Friday, January 27, 2017

Maywitch Chapter 31: Flight Risk

Previous Chapter: Coup D'etat
Within thirty seconds, Gardner had thrust two sets of paperwork into Nadia's hands and sent them scurrying back to their room. The two roommates packed in silence for several minutes, not wanting to broach the terrifying questions lingering in the quiet air.
Then Kay summoned the courage to ask: "Nadia, what's really going on here? Why would Gardner go this far?"
Nadia sighed, her frantic movements slowing for a moment. "It's complicated."
"Is there something I should know about the Grimoire?"
"There's something you should know about George, first," Nadia said as she shoved a shirt into her backpack. "Part of the reason we never see him in combat is because his lightning powers are super uncontrollable. He's extremely powerful, and can take out large groups within a few minutes without much effort. The problem is that his lightning strikes indiscriminately."
Kay's brow furrowed as she watched her roommate closely. "So if his ambush plan went awry, he could still get the Grimoire back..."
"But he could take out literally everyone in the process. Your mother and the other hostages would be in mortal danger, as would any other Maywitch staff involved in the handoff. If things go to shit, they may not be able to shelter themselves before George uses the nuclear option."
Kay felt the shirt slip from her hand, but she did nothing to catch it as it fell to the floor. Nadia heard the soft crumpling noise and looked over her shoulder.
"To complicate things further, Nina almost certainly knows about his powers by now, but what powers is she still hiding? Or her demons, for that matter?" Nadia continued as she shoved shorts into her bag. "George may not have the upper hand that he seems to think he has with his ambush idea. Thus, Nina may be more likely to win against an ambush, and he may be forced to use his lightning to end a situation that could otherwise... go very poorly."
"So Gardner's not just worried about the Grimoire; she's worried about the safety of her staff."
"I'd argue she's not worried about the Grimoire at all. There's probably a 99.9% likelihood that the situation would end with the Grimoire still in our hands. But there's also an unacceptably high chance of one or more Maywitch casualties."
"But he could end up salvaging his reputation and still score points if he takes out a lot of Nina's crew while he's at it."
"And that's why the risk is worth it to him in the first place... I think," Nadia said, sighing again. "There are too many unknowns, and this is all speculation on my part."
"So why did the Board approve this, anyway?"
"He probably didn't disclose to them that he plans to use his lightning if things go to hell. He could've made up some other failsafe. If it was a reliable failsafe, though, Gardner wouldn't be freaking out the way she is."
Kay gritted her teeth. It was speculation, sure, but it all made sense in context. "You got a lot of explaining to do around this whole Grimoire thing," she murmured.
"It's a thirteenth-century magical tome loaded with forbidden hexes. Incredible power amplifier, too. Theoretically requires a key to open and use but the damn thing is unstable enough that it's still bad news in Nina's hands. The key has been supposedly passed down a mage family for generations, but I don't think even Gardner knows who that family is." Nadia reached under her bed, pulled out a flashlight, and shoved it in her backpack. "That's literally all I know. Oh, and try to avoid using magic around it, because rumor has it that it reacts badly to certain magic. That's why we kept it shielded in the Salt Lake City base."
Kay tucked a chunk of auburn hair behind her ear and pinned it in place. "Great. This should be fun."
"I guess I'm starting to understand the cynicism you've always viewed Maywitch with, Kay," Nadia said as she strode to the door. "Let me get these herbs and supplies for us, okay? Be back in a few."
Kay paused her packing and watched her roommate leave. The whole situation was surreal, and if she wasn't so certain of the texture of the backpack beneath her fingers and the sturdy feeling of her feet on the floor, she would have thought she was dreaming.
It was a nightmare, though - and here she was, stuck working with Nadia, of all people. Somehow, though, her heart felt less heavy than it had a month ago when they had been preparing to infiltrate Nina's operations.
It was almost as if she genuinely, voluntarily trusted Nadia again. That was a weird feeling.
She sucked in a breath and turned back to her packing. There would hopefully be plenty of time to think in the car.
Nadia returned a few minutes later and handed Kay a tiny bag of lavender. "Anything else you need, or do you wanna go meet Gardner at quarantine?" she asked softly.
Kay shook her head. "I think I'm good. Let's do this."
"Meet you upstairs, then." Nadia shoved two more vials of herbs into her backpack and rushed out the door, her loose shirt flowing behind her as she disappeared.
Kay zipped up her backpack, threw it over her shoulder, and said a prayer before following. At the stairwell, she looked both ways down the hall before descending the stairs, taking care to keep her footsteps soft in the morning hours.
She knew where Quarantine was, in theory, but had never been there before. The unfamiliar gray walls of the basement hallway felt shadowed and haunted as she listened past the echoing squeaks of her footsteps, hoping to detect any signs of trouble and move to avoid them in time.
Eventually, she reached a sign that said East Ward - Restricted, and she knew she had come to the right place. The indicator light above the door was green, so Kay tapped the panel to her right, and the door slid open.
Beyond it, a wide, white-walled office sat unoccupied, and the security desk to one side held a sign that read: For access after-hours, contact George DeMason or another Level One team member.
Of course. With Tierra - no, Renaya, Kay reminded herself - taking out two security guards the other day, the team was more short-staffed than ever. To the left of the security desk, another metal door and green indicator light stood sentry against the wall, and Kay pressed the entry panel next to the door.
She was rewarded with a low hiss as the door opened, but this time, the sight on the other side wasn't as benign. A body lay on the floor, silhouetted starkly in the harsh light from the three-foot-high glowing orb across the room. Lines of shelves and file cabinets flanked the scene, casting their own odd shadows across the tile floor.
In the middle of the room stood Gardner, who turned away from the glowing gold orb as she heard the door open. "Step inside," she said. "It's not what it looks like, I promise."
Kay obeyed, but simultaneously raised a hand. "Who is that?" she said, nodding at the body on the floor.
"Wojtec. New security measures mean that two Level One officials have to be present to unlock this room. I lured him in here and then knocked him out so I could pull this off without asking him to bear responsibility. He'll probably wake up within ten minutes" She knelt and faced the orb again. "There are cameras in here, but no mic, so we can talk somewhat freely as long as you stay facing me. We do have folks who can read lips, you know."
As Gardner began to whisper something, the orb crackled and morphed, changing from golden yellow to stark white. Kay didn't lower her hand. She wished she had kept a vial of something within easy reach; if she needed to use any magic other than fire, its impact would be reduced due to all her useful herbs being several inches away from her body.
The orb faded away, and Gardner quickly turned around with a small black bag in her hands. "The sheath we designed should help stabilize it, but I'd still avoid using offensive magic around it if at all possible. Now hold still," she whispered as she stepped behind Kay. "I hope there's room in your backpack for this."
The hairs on the back of Kay's neck stood on end as Gardner began to unzip the backpack. Kay watched Wojtec's limp form, hoping he would stir, but he showed no signs of life.
"Before you leave, tell Nadia the password is Lux Pacifica," Gardner said as she zipped up the backpack again. "That's your word you'll use to verify each other's identities and safeguard against possession. Understand?"
"Right," Kay said.
Gardner watched her for a moment, as if expecting more questions, but eventually waved a hand dismissively. "Go. Hurry to the garage. I'm going to leave a few minutes after you and go to my office. If anyone sees you on your way up, don't mention me. Tell them you've been told to meet Wojtec in the garage for an assignment."
"Right." Kay turned and hurried to the door, her fingers shaking as she tapped the wall panel. The door opened, sending cool air rushing over her face, and she took a deep breath before rushing out into the hallway toward the garage.
Inside the garage, Nadia was standing next to a black car against the far wall. Kay froze for a moment when she saw a security guard standing by the car, but as he walked away, she summoned her strength and walked over to Nadia.
"We good?" she murmured.
"Yup. Get in. I'm driving," Nadia said as she opened the driver-side door.
Kay didn't argue. She didn't think her nerves could handle the stress of driving right now. Once she had climbed into the passenger seat and made sure that all the doors and windows were closed, she turned to Nadia, who had just inserted the keys into the ignition. "Hold up a second, Nadia."
Nadia paused, and Kay launched into an explanation of everything she had seen in Quarantine. Nadia's calm expression remained unchanged, though, as Kay finished retelling the story. "Typical Gardner - and Wojtec, to be honest," Nadia said softly. "He'll forgive her for that, and she knows it."
"Are you sure about this, though?"
"Are you sure we're doing the right thing--"
"Would I have let us come this far if I wasn't?" Nadia turned the keys, and the car's dashboard lights blinked into life. "She doesn't have time to explain everything to us. Speaking of which, how many minutes have passed since you left Quarantine?"
"Maybe two."
"Then let's hurry," she said as she put the car into gear. "The directions to this island house thing are in Spanish, because most of George's cronies can't read it well enough to figure out up from down. Can you read it at all?"
"Not really," Kay murmured as she grabbed a sheet of paper from the folder sticking out of the glove box.
Nadia smiled, but the emotion faded as she winced in pain. "I hate to say this, but maybe you should take over driving once we have to stop," she murmured. "Then I can navigate for us."
She pulled the car toward the closed garage door, and the two women waited with baited breath as it slowly opened. Once they had enough clearance to pull through, Nadia slammed the gas and didn't slow down again until the car had wound its way aboveground. A solitary guard post lay some distance ahead, and as Nadia pulled up to it, Kay thought she saw a glimmer of concern on the guard's face as he stepped out of his shack.
"We just got some urgent orders. Confirmation code B69EV," Nadia said as she rolled down her window.
"Whose orders?" the guard asked as he peered through the car at Kay.
"Gardner's. You should have them in the system."
The guard sighed and wandered back to his shack. Through the open door of the shack, Kay could see him fumbling with a touchscreen mounted to the wall, and she waited with baited breath as he scrolled through a list of some kind.
Nadia didn't seem to move. A full minute later, as the guard came back to the car, she asked: "I'm assuming it came through?"
"Yeah, it did, but..." He trailed off, looking nervous. "There's a bit of a discrepancy in the listing. I need to call George and verify something, so..."
"What kind of discrepancy?" Nadia asked calmly
"I can't tell you that."
"You realize he's probably not awake right now, right? He's been up all night," Nadia said. "Gardner's awake, though, so you should call her."
"I can always send him an urgent page--"
"Yes, and he'll be thrilled when you wake him up over a minor discrepancy that Gardner could've cleared up," Nadia said. "Look, I haven't seen you before, so I'm guessing you're new here. If you must, call Gardner, but we're really in a hurry here. If the discrepancy isn't mission-critical, then just log it and let us through. You're allowed to do that."
The guard sighed and pulled a walkie-talkie from his utility belt. "West Entrance to Base, over," he murmured.
"Go ahead," was the immediate, static-filled response.
"Need confirmation from Director Gardner on a mission assignment."
There was a long silence, and Kay realized with horror that Gardner may have already been caught - and her and Nadia's mission was now in jeopardy. She saw Nadia's shoulders stiffen, and for a moment, she wondered if Nadia would punch the gas pedal and try to get out of there.
"Gardner said she was stepping away from her desk and to make sure to clear any of her people who were being sent out. If it's minor, then just log it," a voice said through the walkie-talkie.
Nadia let out a long, slow breath. The guard shrugged and nodded before walking back to his shack. "Safe travels," he called before reaching for something on his desk.
The gate in front of them began to slide open, and Nadia offered him a brief wave before turning her attention to the road ahead. "That was not how I needed this to start," she murmured as she pulled out onto the long driveway that stretched toward the main road. "The minute they catch onto Gardner, they're gonna figure out that something was off about us, too. What the hell kind of discrepancy could there have been in the mission orders?"
Kay didn't reply for a long moment. "I guess my job now is to keep an eye on our rearview mirrors, huh?" she murmured.
"Sure is." Nadia flipped on the headlights as they pulled away from the glow of the base. "We can sleep once we get there. I just hope Jekyll Island is quiet enough for us to rest easy."
A loud, muffled bang sent Holly lurching from her bed, right arm outstretched in desperate terror. George DeMason stood at the entrance to her room, flanked by two security guards with rifles aimed straight at her. Someone had apparently just flipped on the lights, too, and Holly had to squint for a moment to fully catch her bearings.
"Come with us. If you didn't do anything wrong, then we'll get this cleared right up," George said calmly.
Holly didn't move. The two guards stepped inside the room without lowering their weapons. "What the hell is happening?" she said, not taking her eyes from the guards.
"Do you really have no idea, Holly? Surely your friends said goodbye to you before they left."
She stared at him, perplexed, until he waved a hand and said: "I mean it. Let's go."
The guards moved closer, and she shook her head and rose from her kneeling position. "I don't need any help," she said to them as she stepped toward George. "Whatever's happening, I haven't been told anything, and something tells me I'm about to be really pissed off." 
Next chapter: Jekyll Island

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