VIII: Green Eyes
Fighting alone has its advantages. You decide what to do and when and where to do it. You’re both your best and worst member. And the second you don’t like how things are going, you can call it a night. But being part of a team automatically makes you a democracy. You can be outvoted by the majority, vetoed by the leader, or denied a vote from the start. In other words, you’re a lot more likely to get forced into situations you’d prefer to avoid. And if you want to stay on the team, taking it upon yourself to call it a night is never an option. So, what was compelling me to blindly join Mr. Sarcasm-in-a-suit’s organization? He’d made a game of dodging most of my questions, when even the Army made me feel like they weren’t out to keep me in the dark, before joining the Academy.I tried to shake away my doubts. Being distracted during a night patrol would only lead to mistakes. I knew it would be a late work night for Hachi, which left me with no more than three segments of patrolling. I took to the rooftops of the Eastern Port District in New Callastryne for a better view. A few hashes in, the echo of cracking wood pulled my attention, so I followed the sound. For all I knew, it was nothing more than some late-night construction work. So, imagine my surprise in actually stumbling upon what looked a lot like a burglary in progress.There were six men in total. Two smaller men were clearing debris from the back door of the warehouse, while four larger men kept a lookout. I figured the smaller men were the brains of the operation. But, judging from the trouble they were having breaking in, "brains" sounded pretty generous. One signaled a big thief over, who ripped the remainder of the door from its hinges like cardboard and carelessly tossed it aside. The two smaller burglars entered with the door destroyer and one other lookout.“Two on one sounds like decent odds to me,” I said, focusing energy into my legs. I leapt from the rooftop and landed; hitting the ground with a boom that cracked the pavement beneath me. The lookouts noticed and immediately rushed me.The first guy tried to bowl me over. But I slipped past him and caught the guy behind him with an uppercut to the solar plexus before he could get a good grip on my shirt. The guy doubled over and sank to the ground; accepting defeat.I spun around and leapt at the first guy. He tried to block as I threw my fist at his chin. My knuckles slammed into his forearm and he yelped in pain. I followed up with a left hook to the jaw that put him down next to his buddy. Two down, four to go.I rushed over to the doorway and put my back against the wall. If anyone was listening, they would’ve heard the scream. Sure enough, a third lookout rushed out to check on his partners. By the time he’d realized I was behind him, it was already too late.I stepped into a shadowed corner, until the other three emerged, shocked to find the rest of their team out of commission. Each of them dropped what they were carrying and pulled strange looking firearms from their jackets. Each one resembled a stone claw holding a jewel — likening them more to an artifact than a weapon. My stomach went heavy. What kind of guns are those? More importantly, why wasn’t I expecting something like this might eventually happen?If Shawin’s training had included dodging projectiles, I could’ve at least been certain my night wouldn’t end in a hospital or morgue. I’d have to make due with enhanced speed and hope for the best. I crept closer and my foot hit something heavy that scraped the ground and clunked over. My stomach clenched as I stiffened. Did they hear it? No, their ears aren’t that good. I took a breath and knelt down to reach for the item. A cracked half of a brick. I grabbed it, aimed, and tossed it hard. It flew behind them, and they all jumped around — weapons pointed — as it clanged against the ground. I shot out from the shadows, both arms extended. Before they could react, I clotheslined the two scrawnier guys so hard they nearly turned a full backflip before hitting the ground. I spun and started toward the last criminal, but stopped in my tracks when I saw the weapon pointed at me. The jewel in glowed fiercely.“I dunno who you think you are, but it’s game over for you kid,” the big guy said.A chill slinked down my throat, my mind a swirl of panic. I quickly assessed my options, wondering if my next words would end with a hole or three in my chest. But the devilish grin coloring his face provided confidence that saying nothing wouldn't end any better.“What's wrong? Afraid to fight like a man?” The words pressed out before my frontal lobe could properly filter them. He shrugged. “Cleaner this way. I bash your little face in, my hands get bloody.”“You’re afraid of blood? Your excuse is as weak as you are.” I don’t know where the words were coming from, but they’d hit their mark.The burly man glanced at the others then tucked his weapon away. “By the time I’m done with you, you’ll wish I’d ended it quickly.”He charged me, swinging with enough force to take my head off. Ultimately, the fact that Shawin was so adamant about training me on defense worked in my favor considering how easy it was to slip through his offense. The bonus was that he was sloppily throwing his punches as if brute strength alone could somehow chip away at speed and technique. News flash—it couldn’t.And just as he started to tire himself out, I threw a side kick into his chest to make sure he got the message. He bounced off the concrete wall behind him and fell to the ground. The fight was over in one hit. Or so I thought.Before I could turn away, he pressed off the ground. I lowered into a stance, preparing to kick harder when the skin on his face and hands suddenly turned rigid and gray. Almost like...stone.He rocked to his feet and brushed a hand over his chest. “Let’s see you try that again.” He charged headlong like an enraged beast, his heels booming against the gravel with every step.I dove out of the way, narrowly avoiding him. He slowed to a stop, turned, and charged again, his arms swinging like sledgehammers attached to meaty shoulders. A rocky fist hammered down, and I twisted right. Stone arms tore through the air with so much weight, it felt like the vacuum they created could’ve sucked me in if I wasn’t careful.The moment he left an opening, I dipped left and drove my fist into his side with all I had. Pain sparked from my fist and rocketed through my forearm and shoulder. It felt like I’d just punched a brick wall. But in the end, I was still on my feet, and he was back on the ground.He clutched his side looking surprised. But he wasn’t alone. My eyes widened when I’d realized what happened to my hand. My knuckles had become jagged mountains amongst the thick layer of gray skin, reaching from my fingertips all the way up my elbow.He stood with a grimace, his eyes darting between me and my arm. I shifted into a defensive stance, which he took as an invitation to swing again. I slipped to one side and connected a kick to the back of his neck. He skidded and tumbled over; the layer of stone crumbling from his body.Before I could make sure he was actually unconscious, the scrape of footsteps pulled my attention. The rest of his team was back on their feet, trying to escape. I started to give chase, but they broke off in different directions. I turned back, expecting to at least make do with the one I’d put down. Except he wasn’t down. He was already on his feet and stumbling back into the warehouse. My frustration took the form of an audible sigh, as I ran in after him.I searched the entire warehouse, but all I found was a few broken crates and a wide open backdoor. I sighed again, certain I was a special kind of stupid.Maybe he's a heavy breather. The thought crossed my mind as I boosted my hearing. I took a deep breath and listened quietly. Nothing. I lowered myself to the ground, listening for footsteps. After a beat, I made out rapid tapping hitting the pavement. But my excitement only lasted a few beats, before the sound suddenly faded.But it wasn’t just the footsteps. All sound was fading out until I couldn’t even hear myself breathe. I felt strange...really strange. Like the planet was shifting left and right. Suddenly, my body went numb, and I collapsed face first. Heat radiated from my chest, pulsing throughout my body. I felt so...empty. What in Hadal is happening? I couldn’t have overextended myself. I would’ve felt it coming. My heart jackhammered in my chest, like it was trying to break my rib cage.I racked my brain, hunting for some explanation for my sudden plight. Before I could come up with anything, darkness slithered into view. Confirmation of how dire my situation was. This can't be how it ends. Suddenly, clear blue eyes sliced the darkness, and the spinning world ground to a halt. My throat opened up, and my senses returned just in time for me to taste my dinner as it sprayed from my mouth.Stomach successfully emptied, I pushed myself to my feet and stumbled forward. Voices were coming from just around the corner. I wiped away the sweat beading on my forehead and realized the layer of stone skin on my arm had fallen away. All my powers must’ve faded. But why? I peeked around the corner and found the burglars had regrouped in front of someone in a tattered hooded cloak.“You have something that belongs to me,” the man in the hood said. They didn't hesitate to pull those unusual weapons on him, taking aim like an execution squad.What I witnessed next filled me with terror. Flashes of green glowed under the hood as the burglar's firing arms spontaneously separated from their bodies. Before they even realized what had happened, the larger men's torsos split at the waist. Blood and entrails spilled from the bodies as they flopped to the ground.Oh sh—! My eyes bulged as a shadow of dread engulfed me.The next thing I knew, the last two burglars were hovering in front of him, eyes wide with fear. He fished through their pockets and pulled out a data stick.“Third spheres entrusted with this mission? Disappointing,” the guy in the cloak remarked.“You will burn for this!” One of the men spat.“You first.”Without warning, azure flames enveloped the two men. My eyes remained fixed on the horror; wishing I could unsee it all, but too afraid to look away.The figure tucked the data stick into his cloak. Then things went from terrible to much more terrible when his emerald eyes snapped onto mine with an intensity that made the hair on my neck stand on end. It should’ve been my cue to run, but my legs weren’t taking messages from my brain.“You’re gifted too, huh?” I blurted as the man started in my direction. It wasn't the smoothest thing to say, but I figured it was better than, “Good job murdering those six criminals.” Still, my words had no effect. He was one step away from being within attack range — and I was the only one left to attack. With his next step, my breath caught. And by the time I’d realized I still had the option to breath, I also realized that he was already passed me.“This isn’t a game,” he said in a tone so dark, chills rippled through me. “If you get in my way, you will join them.”I whirled around, but no one was there. The emptiness that’d lingered ever since I went all woozy became a flood of energy, heightening my senses so suddenly, my head jerked at the blaring of peace enforcer sirens off in the distance. The sound was getting louder, which was ample reason to call it a night. Of course, Mr. Green-Eyed Bandit’s death warning did a number on my nerves. All I could think about on the way home was what I would say to the visor guy when I saw him again.
IX: The Guild
It’s not every day the bags under my eyes have bags of their own. But after a restless night, dreaming of the many ways the Green-Eyed Bandit could end me, I was starting to consider becoming nocturnal to help chase away nightmares. It wouldn't take long to settle into a new rhythm, and my job search might even turn up better options if I was open to the shifts no one else wanted.Sleep and work aside, the fact that we were on entirely different levels didn’t sit well with me for another reason. The gap between us was much larger than the one between Shawin and me. It was the kind of gap that could take anums to bridge. So, why did I feel a twinge of excitement as I entered the kitchen? Speaking of the kitchen, why was mine void of breakfast options? My answer came in the form of a note on the counter:I’ll pick up more groceries after work. Credits for breakfast are in your union account. Love, Uncle Hachi.I checked my timechain. Ten aurins had been deposited into my account as of that morning. Not much. But it would at least get me a monarch-sized soho from Soho Time.The doorbell chimed as I entered the shop. And like clockwork, the tangy, sweet scent of fresh fruit flooded my nose. I ordered the Sweet Summer Sunset. Even as I waited for them to finish my order, my mouth was like a dam barely holding back water. I slurped it so fast, a sharp pain filled my forehead. Not that anyone cared. The girl behind the counter made a gesture as if to say I was occupying a necessary space that somehow made her job more difficult.I headed for the door and I realized she wasn’t the only one with eyes on me. To my right, a man in a suit was holding his digipad just below eye level. He offered a nod and waved me over to his table. It took a couple hashes to realize it was the guy from the park.“You’re early,” I said.He nodded again. “Have a seat.” “So…?” he said quietly before taking a sip of his soho.“So...?” I repeated.“Your answer?”“A little impatient, don’tcha think? It hasn’t even been twenty segments.”“Who said you had twenty segments?” He took another sip.I gave a deadpan look. But his expression was even more apathetic than anything I could’ve produced. I sighed at the realization that my effort was wasted. “I want your name first.”“Excuse me?”“I still don’t even know who you are. Far as I know, you belong to some terrorist organization or some crazy cult or something. The least you could do is tell me your name.”He paused, still completely void of expression. “K.”“‘Kay’ what?”“Just K.”“Like the letter ‘k’?” He nodded. “Is that your real name?”“Why’s that matter? You asked for a name.”“Not a name. Your name!”“I go by lots of names. You want me to list them all?”I leaned onto my elbows. “Sure.” He stared for a beat. “Just call me K.” He took another sip.“You’re not too good at rolling out the welcome mat, ya know?”He sighed. “Look kid, the choice is yours. Don’t drag this out for me. We both know you’ve already made your decision, which has nothing to do with my name.”“Fine,” I said, leaning back. “I don’t wanna know your name anyway.”“Do we seriously have to go through this every time?” He murmured to himself.“What?”“Listen,” he refocused. “This isn’t like the Army.”“How do you know about the Army?”“It’s our job to know. Makes it easier to avoid the kinds of mistakes that you can’t afford many more of in your current position. That said, I’ll ask one more time before I walk.”He took another sip.I hesitated. “What if I don’t like how you guys operate?” “There’s no penalty for changing your mind, somewhere down the line.” The look in his eyes turned dangerous. “But I’ll warn you now. We have a way of doing things. So, if you’re with us, you operate how we operate. Understood?”I nodded.“Good. Now, you in or out?” He rolled up his digipad and slid the device into his jacket pocket.The next words out of my mouth would be the most important in my young life. I’d seen what it was like going it alone. And after my run-in with the Green-Eyed Bandit of Death, I wasn’t too keen on keeping things as they were. “You promise you guys can make me stronger?”A small curl creased into the corner of his mouth. “Much stronger.”“Then, I’m in.”He stood up and started for the door. “Excellent. Follow me.”The walk was longer than expected, finally ending at the eight story caelrail station. I didn't ride caelrails often but compared to the more common but slower terrarails, the ride was considerably faster and smoother.Our stop was the Central District Downtown, which was bustling with too many people to hold much of a conversation. Of course, K seemed to be completely ignoring me the whole ride anyway. So, I endured the awkward silence until we’d reached our stop. “Didn’t wanna talk on the rail in case anyone was listening,” K said, just as I started to speak. “Who would be listening to our conversation?”“Any number of entities. Secrets can be traded for more secrets or used to remove obstacles. And for many, we’re an obstacle.”“So, a bunch of bad guys want to get rid of your organization?”“It’s not always that black and white.”“Why not?”“There’s a time and place for that conversation too. This is neither.”“Is that why you haven’t told me your real name?”“No need for risk, when you don’t know what’s at stake. By the way, do you have enough sense of direction to know which way we’re heading?”“We’re heading north.”“Now you know my real name.”“North?”“The ‘e’ at the end is silent.”I paused. “Visor guy sounded better.”“Everyone’s a critic.”“You never told me where we’re going, by the way.”“Headquarters. The rest of the team is waiting for you, and today is your first day of training.”“That fast, huh?”“That a problem?”I shook my head. “Just making an observation.”“Speaking of observations, here’s mine: I’m not keen on training you, but the boss is forcing me to as the condition for recruiting you.”“It wasn’t up to you?” Northe shrugged.“Yes and no. The boss usually approves a request before approaching a potential candidate.”In the pause, I remembered that Northe approached me as soon as my fight with the monster was over. It could only mean —.“I’m not the boss.”On the corner of Central Avenue, a massive skyscraper stood between two buildings that collectively made up roughly half its height — The BNP Administrative and Logistics building. There was a sheen to the brick red edifice that made it look like it'd been sprinkled with glitter and contrasted with the tinted windows lining up the center in three columns. The automatic glass doors slid open to reveal a large lobby with an elderly security guard sitting behind the security desk to the right.Northe raised a hand at the guard, and he gave a slow nod, as we passed him and stopped at one of four lifts. Northe pressed the lift call button like five times.“You in a hurry or something?” I asked.“Not particularly.” The far-right lift door opened, and as I started toward it, Northe held his arm out. “Not that one.” He pressed the button again, holding for a count. The far-right lift closed, and beats later the far-left lift opened. “This is us.”As we stepped in, I heard the scuffling of feet. Someone else was rushing towards the lift. I reached for the door as a woman came into view when Northe pulled me by the shoulder and pressed the door close button. The woman’s eyes intensified as she ran at the lift. But the door shut before she could reach it.“This lift isn’t for her.” There was a hint of aggression in his voice that contrasted his previously casual tone.“Does this lift ever work for anyone not in your organization?”“No. And I’m not a fan of employing our current methods for keeping it that way whenever an outsider slips in unwanted.” I started to ask what kinds of methods they used when Northe interrupted the thought.Pressing two buttons per finger — starting from his index and working down to his pinky—Northe chose eight different floors. He held his thumb over the ninth button, releasing after the panel beeped. At a glance, it looked like he was goofing around. But there did seem to be some order to it. He waved and smiled up at the top left corner of the lift.“What are you—?”“Might wanna brace yourself,” he said.“Brace myself for whaaaaaaaa!”The lift plummeted down into what felt like the depths of Hadal. My feet lifted off the ground, and my stomach jumped into my throat. Northe lifted too, but he seemed completely indifferent to it. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a timechain and tapped his ear. “Yup,” he answered calmly.“Heeeey!” I yelled, but he completely ignored me.“Yeah, I got him...Yeah, that’s him screaming...He’ll be fine.”The lift ground to a halt, slowing so quickly, I thought somebody had turned on the emergency brakes. I landed on all fours, intense pressure forcing me to the floor. “See you in a few,” Northe finally said, before hanging up. “You alright down there?” he asked.“Wonderful. Just need a hash.” I muttered.“Sure? This is the easy part.”I ignored him, eventually stumbling to my feet as the wave of dizziness passed. All I could do was hope the lift ride wasn’t an everyday thing.We stepped out of the lift and into what looked like a terrarail station. White lighting flooded the immaculately kept subterranean station which housed a white-on-white terrarail. The terrarail door opened, welcoming me as I reluctantly followed Northe inside, hoping I wasn’t about to experience a horizontal version of the lift.Surprisingly, the ride was smooth and quiet. And despite the fact that there was no one around to eavesdrop, Northe was equally silent. I still didn’t know what to expect when we reached headquarters, and instead of filling me in, Northe pulled out his digipad, quickly becoming engrossed in whatever was flashing across the screen.“You know, staring a hole into my forehead won’t cure your paranoia,” Northe said without looking up.“I’m not paranoid,” I said.“Then relax and enjoy the ride, Kid. This terrarail is as safe as it gets.”“Did you...read my thoughts?”“Let’s just say I’ve learned to read faces. And yours is what psychiatrists refer to as an open book.”The terrarail coasted to a gentle stop, and the doors opened revealing an identical station. Unfortunately, it put us in front of another lift.“Are there stairs I can take?” Northe stepped in shaking his head. I swallowed stepping in after him and immediately lodging myself into a corner.Northe studied me, an eyebrow raised. The doors closed and the lift rose at an astonishingly safe speed.“Nearly two billion people make up the Orbis population, but only an estimated ten thousand possess the potential for refracting.”“Refracting?”“Our term for using special abilities. Users are called refractors; our term for Gifted. And the number may sound high, but of all the supernatural beings here, we’re the minority.”“Supernatural beings?”“Yup. Aengel, daemon, people with superpowers.”“Seriously? Aengel and daemon?”“Who else would toil against El’s will?”I stopped to consider Northe’s question. “People?”Northe placed a hand on his forehead and chuckled. “Alright. Quick history lesson. The templum tells us that aengel and daemon have been around since before Orbis came into existence. What you may not know is that daemon — and even some aengel — have been working in secret for centuries to enslave or altogether eradicate humankind. You'd think those of us with the power to stop them would band together. But people are people, regardless of common ground. So, instead of taking the logical path to survival, refractors have only emulated the dissension and segregation amongst themselves that initially led to the separation of nations and authority that every person is forced to deal with today.” Northe shrugged and shook his head. “Thankfully, someone had the good sense to create an organization to keep the world's ‘supernatural entities’ in check, before the balance of power could tip so far as to ensure humankind’s destruction. We are that organization. Welcome to the International Guild of Investigators of the Supernatural—IGIS for short.”“Okay...Can we back up for a beat? You kind of lost me at segregation of countries.”I followed Northe out of the lift and into the most technologically advanced place I’d ever seen. It was like walking through a science future vid. Triangular panels formed a massive transparent dome that surrounded tens of sand and pearl-colored buildings. Sunlight beamed through to paved sidewalks neatly lined with strips of grass.“Why does this place look so much like a city?” I asked.“Probably because it is. But you won’t find it on any map. Vaticia is home to IGIS headquarters, housing all of our offices and local agents.”“Where did all this come from?” Northe shrugged. “You don’t know?”“It’s my policy to only ask questions when especially inconvenienced. Speaking of which, we’d better hurry. The girls are waiting. And they’re not half as patient as I am.” If he qualified as patient, I didn’t want to think about what that meant for the rest of the team. We arrived at an inconspicuous white three-story house. “This is the team seven dormitory. D7 for short.” He stopped me at the door. “Listen to me very carefully. Do not—I repeat—DO NOT allow the girls to goad you into a fight.”Is he joking? “Why would I fight girls?” The look he gave told me I might regret asking.Inside, the house was surprisingly spacious, sporting an ultra-modern array of whites and grays that were so polished you could almost see your reflection. A faint spicy-flowery scent wafted through the air.“What am I smelling?” I asked.“Nice, right? It’s a blend of oils I threw together to help calm the energy in here.”“Does it work?”“So, this is the new recruit?” a voice called from behind. It carried a faint accent that I couldn’t place.I turned, and my eyes widened at the two women approaching. The taller woman was easily somewhere in her late twenties, while the shorter one looked younger than me. But they were both very striking.“Yes ladies,” Northe said. “This is Serec.” Northe gestured toward the taller woman. “Serec, this is our team commander, Surket.” Up close, she was noticeably taller than me, which made her tower over the girl. Her sharp features and muscular build, likened her more to a world-class athlete than a covert operative.“You guys were there when that weird creature attacked,” I said.“We were,” Surket confirmed, and extended her hand. “Nice to finally meet you.” Her grip on my wrist was as firm as mine on hers. And the piercing gaze of her violet eyes had an edgy sense of danger that made Northe’s warning about fighting her seem like a lot less of a joke. Still, her partially shaved head, long wavy hair, facial piercings, and tribal tattoos pointed to an exotic beauty that any man could appreciate. “Likewise,” I said. “I’m excited to be a part of the team.”“Except you’re still a recruit,” the shorter girl commented matter-of-factly, stepping between Surket and me. “That means you aren’t a part of the team yet.”I tilted my head left. “I’m sorry, and you are...”Northe gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “This is our technician, Raven. Anyway, let’s go have a look at—”“I’m the person telling you that you must earn your place on this team,” Raven interrupted. There was a cold, almost condescending edge to her voice that I found masterfully exasperating. “Or did you assume that you could stroll in and be welcomed with open arms?”“I assumed,” I began failing to keep things smooth, “that I was being recruited to fight monsters, not a teenage girl with an attitude problem.”“Calm down you two,” Northe said.“I am calm,” I said. “She’s the one who’s making things tense for no reason.”Raven’s eyes narrowed into an icy death glare, as she closed in, bringing her face so close, I could feel her breath. “You will quickly learn that nothing I do is arbitrary. Despite your lack of understanding, I assume you possess the sense to know when you are outmatched.”My jaw tightened. “What’s your problem?”“To be honest, I’m disappointed. I was expecting more from you. But I can now see that I was wrong.”There was any number of things I could’ve said, but Northe’s grip on my shoulder tightened. Remembering his warning, I turned away. At a glance, Surket and Raven were complete opposites. While Surket looked like the captain of a professional sports team, Raven seemed like a petite spoiled prep schooler. As I stared at her over my shoulder, it all started to make sense. As the youngest member of the team, she was probably trying to prove how tough she was from the very start. Considering that, I should’ve taken pity on her. But if in her mind, strength was the key to earning a place on the team, the least I could do was prove I wasn’t a pushover.“Uh, Surket?” Northe said with an expectant look.Surket shrugged. “Your recruit, your responsibility.”“I got this,” I said, facing Raven. “I know what you’re trying to do. But, unlike you, I don’t need to antagonize strangers to prove how tough I am.”“Unlike me, all you’ve proven is how quickly you can back down once it’s clear you’re outmatched. I wonder, was this the reason your Army career was so short-lived?”I’ve heard that patience is a virtue. But, sometimes, I’m okay with the fact that it’s one of those virtues I may never get under control. “Actually,” I said. “I was court-martialed for breaking the nose of the last person who felt like invading my personal space and provoking me for no good reason. Kind of like you’re doing right now.”I was hoping my tone would — in the immortal words of Hachi — make my point as clear as quartz. But for someone so quick to call me dumb, Raven just wasn’t getting it. She stepped back and offered a breathy smile, before heading toward a glass door at the far end of the room. “I’ll be in the training room,” she called over her shoulder. “I’d be interested in seeing if you can actually demonstrate what happened to that last person you spoke of. But that’s a pretty big if, I’m sure.” Before my reasoning could tell me how bad of an idea this was, my legs pulled me away from Northe’s guiding hand. “You were gonna show me the training room anyway, right Northe?” I asked.“Yeah,” Northe said after a pause.I followed her into an open space with dark, padded flooring. The area split into a small area with weights and other workout equipment, and a larger open area that looked like it was made for sparring.“The rules are simple,” she began. “If I put you down, I score a point. If—by some fluke—you manage to knock me down, you earn a point. The first to three points wins.”“Who’s keeping score?”“You can’t count to three?”“I just don’t want you trying to cheat in a victory.”Raven gave a smug look. “Fine. I’ll scan you in at the HMI.”“The what?”“Holographic Mapping Interface.” She pointed to a large touchscreen in the corner of the room. “It tracks your movement and records the number of times you go horizontal on the mat.”Northe and Surket stepped in as I followed Raven over to the HMI. Northe looked disappointed, but Surket seemed amused."Good afternoon, Raven," a robotic female voice said."Good afternoon, Anni. Please scan in a new user.""Confirmed."“Just follow her instructions,” Raven said.“State your name,” Anni instructed.“Serec.”“Pleased to meet you, Serec. Please place your hand in front of the screen.”I held out my right hand, and the screen turned green. “Scanning complete. Lower your hand and take one step back, please.” I followed the instructions. But nothing happened.“Is it—”“Let it finish.” Raven’s cold tone nearly pulled a less than gentleman-like response. But I told myself to save it for sparring.“Scanning complete,” Anni finally said.Raven led me back to the sparring area. “Let’s see if Monument Park was just a fluke.”Raven assumed a fighting stance, and I followed suit. “Ready when you are,” I said. But Raven didn’t move. I started to repeat myself, when she lunged at me, nearly catching my face with her fist. She maintained momentum, swinging with crazy accuracy and speed. Keeping me on the defensive.Her persistence was enough to back me into the wall before I knew it. But when she finally switched out from furious punching into a roundhouse kick, I knew I could take the advantage. I raised my arm to block. But the sheer force behind her kick was more than I expected. I cringed at the sharp sting it caused. But she’d have to do better than that to throw me off my game. In one motion, I rotated my wrist to grip her ankle and lifted her leg. Then, before she could react, I swept my foot behind her supporting leg, knocking her flat on her butt."Point—Serec," Anni announced.I held out a hand. But she swatted it away and lunged at me with an elbow. I slipped to one side, grabbed her arm, and pulled it down while pressed my other hand into her leg. Her momentum forced her into a somersault and ended with her back smacking against the mat."Point—Serec."“Do you wanna stop here?” I asked. “Despite your terrible attitude, I’m not too thrilled about beating up a girl.”Raven's scowl faded, and I caught her glance over at Surket, who gave a single nod. Does this mean the match is over? Raven gave me an uncharacteristically sweet smirk; something I would have appreciated over the grimace she offered at our introduction. “I’m impressed. I gave two intentional openings and you exploited them without fail.” Intentional? She’s gotta be bluffing. “Do you possess the necessary skill to earn the final point?”“Guess we’ll see,” I said, trying to hide my building anxiety. Suddenly, everything about her seemed different. Her expression, her fighting stance. Even the look in her eyes. I tried not to make much of it. But there was a building anxiety in my stomach that was hard to completely ignore. With palms facing down, and arms at her side, she looked like she was preparing to perform a sophisticated cultural dance. Before I could fathom a guess at what Raven was preparing to do, she tucked her chin and rushed me again; focusing all of her attacks at my face. It wasn’t easy keeping my eyes open through her foreign movements. But the longer I only focused on defending, the more I started to notice a pattern. Once I had her rhythm, I went for her arm. But she slipped around me and dipped out of sight. I twisted around to find her, and something slammed into the back of my legs; tearing my feet from under me."Point—Raven," Anni said as Raven stood over me with a stoic expression.I jumped to my feet, wanting to rub at the dull throb in the back of my legs. But if I showed any weakness, I knew she’d try and exploit it. “Good move,” I said.She waved for me to come at her again. “I know.”In that moment, nothing would’ve been more satisfying than tackling her to the ground and knocking the self-satisfaction right out of her. But I was only one point away. The last thing I needed was to give her an opportunity to catch up with an amateur head-on attack. The techniques Shawin taught me were the surest way to finish the fight.I crept forward until we were little more than an arm’s length apart. I started to make a move when she slipped past me again. I turned, but didn’t she her until immediately after her leg jammed even harder into the back of my knees. She clasped her hands over my forehead and yanked—forcing my legs to fold and the back of my head to thud against the mat."Point—Raven."“Would you like to stop here?” she asked. “Despite your gross incompetence, I’m not too thrilled about beating up arrogant little boys.”Heat pulsed through me so quickly that my arm lashed out at her out of pure reflex. She leaned away and jumped to her feet. But I twisted over and leapt at her, taking another swing. In my frustration, I’d forgotten that I didn’t actually want to hurt her. That ended up being the least of my worries though. During my swing, I barely caught any movement from her before my head and feet had somehow switched places. The next thing I knew, my body was folding into itself over the mat. The feeling of prickling needles stretched all the way from my legs up my back."Point—Raven. Score limit reached. Raven wins,” Anni announced. By the time I’d realized what’d happened, Raven was walking away.“You couldn’t even last three hashes,” she said.“Rematch.” I yelled at the back of her head. “Don’t be a sore loser. Check with Anni if you want to review the fight.”“You afraid? Is that it?” Raven followed Surket out the door without a second glance. I started to taunt her again, when Northe's hand on my shoulder drew my attention. “Don’t worry. You’re not the first person to take my warnings too lightly. Anyway, wanna see your room?” He started for the door without waiting for my answer.I peeled my body and my pride from the mat and hurried after him. Northe led me through the rest of the house; pointing out several interesting gadgets along the way. He ended the tour at the massive vid screen in the den that I had been too preoccupied with Raven to notice before. “We’ve got archives of every popular program,” Northe said, leaning close. “I’m partial to those prep school dramas. Sure, they’re trashy. And some of the plots are kinda stupid. But you know what they say: one man’s teen drama is another man’s last-ditch pastime.”A chuckle bubbled up from the back of my throat.“At least your face still works. I thought I’d lost you after you fell into Raven’s trap, despite my warning.”“I get it. I should’ve taken your advice more seriously.”“Yeah, you should’ve. Now I’m down one segment of gaming tomorrow.”“What do you mean?”“I wagered with Surket that you’d at least recognize Raven was out of your league before she beat you. Now, I have to start my day helping her with office work tomorrow, instead of playing Call to Arms 3, like I should be. Guess it’s my fault for having faith in a newbie.” Northe folded his arms and turned away. “Maybe I could just wake up a segment earlier.” “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”He raised an eyebrow. “Raven’s been training under Surket for about half her life. She may look like a timid teenager, but she’s actually a highly lethal operative. Besides, if she lost, Surket would’ve had her skip dinner for more training.”Hearing that made losing a little easier to stomach. Even if Raven was a snobby brat, I wouldn’t want her to starve for the night. “Speaking of which, where’d you learn to fight like that?”“Nowhere really. Just stuff I picked up from watching people.”“That was a lot to pick up just ‘watching people.’”“I’ve got good eyes.”Northe eyed me suspiciously for a beat, then shrugged. “Well, here’s a little nugget of wisdom for you. Whenever a woman rubs you the wrong way, find a way to handle the problem with your head.”I nodded; more than a little doubtful it could ever be that simple.“In fact,” Northe continued, “I’m feeling generous. So, here’s a second nugget for the price of one: Never ignore the wisdom of your mentor.”“Mentor?”He pointed at himself and winked. “Or perhaps you enjoy having your ego crushed by angry women.”“You don’t have to say it like that.”“Lighten up. You’re not the first guy to get beat by a girl.”“Raven beat you? Or maybe Surket?”Northe snorted. “Of course not. Why would you think that?”“Well, you just said—”“Okay, forget that part. Let’s just say that every defeat teaches you something about yourself.”“Like what?”“You’ll figure it out sooner or later. Anyway, this is you.” Northe pointed to the door behind him. “My room’s two doors over, in case you need something.”“Are we the only ones up here?”“The girls are down the hall—which is pretty wise, considering the old proverb.” I lifted my eyebrows. “You know? About women being hard to live with?”“Harder to live without?”“No. Well, I mean...” Northe sighed. “The first part’s the only part that makes any real sense. Anyway, here.” Northe handed me a thick sleek silver bangle.“That's your Tactical Action Band or TAB. It may look like an ordinary bangle, but it's actually your access to most things in D7, including the team. We use it to communicate, as well as open any electronic lock in here.”“That's pretty smooth. But how often am I gonna sleep here?”“How much sleep do you need?”“That’s not what I meant.”“We work most days, so it’s easier living here. We can make arrangements if you’d like to have a few essentials sent from home.” My chest went cold. So much had happened in one day, I’d forgotten all about Hachi. And I couldn’t just say I was working for some top-secret organization. “Something wrong?”“No,” I lied. “Everything’s smooth.”“Great. Cause dinner’s in ten.”“Dinner?”“Yeah, it comes after lunch. Usually around 16.00 for us.”I didn’t realize so much time had passed. Hachi’s note said he’d be grocery shopping after work, which left me just over a segment before he’d be home. Hopefully, I could think of something during dinner.The spread was like nothing I’d seen in-person. The scent of steamed plant greens mingled with the sweet aroma of freshly baked bread in a way that could make a hunger strike worth breaking.I arrived last to the table. But of the five seats, I made certain to choose the position farthest from Raven and her attitude. Even if something about her seemed oddly familiar, she wasn’t exactly the type of girl I’d willingly associate with. “About time,” Raven huffed, as I took a seat.“What’s your hurry?” Northe said. “We can’t eat until everyone’s here anyway.”“Who else are we waiting for?” I asked.“The Director,” Surket replied. “He wanted to welcome you personally.”“Not that Derek deserves such an honor,” Raven said under her breath.“It’s Serec,” I corrected.Raven shrugged. “Close enough.”“She’s just trying to get under your skin, Kid,” Northe remarked.“So,” I said as if pondering his words, “you’re saying that Raven is like a common parasite?”Surket grinned, but Raven looked unamused.“I imagine you had plenty of opportunities to come up with insults, while you were kissing the floor earlier,” she shot back.“I did, actually. I can write them down for you, if you like.”A knock at the door interrupted us, and Surket went to answer it.“Alright children,” Northe said, “The Director’s here, so play nice.”Raven cut her eyes at me, but I pretended not to notice.Surket returned with a man in a hat and trench coat. When he pulled the hat away, the blood drained from my face.“Serec,” Surket started, “this is—”“Uncle Hachi?” I interrupted.“Uncle Hachi?!” Surket and Raven exclaimed in unison.Hachi smiled. “Hi Serec. I take it, you’ve settled in and gotten acquainted with everyone?”I frowned. “Uh, yeah. Uh…” was all I could manage as he took the seat next to me.“How long did...I mean, why didn’t you—?”Hachi placed a hand on my shoulder. “Relax. It’s late, I’m certain you’ve had a long day. Plus, I think I’ve held everyone up for dinner long enough. I promise I’ll explain everything soon.”I nodded, still struggling to wrap my mind around what was happening.“Tonight, I am honored to have my nephew join us for dinner. My hope is that—with the help of each of you—Serec will flourish here and make significant contributions to IGIS and to our cause.” Hachi raised his glass high. “Please join me in welcoming Serec to the Guild.” Everyone raised their glass, then took a drink. Even Raven.
The next morning, I awoke to a note on the closet that read: Wear this. Inside was a sleek black suit with a white dress shirt. Next to it, a stylish belt and a pair of black dress shoes sat on a small shelf. Some small circular insignia was embroidered over the left chest of the coat. The symbol in the circle was made up of thin intersecting rings that resembled a flower. An odd emblem, but it wouldn’t even come close to the strangest thing I’d see that day. I opened my door to the sound of music. After reaching the bottom of the staircase, I realized it was coming from the team office, where Surket was sitting behind a processor, clicking keys at lightning speed.“You’re up late,” Surket commented without bothering to look up at me.“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t realize how late it was.”The words lingered momentarily as her eyes remained locked on the screen. “Don’t make a habit of it,” she finally replied. The tapping of keys cut through the music as it fought to fill the awkward void. “You’re looking better.”I laughed nervously. “Yeah. Sorry for not keeping a cooler head yesterday.”She smirked. “I’m sure the experience was humbling. Don’t make a habit of that either.” I was starting to understand where Raven learned her lack of sympathy. But unlike Raven, Surket’s tone held a subtle, reassuring warmth. “Right. So, what are we doing today?”“K has your assignment.” She turned the music down and spoke into her TAB. “Time to get to work, Peipei.” A hash later, Northe strolled in. “Serec’s awake. Turn off your kid games and start your assignment.”“Vid games,” Northe corrected.“Don’t care, just turn it off.”Northe half-scowled. “Ya know—”“Be smart and keep your wits about you today, Serec,” Surket interrupted, then turned up the music and resumed typing. I nodded and followed a newly disinterested Northe out of the office.“You like vid games?” Northe asked.“Yeah.”“How ‘bout a quick round before we hit the streets?”“I’d prefer not to make Surket mad.”Northe gave a breathy snort. “When isn’t she mad?”“Can’t we wait ‘til we get back? My first day with Raven was rough enough.”It only made sense that immediately after my comment, we would pass the training room and find Raven throwing a flurry of attacks into a translucent heavy bag. I stopped just long enough to take her in. Watching her made me unsure of what to appreciate more — her artful technique or the way she artfully fit into pink leggings and a sports top. I never imagined someone could be so alluring while dripping with sweat. I guess there’s a first time for everything.“You love conflict, don’t you?” Northe remarked.“What are you talking about?”Northe nodded at the training room. I turned my head and nearly jumped out of my skin at the sight of Raven standing right behind me. I never imagined someone looking up at me could be so intimidating.“Unless you would like to take the place of that bag, I'd kindly advise you to keep your eyes to yourself.”Surprise only lingered momentarily, before abruptly swirling into exasperation. But Northe’s first nugget of wisdom hadn’t fallen on deaf ears.“Sorry,” was all I could manage. Raven cut her eyes at me and evaporated into droplets of light, reforming a moment later in front of the heavy bag. “Did she just—”“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her hitting the bag that hard,” Northe interrupted, patting me on the back. “Guess you bring out the best in people.” He nodded for me to follow him, but Surket called just as we reached the den.“Rima Peipei! I’ve got the intel on your mission,” she said, handing him a digipad.A wry smile crept onto his face as he tapped the screen. “Another arms dealer? That’s three in three decs.”“It is odd. But I’d wager this one’s also related to you know who.”Northe frowned. “Wagers only make sense when there’s a chance you can win.”“Was helping me organize files really that hard?”“Helping? I organized. You played with your knife.”“Speaking of games, why is this one still on?” Surket asked, pointing at the vid screen."Because I’m two hashes from finally unlocking the best weapon in the game.” Surket folded her arms. “We’re outta here as soon as I finish this mission.”Surket pointed at the vid screen. A spark crackled from her finger instantly powering everything down. “Mission complete,” she said, turning toward the office. “Now start your real mission.”“Two segments of unsaved work,” Northe said through gritted teeth. He closed his eyes and breathed deep through his nose. “Let’s go, Kid.”Watching Northe and Surket almost felt like a replay of Raven and me, minus the climactic bare-knuckle ending. As the thought sank in, I suddenly understood the significance of Northe’s warning about the girls.We left the compound the same way we came in. But knowing what to expect, I could at least mentally prepare for the lift from Hadal.“What’s today’s mission about?” I asked.“There’ve been recent reports of illegal distribution of stolen technology. So, we’re stuck playing peace enforcer.”Despite how easy it was to tell Northe was upset about his game possibly being fried, he was taking it a lot better than I would’ve if my vid game console had been short-circuited. “I was thinking about what you said yesterday. About bringing some stuff from home.”“And?” Northe prompted.“I was wondering how long it would take after I made a list.”“Depends on what you want sent over.”“Small stuff. Clothes, decor. Stuff like that.”“By ‘small’ are we talking gaming console small or…?”“That was on my list. At least until I saw how Surket treated your console today.”Northe shook his head. “She’s had a vendetta against me gaming, since the day I started.”“Any particular reason why?”Northe shrugged. “Women don’t like fun stuff. So, when they see us having fun without them, it flips their whole world upside down. At least, that’s my theory. Third nugget for ya: keep your hobbies to yourself.”My stomach tightened as the lift doors opened to reveal the woman from the day before. The one that Northe closed the lift door on. But Northe seemed unaffected. In fact, a small chortle erupted from Northe as soon as he saw her. “Speaking of daemon.” The woman’s cold amber eyes followed Northe as we walked past her.“Is it okay for her to take that lift?” I asked.“Yep.”“But I thought outsiders weren’t supposed to use that one.”“Minerva is the lead researcher in the Guild’s Science & Technology division. But I’ve honestly hated her troll guts and nasty little attitude ever since we were in flight school together eight anums back. I guess you could say it’s become an ambition of mine to take advantage of every opportunity to throw a fragment or two of revenge her way. I call ‘em revenge-ments. Fourth nugget: Sometimes, a little revenge-ment can go a long way.”I didn’t know if Northe was being serious or not, but at least he was smiling again. “I wouldn’t have thought you were a pilot.”“Of course not,” Northe said matter-of-factly. “You just met me.” He’d missed the meaning behind my comment, which was probably for the best.“Where are we going for today’s mission?” I asked.“Port District. Thankfully, it’s a short caelrail ride away.”My chest tightened. New Callastryne’s Port District was where Green Eyes nearly ended me. For all I knew, we were intruding on his territory. And, even with Northe there, I wasn’t keen on the intrusion.The caelrail ride was a blur. One hash, I was contemplating if I’d ever be strong enough to take on someone like Green Eyes. And the next hash, we’d reached our stop and — worst case scenario — I would have to find out firsthand what having a team really meant. “How long have you been with The Guild?” I asked Northe.Northe thought for a moment. “Roughly twelve anums.”“And Surket?”“Hmm,” he thought aloud. “Has it been nine anums…? Ten. Ten anums.”My next question was an obvious one. “Is she stronger than you?”“Commanders don’t have to be the strongest on the team if that’s what you’re getting at. They do, however, need excellent leadership skills and the willingness to do what a good leader does of their own volition.”Northe’s lackadaisical attitude definitely ruled him out of the second part. But I wondered if there was some other reason a twelve-anum veteran could be outranked by a junior agent.The caelrail slowed to a halt, and Northe stepped out onto a busy street lined with shops and food vendors. Northe seamlessly waded through the sea of consumers, while I struggled to keep up. Out of range of all edible smells, the walkways had finally cleared up enough for Northe to brief me on the mission.“Our target is two blocks ahead,” he said. “A repeat offender, suspected of illegal distribution of stolen weaponry.”“We’re chasing an arms dealer?”“An arms dealer with weapons of great interest to the Guild.”“Like lasers or missiles?”“Close enough. But we call them Divinus Arma —Divarma for short. One of the Guild’s main purposes is to secure divarma, which helps us maintain the balance of power between refractors, regular people, and the other supernatural beings running around. Of course, if the aengel had never come into our world, then we wouldn’t have so much work on our hands.”Everything Northe was saying might as well have been from out of some crazy science fantasy vid or something. It was hard to believe, much less understand.“I get the danger of refractors and aengel. But what about the...Diva’s Mama thing?”Northe’s lips pursed into a thin line. “I’m gonna need you to listen a little closer. Divarma are powerful supernatural weapons that came from the dark world: Orbis Tenebris. They can bend various forms of matter and energy, so against your more conventional magnetic or laser weapons, divarma wielders have a devastating advantage.”“And how exactly did these weapons end up here?”“Aengel have always been drawn to the light of our world. But an event we call the Great Calamity created rifts in space-time that they’ve exploited to get here. And many of them bring stolen divarma along from Orbis Tenebris. If all that wasn’t enough, we suspect a mysterious yet powerful aengel is responsible for turning the sky green six anums ago. Whatever the case, we can't let that kind of power go unchecked.” Northe stopped in front of a rundown jewelry store and slipped on a pair of sunglasses and sleek black gloves—hitman gear if I’d ever seen it. “Which brings us here.”The windows were barred in the shoddiest way imaginable, and the wooden ‘Ron T. Foster Jewelry’ sign behind the window looked like it’d been written by a child. It was kind of odd, naming a jewelry store after something other than a jewel. But the name was the least of this store’s problems.I followed Northe inside, pretending to browse the selection of wares until a tall, wiry man with a weird accent appeared behind the counter. “Were you gentlemen looking for anything in particular?” His w’s sounded like v’s, and his t’s sounded like z’s. I could barely understand his accent, but Northe didn’t miss a beat.“I’m looking for a bangle,” Northe answered. “Something elegant and stylish.”“But of course,” the man replied. He opened the glass case, pulled out a tray of fancy bangles, and handed the first one to Northe. “This is one of our best pieces. It is of top quality and its sleek design is—”“Ya don’t say. You know, I have an eye for quality, and I can tell,” Northe began, lowering his glasses, “that this bangle is as fake as the store housing it.”The man blinked hard looking perplexed. Northe leaned in closer. “I’m a little disappointed though. I mean, Ron T Foster is pretty obvious, don’t you think? As far as anagrams go, I’ve seen better from you guys.”It would’ve been nice if Northe clarified what made the anagram so obvious. But I’d have to just go with it.Northe turned and with the flick of his fingers, the window sign flipped over and cracked against the ground. The tall man’s eyes grew feral like a cornered animal. “I'm not in the mood for games,” Northe said. Ironic choice of words. “Where’s the divarma?”As the man’s eyes grew shifty, I prepped my legs with a little extra power. The tension was at a boiling point, and the last thing I wanted was to get burned. “This one’s yours, Kid.”Before my brain could even process Northe’s words, the tray of counterfeit watches was flying toward my head. The man leapt over the counter and bolted for the door with a metal briefcase in hand.I moved to block his path, which turned out to be a huge mistake. The man plowed into me, and I unexpectedly played the role of shield as we crashed through the front door and rolled along the ground. Well, more like I rolled, as he pushed away and took off down the road. I jumped to my feet and raced after him. Cool air brushed along my arms and legs; a sign that my uniform was in bad shape.“Just leave him in one piece,” Northe called after me, noting the damage.For such a lanky build, the man was faster than expected. But I managed to close the distance between us. I tackled him to the ground, and he tried to knock me away as we tumbled forward. At least, until a couple hard jabs to his ribcage took the fight out of him, and he wised up enough to curl into a ball. I pushed to my feet and looked down at my suit. The sleeves were torn and my left pant leg was tattered from the knee down. The sight alone boiled the blood in my face. But before I could move to hit him again, a gust of wind whistled past and Northe reappeared.With a stoic expression, he yanked the man by the collar to his feet. “You don’t seem to have a very high tolerance for pain,” Northe began. “And yet you do something stupid like run away when I’m already in a bad mood. In the process, you’ve ruined my colleague’s brand-new suit, and now I’m thinking it might not be a bad idea to let him treat you like a punching bag...unless you answer every question I ask truthfully and promptly.”I’d really wished Northe hadn’t thrown in that final condition, even if the man’s cooperation moved things along. I bit down, clenching my fists in silent hope that the man was dumb enough to call Northe’s bluff.The man nodded nervously.“Good,” Northe said. “Who do you work for?”“Y-you don’t understand,” the man said meekly. “If I talk, he’ll—”“Kid.” Northe nodded at me and a smile etched into my face as I started toward the whimpering man. “Zalier,” he blurted. “It’s Zalier.”“Zalier, huh?” Northe said, holding up a hand. “Why does that sound familiar...?” He thought for a moment, then smiled breathily. “Right. Anagrams. We’re taking Ronald—or whatever his name is—with us.”“With us where?” I asked.“To pay a visit to an old friend.”Northe turned and started in the opposite direction, which meant it was up to me to bring Ronald along. I sighed, grabbed Ronald’s arm, and yanked him behind me.“You’re hurting me,” Ronald yelled.“Get over it,” I said picking up the case and following Northe.After several blocks of actively ignoring Ronald’s whimpering, we finally reached the Callastryne Archives — a library containing the most extensive collection I’d ever seen of old books and rare books — all boring enough to put a city to sleep in beats. Public access was usually restricted, but Northe strolled right through the front entrance like it was his home away from home.A guard blocked our path. “Please present your badge,” he instructed sternly.“We’re here for a meeting with the superintendent,” Northe replied. “Would you mind calling him for us?”“I’m sorry sir, but Superintendent Zalier is very busy and has requested not to be disturbed.” Northe grinned. “I’m pretty sure he’ll want to make time for me.”“I’m sorry sir, but the superintendent’s orders were clear. You’ll have to reschedule.”“Lovely,” Northe nodded. “RAZIEEEEEL!” He roared so loudly, I cupped my hands over my ears, out of fear my eardrums would burst. “RAZIEL, I KNOW YOU HEAR ME!”Dust rained from the ceiling as the building trembled. Beats later, a well-dressed man in a long dark robe rushed over to us.“Just the man I wanted to see,” Northe said. “How ya doin’ buddy?”The man frowned at the guard, then forced a diplomatic smile at Northe.“How may I assist you?”“We really should discuss this in private.” Northe nodded at Ronald, who cowered the moment the man’s eyes reached him.The man sighed. “We can discuss this matter in my office.”We followed the superintendent through a large walkway lined wall-to-wall with shelves of books nearly reaching the ceiling. Sculptures and framed art were arranged throughout the area like a museum. There was even the familiar museum smell of old sterilized paper. Nostalgia reared its head as my mind drifted to days spent in the museum with my friend Liza. For a moment I wondered how she’d feel about me working for a secret organization. But I quickly refocused on Ronald, ensuring he remained between Northe and me until we were inside the superintendent’s office. It was a dark room that resembled the wall-to-wall shelving of the rest of the archive, except the warm herbaceous aroma of mythe oil filled this room. It was safe to assume that Ronald wouldn’t try running once we were inside the office, but I didn’t want to risk it. If, by some off chance, he’d decided to get flighty, the thought to take my frustration out on his legs had already crossed my mind.“You become more brazen every time we meet, K,” the superintendent said, closing the door behind us. “I’m certain I’ve requested that you not use my real name enough for you to remember by now.”“And I’ve requested that you stop bringing rogues through that rift, Raziel.” Despite Northe’s flat delivery, his tone contained a hint of danger that commanded the attention of the room.Raziel walked over to a hardwood desk and sat in the large, intricately designed chair behind it. For a moment, I could have sworn I saw massive brown-feathered wings extending from Raziel’s back. But upon blinking, I found nothing. The chair creaked as Raziel leaned forward, looking like he was searching for words.“So, why is he on this side of the divide?” Northe pointed at Ron.Raziel’s face went flush. “He had a specific purpose.”“Like the ones who almost annihilated a city block a couple decs back?”“I told you, that was Lailah’s doing. The little daemon will be the end of us all. Were you aware that she had one of her minions steal one of my artifacts from here last night?”“You can’t be serious,” Northe maintained his flat tone seeming more annoyed than concerned. “Yes, my men reported that the girl escaped by running on the ceiling,” he explained.Ceiling!? No… it’s just a coincidence. “As troubling as that is, it doesn’t change the ugly truth standing beside me.” Northe motioned to Ron. “But, I was planning to—”“Clearly you’ve forgotten how this works,” Northe interrupted. “We’ve allowed you to remain in this world solely because I find you useful. But when your actions create problems for me, I find you a lot less useful. And when I can no longer find a use for you — well, we both know what happens, right?”Raziel cleared his throat. “Right.”“Good,” Northe said, flashing a dangerous smile. “And while we’re on the matter of usefulness, you tracking anything on the creatures that have been popping up around town recently?”“You mean those feral abominations that attack anything that moves?”“Those would be the ones. I need info — anything you can get on them.”Raziel nodded. “I’ll get my people on it.”“You do that.” Northe nodded at me, and we started for the door.“By the way,” Raziel called, “I see you recovered a silver briefcase.” He eyed my left hand.Northe pointed to the case. “This case?”“That would be the one. I’d be happy to take it off your hands. No need to bother yourself with it.” “How’s it work?”Raziel smiled nervously. “Pardon?”“Razi, Razi. You know I hate when you play dumb with me, right?”“We’ve only just acquired it. I haven't had the opportunity to determine exactly what it does yet.”“But you knew it would be of interest to us, didn’t you?” Shame covered Raziel’s face. “Well, I’m certain we’ll figure out the nuts and bolts of it soon enough.” Northe turned for the door. “I’ll be in touch.”“Who was that guy?” I asked as we exited the archives.“Remember what I said about the supernatural powers we keep in check? Raziel’s one of them.”“He’s a refractor too?”“Refractor?” Northe said, almost in a laugh. “He’s not even human.”I paused, wondering how someone could look human without being human. “Then...he’s an aengel?”“You got it.” Northe stuffed his gloves back in his coat pocket.Once we were back on the terrarail, Northe unrolled his digipad and the more he tapped, the more his attention glued to the screen. It didn’t take long to realize he was immersed in some game. Somewhere near our stop, he finally thought to ask if I had the briefcase secured. But his eyes never once left the screen. I was starting to understand Surket’s frustration with his gaming addiction.“Ya know, you handled yourself pretty well for your first day.”“I just tried to follow your lead.”“Do too much of that, and we’ll both end up dead,” I chuckled hoping he was joking. “So, what are we going to do with this case?”“Once we drop it at Science & Technology, there’s a short debriefing. Then, our day is done, and I can pick up where I left off with Call to Arms — assuming Surket didn’t completely fry the hardware this time.”“And that Raziel guy. What did you mean when you said he only gets to stay here if you find him useful?”“Raziel belongs to a group known as Watchers. Aengel who possess the ability to literally see through the eyes of their targets. Because watchers are a rare asset for intel collection, I convinced the Director to let him live amongst the general population, as one of our sources. But, occasionally Raziel and a few of his compatriots dabble in illegal trades, and think it’s smart to hide them from me.”“Does IGIS make the laws about what aengel can and can’t do?”Northe nodded. “We have to. No other organization’s aware of what we’re dealing with.”“All this time, I thought Uncle Hachi just sat at his desk, had boring meetings, and signed papers for a living.”“He does. But the role of Director goes a lot deeper than that; even at the BNP.”I looked down at the metal case, wondering how dangerous whatever was inside really was. “So, whatever’s in here is illegal?”“Considering how anxious Raziel was to take it off our hands, I’m guessing that it is.”“A divarma?”“Probably.”“Can I see it?”“I wouldn’t open the case since the wrong move could set one off. Divarma come in several shapes and sizes, and can react to any number of stimuli.”“Are they really that dangerous?”“Their destructive force is comparable to a nuclear weapon.”A chill of danger circulated through my chest as I carefully lifted the case to Northe. “Maybe I shouldn’t be holding this.”“If it was that volatile, we wouldn’t have survived your chase with Ronald.”I didn’t know if I should feel reassured or leery of Northe’s seemingly mixed messages.“How often do you go after divarma?”“Not often. Surket and Raven do most divarma missions. I only come along when needed.”I tried to imagine how a divarma mission with Raven would go. But all I could visualize was us arguing until we inadvertently set one off. “Speaking of Raven,” I began, “what’s her problem? I mean, why was she so hostile toward me?”Northe shrugged. “Raven’s life is remarkably complicated, but she’s always struck me as a paradox of strong will and equanimity. Maybe she’s just being cautious.”“But what about me is making her cautious?”Northe shrugged again. “For all I know, she’s waiting to see something from you, or just testing you or...who knows what.”I don’t know why, but something about the idea of Raven testing me really irritated me. What gave her — of all people — the right to test me? A beep came from Northe’s TAB. He read its face. “Your uncle wants to see you in Stratcom before we drop off the case.”“Stratcom?”“IGIS is organized much like the BNP. The Director and every Guild staff member responsible for running things are in the Guild’s main command node, Strategic Command, or Stratcom for short. The remaining ninety percent of the Guild, fall into one of five branches. Intelligence is our largest branch, where all collection and analysis is done. Science & Technology deals with research on all things supernatural. Operational Support consists of logisticians, maintenance personnel, engineers, and everyone else who keeps this machine moving. Clandestine Services is our unit of spies, interrogators, handlers, and undercover agents. And then there’s Kinetic Operations — our division. Kinetic Ops is a field branch, just like Clan. But we’re the Guild’s muscle. So, our combative and ability-adaptive training is the most rigorous.”“That’s why you said I’d get good training if I joined you guys.”“Exactly. Make no mistake, though. Even though we have the advantage of raw power, Clan is very competent in the field, and they shouldn’t be taken lightly in battle. Still, when you want someone KO’d, you call KO.”“Is that our motto, or did you make that up?”“You like it?” When his eyes lit up, I pretty much had my answer. “I’m sure it’ll grow on me.”I followed Northe into Strategic Command, a cylindrical building that towered over all others in Vaticia.“Welcome to seven stories of brains and bosses,” Northe said, walking toward the reception desk. Behind the desk was an attractive, dark-haired young woman. “Working late again, Juli?”“Agent K,” the woman said, immediately straightening in her seat. “I’m just waiting for the Director’s final appointment to arrive.” Her eyes went to me then back to Northe. “Who’s your friend?”“Team Seven’s newest member.” He placed a hand on my shoulder. “Juli here is the most talented and beautiful assistant to the Director that anyone’s ever laid eyes on.”Juli covered her face, giggling like a schoolgirl. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, reaching out one hand and fanning her face with the other.“Nice to meet you as well,” I said, shaking her hand.“Have you been given a designation yet?”“Designation?”“Our term for codenames,” Northe clarified, before returning his undivided attention to Juli. “And no, he hasn’t yet. Today’s his first full day, so we haven’t gotten to the formalities just yet.” “In that case,” Juli said, “be careful around Agent K. He’s a bad influence.” Juli winked at Northe.Northe winked back. “Only when I need to be.”Juli giggled again. “You know, I’m free as soon as the Director’s appointment arrives, in case you’d like to join me for tea.”“I’ll have to catch you next time, since we’re that appointment you were waiting on.”“Oh,” Juli said, voice deflating. “Next time then?”“Next time.”“You can head up now, and I’ll let the Director know that you’ve arrived.”“Thank you, Juli,” Northe said, offering a smile before turning for the lift.“Are you guys dating?” I asked once the lift door closed.“Juli’s a lovely girl, but no. I like the simplicity I’ve got going right now. Why add a factor to threaten it?”“You mean a girlfriend?”Northe shrugged. “A girlfriend anchors you. And I like having the freedom to go wherever the wind takes me.”Interesting choice of words, considering I’d only seen the wind take him to his bedroom, the den, and the dining table.“If you ask me, Juli seems pretty great. She’s pretty, and she doesn’t strike me as the hormonal, stomp-your-face-into-the-ground-every-time-she-sees-you type.”“We back on Raven? You seem to care a lot about what she thinks of you. Any particular reason why?”My face went hot. “No,” I almost yelled. “I’m just speaking generally. I’m just—”“I’ll keep your secret,” Northe said. “But be warned, she isn’t the type to accept mediocrity. So, I’d work hard to catch up to her if I were you.” It was hard to appreciate Northe’s advice when he had such a sly smile on his face.The lift opened, revealing a pair of wooden double doors. The right door was wide open, and the gold panel on the left door read: “Director” in thick stylish print.“You good?” Northe asked.“Yeah.” But I didn’t feel good. All that stood between me finally getting the answers I might not even have been ready to hear was a single door.Northe smiled and gave me a pat on the back. “You’ll be fine.”Northe knocked twice and led me into a huge, half-empty room surrounded by large windows on the two curved walls, behind a wide wood and glass desk. Hachi was standing in front of one of the windows, hands clasped behind his back“Have a seat,” he said, smiling as he gestured toward two upholstered antique chairs. “You must be filled with questions by now. So, I’ll let you get things started.”