"Soul of glass"
Copyright © C.R. Hewitt, 2012
Zarn, the Spirit Keeper temple on the Chalice, 8:12 pm:
A tall, rather willowy sire with delicate elfin features greeted Idrisar at the entrance to the temple courtyard. His platinum hair was straight and fell all in one length to his mid back, pinned back from his face with mother of pearl hair combs. His almond-shaped eyes were gray in color and they regarded the Ulvari agent with kindness and reassurance. His appearance was on the androgynous side, even by lashran standards. He wore the white, silver embroidered robes of the highest ranking anointed and he moved with easy grace. He gave a traditional bow of greeting to Idrisar, and he followed up by offering his hand. His grip was firm and reassuring as they shook hands and he smiled warmly.
"Agent Blackbird, welcome to the grounds," he said in their native tongue. He spoke with a Rhuidian accent. "I am Keeper Syndal. You've arrived right on time."
Idrisar returned his smile and gave a little bow of his own before speaking in his native tongue. "Thank you for the warm welcome, Sir. I appreciate your order's willingness to help me."
"Of course," soothed the keeper. "It's our duty to help our people—particularly those of noble heart, who defend the innocent."
Idrisar lowered his gaze modestly, reminded of a comment Zevian once made to him about the Ulvari. "I only hope the Ulvari-vash are never required to return to our roots, Keeper. We have a long, dark history and much of it isn't noble at all."
"That would depend on how you see it," answered the keeper. "Come, I will show you the grounds. Is that all you've brought with you?" He nodded at the modest little suitcase at Idrisar's side.
The agent nodded. "Yes. Everything I need for my stay is in my backpack and this case. I'm not here for a vacation."
The sire nodded and he took the handle of Idrisar's suitcase and began to pull it behind him. "Please, allow me."
Idrisar wasn't entirely comfortable with allowing someone of such stature to handle his luggage like a common bellhop, but arguing with him would have been rude. He adjusted his hold on his backpack and he fell into step beside the taller lashran, looking around at the beauty of the courtyard as they walked through the gate. The serenity of the garden and the little fishpond was comforting to him, and the light from the lanterns and the moonlight glistened on the water.
"What did you mean by your comment, earlier?" Idrisar asked softly as they walked the path to the main entrance. They passed a couple of other robed sires on the way, both of which gave Syndal respectful nods in passing. Idrisar guessed by the deep blue color of their silk robes that they were both still in apprenticeship.
"My comment?" queried Syndal, glancing at Idrisar sidelong.
"You said: 'it depends on how you see it', when I remarked about the history of my guild."
"Ah," sighed the keeper with a nod. "That. Well, you have to take into context the reason behind that dark history, Agent. The Ulvari were trained to deal death, this is true...but not just for the sake of doing it. You know how to kill a person fast, with minimal suffering. Is this not true?"
Idrisar nodded, answering with matter-of-fact honesty. "A good Ulvari can bring a normal target down before he can even register pain, yes. A clean, merciful kill is the mark of a professional, and it's considered dishonorable to deliberately prolong suffering—even if we believe the target deserves it."
"And would this include the man who harmed you?"
Idrisar grimaced, but he nodded. "Yes. If I had the chance, I would give him a clean death. I would want to look him in the eye while I do it, though. What he did to me and threatened to do to my family is unforgivable, but I wouldn't let him turn me into a common murderer by going against my principles; no matter how tempting it might be."
The spirit keeper smiled. "You see? You've just answered your own question. Sometimes good people have to do unsavory things to protect their people, their way of life or their families. That doesn't mean they must enjoy it, and it doesn't make their cause less noble. The Ulvari of the past protected the Council and eliminated threats to their nation. They were not contract killers. When Tsyther went against your guild's teachings, he betrayed them just as he betrayed us. His actions do not reflect the teachings of the Ulvari, any more than they reflect the teachings of the Spirit Keepers. People like Tsyther don't comprehend that having power at one's disposal isn't justification for using it against others for one's own gains."
Idrisar nodded with a bit more enthusiasm, remembering saying something very similar to his grandson. "I hope that eventually, I can recall how to put aside my personal feelings and resume my duties as normal. I doubt I can do that until I know I'm completely free of Tsyther's influence, though."
Syndal reached out with his free hand and gave him a reassuring, gentle squeeze on the shoulder. "We will cleanse your spirit and assist with your healing. You are welcome to stay with us for as long as you need to, Agent Blackbird."
Idrisar thanked him softly and his mind went to his lover, far across the sea. He missed him already and he looked forward to calling him once he was settled into his guest chambers.
Alliance Headquarters, Valkyrie Falls, 11:08 am:
Ammiteo answered the call with enthusiasm that would have embarrassed him, had he worried about anyone seeing his expression. As it was, he was alone in his office when Idrisar's call came in and he was free to smile as wide as he pleased when he saw the ID.
"Agent Blackbird," he said as he answered the phone, "you're punctual as always. Did you have a good flight?"
"Yes," answered the lifebearer's voice in an amused tone. "It was an excellent flight, Director. They've given me one of their empty sleeping chambers for my stay here and I'm settled in. My first cleansing will begin tomorrow morning, after breakfast."
Ammiteo dropped the teasing formalities. "So soon? I would expect them to give you a couple of days to acclimate, before they began."
"I've insisted on it," explained Idrisar. "The sooner we begin, the sooner I can have this over with and return to my duties."
Ammiteo could appreciate his uncharacteristic impatience. He wanted Idrisar to return home as soon as possible too, but not at the expense of his treatment. "Just try not to rush it," he cautioned. "This isn't as simple as taking a scrub-down after being exposed to hazardous materials, Idrisar. This is your mind and spirit you're talking about, and if there's ever a good reason to take your time with something, this is it."
"I know," sighed the lifebearer, "and I understand such a thing can't be rushed. There's no reason to delay the treatment, though. I feel fine and I'm ready to get started."
Trusting that the Spirit Keepers would know if Idrisar wasn't truly ready to start, Ammiteo let it go. "We'll all look forward to your return—especially me. Just take as much time as you need, so this doesn't have to turn into two trips."
"Of course," agreed Idrisar. "I'll temper my impatience and I won't make plans to leave this place until they've confirmed that I'm either clean or they've done all they can. You can count on me being thorough, Ammiteo."
The sire shut his eyes as he listened to the sound of his name on that voice. He forgot himself and made a confession. "I love hearing you speak my name. Something about the way you do it feels like...a caress."
There was a soft chuckle on the other line and Ammiteo flushed as Idrisar answered him. "Shall I make a voice recording and email it to you, love?"
"Actually, that's not a bad idea," teased Ammiteo, grinning with self-depreciation. "It might help me sleep better at night, to listen to your voice before bed. Childish of me, isn't it?"
"I don't think so," soothed Idrisar. "In truth, I think it's sweet and romantic...just like you."
Ammiteo found himself getting into the spirit of the long-distance flirtation. These things always came so easy for him, with Idrisar. "I'd prefer to have the real thing lying next to me at night, but until then the recording will suffice."
"You're serious?" Idrisar sounded surprised and gently amused.
Ammiteo shrugged. "What can I say? I think most people would agree with me when I say you have a nice speaking voice and a beautiful accent, Idrisar. It's one of the compliments people give you when they talk about you behind your back, you know."
"Do they? Well, at least they aren't bad-mouthing me."
"No," assured Ammiteo with a shake of his head. His voice gentled. "Because they love you."
It was the truth, but Idrisar seemed disinclined to believe it. "I think you might be exaggerating a bit, Ammiteo. Regardless, it's a nice thing to hear at a time like this, even if it's a bit of an overstatement."
The director smiled. One of the things he liked about Idrisar was his modesty. The agent really had no idea how attractive he was to people, on many different levels. He decided it was time to tell him of their plans for dealing with Sandman, thinking it might give him some hope.
"We have a very good chance of finally capturing our suspect, Idrisar. Agent Wolfe came up with a very good idea and we've—"
"Don't tell me."
Ammiteo stopped with a frown. "Excuse me?"
"I don't want to hear it," elaborated Idrisar. "Well, I do want to hear it, but I can't. I know I said I wanted to be updated on the case, but I don't trust myself, Ammiteo. Whatever the plan is, don't tell me. I'd rather stew in ignorance than get information I could possibly relay to him against my will, understand?"
The director felt the blood leave his face at the implication. It had happened before...sleeper agents with no knowledge of what they were doing went into a sort of trance and betrayed their fellows. Many years had passed since there was an incident like that, but it had been done before. To think that Agent Blackbird of all people could actually be one of them, even after both Glaive and Saber had worked on him, was horrifying.
"You're too strong willed to be afflicted that way," insisted Ammiteo stubbornly, swallowing. "The Idrisar I know would never buckle to a sleeper compulsion...not easily, anyway."
The lifebearer's response was stern, yet kind. "The Idrisar you know also isn't given to taking foolish risks, Director. I appreciate your faith in me, I really do, but I'd rather err on the side of caution than risk blowing another chance to capture Sandman."
Ammiteo was forced to concede with that logic. "I swear, I'm going to see to it that you get a promotion when you return."
"Another one?" Idrisar's amusement returned to his voice, and Ammiteo could imagine him raising his eyebrows. "Sir, any further promotions will have me out-ranking you. I'm comfortable as your CEO. Speaking of which, how is Agent Glaive handling the job in my absence?"
The question sufficiently distracted Ammiteo from his fawning—which was probably the intent behind it. "He's handling it well, considering the opposition he gets from his peers. Vandrin is surprisingly cooperative about it, but some of the others have to be reminded from time to time that Glaive currently outranks them."
"You sound surprised about Vandrin," observed Idrisar.
Ammiteo shrugged. "Given the reason for his dismissal, I am. I keep expecting the old Vandrin to emerge, but he keeps himself in check, for the most part. He still has some work to do insofar as watching his mouth, but he's really 'sobered up', so to speak."
"You pushed him out of the nest," reasoned Idrisar, "and now he's learning to fly. Good for you."
The metaphor brought another smile to Ammiteo's face. "Let's just hope he shapes up to be the agent I've always thought he could be."
"With you as his mentor, I'm sure he will."
The encouragement made the sire blush, and he was glad his lover couldn't see his face right now. "Thank you. We're going to begin the operation today. Maybe this one will be the last."
"I pray to the ancestors you're right," sighed Idrisar. "I will keep you in my thoughts, Ammiteo. Please have a care for your safety, during this effort. I'd like a whole lover to come home to."
The chance to be with Idrisar again was enough incentive for Ammiteo to practice personal caution, even if he wanted to cut loose on Sandman. "I promise, Idrisar."
Some time after lunch, the effort to lure their suspect into Haden's trap was underway. They sent off a team to Rhuidhim, to assist with the efforts there. There was some comfort in knowing that even if they were wrong about Tsyther's motivations, the Rhuidhim Ulvari branch had a chance of closing in on and detaining him. The tricky part had been in convincing Talith to withdraw the additional security checks for international travel. If Zevian was right about what his sire had planned, it would only hinder efforts to capture him if they made it harder for Sandman to travel. The Rhuidhim airports were therefore instructed to report anyone that matched Tsyther's description to the Ulvari, but not to detain them.
While the "decoy" team was sent to Rhuidhim, the specialized team remained behind and an unscheduled private meeting was held in a secure conference room. Not even the officers from the Cothmere branch were let in on the meeting; it was only for those who had worked most closely on the case and could be trusted not to leak information. They met up in the room at the appointed hour and Ammiteo allowed his human associate to get it started. Kent did a headcount of Ulvari, Knight and Bargel participants before he began. He looked around the room with sober hazel eyes as he spoke.
"We've got another chance to bring this guy in, people. I don't want to see it wasted. If anyone in this room is not one hundred percent dedicated to apprehending this fugitive at all costs, find your way to the exit, now."
Nobody was surprised by his declaration and everyone remained. Satisfied that they understood the importance of their teamwork and dedication, Kent continued. "Good. The information we're about to impart is strictly classified, and it goes no further than this room. As of now, we have a small 'decoy' team of agents traveling to Rhuidhim, to help the Ulvari there investigate a recent sighting report of our suspect. We purposely kept the rest of you here for a contingency. Yes, Agent McFarlane?"
Lily lowered her hand. "What sort of contingency, Sir? If Sandman has been sighted in Rhuidhim, we should have been the ones on those assist teams."
"We have reason to believe the suspect set up that sighting for his own benefit," Ammiteo said, "to draw our attention there and leave these facilities vulnerable to attack. He still has people working with him and we don't know how many. With spirit singing abilities at their disposal, they are a much bigger threat than your run-of-the-mill terrorists, and Sandman's goal is still to get to Agent Wolfe. We have good reason to believe he'll attempt to infiltrate headquarters, in order to get to him."
Vandrin raised his hand and when his cousin nodded in acknowledgement, he voiced another concern that was on the minds of many. "What if you're wrong about that? Sending people that haven't been on this case over there to apprehend the guy might blow the chance to bring him in."
"The Ulvari of Rhuidhim are just as capable of dealing with the situation as we are," assured Ammiteo. "More so, in fact. They have veterans in their ranks and a guild of lashran enchanters, elementalists and summoners at their disposal. If our Rhuidhim allies fail to apprehend him, it won't be because of our team. I very much doubt that our presence will have a notable impact on their performance, regardless of which team we send."
"Who stays behind here, however, can have a more significant impact on the outcome if Sandman attacks," Glaive added evenly. "Our Cothmere guests are good, I have no doubt of that. We, however, have experience with what this man and his allies are capable of. Since we couldn't exactly request that the Rhuidhim Ulvari send agents here to check for monsters beneath our beds, this was the most logical choice."
"This facility has suffered more blows to its reputation during the course of this case than the past five years combined," Kent reminded, "and Agent Glaive is right...we can't go crying to the foreign Ulvari-vash like scared kids. We deal with this our way and we prove that the Valkyrie Falls Alliance doesn't need to be babysat by other branches. Now, Tsyther is counting on his actions distracting us, and we're going to use that against him. If he shows up here like we believe he will, we'll be ready for him. Agent Glaive will talk you through the game plan."
Kent gestured at the lishere and nodded, prompting him to begin explaining how they planned to secure the building without making it obvious that they were preparing for a possible attack.
Later that afternoon:
After the meeting, Zevian returned to the room he was sharing with Azurel and he frowned when he saw that the young dancer hadn't packed. Azurel was sitting at the little dining table with a mug of coco in his hand and the daily newspaper spread out over the surface.
"What the hell is this?" demanded the guild lord with a gesture at his lover.
Azurel looked up from the paper and glanced at the mug in his hand. "Hot chocolate and the paper. What does it look like?"
Zevian shut the door with a frown. "Don't be a smartass. Where's your bag?"
Azurel looked over his shoulder at the sliding door closet by the bed. "It's in the closet, where I left it."
"And is it packed?" Zevian raised his brows expectantly.
The dancer returned his attention to his newspaper and took a little sip of his drink before responding. "No."
Zevian's jaw clenched. "Azurel, what part of 'I don't want you in this building during this operation' wasn't clear to you?"
"All of it," answered the lifebearer pleasantly. He looked up at Zevian with calm ruby eyes. "I've thought about it, and why should I leave? Right now, this is probably the safest place in the world for me to be. I'm surrounded on all sides by trained Ulvari and Knights, not to mention Therril and Johnny."
"Therril and Johnny are supposed to be preparing to take you out of here to Star's hotel room, by now," Zevian reminded him, "because this place isn't going to be 'the safest place on Wyndrah' for long, if we're right about Tsyther."
Azurel nodded, still maintaining his calm. "I understand, but I'm still not leaving. No offense to Johnny and Therril, but if Tsyther really wants to get at me, they won't be able to stop him on their own. Sending me to a little hotel room with them for a few days won't protect me, Zev."
"It's still a damned sight better than keeping you here, where he could be coming to finish what he started. For all I know, this place could end up going down in flames and I can't be worrying about you getting caught in it." Zevian went to the closet and pulled out Azurel's black embroidered suitcase, tossing it onto the bed. "Now get packing. I'm going to call the boys to come and take you out of here, before it's too late."
Azurel shook his head. "No. I told you, I'm not leaving."
Zevian paused in the action of bringing his phone to his ear and he narrowed his eyes at the dancer.
"Zevian, put me down!"
Glaive stopped in his tracks at the sight of Zevian Saber carrying his struggling lover over his shoulder like a sack of grain. He'd cuffed the lifebearer's wrists together and bound his ankles with a belt, as well. He ignored Azurel's squirming as he spoke with his two mobster companions by the fire escape. Azurel saw the lishere agent approaching and he gave him a pleading look through the loose strands of hair that had fallen partway over his face.
"Agent Glaive, would you please talk some sense into him?"
The Ulvari blinked at the scene, trying to make sense of it. He'd come to check on Saber's status, and he wasn't expecting to witness something like this. "I generally don't involve myself in domestic quarrels, unless someone's being abused. Is he abusing you, love?"
When Zevian frowned over his shoulder at him, the lifebearer revised his answer with a sputter. "Well, no, but he's bound me against my will and he's sending me out of here! Make him put me down!"
Glaive fought back a laugh, shaking his head. This was, without doubt, the strangest altercation between lovers he'd seen outside of television. "You may not want to hear this, Azurel, but I happen to agree with his decision. Until we can confirm that this facility is safe from attack by Sandman and his merry band of freaks, you're best off not being here. I'm the one who suggested he send you away, in fact."
It was difficult to tell from his awkward position over Zevian's shoulders, but Azurel looked either very disappointed or very offended. Perhaps he was both. "I don't believe this!" He renewed his struggle, nearly making his lover drop him. He reverted to the lashran tongue in his frustration and he spewed a few choice Zarnian curses at the sire holding him hostage.
Unable to hold the squirming young man for much longer without risk of dropping him, Zevian cursed and set Azurel on his feet. The guild lord ignored Glaive and the other two men present as he cupped his lover's face and gazed into his eyes. He spoke firmly, with passion.
"Shut up and listen to me," demanded Zevian. When the order intimidated Azurel to stillness, he went on. "I've already seen two lifebearers that I care for suffer at the hands of my sire, understand? Don't fight me on this. You're better off away from this building."
"Particularly if Sandman got the layout of this place from Blackbird's mind while he had him in custody," added Glaive supportively, with a glance at Zevian. "He'll know which room you've been staying in here, if that's the case. Listen to him, Azurel. Tsyther likes to use his opponents' loved ones to force their cooperation or exact revenge on them. It's one of the few predictable patterns of his nature. Zevian is right to want you taken somewhere else while this goes down."
Azurel hopped a little to regain his balance as the bindings around his ankles hampered him. He instinctively grabbed onto Zevian to keep from falling and he cast a frustrated look between him and Glaive. "You really think he would come after me, when he could be going after Agent Wolfe?"
Glaive grimaced in spite of himself at the reminder that his lover and partner was the true objective, if Tsyther took the bait. "If he thinks taking you hostage could offer him a tactical advantage, yes. We can't put anything past him, pretty dancer. You should understand that, by now."
Azurel visibly wavered, looking up at his determined lover with uncertain eyes. "If you're sure this is the best thing to do, I suppose I'll stop fighting it."
Zevian remained steadfast, and he nodded. "I've made my decision, flower. Just humor me, and abide by it while we still have time to get you out of here."
Azurel heaved a sigh and he nodded, apparently giving up the fight. He held up his cuffed wrists to the sire and gave him a softly pleading look. "I could walk out of here more easily without the restraints...and people might stop and ask questions if you leave me trussed up like this."
Zevian gave a brief, crooked little smirk. "All right, in the interest of raising as few questions as possible and getting you out of here faster, I'll release you."
Azurel held his wrists out when Zevian retrieved the keys to the cuffs from a pocket, and Glaive looked on with amusement. The guild lord knelt before his lover and freed him from the belt he'd trussed up his ankles with next, and then he straightened back up and regarded his men seriously.
"Now get him out of here, and don't bring him back until I give the okay. I'm trusting you both to keep him safe."
"You got it, Boss," Johnny assured with a nod.
"If anyone so much as looks at him cross-eyed, I'll be all over them," added Therril, picking up Azurel's suitcase.
Glaive resisted a sigh at the bluster. Hopefully Saber's men were smart enough to concentrate on getting Azurel away from any perceived threats to his safety, rather than trying to confront it. He watched them go to the elevator with Azurel and he felt a bit sorry for the exotic lifebearer when he paused at the doors and looked back at Zevian with his heart in his eyes.
"Don't get killed," Azurel said to his lover as the doors opened with a cheerful little tune.
Zevian smirked at him. "My old man's not interested in killing me, babe. Don't worry." He kissed his first two fingers and waved at Azurel in a farewell gesture.
Glaive approached the guild lord and he watched with him as the elevator doors shut. Once Azurel and his two bodyguards were gone, the lishere turned to Zevian with a measuring look. Zevian returned his gaze and raised an eyebrow.
"I'm just wondering if you can really pull this off," answered Glaive truthfully. "It isn't quite the same as what you did for Blackbird."
Tsyther's ability to render himself virtually un-traceable was part of what enabled him to elude capture, for so long. Zevian seemed to think he could make a crack in his defenses and handicap his stealth capabilities, given that he knew how his sire wove spirit energy. The rest would be up to the Alliance operatives.
Zevian nodded soberly, and he took one of his guns out of its holster on his thigh and he inspected it, checking the ammo clip and the barrel. "I know. I'm not expecting to make a big impact, but at least I might be able to slow him down a little."
"Right." Glaive sighed and checked his watch. "You're the only one here that stands a chance of doing that, mate. I can match him in an elemental fight but if he starts losing, he'll want to pull another disappearing act and you're the only one that can stop him."
Zevian smirked and checked his second gun. "No pressure from you cats, eh?".
"Miss? Miss, I need to see your identification tags, please...and you can't just go right into the Director's office!" Ceindar circled around from behind his desk to intercept the young woman before she could get to Ammiteo's door.
She stopped and turned to regard the secretary and she shook her raven bangs out of her blue-gray eyes. She spoke with an accent he couldn't quite place. "I'm expected. Agent Star."
Ceindar was briefly taken aback as he got a good look at her fair, delicate features. The bone structure and the size of her irises gave her heritage away to him, and he couldn't stop the confusion from leaking into his voice. "But...the Knights only recruit humans...or are you augmented?" He'd never seen a human this heavily augmented before, though. But for her gender and ivory skin tone, she looked like a lifebearer.
"Did I say I was a knight?" She smirked with amusement. "Hands off, lad. I'm here on behalf of the Rhuidhim Magi and Ammiteo knows I'm coming."
Ceindar's nose crinkled and he looked her up and down. The bodysuit hugging her slender form more closely resembled an Ulvari combat uniform than any Magi or Bargel outfits he'd ever seen. "You're a sorcerer?"
She held up her right hand and turned it over, so that the palm was facing upwards. A spark of electricity manifested and danced over the skin briefly as she regarded Ceindar impatiently. "Good enough for you?"
He gulped, suddenly worried that she might decide to shock him. "My apologies, but I still can't let you pass without seeing some ID."
"Ceindar, it's okay." Ammiteo had stepped out of his office during the exchange and he regarded the woman with recognition. He gave her a slight, formal bow and stepped aside, gesturing at his open door. "Agent Star, please go in."
She gave him a little nod and walked through the office door, shutting it behind her. When she was gone, the muscular sire turned to Ceindar. "She's Agent Shard's advisor, here by his request. Take the rest of the day off, Ceindar. I have no more appointments today and I can take it from here."
"You're sure?" The lifebearer's dark blue gaze was uncertain. "I know you've been extremely busy, Sir."
"I'm sure," insisted Ammiteo. "There's no point in you sticking around this afternoon. Go and do something fun. That's an order."
Ceindar rewarded him with a thankful smile. "Thank you, Director. I'll see you tomorrow."
Ammiteo gave a nod and a brief smile as his secretary went back to his desk to shut down his computer and finish up for the day. Chances were, the building would still be on lockdown when Ceindar tried to come in for work tomorrow, but that depended on how well the teams did their jobs and if Sandman took the bait.
"That was an interesting trick with the electricity," commented Ammiteo when he joined Aurora in the privacy of his office. "Mind telling me how you did that?"
The lashran woman held up the hand she had used to generate charge with, and she pointed at the plain silver band on her index finger. "Vurk enchanted it," she explained. "It works like one of those electroshock gadgets you people use to stun troublemakers. A mental trigger sets it off and it can give a nasty shock to someone, without doing any harm to me."
"Impressive," complimented the Ulvari sincerely. "And easily concealed. What is your partner's status?"
"He'll be along shortly," she answered. "He had some last minute inventory to take and he didn't want to rush it and risk leaving anything important behind. Have you sent the lure out, yet?"
Ammiteo nodded. "The firewall dropped during an 'error' with routine maintenance this morning. If Sandman is attempting to monitor our network, the event should have lasted long enough for him to get the information. Measures were taken to ensure all vital data was protected, before the event."
Aurora nodded, her eyes blank. She tilted her head. "I didn't understand a damned thing you just said, Director. Keep in mind I'm still trying to catch up with modern technology."
The sire obligingly simplified it for her. "Yes, the lure has been sent."
"Good, then. Mind if I have a seat while we wait for the shenanigans to start?"
Ammiteo gestured politely at the two chairs on the visitor side of his desk. "Please, make yourself comfortable. I don't normally keep liquor in my office, but under the circumstances, I decided to make an exception." He went to the cabinet behind his desk and opened it, revealing a bottle of St. Thomas whiskey. "I believe this is your poison?"
Aurora perked up with interest as he held out the bottle. "I think I'm beginning to like you, Director. I'll take you up on that offer."
Ammiteo smirked and procured a pair of plastic tumblers from the cabinet. "Please don't make me regret this, Mrs. Darshaw. I trust you know your own limits and we need to stay alert."
"No worries about that," she agreed. "I've built up such a tolerance for this stuff over the centuries, it takes a gallon to get me drunk."
A flash of light in the center of the office room signified the arrival of their sorcerer ally. Ammiteo reflexively reached for his weapons, despite expecting Vurkanan's arrival. He relaxed when he saw the silver lifebearer standing in the wake of the fading light, dressed all in form-fitting black, like his female associate. Having mastered the art of controlling his gaze around attractive lifebearers dressed in such a manner, Ammiteo brushed the outfit off as a practical choice for the occasion and approached Vurkanan. He offered a respectful nod of greeting and he extended his hand.
"Mr. Darshaw, it's good to see you."
Vurkanan took the offered hand as he lowered his bag of supplies onto the floor. "I wish I could say the same, Director, but I can think of many places I'd rather be, right now."
"So can I," assured the sire, "but I'm thankful you chose to join in on this endeavor, all the same. Is there anything I can get for you before you get started?"
Vurkanan heaved a sigh and looked around. When he spotted Aurora raising her glass to him in a toast, he grinned and gave a nod at the bottle on the desk. "I'll have one of those too, thanks. Maybe it will help me loosen up and relax, for this."
While Vurkanan was trying to get himself into the ideal state of mind to begin his spell-work, Haden was checking out the perimeter security with Glaive and Malcolm in the control room. The Ocathian had informed them that he thought something wasn't quite right with the system after they brought it back online from the deliberate outage. They knew they were taking a risk by dropping the firewall even for a few moments, but it was a necessary risk, in the interest of finally neutralizing their suspect.
"How's it looking, Malcolm?" asked Haden as he peered over the darker man's shoulder. His knowledge with computer systems ended with basic troubleshooting and installing games.
Malcolm shook his head, and the beads tipping the ends of his cornrow-braided locks clinked together. "I'm not liking it, man. On the surface, it looks like status quo."
Glaive leaned over Malcolm's other shoulder and peered at the screen with narrowed eyes. "Then why are your hackles up?"
Malcolm kept tapping away at the keyboard, and he shook his head. His hazel eyes never strayed from the screen as he spoke to his companions. "There's a glitch in the firewall now...or at least, that's what it looks like. There's a vulnerability in the sensory matrix that wasn't there before. We missed something when we ran the last check after dropping the firewall."
Glaive frowned at the screen, his coral gaze following the charts and numbers with little more understanding than his partner's. "And do you think you can find this 'something' you might have missed?"
"Cool it, Lishere." Malcolm immediately sighed and apologized for his outburst. "Sorry man, I'm just trying to think and it's a little hard with both of you looking over my shoulders asking questions. This breach is getting wider and I need to figure out what's causing it."
Used to being referred to in much less pleasant terms than "Lishere", Glaive shrugged. "Point taken. Haden, let's step back for a few moments and give the man some room to breathe."
Haden nodded in agreement, and the two of them moved away to give Malcolm a little space. Haden glanced at Malcolm, who was cursing at something happening on the computer screen. "I've got to wonder how deep Sandman might have dug in, during that outage. Glaive, what if—"
Malcolm suddenly shouted a curse viler than the others before it, followed by an announcement that emphasized Haden's concerns. "Shit! It's a logic bomb! We've got a virus in the system, guys!"
Haden and Glaive hastened to their comrade's side, seeing alarm windows popping up all over the screen. Haden was the first of them to speak up, and he squeezed Malcolm's shoulders urgently. "Can you stop it?"
Malcolm shook his head. "Best I can do right now is try to block it from doing more. I think we set it off when we dropped the firewall."
"So, someone planted this in the system," reasoned Glaive, "and it's been ready to go off under the right conditions?"
"Yeah." Malcolm cursed, tapping commands into the keyboard as fast as he could. "No idea how long it's been there. Whoever delivered it has my respect, though. We never detected it."
The window-less room was suddenly plunged into darkness as the electricity went out. For a moment, the only thing anyone could see was the faint, reflective glow of Haden's eyes and the stronger glow of Glaive's. The backup generator kicked in just as they heard people in the hallways exclaiming and swearing, and the dim emergency light panels lining the ceiling illuminated the control room.
"Dammit," cursed Glaive, looking around with one hand reaching for one of the knives at his thigh sheaths.
"Maybe some fuses just blew," suggested Haden. When both of his companions looked at him with exasperation, he shrugged. "Hey, you never know."
Malcolm got up from his seat at the console and he checked his own weapons. "Haden, maybe we ought to think about getting you to the designated spot...just in case."
Glaive nodded grimly. "Agreed. Let's go, Haden."
Having already agreed to the terms of his plan, Haden nodded and he gave his firearms a quick check as well, before leaving the control room with his partner and Malcolm.
Vurkanan was now working by candlelight and the afternoon light that filtered in through the big windows in Ammiteo's office. He actually preferred it that way, as opposed to artificial light. When the electricity went out, he demanded that Ammiteo disable the emergency light panels in his office so that they wouldn't interfere with his concentration. The sickly yellow glow they produced bothered him and given that everyone in the room was endowed with Lashran sight, there was truly no need for them. Aurora followed his instructions and lit his four candles at each point of the chalk circle he'd drawn on the floor, and she stood back with Ammiteo as he placed the map in the center and knelt before it. He could have used Ammiteo's desk, but he wasn't comfortable with that.
"Please, Lyre," whispered the lifebearer, beyond caring if his companions detected his little prayer or not. He shut his eyes and spread his hands out over the map. "Help me track him. Help me defend your father's blood."
Perhaps it was the longing in his heart, or maybe it was due to simple desperation, but Vurkanan could have sworn that he felt the presence of someone crouching behind him. He thought he felt a ghost of a touch against his shoulders, as if someone's hands were hovering just over them. He imagined that he could feel the warmth of his deceased mate's breath against his ear, and he felt, rather than heard, the encouraging response.
"I've never left you."
Vurkanan opened his eyes and stared blankly at the map, finding his strength in the presence he sensed—even if it was only his imagination. He poured his will into the spell and he began to chant in a low, soft voice.
Zevian was just sitting down to check his weapons when his suite door opened without anyone knocking. He impulsively drew his guns as someone stepped in, and he lowered them with a perplexed frown when he saw who it was.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he demanded of his lover and the two sharks accompanying him. "You're supposed to be halfway across town, by now!"
"We didn't make it out before the blackout, Boss," explained Johnny.
"It hit just as we made it to the garage," added Therril, "and they locked the place up tight after that. They won't let anyone leave until it's sorted out."
Zevian's gaze immediately went to Azurel and narrowed in suspicion. Seeing this, the lifebearer spread his hands and gave him a convincingly innocent expression of the wrongly accused.
"Why are you looking at me that way, Zev? I didn't do it."
Zevian gritted his teeth, knowing that logically, Azurel couldn't have possibly found a way to bring down the power grid in these facilities in the time he'd had. Still, it was obvious by the poorly hidden relief in the dancer's eyes that the blackout suited his purposes just fine.
"I'm going to try and contact Director Ammiteo about this," informed Zevian with a warning look at Azurel. "We'll get this straightened out and I want you away from here, as soon as possible."
Without waiting for a reply, Zevian produced his mobile phone and he tried calling Ammiteo. After several rings the director picked up, and he spoke in a hushed tone that suggested he wasn't in the ideal situation for chatting.
"What is it, Saber?"
Wary of saying too much over the phone with what was happening, Zevian improvised and he hoped Ammiteo would be able to read between the lines. "I'm sure you've got business to take care of with this outage, Director, but my boys were on their way out of the building when the lights went out. Your people locked the place down and wouldn't let them leave, and it's very important that they make this meeting. Do you think you can clear this up for us?"
Ammiteo sighed. "I wish I could help you with that, but I'm still on probation and my clearance hasn't been fully restored, just yet. Even if it were, I couldn't breach protocol during a lockdown like this. There's been a breach and there can't be any exceptions. I'm afraid your people will just have to remain here, until things clear up."
Zevian glanced at his lover and turned away, lowering his voice and speaking through his teeth. "That's not going to work for me, Director. We talked about this. What about Kent, can he do anything for me?"
"I'm sorry," apologized Ammiteo again, "But neither of us can do what you ask under these conditions. If you need me to send someone to help you, I'll be happy to do so."
Zevian sighed and shook his head. Only two agents had the meat to take on Tsyther without heavy backup, as far as he was concerned. One of them would be working with him on the plan and the other was currently across the ocean, getting therapy. Impressive though their combat skills were, he doubted any of the other Ulvari or Knights could protect Azurel much better than Therril and Johnny.
"Thanks, I'll take care of it myself."
Before he could hang up, Ammiteo gave him a covert reminder. "Do you have the statement I asked you to prepare?"
Zevian frowned in ignorance, utterly clueless for a moment. He was sure Ammiteo was using code speak too, but he was so frustrated he had no idea what he was actually asking. "The statement? Refresh my memory."
"I gave you a document after lunch," explained the director in a remarkably casual tone. "Concerning your part in the case. Are you going to fill it out?"
The guild lord still had no bloody idea what he was talking about, so he cast his mind back through the day and mentally retraced the events. He remembered the communication device Ammiteo gave to him, nestled safely in the pocket of his blazer. The director was trying to tell him it was time to make final preparations and test his transmitter. They were all supposedly synched to a secure frequency that wasn't linked to the organization's typical channels.
"Yes," answered Zevian at last, patting his pocket. "I've got it and I'll fill it out as soon as I take care of my little issue."
"Good. Don't put it off, Mr. Saber."
Zevian grimaced, catching the warning in his tone. "Right. I'll let you get back to whatever you were doing."
He ended the call and he turned to regard his companions grimly. Thinking quickly, he went to the closet and procured one of his spares from a hidden compartment in his suitcase. It was an older model pistol with a cylindrical bullet chamber, rather than a magazine for ammo. The old revolver was just as accurate as its modern cousins and it fired rounds powerful enough to penetrate even some modern forms of body armor. It was Zevian's first good firearm, and he'd kept it in top condition. He always kept it close, as much for sentimental value as for appreciation of a masterpiece of weaponry. He found the ammo case for it and he glanced askew at his curious lover as he started loading it.
"Think you can use this when it counts, love?"
Azurel's ruby gaze dropped to the black pearl-handled weapon, and it widened when he recognized it as Zevian's "baby". He nodded, raising his eyes to the sire's face. "I learned from the best."
Zevian finished loading the weapon and he checked the sight and made sure the safety was on before handing it over. He held Azurel's eyes with his own as the lifebearer took it almost reverently, and he took a slow breath. He reached out and caressed the dancer's face, speaking in a voice pitched for Azurel's ears alone. His men politely moved to the other side of the suite to give them a little privacy.
"You remember what I taught you about shooting?" Zevian urged. "What's the first rule, kid?"
"Don't point it unless you're going to fire it," answered the lifebearer immediately. He slipped the gun into his jacket and gave Zevian a little smile. "I remember everything you taught me, boss. You even said I had great aim, the last time we practiced together."
"That was against a target," reminded Zevian seriously, "not a living thing. You've got great accuracy against a bulls-eye and practice dummies, but morals come into play when you've got a person in your sights. If it comes down to them or you, don't hesitate. Is that clear?"
Azurel sobered and nodded in understanding. "Of course, Zev. I may have lost my nerve with you when we first met, but that was a different circumstance. I think I can pull the trigger when it really matters."
Zevian stroked the dancer's long, silky hair and he admired the way it shone as it caught a beam of the orange, late afternoon sunlight coming in through one of the windows. The sun would be setting soon, and whether he was on this continent yet or not, Tsyther was most likely to make his move after nightfall.
"I hope you don't have to put that to the test, baby."
He sighed again, wishing he had the power to teleport Azurel somewhere safe, far away from here. He frowned and considered Vurkanan. The sorcerer should be in the building by now, possibly in Ammiteo's office. Even if he hadn't arrived yet, it wouldn't hurt to leave a message with the director or Aurora for him.
"Zevian?" Azurel frowned in confusion when the guild lord put an arm around his waist and urged him toward the door.
"Come on," said Zevian, speaking to all three of his companions. "I've got one last card to play before I'm ready to resign myself to you being stuck in this place while this happens."
-To be continued