“Twelve hundred kilometres is the best you can do?” Miranda complained. “And you have to wait an hour between portals? That’s pathetic.”
“Pathetic?” Remy asked incredulously. “Let’s see your portal power, bitch.”
“Remy, calm down,” Sebastian said, then turned on Miranda. “And you keep your damn mouth shut. You don’t like it, go catch a plane.”
“I though we’d be portalling straight to France,” she said. “Where even are we?”
“Kakadu National Park,” Remy said. “We’re in one of the most beautiful places on Earth and you complain. One of the most iconic locations in your own damn country and you don’t even recognise it. How self-absorbed are you?”
They were atop a high rock formation, overlooking a river forest gorge. In the far north of Australia it was still scorching hot despite the season and the winds blowing across their high vantage offered pleasant relief.
“There isn’t an essence user in the world that can portal sixteen thousand kilometres,” Sebastian told Miranda. “There’s only a handful of people that can do a tenth of that.”
“I’ve heard the Chinese have someone they’re trying to get to category four who can do a few thousand at a time,” Remy said, “but that might be just a rumour. Maybe a category four could do sixteen thousand, so feel free to leave and go find one.”
“So much for the great portal master Barbou promised,” Miranda said. “Nothing but excuses.”
“Ellis,” Sebastian warned. “One of us is going to keep your mouth shut. I recommend it’s you.”
“I got you out of that place and this is how you treat me?” Miranda asked.
“You got me into that place.,” Sebastian said. “When you told us about the outworlder, you failed to mention that he was a god damn monster.”
“It’s not my fault a category three can’t take out one category two. You even had the jump on him and you messed it up,” Miranda said. “I’m starting to think I’ve joined a ship of fools.”
Sebastian and Remy shared a glance. Remy nodded and Sebastian shrugged, before raising his arm in Miranda’s direction. Tiny metal hummingbirds were conjured all around him, buzzing forward to plunge their needle beaks into Miranda’s flesh. Sebastian followed up by dashing forward and kicking her square in the chest, sending her sailing over the side of the rock formation, bouncing off it time and again as she tumbled.
“She was right,” Sebastian said. “It is easy to take out a category two.”
“It’s for the best,” Remy said. “No way we’re hopping all the way across Asia and Europe without killing her. A personality like that is practically a suicide note.”
“Adrien won’t be happy about losing her contacts still in the Australian branch if the outworlder survives,” Sebastian said.
“You think he will? The EOA sent a dozen guys, armed up with drones and those silver-rank tracker rockets. And that’s for after his plane gets blown out of the sky.”
“That little prick is a survivor,” Sebastian said. “A hundred says he lives.”
“I’ll take that action.”
“We should let Adrien know about Ellis,” Sebastian said.
“I don’t think he’ll be worried,” Remy said, pulling out his phone. “The only thing he really wanted out of her was getting you free.”
Remy held up his phone, peering at it.
“No signal,” he said. “Can you give me the sat phone?”
Sebastian looked at the spot Miranda, who had the satellite phone, had gone over the edge.
When Jason answered the satellite phone, he didn’t have a chance to speak before the person on the other end started speaking in French.
“Why haven’t you checked in?” the voice on the phone end demanded.
“I’ll tell you all about it when we meet in person,” Jason said.
There was silence on the other end for a long time until the same voice spoke again.
“Am I speaking to Mr Asano?”
“You are,” Jason said. “Am I speaking to Mr Barbou?”
“So you got them to talk. I would have much preferred you just slaughter them all.”
“We don’t have to take such drastic action, Mr Barbou.”
“Is that so?”
“It is,” Jason said. “Now that I’m alive, your prisoner is of little use to you, if any. Whatever you might force from her, the Network will get from me quite freely. I’m going to make you an offer, which I hope you take.”
“And what’s that?”
“Give her up to me, as soon as I arrive in France. I won’t retaliate and I’ll make sure that the Lyon branch doesn’t get shut out from all the things I’ll be providing the Network.”
“That doesn’t sound like something the other branches or the International Committee will sign off on,” Barbou said.
“I don’t care,” Jason said. “I have what everyone wants, which means I get what I want, so long as I’m willing to share.”
“That’s a peaceful offer from the man who killed a bunch of people on television.”
“I’m trying to do things better. Less killing, more diplomacy.”
“What’s to stop you from coming after my head the moment you have her?”
“My need to make a deal ever again. However all this plays out, word is going to get around about what happens between you and me. If I turn on you immediately, my word becomes worthless. That puts my arrangement with the Network under threat, along with any other deal I might want to make in the future.”
“So, you offer forgiveness?” Adrien asked.
“Call it what you like. I’ve been trying to teach myself to let go of the past so it doesn’t poison my future. You and I can go at it, but I don’t care about taking you down. I care about getting her away from you. If letting you go gets me that and coming after you just endangers her, I’m happy to take her and never see you again.”
“You do remember that I tried to have you kidnapped, then I tried to have you killed. Minutes ago.”
“You’re not the first on either count,” Jason said. “I’m still alive and have a new boat, which is how it usually goes. It’s not always a boat, just whatever valuable stuff they have on them. Look, give her up. She has no value to the Network while I’m in play, which is why you’re trying to kill me but that isn’t working out. I can’t speak for the Network, but as you said, you’ve come at me twice now and you’ve seen the results. I think you’re beginning to understand what happens if you don’t turn her over to me.”
“I have to say that your timing is unfortunate.” Adrien said. “The truth is, Mr Asano, that if you made me this offer as little as three days ago, I’d probably have taken it. Unfortunately, the pressure coming down from the International Committee forced me to take steps I can no longer walk back. Otherwise, I never would have risked making these arrangements personally and you and I would have never had this scintillating chat. The Network won’t let me go, even if you do, and I’ve made promises I need your fellow outworlder to keep.”
“There’s no place you can hide that I won’t find sooner or later, Barbou. There’s no place you can run that I can’t follow.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure,” Adrien said. “Some things are beyond even your abilities, as wondrous as I’m sure they are.”
“There are still ways we can settle this,” Jason said. “I know you don’t think so, but you actually can still walk this back.”
“Mr Asano, I think you’re about to find that even you have limits.”
“Pushing my limits is kind of my thing. If you continue on this path, then you will be the means by which I demonstrate that to the magical world at large. Don’t become the example for the next person.”
“And I thought I was arrogant,” Barbou said. “Good hunting, Mr Asano.”
Jason looked at the phone in his hand after Adrien ended the call, resisting the urge to crush it in his hand. He handed the phone to Bruce.
“Unless he was lying,” Jason told him, “Barbou is going rogue from his own branch. Contact your people. This is going five kinds of sideways.”
Adrien was standing on the roof of the abandoned water treatment plant that sat above the subterranean black site. Asano’s continued survival was a frustration but a result he had accounted for in planning his contingencies. The extra days that Paul had bought him with the International Committee was enough to move his loyalists from the black site before Paul realised he was turning on the Network altogether. Once they extracted the asset securely, he could leave it behind.
He made another call on his phone to his EOA contact. The head of the cell he was working with absurdly insisted on going by the code name Heron.
“Heron, your people failed,” Adrien said without preamble.
“Your phone etiquette is very poor,” Heron said. “Perhaps it was not me that failed but the weapons you supplied.”
“We can ascribe blame later,” Adrien said.
“Says the man who’s idea of saying hello is to accuse my people of failure.”
Adrien rolled his eyes.
“I apologise, Heron. Right now, we need to focus on what comes next. Asano survived, which means the IC will come down on us so that he doesn’t break the deal with them.”
“You mean come down on you,” Heron said.
“He took at least some of your people alive, Heron, and they’re talking. If they know about me, you can be certain they know about you. Look, we’ve been working on this for a long time and the outworlder is just a bonus. You want the knowledge and expertise of my people on essence magic for the Engineers of Ascension.”
“If we can bring the secrets of essence magic to the EOA,” Heron said gleefully, “we’ll be propelled to the top levels of the EOA power structure. So long as you hold up your end. Access to the network’s grid. The means to enter incursion spaces. The ways to use essences.”
“My bridges are burned, Heron,” Adrien said. “Our fates are connected, now. Only by making you thrive will I thrive in turn.”
“Alright,” Heron said. “What do you need?”
“I need a team of your elite people to move the asset. She’s a security risk and not all of the personnel here are loyal to me over the Network.”
“Sending them right to the black site is an overt move,” Heron said.
“The time for secrecy is over,” Adrien said. “It’s the time for bold, decisive men to take action.”
“Do we really need her?” Heron asked.
“My people can give you everything the Network has,” Adrien said. “She is the key to the things the Network doesn’t. Yet. The other outworlder is alive and the Network is realising the potential he offers. If we don’t have her, the EOA falls behind all over again.”
“Very well,” Heron said. “I actually have a strong team on standby, close to your location.”
“Heron,” Adrien said. “Did you have a strike team ready to take me out if I double crossed you? I respect that.”
Adrien frowned as he sensed magic from below. It shouldn’t be possible for him to sense the painstakingly contained magic unless something went very wrong with the magical array.
“Heron, I think you should tell your people to hurry.”
A disgruntled-looking Sebastian reached the top of the outcropping after climbing all the way back up.
“Are you sure you couldn’t portal down?” Sebastian asked.
“I have never been to the bottom of this outcropping,” Remy said. “You cannot portal where you have never been. This is a rule of portals. You know this.”
“Then couldn’t we have both gone down and portalled to our next destination from there?”
Remy though it over for a moment.
“Yeah, that could have worked. Did you get it?”
Sebastian took a fistful of smashed electronics from his pocket.
“She landed on it.”
Farrah hadn’t quite completed her mental map of the facility’s magic array, but once they started prepping to move her to another facility she knew she had to act. The first part was the hardest, taking out a pair of bronze-rank guards. Fortunately, one panicked when she made her move and unleashed his strongest attack and she shoved the one she was choking out with her handcuffed arms into its path. Her arms were burned a little but she ignored it. Fire wouldn’t have hurt her if her powers were active.
While the second guard was aghast at killing the first, Farrah took advantage of his shock and moved in, making a weird standing jump because of her leg chains. She grabbed his face, yanking his weight onto one leg as she hooked her own leg behind it and pushed forward. He was slammed into the concrete floor with a jolt and she smashed his head repeatedly into it until she was sure.
That gave her clothes and the keys to her manacles, but not her suppression collar. Forcefully removing it would most likely kill her, so she would have to get a key. The man in charge of the facility, Barbou, had been the one questioning her and kept the key on his person at all times. She would either need to find him or some magical resources to knock out a skeleton key, but she had never found a magical workshop in either her fact-finding escape attempts or as they had dragged her around the facility.
She found some tools in a maintenance storage cupboard and claimed a hammer and chisel. They allowed her to start making small but critical changes to the magic engravings on the walls, carefully altering the flow of magic in the facility’s whole magical array. The magical flow was accumulating and redirecting in ways it was not designed for, and enough small changes would get big results as the excess magic stacked up.
It was a delicate balance as she needed to avoid just breaking the array and having the power drain out. The goal was for magic to gather at roughly the same rate in various points around the facility. That is was working was impressive, given the simple tools at her disposal.
Fortunately, this type of magic was her speciality and before the alarm went out and they realised she was loose, the facility was experiencing areas of dangerous magical build up. Even as security personnel started pounding through the halls, explosions started reverberating through the underground facility.
Personnel were rushing through corridors filled with concrete dust from the repeated explosions. The staccato flickering of the lights was inducing panic; each moment of darkness was a reminder of how far underground they were. Whole chunks of floor, wall and ceiling had become rubble underfoot. In the chaos, her stolen uniform and cap allowed her to blend in, just another panicked staffer.
After setting in motion the chain reaction of blasts from the magical array, she had no more control. She was even caught in the periphery of a blast and slammed into the opposite wall, almost falling unconscious.
She wanted to evacuate with the actual staff, but the exits were the one place security was making strict checks. Instead, she managed to find her way to Barbou’s office, in which she had been questioned several times as he tried carrot over stick. She didn’t expect the key to be present but she spent a few precious moments searching the desk, just in case.
After unsurprisingly not finding it, she made for the strange room that held the non-magical elevating platform. She knew she wouldn’t get it to operate and didn’t try, instead chiselling the lock on the ceiling hatch and pulling herself up and through. There she found a metal rungs set into the concrete that led up the long shaft and started to climb.
At the top she used the chisel to pry open the doors and then forced them open with raw strength. She felt weak without her strength-enhancing ability but she still had the power attribute of an essence user at the peak of bronze.
Shoving open the doors, she staggered into the light. She was in some kind of abandoned building, which was surrounded by a metal mesh fence and then forest, with only one road leading away. Unfortunately, she was not alone.
Barbou was standing with a dozen heavily muscled men and women in dark clothes.
“Well,” Barbou said. “Aren’t you industrious?”