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Boomerrang

Besariòn looked at the controls again this could not be right, according to the controls they were back where they started. The maneuver he just pulled off should have placed them in the Remlaud System instead they were still sitting at the edge of the Penault system in exactly the same place they had started. He rechecked his calculations and could not figure out what he had done wrong. 


“Well this star field looks familiar.” Joia said a hint of irritation in her voice. 


“I don't know what happened.” Besariòn replied. 


“let me see your calculations.” Joia said taking the tablet from Besariòn.


She looked over his calculations on the tablet and frowned. They were off not by a little but a lot not only that but parts of it didn't make any sense at all. She saved the calculations on the tablet to reference them later and started inputting a new calculation. Once she finished she had Besariòn enter it into the computer and execute the command. 15 minutes later they were on the edge of the Remlaud system. 


“I have no clue how you came up with the calculations that you did, but I saved them on the tablet to show them back at headquarters.” Joia said to Besariòn as she maneuvered the ship through the asteroid belt. 


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Beating Around the Bush

Since recent events revealed Vittorio as a supposed Ndakinnian agent, Chepi was only too happy to transfer custody of their disgruntled travel companion over to command central, certain if he really was working for Intelligence, it had probably been a coon’s age since he’d reported in.  Once they’d relieved themselves of that burden, she and the rest of the team headed to NIA headquarters.  With everyone having so much on their minds, for a variety of reasons, it had been a long trip from the states, and no one had done much talking.  By the time they arrived at their home base, Chepi felt it was probably finally safe to address the elephant in the room, as she busied herself about her case reporting paperwork.

       “I just can’t imagine being collared... ” she clucked sympathetically to Fehed and Tala, shaking her head in disbelief. “It must have been absolutely dreadful for the both of you.”

           “I don’t want to talk about it,” Fehed scowled as he dropped his duffle onto his desk, yanked open his locker, and began rifling through its contents.

                 “I might tell you about it later,” Tala sighed, sliding down low into her workstation to stretch out the kinks in her neck.

       Hey, I know how to distract you from all this craziness!,” Chepi blurted, excitedly.  “We have a week of downtime before we’re due for another assignment, so... what are your plans???”

           “I’m gonna go hang out with some army buddies,” Fehed announced gruffly without looking up from loading the bulk of his gear into his overstuffed rucksack.

You’d have thought he was preparing for a violent mission, but Chepi knew her best soldier too well to challenge him.  For Fehed, this was how he relaxed.  And, it was probably exactly what he needed to blow off the steam built up from the past few days.


                 “Well, I have no plans, Chepi,” Tala answered, intrigued.  “What are you up to?”

The werewolf grabbed her jacket and stood, ready for action.


       After being stuck in the U.S., I’m looking forwarded to getting out into nature,” Chepi declared, as she shut down her terminal.  “You’re welcome to join me, if you wish.”

                 “Oh, that sounds perfect,” Tala replied gleefully, donning her wrap just as Fehed, full pack flung over his back, reached the door.

The trio locked the office behind them, and parted ways for their respective versions of R&R.



Chepi and Tala headed out to Cuyuna *Makobaspe Park, in the province of Minnesota.  Both were happy to be away from the turmoil of Chicago, and hoped they wouldn’t be tasked with returning there for quite a while.  They set up camp on the southern shore of Blackhoof Lake, and spent the afternoon fishing from a canoe.   When they’d caught their fill, just before dusk, they rowed back, where Chepi cleaned their catch, while Tala collected firewood from the forest.

*(Mah-koh-BAH-spay)  Ndakinnian term denoting geographical territory:
                                 can mean township, precinct, or province, but is most closely related to “State.”


       So...”  Chepi began tentatively, getting a modest cooking fire going.  “...tell me about the collar?  What was it like?”

Recalling the experience brought a wave of nausea over Tala, and she cringed at the memory.

                     “It was horrible!  When I tried to change into my wolfen form, I felt sick to my stomach, had severe body aches, and got a massive headache.”


       “Ugh!,” Chepi winced.  “That sounds miserable!”

Chepi carefully set the cleaned fish in a pan to cook over the fire.


   “I’ll be honest,” she confessed.  “...that’s one experience I hope I never have to share in common with you.”

                 “I can’t say I blame you,” Tala muttered quietly, losing her gaze somewhere far away in the flames of the fire.  “I can’t say I ever care to repeat it.”

The two sat in silence for a spell, listening to the crackle of the fire, the introductory notes of the evening’s first timid crickets, the waves lapping at the lake’s edge, and taking in the peace of their surroundings while the fish crisped up to a tender golden glow, as its tantalizing aroma warmed their spirits.  Tala leaned back on her elbows, burying her toes in the sand next to the fire, and could feel the chaos of urbanity oozing from her pores like toxin.  In time, she was the first to resume the conversation.

                     “I have a question for you as well, Chepi,” Tala started with a crooked eyebrow at her colleague, who was poking at the fire with a stick, sparks rising up in the heated air above it like kamikaze flies.

                     “Me and Fehed were both special forces in the military... how did you wind up in the NIA?”

       “Actually, that is a weird story,” Chepi mused, removing the pan from the fire.  “I was working on a summer internship in my senior year of college when I was recruited.”


                 “Really?”  Tala questioned.  “An internship?  Doing what?”

She retrieved a couple of tin plates from her back pack, and passed them both to Chepi.


   “I was the assistant to an Antiquarian who specialized in magical antiques.” Chepi said sheepishly, scuffing at the leaves at her feet.

                 “Actually,” Tala pondered for a moment.  “That sounds pretty interesting... what’s the rest of the story?”

   “Well compared to what you and Fehed did before the NIA it seems kind of silly,” Chepi demurred, as she plated the fish, and handed one over to Tala.  “I did get to travel a lot, though... that was fun.”

Tala took a quick bite of fish, then instantly began fanning her half-open mouth, as it was still campfire hot, and she nearly lost the piece back onto her plate, but was determined not to.  Chepi couldn’t help but chuckle at the predicament.  Trying to recover, Tala spoke with her mouth half full, in an attempt to draw cool air in.

                 “Where did you get to travel to?” she managed, sloppily.

Chepi decided to give Tala a break from holding up her end of polite dinner discourse.  She’d seen Tala eat before.  “Wolfing it down” was an apt metaphor.  She prepared to spin the whole tale to anticipate any potential questions all at once.


   “Well, I was apprentice to a regal woman of African descent named Alemayehu.  The first place we traveled to was Gallia . . .


       . . . In Gallia, we stopped at multiple antique shops, and met with several different private owners.  It was the first time in my life I had seen so many white faces.  Our paths crossed from time to time with other natives scattered here and there, but they were few and far between.  There were some Asians, too, but hardly any Africans.  Next, we headed to Nieraeden, which was a real culture shock for me, as there were no natives or Africans there at all, and only a small smattering of Asians.  It was also my first time in Europe...  I was fascinated to see the medieval castles and all the old world architecture there, and I really enjoyed leaning about a different culture.
             
       . . . Next, we traveled to one of my favorite nations, to visit Atlantis.  It is a true melting pot of cultures.  The Islands there are hosts to peoples from all over the world.  They have developed a mixed culture of their own, and a form of magic that is not practiced anywhere else.  I made sure to pick up a magic book from one of the local antique apothecaries.
             
       . . . What I hadn’t known was that Alemayehu was a spy, and the entire time we were globe-trotting on our adventure of antique artifacts, she was actually gathering and passing information.  The reason she had apparently selected me as her apprentice is because she had seen that I had taken combat mage training, and if push came to shove, she would need someone to act as a bodyguard.  There were only a few incidents when I actually had to put those skills to use. 
             
       . . . The worst case was in Asudere.  I was unfamiliar with Arabic culture, and something I did offended a local merchant.  Next thing I knew, we were cornered in an alley by two CIA agents, one with cybernetic implants.  I had never dealt with a cyborg before and had no idea what to do.  I used one of the spells from the Atlantian spell book and that worked.  It caused enough of a distraction for us to escape.  After that, she recruited me Ndakinnian Intelligence, and, I guess, the rest, as they say, is history. 


                 “Whoa!”  Tala exclaimed.

This time, the piece of fish in her mouth did drop from her bottom lip onto her plate, out of surprised reaction, where it bounced off her fork and landed on the log she using as a sitting stool.  Chepi completely lost herself, and howled with laughter, holding her plate in one hand, her side with the other.  Tala nudged her in the arm until she tumbled backwards, fish flying everywhere.

                     “That sounds way more exciting than you first made it out to be!” Tala griped.


   “I suppose it might be,” Chepi retorted breathlessly, still giggling.  “I just figured a special forces combat vet would it find it dull and mundane.”

Chepi nudged Tala back, and they both surveyed the pescetarian carnage in the dirt at their feet, before both started laughing again.

       “Looks like we’re gonna need to cook up some more fish!,” Chepi hollered, wiping away tears of amusement.

Tala shook her head and stood up, as they both began picking up the mess, then Tala headed towards the inlet streaming off the lake to rinse the plates.

                     “I just can’t take you anywhere!” she winked over her shoulder before turning.

Chepi stoked the fire to a warming blaze as the last of the sunlight blinked out over the horizon.  She closed her eyes and breathed in the serenity of the woods.  They had been needing this.  When it comes right down to it, wherever they come from, wherever they go, in the end, the tranquil embrace of nature is where all Ndakinnians truly belong.  It was good to be home.

Notice

Drustan begrudgingly traversed the labyrinth of tunnels beneath his Apothecary heading to Vito’s subterranean headquarters, annoyed at being summoned for a meeting.  He noticed a sign above the entrance to Vito’s offices and was sure it had not been there before.  Since he’d arrived before the others, he made a quick check of each entrance to the command post.  Sure enough, the same sign had been placed at all of them.

       “If this is his idea of a farce, it’s in poor taste,” Drustan grumbled to himself.

In the main conference room, a circular oak table had replaced the long rectangular mahogany conference which had been there previously.

       “Oh joy...  How very Camelot...”  Drustan thought to himself, finding his placard and taking his seat.  “I suppose he thinks he’s being quaint.”

The others filed in shortly: Galen, with Dr. Hisakawa floating beside him; Anezka, hand-in-hand with her husband, Ondrej; Donatella, then Jamar, and lastly, Seth strolled in.  They all seated themselves, and made small talk, no one mentioning the signs above the portals.  Vito failed to appear either in person or on the wall screen for more than fifteen minutes into the scheduled meeting time.

       “Well, fine, then, since obviously, no one else is going to ask...” Drustan began, leaning back in his chair and looking around the table at the gathered attendees. “...does anyone have any clue what this meeting is all about?”

No one answered.   Everyone just sort of sheepishly eyed one another across the table, desperately searching for some sign, and then quickly glanced away, no one being willing to openly admit they all had no clue why any of them were there.  Drustan sighed.  It was going to be one of those types of meetings.  Vittorio had a habit of toying with his pawns, making them all sit around twiddling their thumbs and then showing up after an indeterminable period of awkwardness, or even at times, not at all, with just a message delivered to the room instead by some hapless flunky.  Drustan rubbed his temples.  He really did not need this right now.

During Thomas’ absence, Drustan had been running both his own apothecary, as well as the Pawn Shop, ever since Thomas left to accompany Vito on his excursion to survey his enterprise in Ndakinna.  He’d been trying to maintain them both, while still performing his duties as an emissary for Gallia.  The assistants he’d hired from the private sector — those who were not spies — were hopelessly inefficient.  As for managing the spies, he was starting to feel like a damn bureau chief.  He had two undercovers from Ndakinna who’d been reporting to Thomas now reporting to him, and now Gallia had assigned three operatives under him as well.  The Aztec empire had placed a mole in the pawnshop, and he also had two agents from Atlantis to deal with.  He hoped Vito would show up soon.  There was way too much work to be done to sit around here wasting time.

       “In light of the situation, I’m guessing the new signs on all the entries are apropos,” Drustan said aloud to no one in particular, leaning to the left with his hand on his chin.

               “Signs?” Galen looked confused.  “What signs?”

Hisakawa floated out of the room and returned after a few minutes.

               “Very interesting... there are signs at all the entryways,” he announced as he floated back into the meeting room.

                     “What kind of signs?” Ondrej asked, fidgeting.  He didn’t dare leave his spot.  After all, Vito could show up at any moment.

                     “What do they say?” Donatella queried.  She hadn’t noticed any sign when she came in, but she hadn’t been looking for one either.

               “Go see for yourself,” Hisakawa laughed, his coffer bouncing with the motion.

No one moved.  Every one of them turned to Drustan.  They all knew no answers would be forthcoming from the crystal skull.  Drustan’s exasperated exhale was audibly pronounced to everyone in the room.

       “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” Drustan disclosed dryly in his cultured English voice.

Galen shook his head and dramatically planted a disheartened face palm.

               “Obviously a childish joke,” he groaned.  “Hisakawa, are you responsible for this?  Vittorio would never stoop so low.”

               “Oh please!  A joke of this type is beneath me,” Hisakawa balked, as he raised himself hotly near to the ceiling, then cackled all the way back down, coming to rest on the table next to Galen.

       “Well it wasn’t me,” Drustan offered, sitting up straight in his chair.

                     “Obviously it wasn’t you,” Ondrej guffawed.  “Your sense of humor died in the last world war!”

                     “And it’s clearly too highbrow for Ondrej to have done it,” Anezka retorted, jabbing her mate in the ribs.

                     “Seth, this seems like just the sort of thing you would do,” Donatella glared at Seth.

                     “Oh please darlin’,” he smirked back in a hefty layer of his occasional Celtic brogue.  “I’ve been busy runnin’ interference wit’ Alden an’ simply haven’t the time.”

Jamar spoke up timidly.

                     “Um, I don’t mean to be dense here...” he started, haltingly.  “...but, what... does it even mean?”

                     “Ugh!” Donatella shook her head in disgust at Jamar. “I cannot believe Father put you in charge of street operations!”

       “My dear boy,” Drustan answered, looking himself somewhat skeptically at the young man Vito had chosen to be his street boss.  “...it is the very self-same inscription found on the signs above the Gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, the introductory segment of his classic epic, the Divine Comedy.”

                     “Oh.”

Jamar made an attempt to look as if he felt informed by this response.  He did not.

And with that, the rapid fires of heat exchanged on the new signage warning of impending doom had seemed to drain the energy from the room.  No one said anything for several minutes, as the meeting participants sat around, preoccupied with not looking one another in the eye.  Eventually, someone got up to get a drink from the bar, and someone else followed suit, and soon a low murmur of tentative small talk resumed, which Drustan found to be torturous and wearisome.

They all lingered there like that for nearly an hour.  Then suddenly, without warning, half the guests were nearly jolted from their seats, when there came abruptly a loud thunder clap, as a black cloud with lightning bolts emanating from it appeared in the meeting room threshold.  Thomas stepped out of the cloud, carrying several folders.

                            “Vittorio wanted to make sure no one sat at the head of the table in his absence, so he had this round one made and delivered,” Thomas explained as he handed out the folders.

                            “The signs were my idea, Ha!,” he crowed with a lighthearted wink, clearly more amused with his prank than his compatriots were.  “Hope you guys haven’t been waiting too long.”

And, as quickly as he had arrived, he sauntered back to the entrance and teleported away in another electrified puff of blackened smoke.

On the front of the folders was a post-it note that simply read:

                             Orders from Vito
                                       You  are  now Free  to  go.

Drustan rose from his seat with a flourish, as a gnarled ashwood staff appeared in his hand.

       “Enough of this nonsense!” he bellowed, casting an eye around the room, a menacing shadow overtaking his countenance.

       “I’m sure we all have better things to do...”

Unsure of his next move, one or two of them winced when he raised the staff above his head.

       “Lanuae Magicae!” he thundered, and in an instant, he was back in his apothecary, while everyone else had been whisked back to their respective places of business, or wherever else they’d come from.

He drew in a deep breath, leaned his staff against the wall in the corner of his office, and silently swore to himself, when next he saw Thomas, they were going to have a very long, very serious tête-á-tête.

Power Transfer

Palos, SPAIN.

Edgardo Gagliardi plodded slowly towards the docks with his eldest son close at his side.  Hoping to rebuild his family’s fortunes in the New World, he should have been full of excitement at the start of this great new enterprise, but his heart was heavy.  After gathering his children and fleeing from his enemies in Italy, he’d used the remainder of his fortune to charter a ship and supplies for the journey, with plans on never returning to Europe.

He and his son Vittorio were headed to check on the status of her provisions before assembling the rest of the family for the voyage.  When they reached the docks, Vittorio gaped in awe at the galleon waiting at port for their inspection.  The seacraft was more beautiful than any other in the harbor.  Though flying the flag of Spain, she was of Italian design.


Galleon.jpg

    “Her name is the Floriana,” Edgardo told his son as they neared the vessel.

               “After mother?” Vito whispered, looking up at his father.

    “Yes...”  Edgardo murmured in response, not lifting his wistful gaze from the boat.  “Seems only fitting, don’t you think?”

Vito reflected for a moment in quiet contemplation.  Fitting, indeed.  His mother had sacrificed her life to help get her children out of Italy.  Edgardo moved towards the gangplank, with Vito following his father aboard.

On deck, the crew was busying itself preparing for launch, with a bombastic Captain loudly barking out orders.  The Captain was a plump, finely dressed Spaniard.  Spying what he took for a pair of interlopers, he began an angry tromp in their direction, until he recognized his patron, and immediately changed his countenance to a more convivial approach.


                     “Aah, Señor Gagliardi!” he called out heartily with outstretched palms as he neared the Italian duo, grabbing Edgardo by both arms and planting a kiss on each cheek as he reached them. 

                     “How are you, my good sir,” Captain Vicente De Leon Escarrá proffered, with a deep, formal bow to his visitors.  “...and who is this fine young gentleman with you?”

    “Capitano Escarrá, this is my eldest son, Vittorio,” Edgardo replied, holding his son about the shoulders, with a slight nod of his head to the Captain.  “He has come with me to review preparations.”

                     “I hope the two of you are satisfied with your purchase,” The Captain puffed out his chest as he gestured grandly across the deck.

                     “I am most pleased you have chosen me to lead this voyage,” he added, taking Vittorio’s elbow with intent to lead the way to the storage hold.  “This will be my second crossing of the great sea.”

    “Thank you Capitano,” Edgardo broke in, taking Vito by the other elbow and pulling him loose from the Captain’s grasp.  “My son and I will take it from here... I am sure you still have much to do with the crew and ship.”

The Captain smiled and bowed his head, then took leave with a flourish of his tam.


               “Why did you choose him, father?” Vito inquired as soon as the Captain was out of earshot.

    “Because of his inclusion, the Spanish court is covering half our expenses,” Edgardo answered flatly, passing Vittorio a logbook.

Their task complete, the Galgliardis headed back ashore to round up the rest of the family.  Edgardo took in the sight of his children before him with mixed emotion, wishing his wife were here with them.  His daughters looked much like Floriana.  Amarantha, who was seventeen, looked most like her, while Isabella was only six, but shared many of her mother’s features.  With his sons, there was a difference.  Vittorio, nineteen, was the spitting image of his father, while Ovidio, sixteen, looked like a male version of his mother.  The twins, Ferdinando and Frederico, eleven, shared features of both their mother and father.

With his children and a handful of remaining servants aboard, they set sail, traveling for a fortnight before a planned stop off at the Azores.  Edgardo and Captain Escarrá went ashore together to tend to ship business, leaving Vittorio and first mate Gervasio Da Costa in charge of the vessel.  Vito’s siblings, with exception of Ovidio, who had been acting as the cabin boy, had remained below decks with the servants for the first part of the journey, and according to their father’s wishes, were to remain there throughout the family’s migration.

               “What can you tell me about the new world?” Vittorio asked Gervasio, looking over the ship rail.

                     “It is a beautiful land, full of jungles and amazing peoples,” Gervasio proclaimed, beaming.  “On the mainland, far to the west, there is an empire lead by vampires, known as the Aztec.”

               “Vampires?”  Vittorio raised an eyebrow at the first mate.  “That must be a truly frightful place.”

                     “Vito,” Gervasio chuckled in response, turning to face the patron’s son.  “I am a servant of your father’s, and have been for quite some time.  I know all about your family.”  The first mate looked him dead in the eye.

               “You’re a vampire as well!” Vito gasped in shock.  There would be no mesmerizing this man.

                     “Indeed,” Gervasio’s hushed tone was intense and excited.  “...and I have vowed to bring your father’s family to the Aztec kingdom.  Once we get there, we will all be made nobles of the land!”

               “So, that is the plan...” Vittorio mused, as he turned back to watching the docks.  “I do not believe our Captain will go along with that.”

                     “Your brother Ovidio is taking care of the Capitán,” Gervasio disclosed conspiratorially.  “It will be up to you and I, Vittorio, to handle the rest of the crew.”

               “I see...” Vito muttered, leaning in closer to avoid being overheard.  “...are we to crew the ship ourselves, then, or run with a skeleton crew of those who do not mutiny against us?”

                     “Right now, even as we speak,” Gervasio beamed.  “Your father is purchasing another crew right under the Capitán’s nose.”

_______________

Edgardo and Captain Escarrá met with a hawk-nosed Italian merchant named Cipriano Falco, at a dock side bar, with adobe walls and wide open porticoes and windows on the second level facing the docks.  The ambience of subtropical breezes coming off the ocean and balmy weather had a relaxing effect on the demeanor of the meeting.  Falco bowed to both men, and led them to a table on the first floor, where they ordered a meager meal over which to discuss business.


               “The supplies you ordered arrived just before you did,” Cipriano informed Edgardo, eating a slice of apple between his thumb and the knife he cut it with.  “I can have the ship moved next to yours in the dock to make the loading easier.”

       “Capitano,” Edgardo asked of Escarrá, swishing his cup of red wine.  “...Would that be the best way, logistically, to have things done?”

Captain Escarrá stabbed a morsel of duck with his fork.


                     “Where is the ship currently docked?” he questioned the merchant.

               “At Santa Cruz Das Flores,” Cipriano informed, after a swig of wine.

                     “Then we shall move our ship there, as that is the most westward isle,” Capitan Escarrá declared with some authority, and then, standing up from the table, he added, “We should go now and make use of this favorable wind.”

The Italian men got up and left with him.  Together, they took the Floriana from the Southern tip of the island to the Northern port at Santa Cruz Das Flores, where they docked alongside a merchant vessel they had had been directed to by Falco.  Once there, three men boarded; an Arab, an African, and a large blond Norseman.


               “Capitano Escarrá, Señor Gagliardi,” Cipriano heralded, motioning to the new sailors he'd brought along.  “May I introduce you to my assistants.  This is Dhi’b Abdur-Rahman, of Tangiers, Alemayehu, from East Africa, and Andrés Leifsson, from Iceland.”

The assistants bowed to the captain and Edgardo.

After introductions, the crew loaded new supplies from the merchant vessel onto the Floriana.  Beyond the supplies, there came three coffles of slaves; one made up of Africans, another of Neanderthals, and the third of Europeans.  At this last embarking, Captain Escarrá balked.


                     Señor!,” the Captain harrumphed dramatically at the sight of the white faces in chains.  “I understand the need of slaves in the New World, but European stock, that is too much, sir!”

Edgardo brought himself to his full height, staring the Captain directly in the eyes with some intensity.  When he spoke, his voice was cool, and terse.


       “I would remind the good Capitano that this is my ship, and what I purchase is of no concern of his.”

Captain Escarrá demurred, and wandered off, mumbling to himself.  Some of the crew also seemed disturbed by the cargo being brought aboard.  This did not go unnoticed by Edgardo, who made a hand signal known to his sons and Gervasio.  The four of them made their way cautiously and unobserved to Edgardo’s cabin.  At his quarters, the voyage’s patron spoke carefully to his associates, tapping the hilt of his sword.


       “Ovidio, my boy, the time has come,” Edgardo held the face of his secondborn son in his hands.  “I want you to mesmerize the Capitano.  You can do this, my son, I have faith in you.

He then turned his attention to the other two.


       “Vittorio and Gervasio, keep the crew in line until we disembark.”

They all bowed to Edgardo and left his cabin.  Cipriano slid in after they left.


       “Have the weapon supplies been stocked near the new crew, as instructed?”  Edgardo asked his trusted aide.

               “Yes, your lordship, they have,” Falco nodded with a bow.  “Do you want me to have Andrés and Dhi’b uncuff them, and prepare to take the ship?” Cipriano hissed eagerly, rubbing his hands together.

       “Yes.  Have them prepare the men and send Alemayehu to protect my other children.  Then join him after my orders are carried out.”

That night Edgardo invited the Captain to join him in his personal cabin for dinner.

_______________

The next morning, Edgardo informed the original crew that Escarrá and many of their mates had either taken ill or deserted in the night, and that Gervasio would henceforth be Captain.  The remaining crew, now surrounded by pirates they had taken for slaves the day before, naturally capitulated without a fight.  Edgardo watched the indolent accedence from the prow, distractedly rubbing the locket of his beloved as it dangled around his neck, and found himself grateful for the malleable disposition of seafaring mercenaries.  A sly smile spread across the elder Gagliardi’s face.  This part of his plan had gone off without a hitch.  With a kiss of the locket, and an unspoken tender tribute to his lost Floriana, Edgardo hoped the rest of his family’s new adventure would fare as smoothly once reaching the Islands of the New World.

Chicago Blues

Dejhan wandered through the house he had shared with his grandmother in a wistful sense of amazement.  He had been surprised to find that not only was it still standing, but she’d left it in his name.  Nana had died while he was going through the Academy as part of his rehabilitation for the armed robbery he’d been busted for.  He had not known then that she’d paid off the house and willed it to him.  And yet, here it was, just as he remembered it.

As he cleared cobwebs from corners and wiped clean layers of grime from fixed surfaces, he began carefully taking the dust covers off the old furniture, each with its own new story to tell hidden underneath.  Such memories!  He missed his Nana Ayotunde.  When he’d received word she’d passed, he’d been racked with grief for weeks.  He hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye.  He was shocked when Alden told him the house was his, handing over the keys and deed at the same time, while dispatching his first solo assignment.  It was hard to know how to respond.  An essential passage of history was closed from him and gone forever, but now a new chapter was just beginning, and at this point, it felt fairly crucial to his future.

The street gangs in Chicago had been acting strangely lately.  The turf wars had ceased, known informants had started disappearing, and undercover police were being assaulted in gang areas.  Dejhan, having been in the Wyverns, was tasked with going undercover to find out what was up.  His records had been altered to show he’d spent the entire five years of his sentence in prison, instead of in Psy-Squad Academy.  He tried to look up some of his old crewmates, in the hopes of getting hooked back in with the old gang, and was greatly distressed to discover all but three were dead.  Jamar, his old gang leader, seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth, and the other two had apparently left criminal life altogether.  He was going to meet them at a discotheque in the magic zone that night.

Dejhan spent his time until then making sure his motorcycle was in working order.  It had been stored in Nana’s garage during his absence, so he was going to need to look over every system to get it cleaned up.  He walked a mile to the station to get gas and oil for it.  When he finally got it started up, that old familiar hum warmed his heart, as he tried not to dwell on everything hed lost since coming back here.  At dusk, he headed out towards the Illusions nightclub.  Watching the dynamic tapestry of twilight, the backdrop of the Chicago skyline transforming from its normal bluish tint to rich, deep, orange and purple hues as he zoomed ever closer, he realized just how much he’d missed this city.

Arriving at Illusions, he found out how the place came by its name when he walked in and was immediately assaulted with clouds of colored smoke and illusions of dragons, ogres and other fantastical creatures as a panoramic atmosphere, creating a disorienting haze.  Frustrated, Dejhan quickly passed his fingers in the symbol of the eye of Horus over his forehead, thus opening his third eye and dispelling the illusions.  As soon as he did, he spotted Deandre and Estrella in a circular booth against the wall and strode over to them.

       “Hey there!”  Dejhan greeted them with a wave as he approached.  “I wasn’t sure you guys would want to deal with a deadbeat ex-con such as myself,” he grinned, a touch sheepishly.

Dejhan slid into the booth next to Estrella and across from Deandre.

      
       Of course we want to see you!” Deandre sprang forward to shake his hand.

              “We would never turn our backs on an old friend,” Estrella added, as she offered a shake to Dejhan, who took her fingers in his palm and gently kissed the back of her hand while flagging down a waitress with his opposite finger.

       “Do you have any Fire Meade?” he asked the server.


Yeah, honey, we sure do!” the waitress responded with a wink.  “For you, sugar, it’s three bucks.”

Dejhan handed over a 5-spot without thinking and looked back at his old friends.  He hated having to lie to them so as not to blow his cover.

       “So, what have the two of you been up to since the Wyverns have apparently gone extinct,” Dejhan probed, choking back the sour taste in his mouth.

               “Jamar didn’t become a better planner after you were locked up,” Deandre began.  “His poor decision making led to the deaths of the others, and it almost cost us our lives as well.”

Here he stopped, his face clouded over, and sipped from his drink.  Estrella picked up another strand of the story from there.


          “Fortunately for us,” she smiled, taking her beau by the hand.  “We found our way to the Pergamon Health Clinic, and now we are finally free of Jamar’s mistakes.”

Dejhan sighed.  These are his friends.  They aren’t criminals.  They’re good people.

       “I can’t do this,” he shook his head, looking down at the table.  “I am not going to lie to either of you.”

Estrella reached for his hand and patted it sympathetically.  Deandre knit his brow, concerned.

               “What’s wrong, buddy?,” Deandre asked.

       “I’m working undercover for the Psy-Squad,” Dejhan confessed.

Estrella slowly withdrew her hand from his, suddenly preoccupied with the state of her glass.  Dejhan met Deandre’s eyes.  Relieved to find no judgment there, he continued.

       “I was supposed to inject myself back into the Chicago gang scene to find out what’s happening on the streets.”  Dejhan drained his glass.

Deandre nodded.

               “I’m glad you’re being truthful with us, but, what are you going to do now?” Deandre asked.

He scanned over Dejhan’s shoulder and pointed to the table, holding up three fingers in a gesture to the waitress for more drinks.  Estrella suddenly perked up, as if startled.

               “Oh!” she exclaimed.  “If you’re trying to find out what’s up with the street gangs, there may be a way I can help you!”

She was circling the top of her glass with a finger, almost absentmindedly, watching a girl with multi-colored hair dancing by herself and creating colored streams of lights from her hands.  Deandre followed her observation, and looked back, puzzled.

               “How are you going to help him?” her partner queried, as he took the round of drinks from the waitress and passed them out.

               “Oh, Miss!,” she purred, grabbing the waitress’ elbow just as the server was about to pass their table after leaving the drinks.  “Can you send that girl over there a shot of absinthe, and tell her it’s from me?”

Estrella pointed to the girl she had been watching.  Both Dejhan and Deandre looked at her inquisitively.  The waitress nodded wordlessly, smiling with an almost intoxicated kind of glow about her, and was off.

               “Her name is Giselle,” Estrella explained.  “She’s in a bad situation right now.  But, she has criminal ties, and I think the two of you could be beneficial to each other,” she told Dejhan, beaming, obviously pleased with herself.

Estrella sipped carefully from her fresh drink, her eyes searching the two men for acknowledgment.  Dejhan’s brows furrowed, confused.  Deandre returned her glance skeptically.

               “How do you know her?,” he challenged.

               “She came into the clinic pretty beat up,” Estrella answered, swishing her cocktail with a paper umbrella.  “I tended to her wounds, and we started talking, and, well... I got to know her a little.”

       “Do you think she would help me?” Dejhan asked, watching the girl as she received the drink and looked over to their table.

He raised a glass at her and nodded when she smiled back, blushing.  Giselle grinned, and then came flouncing over to their booth in a flowing tea length skirt with leggings underneath, a halter top and jean jacket. Her multi colored hair fell around her face in a messy layered bob cut.  As she came closer, Dejhan noticed how pale her skin was.  He rose from his seat to let her scootch in next to Estrella, who squeezed around toward Deandre, then he sat back down on the other side of her.

                     “Who’re your friends?” Giselle quizzed, knocking back the shot of absinthe in one great gulp.

               “This is Deandre, my boyfriend,” Estrella introduced with a gesture.  “— the one I told you about.”

The two women exchanged a knowing grin, and Deandre scowled, wondering if he should be worried.  Estrella continued, turning her attention to their male guest.

               “...and Dejhan is an old friend of ours.”

Giselle looked for a moment like she might blush again, but instead extended her hand to Dejhan with a shy smile.  He responded to it the same way he had to receiving Estrella’s hand.  This time, Giselle’s flash of rosy cheeks was unmistakable.  Both smiled at one another as if they were having a conversation without words.

               “I wanted you to meet Dejhan,” Estrella intoned over the two of them.  “He may be able to help you.”

The friendly game of stare war was broken as Giselle’s attention was distracted by a rambunctious sound at the entry door to the club, where a rowdy group was just coming in.

                     “How can he help me...” Giselle questioned, without shifting her watchful vigil on the newcomers to the scene.

Dajan’s attention also snapped to them, as he tracked her gaze to its targets.   There were six of them, all dressed in a similar style, with matching colors, their mannerisms and behavior suggesting they were obviously looking for someone, and didn’t care who knew it.

       “Friends of yours?” Dejhan muttered sideways to Giselle from the corner of his mouth.

                     “Define ‘Friends’,” she squirmed in response, trying to sink down beneath the table.

       “Well, I guess that’s our cue it’s time to leave,” Dejhan declared suddenly, swiftly passing the sign to open up Estrella and Giselle’s third eyes.

In seconds flat, he followed up that motion with another, casting an illusion of his own before grabbing both women by the hand and directing with his head toward the back while launching himself from the booth and heading toward an exit at the rear of the building, each of the women in tow behind him, just as a swat team raid came bursting in the front entrance, demanding everybody freeze, this was a bust.

       “Deandre!, Take Estrella’s hand and follow her... those aren’t actual cops!,” Dejhan barked over his shoulder at his friend, still in the booth, watching the commotion around him in a mild state of bewilderment.

Giselle and Estrella followed Dejhan, while Deandre bolted behind them, the recently implanted circuitry in his arms beginning to glow.  The club exploded into chaos as drunken, carousing millennials, now panicked, tried to avoid phantom police officers.   When the band of ruffians — or whatever they were who had caused Giselle’s alarm — quickly realized the cops were apparitions, they promptly scuttled back out the front door again to go around and head the group off at the alley to prevent escape.

As the Wyvern remnants and their newfound friend filed out of the building, Dejhan took stock of everyone for safety, counting heads as each poured through the egress, then swiveling around in a double-take as he caught sight of his friend’s glowing arms.

       “WTF, Deandre?” he exclaimed in shock.

Deandre shrugged.

               “I’ve gotten some bionic implants working at the clinic,” he answered, as he pulled out two retractable steel batons.

Giselle produced a wand of her own, and Estrella set her face with a look of determination.  The hoods from the club came rushing from the alley to confront the group.  Estrella let out a piercing wail, causing the attackers to cover their ears and fall to the ground.  At the same time, Dejhan and Giselle, as if on the same wavelength, both created matching giant gusts of a great swirling whirlwind, blowing the goons into the wall of an adjoining building.  The foursome ran through the alley towards their respective transports, parked across from the front of the club.

                     “I hope you guys have a vehicle!,” Giselle shouted as they ran.

Dejhan reached his motorcycle, and with a snap of his fingers it turned over.  He held out a helmet to Giselle.  She grabbed it and placed it on her head as she straddled the bike uncertainly.

       “Meet me at Nana’s!” Dejhan yelled to Deandre and Estrella, just as they were jumping into a non-descript tan four-door sedan.

Dejhan threw his bike in gear, opened the throttle and sped away from the club.  Estrella and Deandre got to his grandmother’s a minute or so behind him and Giselle.  He invited them all to stay the night.  He put Deandre and Estrella in his Grandmother's master bedroom, and Giselle in one of the guest bedrooms, apologizing to them for the state of the place.  He then went to his old bedroom and looked out the window over the city.  It was just getting to be around dawn, and he once again marveled at the changing tinges of the bluing skyline as the metropolis was just coming to life, just as he had for so many years so long ago.  And he found he could not stop the smile creeping across his face as the sun he’d watched go down now crept slowly over the horizon.  He was finally home again.

Into the Wild

Fehed never had any problems with feats of endurance, but his mind was elsewhere while the troop finished up the last mile of their final basic training run, as another hurdle yet loomed ahead of the young cadet when he returned to the barracks. Everyone had to select a military specialty, but he was still unsure what he should do.  Back at base camp, he stared at the form in his hand for some time before he finally simply checked off infantry, in the hopes that once there, something better would appeal to him.  At least he would be assured of seeing some action in the process, and perhaps he might even become otherwise inspired.

Fehed had always been gifted physically; he relished brute exertion with unparalleled passion and the inexhaustible fervor of a zealot.  He’d been an athlete all throughout his schooling, and could have pursued a career in that arena, disappointing many when he didn’t, in fact, but he’d wanted to make a difference in the world, so he’d joined the military, instead.  After signing on with the infantry, he had come to realized where he really wanted to be, was in Special Forces.  According to established protocols, he had followed the required chain of command to register his interest, obtained all the appropriate recommendations, and had even passed nearly all of the qualifications... all but the last one, which he now faced imminently.  He had tried to prepare himself for whatever was coming, unsure what the final test would involve, or how difficult it would be.  But no one would tell him anything.  He was as ready as he was going to get.

At o-five-hundred hours, Fehed was rousted out of bed — not that he’d done much sleeping, excited as he was — informed only to pack up his gear, and told to report outside.  In the crisp, chill wind of the early dawn, he was greeted by a chopper.  He was the only soldier there.  His Wakicuza* ordered him aboard. Dutifully, Fehed climbed in, wondering what to expect next.


                                               *(Wah-kee-CHUən-zah)  Ndakinnian term denoting leadership: means “commanding officer”

     “We’re headed to the location of your final test,” Wakicuza Ajanlekok shouted over the rotor wash of the helicopter as they took off.

       “Once there, you are to head out into the wilderness.  Here,” the officer passed an envelope to his subordinate.  “Do not open this until after the chopper leaves, do you understand?”

               “Sir, Yes, Sir!” Fehed shouted back with a salute to the Wakicuza.

As the flight touched down, Fehed disembarked from the copter, and headed into the woods to watch it take off, keeping a keen eye upon it until it vanished over the next horizon.  As it did, Fehed opened the envelope to find a handwritten note, which stated simply:

                                      Your orders are to survive, and find your way back to base.
                                                            This is your only assignment.

Fehed sighed to himself and took out his compass.  He had no clue what direction the base was in.  He loosened the straps on his backpack, transformed into his panther-man form, and breathed in deep — taking in all the scents around him — then listened intently to his surroundings.  He put his compass back and started moving toward the direction from where the smell of humans seemed to be emanating.

A few feet further into the woods, he suddenly stopped in his tracks as he realized, during Special Ops training, he’d never
actually known where the base was.  He and the other recruits had been flown in under the cover of darkness, and no one had ever been allowed to leave the base, not that there had been any time to even give the slightest thought to that, as grueling as the process had been.  He figured this would be a good time to check his service rifle and pistol.  He made a quick assessment to verify he had extra ammo clips, and double-checked everything in his pack to ensure he could survive out here if he needed to.  The were-cat breathed a sigh of relief after going through his gear.  He should be able to get through this.

Continuing on the trail he’d picked up, Fehed noticed something funny about the aromas... a chemical odor, very pungent, almost overpowering as he got nearer... he had to transform back into man-form just so he wouldn’t be overcome by it.  He began creeping along, slowly, low to the ground.  At a clearing up ahead, he came upon a makeshift camp with an R/V camper and several tents.  Within this unexpected back-country scene, there were three individuals, all human, but one was adorned with metal around his head, some sort of weird ocular device over his left eye, and his left arm and right hand were metallic.  He was wearing American-style combat fatigues.  The other two were in blue jeans and t-shirts.

Fehed pulled his pistol and kept hunched down where he was.  He had never seen a cyborg before, and was unsure how to proceed.  He did notice the vehicle had a California license plate, which gave him pause, as there was no way an Ndakinnian military base was located in California.  That meant he was most likely in the Northwest region of Ndakinna... probably the Penutian Territory, just North of California.

He wondered what three Americans were doing in Ndakinna, but it soon became apparent, as he watched them loading and unloading chemicals into and out of the R/V.  They were drug cooks.  They were probably also traffickers, bringing in chemically manufactured narcotics to poison Ndakinnians.

Fehed had to do something.  He couldn’t just turn away and focus on his mission, or stand by and let this happen under his nose.  He maintained his position, watching the men go about their business.  The Ndakinnian had firsthand experience with the damage this junk could do.  In his village, two of Fehed’s friends had died of overdoses from these types of drugs, and there were several addicts and dealers in the nearest city, regularly causing all sorts of problems.

There were three ATV’s parked nearby the R/V, as well as a pickup truck.  As the milling about of a chemistry setup continued, noise from not too far of a helicopter overhead suddenly spurred the campers into hyperaction.  All three got on the 4-wheelers and took off.  Fehed paid no attention to the copter, but watched as the gangsters disappeared out of sight, then he crept into the campsite.  His search of the R/V uncovered a collection of gas masks.  Investigating one, he verified his suspicion had been correct.  It was a mobile chem lab for concocting large quantities on-the-cheap of unnatural, low grade happy pills for the ignorant masses, whod pay anything they could scrounge to dull their senses from the pain of reality in a life of abject poverty.  He snooped a little around the general campsite area, helping himself to a handful of supplies which would prove useful in the bush, and booby trapped the R/V before leaving.  After he’d crept a safe distance away, Fehed put into use a pair of binoculars he’d liberated to monitor the dope lab.

He didn’t have long to wait.  Very shortly, through the field lenses, he watched the dealers return, alerting him to don the gas mask he’d taken as they approached the site. The men went straight to the R/V and opened the door.  No sooner had they triggered the latch, than a small blast erupted and gas poured out.  The two unenhanced humans dropped to their knees, clutching their chests and coughing, tears streaming from their eyes.  The cyborg seemed unaffected.   He kept a watchful eye on the surrounding area, while gathering up his companions, now nearly passed out, and placed their limp bodies, gasping for breath, into the pickup.

Fehed transformed into his panther-man form and crouched low to the ground, like the animal he was in that moment.  The cyborg took no notice, but went to the driver’s door of the truck to leave.  Fehed drew up his hindquarters and prepared to pounce.

Just as the cyborg climbed behind the wheel, the were-panther burst forth from the woods with his rifle drawn, firing a half dozen rounds into the truck cab in short succession.  The driver ducked down, trying to steer the truck out of the line of fire, but the rig careened wildly, and smacked headfirst into a tree.  Unfazed, the cyborg bounced from the cab, a fully automatic pistol in tow, and returned fire on Fehed.  With animal enhanced reflexes, the great man-cat dodged to elude the incoming fire, getting
only grazed in his left arm.  The cyborg was undamaged.

Fehed bounded up the nearest tree, then vaulted into the one next to that, and climbed into a high perch were he could still keep an eye on the cyborg without himself being seen.  Never seeing who or what had been shooting, the cyborg was unable to track his malkin movements.  Instead, he abandoned the chase and turned away to busy himself with more pressing matters.  He flung open the R/V and began throwing out buckets and glass vials, vented toxic fumes from the camper’s roof exhaust in a great belch of colored smoke, and retrieved his compatriots from the truck, tossing them like ragdolls through the door of the now emptied lab, stepping in close afterwards and closing the door behind them.  Then the caravan roared to life and raced away at top speed.

Fehed came down from his roost and helped himself to one of the 4-wheelers and two full gas cans the thugs had left behind in their escape.  In his earlier raid of the bivouac, he’d acquired a map with the location of their camp circled on it, which provided bearings he could follow.  Not only that, but it also happened to have the base marked in giant highlights — as a place to avoid.  He smiled to himself.  Even if it was only a drop in the bucket, he’d have done it anyway.  Every little bit of help to stem the damage of synthetic drugs in his native land was worth the effort.  If doing the right thing had been the quickest means to accomplishing his end goal, well, that was just an added bonus.  With a spring in his step and a fire in his heart, Fehed hopped on the ATV, turned the key, popped the clutch, and sped off towards home base to complete his final exercise as a mere contender for Ndakinnian Special Forces. 

Dark Discovery

Casimiro shifted in the leather seat of his mid-sized midnight blue sedan, trying to work the circulation back into his lower half.  He’d been parked here in stakeout mode for hours, waiting for Dr. Karen Strathmore to finish her workday, hoping she might have more valuable information for him tonight than she did last night.

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.”

Casimiro sighed.

       “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.

                      “Brothers?”

      
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.

                      “Yes.”

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.

Galen coughed.

                      “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.

                 “Damn.”

Clearly, this was no laughing matter.

                     “Not just mage kind,”  Galen looked pallidly at the data on the projector screen.  “Theres 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.

Gear Up, Guardian

Alden dreads election years.  He despises having to talk to the press.  The complexities of his job alone are bad enough without the added pressure of having to answer inane interrogatories about how he feels about this or that policy, over the establishment of which he has absolutely zero influence or control.  His number one responsibility, as far as he is concerned, is to enforce the law, and that isn’t going to change, regardless of the current administration.  His position isn’t an elected one; he earned the title of Guardian of Chicago, and he’s proud to be the protector of both the magical and non-magical citizens of this city.

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.

She Sings the Body Mechanic

This was the address he had been given by the old sawbones... he double-checked the slip again, just to be sure.  But how could this be right?  This place looked like a respectful clinic, not the kind of back alley shack he’d have expected an old sawbones to be associated with.  But there it was in front of him... this was the spot.  Deandre went back to the cab for Estrella, and helped her in.  He gave the receptionist his name, and half expected her to tell him he wasnt on the list.  Instead, she motioned for him to take a seat and wait to be called.  He did as he was told.

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, thats 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 Im 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.

Check, mate!

From as quiet an inner space as the back of the mission van would give up, Rhiannon struggled to maintain a firm hold on her reflective calm.  Chepi, like a caged tiger, was showing signs of restlessness; Ezra was on his laptop, in contact with Donatella and Galen — other members of Vito’s crew — while his bodyguards, Anezka and Ondrej, perched in shotgun and the driver’s seat, respectively, awaiting instructions.  When the job went sideways, they’d holed up in this parking garage for rendezvous with Vito, Fehed, and Tala, but it was starting to look like nobody was coming.  No one had heard word one from that half of the gang since the police crashed the party, and the radio silence made the time tick by like Chinese water torture, dripping away at everyone’s patience.

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.  Im 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.

Rhiannon sighed. 


    “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, Ill 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?”
                                                        *(uh-LAN-uv) Gaelic term of endearment: means “my child”

    “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, Thomas, is bringing two others to stand in for Tala and Feheda 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.