The Four Cardinals of the EOA were sitting at the desk in their meeting chamber. On the wall, a news report was on the large screen.
“…Asano is believed to be responsible for what people are calling ‘the Butterflies of Makassar,’ which look so beautiful when filmed from high in the air, but once the colourful wave passed, only black-stained bones are left in their wake. Recently, in the wake of another humanitarian disaster, Asano was recorded warning the League of Heroes that his power was still growing. Many are speculating that we’ve seen exactly that as Asano joined top Global Defense Network members in putting a stop to the tide of wandering dead. GDN members from China and the US have made a big splash…”
Adrien Barbou silenced the report with a remote control. Although he was the new Mr East, he was already no longer the latest Cardinal to join the ranks. The new Mrs South spoke up.
“The Network will try and pin this on us,” she said.
“Was it us?” Barbou asked.
“Of course it wasn’t,” Mrs West barked. She was unhappy with the ally she had cultivated in Barbou being poached by Mr North but was not foolish enough to take it up with Mr North himself. Instead, she kept her ire for the new Mr East. “Why would we be insane enough to bring the world down on us when we’re about to make our final move?”
“Actually,” Mr North said, “I suspect we may bear a connection to this that could lead us to being liable if we don't get to the one responsible first.”
“What connection?” Mrs West asked.
“We have not explored necromancy as a path to power in some years,” Mr North explained. “There was a time, however, when we did conduct some experiments using some of the unique methods to which we have access. I believe what we witnessed in Makassar was an extension of those long-discarded experiments. I can only postulate that the person continuing that research saw hundreds of thousands of dead as an opportunity for field trials.”
“You know who this is?” Mrs South asked.
“I have my suspicions. I believed the individual in question was long dead.”
“He was part of the joint research program,” Barbou guessed.
“Yes,” Mr North said. “The previous Mrs South was meant to have scrubbed all traces of the project but developments surrounding her defection have shown us that she was less thorough than she reported. Mrs South, I will be expecting you to root out any more remnants your predecessor left unchecked. Mr East, I will give you what I have and you can try and beat the Network to the punch and find our necromancer first.”
“The Network has the old Mrs South,” Barbou said. “I’m unlikely to find him first unless you know something to give me a head start.”
“I do not,” Mr North said. “I fully anticipate the task being impossible, but we might get lucky. Mrs South, your task will be to dig up anything you can that your predecessor left on the joint research project. If the Network attempts to paint us as the perpetrators of Makassar, I want ammunition that paints us all the same colour.”
“And what about the final step in our plan?” Mrs West asked. “Will you be conducting that yourself?”
“I will leave the endgame in your capable hands,” Mr North told her. “I am handing off full control of the final stage to you.”
“I am aware that with the rapid changes in our leadership structure under the pressure of current events, you have not been entirely satisfied with the outcomes,” Mr North said. “I can think of no better demonstration that you are valued and trusted than to give you complete control over the final stage of the plan. You are versed in all the particulars and familiar with all the players. I have been preparing you for this for a long time, Mrs West.”
“Thank you,” Mrs West said, visibly shaken. “But if I’m going to be in charge of the final stage, then what are you going to be doing?”
“Revisiting old affairs,” Mr North said. “The time has come to make an acquaintance I have been anticipating for centuries before he was even born.”
The Network’s category three tactical operatives once more poured into Makassar from around the world. This time the focus was on those with powers to contain the specific threat at hand, although most silver-rankers had some answer to numerical danger. Most essence abilities were tactical in nature and affected a small handful of targets at best. It was at silver-rank that most essence-users found themselves better equipped to confront groups.
The undead were not a danger in the way the monsters had been. The city had been evacuated of the living and the risen dead had individual strength akin to a low-end bronze monster, and a mediocre one at that. They also were slow and completely lacking in exotic or even basic ranged attacks. This meant that bronze-rankers could be mobilised to add to the damage.
Unfortunately, the one area the zombies were at a silver-rank standard was in resilience. With silver-rank damage reduction and silver-rank durability, the ocean of animate dead was a difficult tide to push back. Rather than pour on less effective damage, the bronze-rankers were used to bait the unthinking undead, luring them into clusters to maximise the area attacks of the silver-rankers.
The undead were little threat to even bronze-rankers. The danger was not in confronting the hordes forming across the city but containing them. So long as they were kept from the evacuation points containing the city’s surviving populace, the animate dead were a horrific but unimposing enemy.
After exhausting their mana and stamina, bronze and silver-rankers alike were pulled back to recover. The Network spared no expense in their use of spirit coins and potions to get them heading back out as quickly as possible. The biggest problem in dealing with the undead was their numbers and toughness although, in certain corners of the city, the dead were being swept aside as if by a cleansing wind.
A healer from the United States with the life essence had an aura that infused the people around him with life energy. Normally this increased the effectiveness of healing powers, which he could employ discriminately to affect only allies or everyone within the range of his aura. As one of the USA's elite, he fully explored the capability of his powers and found a potent interaction. When his life magic came into conflict with the death magic animating the zombies, the reaction was literally explosive, sending detonated gobbets of dead flesh scattering over the area. He could literally annihilate waves of undead, simply by walking amongst them as flying chunks of rot struck his force field and fell to the ground.
As the rest of his essences were magic, renewal and immortal, his abilities didn’t just prevent him from becoming exhausted and needing to stop. He could also replenish other essence users, allowing him to keep them in the field for longer. He was one of a handful that, like Jason, combined a highly effective strategy with unflagging endurance.
The USA and China both finally demonstrated their power on the world stage, where Jason had so long been the focus of attention. Names that were already well known in their home countries were shown in their full power and glory since media were cleared to film from the air due to a lack of airborne danger.
Just as Jason, the US and Chinese silver-rankers were much more capable than the world standard. They demonstrated the fundamental truth that only in finding the synergies within their own power set would an essence user truly become capable. Even so, only a few floated to the top as the richest cream, demonstrating both power and endurance.
Even with an estimated two hundred thousand zombies, there was a constant influx of powerhouse individuals who could fully unleash against a sluggish enemy with no tricks beyond numbers and toughness. Within twenty-four hours, the operation went from desperate containment to a mop-up. The strange, undead giants were dead and the zombies they had animated were reduced to a handful of isolated pockets.
Jason left the cleanup to others, portalling back to Timor-Leste where he had left the others in the capital while he portalled to Makassar with Farrah. Shortly thereafter, a sleek black jet was winging them in the direction of Japan once more. Also aboard with Jason and Farrah were Asya, Akari, Dawn, Erika and Emi. Also joining them was Jason’s grandmother, Yumi, whose essence combination had restored her youthful body.
“Do you think someone is trying to distract you from Japan?” Farrah asked Jason as they all sat together in a passenger cabin.
“No,” Jason said. “I won’t rule it out for the undead, given that someone was acting with deliberation, but I would count it as extremely unlikely. As for the original monster wave, not a chance.”
“Agreed,” Akari said. “No one is going to wipe out a city just to distract one person. With all the pieces that would have to be moved into place for a result that could only be counted as unreliable, it’s simply not a feasible hypothesis.”
“Good points,” Farrah said. “If anything it would have been an assassination attempt. Bait Jason out, have him burn through his mana and strike while he's exposed.”
“That didn't happen, though,” Emi said, as her mother gave her a concerned glance. For the most part, Emi was staying quiet, listening and learning. She knew that her access to the adult conversations was predicated on not interrupting, however much she might really want to.
“Jason’s new level of power meant that he was never pushed in terms of tactics or resources,” Farrah said. “They may have given up without trying after seeing his new power level.
“It still seems like a stretch,” Jason said. “The most likely scenario is that it had nothing to do with me. I’m not much more than a face on TV to most people. The real game is the EOA-Network-Cabal triangle. Makassar happened because, even now, they are jostling each other over petty power-grabs instead of what they should be doing. Outside of a PR perspective, they don’t care about me that much.”
“He’s right,” Asya said. “Jason matters a great deal to the Network internally, but because he’s always refused to subject himself to it, he’s immaterial to the political conflicts with the EOA and the Cabal. He’s been a part of this for less than a year, compared to decades or even centuries of tension and contest. Although he provides the Network with a lot, it’s not enough to tip those ancient scales.”
“I am left wondering how someone even got all of those unliving giant things into Makassar,” Akari said. “They are neither subtle nor small and there were so many of them.”
“Questions the Network is better equipped to deal with than us,” Jason said. “We should leave the investigation to them.”
“I’m not sure they’d want you anyway, after what you told that reporter,” Asya said. “Terrance was fuming when he called me after to give me an earful.”
“Let him fume,” Jason said.
“What did you say?” Yumi asked.
“That every magical faction bears some of the responsibility for Makassar,” Jason said.
“What you said was ‘blood is on every hand,’ which is going to be hitting news reports right around now,” Asya said.
“It’s not untrue,” Jason said. “The EOA caused the situation with the monsters while the Network and the Cabal were so busy scrabbling over petty territorial concerns that they let disaster through the gate they were meant to be guarding.”
“I believe Terrance wanted to lay this at the EOA’s feet.”
“HE DOESN'T GET TO!” Jason roared, leaping out of his chair. “You tell Terrance that if he's more interested in looking like the good guys than being the good guys, the relationship between the Network and myself is about to undergo a fundamental shift. If he wants me to spin the death and subsequent defilement of hundreds of thousands then he is free to come find me and see how that proposal goes when he makes it in person!”
Jason stormed out of the cabin towards the private sleeping cabins in the rear.
“Is Uncle Jason alright?” Emi asked, her voice hesitant in the tense atmosphere.
“He’s alright,” Erika said, reaching out to give her daughter’s hand a squeeze. “He just saw a lot of bad things lately. I’d be more worried if he wasn’t upset.”
“You can’t witness what was done to those poor people without getting angry,” Farrah said. “Unfortunately, we have nowhere to put that anger right now and we need to be cool-headed for when we arrive in Japan. I think your uncle is just trying to burn off some frustration, even if he doesn’t realise that’s what he’s doing.”
Farrah stood up.
“Speaking of which,” she said, “I’m going to take some time for myself. I’ve only seen a zombie horde like that once before, when I was a new adventurer, and this was much worse. Your movies fail to capture the true horror of watching people reduced to grotesque marionettes.”
She also headed for the sleeping cabins.