Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a familiar figure leading the janitorial crew in for the night shift, and had to stifle a laugh. Whatever in the blue hereafter was Wahanksica doing leading a janitorial crew? Especially at this laboratory... but no sooner had he reached that thought, than the smirk faded from his face. Obviously, he was doing the same thing Casimiro was... spying on the lab.
After their exchange, Casimiro dropped Karen off at her place. He left her at her apartment around ten o’clock that night, and headed back to his safehouse, where he picked up a more discreet black coupe with tinted windows, then returned to the lab to follow Wahanksica. He sat there until one in the morning, when he spotted his target leaving with the janitorial staff, and tailed him to a local canteen. There he sidled up next to him at the bar, ordering one Sangria for himself, and another for Wahanksica.
“How ya doing, Hank?” Casimiro began idly, taking a sip of his drink.
“The name is Enriqué,” Wahanksica replied flatly, not looking up from his drink. “I don’t know you, and I don’t want to.”
“You know, you should really learn to pay better attention to your surroundings if you’re going to try your hand at the spy game, Hank.”
Hank looked up from his glass at the man talking to him and almost dropped his drink, nearly falling off his barstool in the process, which triggered the other’s instinctive reflexes, and without thinking, Casimiro shot out one arm to grab and steady his kid brother.
“Madre De Dios, Cas...” Hank gaped at his older half-sibling. “What in blazes are you doing here?”
“The same thing you are Hank... trying to get the scoop on that lab you’re posing at.”
Hank drew in a quick breath and opened his mouth to speak, but the elder continued before he could.
“Don’t even think of denying it. And stop trying to speak Spanish,” Casimiro drawled, letting his thick South American accent come through. “It doesn’t suit you.”
“Fine, but why are you spying on the lab?” Hank queried, after a long drag from his drink. “As far as I know they aren’t dealing in illicit drugs.”
“Father is the gangster and drug dealer in the family, not I,” Casimiro hissed, extending his neck to its maximum indignant height. “...and I would appreciate it if you would not get the two of us confused. Vittorio is merely a listless scoundrel, while I, on the other hand, am an Aztec Prince.”
“I could probably find a few more colorful words for our father...” Hank answered under his breath with a sneer.
Casimiro sighed again.
“Really, brother,” Casimiro rolled his eyes. “Vulgarity is beneath you, and only serves to diminish us both.”
This time Wahanksica rolled his eyes.
The brothers traded information on what they had discovered at the lab, and made plans to pilfer a few prizes from there the following day. Casimiro said he had a contact who would be able to look at the items and translate the medical and science jargon for them.
The next day, Casimiro mesmerized Dr. Strathmore, and sent her to work with instructions to download the data he sought to a flash drive he had planted on her, disguised as a comb, while that night Hank and his crew swiped a cryo cannister from the lab shop. The brothers met up again when the cleaning shift was over, and headed for the South Side of Chicago, to a smoky Jazz bar, where Casimiro said his contact would be waiting. Together, they approached a beautiful Asian female in her twenties.
“What do you want, Casimiro?” Donatella probed, side-eyeing her older half-brother.
“My dearest Sister, is that any way to greet your brothers?” Casimiro pouted in feigned offense.
Donatella raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, of course, darling jefe,” Casimiro came back coolly, gesturing to his partner in crime. “This is Wahanksica, or you might just as well call him Hank, as I do. He is just as much your other half-brother as he is mine.”
Casimiro leered as both Hank and Donatella looked each other over skeptically.
“Vittorio is really your father?” Hank gaped.
Donatella was baffled, but did not let it show. She was sure she could not know all of her father’s children. Hell, she only knew of Casimiro before tonight, and she was beginning to lose patience with both of these siblings.
“I’ll ask you again,” she repeated. “What is it you want?”
“We need help from father’s doctor to decipher some medical jargon,” Casimiro replied casually.
“This is quite serious,” Hank pronounced gravely. “This material could be detrimental to all vampire kind.”
“Fine, let’s go to his clinic and sort this out so I can be done with the both of you.”
Donatella wished she could simply say no to them but she knew better. At least at the clinic there would be a full complement of her father’s hand-picked guards.
Galen was not at the clinic when the trio arrived, but Dr. Hisakawa offered to take a look at the files and samples the brothers brought in. He said nothing to them about his findings, but asked Donatella to escort them to the conference room, while he called Galen to the clinic immediately. He had Galen meet the entire group in the conference room to go over the items.
“This can’t be right...” an astonished Galen muttered, looking over the data and shaking his head. “This is no good. No good at all,” he kept muttering, almost more to himself.
Those gathered around the table were all leaned forward intently. Galen suddenly became aware of multiple expectant gazes trained on him. He cleared his throat.
“If these files are correct... I’m going to call in some help,” Galen explained. “You all are just going to have to trust me on this... it’s for the best, especially since your father is not available at the moment.”
Wahanksica winced. Casimiro seethed.
“We certainly wouldn’t need him if he was,” the prince declared dryly.
“If you’re planning on calling who I think you are, then I shall make myself scarce,” Dr. Hisakawa informed Galen. “No need for him to be aware of my existence.”
And with that, the crystal skull floated out of the conference room.
Alden could not imagine what Dr. Argyris would want of him at this hour of night, but he’d said it was urgent. The doctor was well known by law enforcement within the city. He had performed almost every bionic implant wounded officers needed, so when he summoned Alden, the Guardian would not keep him waiting. Upon arrival at the clinic, he was directed to a conference room by the night staff on duty. There, he found Dr. Argyris standing in front of a projector screen, surrounded by three other individuals in the room, two males and one female. All three were unknown to Alden, but their features seemed familiar to him somehow.
“Guardian Duke,” Galen welcomed, crossing the room to shake Alden’s hand. “I’m glad you could make it,” the Doctor began, pulling out an open seat for their newest guest.
“I have come into some rather disturbing evidence that could be potentially dire, in relation to possible biological weapons being created here in the Cities.”
Alden gripped the back of a chair to steady himself.
“Bio weapons...” he spluttered, trying not to choke. “What laboratory?”
“Diluo Labratories in Cicero at South Laramie Avenue and West Pershing Road,” Casimiro spoke up in response.
“Who are your friends and what evidence do you have?” Alden demanded.
Alden really did not need this right now. Not in this political climate.
“Well the evidence is on these data files, and in this sample obtained from the lab by these individuals here,” Dr. Argyris answered, gesturing to the brothers. “Casimiro is an agent of the Mexican royals, and Wahanksica is an agent of the Ndakinnian government. They brought the materials to me.”
“Great, more spies!” Alden threw up his hands and shook his head at the young Doctor. “Galen, I just got done expelling Vittorio not only from the city but in fact from the whole dang country, because he was involved with spies.”
Alden was interrupted by a burst of laughter, as both Casimiro and Wahanksica collectively lost it.
“What the hell is so funny?”
The Guardian looked back and forth between the two men, who each paused for a moment to glance at one another, only to then begin laughing even harder. Alden looked to Galen, thumbing toward the howling pair.
“What’s gotten into these two?” he asked.
“The third attendant of this meeting, I’ve yet to introduce,” the Doctor began. “...is the head of hospital security here, Donatella Gagliardi... Perhaps you’re familiar with the name? She is Vittorio’s daughter, and the two spies are his sons.”
Alden’s jaw dropped. He could not believe the good Dr. Argyris was in league with Vampires, especially the likes of the bloodline of Vito Gagliardi.
“You have got to be kidding me!,” the Guardian gasped. “Vito’s kids! Really! And you expect me to help them??? Tell me, what is the nature of this sample you have?”
“A virus designed to kill Vampires...” the Doctor began, without getting far before Alden broke in with a giant snort of his own.
Galen felt as though things were beginning to go downhill from there. Alden guffawed, still bent over the chair, this time holding it to collect himself before speaking. The brothers glared.
“A virus to kill vampires...,” he roared, wiping his eyes. “...and you’re actually concerned about this???”
“The files on this drive contain plans for other viruses, as well,” Galen said sternly. “One each to wipe out mages, psychics, and therianthropes, respectively.”
Alden looked directly into Galen’s eyes. They were bionic, but human... no deception hidden within.
“Merlin’s beard, you’re serious,” Alden balked, startled. “Someone is actually planning on wiping out all magic users!”
The Guardian sank into the chair he’d been holding onto.
Clearly, this was no laughing matter.
“Not just mage kind,” Galen looked pallidly at the data on the projector screen. “There’s even a partial file with plans for a human virus, too.”
“Well, I guess we have no choice, then,” Alden sighed, all joking aside. “Looks like we have to take down this lab, and everyone in it.”
Alden tapped his fingers on the back of the chair. He had been feeling pretty good about getting Vittorio out of his city. But some part of him knew that feeling of satisfaction had been just too good to be true. Now he had the old gangster’s offspring to deal with, not to mention some maniac bent on mass destruction. Looks like the other shoe was about to drop, after all.
Of course, this year’s election was very contentious, and that created more than a few headaches, some not even all that minor. But, at least at the local and state levels, there have been no problems as a consequence of the results. Both the mayor of Chicago and the Governor of Illinois are progressive — all for broadening the rights of magic users. Nationally, though, the newly elected President and the recently overturned Senate and Congress majority are now conservative. And so far, it seems their primary agenda is going to be to put even more restrictions on magic users. Because rounding them all up into heavily guarded, de-militarized “Magic Zones” wasn’t enough??? Some have even discussed deporting them all to Ndakinna, Gallia, or Atlantis.
Things in the US have been getting steadily worse for magic users for some time now. Anti-magic user groups have been gaining in popularity, with the religious right ramping up a burgeoning anti-magic sentiment among the middle class human base, led by a smattering of churches preaching fear, hatred and bigotry against anyone associated with any type of magic, claiming all magic to be the work of the devil. The news playing into the right’s agenda, too — like puppets on a string — with continuous backhanded coverage highlighting crimes in which the perpetrators were alleged magic users, especially hard hitting on any cases in which violence was involved, also did not help any. But fear sells more papers than reassurance; panic drives up more broadcast ratings than a fair and balanced media. And in this environment, the trade of both is becoming entirely too much of hot ticket commodity. During the election cycle, this already volatile situation began heating to a boiling point as the right wingers stirred the pot, railing against the dangers of magic users in or near their communities, relentlessly hammering away at an already divided America, now being whipped into a frenzy.
Shortly after the election, Alden had been mobbed by reporters about the results, to which he had simply replied, as always — repeatedly — with his standard go-to political fallback, “No Comment,” hoping to leave it at that. However, “No Comment” doesn’t adequately convey his genuine reaction. In fact, no mere words could effectively express what he was feeling. He wanted to lash out at the ignorance of the President-elect with both barrels blazing. Alden knew better than that, though. He’s not a politician, and he had already gone on record before the polls closed, making his stance clear that he does not support most of the positions the incoming regime had campaigned on. So of course, the local correspondents wanted to get his reaction to the outcome. As if his feelings had changed? What could they have been expecting? Were they hoping to see him lose his cool and fly off the handle?
No, Alden could not be conned, he would not take the bait. No matter how much he wanted to rant and rave, he knew that would not help him feel any better, nor anyone else, for that matter. Instead, he kept his comments to himself, kept his cool. He knew what he had to do. If he was going to keep magical citizens protected in Chicago, he was going to have to step up his efforts. And, he was going to need to keep officers under him settled down, which he hoped wouldn’t prove to be too tall of an order.
The majority of badges in the psych squad were magic users, psychics, and therianthropes. There were only a handful of humans on the squad — all mostly good guys — but there were a few of them who agreed amongst themselves that mages are too dangerous... some even implying in whispers and hushed tones that they must all be stopped. Alden suspected none of those realized he recognized and understood their secret talks and inside signals, though just as well, he figured, as he was going to have to keep an eye on that group... a job easier done if they weren’t as diligent about keeping a lookout over their own shoulders.
Alden sighed to himself. There was no way of getting around it. This was going to be his new normal for the next few years. He only prayed conditions weren’t really on their way to getting as bad as Vittorio had predicted before he went off to Ndakinna with Chepi and the other agents. He hated to admit the Vampire might be right, but a few extra hundred years on the ground does tend to generate a keen insight for anyone with open eyes and half a brain... and say whatever else you wanted to about the old gangster, even Alden had to give it to that scoundrel — he was certainly no slouch in either department. In his heart, though, Alden knew it, too... as much as he wanted to hold out hope for the future, there was no use pretending anymore... the writing was already on the wall.
It occurred to the Guardian that perhaps this might have been the wrong time to have just sent away an individual with eyes and ears on the ground, ties to certain “dubious” elements, loyalty to magic users, a nearly unmatched power, and centuries of longevity... after all, it pays to know one’s history. Perhaps that set of skills could come in handy, and the one who wields them might be just exactly the type of ally which could prove to be most useful in what may very well turn out to be a long-running, and imminently looming oncoming battle. Perhaps, perhaps...
But Alden shook himself out of that daydream. He doesn’t have time to think about that now. There’s work to be done, and he’d best get to it.
When he was called, he and Estrella followed the nurse back to what looked like a typical doctor’s office, except for the crystal or glass skull on the counter, housing what appeared to be a fake brain, floating in some kind of purple liquid goo. After a few moments, a youngish-looking doctor — who was pulling off early to mid-thirties pretty well, if he was not — came in and greeted them both.
“Hi there, folks. I am Dr. Argyris, but you can call me Galen,” he offered, extending his hand to both Deandre and Estrella. “I see here that you were referred to me by Dr. Clarke... Is that correct?”
Clearing his throat, Deandre responded nervously.
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Alright then,” the doctor nodded. “How about you hop up on the exam table, and remove your shirt for me, if you would please?”
Galen patted the vinyl covered cushion of the reclining padded exam bench, smiling at his new “patient.” He always wondered what brought them to the point of requesting his services.
Deandre obediently climbed onto the examination apparatus — which could just as easily be described as table, chair, or counter, depending on how it was set up and being used — and slowly took off his shirt.
Galen surveyed his torso... there were no bruises or marks anywhere on it. He glanced again over the pictures that quack Clarke had sent over. They showed an entry wound in the T12, just below the 8th rib. The doctor got close to Deandre, nearly nose to nose, and stared his patient square in the eyes.
“Are you trying to scam me son?,” Galen demanded. “Because if you are, I’ll tell you right now, that’s a very bad idea, and not likely to turn out the way you want it to.”
“No sir, I am not!,” Deandre balked, holding up his hands and shaking his head in a show of innocence. “Those pictures you’re holding... that was me before the Doc worked on me.”
“The boy is not lying,” an elderly voice said suddenly, from out of nowhere.
Deandre and Estrella both jumped at the sound.
“You cannot see it, but he was magically healed,” the ethereal intonation continued, as if speaking to a rather dull student.
Galen rolled his eyes and sighed.
“Dr. Hisakawa, I do not believe I asked for your opinion,” Galen said, turning and addressing the crystal skull on shelf. “However, thank you for pointing out to me that magic was involved.”
And with that, Estrella jumped up and moved towards the door. It slammed shut in front of her, and she heard the sound of the lock’s bolt clicking into the chamber.
“No need to fear, my child,” the skull of Dr. Hisakawa assured her, speaking tenderly. “We mean you no harm.”
“The skull is correct,” Galen added, trying to mask the sound of his annoyance with the creature in the crystal. “We are here to help you. So please, Miss, just sit down...”
Galen delicately placed his hands on Estrella’s shoulders, gingerly maneuvering her into an about-face from the door, and presented his hand for assistance. She nodded slowly, still a little uncertain, but took his hand and returned to her seat across from Deandre, watching as he put his shirt back on with a reassuring smile to her.
“I will try to explain,” Dr. Argyris expounded.
“How can you explain something you yourself do not understand, boy,” Hisakawa chided from the skull.
Galen grit his teeth, but disregarded the unsolicited commentary.
“Hisakawa was once a powerful mystic, until he foolishly ran afoul of an even more powerful and somewhat temperamental vampire... now he is just a brain inside a crystal skull, with a disembodied spirit.”
The skull said nothing. Galen relaxed.
“Is he trapped inside there?” Estrella asked, with a haunting, lilted resonance.
“Yes, he is,” Galen replied, awed by the beauty of the sound emanating from the young woman. “I’m not really sure how... I have no magical abilities,” he blurted, shocked at his sudden added truthfulness.
“You are very impressive, child,” Dr. Hisakawa chuckled. “Are you the one who healed him?” he asked Estrella.
“Yes,” she answered to her feet, her cheeks flushed.
“I’m sorry, my dear,” Dr. Argyris interrupted. “But I am going to have to ask you to wait out in the reception area.” Galen’s timbre was cool, yet commanding.
“It’s okay, Doc,” Deandre piped up. “I don’t mind her being here for any of this.”
“Haha, my boy!,” Hisakawa snorted. “Galen does not enjoy being mesmerized! That’s why he got cybernetic implants, to protect his eyes from vampires. Of course, the joke on him of it is...” and here the skull had to pause to regain his composure before continuing, “...his bionic ears actually make him MORE susceptible to your girlfriend’s abilities!”
The discorporate doctor was enjoying himself so much, he seemed likely to choke from laughter. Galen, his eyes and lips squeezed together tightly, ignored the obvious baiting attempts, drawing in a long slow breath through his nose, while counting to himself internally. What he wouldn’t give to live in a world without magic, vampires, and mystics trapped in crystal skulls. He spoke instead directly to Estrella.
“That is not the reason,” Galen told her, more calmly than he felt. “I must ask Deandre some questions he might be unwilling to answer with you present.”
Deandre nodded, slowly, and gently took her hand in his.
“Maybe it is better if you leave me to them for just a bit,” he said softly, his eyes pleading. “It’s clear these guys know what they’re doing... I’m sure I’ll be in good hands.”
He felt terrible for asking her that, as he would never choose for her to feel set aside, and he worried that she would, but Deandre understood exactly why they were asking, and he knew it was for the best. Estrella furled her brows, a little taken aback by his request, but she figured he had his reasons, and decided to trust him. When she tried the door, she found it opened easily, so she turned and smiled as she left, blowing him a kiss on her way out.
Galen, trying not to seem too impatient, watched her walk out with a quick nod and a polite little wave, then turned to Deandre with a much more serious expression.
“Now, let’s get down to business, kid,” he began. “Why would you want to get cybernetics, and do you have any idea what the impact will be on the life you now know?”
Deandre cleared his throat.
“That girl that just left here...” he swallowed hard. “She’s very special to me. We’ve found ourselves trapped in a situation where cybernetic enhancements would help me to protect her without involving the use of her powers.”
Deandre spoke to the doctor directly, with a kind of clarity and confidence he’d not shown while Estrella was in the room. Galen began to see a clearer picture forming.
“Deandre...” he sighed, wearily rubbing his temples. “I’m a doctor, and this is going to sound strange coming from a doctor, but maybe you should just consider getting a gun.”
Same old story, he thought... boy meets girl, wants to protect girl, elects nuclear option.
Deandre vehemently shook his head.
“A gun isn’t going to cut it, Doc,” he rushed to state his case. “Some of the people after us have magic, and a gun won’t have any effect against that. Right now, the only real defense we have is Estrella’s vocals. And, quite honestly, I’m not even sure I would be able to handle a gun.”
“Tell us something, Deandre,” Hisakawa prodded. “Has she put you in a trance to contend with attackers?”
“Yes, actually,” Deandre admitted. “That’s how I got shot.”
When Galen heard this, his demeanor changed. He cocked his head and clucked his tongue.
“So she enchants you to fight off your attackers?”
Knowing firsthand about being a puppet for magic users, Galen no longer felt like dismissing the boy.
“Well, yeah...” Deandre scratched the back of his neck, his brow knit. “I mean it’s weird, really... I usually don’t even remember most of it, or if I do, it’s just snippets, like action scenes out of a movie.”
“Yes, the effects of a siren’s call can alter your memory, or even erase it,” Hisakawa articulated, coming across more scholarly now, with no hint of joking.
“The truth is, Deandre,” Galen jumped in, sympathetically. “I don’t actually know how to alter your ears to where a siren’s song would not affect you. I’m not sure anyone does. But, I will say, if we were to discover a way of dampening that effect, you might find you no longer feel it necessary to be around her.”
Deandre slammed his fist on the exam table with enough vigor that Galen jumped.
“No, it’s not like that!,” the young man insisted, forcefully. “Estrella’s powers didn’t enchant me into falling in love with her. I don’t even believe that’s possible. I fell in love with a provocative woman, who also happens to be a siren.”
Deandre looked off into some distant place not in the room with them, and took on a far-away tone.
“The world we come from...,” he murmured low. “It’s so ugly, you’ve no idea.”
Galen found himself nodding, involuntarily... he actually did have a pretty good idea. Deandre continued, almost more to himself.
“There’s not a lot of redemption in a place like that, but Estrella, she’s a genuinely good person... even better than she herself realizes.”
“Alright, I didn’t mean to offend you,” Galen resigned, then turned to the skull. “Hisakawa, do know of any way to nullify a siren’s power?”
“I might...,” Hisakawa droned gradually, with a note of concern. “I understand you’re sure about your feelings for her, Deandre...”
Deandre turned his attention to the crystal encased brain floating in purple goo.
“But do you think she feels the same way, or are you just a bodyguard to her?”
“I know she loves me,” Deandre defended. “When she healed me, she didn’t even know she was capable of doing it.”
“Do you fear her power?,” Galen probed.
“Yes!,” Galen confessed immediately. “I mean, sometimes...” he scratched the back of his neck again, his face twisted into knots.
“When she puts me in a trance, and I don’t know what I’m doing...” he squirmed a bit. “I mean, what if something were to go wrong, when I’m not in control... what if was to somehow be responsible for hurting her while in that state, or what if I just couldn’t save her???” his eyes drifted to that far-away place again, and he trailed off.
“That isn’t what I meant,” Galen mused. “But that does prove your love for her.”
“There is a way to mitigate those types of powers against you,” Hisakawa suggested. “...however it is dangerous, and perhaps beyond the limits of Dr. Argyris’ abilities.”
Hisakawa was never one to miss an opportunity to jab at his pupil. Galen grunted.
“Dr. Mamani can assist me if technomagic is necessary,” he retorted, sidestepping the thrown gauntlet.
Deandre groaned loudly at them both.
“I don’t care if her powers will still work on me...,” he ranted in exasperation. “...all I want to know is, will it make me the person she needs me to be when I’m under her spell?”
“We can get you what you’re wanting,” Hisakawa declared, a touch snidely. “But it won’t come cheap, boy. You can’t get something for nothing, you know.”
“I don’t care about the cost, either,” Deandre contended.
This wasn’t entirely true. The old sawbones had told them they could work off the cost of the procedure in trade, but, given their backgrounds, he did have some concerns about what they might be asked to do. He said nothing to that effect, though, as he had determined he would be prepared to do whatever was necessary... nothing would be too great a cost to ensure he could keep Estrella safe.
“Both you and Estrella will have to come here and work for us,” Hisakawa proclaimed. “...to help pay for the operation.”
“In case you forgot, Hisakawa,” Galen interrupted, frustrated. “I’M in charge here.”
Galen did not approve of innocents being manipulated in this way. Hisakawa cackled rudely.
“Oh, no, no, no, my boy...!,” he bandied. “Check your records, man. You are only the Chief Medical Officer, whereas Vito made ME the Director of the Center,” the discarnate old coot crowed.
Galen’s eyes rolled back into his head while his internal wifi jacked into the hospital’s central computer. When his search confirmed Hisakawa’s claim, and his face returned to normal, he scowled at the skull and marched out of the room in a huff, saying something about the operating room.
If Hisakawa had a face, it would have been gloating like a Cheshire cat.
Estrella’s talents would be put to good use here. Galen would get over his reluctance quickly when he realized what she was truly capable of, he was sure of it. Not to mention, hopefully this would help him win some points with Vittorio, and perhaps even earn some consideration with respect to his release from this nightmare of a prison.
They also weren’t sure what to do with the mage they had captured in the gunfight, now bound and gagged on the floor of the van. Thomas had taken off as soon as the shooting started, but neither Vito, Anezka, or Ondrej seemed too worried about it, nor even, for that matter, to care much at all.
Rhiannon was startled from her failed attempts at meditation as the uncomfortable silence was broken by a call to the driver’s cell. There were a few positive and negative grunts in response to the other end of the line, then he hung up, gave a heavy sigh, and turned over the van’s ignition.
“What are you doing?” Rhiannon exclaimed, alarmed by the jolt of the engine.
“Thomas just called me,” Ondrej growled. “Vito and the others got pinched. They’re in custody. I’m taking us back to Vito’s refuge to stand by for further orders.”
Rhiannon’s heart sank. Captured! This was certainly not part of the plan... she had no clue how to move forward from here. Having no clue was unfamiliar territory to Rhiannon, and there had been entirely too much of it going around of late for her taste. She hoped the fact her team members were with Vito would simply get them branded as common criminals, and perhaps they could be released through some back channels, or more likely, Vito’s army of high powered lawyers. She found herself surprised to realize she was actually grateful in that moment for Vito’s checkered past — more specifically, for the resources it opened up. She resigned herself to wait for news from his representatives and go from there.
“So, what, we’re just supposed to sit around with our thumbs in our tails while our people are incarcerated?” Chepi fumed.
“As of right now, there’s not much else we can do.”
Rhiannon hoped she was not going to have a problem with Chepi. Having never worked with her before, she had no idea what to expect from this mage in the event of unforeseen circumstances such as these. Ezra, at least, she could count on simply going along with whatever she came up with... there were some advantages to family connections. But Chepi was an unknown element, and this was hardly the time or place for any more unnecessary surprises.
“Fine,” Chepi grumbled, her arms folded over her chest. “You are point on this mission, I’ll follow your lead,” she pouted, reluctantly, then added... “But don’t think for a moment I’m happy about it.”
Rhiannon let out a slow breath of relief, and they continued on to Vito’s West Englewood hideout in silence.
They had been at Vito’s underground office for about 20 minutes when Ezra got a call.
“Um, Rhiannon...?” Ezra looked perplexed as he walked his phone over to his cousin. “I’ve got a call for you here...”
“Who is it?” Rhiannon questioned, puzzled over the look on Ezra’s face and the way he was acting.
“...Uncle Alden,” Ezra answered, with just the barest hint of sheepish hesitation.
Rhiannon’s glare reflected the intolerance she felt creeping up the back of her throat, but she kept her cool.
“We really do not have time for personal calls right now, Ezra.”
“I know that!,” her cousin asserted, indignant. “But... Vito, Fehed, and Tala are with him.”
“Oh, no.” Rhiannon’s face dropped. “Give me the phone,” she motioned quickly.
“I wish this was a social call, A leanbh*,” came the familiar voice on the line. “But I have a gangster in holding cell throwing your name around, and two therianthropes that won’t even say boo to me... any idea what this is all about?”
“Aye Uncail, I too wish it were a social call,” Rhiannon began. “Yes, unfortunately, I do know something about this... Vito is working with me, along with the other two... they are Ndakinnian agents.”
“Well then, I’m afraid we have a problem,” Alden drawled. “They were involved in a shootout in my district, and I can’t really sweep that under the rug, darlin’.”
The wheels in Rhiannon’s head were spinning.
“Well... we have a mage here we would be willing to trade,” she offered.
“One mage is not much of trade...” came the reply, after a long pause. “Do you think you can give me anything else?”
Alden re-lit a half-smoked cigar and waited for the response. Rhiannon had an idea, but she was going to have to rely on Vito’s people to make it work.
“I feel it would be better for us to meet in person, uncle...” she stalled. “Is it alright for me and my people to come to your offices?”
A few more details were exchanged to sort out the particulars before the call was wrapped up.
“Goodbye, Uncail...” Rhiannon declared as they were ringing off. “We’ll see you soon.”
Rhiannon hung up the phone and summoned Vito’s crew to her. Galen and Donatella came in with Ondrej and Anezka. Rhiannon inquired whether they might know of a way to help spring Vito and the others. Galen tried not to look smug, but couldn’t keep the smirk off his face as he made his confession to Rhiannon... Vito had been keeping patsies on hold to replace any of them if need be. For weeks, they’d been carrying out his plan, already in place, rounding up random street thugs the authorities would be happy to exchange for them. Laying it all out was the first time he felt the work had been any more than apish drudgery.
Rhiannon nodded, realizing Vito had been aware of her familial relationship before the mission started... perhaps even before they’d ever made an association of their own. She almost half-wondered if she should be concerned, but knowing nothing could be undone about it now, she dismissively determined it was better to have Vittorio Gagliardi working with her, rather than against her.
After some discussion, a plan of action was decided upon, and they left for Alden’s office.
Alden had set the meet at his personal offices instead of the psych squad headquarters. He had arranged for the latest round of prisoners to be transferred there, too. Too in-the-know to have fallen for Vittorio’s façade as the hapless, unwitting human in the wrong place at the wrong time, he had all three of them brought to him in collars, much to Vito’s dismay. The guardian parked behind his desk while they waited, scanning the lot. Tala and Fehed kept a wary eye on their captor. The vampire hunkered gloomily in handcuffs and collar, just staring blankly at the ground. It was such a departure from his generally pompous gangster demeanor, that Alden found — despite himself — he particularly took relish in the old man’s discomfort.
When Rhiannon showed up with her team and their detainee in tow, Alden noticed their prisoner was not wearing a collar, just cuffs, though he was sure they were magical cuffs. Rhiannon reacted with disgust and dismay at the collars around her colleague’s necks.
“I cannot believe you are using those horrid things on my allies!,” she balked.
“You must understand, A leanbh...” Alden clucked. “Procedures and precautions, my pet... I don’t know your friends, except, of course, for Vittorio, here, and regrettably, I know him all too well... so there was no way I wasn’t going to collar him.”
The guardian sat back in his chair and snapped his fingers. The collars rattled loose and came crashing to floor.
“Thank you Uncail,” Rhiannon exhaled. “Vito’s man, Galen, is bringing two others to stand in for Tala and Fehed — a couple of common criminals I imagine had already made your radar... I’m sure we’ll be more than happy to turn these goons over to your custody.”
She motioned for the mage they had taken prisoner at the warehouse. It was obvious he could not speak, and the sly sneer on Chepi’s face flaunted it was because of her that he could not.
“...and I figure this one can take Vito’s place,” she added, shoving the captive over toward her uncle.
Alden cut his eyes sideways at his niece.
“I’ll be glad to make a trade for these two,” he gestured at the therianthropes. “...since they are foreign agents, and I’d really rather not have to deal with that headache, but Vittorio is another story.”
Vito suddenly began chuckling quietly as he looked up from the floor. At first, it began low — a soft, hushed snicker, and then got louder, until he was outright laughing — a strange, maniacal sound, and the tones of his amusement filled the room, as the light returned to his eyes. Alden, startled, did a double-take at his hostage’s formerly submissive disposition. This was more like the vampire he was accustomed to. Instinctively, he rested a finger on his wand.
“For the same reason you are letting them go,” Vittorio crowed. “You will also be letting me go. After all, I, too, am a foreign agent working on behalf on Ndakinna.”
Rhiannon turned to look at Vito, and then at Chepi. But Chepi just shook her head and shrugged, looking baffled herself.
“Chepi, my dear, since my hands are cuffed, would you do me the favor?,” Vito entreated of his companion. “I will need you to take the chain from around my neck to verify my claim.”
He was still beaming. Chepi came forward and lifted the gold chain Vito was wearing on his neck and the lapis lazuli emblem hanging from it, then sucked in her breath.
“Vito is telling the truth,” she blurted, excitedly. “He IS an agent of Ndakinna... otherwise he would not have this!”
She held up the emblem he was wearing. Tala and Fehed’s jaws gaped when they saw it. Donatella grinned. Rhiannon raised an eyebrow. Alden pursed his lips and swore under his breath.
“Well, then... I guess we have a trade, and Vito is now your problem. I want him gone when you leave. He goes with you, understand?”
“Absolutely!” Rhiannon and Chepi responded in unison. The two of them began gathering their group together just as Galen brought the van up, and was coming in with his bounty.
The exchange was made quickly, and the gang could not get out of there fast enough.
“Detective Mason,” he relayed to his latest stooge. “You are going to contact the Guardian for the Southern district, and tell him you will be remanding to his custody two magic users, and a human who was helping them, as they have been involved in a gunfight. The others brought in with me are the magic users, and should be restrained with collars for transport. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand,” Detective Mason droned flatly, then got up and left to carry out the vampire’s orders.
Vito suspected Fehed and Tala would naturally be pretty upset about being collared, but he hoped they’d understand the gravity of the situation. Right now it could not be helped... it was the only possible way they were going to get out of this situation. He also hoped Alden was in good mood today.
Fehed and Tala could scarcely believe they’d been placed into restraining collars. The collars were developed in Europe to nullify the abilities of magic beings, which meant they could not transform with them on. Tala, the werewolf, stared daggers at Vittorio’s back. That slimy vampire ratted them out! Fehed, on the other hand — the were-panther — though unsure of Vittorio’s motives, was simply going along for now, hoping the vampire would not sell them out to save his own skin. Neither of them had worked with him before this mission, and up until being captured by local law enforcement, he had performed well and was extremely helpful, so far. When they got arrested, though, after the snatch-and-grab went sideways, he had told them to stay quiet and follow his lead, so they did. Now they were in custody, and being transported who-knows-where, and unable to use their abilities. Fehed thought to himself, at least the vampire is only in handcuffs, and can still use his powers.
Alden received a call from the 12th precinct. They had two magic users in custody responsible for a gun battle at a secluded warehouse in West Englewood outside the magic zone. They were being transported to the South Side Pysch squad precinct for processing and questioning. As the Guardian of South Side Chicago, he was the de facto Chief of the Southern Psych Squad.
Entering the precinct through the alley, Alden proceeded to interrogation room one, where the human prisoner was being held, and only took half a breath after seeing the perp before immediately covering his eyes with mirror shade sunglasses.
“Vito!,” Alden exclaimed. “Merlin’s beard, man, give me one good reason I shouldn’t throw a collar on your ass this very second!”
Alden glared at the vampire behind his shades with his wand hand ready to blast the old scoundrel.
“Alden!,” the vampire cheshired. “You look well, my good man! Please... let me explain.” Vito sheepishly raised his cuffed hands from the table in a pleading gesture.
“Drop the act, Vito,” Alden sat down across the table, keeping his hand in position.
“Ok, ok,” the ancient one’s tone admitted defeat. “I seem to have gotten myself mixed up in a bit of... international intrigue, as it were... accidentally of course,” he offered.
“Really,” Alden reacted, his face as expressionless as his expectations. “You don’t say. Do tell.”
The Guardian could hardly wait to see what Vito was cooking up to get out of hot water.
“Well it seems,” Vito leaned forward, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Your niece and nephew have dragged me in on a mission to recover a magic artifact for them.”
After he said this, the vampire sat up straight and grinned at Alden like the cat who ate the canary.
“Bastard,” Alden sighed, and, taking off the shades, he removed the cuffs from the vampire, whose intentions at this point were clearly not as malevolent as one might have thought.
“So... this is Gallian business, then, on American soil, and involving my niece and nephew,” the Guardian mused, his lips pursed. No longer fearing mesmerization, he scowled across the table.
“Just what do you expect me to do about it? Let you and the two in the holding cells walk, and write up a false report?” Alden queried, with no small tone of accusation, rubbing his tired temples. He felt a headache coming on.
“Exactly how did you get mixed up in this mess, anyways?”
“Trust me,” Vito winked back. “...the less you know, the better.”
“I have no idea what you and your niece are going to cook up to get us out of this, but I figure between the two of you, you’ll come up with something.”
Alden stewed in his office. He’d dispatched the psych squad members to round up any evidence left at the police station and bring it to him. He smoked a pipe and paced. His niece and nephew were on their way over with another spy, and two of Vito’s goons, as well as an unidentifed mage in tow. He knew Rhiannon and Ezra were involved in espionage for the Gallian government, but they were still family, and it wasn’t like he hadn’t occasionally asked favors of them in that capacity. The thing that really scorched his hide was how in the Sam Hell they’d somehow got involved with a gangster vampire low-life like Vittorio Gagliardi.
***These events take place directly after the events from In The Beginning from Season 9***
Not for the first time since he’d gotten the cryptic communiqué a few hours earlier, Alden had second thoughts about this late night reconnection with an old friend. This was not how he’d planned to be spending this evening, and he couldn’t imagine what this was about, but he hoped it would be quick. There was a toasty bed with a warm-bodied woman waiting in it for him back at home.
He ducked into the crudely named establishment, and was not the least bit surprised by the scene that greeted him. Cheap, mid-century décor busied itself trying hard to be something it was not. The booths were red pleather, with round faux-wood tables, most of which look like they’d been through a tractor pull. These were arranged along the back and left side wall. The right was taken up by the liquor counter, with bolted down stools lining along the warped wooden plank that passed for a bar, which quite possibly may have been a bowling lane in another life. In the center were several more of the cheap round tables with cheap looking red plastic chairs scattered at or nearly about them. At the front of the room was a long stage, currently unlit.
The clientele were by and large clad in leather and denim, with spikes and chains. There was no music playing, and the low hum of hushed conversation at the sparsely populated tables and booths, each with a healthy berth of emptiness around it, created just enough atmospheric fuzz to prevent eavesdropping. A few people eyed Alden casually, but looked away without taking any real notice. Alden nodded silently to himself. Unwittingly, he’d managed to dress the part... his long leather trench coat, wild red hair, tattered black jeans and plain black T-shirt letting him blend in without so much as a second glance.
He spotted Seth in a booth against the right wall and made his way there. He and Seth had been friends since childhood, and had since become family, when Alden wound up marrying Seth’s sister, Enora, who was a year younger than both of them. Seth had always been a troublemaker, and while Alden went into law enforcement, Seth had chosen a less-than-straight-and-narrow path for himself.
“Hey, Seth,” Alden mumbled grumpily, slumping down across from a fair-skinned man with a long black ponytail. Seth had a smirk on his face, and a twinkle in his deep blue eyes.
“Here, I took the liberty of ordering you your favorite drink,” Seth offered, passing over a honey-colored mug to his companion, and raising his own. “It’s mead,” he added uselessly, the twinkle brightening. “Let’s toast to Enora’s health, shall we?”
Alden swiped the outstretched tankard and reluctantly tapped at the beverage opposite him, the sound creating more of a clatter than a clink.
“Cut the crap, Seth,” Alden scowled, his brow furrowed. “You didn’t ask me here for drinks and reminiscing, we both know that. What kind of trouble are you in?”
“It pains me to know you believe I would only call you if I had a problem,” Seth pouted into his mead. “Truth be told, Al, WE have a problem. Or rather, your nephew has a problem, which is a problem for both of us,” he griped, holding Alden’s gaze with a stern look.
“What are you going on about, Seth?” Alden blustered with growing agitation. In truth, he wasn’t sure which nephew Seth was referring to... mentally flipping though his roll call of siblings’ kids and in-laws, it could have been any of them. “Has your son gotten mixed up in something?” Alden was certain Seth must have meant his own son.
“Blimey, no, ya daft git! I got Angus firmly under me thumb right now,” Seth snarfed back, letting his thick second-generation Irish brogue slip through, as it always did whenever he got his back up. “I mean Ezra, your brother’s lad. He’s gone and dug into something he shouldn’t have.”
Alden was thrown for a loop, and shook his head in consternation.
“How would you know anything about what Ezra is doing?” he challenged. “He shouldn’t even be on your radar at all.”
Alden’s voice had been rising with the turn of the conversation, and he checked himself as the alarm showed on Seth’s face. A quick peek around, though, told him he’d not yet drawn the attention of any other patrons. Seth glowered in response, his tone brought down to a sternly lower level, just above a harsh whisper.
“What I am or am not involved in should be the least of your worries right now, Al. Let’s just say I’ve come across information regarding your nephew from people who most definitely should not know anything about him or what he’s doing.”
At this news, the disposition of Alden’s countenance switched abruptly from the tension of indignation to the dismay of concern. Up until that point, Seth had been glaring, his face practically spitting defiance. Hostilities can rise quickly among the Irish — especially between brothers — but they’re often just as easily dismissed — especially between brothers. When he saw the distress he’d clearly caused, Seth softened, and continued, more gently this time.
“He was hacking into some Yakuza servers and they caught him at it,” he explained, pausing to let the weight of his revelation sink in before pressing further.
Alden had leaned forward to the edge of his seat, elbows on the table, hands clasped together, listening intently, his brow knotted. Seth caught himself wishing for a moment this was all just a practical joke, where he could then yell, “Psych!,” and they’d both have a good laugh about it, probably after one or both of them had been punched a couple times. Instead, though, he sighed heavily, and gulped down the last drop from his flagon before delivering the final blow.
“Al, they’ve prepared a hit squad to go after him.”
Already naturally pale, Alden went white as a ghost.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, man. I really am. But I figured you should know.”
“Ugh,” Alden grunted, studying the flickering flame of the tealight in the cheap plastic red candle holder at the middle of their table as if it was a million miles away.
The two sat together in silence for a moment. There was clearly more to discuss, but Seth was familiar with Al’s meticulous nature, and, understanding his friend’s need to measure the heft of this burden, he respected his space. Alden was the first to break the stillness.
“Seth, you’ve got to come with me back to my place,” Alden rushed, restraining a great sense of urgency. “We can go over everything there. Enora would love to see you.”
Alden did not want to delve too deeply into this situation in public. There were things about Ezra that needed to be kept under wraps, but, it seemed fate had determined it was time to let this side of the family in on them. Seth nodded, and stood up, grabbing his shillelagh and tucking it into his own leather trench coat, which he donned as the two headed for the door.
They both exited into the alley, headed towards Alden’s car, with Alden unlocking the vehicle from his key fob, the lights and alarm signal blinking and chirping back at him in response. As they approached, though, Alden noticed a rather large Asian man moving towards them from across the street at a swifter than casual pace. He reached for his retractable baton, which doubled as a magic rod. Seth caught the motion, and readied his cudgel for action. The large Asian man stepped in front of the pair, impeding their forward movement.
“I guess mentioning that I’m a Guardian isn’t going to matter much to you, is it?” Alden asked the giant, whom he now recognized from up close as a cyborg.
Instead of speaking, the Asian threw out his right hand with lightening speed, grasping Alden up by the throat, while his left just as quickly struck Seth with a sucker punch to the gut, knocking the wind out of him. With only a matter of seconds before the oxygen squeezed from his brain would black the world out, Alden fumbled and dropped his baton in favor of grabbing for his Colt .44 Peacemaker, which he managed to draw with the superhuman reflexes of a trained Guardian, and shot the Asian in the face. It was over almost as fast as it had begun. The cyborg’s head exploded in a brilliant eruption of blood and flashing circuitry. The hand around Alden’s neck loosened its grip, and he crumpled down on the concrete next to Seth.
Seth was heaving beside him, his back turned toward him. Still gasping for breath, Alden struggled to his knees and crawled to his brother-in-law, anxiously rolling him over, only to find Seth... laughing hysterically? Seth’s face was contorted, his eyes squeezed tight, tears streaming down his cheeks as his mouth was flung open wide, lips quivering, teeth bared, head thrown back, the air snorting through his nostrils, wheezing from his lungs, his body doubled over in convulsions. Alden groaned and rolled his eyes, picking up his baton, now extended to full staff length, and used it help himself up.
“Get a hold of yourself, man!” Alden scolded Seth.
Seth pulled himself to a sitting position, wiping his eyes.
“I’m sorry, bro,” he snickered. “It’s just...” he searched for the words... “I have missed this, man!” he exclaimed gleefully, jumping to his feet.
Alden shot him a look that could not be mistaken for anything but reproach.
“But, seriously, dude...” Seth declared matter-of-factly, dusting off his leather. “I think this could be trouble.”
“As usual, your powers of observation defy logic,” Alden carped, shaking his head as he booted the large Asian torso from the path of his car door. “Which reminds me,” he began, spinning around to face Seth. “Don’t think I didn’t notice the portal in the alley on my way to that gawdawful dump you chose for a hangout.”
Seth shrugged sheepishly, still grinning as he walked around to the passenger side.
“Ya caught me!” he confessed, opening the car door. “Guilty as charged. You gonna arrest me?”
Alden narrowed his eyes in an ornery squint.
“No,” he groused, dropping into the driver’s seat. “This is not the time or place for that, and, you’re still family, but ...” here he shook his finger at Seth as he slipped into the car next to him and closed the door behind him. “...when we get back to my place, you’re going to explain to me exactly how you got information from the Yakuza.”
“Aye, aye, Captain!” Seth declared with a wink and a salute, as he buckled his seatbelt. “Lead the way, brother — trouble had better look out for us!”
Alden realized in that moment just how long of a night it was really going to be after all, as he tried to think of what he was going to tell his wife, and started the car.
Vittorio held his breath in the drab office, taking mental stock of his compatriots’ reaction. This was a major step down from what they were all used to. It couldn’t be helped, though... Vito was starting a new chapter in his life; the others had no choice but to be dragged along with him. Ondrej, Anezka, Galen, and Donnatella had gone from a nice upscale 3-suite operation in The Gold Coast of Chicago to this... “modest” outfit in West Englewood — next to the Englewood Magic zone. The walls that cut off a magic zone from the rest of any major metropolis had a tendency to appeal to certain... elements, and were generally little more than unglorified slums. Chicago was certainly no exception.
Ondrej and Anezka weren’t terribly bothered by the downgrade... after all, they’d spent their formative years in Siberia. But Donnatella was not used to this at all. She’d been raised in the house Vito used to own, and with her mother’s family, they’d lived in the Azabu area in Tokyo. She was born into wealth and high society, and this was definitely nowhere near familiar territory. She wondered what her father could be thinking, but didn’t feel right about challenging him. A lifespan covering the better part of nearly three centuries earns one the right to a few... eccentricities. Why, he was even older than the birth of the nation, so naturally, he deserved a modicum of respect.
Galen, on the other hand, had no compunction about questioning the motives of the vampire.
“I know you could easily snuff me out without barley lifting a finger, and I’m aware your wisdom is far beyond my own...” he started off tentatively, then pressed on at a more rapid pace.
“But why did you give your office and business holdings to your brothers, and why are we here in the ghetto-right-next-to-the-magic-zone?” He did at least make a failed attempt to conceal the rising tone in his voice as his inquiry neared its finish.
Vittorio narrowed his eyes and slid into that impish smirk his associates knew all too well could just as easily mean sly satisfaction, or a sudden, gruesome fate.
“My dear boy,” he began, his voice low enough that anyone who cared to listen would have to lean in to hear, and then, looking up, he continued, raising his baritone to reach the rest of the room.
“All of you, listen up. We are getting out of the illegal activities business we’ve been party to, and we’re branching into a new enterprise.”
Vito leaned back in his chair, his hands open, his eyes lit in a somewhat bemused twinkle at the puzzled looks on the faces surrounding him.
In truth, Vito was tired of being a gangster, and longed to do something else... something... bigger. Let his more youthful brothers play at being underworld bosses. He remembered with fondness a time when he was younger, when he had to do real work, and struggle to get what he wanted. He somewhat missed those days, but what he really missed was having a purpose greater than himself.
When the Nations of Gallia, Ndakinna, and The United States were in their initial stages of development, Vito had been a spy for Gallia, his efforts proving to be instrumental in the formation of Ndakinna, and he’d helped the nascent United States break away from the British. Now, he looked around at the world, and saw things preparing to come apart at the seams again. He had served in WWI and WWII. The last thing he wanted was to fight in WWIII, or, worse yet, stand by and watch his daughter be drawn into it. No, it was time for a change. It was time for Vito to once again insert himself into the outcome of world events, and become not just a living representation of history, but an influence on making it. He had vast experience as a spy, and he intended to use it. It was the most he could do to thwart another world wide conflagration.
Vito had hung up his spurs at the end of WWII, when he’d become disgusted with the three North American nations. Gallia and Ndakinna had used the war as cover to sow the seeds of rebellion in the Caribbean, which lead to the rise of Atlantis, out of the revolts in the Caribbean of magic users ousting their colonial rulers and forcing the non-magic users of those nations into submission to their combined will. He was disgusted with the United States, too, as the country’s reaction to this hostile takeover at the edge of their borders was to take preemptive measures to ensure against the same kind of domestic terrorism, by placing their magic wielding citizens into “safe zones.” (Renamed “magic zones” in the sixties, because it sounded less inhospitable, and much more fantastical than it actually was. The worst part was, their example lead the world in the apparent appeal of establishing a fragile sense of “security” for the people by fearmongering, prejudicial propaganda, and bigotry, and unfortunately, most of the European Union soon followed suit.)
These politlely-labeled-internment-zones were surrounded by high walls with military personnel stationed outside to monitor outgoing and incoming traffic... primarily to catalog who was coming out, where they were going, and, most importantly, what they were going to be doing. The guards in the gate houses were always posted in business service uniforms instead of ACU (combat uniforms), so as to put the “citizens” of magic zones more at ease. The special IDs the internal inhabitants were required to show at any crossing points also had chips that could stun their bearers. Of course, most of them weren’t supposed to know that, in theory, but based on the general knowledge that there were plenty of folks who refused to carry their cards, and never left the magic zones — at least, not by the gates, anyway — obviously, it wasn’t a very well-kept secret. There was no way to stop portals from being created to the outside, and plenty of entry portals existed outside the magic zones, for those who knew how and where to find them.
And then there were the problems of the Middle East and the cold war. As if there weren’t already enough reasons for him to have turned his back on the civilization he’d helped to create. By then, Vito had determined instead to resign himself to building his fortune on the various illegal activities of his siblings, and to being content with thereby committing to becoming a “legitimate part of the family,” rather than remaining under the stigma of the stubborn black sheep for trying to “do good.” And, for a great long roaring era, business was good. Generation following generation, the US continued its descent into madness, while the family raked in the profits. But, if that had been enough for Vittorio, he’d have never walked away from it, and his daughter would never have known aught but all her heart could imagine to desire.
The writing had been on the wall for a while now, though, that something else had to be done. Vito had been trying to ignore it, but could do so no longer. The situation had become far too grave. It was time for him to drop this façade of apathy, and once again enter the fray. Hopefully, he’d make enough of a difference to stave off calamity. This was the first step. Close proximity to one of the magic zones would allow him to monitor unrest amongst its citizens. The next step would be more difficult, but, between his familiarity with undercover service, and thanks to having been an underworld boss, the path had already been paved for him, and the way would be smoother than if he’d have had to venture into completely unchartered territory. He had set up a pawn shop specializing in magic items. An underground passageway led from there into an apothecary in the magic zone, which he also funded. The proprietor of said apothecary was in actuality a spy for Gallia, whom he had helped to set up before he’d quit the game, and now he was waiting for his partner in counter-intelligence to arrive.
Drustan knocked on the secret door to Vito’s office furtively, hoping Vito was not there, that perhaps the summons had been in error. He could not possibly understand what the old vampire wanted. Right now was the worst possible time for this to be happening, too, as an artifact of great import was missing, and could affect the future of Gallia and other magic only nations. The door was opened by a rather large and quite muscular Neanderthal, whose presence made Drustan unable to recall his own name for a moment, and he shuddered as he shook himself to, realizing he was really going to have to deal with Vito after all.
“Drustan isn’t it?” Ondrej asked the old man standing on the other side of the door.
“Yes, that is me,” the little man managed to squeak out. “I am sorry, but... you are... Aristarkh, correct?” Drustan asked, raising his quivering hand in greeting to the Neanderthal.
“Ha ha! No,” the brutish man chuckled, the disarming smile belying his apish physique.
“I am Ondrej. Aristarkh is my father. Enter. Vito has been waiting for you,” Ondrej demanded gruffly, ushering Drustan into the drab office beneath the pawn shop with a pat on the back that was almost as much scoop-and-toss as escort.
Vito sat behind a large expensive mahogany desk that seemed out of place for a basement office. Though, to be fair, the two metal workstations cluttered with terminals and electronics were just as out of place, and the Human and the cyborg at each, respectively, made Drustan’s skin crawl. He harbored a healthy disdain for all things hi-tech, and the cyborg was as high tech as you could get. She looked human, of course, except for the gleaming chromed left arm covered with jacks and ports. Drustan uneasily sat down in front of Vito’s desk and tried to avoid making eye contact with the vampire, for fear of being mesmerized.
“Hello Vittorio. Whatever can a humble apothecary do for you today?” Drustan asked, intently studying a Tiffany table lamp, and trying as well as he was able to steady his voice as much as possible, considering the reality of addressing a vampire to whom he owed a sizeable favor.
“Drustan, my good man,” the ancient one clucked. “There’s no need to be so formal. We go way back, old fellow! Please, call me Vito,” the vampire cooed, in an attempt to sound reassuring.
“I just thought I should check in on you after all this time, seeing as how we’re neighbors now... You know, see how things have been going for you since last we met,” Vito went on, his hypnotic voice syrupy with a sing-song lilt, his heavy Italian accent slipping into his speech.
Drustan jolted suddenly, as with some force, Ondrej and Anezka abruptly placed two chairs on either side of Drustan’s, and sat down next to him, close enough for their hot breaths to raise the hairs on the back of his neck, which naturally threw Drustan off, as intended, and he made the mistake of looking directly into Vito’s eyes. He immediately felt his mental defenses starting to slip, and found himself unable to look away from Vito’s intense stare, the vampire’s piercing violet eyes boring into Drustan’s mind.
“Vito, Please. There is no need for this,” Drustan begged, weakly.
“Aah, but we both know that is a lie, my long time friend,” Vito’s tone was still sweet, but there was no question of its purpose now, nor of his resolve. “Now, tell me what it is you are trying to hide from me, old chap. Tell me everything.”
Vito’s smile revealed extending fangs. This time, Drustan didn’t hesitate.
“The Guan Li Ren Su was stolen en route to the Gallian Museum of Magic. It was going to be given in ceremony to the Chinese Ambassador, to help move along the talks for Gallia to use China’s Space station as a launch port for its mission to mars. That way, they would not have to rely on the US and give up who-knows-what in return.”
“Interesting,” the extortionist murmured nearly inaudibly in a low, gravelly tone.
Vito leaned forward on his desk and steepled his lengthy fingers, his eyes pushing further into Drustan’s subconscious, while the smaller man squirmed uncomfortably. Vittorio held Drustan in his gaze this way for a painfully long pause before sitting back and speaking swiftly.
“Tell your contacts I can help them locate this Guan Li Ren Su,” he commanded firmly to his newly reinstated minion, before swiveling his chair back toward the wall.
“You are dismissed, Drustan,” he added, with a wave of his jewel-encrusted hand behind him.
Vito leaned back in his chair. The mage got up from his seat with a dreamy grin on his face and shuffled off towards the secret door back to the apothecary. Vittorio sat for a moment lost in thought before spinning back around and standing abruptly, with a spring in his step, and a certainty he had not felt in decades. The vampire calmly relayed his directives, the smile never leaving his face.
“Galen, Anezka, find out everything you can about that theft. Ondrej, go upstairs and bring Thomas to me. He mentioned something about a rare artifact becoming recently available. If it turns out it is the Guan Li Ren Su, I want to ensure it does not go anywhere. Galen, you will be in charge of profoundly dissuading any other potential buyers, and my lovely daughter,” here he turned to beam down on Donatella. “You will keep an eye on our thieves. Make sure they go nowhere,” he emphasized, a playful twitch in his twisted, arched eyebrow.
“And so it begins,” he thought to himself.
Oh, how he had missed being in thick of things. This most assuredly beat out splitting time between the stagnant obligations of his social standing, and the suffocating sentence of an off-the-record office, doling out orders to underlings, manipulating the unsuspecting, or poring over books to discern who might be stealing, the monotony broken only occasionally by the incidental “disciplining” of some wayward soul. He could hardly wait to maneuver himself back into the chess match of international espionage.
“I have called you three here because an important artifact was stolen en route to Gallia,” Demothi announced formally.
Not knowing how to react, the team held their breath and waited. The Adagatiya then turned to the woman who had accompanied him to this gathering.
“This is Magister Noriko of the Mo Shu Academy,” he gestured. “She will inform you of the relevant details, namely, what the artifact looks like, and what its capabilities are.”
Magister Noriko made a gesture, and an illusory image appeared above the meeting room table. The image showed an obelisk, with one side made of jade, another of clear quartz, the third of ruby, and the fourth of sapphire, with a pyramid on the top made of amethyst. All the sides and the pyramid at the top had Chinese Kanji inscribed upon them.
“This is the Guan Li Ren Su, Keeper of the Elements,” she disclosed, crisply. “It has the ability to summon and control elementals. It had been contained within Mo Shu Academy, in our antiquities museum, for generations. It was being transported to the Gallian Museum of Magic when it was stolen.” Magister Noriko nodded to the collective, and sat down.
“The courier who was transporting the artifact was found dead at a motel near Adaligaduha,” Adagatiya Demothi presented further, stepping forward from where he’d been leaning against the rear wall. “He had been shot. Investigators with Adaligaduha police found that the man renting the hotel room had given a fake name and identity.”
The Adagatiya moved around the table as he spoke, stopping in front of the image, and surveying the room.
“It is believed that man involved is a U.S. Agent, and the artifact is now in the United States,” he told them. “The three of you will meet with two Agents of the Gallian intelligence Service, and cross the border into the U.S. to retrieve the artifact.”
Demothi leaned in, speaking with very clear pronunciation.
“This is about more than just a stolen artifact,” he stressed. “The artifact was being sent to Gallia to be presented to a Chinese Minister of Magic Official. It is going to be used to help forge a trade alliance with China.” Adagatiya Demothi handed Chepi a dossier.
“This artifact must be retrieved as soon as possible,” he stated directly to her, before moving toward the door and adding over his shoulder to the rest, “Dismissed.”
And with that, he and Magister Noriko departed. Tala and Fehed both looked at Chepi.
“Magic is your thing, not ours,” Tala noted, tapping her nails against the table. “So I guess that puts you in charge of this little op.”
Fehed looked annoyed. He hated going into the U.S. Chepi caught his glare and steeled her gaze, stifling the urge to roll her eyes, and doing her best to look sympathetic and sound understanding.
“Listen, Fehed,” Chepi murmured softly to her disgruntled teammate, attempting to ‘handle’ his dissatisfaction before it got out of control. “I know you don’t like stepping onto U.S. soil,” she pronounced carefully in anticipation, trying to stay ahead of the potential meltdown she suspected might be coming. “But you’re going to have to suck it up this time. This is important.”
“It’s not our problem,” Fehed huffed. “You heard the Adagatiya. Gallia needs the Artifact, not us. Ndakinnian agents shouldn’t be wasted on Gallian interest.”
“Oh, come on, Fehed! ,” Tala intercepted, shifting her gaze from Chepi to her brother-in-arms. “You know how close the relationship between our countries is,” she chided. “And our sovereignty might not even exist except for the efforts of Gallia!,” she urged gently, reminding him what he already knew full well, and better than most. Fehed sulked, pouting, but said nothing more. Tala patted his shoulder and gave him a smile. She figured that was probably the best they was going to get.
“The Dossier says we are to meet the Gallian agents at a Café in Big Eagle,” Chepi informed the pair as she closed the dossier. “One of the agents is an Elemental Mage – Rhiannon. The other is a Technomancer, named Ezra.”
“A Technomancer!,” Tala balked. “Why the heck do we need a Technomancer? They’re almost as bad as Americans!”
“If we have to go to America,” Fehed grumbled. “We have to take a Technomancer. Everything there is computer whirlygigs and electronic doohickeys.”
“Both of you, quit complaining, grab your gear and meet me at the train station,” Chepi grunted at them, then put the dossier under her arm and shuffled out of the meeting room.
On the magtrain from Adaligaduha to Big Eagle, Chepi passed out to Tala and Fehed their fabricated papers, along with summaries of their cover identities for them to review.
When they got to Big Eagle, the trio selected a corner booth with a view of the front of the Café, with Fehed on one side, Chepi and Tala on the other. A fair-skinned man and woman approached the main entrance from the parking lot. The Ndakinnians sized them up as they came in. The woman, a short-haired blonde, wore a green peasant dress, and the man — a freckled ginger with a close shave at the neck offset by bangs too long for his eyes — sported a khaki utility jacket and camo cargo pants.
“The two coming in must be the Agents,” Chepi pointed out, nodding towards the incoming odd couple, who were obviously of European descent. Fehed quirked an eyebrow at the pair, while Tala simply shook her head and let out a low whistle.
“Whoa, do they ever stand out,” Tala snorted.
The pair looked around the Café. Chepi made a hand signal, and the woman made a corresponding hand signal that confirmed their association. The Gallians moved towards the booth.
“I am Rhiannon, and this is Ezra,” the woman volunteered, gesturing to the man next to her.
“I am Chepi, and this is Tala and Fehed,” Chepi responded, indicating her companions.
Rhiannon bowed at them, and Ezra shook hands with Fehed, then nodded, almost blushing, at Tala and Chepi. Chepi and Fehed switched seats, Rhiannon sat next to Chepi, while Ezra grabbed a chair from an empty table.
“What will we be using for cover?,” Rhiannon queried.
“There’s a pro magic convention in Iowa,” Chepi answered. “Our covers indicate that we are a neo-druid group from California in town for the rally. Here are your papers.” Chepi handed Rhiannon and Ezra the documents prepared for them by the Agency.
“We will be staying at a hotel in Des Moines, with two adjoining rooms: Fehed and Ezra in one, you, me, and Tala in the other.” Chepi outlined. “Once at the hotel, I will try to see if I can locate the artifact through scrying.”
“I will help you,” Rhiannon offered. “Being an Elemental Mage, I have a closer affinity with this elemental artifact, naturally,” she explained. “I will also have Ezra set up his equipment and see if there is any chatter about it. We do have some contacts in the U.S. that we can rely upon as well.”
“Well it seems everything is in order,” Chepi agreed. “We should prepare to leave.” She indicated towards scooting out from the booth, and looked at the others to follow.
“What about weapons?” Tala questioned.
“We have a contact in the U.S. that can supply us with weapons if we need them,” Rhiannon submitted, with an apparent total lack of irony attached to the thought.
“If we need them?” Fehed gasped. Rhiannon cocked her head at him, genuinely confused.
“I thought you two were Therianthropes,” Rhiannon puzzled, looking quizzically from Fehed to Tala and back again.
“They are,” Chepi confirmed. “Tala is a were-wolf and Fehed is a were-panther.”
“Then what use do you have of weapons, beyond yourselves?” Rhiannon squinted at the werebeasts, trying not to seem amused.
“Well, a normal human is no issue,” Tala replied, with a disgusted look on her face. “But a cyborg or human with bionics?” she grimaced. “Those are another story... they are as strong as we are!”
“Maybe as strong as you are,” Fehed snickered. Tala glared at him. “But no, yeah, I agree, of course,” he tacked on, nodding vigorously, making a face at Tala.
“Taking out cyborgs and bionics is my job,” Ezra spoke up, peering at Tala and Fehed.
“Besides that ,” Rhiannon picked up. “I’m not sure about Chepi’s abilities, but my magic skills are way better than having a gun.” The Therianthropes couldn’t be sure, but they thought they caught the faintest hint of a gleam in her eye.
“At any rate,” Chepi jumped in, weary of the banter. “We are going to avoid as much violence as possible,” she declared, gravely. “This is a covert mission, not a combat mission.” She eyed her two companions in particular. “Let’s just get on the train and go from there. Once we get started, things will become a lot clearer what we need to do, and how it needs to be done.”
On the train, Rhiannon and Chepi sat apart from the others, discussing the mission.
“I know you may be used to being in charge of your group,” Rhiannon started. “But I hope you don’t mind if from here on out I take point.” She felt she might have to be delicate on this issue, and tried to seem concerned about any sensitivities Chepi may have had.
“After all,” Rhiannon expounded. “If things go badly, the fallout is going to be worse a lot for Gallia than it would be in Ndakinna.” She hoped she didn’t sound too patronizing.
“Fine, you take point, and I will make sure my team will fall in line,” Chepi nodded, disinterested in further discussion on the matter.
At the hotel, Ezra set up his equipment and jumped online right away, observing local magic group feeds to look for any bites on the artifact. He also checked in with local hacker contacts he maintained ongoing connections to from within the area. Fehed went into the adjoining room with the women.
“What are Tala and I supposed to do,” Fehed groused. “Sit here and twiddle our thumbs?”
“You can meet with our underworld contact if you would prefer,” Rhiannon proposed, looking up her phone directory. “I can set up a meeting.”
Tala and Fehed both blinked at Rhiannon, then looked to Chepi, who was engrossed at the table with the dossier, a handful of documents, and a map.
“Rhiannon is taking point on this mission,” Chepi acceded to her team, without looking up. “As you pointed out earlier, Fehed, it’s Gallia’s problem, not ours,” she added flatly, feeling their stares upon her, but refusing to return them.
“I guess you should setup the meeting for us, then,” Tala resigned. “We’re certainly not accomplishing anything here.”
Fehed just leaned back against the wall, saying nothing.
Rhiannon had given them an address and phrases to say to her contact. They were to meet the individual in the mall. Tala and Fehed were disgusted by this whole charade, but they kept in mind the seriousness of their mission. Being surrounded by humans — no, more than that, by Americans, even — was making them nervous. People had been gawking at both of them, even though they were dressed to blend into the crowd, wearing jeans and T-shirts. The masses appeared to be more suspicious of Tala than of Fehed.
“Why do you think these people are staring at me?” Tala sneered sideways to her compatriot, cautiously, keeping one eye on the throngs of vigilant observers.
“I’m sure most of them have never seen a native before,” Fehed surmised. “I suspect they’ve only ever seen pictures in books. They would look at Chepi the same way, I imagine.” He surveyed the curious cattle. “At least there are other black faces here, so I don’t stand out as much, but I do still stand out.”
A man in a stylish short sleeved shirt and dress pants approached them. His long dark hair was tied neatly into ponytail, and he wore dark glasses. He had an olive complexion, and when he spoke, it was with a slight Italian accent.
“Are you here for the pro magic rally?” He challenged them.
“Yes, we just came in from Kalamazoo,” Fehed fielded.
“Ever been to Devil’s Canyon?” the man returned.
“We honeymooned there three years ago,” Tala included. “We had the most spectacular time.”
“The name’s Vittorio,” their new counterpart introduced himself, robustly shaking both their hands with a hearty smile. “Vittorio Gagliardi. You know, Rhiannon could have simply told me the two of you were Therianthropes,” he sighed, shaking his head. “I abhor all that code phrase silliness.”
“How can you tell we are Therianthropes?” Fehed queried, quirking his brows at Vittorio.
“He doesn’t smell human, Fehed,” Tala gaped, staring in awe at Vittorio. “He looks human, but I’ve never smelled anything like him!”
“Ha!,” Vittorio’s already broad grin widened with a sound like it came from his belly. “You are correct, Wolf, I am not human, and I can smell the both of you just as well as you have detected me!” He winked at Tala. “We should be on our way to your hotel,” he focused, suddenly. “I have information for Rhiannon... I think I have tracked down the artifact.”
Back at the hotel, Vittorio strolled up to the suite with an air of smugness about him like an old cologne.
“I hope you haven’t finished unpacking,” he asserted to the room as he sauntered in. “I need you to pack up all your things and come with me. The artifact is in Chicago, and we need to hurry if we’re going to make it in time to get it back.”
Ezra seemed upset, but excused himself into the other room to start taking down his equipment. Fehed squeezed past Vittorio to help him.
“Do you trust him?” Chepi entreated of Rhiannon in a hushed tone.
“Yes, he is very reliable,” Rhiannon vouched, while packing her things. “He has assisted us on several missions.” Chepi reluctantly followed suit, and they all headed to Vittorio’s waiting SUV.
Arriving in Chicago, they stopped at what appeared to be a curio shop. Vittorio talked to the woman at the counter, who operated a control panel under the display case, which allowed them into a back room.
Waiting there, was a Native American gentleman of perhaps 50 or so. He greeted Vittorio with a hearty handshake and giant smile. At first, Chepi, Fehed, and Tala all seemed to relax.
“This is Thomas Storm Singer,” Vittorio revealed. “And he will be brokering the purchase of the artifact.”
“What do you mean by that, Vito,” Rhiannon hissed under her breath.
“The thief who stole the artifact is selling it to a Chinese Triad, and the only way to get our hands on the artifact is through Thomas here,” Vittorio told the group. “He set up the sale to the Triad Collective. We will be joining Thomas here to procure the artifact.” Rhiannon glared at him crossly.
“So glad you handled everything for us, Vito,” Rhiannon quipped.
“Here is the address for the meet. I will leave most of the planning up to you my dear,” Vito bowed to Rhiannon.
Rhiannon and Chepi drove a van supplied by Vittorio to the meeting place. The van was fully equipped with computers and weapons. Ezra hacked into the warehouse security system, using codes he received from Vittorio. One of Vittorio’s people – Anezka – was driving. Vittorio and another of his associates – Ondrej – would be acting as Thomas’s bodyguards. Fehed, Tala, Chepi, and Rhiannon would storm in to get the artifact, once the thief appeared.
“It appears as though the Triad guys are early,” Anezka informed the crew in the back of the van.
“Well, just keep eyes on them for us,” Rhiannon acknowledged. “You’re sure you can get us out of here quickly once this is done?” she asked the driver.
“Of course I can, dah-link!” Anezka verified, accentuating her Slavic accent with a wink and a smile. “I am more than just a pretty face, you know!”
“I’ve never seen a Neanderthal before,” Fehed whispered to the others, trying to make sure Anezka didn’t hear him.
“Vittorio prefers them to human bodyguards,” Rhiannon relayed. “They are tougher, and also, they have psychic abilities.” Fehed blushed, realizing that Anezka might have picked up on his thoughts.
“Do not worry, Panther Man,” Anezka reassured him with a laugh. “You have not offended me. I am delighted to finally get to see Therianthropes in the fur, so to speak.”
The SUV pulled up that carried Vittorio, Thomas, and Ondrej, Vito’s other bodyguard, and the team tensed, waiting for the signal to move in. Ezra watched the monitors. He had also hacked into the street cameras. Nothing happened for a while, and then, on one of the monitors, a man-shaped figure appeared from out of nowhere. He was carrying a backpack and wand.
“Crap, a wizard!” Ezra muttered, urgently.
Rhiannon and Chepi glanced at each other quickly. Rhiannon produced a wand of her own, while Chepi drew forth what appeared to be a heavy oaken staff, though, the way she wielded it, it might easily have weighed only a few ounces.
Tala transformed into her wolf-hybrid form, while Fehed morphed into a panther-man. Both were armed with semi-automatics. Anezka had an Uzi and some grenades with her, as well as a Battle Axe and a Claymore in the front seat.
Shortly after the man arrived, Vittorio gave them the signal, and they launched into action. Anezka lobbed two grenades in quick succession, one after the other, which blew the side door of the warehouse off its hinges, and laid down a smoke screen, allowing the strike force to move in rapidly and undetected.
In the confusion, Vittorio and Ondrej had subdued the wizard, while Thomas grabbed the artifact and ducked for cover. Fehed and Tala laid down cover fire in the direction of the Triad Members, to allow Thomas to move from his hiding place and towards the exit.
Chepi cast a cloud of darkness around the Triad, while Rhiannon erected a wall of fire between them and the strike force. Vittorio and Ondrej came hurtling out of the cloud, Vittorio with fangs bared, the unconscious sorcerer over his shoulder, and Ondrej close on his heels, firing a semi-automatic weapon behind them.
They were almost at the van when they heard two twin roars coming out of the smoke. Two Dragon Men emerged from the mist. One was Ruby Red, the other Emerald Green. They moved like lightning toward the group. Bullets bounced off of them like drops of rain hitting pavement.
Tala and Fehed, in their wild forms, tossed their guns aside and charged the Dragon Men. Anezka leapt out of the van, tossed the Battle Axe to Ondrej, and hefted the claymore with one hand, charging at the Dragon Men full boar, like a rhino after a predator.
Vittorio reached the van and tossed the inert magus in in the back, while Ezra helped Thomas in.
“Chepi, can you drive?” shouted Rhiannon.
“Sure!” Chepi called back, aiming a blast of energy at the Red Dragon Man.
“Great, get to the van and get it started!” Rhiannon barked, leveling a lightning bolt at the Green Dragon Man.
The Red Dragon had both Tala and Fehed pinned down, while the Green Dragon easily fought off the combined attack of Vittorio, Ondrej and Anezka without breaking a sweat. Fehed and Tala were knocked to the ground.
Rhiannon held her arms above her head and started chanting. The air around her crackled with electricity. A fireball appeared in her right hand, and a ball of ice in her left. She aimed her hands between the Dragon Men. Both fire and ice balls shot out of her hands on whirlwinds with strings of lightening circling them. The two balls collided together, forming a sphere of radiant light, and then split into two. Fehed and Tala, struggling to free themselves, realized their position kept them out of the line of fire, and stayed low.
Vittorio turned just in time to see the balls of energy speeding towards him and his guards. He grabbed Ondrej and Anezka by the scruff of their necks and all three vanished in a cloud of smoke, reappearing at the back of the van. Chepi jumped at the wheel, startled by seeing the three of them appear from out of nowhere.
Vittorio was gone in another puff of smoke and grabbed Fehed and Tala, rematerializing next to the SUV, at the same instant the balls of pure elemental energy Rhiannon summoned slammed into the Dragon Men, knocking them off their feet and blasting them through the wall of the warehouse.
Rhiannon closed her eyes, snapped her fingers, and appeared next to Chepi in the van. The sounds of emergency vehicles were ringing in the air all around them, and getting closer by the second.
“Drive!,” she hollered to Chepi, who immediately floored the van and sped them out of the area. Vittorio, along with the Therianthropes, sped off in the opposite direction, but apparently, not quite fast enough. A police SUV with blaring sirens and flashing lights came up behind Vittorio’s SUV and the loudspeaker ordered them to the shoulder.
“Pull over, now!” the voice that came through was stern, and little robotic.
Vittorio hesitantly pulled over, and eyeballed Tala and Fehed with a severe look that very plainly delivered, “Don’t do anything stupid.” The officers got out of the vehicle. They were both cyborgs. Tala’s heart sank, and Fehed’s gut wrenched. There would be no quick escape for them from this godforsaken country today.
LJI WEEK 27:
Additional stories from this world, in chronological order:
| In The Beginning | Escalation | Project X | The Woodshed |
| Meet the New Boss | Back To Reality | The Interview |
| The Turing Test | Ohm’s Law | Hero’s Anthem |
- Current Location:Omnis Terra
- Current Mood: accomplished
- Current Music:007 Theme
Ron arrived at almost the same time as Steve and Cathy.
“Hey guys, you have no idea how much I’ve been looking forward to this,” Ron said, high-fiving Steve, and giving Cathy a hug as they parked their vehicles in the circle drive around the side.
“So how bad of a mess do you think Greg made of himself last night?” Cathy put to the guys.
“What do you mean?” Ron frowned, puzzled.
“Greg didn’t respond to any calls last night or this morning,” Steve explained. He grabbed a few items from the trunk, and unburdened a bag from Cathy’s already heavy-laden arms. “We’ve been trying to reach him all day.”
Ron only had the one backpack, so he stood by while they got their carry-in sorted, patiently waiting to walk in with them.
“Our guess is, he’s half in the bag,” Cathy added, hitching her purse onto her shoulder and extending the handle for rolling her lugging before heading toward the cabin.
Ron had enjoyed the scenery on the drive up, and upon arrival, as he always did in this place, he’d busied himself with taking in the beauty around him; the animal noises in the forest, the variant shades of verdant greens, the vibrant hues of the flowers. There were a lot of things he didn’t like about being a city dweller; missing out on nature was one of them. He’d used all of his vacation time to come out here to the “wilds,” as Sophia called it. He wished he could get her to come with him, but she was a tried and true urbanite. Born and raised in the city, she never ventured past its borders, preferring to take her vacations within the limits and protection of the perimeter wall.
Ron had grown up outside the city on a successful farm run by his grandparents. He was five when they moved from the farm into the city. He remembered how excited his father had been to finally be getting off the farm. Some part of Ron wished he could’ve stayed behind with his grandparents.
He heard Cathy scream and ran to the front door of the cabin. Steve was just inside, cradling Cathy where she’d collapsed. She was crying hysterically.
Ron looked past them and there, in the open room, he saw that they’d found Greg, hanging from one of the rafters in the ceiling.
Ron’s stomach muscles convulsed into knots as he doubled over, braced his hands against his knees with his head between his legs, and breathed in deep, trying not to vomit or pass out. He heard a vehicle crunching on the dirt driveway.
“Hey, guys, we’re here – you can start the party now!” Nick shouted from the open window, honking the horn as they pulled up.
“Woo-hoo!” Debbie hollered after him, punching the air a few times to punctuate her lover’s statement.
The group heard the car doors slam, and the sound of their friends’ feet shuffling along the gravel walk to the cabin. Ron lifted his head, steadied himself against the door jam, and moved in towards Greg’s body. Steve gingerly walked Cathy to the nearest chair and helped her settle into it. He joined Ron as he moved hesitantly closer to the body of their friend. Behind them, they heard the screen door open and slam, and Debbie emitted a loud gasp, followed by her boyfriend.
“No, bro…...!” Nick exclaimed as he rushed up to where Steve and Ron were examining the scene.
“It looks like he came up here with plans to kill himself,” Ron sighed. There was an overturned kitchen chair beneath him, and in front of the coffee table, there were six shovels. Steve noticed a note poking out of his shirt pocket. He pulled it out and read it to the group:
“Dear Steve, Cathy, Ron, Sophia, Nick, and Debbie,
Things haven’t been going very well for me since I broke up with Claire. I know that some of you are going to say this is a little overboard isn’t it, and you’d be right, if that was all there was to it. But of course, she was only the last straw in a long line of disappointments, and in the end, I just couldn’t take any more. I was tired of the oppression of city life and the stress of being constantly monitored. I wanted to be able to come to the country and live out here (sorry about that – I should have said ‘stayed,’ but you guys know what I mean).
We have talked about this before... you remember, right? You know I want to be buried, not cremated, and I think this is the only way to get that done. I hacked into the security system and declared we would all be arriving here on the 23rd. You guys should all be coming in on the 22nd, like we planned, so the extra day will give you the time you’ll need to do what you gotta do without interruption. I provided the shovels and you all know where I want to be buried.
I apologize for putting a dampener on your getaway, but please be assured that this is what I wanted, and know that I’m grateful to you for your help. I hope you can still have a good time together this weekend. Be good to one another. Look after each other for me.
I love you all and I will miss you.
“Oh my God, he killed himself so that he could be buried?!” Cathy yelled, unsure of whether to be devastated or incensed, feeling some bizarre combination of both.
“It’s more than that,” Ron said, looking around the room. “It was a culmination of the oppression he was feeling... I feel it too... I think we all do... don’t we?”
“Please tell me you are not planning on copycatting him, Ron!” Debbie pounced on him, staring him down sternly.
“No, I wouldn’t think of it,” Ron asserted. “I’m just saying, this didn’t exactly come from out of nowhere.”
Then he picked up a handful of shovels and began passing them around.
“Nick, can you get the wheelbarrow from the shed so we can get him buried.” Nick disappeared out the door in a flash, the screen swinging behind him.
Ron cut down Greg’s body while Steve held it, and the two of them together lowered their deceased friend onto the couch. Nick came back in through the back door with the wheelbarrow, and the men loaded what remained of the man they’d known into it, then the group of 5 friends and a body headed out into the forest.
“Is this the spot?” Steve glanced around, unsure of his surroundings.
“No, the tree over there, at the edge of the meadow, right?” Ron said.
“Yes that’s the tree,” Cathy confirmed. “His ‘contemplation spot,’ — that’s what he calls it.”
“Called it,” she corrected herself, looking down at her feet.
They each took a shovel and started digging at the foot of the tree. They all knew why Greg wanted to be buried out here. He wanted to be a part of nature. He wanted a peaceful final resting place, something he could never have within the crowded confines of the inner city.
No one was ever allowed to be buried in the city. Everyone there was cremated. Ron, Greg and Steve had discovered when Ron’s parents died that requests to be buried outside the city were generally not honored.
When Ron’s father died, it was in his will that he should be buried on the farm. The services were to be held in the city so that his friends could come and wouldn’t have to bother with getting visas to travel out to the farm. His Aunts and Uncles had come into the city from the homestead.
Ron’s cousins hadn’t been to the city before, and were amazed at what they saw there. They had each told him how lucky he was. He was too polite to disagree, and he was pretty sure they wouldn’t understand, so he just nodded, and thanked them for their respects. Besides that, he was pretty sure whatever he’d have to say about the truth of city life wouldn’t go over that well with the monitors. How he envied his cousins their freedom.
He should have known when the family was not allowed to view the body that something was wrong.
It wasn’t until his mother died and someone in the coroner’s office got some wires crossed so that he was mailed his parents’ cremated remains that Ron even found out neither of them had been buried. Ron, Greg, and Steve had got special one-day passes so that they could bury the urns on the farm. They were all shocked when they got there and placed the urns in the mausoleum. It was lined with urns dating all the way back to more than 4 generations before Ron’s great-great-grandparents had even been born.
He and his friends had done a bit of covert research and found out that no one had been buried in the ground in more than 200 years. The official reason for the government moratorium on burial was due to the practice being perceived as archaic, unsanitary, and a waste of valuable land. The government held that doing so was an abuse of good real estate, better put to other uses, such as agriculture and building, and thereby outlawed interning of the dead.
Ron and the guys all knew that WWIII had been fought over global lack of resources and overcrowding. No one wanted to go for number 4. Only, Ron suspected there was more to it than the official story. He recalled from his boyhood days on the farm a conversation one of his great uncles had with his grandfather. The two of them had been talking together about an incident that had occurred when they were both children. Their grandfather had been buried on a family plot, and some sort of fight had broken out between the family and the city security forces. In the fallout, their grandfather’s remains had been destroyed.
Steve had been hired into a government position in the health offices and had gained access to certain archived history records that were no longer publicly accessible. What he found in his research was that some sort of worldwide pandemic had swept across the entire planet a couple of centuries prior. The germs had something to do with dead bodies, he told Ron, Greg, and Nick. They had discussed the ramifications, and they all collectively decided that they would be buried. As long as they were in good health when they passed, and buried beneath the water level, there shouldn’t be any concern over the spread of any disease from centuries past. What was more important was maintaining the human right to freedom of choice over the treatment of one’s own remains.
When the group finished burying Greg’s body, they said some words over the grave, and headed back to the cabin. They were all sitting around watching old DVDs of their trips up to the cabin with Greg — it was weird hearing his voice, but not seeing him... he’d usually been the one behind the camera.
They were all pretty lost in their own thoughts when there came a sudden knock at the cabin door. Debbie jumped, and Cathy screamed, startled. By that time, her nerves were shot. But they weren’t too flustered, and they were all able to calm down pretty quickly. They had been expecting this. They knew it would be the security forces there to check their visas.
“Sorry to disturb you folks on your vacation,” one of the agents at the door said. “But we have to check your visas... protocol, you understand.”
Each of the gathered friends in the group passed their visa to Steve, who’d answered the door, and he handed them over to the security agents. The agents never asked about Greg. The others supposed he would’ve hacked the records to indicate he wasn’t there... he was something of a wiz with that sort of thing, and they had all gotten beyond questioning what he could do anymore. After the agents left, they all sat around and reminisced over the times they’d had with Greg, telling stories and tall tales, with a lot of laughter, a few tears, and a fair bit of booze.
The next day was pretty uneventful. They rowed out on the lake and swam a little. The security forces stopped by in the afternoon, asking them questions about the farm up the road from the cabin. Some people had gone missing and they were afraid they might have drowned in the lake. The group said they hadn’t seen anything suspicious. They all decided to leave that night and head back to the city. Being at the lake now without Greg just didn’t feel right.
Five months later, Ron and Sofia were headed back up to the cabin in a truck they had taken from the city, loaded with weapons and supplies. They also had along a portable hard drive loaded with old medical and history records that Steve had procured before the end, and had turned over to them before his death. It turned out, there was good reason for cremating the dead — a truth long since lost to the public over the passage of time, the details concealed by a government bent on an autocratic commitment to control and maintain, and twisted by their own power.
Hidden from the light of day, forgotten from general knowledge, the reality was actively remembered only by those who kept up the old traditions of families that had made it through the original happening. The world had survived because of the process that had been put into place then, and had thrived because those procedures had been adhered to. But, like outmoded instincts of domesticated animals, at some point, those traditions just no longer seemed relevant anymore, and if no one can remember why a thing is done, eventually, someone might question the necessity of even doing it at all.
And that’s why some secrets should never be buried.
Greg had not stayed buried.
He rose, scratched and scraped his way out of the grave that had been dug for him in the afternoon of the day his friends had left him to his resting place close to nature, and attacked some farmhands walking in the forest, killing one of them and wounding the other one severely. The security forces never found the dead farmhand, even though they searched, but they did find the injured one. At least they thought he was only injured. But by the time they’d realized their mistake, it was already too late.
The truth was, there hadn’t been any World War III fought over dwindling global resources. Yes, there had been a fight over all the earth that had reduced her entire population to more manageable numbers, but it hadn’t been fought by man against man — it was an outbreak — a zombie outbreak. And now, it was happening yet again. They’d never found a cure — they’d just fire-bombed whole cities, and had sent in specialized clean-up crews afterwards to sort through the damage. The dregs of a vestigial government had stringently enforced a policy of cremating the dead to keep it from happening again, and — with a greatly decreased world populace whose proliferation hung in the balance — had continued to increase oversight and security measures as it grew. That had worked, for more than two centuries.
Until Ron and his companions had buried their friend Greg.
And, like a corpse that just won’t die, the zombie apocalypse had risen once more.
She was proud of their precision performance thus far, especially considering the reality that they could not be mistaken for anything akin to a military unit. Tala, Fehed, and Vittorio all had backgrounds with some sort of armed force services, but she did not, nor did Auley and Chepi. It felt like a form of validation for her little ragtag band of daredevils to have been selected to provide intelligence for the troops.
Rhiannon redirected her attention to the map they were reviewing together.
“Vittorio, do you have an idea where we should be focusing our search yet?” she asked the old man.
“We should be taking a hard look at Watsa,” he returned quickly. “It’s within functional proximity of a major railway, and strategically close enough to Sudan for them to receive reinforcements.”
“Chepi, do you have any intel regarding their movements?” Rhiannon asked her protégé.
“There are no outposts in Watsa,” Chepi replied. “It’s a heavily Islamic area. I think Vittorio is right — that would be an excellent jumping off point for the ‘Hand of God.’ ”
“We need to have recon done in that area first,” Rhiannon nodded, placing a push pin on the map, and circling Watsa. “I’m unwilling to send our troops to that location en masse.”
She radioed General Goredema and informed him of their plans to recon Watsa. He let her know he would be dispatching a Special Forces Unit to go with them.
On the way there, Fehed laughed and joked over the radio with the Special Forces Captain. They had served together on a UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia. Vittorio remained silent throughout most of the mission, only speaking to give reports. He had not been his usual flippant joking self for a long while now. Rhiannon and Chepi bantered a little bit, planning how to execute the recon mission.
Arriving 3 clicks outside of Watsa, they were met by two APCs loaded with Special Forces. Rhiannon determined the best course of action was to send Fehed in first, leading a group of soldiers from the East, with Captain Damu taking in another from the West, and their team would take along a few Special Forces soldiers to fill the half-track, and then head North. Fehed turned over the gunnery to Chepi, and disembarked from the half-track to meet up with the Captain so they could divvy up the two squadrons into three units.
The vehicles were situated South of the city, and Rhiannon would have them all move to within a mile of its borders to allow for Auley to work his magic in gathering any insights on their tech capabilities. Fehed got his team together quickly, and took off in that direction.
Captain Damu radioed her after the briefing.
“Lady Rhiannon, our forces are ready to move upon your command,” he told her.
Vittorio broke in on their tête-à-tête.
“I’ll take lead of the soldiers that remain behind with us,” he offered. “I am sure Tala doesn’t need my help driving, and I have more military experience than anyone here.”
It was hard to argue with the immortal. After all, during his career as a soldier, he had served in Asian and African theaters, as well as both world wars. Rhiannon had no choice but to acquiesce to his suggestion.
“All right,” she grunted, begrudgingly. “Just no actions until I approve, okay?” But her words caught his back as he had already hopped out the door to usher in the elite team of Special Forces assigned to their vehicle.
“Hey, Beautiful!” Auley hollered back at her from the terminal, snapping her attention to the interior. “We need to call our guys back now!”
“Okay, one, tell me why the hell am I making that call,” she shot back, and then added, in a lowered hiss, “...and, two, I told you about flirting with me while we’re on duty!”
“I’m picking up cybernetic signatures all over the city — at least twenty.” Auley informed her, and then followed up with a wink in her direction. “I was just trying to get yer attention,” he smiled.
Chepi called down to him from her position on the machine gun.
“Cybernetics?” she exclaimed. “How is that even possible? They aren’t supposed to have that kind of support in this territory!”
Rhiannon was not thrilled with this development.
“Right now our main focus is getting our people back here and getting a report to General Goredema,” she answered. She stewed in solitude as they headed to meet the General.
If the Hand of God had cyborgs, it meant they were being backed back by a government with wealth. She knew the Sudanese couldn’t afford cybernetic soldiers, which meant her team was going to have to look into this further to figure out who was behind their funding.
Once back with the main force, Rhiannon supplied an update to General Goredema and his Officers.
“Cyborgs?” Lieutenant Bititi questioned. “How did they get their hands on cyborgs?”
Sergeant Jabali, a man of action, stood up and addressed the room.
“The real question is,” he paused, looking around at each of those gathered. “What are we going to DO about it!” he pounded the table to emphasize “do,” leaving a fist print in the metal top.
Rhiannon cleared her throat.
“Give us Captain Damu and one of the Special Forces units,” she offered the group. “We’ll take care of the cyborgs. The rest of you can focus on the standard troops.”
“I am entrusting you with the lives of my soldiers,” General Goredema acknowledged. “We will attack at dawn.”
After the debriefing, Rhiannon and Chepi walked back to the com truck in silence. Chepi knew better than to question the team leader when Rhiannon was in deep thought.
“You’re sure you can do this?” Rhiannon asked Auley, pulling him quietly aside before they reached the vehicle.
“Of course I can!” he huffed. “You know, I have been doing this for a while now, kiddo! And as much as you may have that powerful mystic hocus-pocus down, you can bet that sweet behind of yours I’ve got all yer technomancing needs in the bag, luv.”
“I wasn’t intending to wound your pride, husband,” Rhiannon retorted, cutting her eyes crossways at him, but then added, softening, “I just want to be sure. There are a lot of lives at stake here.”
Auley stroked her face.
“Don’t worry about me, shug,” he assured her. “You just make sure that between those Special Forces guys and your team that someone is responsible for keeping those buggers off me, and I should be able to handle it, no sweat.” He was already programming his armband, setting up the viruses he would need to shut down the cyborgs in the charging center. During his hack of the cyborg command center, he had uncovered the plan to attack a train station the following day. The enemy only had one final cycle before the oncoming raid to get all their cybernetic units up to full power in preparation for the attack. This offered the teams the perfect window of opportunity. If they were going to get this insurgence put down, it was now or never.
Fehed and Captain Damu lead the unit that would be taking Auley in to hit the charging center. Except for Auley, the entire group was made up of Therianthropes... mostly large cats — lions, jaguars, cheetahs, and ocelots. In order to minimize detection, they crept through the city streets as silently as possible in cat form, with catlike stealth, vision, and senses. The other werebeasts of the SFU were comprised of a were-owl, a jackal, and a couple of hyenas, so every one of them was accustomed to stalking prey at night. This first wave of strike force was so large in anticipation of the strength they might need to counter the power of the cyborgs if there were any from among their number that might not be charging at strike time, though that wasn’t expected to be a large number.
The second strike group was made up of mages and psychics, lead by Vittorio. Their job was to create a diversion within the city so that the other team could commit all their energy into taking out the cyborgs.
Rhiannon, Chepi and Tala remained just outside the boundary in the getaway ride — an APC outfitted with an EMP cannon, in case things got hairy with the cyborgs. Rhiannon stayed on the trigger in communication with both units, with Tala at the wheel, and Chepi at the ready with a fully charged magic staff, eager to blast any enemy soldiers that came near.
The Therianthrope group rendezvoused at an abandoned warehouse converted into a charging center for the cybernetic soldiers, and descended upon it with full force. They took out the human soldiers with ease, while Auley plugged into the charging unit and uploaded the virus components to the charging cyborgs. Machine gun shots rang out in the warehouse. It seemed three of the units had not been charging.
“Get Down, Stay down, Don’t move!” Auley screamed at the beast force, who promptly scattered in a variety of directions. He placed his right hand firmly against the charging alcoves, and aimed his left at the oncoming cyborgs, channeling a massive bolt of static charged lightning from his outstretched arm. The cyborgs seized into instant convulsions, then fell flat.
“Damn!” Fehed shouted to Damu from behind the rack of servers where they’d both ducked for cover at Auley’s command. “I didn’t know technomancers were capable of that!”
The Therianthropes got to their feet and collected themselves, counted casualties and assessed injuries, then headed out to the extraction point. Fehed and Damu had to carry Auley between them, as the large Celt was worn out from generating the large blast.
On the other side of town, Vittorio and his crew were having a ball terrorizing the militants who had overrun the city. Using little more than the power of illusions and mind altering suggestion, they had created mass hysteria, transforming the locals and the occupation alike into a writhing throng of teeming, widespread panic. As soon Vittorio he received the all-clear radio signal from Rhiannon, that entire lot pulled up stakes and headed toward the extraction point to join the rest of their team, leaving a of cluster confusion in their wake.
Once the entire mission complement had converged again, they all loaded up into the APC and headed out of the city just in time to see General Goredema’s troops marching upon it.
LJI WEEK 25:
Additional stories from this world, in chronological order:
| In The Beginning | Escalation | Project X | The Woodshed |
| Meet the New Boss | Back To Reality | The Interview |
| The Turing Test | Ohm’s Law | Hero’s Anthem |
- Current Location:Omnis Terra