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Drawing Lines in the Sand

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The next few hours went quickly.  Not knowing how Richard—and for that matter the Keepers—were watching me, I didn’t want to assume the answer stopped at a simple tail.  As such, though the strategist in me itched to travel to Hamden at once and begin to survey the likeliest meeting spots in person, I contented myself with paper records and massive amounts of Google Maps street view.  Given that Deleo's end goal was to harvest my magic, I assumed she’d want to remain undisturbed for as long as possible, which meant an enclosed, empty structure without a great deal of foot traffic or security.  I focused my search on empty warehouses.

By hour four, I’d narrowed it down to three potentials and developed ingress and egress routes for each.  I was helped by the fact that overall the roles of Anne, Vari, and Landis were relatively static, and once I was inside I would have my divination to help me map out what prior research was unable to tell me.

Of course, that was assuming one of the three I’d selected was Deleo’s choice.  There was a very good possibility that she’d pick another spot entirely.  Or that she’d give up on the idea of harvesting and just try to kill me outright.  That would send my contingency plan right off the rails.

Vari and Landis returned from their task a bit after 11:00.  I spent the remainder of the hour prepping our equipment, including the items I’d brought with me in my backpack.  My armor had taken up the bulk of the space, and after strapping it on, I surveyed the remaining equipment.

The revolver felt icy and weighted in my hand as I considered it.

As a rule I don't like guns. They make you cocky, and if an altercation wasn’t already to the death, the presence of a gun on the scene moved it there quickly. And they were difficult to explain if you were spotted holding one by an enterprising constable.

I’d done some work on this one with the assistance of Arachne to bring the violent energy of its presence down to something more subtle. The bespoke holster discouraged curious eyes from focusing on the gun until it was drawn, and there was a magical key on the trigger guard to keep anyone but me from firing it.

Still, I didn't believe in bringing a firearm to a fight without due consideration and unless it was necessary. In the case of my upcoming altercation with Deleo, I wanted something to give me the option of a ranged attack to counter her magic. I tucked the revolver into its holster on my belt, hoping I wouldn't have to use it, and hoping that if I did, it would be enough.

The rest of my newly purchased equipment was prepped and distributed when Deleo rang.

“Verus.”

“Let me talk to Luna.”

“The address is 459 Loyton. Be there at midnight alone if you don't want the girl harmed.” The address was one of the warehouses I'd planned for, an empty but maintained structure at the dock. That at least was in character, which heartened me somewhat.

“How do I know you haven't already killed her?”

“You don't,” Deleo said with cold derision before cutting the call.

I lowered the phone to face the curious and grave eyes of my team.

“We're a go for location 2.”

“We’ll get her back,” Anne told me in an undertone as Landis began another gate spell.

“I know we will,” I said, even though there was a place inside of me that had been wailing in grief and denial since I'd learned of Luna’s kidnapping.

“You look worried.”

“I'm worried about how this is all going to end. Not just today, though I'm certainly worried about that too, but about this entire contest. Deleo isn't going to give up. Not on this.”

“If she tries again, we'll stop her again.” Anne laid a warm hand on my shoulder. “We’ll get through this together.”

I forced a smile and thanked her, but I didn’t need divination to recognize that in this situation, there was unlikely to be an ending that we were all happy with.

All I could hope to do was minimize and direct the violence when it arrived.

**

We arrived at the warehouse fifteen minutes before midnight. I spent ten of those path walking and providing last minute instructions and reminders to my backup until Vari threatened to melt me and save Deleo the trouble.

“Have you spotted Caldera, Verus?” Landis asked. He'd pulled out a wickedly curved sword and was polishing it with a serene expression.

“She and another Keeper are two blocks east in a parked Honda. I think his name is Gregson, but I've never spoken to him.”

“Five minutes, Alex,” Anne murmured, and I nodded.

“I'm going to head in. Final comms check. Do you read me?”

“It’d be easier to test the comms if you'd actually leave the van,” Vari complained.

I'd chosen a hulking, olive green van for our base of operations. All of its tyres were flat, and it smelled of stale chips, but it was large enough to house us all, albeit snuggly, and it kept us out of view of any surveillance.

“Can you hear me through the speaker?” I asked patiently. “There’s enough of a difference in where my voice will be coming from that you should be able to tell if you hear me through the line in addition to the van.”

“I hear you, Verus,” Landis said.

Anne nodded. “I'm reading you.”

“Good. I'm picking you all up as well. My transmitter will be in my pocket. If it's damaged or falls out, I should be able to hear you, so assume I'm still alive until you learn otherwise.”

I slid from the van and pulled a dark beanie over my head, both to make me less visible in the dark and to further disguise the already low-profile Bluetooth speaker in my ear.  Vari and Landis followed me out.

“Good luck,” Anne said quietly.  She was kneeling in the center of the van as I quietly closed the door, a torch and her mobile clutched in her hands.  I’d tried to leave her with a weapon as well, but she’d refused to take one.

I motioned Landis and Vari to move to their assigned locations, and without a word they disappeared into the shadows.  The warehouse Deleo had chosen was in the center of a collection of like structures, all squatting by the Thames like a cluster of mushrooms.  Some distance away came the sound of a high-pitched motorcycle growl as its rider accelerated more than was prudent, but then it passed and the night was silent.  I thought I could almost hear the soft thrush of the river, but I may have imagined it from the sound of my blood echoing in my ears.

The van I’d chosen was two blocks away, and it took me only a few minutes to make my way to 459 Loyton.  It was currently locked in a prolonged legal battle, but in its previous existence it had been a shipping warehouse specializing in building materials, and there were still mounds of crumbling cinderblock and broken bricks, as though someone had begun to straighten up the area and then given it up for a lost cause.  The yard was also strewn with empty crisp bags and beer cans, though I didn’t see its appeal as a party spot.

The vast loading doors were tightly shut and locked, but there was a man-sized door halfway around on the east side that I knew from my path-walking would be open.  My footfall was silent as I stepped inside.

“Two life signatures just appeared inside,” Anne’s voice murmured in my ear.  “One of them is Luna.  They’re on the second level in the northwest corner near the stairwell.”  Good.

I could just make out the deeper shadow of the warehouse’s other stairwell in the southeast, directly catty-corner from Deleo’s position.  I moved toward it slowly, partially to give my allies time to get into position and partially because I was still path-walking.

The stairs were concrete and smelled of mold and urine, but they were sound, and I jogged up to the second level without any trouble.

“Alex, go,” Anne said.

That was my cue.  I allowed my steps to fall with more force as I walked out onto the second floor.  The ceiling was higher here, and the sound echoed hollowly in the wide space.  “Deleo!” I called.  “I know you’re in here. “

There were windows on the second level, but they were set high up in the wall and emitted only snatches of the city’s light pollution through their painted exteriors.  I navigated by divination, not wanting to turn on my torch quite yet.

“Alex.”  Her voice was sibilant, drawing the ‘x’ out with a hiss.

I stopped.  “No Cinder tonight?  I suppose he’s likely keeping watch somewhere nearby, perhaps on the roof of the warehouse just to the north of us.  That would give him a good vantage point to see any signal from you.”

Landis’s voice.  “We see him, Verus.  Target engagement in sixty seconds.”

“Do you really think you’ll need him to rescue you?” I asked Deleo.  “I’m flattered.”

As I hoped, I heard the measured sound of footsteps from the northwest corner moving toward my location.  “I don’t need help to destroy you.”

I stayed put.  “But you brought him along anyway.  That’s sweet.”

“You brought people along as well.”  My eyes had adjusted to the blackness, and I thought I could just make out her silhouette, still some fifty feet away.  “I should have known you wouldn’t face me honorably.”

I barked a laugh.  “Honor?  Since when do you care about honor?”

She was thirty feet away now, close enough for me to make out her shrug.  “I don’t, really. I was just trying to do this properly.”

I saw the disintegration beam a second before she launched it and threw myself out of the way.

“Decide not to harvest me after all?”

“I knew you’d dodge.  You always do.  But as much as I’d love to watch you jump while I hunt you down, I already told you my terms.  Your life for hers.  Do you accept, or do you have another cowardly trick to try and save your worthless life?”

“Vari, there are three more life signatures making their way to the building you and Landis are in from the south,” Anne said through the speaker.  “They’ll be there in twenty seconds.  It’s not Caldera.”  

“We’re about to engage,” Landis said.  He sounded tense and excited.  “That should bring the Keepers into the fight and even the odds.  Ready, lad?”

“Wait,” Vari said.  “I think there’s someone else-”

Deleo hurled a water bolt at me, then another immediately after.  I hopped out of their path and realized I had let it go too long without answering.

“You know me,” I called, reaching into my pocket.  “I’m all about tricks.”  I pulled the pin from the tear gas canister I’d bought as I threw it directly toward her.

I saw her silhouette duck, but it made no difference as the caustic smoke funneled up around her and swallowed her form.  She staggered.

I turned and ran a wide parabola around her in an attempt to get between her and Luna’s location.  The amount of tear gas in the canister wasn’t large enough to fill the warehouse and would dissipate quickly, but there was still enough in the air that my eyes watered.  A burning sensation began in my throat.

On the other end of the earpiece I could hear Landis and Vari shouting, but it was muddled and incomprehensible.  Deleo dove out of the cloud of gas and rolled, coming up on her feet almost immediately.  I pulled another of the items I’d purchased from one of my less legal human contacts and threw it, ducking and covering my ears as I did so.

The flashbang went off with a furious roar, and a supernova of light erupted behind my closed eyelids.  Even with my eyes closed, the light destroyed whatever night vision I’d managed to cultivate, and it was only through divination that I was able to sprint unhindered toward the northwest corner of the warehouse.

I didn’t make it.

My precognition screamed, and I threw myself to the ground as Deleo triggered a wave of acid-green light that emanated out from her body in a ring waist-high.  An acrid scent followed the wave as it passed over my head to impact the walls.  The warehouse shuddered, and for a moment my heart stopped.  Luna.

A green light—icy and unnerving—flared behind me, lighting the warehouse.

The northwest corner, the corner where Luna had been kept, was empty but for a set of harvesting rods.

I turned to see Deleo’s face turn blank with confusion.  Then it screwed with rage.

“Where is she?” she shouted, hurling disintegration beams with anger and disregard for where they impacted.  A couple of them came close to hitting me, but I jumped to my feet and moved as my magic dictated.  “What have you done?”

“Me?” I asked, a little breathless from the acrobatics.  “I’ve been right here with you all the time.”

“But, who?  The life mage?  She couldn’t have.  I-” Deleo began and then cut herself off.

“You set traps, I imagine, just in case I brought a friend or two along?  That doesn’t surprise me.  Funny, though.  Traps don’t work so well when you’re able to look back into the past and see them being set.”

“Alex, Sonder has Luna, and they’re back at the van,” came Anne’s welcome report in my earpiece.  “She’s drugged but alive.  I’m working on her now.”

Deleo still look flummoxed, wrong-footed and wide-eyed in the verdant light, but I could see focus returning.  I needed to go.  “But he’s not your friend.  He hates you.”

That she knew about both Anne and Sonder was worrying, but I had no time to think on it. “He doesn’t have to be my friend to be Luna’s.  You screwed up thinking I’d be the only one trying to rescue her.”

Deleo gave me a look of disgust.  “I tried.  I tried to think as you do, to be devious and underhanded.  I wanted to show Richard I could be as good as you.  That I’m better than you.”  I saw her intent before she raised her hand to unleash another spell.  “I am his chosen.  Not you.”

I pulled my final item from my jacket as I dodged left, and smoke billowed up behind me as I ran for the northwest stairwell ahead.  It was a standard condenser like I preferred to use, but Deleo hesitated before giving chase, wary of more tear gas.

I’d hoped to make it to the stairs before she recovered, but as I looked at the futures I knew I would not be fast enough. I ducked just as a massive bolt of water shot above my head and torpedoed into the wall ahead of me, destroying it. The warehouse moaned ominously, and--as if in slow motion--chunks of masonry began to fall.

I pivoted left. The building plans detailed a freight elevator in the middle of the northern wall, and I ran toward it.  The doors were closed, but a well-thrown rock from my pocket (one of my more random but still useful divination skills) triggered them to open.  I ran inside them and slammed my hand against the button to close the doors, pressing myself against the wall to avoid another of Deleo’s beams.

“No!” she yelled.  “Not again.  You won’t beat me again.”

Suddenly the volley of water bolts stopped and the light Deleo emitted began to change, bleeding an unsettling purple shade as it morphed from an emerald green to something dark and sullen.  It was the signal, I realized after a moment.  Cinder’s signal.

The doors to the lift were almost shut, and I knew from views into the future of what would happen if I remained inside that Deleo wouldn’t be able to force her way through the thick, metal doors before I was on the ground level.  I could escape, though she would certainly follow me, potentially with Cinder in pursuit as well.

Something else in the futures caught my attention, something I would see through the doors of the lift.  Cinder was going to gate into the room with something thrown over his shoulder…

My blood turned to ice.

On cue, the warehouse lit up with the red-orange of a raging forest fire, and Cinder stepped through the gate.  His skin was singed with soot, and his eyes were narrowed in annoyance.

“Keepers,” he informed Deleo, depositing his burden on the ground.

“Go,” she said, and he gated back to continue his battle with Vari and Landis, a battle which I knew from the increasingly urgent shouts through my earpiece was becoming more complex and dangerous as additional players joined the melee.  Cinder and Deleo hadn’t come alone.

But I didn’t think on that.  Didn’t think through the possibilities of what was occurring outside the walls of the warehouse.  My attention was on what Cinder had dropped at Deleo’s feet, a crumpled, unmoving form.

The doors to the elevator were about to close in three, two,-

I stepped back out onto the floor and let them close behind me, my gaze fixed on Deleo.  And on my father, the hostage at her feet.

She smiled.  “So glad you decided to stay and play, Alex.”