I was somewhat surprised to see John at the entrance to the Blackmoor-Ward plane. He had been very clear about how little he wanted to get into more difficult situations. Even before he had been critically injured on an ill-fated mission to North Korea, he had been hesitant. Now he seemed downright allergic.
“You realize,” he said, as if sensing my surprise at his presence, “that things are going to go completely wrong this time?” Like me, he had a beard, but his hair was much more closely trimmed and more neatly combed than mine.
“Really?” I asked, as Charlotte and Eliza headed into the plane ahead of us. “What makes you say that?”
“Nate,” John muttered, “this is about Mubashir. How the hell can it go right?”
“Hey,” I said, “isn’t it my job to be paranoid?” John shot me a look that made it clear that he didn’t find that funny. “Anyway,” I continued on, “Moob won’t be there.” He’d be somewhere the CIA thought was safe from radical Islamic terrorists, but I didn’t even feel comfortable saying that. “Whoever, or whatever, is there, they can’t be worse than Moob.”
“Look,” John said, “from the sound of it, Moob never tried to hurt you.”
“Well…” I said, remembering a particularly nasty encounter with The Architect before I knew it was Mubashir, “there was one instance where that might be debatable, but yeah, he never did anything too awful to me as The Architect.”
The reason I drew a distinction was that Mubashir, when using his Architect powers, entered into an odd state where he would seem to act subconsciously. When he was done using his powers, he wouldn’t remember a single thing. Hence, the person Mubashir terrified the most was Mubashir. He even said his abilities were a punishment for thinking he could do a better job than God.
“My point,” John said, “is that these are people who think they can take on Moob or control him.”
I remembered the locker room where Mubashir revealed his power. He had woken up after being injected with enough heroin to kill a horse. Then, after someone had put a three round burst into his head, he’d reassembled his brain and skull and turned his attacker into a tasteful fountain. “They’re wrong,” I said. “There is no physical way to stop him.”
“That’s not my point,” John said frantically.
“OI!” Eliza called from inside the plane, peeking out from inside, “You blokes comin’? Or are you gonna be gossiping all bloody day?”
“Just a minute!” John called back. He stared at Eliza. Eliza stared back. Green and brown eyes locked on each other for what felt like a solid minute. Finally, John said, “You can go back in the plane now.”
“Yeah,” Eliza said slowly. Just as slowly she withdrew from the door.
John, after a few more seconds turned back towards me. “In a sense,” he said, “you know Mubashir better than anyone. I think that we’re going to be used, maybe as a bargaining chip, maybe to get to Moob. Hell, we might even be bait.”
“Eliza wouldn’t do that to me.” I was confident in this. Eliza had helped me out of a lot of hard situations.
“Even if Charlotte tells her to?” John asked. I opened my mouth to respond, then closed it. The Blackmoor-Wards were the closest thing Eliza had to a family. As her boyfriend, I was important to her, but maybe not that important.
I looked around. Standing guard around the plane were a few Blackmoor-Ward bodyguards. I noted sourly that they were all carrying either Ballpeens or Maccabees. I doubted they’d use them on us, but I also couldn’t picture them just letting us leave. Their armament was probably due to fact that the first time Charlotte and Eliza had visited me they’d been attacked, but I suddenly wasn’t a hundred percent sure that was the entire reason.
John, noticing me looking at the guards, said, “Look, I’m not a hundred percent convinced by what I just said. I’m also sure if we back out now, nothing will happen to us.”
“But you want to go anyway,” I said. “Why?”
“Because,” John said, “Moob saved our lives. Besides, this isn’t the kind of thing that goes away. We can either deal with it now, seven thousand miles from home, or when some deranged cultist breaks into our house and roughs up our families.
“Well,” I said, “I’m convinced. Let’s just get this over with.”
We headed up into the ramp to the interior of the plane. It was nowhere near as fancy as the first of the Blackmoor-Ward planes I had ridden in. Then again, it was still one of the most luxurious spaces I had ever seen in my entire life.
Eliza and Charlotte were sitting in the rear of the plane. As before, the area was a sort of dining room/kitchen/bar. The decoration, however, seemed to be a lot more sparse. Yet I was pretty sure that the U-shaped couch Charlotte and Eliza were sitting on alone was more expensive than my parents’ car. Charlotte was smiling politely, Eliza was strangely unreadable. Briefly, I wondered if Eliza had heard any of our conversation. Then I remembered that her ears were as functional as they were pretty. Of course she had heard, and she had most likely told her adopted sister.
“Come in, come in,” Charlotte said. Gesturing at the couch, “Please, have a seat.” When John and I were seated, Charlotte pushed a button on the coffee table in the center. “If you want, we have a variety of drinks to tide you over.” A compartment in the coffee table slid open to reveal a compartment full of beer, wine and liquor.
“I think its best if we take it slow,” I said, remembering my second trip to NIU. Most of my fellow passengers had either been drunk or hung over. At the front of the plane, Charlotte’s bodyguards were getting into the plane. I noticed there were a lot more than last time. They were also much better equipped.
“Oh, of course!” Charlotte said. “It’s just that this is all the hospitality we can afford at the moment. We had to get in the air rather quickly, so we did not have enough time to pack properly. We only have enough food for three meals a day. If you want something with less kick, we do have some coffee, tea and water.”
“I’ll have tea,” I said. “Earl Grey.” I would have asked for lemon, but I wasn’t sure Charlotte would have that.
“Coffee for me,” John said. “Something strong, please.”
“Very well,” Charlotte said primly, “Desmond?”
“Yes, Lady Charlotte?” a voice behind me asked. I turned around to see one of Charlotte’s bodyguards, a big black man in a suit. He’d sneaked in behind me without me noticing. Despite the fact that I had seen bigger and scarier be stealthier, it still was a little unsettling. It was probably both expected of him as a manservant and a trick he used to intimidate professional soldiers.
“Would you put some tea on for us?” Charlotte asked.
“Certainly,” Desmond said. He then began to bustle about quietly making our drinks.
“So,” I asked, “what is our itinerary going to be when we get to this place?”
“Well,” Charlotte said, “first, we are going to have a meeting with our fellow followers of the Final Prophecy.”
“Which’ll be a right barrel o’ laughs,” Eliza said. “From what Char tells me, as well as nationalistic tensions, we occultist nutters tend to kill each other because we can’t agree what color socks the Lord of Death wears or some bollocks.”
Charlotte sighed. “Needless to say, you three don’t need to go to that. Then, we release these heralds.” She paused. “You know, I don’t know Mubashir as well as the rest of you, but I get the distinct impression he’d be horrified to find out he has heralds.”
That jibed with what I knew about Moob. I admit I didn’t know much about him, but I did know that he just wanted to be left alone. Having fifteen bodyguards following him around might panic him quite a bit.
“Plus,” Charlotte said, “if the Japanese are anything like you yanks, they’ll have those poor Jumpers in gauche costumes.” She sighed. “I suppose that’s why the Americans and the Japanese get along together. You both have quite a taste for bizarre theatrics. And shouting.” Eliza then made a gesture indicating Charlotte was being distracted. Noting the gesture, Charlotte got back on track. “Then, after the pleasantries are done, we wait for the heralds to be released.”
“What’s the schedule on that?” I asked.
“Well,” Charlotte said, “that’s the thing. We don’t rightly know. We do know that we need to be there in two days if we don’t want to miss it. We do know that the latest they will be released will be by next week. Apart from that…”
“Also,” Eliza said, “the more shite you send there, the bigger the radius it could end up. We’ve sealed off a ten kilometer radius deep in the mountains under the pretense of a British search and rescue drill. Really, though, we need to seal off at least fifty. This is going t’be a bloody pain in the arse.”
“So,” I said, “We’re basically just hoping these heralds, people who’ve been trained as legit ninjas, decide to just walk into our trap. We’re also hoping that our occultist friends and the reinforcements you’ve brought can deal with them.”
“For the direction of where the heralds are heading,” Charlotte, “at the center of our radius, we have the Defenders of Mt. Fuji headquarters. And while I can’t speak for the quality of our fellow followers of The Prophecy, we did call in quite a bit of 3 Commando Brigade. The closest analogy to your military would be a sort of combination of the US Rangers and the US Marines.”
“Why can’t we just wait for them to come back?” John asked. “I mean, what reason would they have for going rogue?”
“Being in a place like that…” Eliza said, “…like where they were sent, as we said, might drive them mad. As we’ve said before. They also might ‘ave some issues about bein’ sent to a place like that for five ‘undred years. And since they’ve not been able, or seen fit, to talk to us…”
“If they feel betrayed,” John said, “wouldn’t they just go back and kill everyone there?”
“From what I understand,” I said, “they could also end up so out of it, they don’t know where they are. Or they could end up trapped somewhere. In a fifty kilometer radius. Of which we’re only searching ten.” I sighed. “There’s just so many things that can go wrong.”
“Good lord, don’t we all know it,” Charlotte said. “Still, we’re…” She suddenly stopped and stared, going completely pale. Everyone turned and looked at where she was looking. Then we turned back to Char.
“Char…” Eliza said, “there’s nothing there.”
“Are you…” Charlotte began, then shook her head. “No, of course. That would be impossible.” John, Eliza, Desmond and I exchanged looks. “Anyway,” Charlotte continued, trying to ignore the looks we were giving, “after the heralds are found, the next step is to figure out what to do with them.”
“Well, that’s simple,” John said. “They’re going to be the Defender’s problem, not ours. I mean, they’re part of the organization.”
Charlotte frowned. “Ordinarily, you would be correct. However, they asked for our help. Therefore, we get a say in whatever they plan to do with super team. I don’t want them to be used… inappropriately. I do think that a large degree of freedom can be retained by the Defenders of Fuji, but they would definitely owe us.”
“That attitude isn’t going to go over too well,” John said.
“Also,” I said, “you mentioned some other groups. What if they have the same attitude?”
Charlotte took a deep breath. “On the one hand, I respect the fact that they are donating significant resources. On the other, you may note that we’re the only ones bringing in an airborne company. That cost my organization more than a few favors and we expect to be compensated accordingly.”
Eliza winced. I probably did as well. This vacation was going to get a lot more interesting.