After having their training session interrupted by a disturbance caused by Rentik, Irikshan takes Mar with him as he goes to deal with it.
As they descended, Mar looked behind himself. He saw the sprawling city that stretched across half of the horizon, slowly becoming further obscured by the escarpment as he lost altitude. The plateau above the escarpment still bore buildings, but they were far more scattered than the city below.
The group following Irikshan landed in a wide concrete courtyard, hemmed in by a fence only somewhat less ominous than the wall which surrounded the rest of the military complex. Ugly military buildings that had clearly been built with only utility in mind covered much of the complex beyond the inner fence. A handful of humans manned the tops of two tall towers, but in the flight overhead, Mar had also seen many dragons in the compound.
Situated at the plateau’s edge further along the escarpment than Tumennoord, the manner in which the base was organised around a central structure built into the cliff side reminded Mar of Raifal college and its thundering waterfall. Before the group stood a cavernous opening, illuminated by strips of LED lighting, that descended into the heart of the mountain. Down below lay both a command centre and the northern emergency shelter. Metal doors tall and thick enough to need two metal guide rails each could seal the tunnel shut, but now they stood ajar – with three dragons wearing military gear guarding the entrance.
One approached Irikshan, crystal floating from a pouch strapped to his chest. It was a massive orange crystal and Mar could practically smell the complex web of enchantments programmed into it. It came to a stop before the Elder. It hovered there for a few moments before blinking once. This was repeated for the Elder’s bodyguards.
When the soldier reached Mar, he looked to Irikshan, who stated, “One of my students. I need him to stay with me now, but this shouldn’t be a regular occurrence. Register him with supervised access only.” The soldier nodded. Mar sensed the soldier trigger some mechanism within the crystal before it did something to his mind. He flinched. It worked so fast that – had these sorts of enchantments not been somewhat common knowledge – he would not have been able to tell what it had done. It had taken what was essentially the fingerprint of his mind.
Its task complete, the crystal blinked three times. The soldier, and the two behind him, stepped aside for the Elder’s party to enter the bunker. Mar followed behind, trotting to keep up with the bigger dragons’ strides as they passed between the monumental metal doors. Glancing back, Mar saw Agent Steyn approach the soldier – evidently intent on entering the command centre as well.
“Mar, come here. I have some questions for you,” Irikshan called. He marched at a hurried pace through the passageway carving its way down into the mountain’s core. Dense stone walls that echoed with the tapping and scratching of claws were lined with thickly insulated bundles of cables. LED strip lights blazed silently above all the way down.
Kabelo made room at the Elder’s side for Mar, while Mar entered a canter. When he had caught up, he answered with, “Yes, Sir.” He felt the elder’s will gripping his mind. Mar figured that Irikshan trusted him enough to not forcefully dig for answers, but wanted to be certain about whether he lied.
“The emails you forwarded me from her: were they your only communication with her since the semester ended?”
“Were any of her interactions with you before this unusual in any way?”
“Your promise to help me: do you have any idea why she would ask that of you?”
“Have you noticed anything else suspicious, not only with her, in the past month?”
The dragon that had been following him was the first that came to mind. He pictured the dragon in his mind as clearly as he could, making it easy for Irikshan to see. “My friend, Zola, thought that this individual was following me.”
“Not particularly, besides what I’ve already told you about Ms. Jinmeng.”
“Kabelo, remind me to inquire about how closely the CDI were monitoring young Sterkvleuel. Mar, stay with me until I say otherwise.”
“Yes, sir,” Mar answered nervously as they arrived at another imposing door, cut into the side of the great tunnel. The tunnel continued deeper, but the lights below were not on. This door was also open and guarded. However, the Elder and his group – save for Mar – passed the guard without hesitation.
The side-tunnel soon shifted to a more standard building-like layout. Rooms filled by military personnel busy on tables, charts, tablets and computers. The passageways brimmed with people and draqui buzzing about, all too busy to heed the newcomers more than hurriedly bowing their heads to Irikshan if they passed nearby. Mar had never expected to see the command centre first-hand.
They briefly stopped by an empty meeting room. “Mar, you can wait here until I’m done.”
“Yes, sir.” He turned to enter the room, but – as he did so – caught something yellow in the corner of his vision. He looked to see agent Steyn lingering in the passage they’d come from. “Sorry, Sir, is it ok if I stay with you?”
Irikshan looked in the direction Mar had and gave an annoyed grunt. “Fine, but stay besides Kabelo at all times and do not touch or say anything.”
They marched down the passage, and into what Mar could only guess to be the main control room. Mar had not been sure what to expect, but it had certainly not been this. Massive screens lined the tops of the walls at the far end of the room. At floor level, the walls were lined with more than a dozen workstations. They were manned by humans and dragons alike, but all the humans were fitted into a space equivalent to that which two dragons occupied. Irikshan stepped up onto a sort of observation platform, while Kabelo and Mar moved to the side of the entrance.
“Elder at station!” a voice called from somewhere. Some people on the floor briefly paused in their work, but the majority continued undisturbed.
“You took your time.” The two central screens on the far wall displayed a dragon each. Both dragons had a set of monitors in front of them and a plain wall behind. On the left monitor was a three-century-old Tumenazarian. His scales were a pure yellow, the colour of dried grass or straw. They complimented his grassy green core colour. His horns curved in a gentle S-shape. Mar recognised this as the Eastern Elder, Tronesk Givaris. He had been the one to speak. He appeared in a foul mood.
Realising that he would probably be waiting a while, Mar reached into the bag under his scarf and pulled out his tablet. “Put that away,” came a voice from above. Mar obeyed Kabelo; returning the tablet to his bag, sitting down, waiting, and trying to make sense of the situation. The command room became somewhat busier as people began moving about to do their tasks, many leaving their stations and the room. Mar drew many an odd look, usually followed by an upward glance to Kabelo – who Mar stood almost directly beneath.
Eventually, someone approached. An amber and lemon dragoness with sparse leaf-green stripes. Her pair of smooth rich-orange horns curved gently downwards, splitting at shallow angles one-quarter of the way up each. She bore fairly neutral-looking but weathered face; she seemed to be easily over two centuries. Mar didn’t remember seeing her in the room when he first came in.
The right display held an intimidating visage. A supple black and red body was introduced by keen lemon-coloured eyes, dagger-like horns, and concluded by a fan of bright yellow tail blades. She was a hybrid – like Mar – but of Tumenzarian and Ostracation blood. Ruk, the youngest of the present elders at two hundred and ten years, lay somewhat curled up on a pillow similar to Irikshan and Tronesk’s. Also in an agitated mood, her tail flicked back and forth below her head.
Irikshan too had several screens on the desk in front of him. As if the ones lining the walls weren’t enough. At the angle that Mar stood, the screens were faded so much that they might as well have been inactive. From behind these screens, a camera stuck out; it was pointed directly at Irikshan. As soon as Irikshan had settled in, the sounds of furious typing commenced. “I was training a student, and no one deemed to call Kabelo to notify me. Instead, the CDI sent an agent to me to take my student for questioning. What is the current situation?”
“We are aware, they wanted to mitigate the risk that your student might attempt to flee. Jinmeng is now fleeing northwards but is masking her location. Several squads have been dispatched from the Bergeinde Garrison.” Tronesk responded, “They should intercept Jinmeng soon. We could have had her already if Ruk had not voted against launching the swarmers or even scrambling the jets. And we all know you would have voted against it too.” Mar now noticed that one of the televisions upon the wall showed a tactical map with several blips spreading out in a fan-like manner north-eastward. The ones beside it displayed differing aerial views of the Tumenzarian landscape, interrupted by snouts of varying colours.
Ruk’s teeth flashed for a moment, white and sharp. “The objective is to arrest and question her, not kill her. Even if the jets were ordered only to shoot her wings, that would be too risky. Besides, with her masking herself from all forms of long-range detection, the rockets would not be able to lock on her, and we would have to dispatch an egregiously expensive number of jets.”
“Thank you for being the voice of reason, Ruk. Do we know what data she was trying to transmit?”
“The CDI reported that it could have been a variety of sensitive data, including schematics for that magitech project,” Tronesk answered. “She is currently believed to be carrying a high-volume external drive.”
“Would she not have been using an encrypted connection?”
“How did the CDI decrypt the message, then? Man-in-the-middle?”
“If you have a problem with who the CDI monitors, or how they do so – take it up with the director or maybe the council. The CDI is not our responsibility.”
The Council’s Department of Investigation, Mar realised, was called that for a reason.
“Command,” a voice sounded, with slight shortness of breath, “this is flight leader Thunder of Storm squad. We have visual confirmation of the target.”
“Good,” a dragon at one of the stations spoke into a microphone and then looked to Irikshan. The Elder gave a nod, and the green dragon turned back to his microphone. “Squad, move in for target capture. Use caution, but act quickly. She will be leaving our airspace soon. Thunder, move to position aux-one. I don’t want any craters. Be advised that energy attacks are likely to be ineffective, she will counter anything you throw.” He paused for an acknowledgement, then began broadcasting to other squads. Mar moved several steps further into the room to get a better view of the televisions on the wall. He could make out a growing marginally dimmed patch of the sky, with an elliptical shape. He suddenly felt a tug on his tail and quickly returned to Kabelo – giving the guard an apologetic glance before looking back to the wall.
The view tilted downwards as the dragon began to descend, but then back upwards as he looked up to his three squad mates flying overhead – directly towards Rentik who flew northwards at a hurried pace. Thunder’s video then returned to Rentik, who would surely have noticed them, but did not change course. The squad – all with the superior flight capabilities of pureblood Tumenzarians and approaching her from an angle – was soon upon her. “Rentik Jinmeng,” a member of the squad called, “you are under arrest for evading CDI custody, and are wanted for questioning. Surrender now or we will take you in by force.”
Rentik paid them no heed, She wore precious little in the way of baggage, but she wore her typical crystal-embellished jewellery. Six crystals of various colours hung from chains at her tail, and two from chains at her horns. Her having those was not good news for the squad – three of whom now flew in a triangle around her just beyond the range of her ellipsoid, engaged in some invisible battle. Thunder remained quite a distance below. In another context, Mar might have thought the dragons above were competing in some sort of friendly race – but, as is usually the case when magic is involved, appearances can be deceiving. He could only imagine the intensity of the ongoing mental battle.
“Encountering heavy resistance. Target is well-prepared.”
The darkened patch of sky around Rentik flickered and then brightened, becoming homogeneous with the rest of the cloudless blue. A new blip appeared on the tactical map beside storm squad. Rentik. All the other squads were converging upon them. They were awfully close to the border between Tumenzar and Gordieva.
As the dragons surrounding Rentik drifted in closer, she finally had a visible reaction to their presence. The extent of this reaction, however, was to briefly survey her attackers and surroundings. Then the three surrounding her swerved away from her again, returning to their previous positions.
“Storm squad,” Mar heard the dragon in the command room say, “you are nearing Gordievan airspace. No other squads will reach you before you reach it. Finish this now.”
“Acknowledged, command.” Thunder’s view strayed from the fight as he looked around. Two groups of specks could be seen in the distant skies. He then looked down. Mar glimpsed a road stretching across the grasslands below, with a border crossing gate ahead in the distance. “Permission to use crystalline rounds?”
“Loading probe.” Thunder procured some sort of long-barreled gun with a pair of crystals embedded along the part of the stock that supported the barrel. He pulled forward the bolt and chambered a cylindrical crystal.
Mar didn’t know much about guns, but Stein rifles were iconic enough that he recognised that this was one. These weapons used enchanted crystals to accelerate their payloads. No gunpowder needed. These weapons were illegal for non-military use across most of the world. Even military use was heavily regulated; especially considering that they were often used in conjunction with shard rounds, that carried small enchanted shiridite crystals, or crystalline rounds, that were made entirely from shiridan. These were most often enchanted to ward off magical attempts to stop or deflect the bullet, but could also be programmed to have other effects.
Thunder took aim, somehow keeping his view and gun remarkably stable while he targeted some point in front of Rentik. The others put some distance between themselves and Rentik. The crystals on the weapon briefly flashed, then Thunder lowered it. Seconds later he caught something and put it into a pouch. He opened the gun’s empty chamber. With a start, Mar realized that the gun had fired. Rentik had displayed no sign of injury.
“Cloud, suppress crystal L3. Lightning, R1. Rain, keep her busy. Loading nerve disruption round.” Thunder placed another bullet into the chamber, then took aim. Mar wanted to look away, but couldn’t bring himself to. The crystals flashed. Over the rushing wind, a cry of pain was heard. Rentik’s graceful form began to tumble from the sky as her left wing spasmed – red flowing from her shoulder. He tucked the rifle away. “Engage.”
The squad followed her descent, two moving in close enough that they would have to be mindful of each others’ positions. One made a grab for the chain of crystals upon Rentik’s tail, but her tail whipped away – towards the wing of another of the squad, who promptly swerved to avoid the spade-shaped blade.
She very suddenly decelerated at the same time that she folded her wings inwards – apparently having already broken the enchantment on the crystal embedded in the bullet that was embedded in her. As they sped past, the pursuer on her left managed to grab the chain hanging from her horns – jerking her with them before the chain snapped. They discarded the crystal, letting it fall to elonth and flaring out their wings to slow down. Simultaneously, the dragon on her right clawed three red streaks into her hind-leg while they made efforts to reduce their velocity.
Rentik changed her course, accelerating left and downwards before the one dragon still above her could slam into her. She dodged the two below her – but Thunder moved quickly and intercepted her. The sky and landscape blurred together in a dizzying spin as the two grappled mid-air. Thunder fought – trying to restrain her and to rid her of her crystals. Rentik fought back, trying to prevent both of these outcomes. Tooth and claw rending fabric and scale in a vicious struggle. Biting and clawing, both drew blood from one another.
The portion of green and brown in the blurred background grew greater and greater, until the two abruptly kicked away from one another. The video feed briefly stabilized, then shook violently as Thunder met the ground none-too-gently. By the time he was on his feet and had straightened the camera on his head, Rentik could be seen pinned to the ground by the other three dragons.
However, behind them, Mar noticed a large building. To either side of the building were fences that stretched into the distance. Through the centre of this building passed a highway. From this building, a small group of armed men ran towards the dragons.
Thunder approached them. “Tumenzar military.” He flashed a card at them. “There is nothing to fear, we have the situation under control. Our target evaded custody and was attempting to flee the country. We will return across the border as soon as we have secured her.”
“Why would the military need to handle law enforcement?”
“She is a dangerous individual. Her skills make her particularly hard to capture or contain.”
The humans eyed Rentik, who still struggled weakly under her captors who were now fastening restraints to her. They conferred briefly in a language Mar did not understand, then one had another brief exchange over a radio and then they waited. Half a minute later, the radio sounded again. “We will overlook this violation of the borders if you return to Tumenzar immediately. However,” the guard pointed to Rentik, “she remains in our custody.”
“She is a highly dangerous individual.”
“We will contain her.”
Thunder released a displeased sound, then spoke in Tumenzarian. “Command, orders?”
The green dragon who had been giving commands simply replied, “Awaiting Elders’ decision,” then turned to look to Irikshan. For the first time in a while, Mar’s attention returned to his surroundings. No longer tuning out the noise of the room, he saw it was as busy as ever.
“Nothing we can do without making a scene,” Irikshan spoke in a resigned manner. He had not stopped typing at his computer once.
“This is already a scene,” Ruk declared.
“Thunder squad should wipe the humans’ short-term memory and depart with Rentik.”
“I categorically refuse any sort of memory interference. It is wrong.”
“I am with Irikshan on this one. Ethics aside, this course of action will only lead to more problems down the road. We would need to account for those inside the border control post and Jinmeng as well. Who knows how hard it would be to pry her mind open, or who would get hurt in the process.”
“Then our hand is forced,” Tronesk concluded. “Order the squat to confiscate all possessions she carries, then give her into Gordievan custody. Contact the captain of the Tumenzarian guard at the border post to negotiate the transfer of custody before she is relocated. I do not want to have to count on our extradition treaty, Gordieva will probably use the political offence exception. River and Mountain squads are to remain on our side of the post, in the case Rentik attempts to escape, while Storm returns with the confiscated items.”
The order was relayed to Thunder, who then conveyed the appropriate parts to the human guards. One of them began to protest, but then a fearful look crossed all their faces and they nodded.
The camera view returned to Rentik, whose baggage and jewellery was being stripped and strapped to the squad members’ own gear. She had stopped struggling, merely waiting for it to be over.
“You can cut the feed,” Irikshan declared before turning his gaze back to the screens in front of him.
“How could you let this happen?!” Came an incredulous roar from Tronesk that silenced all activity in the room. Even Irikshan stopped typing.
“I did not ‘let’ this happen,” he responded in a measured tone. “It is hardly my responsibility to monitor her, and-”
“Stop it!” Ruk shouted. “This isn’t the time for you two to get into another bickering match. We need to discuss what we will do next. In private.”
Irikshan nodded. The mouse on his desk moved and clicked a few times, then the wall displays upon which Ruk and Tronesk appeared went dark. Irikshan turned his head down towards the monitors on his desk before his entire platform was engulfed in darkness.
It was as if that portion of the room had ceased to exist. Mar could not sense any energy emitting from it, nor even Irikshan’s presence. He figured that the cables within the duct along the wall were exempt from this isolation, but whatever was inside was either too low energy or too shielded for him to sense anything. However, at the vertices of this cuboid, Mar did now notice hidden but active crystals he had previously failed to. He thought better of investigating them.
“Riena.” There was a slight nod.
The dragoness lowered her head so that it was only about twice as high as Mar’s. “You must be little Stekvlueul, the Elder’s youngest mentee.”
“How have you been enjoying your schooling?”
“Raifal’s lecturers and professors are very good. Elder Kennissoeker is a great mentor. I’ve learnt so much.”
“That is good. He is always so busy, trying to do everything at once. The only times he slows down are when he is in a meeting, with his students, or when he is not serving as Elder.”
“What do you do, if you don’t mind my asking, ma’am?”
“I am afraid that I may not tell you that. Suffice to say, no matter their skill and productivity, the Elders always have to delegate duties to others who have more expertise in certain fields. That is enough talking for now, I best get on with my job.”
Mar nodded as the dragoness walked past him and Kabelo towards Irikshan’s platform. She stood there expectantly for several seconds before sticking her head into the darkness. There was a flicker, Irikshan briefly visible, before her head was entirely obscured. He heard indistinct rumbles from her throat, but could not hear her voice nor discern what she said. When she was done, she pulled her head from the darkness and hurried off – departing from the room.
Once she had left, Mar and Kabelo stood silently for several more minutes while waiting for Irikshan. When eventually the veil of darkness did lift, Irikshan was sitting impassively, the fans in the computer beneath his desk going through the throes of a shutdown. Wordlessly, he got up and left the room.
Kabelo followed at a distance, and then Mar – his short little legs struggling to keep up. Eventually, the Elder turned into a room that Mar thought to be empty and shut the door behind himself. Kabelo stopped beside the door and Mar skittered across the floor to join him.
There was a crash from within the room. Mar looked to Kabelo. “He’s fine,” the bodyguard said. Mar could not sense anyone but Irikshan beyond the door, but still felt like something was wrong. He looked to Kabelo more intently. “It’s fine,” the guard emphasised. This was followed by more louder crashes – and then a heavy thud. Mar moved towards the door. Kabelo muttered something under his breath in annoyance, but didn’t stop him.
When Mar opened the door, he was greeted by the sight of Irikshan sprawled on the floor – facing the far wall. An upturned table and set of chairs were scattered around the room. “I’m fine, Kab-” the Elder began. He stood and righted his posture and turned to face the door. At the same time that he did this, every piece of furniture in the room repositioned itself and slid neatly together at the same time. “Mar. I forgot you were here. Sorry about that.”
“Are you… ok, sir?”
“Yes. The situation just got out of control. I’ll need to fix Rentik’s mess.” His eyes could be deceiving him, but Mar thought he still saw a slight trembling from the Elder.
“Can I help… somehow?
“No, there’s nothing you can do about this.”
“Oh…” Mar said sullenly, even though he couldn’t say he’d expected a different answer.
“Just… keep being you.”
Mar wasn’t sure what exactly that was supposed to mean, but he tried to put on a happier appearance. “Yes, sir.”
“Elder.” Kabelo called from the passage.
Mar moved out of the doorway and saw Agent Steyn approaching from further down the huge passage. Irikshan, too, exited the room.
“Ah, you’ll need to go in for questioning with the CDI. Don’t panic about it, you’ll be fine. You did nothing wrong.”
“Yes, sir.” Despite this, Mar couldn’t help but feel intimidated as the agent marched purposefully towards them.
“Elder,” Steyn spoke once he had arrived, “have you completed your questioning?”
“May I take him into my custody?”
“Yes, you may. Kabelo, get one of yours to escort them to the Noord field office.”
“That won’t be necessary, Elder. The director has cleared us to use the facilities at this base. We won’t be leaving the compound.”
“Very well,” Irikshan nodded. Mar made a farewell gesture with his head towards Irikshan and Kabelo, then followed the agent. Despite attempting to reassure himself that he did nothing wrong, anxiety still plagued him as he was lead to his interrogation.