gaze landing on the tents around the wooden house to see a different world. There was a variety of weapons and people inside. It was as if their manpower was an uncanny combination of drug dealers, killers and gangsters. From that, he deduced that these were the people the Knight Hospitaller hired for this operation while the gunners around the house and the snipers were their own members.
As Xia Lei deactivated his vision, the door to the wooden house was opened as Arthur exited it. He wore a thick winter coat and had on a traditional Russian ushanka. He looked like a local.
“Mister Xia, I’m pleased to see you here.” Arthur was courteous. “Thank you for being so understanding of our situation. I’m just so glad that you’re here. We’ll be able to leave this god-damned place for good soon.”
Xia Lei asked, “Where is Dark Mona now?”
“Come on inside. I don’t know how to describe it but my computer can,” replied Arthur.
Xia Lei followed him in.
As Yelena and the others were about to enter through its door, they were quickly stopped by the Knight Hospitaller members guarding the entrance.
“I’m sorry, there’s just not enough space to fit everyone.” Arthur continued, “Please wait for us outside.”
Arthur's words did not deter them. Yelena immediately pushed the guards in an attempt to provoke them. Russians had always been known for their temper and this woman was no different.
Xia Lei calmly instructed, “It’s alright. Just wait for me outside.”
With that, Yelena stopped her actions.
The fireplace in the wooden house was burning, generating warmth to shield against the cold outside. On a simple wooden task was a military laptop with two burning candles on each side. The candles had the Knight Hospitaller sign on its base. Its seemingly insignificant existence triggered Xia Lei’s cautiousness, but he didn’t smell any agave-like fragrance from it this time.
Arthur walked over to the desk to unfold the laptop. He entered a few keys and soon, a satellite map was displayed on its screen.
The area showcased was a complicated terrain. There were mountains, vast forests, rivers and even a lake. There wasn’t a village or town in sight. There were four glowing red signals on the map, located at all four sides of the map.
“Our people had managed to trap her in this area. What you’re seeing here are the location-marking signals they sent. Dark Mona is somewhere within its boundaries.” Arthur continued, “Our people would only be able to stay there temporarily. As soon as she gathers enough resources, she’d be able to exit the area. When that happens, there’s nothing much we can do anymore.”
“What resources would she need?” asked Xia Lei.
Arthur explained, “Siberia has welcomed its winter early. Cold protective coats, high caloric value food and skiing equipment would be essential for survival here. Without those, even the strongest of us all wouldn’t survive a night here. Dark Mona will certainly need those things. Our ambush had rendered her with close to nothing essential. If my estimations are correct, her resources will be depleted by now so she’d need food and skiing gear. Her desperate needs will delay her escape, which will buy time for us to attack her.”
Arthur’s description was oddly detailed but Xia Lei had his brows furrowed. According to the size aspect ratio of the satellite map, the area within the four signals was huge. Plus, it was barren and had a very complicated terrain! How would it even be possible for them to track down one hidden person?
“Mister Xia, I know what you’re worried about.” Arthur continued, “But it’s nothing to be concerned about. I believe that you’ve already seen the pictures I sent you. The message Dark Mona left was to lure you over. Now that you’re here, she’s bound to appear!”
Xia Lei averted his glance elsewhere, immediately landing on the wall beside the fireplace. On that particular wall, there were a few lines of Chinese characters carved into it. As soon as he made out those words, his blood froze.
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