As Promised…

It’s been another crazy week, and I know I did promise to post the first two chapters for you guys and gals.

However, I can’t keep that promise…

Why, you ask?

Because I posted the first three chapters instead.

Please not that this has only gone through a basic round of editing, and is not the final revision (though it should be close). No plot points should change or anything like that (unless I really messed something up in a later chapter haha).

Also, I forgot that WordPress likes to do it’s own type of formatting… sorry about that. I’ve tried to make it as readable as I can (I hope).

Well, enough of me blathering on. Have at it and enjoy!

Chapter 1

Spying the anthropomorphic wolf now holding a gun and moving towards him, John was near halfway to jumping headfirst off the log and diving into the water for cover. He breathed a little better when he realized that Radin the pseudo-werewolf was only handing him back the weapon he had initially come into the swamp with.

“Ah, thanks, Radin,” John said, relieved. “I don’t think Commander Nuretz would appreciate me losing this right off the bat.”

The creature paid little acknowledgement to his gratitude, and merely growled, “You wait here. Noo-retz pick you up soon.”

“Farewell, old friend,” Garh said, watching the creature hop back into the submarine.

John had no idea how far they had travelled through the pitch-black underwater tunnels. The beacons that had illuminated their path were spread so sparsely that they might as well have not been there. Nevertheless, Radin had expertly piloted the relatively small submarine and gotten them to the rendezvous point.

Still, while he had trusted the old man to not place them in unnecessary endanger, he wasn’t altogether unhappy that the ride back to the outskirts of the swamp was over.

“Well, then,” John said to Garh, “Looks like we wait for a bit now.”

***

“Should I even bother asking how you got to this little corner of the swamp with no other boats in sight?”

“Sorry, Commander,” John shook his head. “Trade secrets and all. Plus, even if I told you, I doubt you’d believe me. Hell, I doubt I believe it, and I was there.”

“Sounds about par for the course in these parts,” Nuretz shrugged. Pointing to the sidearm he had previously given John, Nuretz asked, “I trust you didn’t need to use that?”

“Not at all,” John confirmed. “Though, I do have some questions regarding it?”

“You’ll have to take those up with someone smarter than me, I’m afraid,” Nuretz said. “My expertise mostly falls within the practical aspects of using these weapons. Still, I’ll see if I can arrange an audience with a Cluster researcher for you.”

“That’ll be appreciated, though I suspect Ganz, or even Nolan might be a better choice to talk to them,” John admitted. Moving to unclip the holster, he continued, “I’d best be giving this back to you guys as well-”

“Keep it,” Nuretz said, shaking his hand in a dismissive motion. With a chuckle, he added, “Besides, we can’t have our newest admiral going around unarmed.”

With the past night’s escapades still fresh in his mind, John had almost forgotten the fact that he had been issued the honorary rank by the Nebar Cluster. Shaking his head, he said, “Thanks, though you’d better double check that the person who gave me that promotion wasn’t drunk off his rocker.”

“I think Fleet Admiral Krane was relatively sober when he did it,” Nuretz laughed. “Now, I know maths isn’t my strong suit, but I’m quite sure there were initially three of you?”

“Ganz is temporarily helping the old man with something,” John assured him. “We’ll get some sort of signal when he’s ready to come out, I’m assuming.”

“Sounds good,” Nuretz said, not questioning any further. “So, where to now?”

Garh grunted as he hopped into the small boat, extending a hand to John.

 “Back to Iathera, then a hot soak,” John replied, settling as best as he could on the hard seat. “I think our mute friend here might have the same idea in mind, as well. Though, I think we’d both prefer separate baths. No offense, Garh.”

Garh grunted.

John absently wondered if both Nuretz was also aware of Garh’s special status as Iathera’s spymaster, and if they were both comically trying to keep the secret from each other. From what he’d seen of Garh, he wouldn’t put it past the stoic creature’s sense of humour.

“Sounds good to me,” Nuretz agreed. “It’s not a bad swamp, as they go. But, I’ll be glad to see it behind us.”

“Agreed. Let’s pick up your men and head back then.”

***

“Thought I’d deliver this package back to you personally, Lady Venarya.”

“My thanks, Commander, and I appreciate you getting it here in one piece,” Venarya replied, looking at John. If she thought it strange that the little scientist Ganz was missing, her face betrayed nothing. “Also, I think you’d best hurry and check in with Director Rinard and Admiral Krane. I believe they’ve got some new intelligence from the operation at the Gates.”

“It was my next stop, but thanks for the heads up,” Nuretz said. “Anything you can tell me now?”

“Just snippets of information, but it’s a strong possibility that Grandmaster Minardo has decided to come out of exile.”

Nuretz’ expression was one of mild bewilderment.

“Exactly,” was all that Venarya could say, shrugging.

“Well,” Nuretz said with a shrug of his own, “I’d best go see what this is all about. Thanks for the heads up, again.”

“Anytime, Commander,” Venarya smiled. “Take care.”

“You too, Lady Venarya.”

Nuretz now gone, Venarya purposefully walked over to John, now leaning against the wall and wondering if his tired muscles would ever recover from the night’s adventures.

Reaching up one hand and grabbing John behind the neck, she pulled him in until their lips met.

“I wasn’t gone that long,” John joked. “Not that I’m complaining, mind you.”

“Don’t make me spank you.”

“Promises, promises…”

The reunion continued for a few more minutes, and they had now managed to migrate to the living room, when Venarya paused to ask between kisses, “I hope you didn’t dump Ganz off at Rheus’ place? He’ll probably want to get some sleep after all that walking.”

John had to think fast. The only people not in the swamp who knew that Ganz and the old man were now back on earth were John and Garh, and they had both promised Smiljan not to reveal his current whereabouts.

Then, of course, there was the slight issue of John promising Venarya not to experiment with his newfound abilities unless supervised either by herself or Mag. To that end, it would be tricky explaining exactly how the two scientists ended up on earth without using Rheus’ portal.

“Please don’t ruin the moment by mentioning those two,” John joked.

Venarya smiled, but the look in her face showed that she was still expecting an answer.

“He’s with the Old Man,” John said, sidestepping any specifics. “All I know is that Smiljan asked him for a favour, and Ganz seemed pretty keen on the idea of helping him out. And, before you ask, no, I have no idea what that favour was.”

“Hmm,” her look was slightly suspicious, but a quick, devilish smile returned. “Okay, sounds good. Now, how about we try to finish what we started earlier?”

***

“Are we in agreement then?” the woman robed in black asked.

“You tell a good story, I’ll grant that,” Intendant Yazril countered. “However, all I have to go on is your word.”

“Over the centuries, have we ever been known to be deceitful in any of our dealings?”

“Honest truth be told, you lot are so tight-lipped I don’t think you’ve ever had the opportunity,” Yazril answered. “Still, if what you’re saying has even a flicker of truth, I can’t ignore it.”

“So, we have an arrangement?” the woman repeated.

Yazril furrowed her brow, “I’m not the sole decision maker, but you’ve made enough of a case that I will advocate on your behalf.”

“You’ll stress the importance of the situation?”

“I will.” Narrowing her gaze, she added, “For your sake, though, I sincerely hope you’re not playing me for a fool.”

The dark robed woman met her gaze and replied with a resigned tone, “By the end of this, I daresay that you’ll probably wish I had been.”

Chapter 2

“Okay, this joke is going way too far now,” John groaned. “Did I offend one of the gods here or something? And, technically speaking, didn’t we already get interrupted tonight?”

“I’ll talk to Quinn and see if he can sacrifice an orgot or two for you,” Venarya smiled, getting out of the bed and donning a robe. “I’ll be back.”

“And I’ll start getting dressed,” John said, fully expecting the previous scenarios to play out yet again.

Venarya left John and headed downstairs. Opening the door, she wasn’t sure if to be surprised at seeing Intendant Yazril there, accompanied by Garh.

“Sorry about this, Venarya,” Yazril apologized. “This is yet another one of those things that can’t wait.”

“Not at all. Come in,” she said quickly. Closing the door behind them, she asked, “More bad news from the old man?”

“If only,” Yazril said. “It’s probably better if John’s here as well, so we can keep him up to spee-”

“Way ahead of you,” he called out, entering the room and doing up the last of his shirt buttons. “Heard the door and figured I’d save time. Also, hey there, Garh. Long time, no see.”

Garh grunted.

“Ah, thanks. Sorry about the interruption,” Yazril apologized again. “I know you’re probably eager to get some sleep.”

“No trouble,” John assured her. “What’s happening?”

“Do you remember that Sisterhood temple to the South?”

“The one that the giant pyramid blew up with its laser cannons of doom?” John asked. “Yep, I’ve got a vague recollection of it.”

“Well, I just received a visit from one of the Sisters.”

Venarya raised an eyebrow, “Even with that catastrophe, I wouldn’t have expected any of them to show up around here.”

“Not welcome around these parts?” John asked.

“No, nothing like that,” Venarya turned to explain. “They’re reclusive to the point where many people wonder if there’s anyone actually in those temples, and if the Sisterhood’s actually just a fairy tale. The few times I’ve encountered them have been terse, to put it lightly. For the most part, they seem to be singularly dedicated to some obscure mission or task. No one seems to know what it is, though.”

“Until now,” Yazril interjected. “I’ve just been made privy to what appears to be either a great threat, or a great delusion. If it’s true, we’ll all need a few stiff drinks before breakfast.”

“Well then,” John said, slowly realizing that going back to bed wasn’t going to be an option anytime soon. “Let’s all take a seat and get comfortable.”

***

“The Sisterhood claims that their temples,” Yazril began, “serve an integral function to the well-being of everyone on this world.”

“Sounds like every other religious spiel I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard quite a few in my day,” John commented, perhaps a touch more harsh than he intended. “Sorry, go on.”

“She told me of their ancient texts that speak of a time before our own history was well documented.”

“In other words, it’s probably going to be incredibly hard, if not impossible, to verify,” John said. Sighing, he added, “I’m sorry… again. I think the lack of sleep is starting to get to me. Continue, please.”

***

“Before I continue, Intendant, we know about your, shall we say, personal connections,” the robed visitor began. Holding up a hand, she added, “It’s not a threat, just full disclosure. To that end, we know that you have access to a partial record of the events I’m about to relay to you.”

Yazril’s eyes narrowed.

“Rest assured that we have no intention of revealing your secrets.”

“Go on, then,” Yazril said, a tense look still in her eyes. “Tell me about these events.”

“Very well, then. When humans first arrived on Dracsos,” she started, referring to the continent that lay even more west than the Kierdan continent of Diurna, “we came as refugees. On the run from some sort of cataclysm.

She saw curiosity in the eyes of Yazril and held up her hand, “And, before you ask, the nature of this cataclysm is lost even to us. However, we escaped one terror only to be beset by another. Records say that our arrival here was then plagued by a great enemy.”

John curiosity had been piqued by the initial vague statements, and what he really wanted to ask Yazril was, So, who really are you?

Respect for the fact that she would tell him if she deemed it relevant made him ask the second most pertinent question instead.

“So, what you’re saying is that humans aren’t native to this world? How come no one’s mentioned that bit before?”

“It’s been quite a long time, and history is more legend than fact from that era,” Yaztil said. “Historians still squabble over even minor details regarding events that old. Besides, any sane theory that questioned human origins would also have to be able to hypothesize an alternative possible answer to the question of where humans actually came from.”

“I guess that sort of makes sense,” John agreed. “Though, it does sound a little bit far fetched.”

“Don’t be so hasty. The short of it is that it’s probably true. I do have access to some particularly obscure historical records which would tend to indicate that humans, in effect, popped up out of nowhere on Dracsos.”

Venarya’s eyes widened a little.

“I trust you won’t enlighten any of your scholars, Venarya? If the remainder of what I’ve been told is true, this knowledge may be too dangerous to let out into the open.”

“Very well,” Venarya promised. “I’ll have to admit that my people’s own historical accounts don’t extend much beyond our own borders.”

“So, where did the humans initially come from?” John asked.

“Before you got here, I wouldn’t have been able to even postulate a theory,” Yazril replied, one eyebrow raised at John.

John took a second to register what she was implying. “What?! You’re kidding? Earth? How?”

“You’re in a better position to answer that than me,” Yazril shrugged. “Does your world have any historical records of a people fleeing from something and then disappearing?”

“Could be dozens of accounts, for all I know. Hell, everyone here could be a descendant of refugees from Atlantis, for all I know. I mean, I couldn’t even think about where to even start looking to figure that one out. I’m no historian, but I think that our own historical narratives start getting a little spotty even going back a thousand years. Do you know what they were initially escaping from?”

“I don’t, and I don’t believe my guest knew either.”

“Well, we can discuss that after,” Venarya said, steering them back on track. “What else did she say?”

“Do you have any idea who this great enemy was?” Yazril asked her visitor.

“Its precise nature, or even how it manifested itself, is lost to us,” the robed figure admitted. “However, that was not through negligence. It appears that it was deliberately excised from any records, once the enemy had been banished. From what little we can piece together, we suspect that our ancestors thought it wise to do so, lest some fool with too much knowledge should attempt to resurrect the threat.”

“Yes, you had mentioned before that the enemy had been banished, not defeated? Banished to where?”

“That we don’t know. Like I said, we barely managed to scrape together that bit of information from our records. All we know for sure is that when we escaped our predicament, ending up on this world, we unfortunately caught the notice of something. Something that apparently also managed to find its way into this world, but with ill intent. Whatever it was, the state of affairs concluded with it being sent back from whence it came.”

“I don’t suppose you have any texts that are more descriptive than that?”

“Negative,” the figure shook her head. “We’re not even sure how exactly the enemy was banished. All we do know is that we were instructed to construct temples in close proximity to wherever humans settled, lest the enemy find its way back here.”

“Instructed by whom?”

“We don’t know.”

 “Okay, fine. Now, how does a stone building stop an otherworldly enemy from returning?”

“The buildings themselves don’t,” the figure said. “The tasrac devices housed in them do, however.”

“I see. And the device from the temple just south was destroyed in the attack, I assume?”

“No,” the robed figure shook her head. “The device itself is immense, and housed deep under the temple. However, the temples themselves were described to act as an amplifier. With it destroyed, the device’s effectiveness is diminished.”

“What exactly are these devices doing? How do they work?”

“We don’t exactly know.”

“What?” Yazril was getting tired of that answer.

“We were handed down very explicit instructions on how to create the devices, and how to deploy them. Other than that, we know next to nothing regarding their precise function.”

“You never investigated them further in all this time?”

“There was no way to be sure if tampering with even a new and undeployed device would have unforeseen consequences,” the robed figure explained. “Considering the stakes, we didn’t dare risk it.”

“Makes a degree of sense, I guess.”

“Which brings me to the reason I now stand here in front of you. We believe that the temple was deliberately targeted. And, if it was…”

“Then there’s a chance that someone may be trying to subvert your alleged mission?” Yazril completed her train of thought.

“Precisely.”

“Why do you think you were targeted?” Yazril asked. “To me, it looked like the pyramid was just making a show of strength, with you as the unfortunate bystander.”

“And that would have been our conclusion as well, had that been the first temple that we had lost.”

“What?”

“One of our temples on the north coast, the one closest to the Citadel, was laid to waste.”

“The same Citadel that’s currently a warzone? How come I never heard about this?”

“We made sure it wasn’t reported and was kept quiet.”

“What makes you think that that temple was also specifically targeted?”

“It happened right at the start of the war up north,” the robed figure said. “A small strike force made their way directly to us, bypassing quite a few villages and fortifications along the way. They besieged us for two days.”

“Did they manage to take anything of value?”

“Negative,” the robed figure shook her head. “We destroyed the temple ourselves when we realized that defending it was a hopeless cause.”

“Destroyed? How?”

“Unimportant. As it stands, we’re certain this isn’t a coincidence.”

“I see,” Yazril said, noting her reticence to answer the question for later. “So, this temple up north isn’t serving whatever function it’s supposed to?”

“Not exactly. We destroyed only the above-ground structure. Similar to the situation here, the underground device is still operational, albeit quite diminished. Some Sisters remain there to maintain it as well as they can. Whoever attacked us, we can only assume that they don’t realize exactly how the devices are constructed and housed.”

“This is all fascinating,” Yazril said. “But what do you expect us to do?”

“We desire a favour from you, Intendant,” the robed figure said. “Something in the way of a contingency plan, should any more of our temples fall.”

Venarya raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

“And, I’m afraid I’ll have to omit this part of the story,” Yazril said, sounding sincerely apologetic.

“What!” John exclaimed. “Come on! That’s a bit like ripping the last page out of a novel and then putting it back on the library shelves.”

“Believe me, I would tell you if I could,” Yazril said. “However, I myself am under certain… restrictions for the time being.”

“How are we supposed to implement this contingency plan of theirs, then?” Venarya asked, a little bemused.

“That part is solely on my plate, I’m afraid,” Yazril explained. “But, I did manage to wrangle one concession out of her. Which, incidentally, is part of the reason I’m standing here at this hour.”

“Very well, you have a deal,” Yazril told the robed woman. “But, I’ll need an act of good faith on your part.”

“That is reasonable. Go on.”

“I’d like to have my people examine a copy of the instructions for those devices.”

“Excuse me?” It was the first time so far Yazril had seen the woman come close to losing her composure.

“I have access to trustworthy resources that might be able to shed light on their precise function,” Yazril explained. “Considering the stakes you claim, and should the worst happen, don’t you agree that it would be wise to have yet another potential fallback plan?”

The figure stood silent for a few moments, lost in thought. Finally, she opened her mouth, “Agreed. But, I implore you, please exercise caution when sharing this information.”

“You have my word.”

“Wow…” was all Venarya could say.

“Exactly,” Yazril said. “Someone should be bringing you three copies of those instructions today. One is for Rheus and yourself, one for John and his friends, and one for the Old Man. Garh will pick it up from you and transport it to him, once it’s delivered.”

John then realized he was in a bit of a pickle, seeing as how no one else was supposed to know that he had temporarily taken Smiljan back to earth as a favour.

“Ah…” John began, then trailed off as he noticed Garh giving him a slight shake of his head.

“Yes?” Yazril turned to him, and Venarya followed suit.

“Never mind, just a lack of sleep catching up with me again. Sounds like a plan.”

“Now,” Yazril continued, “regarding the part of the conversation that I can’t mention, I’ll be going away for a few days. Hopefully less. However, considering the situation, I can’t leave us headless. Venarya, you’ll be in charge of the city.”

“I’ll take good care of it, Yazril,” Venarya promised. “I expect Krane, Petrarca, and Nolan will be more integral in the decision making while you’re gone, though.”

“Agreed, just see they don’t turn it entirely into a military encampment.”

“I promise,” Venarya smiled.

“Now, I’ll be needing access to the tunnels here,” Yazril said. “I trust there’s no one using any of those buildings?”

Venarya blinked in surprise, “Yes, they’re all currently empty. I take it you’re leaving immediately?”

“Yes, unfortunately,” Yazril said, standing. “Now, seeing as how I’ll be out of contact, is there anything I’ve forgotten to mention, or anything you need?”

“That’s a loaded question,” John chuckled. “But, assuming your unexpected guest comes through on her promise, I think we’ve got all we need for now.”

“Agreed,” Venarya said.

“Very well, then. I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Yazril said. “I do have one more request, John. More in the way of a favour, actually.”

“I’ll certainly try to oblige, if I can.”

“May I borrow Jensen?”

Chapter 3

“Are you sure we won’t be leaving The Gates defenseless again?” Venarya asked.

“Even with the two thousand troops that we’re pulling back, that still leaves over three thousand Rangers and Cluster armed forces to maintain watch,” Krane assured her. “A sneak attack won’t succeed again with those types of odds, and an enemy army will make too much noise to catch us unawares.”

“Plus,” Nolan added, “in the event that we do need to abandon the fort, our men should be able to move around the southern part of the jungle, and make their way to the coast. There’s just too much area for an enemy to cover if they feel stupid enough to try to blockade the whole forest.”

“And if they try to attack the ships?” John asked.

“Our ships have been told to run like hell at the first sign of trouble,” Nolan said. “It just means our boys will have a longer walk home from The Gates.”

“And with the amount of traffic we’ve got going back and forth there right now, there’s no way someone won’t see something wonky before it gets bothersome,” Petrarca said.

“What traffic?” Venarya asked.

“Ah, sorry, I think we forgot to mention that,” Krane apologized. “We’ve got quite a few shipments of construction supplies being sent over there. Considering the size of the fort, though, it won’t be enough to make the place unassailable. But, it’ll add a little more defense for our boys.”

“Okay, you’ve sold me,” Venarya said. “Just remember to be careful, in case they try another assault to destroy The Gates for good this time.”

“I doubt they will,” Petrarca said. “They had ample opportunity to set the place ablaze the last time. I think they’ve got what they wanted. Or, whoever gave them their orders got what they wanted out of this.”

“Which is another issue we’ll have to deal with after this,” Venarya said. “We need to get ahead in this little game we’ve been suckered into playing.”

“Agreed,” Krane said. “But, for now, those two thousand troops will be integral in our assault on the pyramid tonight.”

“Speaking of which,” John said, “are you sure you’re able to get the breaching explosives together, Nolan?”

“Well, it would have been helpful if you didn’t leave the only scientist from earth over in the middle of a swamp,” Nolan said in a flat tone. “But, I should be able to cobble something together.”

“I can probably help with that,” came a voice from the couch in the next room.

John had thought that the eccentric man with the prodigious beard had finally decided to catch up on his sleep, now that Ganz had taken temporary leave.

“I thought I told you to get some rest,” Venarya called out.

“And miss all this?” Rheus chuckled. “You must be even more crazy than you think I am.”

“Rheus,” John began, “are you sure?”

“Of course.”

Nolan looked like Rheus had offered to kick him in the head.

“Fine, then. But, I want Nolan supervising you,” John said.

Nolan now looked like John had also tendered an offer for a supplemental kicking.

***

“Well, looks like everything’s ready for tonight,” John said, watching the group walking away to begin their preparations. “Though, with the luck we’ve been having, I’m fully expecting an asteroid to fall from the sky just before we start the assault.”

“Don’t tempt fate,” Venarya chuckled, though her mind seemed elsewhere, clearly occupied by the prospect of pondering any necessary contingencies.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” John said, making an attempt to reassure her. “We’re about due for some good luck, I’d say.”

“You should know better than to try to lie to me,” Venarya said with mock sternness, then smiled, “But, thanks for trying.”

“Anything to bring you back to the present,” John joked. “Though, I’m really curious as to what Yazril needs Jensen for? I guess we’ll find out when he gets back with her. Er… he is coming back, right? You don’t think Yazril needs his life essence for some arcane ritual or something?”

“Idiot,” Venarya smirked. “I couldn’t even begin to guess. You’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Figured as much,” John shrugged. “I just hope he’s not too disappointed in not being able to partake in the little raid tonight on the pyramid.”

Venarya laughed. “You must really be suffering from a lack of sleep if you think Nolan had any inkling of letting him join in.”

“Ah, yes, I’d forgotten about our local nursemaid,” John chuckled. “Plus, we’d probably get no end of grief from Mel if we got her favourite dog walker killed. Do you think that’s why Yazril took him? To get him out of harm’s way as a favour to us?”

Venarya shook her head, “I doubt it. She sounded like she had enough to worry about already. She’s got her reasons though, I’m sure.”

“Speaking of Nolan, he had made a request to me prior. It makes sense, but I figured I’d run it past you in private first?”

“Go ahead.”

“You know about Doyle?” John asked, still not exactly sure how much she had managed to extract from his mind on that first night.

“Of course, and it makes sense.”

“But, I didn’t even ask the question yet?”

“I’m assuming that Nolan wants to bring Doyle here, yes?” Venarya said. “And the answer is that I agree. Armies won’t win this game. We need strong minds who can get to the bottom of what exactly is happening.”

“Hence, Doyle?”

“Yes,” Venarya confirmed. “I gathered that you highly regard their investigative skills?”

“To say the least,” John said. “I remember Mel being so intent on making sure that we hired Doyle that she invented the position of Chief Audit Officer. And you know how hard she is to please.”

Venarya smiled, “One of these days, she’ll be in the room and you won’t know it.”

“Won’t be the first time,” John laughed. “I can run faster than Mel, anyway.”

“Well, if you can get Doyle here, I won’t object.”

“I don’t think the getting part will be a problem,” John said. “I can almost guarantee that Doyle will be even keener at snapping up this opportunity than Ganz. Though, at least this time I won’t have to worry about finding a human-sized leash.”

“So, you’re headed back now?”

“In a little bit. I figure I’d give Yazril’s new friends an hour or so to show up,” John said. “I can’t help but being more than a little intrigued by them.”

“Can’t say I blame you,” Venarya said. Peering into the distance, she added, “And, speak of the devil…”

John looked off to the distance to see what could only be a contingent of Freewater Rangers, accompanying a black robed figure.

As they drew closer, John almost involuntarily winced upon seeing the identity of one of the Rangers.

“Kitam!” John called out when they got into earshot. “I thought you’d gone to The Gates?”

“Oh! Hi there, John! I just got back,” the talkative Ranger started. “I was there though, and at Admiral Ancor’s side pretty much the whole time. But, then he said I was needed for a special mission. Needed to bring back all the intelligence that we collected back there safely. Even let me use his fastest ship! Said nothing was too quick for me-”

“Glad to hear that,” John cut her off, hoping to quell her before she built up too much steam. “I see you’ve brought a friend for us.”

“Ah, yes,” Kitam indicated the silent figure. “The Intendant left instructions with the guards at the city gates to make sure she got here in one piece. Though, I don’t really think there’s much danger in the city itself-”

“But we can’t be too sure,” Venarya smiled. “Thank you again for your diligence, Kitam. We can take it from here.”

“Any time, Lady Venarya. It’s what you guys pay us for, after all,” Kitam beamed. “Send a message if you need anything else and we’ll come running. That goes for you too, John. And don’t you forget about my offer when this is all over!”

John was hoping that she had forgotten about her offer of a tour of the city, and was definitely sure he saw one of the other Rangers holding back a snicker. It took all his will to force an eager smile and reply, “Most definitely, Kitam. I promise!”

As the Rangers departed, Venarya turned to the figure and said, “I’m Administrator Venarya, and this is John, a trusted adviser.”

The figure stepped forward and gave a formal bow. She threw back her cowl to reveal a sharp featured, yet striking, face. A melodic voice said, “I am Sarasel. Judging from a lack of the Intendant’s presence, am I correct in assuming that she has departed to initiate her part of our arrangement?”

“Indeed,” Venarya said. “I’m currently in charge until she returns.”

“In that case, I’m here to assist with research into these,” Sarasel said, indicating the pouch she carried in one arm.

One of Venarya’s eyebrows crept up, “Am I to understand we’ll be chaperoned while we study these documents?”

“Nothing of the sort, Lady Venarya,” Sarasel replied, handing the pouch to Venarya. “My presence here is merely a gesture of goodwill. You are free to do with the manuscripts as you see fit. Should you have any questions regarding them, I’m to assist you to the best of my ability. However, should you prefer my departure, I will not object.”

Venarya thought for a second, then replied, “That won’t be necessary. I-”

She cut short her sentence as she spied a large figure making its way to them, and continued, “Ah, here’s the Intendant’s valet. He’ll be aiding us in delivering one set of documents. I’m afraid I can’t reveal his precise destination to you.”

Sarasel turned to see Garh walking up, but if showed any discomfort at the sight of the mute giant, she hid it well. She gave Garh a calm nod and turned back to Venarya.

“Now, there are three copies of the manuscripts in here?” Venarya asked.

“That is correct. There are three envelopes within that pouch.”

“Perfect.” Venarya continued, “John and Garh will each take a copy, while the third remains here with me. Do you object to that?”

“None,” Sarasel replied. “As I said, they are yours to do with as you see fit.”

“Very well,” Venarya said. “I’m assuming you have no current accommodation plans?”

“None in this city, no.”

“I’ll get you situated in some nearby quarters, then,” Venarya said. Opening the pouch, she took out two envelopes and handed them out. “Garh, do you mind seeing John safely back home before making your delivery?”

Garh nodded and grunted in what John assumed to be the affirmative.

“In that case, we’ve all got business to take care of, and I’ll see you two later,” Venarya smiled. “John, I’ll meet you back here in a few hours?”

“Sounds about right, but it all depends on Doyle,” John said. “But, I’ll try to send back word in case of anything.”

***

As expected, the walk back to Rheus’s workshop had been a silent one. However, even once inside the workshop, Garh kept up the pretense and remained mute. John wondered if maybe Garh wasn’t letting his paranoia get the better of him, then remembered himself having similar ponderings of being covertly observed even when inside Tesla’s swamp fortress.

John did wonder if Garh intended to give him Tesla’s letter. Taking an idle look at the envelopes, he blinked in amazement. His envelope was noticeably bulkier than the one Garh carried, and wondered how the giant had managed that. It took a second to realize that he had handed his letter to Garh to hold while he had tried to remove a rock from his shoe earlier.

I guess he’s Yazril’s spymaster for good reasons, then.

“Well, thanks for the escort here, Garh,” John said. Holding up his envelope, he added, “I’ll see that this gets to the right place.”

John could swear that the giant gave a slight smile to accompany his usual grunt.

Wasting no more time, John then mentally signalled the portal to begin bridging the void between worlds, and watched as the light dancing in the stone arch eventually settled itself, revealing a shimmering image of his living room back on earth.

Stepping through, John gave the room a cursory sweep with his eyes. Despite the low odds of any probable foul play, John still couldn’t help feeling a touch paranoid himself.

Guess being involved in a war can really mess with your thinking.

Seeing nothing amiss, he turned, gave a wave to Garh, then mentally deactivated the portal.

His next priority was now to get to the main offices in New York. Normally a plane ride and a border crossing away, he had somewhat accidentally discovered the ability to create portals between locations on earth.

Picking up his mobile phone from its charger, he sent a quick message to his sister Sophia to check if the coast was clear in the penthouse above the main offices.

The reply came back almost immediately, No one here. Use the wall on the south side of your old bedroom. Also, if you’d bothered to look at your email first, you’d have realized that there’s now a secure camera link that you can use to check it yourself!

John winced. So much for being the nice sister.

He headed to his computer. As stated, there was an email from Sophia with a secure link to a camera feed from the living room of the penthouse, along with a note saying that the before-mentioned wall on his bedroom had been cleared of ‘debris’. Hope they didn’t toss out my Hulk Hogan poster.

He walked back to the wall now reserved for portal activities, and began the mental process of constructing a bridge to his old bedroom. Wisps of fog began to appear and started swirling. As the sideways hurricane grew larger, it began to glow an iridescent white. Eventually, the glow subsided and the light coalesced into a shimmering portal, through which he could clearly see his old room.

He quickly made his way across the threshold and deactivated the portal. Looking around, he noticed that the poster was indeed gone.

Oh, well.

Putting aside nostalgia for the time being, he opened the bedroom door, dashed down the hallway into the living room, and ran straight into Sophia.

“Nice to see you too,” Sophia said, getting up. “Also, ouch.”

“Sorry, sis,” John apologized, offering a hand to help her up. “Just in a hurry to make sure Ganz isn’t about to blow up the building or something.”

“He’s doing fine,” Sophia said. “I just checked up on him not too long ago. Now, care to explain why exactly we’ve got a long-thought-dead mad scientist working in a now-secret laboratory in our building?”

“Well, I couldn’t exactly call him mad-”

“Johnny…,” her voice carried subtle but menacing undertones.

“Sorry,” John held up his hands. “The truth is that I don’t really know. I do have his assurance that whatever he’s doing isn’t any threat to us. Plus, Ganz is watching him.”

“Oh, that makes me feel real safe.”

“You been hanging around Mel recently?”

“Funny,” Sophia said, but visibly less agitated. “It’s just that these favours for your new friends are starting to add up, financially speaking.”

“You’re worried about that?” John exclaimed, slightly confused. “We could afford to do this again a hundred times over and not even notice it on the books. This isn’t even a rounding error at this point.”

“Agreed, the money itself isn’t the issue,” Sophia said. “The problem is who might notice the money being moved around. Our chief auditor is particularly adept at catching these rounding errors, as you call them. And, I’d prefer not to have to explain this whole business to Doyle.”

“Ah,” John said. “Well, actually, speaking about that…”

***

“I’m dead,” Sophia said. “I must be dead.”

“What?” John said, having finished his explanation, and now waiting for Sophia’s answer regarding Doyle.

“I’m dead,” Sophia repeated. “That’s the only explanation. I’m in hell, and this is my punishment. To have you torturing me with ever escalating, heart-attack inducing requests for eternity.”

“So, I have your blessing to recruit Doyle?”

Sophia glared at him, then shook her head in dismay, “Sure, just make sure you know what you’re doing. Now, I’m going to go see if the upstairs window opens. Maybe I can wake up from this dream by jumping out.”

“I love you too, sis,” John got up and gave her a quick peck on the cheek.

“Don’t think I’m not keeping a running tab for you.”

“I wouldn’t dare think otherwise,” John grinned at her. Turning to leave, he thought of something. There really wasn’t a good reason to give the second set of papers to Rheus at the moment, seeing as how he was sharing office space with Smiljan. With as sweet a smile as he could muster, John added, “Also, do you mind keeping this pouch inside your safe for me?”

***

“John!” Ganz exclaimed. “What’s up? Wasn’t expecting you back so soon.”

“Hello, John,” Smiljan said, walking around from the back of whatever piece of equipment they were working on. “I assume there’s been another recent development?”

“And you’d be right,” John said, taking out the first parcel of papers and handing it to him. “But, not the bad sort. Not exactly, anyways. I’m here to bring this to you.”

“What’s this, then?” Smiljan said, poring over the documents. His eyes widened slightly and he looked up, “Where did you get these?”

“That’s a bit of a long story, and I’m feeling the lack of rest catching up with me,” John said, moving toward a break area. “We’d best grab some chairs.”

As John relayed the tale, Smiljan’s eyes constantly shifted between John and the papers, though John was sure the eccentric gentleman was taking in every word he said.

“And then I brought them to you,” John finished the story. “Now, you seemed to immediately recognize what those documents are?”

“Not their precise purpose, no,” Smiljan admitted. “But, I identified enough material at first glance to know that there are very few people who are knowledgeable about the type of tasrac manipulation that’s required to implement whatever was outlined in these plans.”

“Yourself being one of them, I hope?” John asked.

To John’s surprise, the old man shook his head, “No, I’m sad to say.”

“Ah, it was a longshot-”

The old man gave a rare smile and interrupted him, “However, I do know someone who is.”

“Well, at least we seem to be getting our share of good news finally,” John said with a breath of relief. “Are you able to get hold of them? I mean, I really hate to pull you back so soon-”

“That won’t be necessary,” the old man removed a notepad and pen from his waistcoat. “Alisa is more than capable of contacting them. I’ll pen you a note here. Have Garh deliver it to her, and she’ll arrange everything for you. I’m afraid you won’t be able to use my portal to get there, as my guardians are under quite strict orders to efficiently deal with anyone or anything attempting to enter through it. With that in mind, Garh doesn’t need to trek all the way back to my manor. Tell him that when he encounters one of my sentries at the edge of the swamp, just give them this note and they’ll deliver it for you.”

“By sentries, I’m assuming you mean the big honking werewolves?” John joked. “Too bad you won’t be able to come along this time, Ganz.”

“Ha ha,” Ganz said.

“Also, I’m adding instructions to relax the shoot on sight orders regarding my portal,” the Old Man said. “Just in case you need emergency access to my base in the future.”

“Sounds good. One question though?”

“Go ahead.”

“How will I find your friend afterwards?”

“He’ll find you, don’t worry.”

***

As John rounded the hallway leading to Doyle’s office, he realized that, in his haste to help with the new situation, he had neglected to actually find out more about what Ganz and the old man were up to.

Shaking his head, he put the thought aside for the time being. He had bigger issues to worry about now.

Just as he was about to knock on the office door, a female voice called out, “Come in, John.”

John was bemused for a second, until he saw the security camera covering the hallway. Clever girl.

Walking in, he saw Doyle sitting behind the desk in her spacious office. She was an unassuming middle-aged woman, but the hawk-like eyes that appraised him still held the spark of youth.

“Pleasure to have you back here, John,” she said. “Have a seat.”

“Thank you,” John replied, taking roost in the comfortable chair across from her.

“Care for a drink?” she asked, motioning to a crystal decanter and two glasses.

John thought for a second, then sighed, “Sure. I could probably use several, to be honest, but one will do.”

One eye narrowed ever so slightly, but she made no comment as she poured and handed the drink to John, taking one for herself as well.

Taking her seat again, she asked, “Now, what can I do for you?”

“Where to begin…” John pondered, taking a sip of whisky. “It’s a bit of a long story-”

“Would this long story perchance involve the charter of a jumbo jet for no apparent reason, a cross-border shipment of near-military grade equipment, and – saving the best for last, of course – a false recall on several thousand pounds of explosives? The last of which, I might add, despite having been marked as destroyed, appears to have mysteriously vanished.”

John took another long sip.

***

“So, you’re claiming that Nikola Tesla is, at this moment, working in a lab downstairs?”

“Among other things, yes,” John replied.

“Am I allowed to meet with him?”

“Well, I don’t see why not,” John said. “Are you saying you’ll join up with us? Also, why don’t you think this story is crazy?”

“Oh, you can rest assured that I think it’s completely insane,” Doyle said. “However, I’m confident that Melissa would have had you committed to an asylum at this point, rather than chartering empty jets for you.”

“Funny.”

“Now, once I fully verify your story,” Doyle said, “am I correct in assuming that you’ll be leaving to go back immediately after?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Okay. Wait here a minute,” Doyle said. “Let me get my things.”

John wasn’t sure what exactly she was planning on getting. Granted, the office was spacious, but there wasn’t any closet or suitcase visible.

He silently watched as Doyle got up and walked over to a corner of the room. Placing her palm on a dark glass vase, he heard a click and watched as a section of the wall swung inward. Glancing inside, John could see that the passageway led to a quite luxurious apartment.

“What the hell…” was all John could say.

Doyle turned around, a very rare look of mild surprise mixed with delight in her eyes. “You really didn’t know about this?”

“I… no…” was all John could sputter. “How did you manage… I mean…”

“This was your sister’s idea.”

“Sophia did this?”

A sly grin crept into her face. “Wrong sister.”

“Melissa?”

“This was what sold me on the job,” Doyle admitted. “I had quite a few job offers back then. They each tried to coax me with quite large amounts of money, various benefits, and absurd limits on power. However, none of them, except for your sister, caught on to the fact that I really hate commuting. Especially in this city.”

“Birds of a feather, then,” John could only laugh, “She’s the same way.”

Picking up a bag near the entrance, Doyle said, “All set. Let’s go.”

“Wait a sec,” John said. “You always have a travel bag ready to go?”

“You don’t?”

***

“Er, John?” Ganz said, looking up from the piece of equipment. “Back so soon? Again?”

“Yep, just a quick stop before we head back,” John said.

“We?” Ganz asked, before looking behind John and spotting Doyle. “Oh, hello there, ma’am. You’re from Iathera, I assume? I’m Ganz, and that’s, er, Smiljan walking up to us over there.”

John got a strange look in his eye as he said, “Ganz?”

“Yes?”

“Do you recognize her?” John asked, indicating Doyle.

“Er, sorry,” he shrugged. “I have to admit I didn’t really learn too many faces over ther-”

“This is Doyle, our chief auditor! She’s not from Iathera!”

“Oh, okay… I…”

“She was present at your budget meeting this year!”

“Well, I mean, I can’t really remember all the people that were there…”

“The only other people were Sophia and McGarrett!”

“Ah!” Ganz said, a faint hint of recognition finally dawning on him. “Sorry, ma’am.”

“No problem, Ganz,” Doyle said, stifling a smile.

“And this is the man you wanted to see,” John said, as Smiljan walked up to join the group. “Smi-… er, Mister Tesla, allow me to introduce you to our chief auditor, Doyle. She’ll be heading back with me to see about making some sense out of the situation.”

“Please, we’re all friends here,” Smiljan said. “Smiljan, or Nikola, will do. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Doyle.”

“Same here, I’m sure,” Doyle said. “Now, what was your mother’s maiden name, and how long did you serve in the military?”

John was taken aback by the direct line of questioning, but Smiljan continued to smile as he replied, “Duka Mandic, and I avoided conscription by absconding to Tomingaj. Though, I would expect anyone pretending to be me should also have those facts memorized.”

“True, but your mannerisms also speak volumes. Plus, the signature you penned on that note you gave to John seems legitimate. I guess it’s a good thing you’re still sentimentally attached to your old John Hancock after all this time” Doyle smiled. Turning to Ganz, she asked, “Do you believe he is who he says he is?”

“Unless there are more genius-level imposters hiding in swamps on alien worlds, I’d have to say yes,” Ganz said. “His skills are also consistent. Even taught me a couple of tricks so far.”

“In that case, I’m satisfied,” Doyle said to John. Turning back to Smiljan, she said, “Sorry for putting you on the spot.”

“I would expect no less from someone with your responsibilities,” Smiljan smiled. “An apology is not necessary.”

“Well, that’s that,” John said. “Before we leave, is there anything you guys need? Any messages to deliver, or material you need brought back?”

“No, I think we’re good,” Ganz said.

“Okay, I’ll try to check back in as soon as I can,” John said. “See you later.”

It wasn’t until John was almost back at the penthouse that he realized that he had forgotten again to find out what exactly Ganz and Smiljan were trying to do.

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