Posted by: lordkyler | December 5, 2015

Radiance Part XIII: Soldiers of Fate

Previously, our heroes found themselves stranded after the Odessa mistakenly ran afoul of an Anarchist operation. They landed in the mountains for repairs, although they were not greeted kindly by the local wildlife. So, when Aria’s aunt Anata, an Anarchist, arrives with an offer, four members of the party agree to take on a mission in exchange for help and supplies.

The whirr of the engines fought against the blustering wind as the small skycraft pushed through the mountain winds. The rays of twilight slanted through the windows, coloring everything orange, like a photograph stained in dye.

Lady Anata Shanto sat at the helm of the craft, expertly steering through the crosswinds without apparent concern. Ian, Connor, Aria and Drake – the four that had elected to undertake this mission – sat facing her, awaiting her briefing. Drake and Ian sported fresh bandages where they had tended to their gryphon wounds. Ian was still surly about the encounter, but he held his tongue once Anata started talking.

“So, your mission involves a secret government outpost high in the mountains. It is not listed on any official documents, and its crew are not registered agents or soldiers. We believe it is being used for purposes that the government of Foundation cannot publicly acknowledge, most likely magical research or secret weapon tests. On occasion, it also operates as a safehouse or secure transit point.”

“So what’s the plan?” Connor asked. “Wreck the place?”

“Essentially, yes,” Anata replied. “We want you to infiltrate the facility, find out what they’re doing there, and then destroy as much as you can. There’s more too it, though. We want you to frame the attack, make it look as though Fate agents are responsible. This means you’ll have to leave witnesses and plant evidence supporting that story.”

“Are we starting a war here?” Aria asked.

“Not likely. This is a secret facility, and so its destruction cannot be publicly acknowledged. Furthermore, the evidence you’ll be planting isn’t enough to prove that Fate is responsible, only hint. Likely they will retaliate with a precision strike of their own. Tension will be increased, as is our goal, but they won’t declare war over something like this.”

“That’s good to know,” Ian said, “but it doesn’t matter much if we can’t get in and do the job. You have a plan, I presume?”

“Actually, we have two,” Anata said. She nodded to one of her assistants, who handed out folders with a few typewritten pages. “Both of them have an acceptable chance of success, but they rely on very different skill sets. I’ll let you decide which plan sounds more suited to your particular skills.

“Option one: Whatever they’re doing at this outpost produces a significant amount of toxic waste. This waste is disposed via a long shaft, which extends from the facility to a cavern below. We’ve managed to find this cavern and drill a hole into it. With the right equipment, we can get you into the cavern, over the toxic waste, and up the dropshaft. It’s dangerous, but it will get you inside the facility undetected.”

Connor growled in thought as he considered this. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“What’s the other option?” asked Drake, clearly of a similar mind.

“Well, as I’ve said, this facility sometimes functions as a waystation for clandestine operatives. We’ve managed to intercept and decode their transmissions, and we believe we can pose you as government agents.”

“You believe?” Connor asked suspiciously.

“We’re about 90% certain we’re correctly interpreted the messages. We know that an agent is scheduled to come through next week with a female prisoner. If you’re willing, we can make it look like you’re coming in early. Aria could pose as the prisoner, and one of you can impersonate the agent. We have codes and personnel numbers for each of you.”

The group shared glances. “A bit of bluffing seems better than crossing a lake of toxic waste,” Aria said. “You fellows agree?”

Drake and Ian nodded in agreement. Connor merely grunted, but didn’t contradict them. “Very well,” Anata said. “I’ll have my men send the message that the ‘agent’ is coming in early. In the meantime, you have some numbers to memorize. Which of you wants to play the role of the agent?”

Connor laughed. “Not me,” he said brusquely. “Never been one for bald lies or slippery truths.”

“I’d do it, but I have to play the prisoner,” Aria said. “How about you, Drake?”

All eyes swung to the young man, who had been watching the proceedings like an interested bystander. Now he seemed taken aback. “Me?” he asked. “I mean, I suppose I could, if I have time to prepare… but why not Ian? He’s older and better with weapons, to say nothing of the fact that he’s built like a tank.”

“And like a tank, I’m best used when someone else uses me to shoot things or bulldoze folks in my way. Nah, you’re the man for this job, son. Best get to memorizing.”

Drake still looked intimidated, but seemed bolstered by Ian’s confidence. He nodded. “All right then. I’ll do it. Just give me the rest of the journey to get my head around it.”

“Very well,” Anata said. “With these winds, it will be a couple of hours until we arrive. I’ll make the arrangements. Get to work.”

It was nearly midnight by the time the small air-skiff bobbed its way to the docking pier. The facility was nestled within a fold of the rugged mountain slopes. In the darkness, the dull metal of the pier was barely visible, thrusting out into the open air like an outstretched hand. It was barely twenty feet long, with moorings for two ships. Had their ship been much longer, they could not have docked there.

There was only a small space at the end of the pier, with a few steps leading up to a door set in the stone. As the ship pulled into place, red lights slowly came to life, just enough to see the stairs by.

“That’s your cue,” Anata whispered. “All set?”

Aria held up her false handcuffs, and Drake looked at her with a cold aloofness that he had never displayed before. Ian and Connor were swathed in military coats, but their weapons were clearly familiar and at the ready.

“We’ll be hovering around nearby,” Anata said. “If you get into trouble,  just start tapping this transmitter, or press and hold when you’re ready for extraction.” She handed Drake a small pen-like cylinder. “We’ll be within five minutes.”

Drake slipped the device into his pocket and nodded briskly. Moving confidently, he seized Aria firmly by the back of the neck and began walking her along the pier. Aria nearly spun and dropped him before she remembered she was playing a prisoner. She managed to pass it off as simple struggling for the benefit of any watching eyes, and fell roughly into march. Ian and Connor followed, ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice.

By the time they reached the door, however, all of them were wrapped firmly in their cloaks, moving cautiously against a biting wind that tried its hardest to push them from the icy walkway into the bottomless void below. Only Drake did not huddle against the wind, determined to play his part. He kept up a brisk pace, marching them up to the door, where he knocked smartly and tried to stop himself from trembling.

For a moment, it seemed as though the cold had frozen time itself; snow drifted down from above as the wind howled, and the idling of the skiff was the only sign of life. It could not have spent more than a minute waiting, but it felt like an age. Drake shuffled slightly, his breath puffing in the cold air like a steam engine.

There was a slight hiss from the door, and slowly, smoothly, it began to slide open, revealing a dimly lit interior. It wasn’t particularly inviting, with austere stone walls and a second heavy-duty door awaiting them, but it was better than the outside. Drake motioned for his two “assistants” to take possession of the “prisoner,” and waved to the skiff to dismiss it. A lantern flash gave acknowledgement, and the skiff whined as it began to pull away.

The door began to slide down again, grinding into place with finality. There was no going back now. Triumph or perish.

There was a slight hum in the air. Half a second later, electric lights snapped into full brightness, blinding after the eye-straining dimness. There was a scraping sound to their right, and Drake looked over, squinting, to see what had caused it.

A large window spanned the length of the wall, reflective as a mirror in the strong light. The glass was heavily reinforced, with an embedded lattice and steel bars beside. Shooting slits were arranged at regular intervals, allowing defenders to easily fill the holding space with bullets. At the end nearest to the door, a small viewing port had just slid open, revealing a pair of hard gray eyes watching them.

“Agent,” the watcher demanded.

Drake stepped up, keeping a slight distance from the viewport. “About time you got the door open,” he said coldly. The eyes stared unflinching, but seemed to show a flicker of annoyance. Drake dived into his memorized statement. “Agent 41-17 with one prisoner and two deputies, spending one night.”

“Authorization code?”

“Blight 6-6-9-A,” Drake rattled off, sounding impatient. “And before you ask, my personnel number is AO-414.”

The eyes vanished for a moment, and they could hear the faint scratching of pen on paper as the watchman marked this information in his log. “And your prisoner?”

“Incognito, blind op.”

The eyes reappeared, flicking back and forth between Drake and Aria, just briefly. “I’ll need your guards to give me their personnel numbers and designations,” the watchmen said after a moment.

Drake turned to look at his two accomplices, raising an eyebrow. They’d all been given numbers to memorize.

“SU-7891,” Ian said, with only the slightest pause.

“SU…” Connor trailed off, uncomfortably quiet. The guard waited, but Connor had fallen completely silent.

“He’s just been transferred to this division,” Drake bluffed. “Doesn’t have much of a head for numbers.”

“Looks like someone did a number on his head,” Aria quipped. Drake quickly silenced his “prisoner.”

“His number is SU-6293,” he volunteered. “I can vouch for him.”

The eyes that stared back were suspicious, scrutinizing each of them in turn with newfound skepticism. But before anyone could speak, a muted voice came from behind the guard, and he excused himself, slamming the eye-slit shut.

Drake rounded on Connor. “You had an hour to memorize four numbers,” he hissed.  But Connor was not one to be intimidated.

“We may have to fight,” he muttered, not taking his eyes off the windows. “Don’t think they bought it.”

“We’re not in any position to fight here,” Aria hissed. “We are literally trapped in a box. Rats in a cage, fish in a barrel, icewing moths in a myth-damned…”

The eye-slit reopened with a shrill ring. Drake turned back, waiting for the man to speak. No shots had been fired, so there was still a chance they’d been able to pull off their rouse.

“Just had a transmission,” the watchman said. “You’ve been cleared.”

“About time,” Drake said irritably. “It’s too cold to be kept waiting like this.”

“My men will show you to your rooms,” the watchman said blandly. He sounded reluctant to allow them in, but a moment later, the inner door trundled open, revealing another bare concrete room beyond. Two men were waiting at attention, high-powered rifles slung over their shoulder and pistols at their hips. They had the sharp eyes and confident posture of experienced soldiers, prepared to dismantle anyone that stepped out of line.

There were three doors in the room, not counting the one through which they had just come. On their left, a wide rolling door was marked STORAGE, on the opposite wall was a heavy-security door with A, B, and C written above it, and to their right, an open doorway led to a spartan dining room. One of the soldiers gestured to this door, inviting them to take the lead with their prisoner.

They traveled in single file, passing by neatly stacked chairs and an empty table. There were several doorways here as well, one leading to a kitchen, another that was locked, and a third leading to the bedrooms they would be occupying. They trooped in, accompanied by the two guards.

“These bunks can also serve as cells,” one of the guards said, rapping on the heavy-duty locks. “No need to worry about prisoners getting out of them. You can put your prisoner in here, and you can spend the night in the others.”

If the guard was miffed about being evicted from his quarters, he didn’t show it. He opened the door and nearly threw Aria into the cell, then locked it with aplomb. The handle jiggled a moment later, but remained shut. “Door only locks from the outside, so even if she smuggled in some lock picks, she couldn’t get out.”

On the other side of the door, Aria cursed to herself and slipped her lock picks back into her sleeve.

“I assume you’ll want to stay near your prisoner, agent,” the guard said. “You can have the room next to hers, and your assistants can take the rooms on the other side of the block. Danson, if you would?”

The other guard nodded and led Ian and Connor down the hall to an identical pair of rooms. Each of them entered their respective rooms and made pretenses of bedding down for the night. In actuality, they intended to sneak out of their rooms in an hour or so once the guards had grown comfortable with their presence. Drake had a good view of the guard through the bulletproof glass in the door, so he would have a good idea when the men standing guard would grow sleepy.

He was also able to see quite clearly when the guard stepped up and locked him in. From the sudden cries of outrage drifting down the hall, he gathered that Ian and Connor had been locked in their rooms as well.

A familiar pair of eyes appeared at Drake’s window, set in a stern yet triumphant face. “Hello… agent.” the guard captain said. “Except you’re not an agent, are you?” Drake had no answers for this. “Would you like to know who interrupted our little conversation? A call, from Agent 41-17. Now, I know that the Ministry of Special Interests is up to some very unusual projects, but I was not aware that duplication was one of them. And so, I was forced to conclude that we had an imposter at the door. Rather than fight you and risk escape or injury, I decided to entrap you for later questioning. And you walked right into the cells.”

He smirked. “It seems the real agent is actually coming in early as well. What a terrible stroke of luck, eh? A marvelous coincidence. I’m sure it will give you lots to talk about when you meet him in a few hours. A most enlightening conversation, I’m sure.” He glanced briefly at the bare stone walls of the room, and made certain the lock was secure. “Sleep well.”

He stomped off down the corridor, calling for the two guards to make certain there were no problems until the true agent arrived. The guards settled into place, each guarding two rooms, Neither could see the other, but the situation seemed well in hand. Although their prisoners were armed, there was little they could do to escape.

Or so they imagined. Aria was suspicious of the guard’s proclamation that the doors could not be unlocked from within. If that were the case, why did the doors have keyholes on the inside? Even if he had been telling the truth, she had nothing else to do. She set to work.

The guard posted outside heard the sound of scratching at the lock and scowled. Pulling a nightstick from his belt, he stepped over to Aria’s cell to teach the woman some manners. The second he opened the door, Aria leapt backward and threw down a smoke bomb, covering the room in thick, obscuring fog.

Drake saw the disturbance and leapt into action, placing a hand on the silver wire wrapped around his staff. The strand of metal almost seemed to come alive at his touch, unwinding from the staff and waving in the air like a poised cobra. Drake directed the wire into the  lock mechanism and tore it apart with brute force. Normally, the guard would have quickly shot him for this move, but the man was somewhat occupied at the moment.

So was the guard on the other side of the block. As soon as the lock had clicked into place behind Ian, he had pulled out his heavy adjustable wrench and started pounding on the doorknob. The guard had laughed at the useless gesture, telling him that the lock was made from high-quality aluminum and lined with magically-impervious lead.

His laughter was short-lived. Connor had also been busy. Drawing his Makara blade, he had used morphology to amplify his strength, and then attempted to cleave straight through the door. There was an ungodly shriek of metal against metal and shearing glass. The unnaturally strong blade made it through fully half of the door, but in his accelerated haste, he misjudged the angle and the cut skewed, stopping a few inches short of the lock mechanism. Connor’s enhanced strength faded away, and the blade was let trapped in the rent and twisted metal.

Although the attempt had failed, it did serve to distract the guard, who winced at the horrific sound and cursed. Drawing his weapon, he hurried over to Connor’s cell, giving Ian a perfect opportunity to pull out the small welding torch from his pack and begin cutting through the lock in earnest.

The guard rushed up to the door and immediately fired through the cleft with his pistol. Connor ducked to one side, abandoning his attempts to pull the blade free. He ripped his own sidearm from the holster and fired back, causing the guard to dive to one side. They began to trade shots back and forth as sparks flew from Ian’s door.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the cell block, Aria was hiding in the smoke-filled cell. The room was small enough to leave no place to hide, but large enough that she could remain obscured by the thick smoke. She ran to the left, then kicked off the wall to the other side of the room. The guard followed to her original position, nightstick at the ready. Aria took the opportunity to run for the door, but the guard sensed the sudden movement and spun around. He tackled Aria full-body, slamming her against the wall.

It was at this moment that Drake burst through the door and saw the vague forms of the guard with his nightstick against Aria’s throat. Reacting almost by instinct, Drake slammed his staff against the man’s shoulders, staggering him to his knees. Aria could now breathe, but the guard was pinning her legs against the wall, preventing her from escaping.

In a hurry to be free of the guard, Aria used her telekinesis to kick the guard away, throwing him across the room and into the opposite wall. At least, that was her intention. Unfortunately, Drake was in the way. The guard and Drake smashed into the wall and collapsed in a tangle of limbs.

On the other side of the block, Connor and the second guard were still trading shots, until Connor took a moment to duck low and pull his sword free with a shrill ring. The guard moved in close to the cut, intending to get a clean shot on Connor, but he was interrupted by the sound of a shotgun cocking. Ian stood with his weapon leveled. The door of his cell was swinging open, showing the glowing, half-melted locking mechanism he had just cut through. “Hands up,” Ian grunted.

Slowly, the guard raised his hands, dangling his pistol by the trigger guard. “Drop the weapon,” Ian commanded. The guard complied. “Now, against the door.” The man stepped up to the door of Connor’s cell, giving Connor the evil eye as he did. Ian placed the barrel of the shotgun against the guard’s back, and held it there with one hand as he reached to draw his wrench and knock the guard out with it.

Before he could do so, the guard struck. His muscles – already well-defined – grew inhumanely taut and sculpted as he morphologically enhanced his speed. With the speed of a striking snake, the guard lashed his foot backward, striking Ian in the chest with enough force to dent his chestplate. Ian flew backward, dropping his shotgun from the force of the blow. He fell on his back, uninjured, but stunned, and at a major disadvantage.

Meanwhile, Drake and the first guard were struggling to claim the upper hand. Aria dashed forward, whipping out her knife and ramming it into the guard’s shoulder. The distraction allowed Drake to gain the upper hand, and he ended up on top of the heap, attempting to catch the man in a choke hold. The man shrugged off the attempt and reached back, grabbing Drake’s chin in an awkward grip. Instantly, Drake found his mind growing cloudy, and he seemed paralyzed for a moment. Marshaling his willpower, he fought off the strange sensation, and the guard snarled with annoyance.

Aria slashed, scoring a cut on the man’s ribs. The man cursed and renewed his grip on Drake’s face, and Drake found his mind clouded again. This time, he was unable to fight off the foreign influence, and the guard gained control of Drake for a brief moment. He forced Drake to swing his staff directly at Aria, who was coming in for another strike. Caught off-gaurd by this forced betrayal, she failed to avoid the blow, and received a sharp blow to the head, leaving her dazed.

Drake, trapped within his own traitorous body, managed to shake off the guard’s control, gaining command of his limbs once again. Livid with fury at this violation, he brought his staff around, choking the guard with it. As the man tried to push it away, Aria rallied enough to strike; once, twice, thrice. Loss of blood caused the guard to grow weak, and in desperation, he tried to control Drake once more. Although rapidly fading from life, he managed to gain control over Drake once more in the moments before he perished, forcing the young man to draw his knife and stab himself out of pure spite. Drake managed to regain control and halt the blade before it could pierce too deeply into his stomach, but the wound was deep enough to cause trouble.

Fortunately, the guard was finished, his blood spilling out onto the bare floor as the last wisps of the smoke bomb faded away. Drake quickly dug out a bandage, cursing mildly under his breath as he wrapped it around his midsection. “Sorry, Aria,” he said, but she shook her head, indicating that it was okay.

“I hate mind control,” she said. “At least there’s one less out there in the world now. Come on, we should hurry and help the others. I think I heard fighting over there.”

The fighting was still ongoing, despite Ian’s disadvantage. After the guard had knocked him down, Connor had drawn his next-to-last combat lens, charging it with electricity. He snapped it toward the guard like a throwing star, striking him in the face. The carefully-shaped glass shattered into crystal dust, unleashing a concentrated electrical charge. The guard staggered wildly, his own enhanced muscles fighting against him as he stumbled back against the wall, wracked by electrically-induced spasms.

With this sudden advantage, Ian didn’t take the time to stand up. Instead, he drew a flame vial from his pocket and lobbed it at the guard. A direct hit to the face. Pure essence of fire, freed from its confinement, exploded furiously, engulfing the unfortunate guard in voracious flames just as the electricity ceased.

The man convulsed, falling on his backside as his flesh burned. However, he still had the benefit of accelerated speed, and within mere heartbeats he had pulled off his shirt, using it to smother the still-nascent flames. He threw the shirt aside as soon as the flames were quenched, and though his hair still smoked and his skin was badly damaged, he was already healing himself with morphology, his skin flaking and shedding as the damaged tissue sloughed away, replaced by fresh skin. Then the second vial took him in the chest.

This time, the combustable liquid spread further, splashing liquid fire over half the man’s body, lighting him up like a torch. The man screamed and threw himself full-length across the ground, rolling wildly to put out the flames. But he was not quick enough, and his magic was not enough to save him. By the time he had extinguished the flames, he was exhausted, completely unconscious and covered in terrible wounds. It was unlikely he would survive the hour.

Aria and Drake came running up just as the guard’s final screams died away. Quickly averting his eyes from the terrible scene, Drake ran over and used his silver wire to pry Connor’s lock apart.

“Well,” said Aria, once they were all assembled and free.

“Well,” Ian agreed. “Not quite as pretty as sneaking out in the dead of night, but a good deal better than it could have been, considering.”

“Should we abort the mission?” Drake asked nervously. “There’s an agent coming, and we’re sure to run into more guards. They had to hear the fight.”

“No,” Aria said at once. “We’ve got a mission. I doubt we’d be able to escape unless the guards are down, anyway. If we move quickly, we can keep them off-balance, take them four-to-one instead of letting them group. There can’t be too many men in a facility this small. I say we go for it.” The others agreed quickly, and even Drake had to admit that she had a point.

“What’s our plan?” Connor asked. “Can’t tell which way to go around here.”

“I can help with that,” Drake said grimly. He approached the unconscious guard and pressed his fingers to the man’s charred forehead. While Drake had little love for mind-controllers, he had few qualms about reading minds, especially when it came to men like these.

Lost to the world, the guard presented no resistance to Drake’s probe, although his lack of thought made it hard to pick out anything specific. Still, after a few moments, Drake had managed to pry a general idea of the layout from the man’s head.

“They’re producing something in the back of the facility,” he relayed to the rest. “The controls for the base are back there too. The main door in – the one we saw in that first room –  is controlled by a guard and is heavily defended. But there’s a back entrance for maintenance and emergencies. Only the commander has the code to the door, but I think we could force our way through using some of the explosives the Anarchists gave us.”

Connor hefted the backpack containing several sticks of dynamite. “We can get into the controls from there?”

“Yes. I think whatever they’re making has some very specific requirements that take a lot of machinery to maintain. From there, we could sabotage the facility and override the controls to make an escape. The door’s not far, just down here, past the infirmary and kitchen. In the dojo.” He pointed to the hallway in question.

“All right,” Aria said. “Sounds like the best plan we’re likely to get. Let’s hurry. I don’t want to have that agent show up in the middle of the operation.” She drew her knife and led the way, followed by Ian, Connor, and finally Drake, who was keeping a wary eye on the hallway behind them.

Just before they reached the corner of the passageway, there was a clink of falling glass and the sound of heavy breathing. Someone was coming. Aria hurriedly pulled out another smoke bomb and threw it down the hall, banking it off the wall before it detonated. Thick white clouds burst around them once again, shrouding their presence.

Aria and the others surged forward, moving swiftly and softly on the bare floors, stealing through the smoke like ghosts. However, the corridor was longer than Aria had anticipated, and before long, they had passed through the thick of the smoke, and could see the vague lines of the passageway through the haze.

A short distance away, it branched to the right, and there stood a nightmare figure, half-shrouded in smoke. It was a man, shirtless and bald, who stood flexing, as though trying to contain a monster within himself. He held a massive, cleaver-like sword in one knotted fist, and potion bottles were scattered around his feet, dripping the dregs of a half-dozen colorful potions. The man’s eyes were glowing, illuminating the fog around them, and his leering grin was that of a man possessed.

Aria let out a very unprofessional exclamation. “Magic!” she called, stepping back into the smoke. The passage was too narrow to allow much room, and she had to squeeze against the wall to give the other room to run forward. Without her bow, she was not equipped to take on someone like this.

Ian shrugged off his rifle quickly and began trying to load one of his mage-killing golden bullets. Connor pushed past him, preparing his last combat vial with a potent shock of electricity before he snapped it toward the potion-bulked guard.

In a single fluid movement, the guard swung his sword, fingers of lightning twisting up the blade. It intercepted the combat lens in a clean strike. The electrical fields met and surged with a crackling blue burst, and the lens shattered, spent uselessly. Connor seemed to be expecting this outcome, and before the guard had even finished his swing, Connor had drawn his pistol and fired twice, aiming for the man’s exposed heart.

The bullets bent from their prescribed and natural course, impacting the wall further down the corridor with a spray of dust and ricocheting on. Connor had not expected this.

Drake was eager to help, but had not seen how the guard had deflected the bullets. He jumped, trying to see over the heads of his comrades, and launched his silver knife, using telekinesis to send it flying like a missile for the space between’s the guard’s eyes. The knife flew straight, with considerable effort from Drake, but slowed as it approached. The guard swung again, cleaving the metal into two pieces.

With an almost feral grin, the man with the glowing eyes stalked forward, flicking his blade into position as though ready to cleave through the three of them with one stroke. But then Ian fired, and the golden-plated bullet took the man in the shoulder, unaffected by whatever potion of magnetism had kept the more mundane bullets at bay.

The man stumbled back, shocked, as his luminous blood began to spill from the wound, and the light in his eyes flickered and dimmed, betraying his pain. The flesh of the man’s shoulder writhed, as though his muscles were living things, but they could not heal the wound with the golden bullet still reflecting magic away from its presence.

Connor saw his chance and boosted his strength and speed to inhuman levels, darting forward like a panther and taking a spinning leap at the man. The guard was still unnaturally fast, and brought his cleaver up to block the blow. But he wasn’t fast enough, and his blade was only common steel.

Connor cut the inferior blade in two with a clarion ringing sound, and then reversed his grip to bury the point of the sword into the man’s shoulder. The blade was not intended for such stabbing blows, but with Connor’s advanced strength and the sword’s unusual toughness, the force was sufficient to pin him to the wall like a moth in an entomologist’s collection.

Drake shoved past Ian, hastening to help Connor. At a thought, the wire on his spearhead coiled into a conical spearhead, the tip gleaming in the wavering glow of the guard’s eyes. As he thrust his weapon at the man’s chest, however, the silver seemed to rebel against him, going slack and flaccid, so that the loosening coil only compressed against the guard’s chest like a weak spring. The man’s potion-drinking binge must have afforded him protection against silver weapons.

Snarling through the pain, the guard grabbed the protruding hilt of the Makara blade and used it to lift both his legs and kick Connor away with surprising vigor. The blow was sufficient to bruise Connor’s ribs, despite the protection of his still-enhanced muscles. Undaunted by the breathtaking blow, Connor only rebounded against the opposite wall and thrust forward again with his wakizashi. This time, the blade found the guard’s throat, and the man died slowly, gurgling horrifically as the light finally died from his vacant eyes.

Connor growled and pulled both blades free at once, spitting on the corpse that slumped to the ground. “So much for cheap shortcuts,” he grunted, wiping the faintly glowing blood from the blades. “Come on, we don’t have much time.”

They hustled down a short hallway, passing a kitchen, a medical bay, and a radio room,where the ill-timed transmission of the real agent had been received. At the end of the hallway, the space opened up into a small dojo, with mats and staves neatly stacked against the far wall. A nondescript door was set in the wall, with a combination lock above the doorknob and a metal doorframe.

Aria stepped up and gave the lock an experimental twirl. “It’s a solid one,” she said. “It would take me at least ten minutes to crack it.”

At that moment, an alarm began to whine, and red lights along the floor began to pulse like the beating of an angry heart. “I don’t think we have ten minutes,” Ian muttered. “We might need to break out my favorite lockpick: TNT. Connor?”

Connor reached into his pack and pulled out a stick of the explosive substance, along with some containing putty, and slapped it onto the door with a sense of finality. “Stand back,” he grunted. He pulled out his Makara blade and wakizashi and struck one against the other, throwing sparks onto the fuse. The group ran down the hallway and ducked into the radio room.

Bullets zinged past, just missing Connor as they ducked into the room. The captain of the base had arrived, firing a hefty pistol with cold fury. The shots barked as he fired again and again, forcing the intruders to crouch low. The commander stepped forward confidently, keeping them pinned as his angle of fire grew closer and closer to hitting them…

The TNT blew.

The shock wave ripped through the hallway, chased by specters of fire and smoke. The commander, with nothing to shield him from the force of the explosion, was thrown down the corridor violently, and all of them were left with ringing ears and scorched hairs.

Our intrepid heroes did not let this deter them. They filed back out just as quickly as they had entered. The door was hanging bent and haphazardly from its hinges, blackened and crumpled from the force of the explosion. Connor leapt over the twisted metal, followed by Ian and Aria. As Drake was about to follow, the captain stirred, groaning and sitting up with a gun still clutched in one hand.

“Drake, defend the door,” Aria commanded. “This may be the only exit.”

“I think there’s another one further on, but I’m not totally sure,” Drake said.

“Well, we may still need to retreat,” Aria said. “We’ll blow the mechanics and be right out. See what you can do about our friend here. Remember, we need to leave some of them alive.” With that, she ducked back in to the service corridor.

The captain staggered to his feet, swearing like a skyjack. He stalked down the hallway, staring with bitter hatred at the remnants of his door and the young man guarding it. He leveled his pistol at Drake. Drake stooped behind the cover of the door and raised one of his silver knives. The captain scowled and pulled something from his pocket. With one final insult, he threw the object to the ground, filling the dojo with smoke. Drake cursed and readied himself, with no choice but to wait for an enemy that could not be seen, but who know exactly where he was, hoping the man wouldn’t score a lucky shot before the smoke cleared.

The others ran down the service corridor, which took an abrupt left turn. As they rounded the corner, they saw a familiar and entirely unwelcome figure standing between a bank of pipes and a large water tank, half in shadow and yet totally unmistakable. Agent Gray, the man who had single-handedly taken out two groups of hardened criminals within two minutes, the man who had thrown a car with almost unbelievable telekinetic power, the man who had arrested the lot of them without breaking a sweat. The real agent that they had been impersonating.

“Good evening,” the Agent said, sounding as calm and pleasant as a moneyed man sipping tea in his own garden. “I offered you the opportunity to surrender once before, and you rejected my mercy. You will not have that option this time.”

Moving almost languidly, he placed a hand on the truck-sized water tank next to him, the burnished copper reflecting his passive face. He seemed to study his stretched reflection for a heartbeat, and then he threw the water tank at them.

The massive container burst from its housing as though the steel bands were no stronger than twine, and flew through the air with all the unbelievable momentum of a pouncing elephant. Connor, the farthest forward, acted by pure instinct, diving toward the agent and rolling in a tight ball, narrowly avoiding a protruding pipe. Ian and Aria had begun backtracking as soon as the agent spoke, and managed to retreat into the narrow corridor just in time. The tank hit like a battering ram, ringing like a great bell. The stone about them shook with the force of the blow, and the tank dented like a tin can, gaskets blowing open with misty streams. The tank shuddered as the water sloshed around inside it, but remained in place, blocking the corridor. Aria and Ian were trapped, and Connor was alone with the agent.

Drake was not without his own problems, however. Unable to see the commander, he flinched every time a bullet whizzed past, his anger growing with every close call. One of the bullets ricocheted and clipped him on the shoulder. The wound was more annoying than it was dangerous, but it drove home the danger he was in. The smoke still hung in the air, obscuring his vision, and there were some horrific noises echoing down the corridor, throwing off his concentration.

Think, man, think! Drake cursed at himself. Do something! You’re supposed to be smart! His knife and staff were no good here. He would surely be annihilated in hand-to-hand combat with an experienced soldier, and he had no idea where the captain was hiding. If he stepped from the doorway, he risked taking a bullet to the head.

He tallied his inventory quickly in his head, trying to think of anything that would help. His disguise kit was useless, and his crossbow was little better. None of his silver was much good, except maybe… except maybe the three marble-sized silver spheres in his coat pocket. He could use his telekinesis to bounce them back and forth across the room until they hit something. Then he could pummel it into submission without killing anyone. Drake hastily dug them out and threw them into the smoke, then began to sweep them back and forth, picking up speed with each repetition.

Meanwhile, Connor completed his roll, coming up within striking distance of the Agent. Determined to give the Agent as little time to act as possible, he rolled nimbly to his feet, adding the speed of his maneuver to the swing. The Makara blade swung true, on course to remove the Agent’s head from his shoulders. At the last moment, the Agent brought up an arm to block the swing. The blade stopped dead, having barely cut the man’s sleeve and nicking his flesh. Gray had stopped the sword using telekinesis, a trick that Connor had never experienced in his entire career.

Without looking even slightly phased, the Agent twisted and flung out the hand with the sword sticking to it. Connor felt himself seized by an invisible hand, unable to release his sword as he was tossed like a ball from a throwing-stick. He was thrown clear across the large mechanical room, sailing over rows of generators and filters until he glanced off the side wall and hit the floor. Using just a touch of morphology, Connor managed to twist and land obliquely, skidding across the concrete until he came to halt in the corner.

Agent Gray serenely turned his attention to Aria and Ian. They were still trapped behind the water tank, but Aria was currently in the process of moving it. A combination of muscles and mana proved just sufficient to slide the tank noisily out of the way, sending ripples through the rapidly-pooling water. This process used up the last of Aria’s arcane reserves, but they were left with a gap just large enough to slide past.

It did not seem they would get the chance to use it. Moving with sudden, frightening speed, the Agent launched himself into a long jump, his trench coat flapping behind him like the wings of a bird of prey descending on a pair of field mice. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. The Agent’s prematurely graying hair was streamed back with the force of his leap, and his expression betrayed no emotion, only a terrible and unwavering look of purpose. He was prepared to kill them, and in a second, he would do exactly that. What could they do against a man like this?

Ian shot him in the knee.

The gold-tipped bullet was immune to any telekinetic deflection, and tore through the joint easily, leaving a spray of blood across the man’s spotless gray coat. Although the Agent had undoubtedly faced golden weapons before, he seemed utterly astonished that he had been shot. He quickly shoved himself from his original course, barely avoiding Ian’s second shot as he dove behind the water tank, landing with a heavy splash in the water. He was sheltered from Ian and Aria for the moment, but his evasions had left him in clear view of Connor, who had risen to his feet at the other end of the room.

The Agent quickly dug out bandages, using his telekinesis to wrap and tie the cloth with magical speed. Although this task took him only a few seconds, it was long enough for Connor to undertake a desperate plan.

Realizing that there was no way to defeat the Agent in a straight fight, Connor took advantage of the window afforded by Gray’s injury and dug out the rest of the dynamite from his satchel. Lighting the fuse on a nearby furnace pilot light, Connor hurled with satchel at the Agent with as much power as he could muster, hoping the tank would be enough to save Aria and Ian from the blast. Connor dove behind the sturdiest object he could find as the deadly satchel spun through the air.

Distracted by the pain of his injury, Agent Gray did not notice the incoming explosives until they had nearly reached him. He glanced up as he caught the movement out of the corner of his eye, and by reflex pushed it away telekinetically, only noting the hissing fuse after he had shunted it to one side. Once he saw this, he thrust out both hands, hoping to contain the blast, but he was only half successful.

One second, the mechanical room was filled with contentedly whirring machinery and a broken tank, the next it had transformed into a scrapyard. Most of the damage was directed into the far corner, away from both the Agent and Connor, but enough escaped to rock the heavy machinery, bursting pipes, shredding metal, and shattering pistons. Several machines groaned to a halt, others had simply been killed; water and fresh air were now pouring into the room unrestrained, clearing away some of the smoke and dousing the worst of the flames.

Connor, who had sheltered behind his thick overcoat and the furnace’s heat shielding, managed to escape the worst of the wrath, although he had taken some damage from the sheer force of the explosion, as had Aria and Ian. He now stood, drawing his sword. The Agent lay sprawled against the tank, fancy coat lying in a sodden mess around him, wounded leg limp. He looked totally drained, but Connor wasn’t about to be fooled now. He had to strike now, while the main was exhausted and disoriented. It was time to finish the Agent. Connor moved in for the kill, even as Aria began to sneak up from behind.

“58-14-03” Gray croaked. Connor halted mid-stride, staring at the man quizzically.

“What?” Connor asked. He could hear just fine, thanks to a touch of accelerated healing, but he did not know what game Gray was playing at. “What is that?”

“Access code,” Gray said, with no trace of his usual formality. “Override anything in the base. You can use it to get out. Save the girl.”

At this, Aria paused as well, lowering the knife she had been holding at the ready. “The girl?”

“You’ll have to hurry,” Agent Gray said, declining to clarify. “They might decide to trigger the base self-destruct.”

“The commander!” Aria said, and quickly ran down the corridor to see how Drake was doing. Ian pushed his way free of the tank, leveling his gun at the defeated Agent.

“Why should we trust you?” he demanded.

“I am not…” the Agent took a deep breath, as though trying to stifle some internal pain. “I am not your true enemy. You may be the only ones that can stop this now. Save the girl. Get out of here. If we meet again, I cannot promise you mercy. Go quickly.”

Aria reappeared with Drake, who had successfully located the commander. Although the commander had attempted to evade the stinging balls, Drake had been relentless, and when the explosion was triggered, all of the obscuring smoke had been blown away by the residual winds. After that, it had been easy to bludgeon the man into submission.

Connor looked from the Agent to his allies, and then back to the Agent, reading the man with the discerning eye of the soldier. He seemed to find something in the Agent’s eyes, for he nodded, gesturing for the others to follow him. They left the Agent behind, head slumped and form limp. Ian fingered a knife, but Connor gestured for him to leave the man alone.

There was a second access door in the opposite corner, where the dynamite had ended up. It was partially blocked by rubble, but Drake used his powers to clear enough space that they could enter the override code they had just learned. Connor had already forgotten the numbers, so it was Aria who had to squeeze beneath a fallen girder and put in the code. It clicked open easily, allowing them into yet another corridor. It was almost too easy, after all the opposition they had just faced.

Connor took the lead, sliding through the door with sword ready. Drake, Aria, and Ian followed. The hallway was dark, save for the pulsing red emergency lights and small work lights illuminating a series of control panels at regular intervals down the hallway.

“Whatever they’re doing here requires some very specific conditions,” Ian remarked. “Must be why they had so much equipment for a base this small. I think we killed whatever projects they have here, but let me see if I can’t do something about the security.” He began flicking switches and adjusting dials, punching in the code they had learned many times. Gears whirred as the numbers were crunched, and one by one the panels began to go dark.

Connor stalked ahead to the end of the hallway, where a heavy security door marked the base’s control center. As he approached, the door slid open, revealing an exasperated guard. Connor impaled the man before he could even shout a warning, leaving his body without a second glance. “That might be the last of them,” he said tersely. “But the Agent’s airship crew might still be around, and they could have set a countdown.”

Aria nodded. “I’ll plant the evidence and signal the ship. You fellows go see if you can find what they’re doing here. Don’t take long. We need to find this ‘girl’ prisoner and get out of here.”

“No complaints from me,” Drake muttered, and the three of them rounded the corner to find a series of doors marked Bays A, B, and C. Bay C was the nearest, so Drake quickly entered the master code to open the bay doors.

They slid open with a pressurized hiss, revealing a dark room lit only by a few flickering lights. A narrow walkway led into the darkness, lined on either side by long tanks of rich, vividly blue liquid.

Ian pulled out a flashlight and shone it into one of the vats. Inside, metal rods were set at regular intervals. Crystals were growing atop each rod, each one small but perfectly formed. “They look like bluestone crystals,” Ian said. “Are they making them or dissolving them?”

“Didn’t Caleb say that these crystals get weaker as they get smaller?” Drake asked. “I don’t think there would be much point to liquifying them, unless they have some other property to them.”

“They’re probably growing them, then,” Ian agreed. “Perhaps they’re making weapons or running experiments. I’d love to know what they’re up to. If only-”

“Are they valuable?” Connor asked.

“Sure,” Ian replied. “At least a thousand per pound.” He eyed the vats. “Somehow I doubt you want to stick your hand in there.”

“I could pull some out with telekinesis, but we’re short on time and don’t have any way to carry them,” Drake said. “But I think that’s a storage room down at the end.”

It was. It was mere child’s play to disable the locks, revealing a small room with rows of shelves. Protective clothing and tools were hung on the walls, and the shelves were filled with clear, cylindrical containers, each packed with orderly rows of crystals that flickered and sparked behind the glass. Connor grabbed one of the heavy containers and strode out.

“Should we take some too?” asked Drake.

“Still two more bays,” Connor grunted. The others followed him. Just before they closed the doors, Connor fired at the long tanks, shattering the glass. A small tidal wave of blue fluid gushed from the vats, but the door closed before it could spill into the hallway.

Next up was the B Bay. As soon as the door opened, they were hit with a blast of humid air and the scent of damp woods. This bay was just as long as the other, but while the other had been sterile and mechanical, this room was filled with a profusion fungal growths. The walls were lined with half-rotted tree trunks, upon which grew scores of diaphanous, shelf-like mushrooms. They were nearly transparent, but were tinged with black and violet along their outer fringes.

Now that the machines maintaining the atmosphere had been destroyed, the temperature was dropping, and the mushrooms were wilting, curling up against the cold.

“They look magical,” Drake said. “Even if they’re not, they must be worth something if they’re growing them here.” This bay also had a storage room, with air filters and boxes full of preserved mushrooms, which they also pilfered. The box was labelled “Nightspores,” but none of them were familiar with that term.

The final bay was also dedicated to plant life, but instead of being warm and humid, it was cold and dry, although it too was equalizing with the rest of the base, and the vivid orange moss that covered every surface was growing shriveled and gray. Its storage room was filled with bags of faded orange mosses, dehydrated and cut into sheets. It was labelled as “Wandermoss,” also a substance none of them knew. The bag was surprisingly light, and Drake was easily able to hold two in one hand.

Drake tossed some false evidence in each of the bays, and they headed through the deactivated security doors, joining up with Aria. They emerged into the first central room, with the main base storage to their right, and the dining rooms to their left, having completed a full circle around the base.

The alarm lights were still pulsing. and all the doors were half-opened as a result of Ian’s tampering. Wind gusted through from the outside, freezing cold and laced with snowflakes. The only sign of life was a small form stepping cautiously from the darkness of the storage room. It was a young girl with frazzled hair and red, puffy eyes, dressed in a small prisoner’s jumpsuit.

It was the prisoner Agent Gray had brought here. None of them had expected it to be a young girl. As they emerged from the bays, the girl turned to face them, eyes wide with fear, and everyone froze. It was Evangeline Partridge, the kidnapped girl they had been hired to find at the beginning of this mess.

“Evangeline?” Aria asked, disbelieving. The girl suddenly bolted, running for the doors into the arctic cold. Despite wearing only a thin jumpsuit and flimsy slippers, she did not hesitate to try and escape from what she must have thought were more soldiers.

Aria followed instantly, feet flying across the concrete. She used whatever dribbles of magic still remained within her to slow the girl down, just enough for her to slide across the floor on armored knees and catch the young girl just before she made it outside.

“Hey! It’s okay! We’re here to help,” Aria said, trying to be loud and soothing at the same time. The girl screamed, heedless of her words, fighting like a wild thing. She clawed and bit and kicked with no reservations, and all of Aria’s words were useless before her terrified fury. Aria tried to pin the girl and force her to calm down, but before she could manage it, Ian stepped in and caught hold of the girl’s arm with an iron grip, injecting a small vial into her arm.

“Sedative,” he explained to Aria’s horrified look. “We’ve got to get out of here, and we can’t have her killing herself trying to get away. Let’s go.”

Aria, the only one not burdened with plunder, slung the limp girl over her shoulder with a dirty look at Ian, but did not protest. Together, they stepped into the cold, Aria doing her best to keep the poor girl warm. Drake gave the signal to their pick-up craft, which appeared moments later, gliding through the darkness like ghost.

Ian took a moment to disable the other airship docked at the pier, just to make certain they weren’t followed. The rear engine dropped free of its casing, falling down the cliffside until it was swallowed up. There would be no way to chase after them in these conditions, even if there were guards left alive. They could only hope Agent Gray was honest about his intentions to help.

Wordlessly, they flew off into the night, with more than one mission complete, and precious cargo on board.


Or perhaps an Interim

Having destroyed the facility, Anata escorted the band of heroes to their stranded airship, which was now fully repaired and good as new. However, now that the mission that had brought them together was completed, it was decided that perhaps it would be best for each to go their separate ways. This adventure had profoundly influenced the course of the their lives, but now it would lead them each down a different path.

Lilly, Aria, and their friend Qeni took custody of young Evangeline, who had finally come to her senses, although she was still too traumatized to discuss what had happened to her. The three women made a pact to deliver the girl to her next of kin, or, failing that, to go make a new life together somewhere far away from the reach of Foundation. Perhaps they could start a gang of their own in Faith or New Destiny, although they would have to be careful never to attract too much attention, lest agents or bounty hunters come for blood…

After they had sold their plunder to Caleb for sale in the black market, Ian had more than enough to pay his debts, and decided that a new life was in order for him as well. He set off with his share of the cash to the far-away isle of Dawn, where he hoped to find work with an inventor, able to fulfill his passion while staying out of the spotlight.

Drake, now without ties to anyone, gratefully accepted Caleb and Iris’s offer to take him on as a crew-member, honing his skills, fighting for the right to use magic, and finding himself a sort of family. He was quite pleased with the situation, although from that day forth, he always carried a gold-plated crossbow bolt in case he ran across another agent.

But there was one member of the crew who was not content to start over. The unresolved questions ate at Connor every moment, driving out any other thoughts of finding work or retiring. For reasons even he could not fully understand, he felt compelled to see this through. Why had an agent kidnapped a young girl from her home? What was hidden at the locations marked on Fisher’s map? Why was the government of Foundation growing illegal and suspicious magical substances in a hidden base. What else could they be up to?

And so, while the others went forward to forget, boarding airships and trains and boats to places far away, one scarred man strapped on his sword and set off across the mountains alone, determined to discover what lay at the bottom of this conspiracy, wherever it might take him.


And so we come to the end of this tale, at least for now. Two of my brothers, Josh and Gideon, who play Connor and Aria respectively, are leaving for a while, performing full-time missionary work for the LDS church among the Oqidan Japanese people, just as I once did in West Virginia. Since they will be gone for two years, I decided to wrap things up in this session, although there is a chance it could return one day in the future.

Although there were some frustrating moments, I enjoyed hosting these adventures. They have only begun to scratch the surface of the tip of this iceberg, so if we do get the chance to return, there are plenty more adventures in store.

In the meantime, I have another RPG project that may end up on here, more geared toward single sessions. I hope you’ve enjoyed this adventure, and I’d love to know your thoughts about it. Thanks for reading.

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