The Artefact
#11
This passage was written by Edofasia and has been reposted by the UA as part of the Website Migration


Novigrad


Entry Number One
I have been approaching this situation entirely incorrectly. The subject seems to be far better at being an international criminal than the average slag miner. He's thwarted several attacks on himself. Or more accurately. He's had people defend him. The last case having his entire assassination team dying in the attempt. Luckily the Novmiran government for the moment is chalking it up to an increase in gang violenece. But these mafia types are only good for keeping tabs on him. Any attempts of actually retreaving the artifact have failed. And now with Candanadians knocking at his door. It's time we do this properly. And I start taking this seriously.

The vast spider web of intrigue had fly's stuck to it's tendrils.

20 men arrived in Diel's office. It had taken days of calling arguing and paying off various military officers ranging from the regular E.N.A Rangers to top secret fixers and the oddest one was an odd Temple Ordinator assigned to a church here in Novmir. Their job in Novmir being much more hands on. But finally. Diels had gotten what he wanted. Direct command over the Edofasian Agents in Northern Terra. Ará Orún. Generation Twenty. As they were designated. These men had their histories removed. They were no one from no where. They had on job. Obey their commanding officer without question. On their own they were ruthless, tenacious and absolutely cold blooded. In the hands of Diels. They were capable of nearly anything.

"Now Responsiblity means you are able to accept the consequences of your actions. This includes when you make mistakes. Now I am capable of mistakes. I did not take the target seriously and so I toyed with him. However with the involvement of foreign actors. (Diels spitting out the last two words.) We have little time. But the target is already interned at the Candanadian embassy. Whether or not he's agreed to anything will be known to us shortly. Another direct assualt on him will only result in a firefight and is to be avoided unless it comes to that. This "Pavel" is on his way to an ambush. Pick him up and bring him to me. Catch and release. He's more useful alive for now. In the meantime most of you will be sent to to ports of entry to ensure the target doesn't escape. The rest of you will be preparing for the retrieval mission. I want that meusem cleared of non aligned folks by the day after tomorrow.

The men didn't speak a word. They simply followed Martha out of the room.
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#12
"of arrest for Dr. Rudolf Diels ("Rudolf Diels" or "Diels"), former head of the CBRN Research Institute of the Kingdom". There was a brief pause "a warrent of arrest.."

Diel's eyes flashed with multiple emotions. Indignace. Curiousity and finally... Humor
He began to laugh. A genuine laugh. No hint of sarcasm or daring. To the agents standing about plotting thier next move it was unnerving. To Martha. It was completely disconnected from the Diels of late. He had always been the sly confident demon. But his trip to Novmir had worm on him a bit. Working with mere thugs to do his work was below him. Something that had come across Diel's mind aw well. Multiple times. And today it seemed. Things were going to change.

 Because when 3 knocks on the door spoke to the arrival of Diel's underlings his eyes shine even brighter. "Oh Martha darling. Please do fetch our guests." Spoke Diels with honey in his tongue. She awkwardly traipsed to the door and opened it. The men had learned by now to respect Martha. They did a small bow and walked by her. Diels was seated in his usual spot on the brown leather couch. His usual suit replaced by a black leather jacket and dark jeans. Two pistols of Candanadian make were strapped to his side and chest. Anyone paying attention could see the vest below his jacket. "Yes yes. Welcome and all that. By the looks on your faces you're well aware you've walked into a trap. And before you think about touching those guns you so dishonesty hid from my guards in your coats..." Diels snapped his fingers and Edofasians in full kit stepped into sight. Including Diels himself they had them outnumbered 5 to 3. Not an unwinnable fight. But just as the three gangsters minds did the math and weighed the risk. Shouting cane straight from behind them. Suddenly being ripped of thier feet and guns digging in to the back of thier skulls broke them. So much had turned in an instant there was barely time to comprehend what was happening. Finally a man in a Novmiram police uniform stepped through the door. Oleg Baranov struck and impressive figure. 6'2 230lbs with a thick beard. He spoke to Diels in a tone of someone not used to taking commands from someone he didn't respect "The others you've reported are being grabbed. I expect these ones to talk with no issues."
Diels eyes were still shining. But now with malace and being drunk on power. Martha let out a sigh of relief. These were eyes she recognized.



Novigrad News Network
A pale faced woman with exceptional looks sat behind a modern looking desk with a display of militiazed police raiding homes played out behind her

"Good evening citizens of the Capital. On this night the local police have pushed back hard against the crime in our great city. In response for the murders and assualts on our trains. The police have raided no less than a dozen home and buisnesses which have been found to hold criminals. Reports indicate more than a dozen arrests have been made. Stay tuned as this situation develops"
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#13
Chaper 8: Sanctuary
Novigrad
Day 8; 1602 miles travelled


The small clock on the centre console of the black Oseanian Motorworks SUV told Jonah that only thirty minutes had passed since he climbed aboard, but he had no knowledge of the passage of time. Much had changed in those thirty minutes. Heavy beads of rain pounded the SUV's polished exterior, their sound rhythmic but simultaneously irregular. The two men flanking him remained as still as statues, looking straight ahead with eyes hidden behind tinted aviator sunglasses. The car was stopped at an intersection, and the driver reached into his suit pocket and drew out a pack of cigarettes. The man who had introduced himself as Klaus Dietrich sat beside the driver, whom he hissed something at, as he didn't notice that the light had turned green again. Grumbling, the pack of cigarettes were slid back into the pocket from which they emerged. Dietrich glanced in the mirror, saw Jonah, and turned around.

"Ah, Mr. Northlane, you're awake. We'll be there in less than five minutes."

"What? What did you do to me?" Jonah demanded, jolting forward in alarm. Dietrich was taken aback.

"You passed out as soon as we drove off. You must have been exhausted, we didn't dare wake you."

"No, no, no, no, no, that can't be right, you drugged me! You tried to keep me quiet! Why? WHY?" Jonah's voice rose in a gradual crescendo. He almost grabbed Dietrich by the lapels, but the two statues beside him seized him by the shoulder despite his desperate attempts to get loose, squirming like a rabid animal.

"Lassen Sie ihn!" Dietrich barked. The two men looked at each other, then let go of him. "I can assure you, Mr. Northlane, we tried nothing of the sort. Why would we try to hide where the Candanadian embassy is? It's on every map of Novigrad there is!" He looked incredulous. "I understand that you're under a lot of stress right now, sir, and I do apologize, but everything will be explained in a short while. We're pulling up to the embassy now." Dietrich straightened his suit and turned back around as the SUV drove past a raised barrier manned by two soldiers in dark blue overcoats and tall bearskin helmets, who saluted as the car drove by. The grey streets of Novigrad gave way to a cobblestone courtyard, with a barren maple tree in the centre of it and a flagpole behind the tree, flying the blue and white tri-maple flag of Candanadium. The car drove past the courtyard and stopped before a red brick building with vines snaking up the side and a granite statue of a mounted knight before it, not unlike the buildings in the older parts of the cities in eastern Edofasia. The car jolted to a stop, and Dietrich stepped out and opened the door for Jonah and his two guards.

"Welcome to the Royal Candanadian Embassy in Novigrad. This way, Mr. Northlane. The Ambassador is waiting." Dietrich produced an ID card from his pocket and swiped it against a reader beside the glass doors, which swung open. He held the door open for Jonah, who was still too busy taking in the sight before him. Dietrich cleared his throat audibly, and Jonah reluctantly followed, stepping through the glass doors into the reception hall of the embassy building. The roof was a stained glass dome with scenes of battle and triumph painted upon it, done up in the traditional Kanadiaans fashion, and grandiose tapestries and banners hung from the ceiling. Two flat-screen televisions hung above a waiting area before the receptionist's desk, displaying Candanadian news from channels that would undoubtedly be blocked in the rest of Novmir. The same crowned tri-maple symbol as the one of the Candanadian flag was displayed prominently behind the receptionist's seat, with a portrait of a middle-aged man in military uniform below it. A small placard below the portrait read "LONG LIVE THE KING" in Kanadiaans and Oseanian, the latter of which Jonah was able to understand.

Dietrich slid the same identity card he used to open the glass doors over the receptionist's desk and struck up a conversation in Kanadiaans with the bored-looking woman, who inserted the card into a machine, but Jonah was more focused on the television screens. One of them was broadcasting in Oseanian, which he understood, and he could not ignore what he thought he was hearing.

"Thousands marched on Magnarplatz Palace today in protest of His Majesty the King's ties to the Count of Lienengen and the Linengese ruling class, following what some are calling the worst leak of confidential information in history, originating from an attorney's office in the Luxerian capital of Santangel. This event, dubbed as 'the Luxlein Papers', has revealed ties between the House of Magnar and the House of Lienengen, as well as assets of the Royal House of Alayka and the infamous Dr. Rudolf Diels. The Luxerian government has vowed to investigate this leak further, and it is unknown at this time whether this will impact the upcoming international summit in Santangel". A woman's voice was heard over a montage of videos and photographs. "His Majesty has not issued a comment on the matter so far, and a spokesperson for the House of Magnar refused to comment on the situation. This is Helena Vogelwand for the Royal Broadcasting Service, New Konigstadt." The montage gave way to a man and a woman seated in a studio, but Jonah was too shocked to hear what they had to say next.

Had the Royal Broadcasting Service broadcast news that was critical of the royal family of Candanadium? Here they were, in a building decked with the symbols of the Candanadian monarchy, portraits of the king, and slogans wishing him a long life, but at the same time, there was news critical of those institutions being broadcast by a service funded by the crown. Why would they bite the hand that feeds them? Why were they still discussing the topic? Why hasn't the transmission been cut? Jonah was completely dumbfounded. He was used to an anchor being pulled off the air when they made a slight slip and let loose something critical of the Confederacy's government and had accepted that as a fact of life. He had heard rumours of how things were in Candanadium, from his parents and those of their generation, who would sometimes fiddle with their shortwave radios deep into the night, trying to pick up Radio Candanadium International's ever-so-elusive signal over all the Edofasian interference, but he had never understood why. He was taught that this nation was the one who humiliated Edofasia for decades and leeched off of their resources and people, and he was taught that it was his privilege that he never had to grow up under the maple flag. He had viewed the older generation as ingrates and colonial sympathizers, but it suddenly dawned on him why they had acted the way they were. Perhaps not everything he had heard of the men of the north was accurate.

"The Luxerian Papers, eh? Gonna be a bitch of a cleanup job for the public relations boys back home, poor bastards. Things like this make me glad that I'm all the way out here." Dietrich whistled through his teeth. He had walked up behind Jonah at some point, and his voice made Jonah jump. He handed Jonah a sheet of paper and an ID card in a protective sleeve. "This paper states that you are a friend of the embassy and that you are to be left unmolested by the guards at the gate, and this ID card grants you access to the ambassador's office, among other things. You must keep them on your person at all times when you are in the embassy." The picture on the ID card was identical to his Edofasian passport picture, which was slightly unsettling to him. The ID card identified him as a Mr. Justin Walters, an assistant to the ambassador.

"Why the fake name?" Jonah knew the answer but wanted to hear it from Dietrich.

"As you may have noticed, a lot of people know who you are. I don't doubt that we have moles in the embassy staff, and the Edofasians will already have ratted you out to the Novmirans." Dietrich motioned for Jonah to follow him. "Plus, you speak Oseanian, so we can easily pass you off as a Candanadian. The Novmirans won't be able to tell an Edofasian accent from a Candanadian one." Dietrich surprised Jonah by switching to the language. He had led him to an elevator, and he pressed the "up" button.

"Will I have to use this language... Often?" Jonah struggled a bit with Oseanian.

"I'm afraid so. The ambassador does not speak Edofasian, but I will be there to translate should you need me. Your Oseanian sounds a lot better than I thought it would, so you shouldn't have much trouble."

"My parents would speak to me in the old language when I was small, and I learned some in school, so I get by." Although his parents had taught him the language, it was frowned upon in Edofasian society and he spoke it with nobody else.

"That's good to hear." The elevator arrived, and Dietrich followed Jonah in. He pressed the button for the fourth floor.

"Where did you learn Edofasian? You are too young to have been in the War of Unification." Jonah figured he should make an attempt to get to know the man who had promised him safety.

"The War of Unifi-Oh, the Second Crisis. Yes, but my father served with the Edofasian Rifles in Thüle, right before the end. He grew up right outside of Thüle, on a farm. My brother was born in Edofasia, so mostly everyone in my family speaks the language." What did he call the War of Unification? There was too many things going on in Jonah's head to try and figure it out.

"But you are not Edofasian."

"I'm Kanadiaans. My great-grandfather came to Edofasia from Bekaldorf. A slate miner, he was. Didn't want to work the mines until the day he died, so he went west. You know how it was, back in those days. He found himself a nice plot of land outside Thüle, and made a good life for himself."

"Slate miner? I was slate miner myself, back in Tara. Hard work, terrible pay." Dietrich chuckled at that.

"Sounds about right. Here we are." The elevator dinged softly, and the doors slid open, revealing a small working space with four cubicles. On the other end of the room was a heavy oak door.

"Did you need something, Klaus?" One of the men working at the desks looked up at the two.

"Yes, I had an appointment with the ambassador."

"Ah yes, of course. Go on in."

"Vielen dank." Dietrich opened the door but went in first this time. The ambassador's office had floor-to-ceiling windows, giving a good view of the courtyard with the maple tree and flagpole below, and the ambassador's chair was turned around, facing the windows. The ambassador's desk had a small table flag on it, with the same colours as the Candanadian flag but a different pattern. Instead of the blue-white-blue stripes, the flag was all blue, save for a sideways Y-shaped pattern of white, with the tri-maple emblem in the middle. He could have sworn that he had seen that flag somewhere, but his head still hurt too much for him to know for sure.

"Ma'am? Our Edofasian guest is here." Dietrich spoke in Oseanian with the ambassador, presumably for Jonah's benefit. The ambassador's chair spun back around, revealing a small woman of fifty or so, her greying hair pulled back into a neat bun. Although her face was lined with wrinkles, her blue-grey eyes were as piercing as ever, and seemed to Jonah like they were staring right into his soul.

"Thank you, Klaus. This must be Mr. Northlane." Her Oseanian accent was a complete departure from Dietrich's Kanadiaans tones, and reminded Jonah of the Oseanian his parents had taught him.

"Yes, ma'am. May I present Dame Maria Haywood, Ambassador of His Candanadian Majesty to the Novmiran Federation, Knight of the Order of the Maple." Jonah held out his hand instinctively, and the ambassador shook it. Her grip was a good deal firmer than Jonah would have expected.

"Please take a seat, Mr. Northlane. You too, Klaus." Jonah took the seat on the left, Dietrich the one on the right. "I understand that your journey here has been difficult, and I would like to apologize for the events on the metro. We would have liked to make a better first impression, but such were the circumstances that we could not sit idly by. Nonetheless, I know you have many questions, so please, feel free to ask them." 

"Who was the man on the metro? The man in blue?" That man was deadly, efficient, and spooked even Pavel, the burly Novmiran mafia man that he was.

"I'm afraid his identity cannot be revealed, but he is a friend. A loyal servant of the crown, and closer than you think. His job is simply to ensure your safety."

"So a bodyguard?"

"Of sorts. Some like to call him our guardian angel."

"I see." Jonah tried to gather his thoughts. "So how long have you been watching me?"

"Truth be told, it was Diels that drew us to you. We knew something was afoot the second Diels got involved. He is of great interest to us, as I am sure you know. We've had our agents trailing you ever since you crossed the border." Jonah was suddenly very aware of how deep this whole thing went, and felt another sharp wave of pain through his head.

"Dr. Diels? Why Diels?" 

"Well, he's not Dr. Diels anymore. The Kanadiaans University of New Konigstadt revoked his doctorates after his deeds were revealed. Do you know how Diels came to work for the Edofasian state?"

"No."

"Diels was a member of the Crown Security Bureau. I don't know if that name means anything to you, but it was essentially the enforcement agency of the authoritarian regime Candanadium suffered under from the 40s to the 70s, and quite a high ranking member at that. After the Second Crisis, what you would call the War of Unification, the government was voted out of power and the CSB's deeds were revealed. Diels fled the country and made his way to Edofasia, and now he does the same kind of work under a different flag. There is a ten-million thaler bounty on Diels or any information leading to his arrest, so you can tell how much we want him back."

"In Edofasia, people don't know much about Diels. They think he is comhordaitheoir, because nobody knows where he came from." The ambassador raised an eyebrow at the Edofasian term, and Dietrich quickly translated for her.

"An Ordinator."

"Yes, Ordinator." So the Candanadians continue to oppress us even after they've left our continent, Jonah thought. "If you know who Diels is, then do you know what he wants with me?" That, to date, was still the most puzzling thing to Jonah. The way he discovered Machinations was certainly strange, but he didn't think that it was worth killing someone over, and certainly not worth the Candanadians' time.

"We know that he is after the item in your possession. Our intelligence indicates that he believes it is some kind of divine artifact, a tool of the gods, which would not be uncharacteristic of him. It seems that after he arrived in Edofasia, he had a kind of religious reawakening, and became a zealot for the Edofasian faith."

"Is that what Machinations is? A divine tool?" 

"Machinations?" The ambassador raised her other eyebrow.

"I have been calling the artifact Machinations. It seemed fitting as a name."

"I see." The ambassador's expression indicated that she did not, in fact, see. "No, of course that's not what it is. As far as we're concerned, it's your personal property. The Government of Candanadium has no interest in supposed divine artifacts, though I'm sure the Royal Candanadian Museum would appreciate such an addition to its collection." Dietrich laughed. "Which is why we would like to offer you asylum in Candanadium." That came as a complete shock to Jonah.

"Asylum? In Candanadium? Why?"

"The Edofasian state is pursuing you, and they're aided by many other elements. Nowhere on Terra is safe, not even Drulluhus or Alayka. You'll be safe from Diels in Candanadium, and we'd welcome you with open arms."

"But why?"

"You are eligible for the Strategic Defection Program, thanks to your history with the Edofasian Temple and Diels. You would be given permanent right of abode in Candanadium and a path to citizenship, not to mention the financial assistance once you land in Candanadium. We simply ask that you cooperate with us by telling us everything you know from your experience with the Edofasian Temple and the Edofasian government."

"You are asking me to betray Edofasia." Jonah summarized.

"Well, if you insist on putting it that way, yes. We are asking you to give up information about the state that would see you killed to take something that is of little actual value from you. Still, I know that this is not an easy decision to make, so you do not need to give us an answer now. In the meantime, we'd like to offer you some assistance."

"What kind of assistance?"

"Well, to start, we'd like to offer you a room in the embassy building, where the Novmiran authorities cannot legally enter. I understand that you are currently staying at a friend's apartment, but our sources indicate that your address is already compromised, so it would be best if you would move your most important belongings here. I'd also like to offer you some new documents. I know Klaus has already made you an embassy ID card, but you will need some supporting documents on top of that. We have made you a diplomatic passport, bearing the same name as the ID card," She pulled out a small red booklet from her desk, embossed with the crowned tri-maple in gold on the cover and the words "DIPLOMATIC PASSPORT". Jnah flipped it open and saw that they had, again, used the picture from his Edofasian passport. "As well as a Candanadian drivers' licence and debit card." She handed him a drivers' licence that identified him as a resident of Luddishaven, Oseania, and a debit card from the Bank of Oseania. "There is a sum of two thousand thalers on the debit card, which is about thirty-four thousand Novmiran rubles. You are free to use as much as you like. I would advise that you destroy all documents that identifiy you as Jonah Northlane, but that is a decision for you to make. Here is my card. If you have made your decision, then please do not hesitate to contact me. If that is all, Klaus can show you to the room we've prepared for you."

"You don't need to wait. I've made my decision." Jonah took his Edofasian passport out from his jacket pocket and handed it to the ambassador. "I'll do it." And he meant what he said. No more would he need to constantly watch his back, no more assassination attempts nor Edofasian agents, and no more dealings with the Temple. To Jonah, it sounded like he'd just been offered a lifeline. He wouldn't need to live his life on the run. He could settle down in Oseania and work a job that didn't involve going underground. Most of all, he was finally free.

"Very well." The ambassador's face showed no change in emotion. "Klaus, if you would be so kind as to arrange for Mr. Northlane's possessions to be moved to the embassy."

"Yes, ma'am. Should I arrange for his, ah, disappearance as well?"

"There is someone I have to contact first." Jonah interjected. "A friend."


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Kingdom of Candanadium
Königreich Kandanadium

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#14
Chaper 9: Debt
Novigrad



It was a cold midwinter evening. A man in an immaculate blue suit stood beside a statue of a knight, inspecting the Candanadian flag overhead as it flapped in the wind, the great reds and perfect blues brighter than ever in the evening sun. The flag had just been re-hung after its daily dry cleaning. From this, he deduced that the time was precisely six minutes past six; he did not check his watch to see if he was correct, because he knew he was. The clockwork operation of the embassy certainly helped him to keep track of time.

The mobile phone in his pocket vibrated. He pulled it out and flipped it open. There was a new message. He selected it and it started to decrypt. As he watched, he reminisced of his training, the time an over-eager labcoat explained the function of the phone to him.

It was a very specialised phone, manufactured by an Akarean firm and specifically designed for use by special operatives, with two-factor authentication and guaranteed software security through an outright lack of support for apps, internet connectivity, and data storage beyond retaining copies of received messages. The phone's functions were pre-programmed onto a EEPROM chip, all the software needed to allow it to receive and place phone calls and to send and receive text messages over secure encrypted frequencies and absolutely nothing else. The data was also encrypted with an asymmetric key which was unique to every handset manufactured.

By far the most noteworthy aspect of the phone's design was that it was designed to operate under a constant "worst-case scenario" policy. When the phone is first turned on, the EEPROM flushes itself into the system memory, a type of SDRAM which can only retain data for as long as it is powered. Once the contents of the EEPROM are copied to memory, the EEPROM is erased and filled with random garbage data. Then, the phone cannot be restarted, shut down or recharged, instead remaining constantly on and connected. Once the battery runs flat, which takes roughly a week, the memory will wipe itself, and the phone becomes no more useful than a paperweight.

The phone's construction was also mostly impenetrable. Its aluminium-alloy body was welded shut, meaning that it could not be opened with ease. The screen would be a point of weakness for accessing the battery, so a folding design was adopted where the screen and battery were kept in an opposite, separate part of the phone to the processor and memory. Should the phone be snapped, the battery would instantly be disconnected, bricking the phone. The battery behind the screen also meant that any attempts to force entry through the screen would risk damage to the battery.

The battery connects to the mainboard with a very thin and easily breakable cable that runs through the hinge and across the PCB on which the keypad sits, so that an attempted forced entry through the keypad would also disconnect the battery.

All of these factors meant that if one such phone were ever to be stolen, lost or taken from an operative, it cannot be unlocked without the agent's fingerprint and a passcode, it cannot be opened without risking fatal damage to the handset or erasure of its internal memory, and by the time any leeway could be made into cracking either the physical or software security the battery would run flat and the messages it held would be gone. Because the phone cannot be turned off, not only is the battery's expiry inevitable but an unreachable handset strongly implies an operative to be MIA.

During his tenure in the forces he had encountered no such situations. He was just too good at his job.

The message finished decrypting. It flashed up on the screen, devoid of punctuation or lowercase letters as always.

Quote:JUSTIN WALTERS HAS LEFT THE EMBASSY HE SHOULD RETURN SOON HOWEVER INTEL SUGGESTS HE MAY RETURN TO CONTACT POINT DELTA SIX IN SEARCH OF PAVEL X
HE CANNOT BE ESCORTED BY US FOR DIPLOMATIC REASONS AND THE NOVMIRAN POLICE ARE UNWILLING TO COOPERATE SO YOU MUST MAINTAIN SURVEILLANCE YOURSELF AND INTERVENE IF NECESSARY IT IS CRITICAL WALTERS AND THE ARTEFACT MAKE IT TO CANDANADIUM SAFELY
HOSTILE ENGAGEMENT PREEMPTIVELY AUTHORISED SHOULD IT BE ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY BUT PLEASE AVOID IT IF YOU CAN WE DO NOT NEED ANOTHER METRO INCIDENT THE CLEANUP AND WITNESS PROTECTION SERVICES ARE STILL RATHER UNHAPPY I UNDERSTAND THE SITUATION WAS NOT YOUR FAULT BUT THEY ARE NOT AS FORGIVING AS ME
REPORT ALL FINDINGS AND EVENTS
LONG LIVE THE KING
 
He sighed. I am already tasked with keeping him safe from the mobs. I am many things, but a deity is not one of them; if the ideal candidate for this role should be able to warp space and time so as to be able to exist in multiple places at once then perhaps the Crown might have seen fit to hire one of the X-Men.

He flipped the phone shut, straightened his tie, picked up the briefcase by his feet and made for the gate. He had some serious work to do.



Pavel entered the apartment. "Jonah man I'm back man, crazy fuckin day man. Guess wha-"
 
He couldn't believe his eyes. The chairs were overturned, tables smashed, cupboards ripped off the walls, doors smashed off their hinges, wardrobes ripped to bits, lightbulbs torn from their cords and beds trampled. The porcelain toilet and sink were smashed and the skirting boards had been pulled up and speared into the walls. As he walked further into the flat, past the wrecked bedrooms and tarnished kitchen, he saw the holes in the floorboards, bullet holes in the kitchen countertop and busted pipes poking through cracks and gaps in the ceiling that were definitely not there when he had left.
 
The most concerning thing, however, was that Jonah was absolutely nowhere to be found.
 
"...Pizdets." Pavel began to panic. He fumbled for his phone, punching in a local number and rapidly blabbering in Novmiran, sweating bullets the whole while, until he heard the door to the apartment open once more. Scared into silence, he slid the phone back into his pocket, pulled the gun from his jacket, and pressed his back against the wall. Footsteps slowly came closer until they were right by his side; he spun round the corner, finger on the trigger, aiming his gun right at the bridge of Jonah's nose.
 
Jonah yelped. Pavel started shouting countless Novmiran expletives, throwing his loaded gun across the room. It smashed through what was left of the glass jug that had once sat atop a blender, bashing into a cracked tile - the shock caused the loaded round to fire through the kitchen countertop and out of the bottom of the flat. Muffled shouting could be heard downstairs. "Bolshoye mannen, I don't envy the people living downstairs." Pavel rubbed the back of his neck, before turning to look at Jonah. He looked into his eyes. They looked back at him, but differently than before. Their energy had shifted. "What happened to you man?"
 
"What happened to the flat?"
 
"Somebody came looking for you I guess." Pavel relaxed, his shoulders sinking slightly, and turned back around to inspect the kitchen. The countertops were smashed up, pieces of MDF and chipboard scattered across the floor. A glinting shimmer of light across the room caught his eye; carefully traversing the rubble he approached the opposite wall to find a golden-silk cloth held against the wall with a small knife. "The fucking Ivory."
 
"Who?"
 
"The Ivory. Rival gang. They like to pretend they're high flying, club owning cabaret swinging pimps, but really they're just bottom of the barrel grime. Makes me wonder why they came here... I mean, it's not like we've got anything of particular value or interest on us, right?"
 
The realisation hit them both at the same time. Jonah ran for his room, swinging open the half of the door that was still attached to its hinges to find the rucksack he'd carried across the continent lying on the floor torn open, its contents strewn across the floor. Machinations, tragically, was not amongst them.
 
They looked at each other, then back at the bag.
 
Pavel was the first to break the long, heavy silence. "Fuck."
 
A third voice, deep slow and menacing, spoke out behind them both. "Fuck indeed." The two turned around to find a large man wearing a thick winter coat and tracksuit trousers, big sunglasses on his shaved head covering his eyes, but his long nose, small mouth and broad body spoke volumes of his character. He cracked his knuckles. "What the fuck happened here, Pavel?" An accusatory finger pointed in Pavel's general direction balanced the backend of a finished cigarette which crumbled into ashes that blew away in the wind coming through the smashed window.
 
"Vlad, man, I'm glad you're here. I need your help. Listen, I-"
 
"This place is fuckin ruined man." He spoke slowly in a deep tone that dripped with so much evil the air in front of him might have registered on a pH scale, his strong Novmiran accent and razor-sharp delivery making no effort to mask his less than pleasant mood. "Furniture's smashed, plumbing's ruined, holes in the walls, come on now. I thought you were more civilised than this." Before Pavel could interject, the man - 'Vlad' - lurched forward and grabbed Pavel by the throat. He started to shout. "I get that you think you're some fucking Samaritan now, taking care of the lost and directionless, but I won't have you wreck my property in the process."
 
Pavel managed a few words as he choked. "...wasn't...us..."
 
"Oh, then who was it? The fuckin homewrecker fairies?" As Vlad spoke, more men moved into the flat, all in tracksuits and all holding various types of guns. "I'm not a fucking bitch." He grabbed Pavel's face and turned it towards his. "Do I have something on my face?"
 
"No sir."
 
"DO I HAVE THE WORD BITCH WRITTEN ON MY FACE?" He began to punch Pavel in the stomach, screaming so hard his face turned blue. "IN RED FUCKING LETTERS? DO I HAVE COCKS ON MY FACE? DO YOU TAKE ME FOR A COCK? OH SUCK ME, SUCK ME GOOD MAN I'M A LITTLE FUCKING FAIRY PRINCESS BITCH?" He stopped punching Pavel, who was now well and thoroughly winded to the point of being unable to speak, picking him up and throwing him out of the room. The men behind him started to kick him as he laid on the floor. Vlad turned his attention to Jonah.
 
"Now then. Let's talk business Jonah. I'm looking forward to dealing with somebody sensible who doesn't see me for a total fucking, STANDUP ROUTINE!!" He turned around and gave Pavel a hard wallop in the back, before turning back to Jonah and squatting low to the floor. "Come, let us talk."
 
Jonah tried to squat, but slipped and fell onto his back. Sitting up, he caught several splinters in his hands as he stabilised himself. Vlad pulled out a cigarette and lighter, starting one for himself and offering Jonah one, to which Jonah accepted out of fear. Jonah was getting awfully used to situations like these, but watching Pavel writhe in pain was hurting him in a way he hadn't experienced so far on his travels. Vlad, reading this on Jonah's face as if his cheeks were book pages, barked at the boys behind him to stop.
 
"Do you know who I am?" Jonah shook his head. "Hmph. Listen, here in Novigrad it's not all pretty bridges and shiny rivers, market stalls and opera. There's a whole war going on beneath the surface. Those bastards in suits don't run this place, people like me do. And there's a lot of people very interested in seizing as much power as they can. Call it vein, but my intentions are honest." He cracked his neck, and pushed up his sunglasses. "My name is Vladimir and I represent the Seventh Light. I run this part of the city, the fourteenth ward, which means I run these flats too. Our friend Pavel here thinks he can go around playing Philanthropy Landlord with my flats. He... cannot. Your tenancy here might only be temporary, and I was willing to let him pay for it, but unfortunately the sheer extent of the damages to this place mean that I'm going to have to change my plans a bit.
 
"You're a good man. Strong man. And you're from out of town. That means nobody knows you, which means you're useful. Do a few jobs for me and I'll consider the damage to this apartment repaid. But fuck with me..." He took a long drag from the cigarette before pointing it at Jonah. "I'll rip your fucking teeth out and use them to skin you alive. Clear?"
 
Jonah didn't respond. He knew he didn't need to, because he had no choice. He could instantly see that Vlad was a man who made the rules, and for as long as he was a 'guest' in the decrepit and vile Novmiran underworld, these were rules he'd have to live by. Vlad, too, saw on his face that Jonah understood.
 
"Good." Vlad rose. "I'll swing by tomorrow. If you're not here I'll have you dead by the afternoon." Just like that, he and his men cleared out of the apartment, making sure to close the half-door to the bedroom and full-door to the flat behind them.
 

Several hours later...


"So they've offered me asylum."
 
Pavel's eyes went wide. "Shit man. So you can just up and leave?"
 
"...Yeah."
 
"Right." Pavel was sat doubled over, staring at the ground as he thought. They had taken the old couch which had been smashed in half and propped it back up using parts of the broken kitchen countertops. "So you're saying you can just ditch this Vlad idiot and get out of here?"
 
"Diplomatic immunity. I can leave this continent and never return."
 
Pavel paused for a moment. He clutched his stomach, which was still in considerable pain, a little tighter. "This is kind of like a family business for me, in a really fucked up way. My dad was in the Seventh Light too. My mother helped run the front for one of their ops. I'm their bastard child from a night of too much fun." He loosened his grip a bit, leaning back into the chair a little more, testing the limits of his mobility in his current state. "He died when I was like nine or some shit. The front got busted by the police, I watched my dad get shot when he tried to swing for one of the officers and then my mother was jailed for life. I was supposed to go into orphanage but the Seventh Light took me in instead." He laughed. "They fucked my life before it even began. I could kill before I could do basic mental arithmetic and I'd served jail time before I got a driver's license, not that not having one ever stopped me from going on the roads." Suddenly, he lurched forward, sucking air through his clenched teeth. "Fucking Vlad man... anyway, as I got older they started treating me worse. I guess because I was just a baby at the start so the sentiment of my being young kinda stuck. I taught myself a load of shit languages so they could send me abroad and I wouldn't have to deal with them. Smuggling people, selling people, running drugs and guns. I became one of their most reliable men but the bastards still take me for a joke." Pavel laughed gently. "I guess what I'm saying is that I have nothing left for me here. Nothing but doing more crimes... haha. It's quite sad when I put it like that." He turned to look Jonah in the eyes, his face solemn and pained. "You don't want to end up like me. So if the Maples are giving you a lifeline..." Pavel turned to face Jonah. "...fuckin grab it man. Grab hold and never let go."
 
Jonah nodded.
 
"Still, there's one more thing. We need to get that fuckin trinket back."
 
"You said Ivory had it."
 
"Ivory, yeah. They run the eighth and half of the ninth ward, on the other side of the city, but it's a remote op. They're actually based right at the edge of the city in one of the outer satellite towns, ward fourty or some fuckin shit. If they have it, it'll be there, we can bust in, shoot the place up, grab it and escape. That means we'll have to get cozy in the underworld, which means our best course of action right now is to play Vlad's game for a bit."
 
Jonah's heart plummeted. "You've got to be fucking kidding me. I-I mean... They gave me a secure room in the embassy and everything."
 
"The embassy? Tch, you won't be able to get there now. The metros have stopped running for the night and Vlad's men will be on this block of flats like flies to shit." Pavel struggled to stand up, limply walking over to the window and down at the snowy plaza outside. Jonah followed, watching Pavel point at the people surrounding the flat. "See, there's those two on the bench there, those guys by the warehouse, a group by the river-"
 
"You sure they're Vlad's? They just look like normal dudes."
 
"Man it's minus thirty out there. Nobody's going to be outside without a reason. And don't forget, this is Vlad's flats anyway."
 
"...Touché."
 
"Still, that's only tonight. Come tomorrow, there's nothing stopping you from being put to work and running back to the embassy."
 
"But that room's only for me, Pavel." Jonah turned to face Pavel, a new sort of determination on his face. "If I take that room and leave you in the city, Vlad'll kill you. I can't let that happen."
 
Pavel snorted. "This from the man who wouldn't let me help him on the train?" He laughed, a full laugh with his belly, laughing through the pain. "You're a good man Jonah. You'd be a good Novmiran, too. But I think you'll make a better Candanadian."
 


The man in the blue suit stood in the shelter of the stairs down to Purple Place metro station, over the river from Jonah and Pavel. The entranceway was shuttered but a small overhang protected his crisp and immaculate clothes from the harsh winter night. He spoke into his phone, his side of the conversation lost amongst the noises of Novigrad in moonlight.
 
"The threat has been, hmm, neutralised. There were a total of six casualties, between 2235 and 2237 hours... Yes... No witnesses, no... Yes, I've cleared the site of, aha, evidence..."
 
A car drove by, its powerful headlights illuminating the brickwork for just a second.
 
"The Red Bears are no longer a threat to his safety... For as long as he is in the protection of the Seventh Light, he will be safe. They want him for labour so they will keep him healthy and fed. His gangster companion also... Of course, it is my official duty and moral obligation to keep them both safe. I have reason to believe they will make moves on Ivory within the next seventy-two hours. When the time comes I will be there to assist them..."
 
Muffled electronic music blared away in the distance. Some shouting could be heard.
 
"I cannot make moves on the Seventh Light for as long as they consider Walters and Pavel indebted to them, for diplomatic reasons regarding the local police, amongst others. Walters has already managed to cross half a continent and Pavel has survived a life in the underground; I have complete faith in their ability to handle the situation, but I will keep tabs on them nonetheless... Yes... Very well. Good day."
 
He flipped the phone shut, straightened his suit, picked up his briefcase and walked up the stairs, disappearing down an alleyway. He walked quickly and with purpose, swiftly turning the corner and emerging into an open green, covered in thick snow floodlit by cold white streetlights. There were several cars with men dotted around them. Approaching the circle, the men quickly dropped their banter and turned to face the man in the suit, pulling out knives and guns. The suited man, however, was unfazed. He started to speak to them in Novmiran.
 
"Gentlemen, I'm very sorry but your raid on the apartment tonight has been postponed, indefinitely."
 
They were quick to spit replies. "Says who?"
 
"Yeah, that fucker's worth three times his fuckin weight in solid gold. The fuck are you gonna do with us, you want him all to yourself?"
 
The man put down his briefcase, using both hands to straighten his tie before continuing to speak. "Not quite. I represent a third party, a legal entity of sorts, with a vested interest in that man's survival. They have authorised me to use, hmm, lethal force to dispel and dispatch any would-be troublemakers." He picked up his briefcase again, a sinister look on his face. "Once again, I can only apologise, but I answer to a higher authority that neither you nor your bosses are aware are involved."
 
The man turned around and pulled a small latch on the bottom of his briefcase. A trigger popped out of the handle. He aimed his briefcase at the streetlights, pulling the trigger, knocking out the lamps one by one, plunging the square into darkness.
 
"Fuck this, just shoot the cunt." One of the gangsters pulled out a pistol and shot it at the suited stranger, a loud bang echoing throughout the night. The suited man, however, paid no mind, as if he hadn't been shot at all. Instead, he continued shooting the lamps until the last was out, leaving the men lit only by the moonlight.
 
"Oh dear, it would appear to me that a third party with ulterior motives has interfered with your supply lines. Your bullets are fake. Blanks, designed to disintegrate when fired. It's like shooting dust." Sure enough, the men all pulled out their guns, firing them at the ground, all of them banging and flashing as normal but not one of them firing anything out of the barrel other than smoke. "Unfortunately, my bullets are very real." One by one, the man shot the men with his briefcase, bullets piercing their vital organs with pinpoint precision. They slumped to the ground, the guns in their hands still smoking, their engines still running. As a final measure, the man in the suit fired a few more stray bullets through the bodies and cars before disappearing into the night.
 
Shortly afterwards, Novigrad Police arrived at the scene. They saw the abandoned cars, the dead bodies, and the guns in their hands still smoking. They collected samples, took photographs, wrote the whole thing off as just another gang warfare incident and cleaned up the mess. A few streets away, the man in the suit spoke into his phone once more. "This threat too has been neutralised. Twelve casualties, clean-up well underway..."
 
The clocks struck midnight.
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#15
New Konigstadt

"I swear by the flame, Pickman, I'll have you sacked once I win reelection. You've been watching RBS, you know what's just happened over in the goddamn United Republics of Luxlein, so what excuse do you have to pull me off the line with the King?" The Chancellor was buried behind piles of paperwork, his tie loosened and his hair a mess, his face a snarling mask of rage.

"Well, sir, I came to ask for a vacation." Pickman clasped his walking cane with both hands, a faint smile across his face. The Chancellor did not offer him a seat, and he did not take one

"A vacation? Did I hear you right? A vacation? Are you out of your mind? You had me hang up on the King of Candanadium because you want a vacation?" The Chancellor's face got redder, but Pickman's expression did not change.

"I hear Fujing is especially nice this time of year. Much warmer, and easier on these old bones of mine. Plus, I believe we have some, ah, mutual friends in the city whom we haven't spoken to in a while."

"What the hell are you on about? Speak plainly, Pickman. I'm not in the mood for games."

"You have read my latest report, sir? On our Edofasian friend, Mr. Northlane, or rather, I should say, Mr. Walters of Luddishaven?"

"Yes, I have. I ought to make that Klaus Dietrich fellow Head of the RIS instead. Seems like he's the only spook in the entire service who's not batshit insane."

"Well, I believe it is past time we informed our friends in the Akarean Federal Council of our recent undertakings in Terra. Perhaps we may be able to gain their assistance in the matter, and we certainly do not wish for them to step on our toes by accidentally uncovering our operation."

"And you're volunteering yourself?"

"Yes, sir. I have already spoken to Ambassador Hsu. They will know I am coming. I know it is usually customary for the Chancellor to meet with the Federal Council, what with them being a collective head of government and all, so I wished to seek your approval beforehand."

"Well that's a first." The Chancellor barked a short laugh. "If you're volunteering to get out of my hair, then by all means. When do you leave?"

"I have a plane waiting at Maple Ridge."

"Fantastic." The Chancellor threw his hands up in the air. "Get out."

"Sir." Pickman bowed his head and got out.

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Kingdom of Candanadium
Königreich Kandanadium

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#16
Written in collaboration with Akarea

Fujing


Arthur Pickman was no stranger to the largest city in the world, nor was it a stranger to him. The RIS and the Akarean Union Intelligence Service have had a long history of cooperation, given the strong bonds between Candanadium and Akarea, forged during the Kanadiaans Conquests of the 12th Century. The two nations, as alien as they were to each other, had grown together over the ages, offering aid in times of crisis and counsel in times of peace. As daunting as Fujing was to most new visitors, who had a reputation for being lost in the twisting hutongs and alleyways of the inner-city wards, Pickman had never felt uncomfortable in this giant maze of intrigue, mystery, and life, crammed with neon-lit signs, hawkish hawkers, and skyscrapers jostling for space with traditional temples and homes, the city that never truly came to a rest. That was the beauty in it, he thought. While his native Port Newcastle was the second-largest city in Candanadium, it could not compare to Fujing in any way.

"Perhaps it's the air." He had remarked to the Akarean Federal Councillor who had welcomed him at the airport, Minister Lim Fung-hsiao, who held a position roughly equivalent to his in the AUIS, as their convoy rolled along the winding highway leading to the heart of the city. Pickman was fluent in Mandarin, having studied it religiously in school. His fascination with the language began with a trip to Harschburg as a child, where he'd been amazed by the glowing neon signs written in pictograms he could not decipher. Close to fifty years of study meant that he sounded like he belonged to any of the core provinces of Akarea, but whenever he spoke it in the country he was greeted with looks of astonishment from locals. Though it had the largest number of native speakers in the world, Mandarin was an especially hard language to learn, and it took a special breed of language enthusiast to learn to read and write it with native levels of fluency.

"Ah, my lao pengyou, the only thing in the air nowadays is PM 2.5." The Councillor was referring to the smog that had begun to plague Fujing's industrial coast in recent years. Pickman had noticed it on the plane and at the airport, which was close to the coast, a light yellowish haze that tasted of dust and hurt the eyes. The rest of the city, however, was as pristine as ever, and such a problem may not even be viewed as a problem in Candanadium. The Akareans carried a similar sentiment, something along the lines of the cost of progress, progress being the ever-growing utterly colossal Akarean economy. So long as the air outside their apartment windows and above their farmlands stayed clean, a little yellow cloud never hurt anything - especially their back pockets.

"That may be so, but Fujing is still as beautiful as I last met her." Pickman had thrown in a well-known Akarean idiom in there, to the delight of Minister Lim. "I only wish I could stay longer, but as you know, I will need to return to the north for His Majesty King Herman's coronation." The coronations of the Kings of Candanadium were traditionally not very large affairs. The King would need to travel to Old Konigstadt to be blessed and consecrated in flame by the First Flame, then anointed with the waters of the Osean, before receiving the bronze, iron and steel tri-maple crown of Candanadium. The crown of the federation was more of a laurel, three chains of metal coiled together, joined at the front with the tri-maple motif, each one of the maple leaves being wrought of a different metal. No jewels or velvet adorned the crown of the north, only metals as hard as the land and folk which it stood for. There were separate crowns for Belkhomir and Caskhomir, and the king would need to travel to the east and south after his ceremony in Old Konigstadt to receive the oath from the Prince of Belkhomir and the coronation from the Stewardess of Our Lady respectively, to come into his titles as King of Belkhomir and Caskhomir. 

"Of course. His Majesty will be welcome in Fujing at any time once he has made the necessary trips." It was also customary for a new king of Candanadium to visit Trefjall and meet with the Trefjalli king before visiting any other countries, even though Trefjall, in a great bout of republican sentiment, had taken all of their king's sovereign powers during the Candanadian Civil War, unwilling to have the conflict spill over into their borders. 

"I'll be sure to pass the message along." Pickman had never actually met Prince, now King Herman. He had been invited to official functions with the prince present, but had never spoken to him. The Chancellor seemed to have a high opinion of him, however, and Pickman trusted the man's instincts, even if their methods were drastically different. "How much longer to the inner wards?" Pickman had noticed that the docklands and the suburbs had given way to denser, taller apartment buildings, and he found himself much drowsier than before. The seven hours’ jet lag was kicking in, and he could no longer adjust to foreign time zones as he could in his youth,

"We're going to be pulling off the 5749 in, oh, five minutes maybe? From there it's a straight line to the Glass Palace." The Minister was referring to the glittering tower of glass where the Akarean Federal Council conducts its business, the glass representing government transparency. “Say, Driver Chao, how’s the congestion downtown?” The Minister pressed a button on his armrest, which activated the intercom to the driver of the limo. In Akarea, it was proper to address people by their profession as an honourific.

“The usual, sir. The traffic police have closed a few roads for us but we might encounter some traffic as we enter Ward D. Today is a busy day.” They could only drive to the outside of Ward D - from the guarded car park, they’d have to walk on foot. Ward D was the government quarter, home to all the institutions of the state, and the most heavily guarded city block in the country if not in the whole world. Every road and path into and out of Ward D has a checkpoint, and there were no public transport stations.

“Thank you.” The Minister switched the intercom off again. “Should be another forty-five minutes, maybe half an hour then.” He turned back to Pickman.

“Ah, in that case, I hope you will forgive me if I doze off for the remainder of our journey. Age is finally catching up with me.” The Minister chortled.

“Yes, yes, of course. Eight hours’ time difference, was it?”

“Seven now. We’ve just ended daylight savings time.” The Minister made a sound in acknowledgement, but Pickman was already fading off to sleep.

---

A soft ding was the only audio cue that announced the arrival of the Emperor of Akarea. The visual cues were much more noticeable, as the gathered councillors rose from their seats and bowed toward the door. Pickman was already standing, but turned to face the door and bowed in the presence of Quan Ah, the traditional Akarean gesture of deference and respect. The Emperor bowed back, a gesture that would have been viewed as highly improper in Candanadium. In Akarea, though, it seemed that the monarchy had taken more of an egalitarian role. The Emperor no longer had supreme authority, even on paper, and existed simply to assist the Council in their business and to represent Akarea on the world stage.

The Federal Council, with all eighty-nine of its members, was the head of the Akarean government, and when they convened in full, it was a matter of great importance that was reported across the nation. Of course, the Council did not convene simply to hear Pickman. On today’s agenda were other pressing matters as well: PM 2.5, new legislation surrounding protection of food standards in Bantang and an ongoing debacle surrounding an incident earlier that year where a rural town’s water supply had become contaminated by a chemical spill.

Huangshang Wansui! Ten thousand years to the Emperor!” A cry came from a councilor in the back of the room, and it was echoed by the other eighty-seven.

Wansui, wansui, wanwansui! Ten thousand years, ten thousand years, ten thousand-ten thousand years!” This was the Akarean equivalent to the Candanadian cry of Long Live the King. Though this was the literal translation of the phrase, the more poetic meaning would be something along the lines of may the Emperor reign for ten thousand years. The Emperor took up his position at the high table of the chamber, and a clerk banged a gong in the corner of the room. The Federal Council was in session.

“I thank you, Councillors. We have many affairs of state to discuss today.” The man who sat at the Emperor’s side pulled out a small stack of papers from his briefcase, handing them to the Emperor, who quickly pilfered through them before pulling one out from the middle of the stack and holding it at arm’s length so that he might read it easier. “First, we have a guest today from the northern kingdom.” The full transliteration of the name of Candanadium in Mandarin was long and unwieldy, so most people referred to it simply as beiguo, or the northern kingdom. “He bears important news that must not be spread beyond this room. Director Arthur Pickman, you have the room.” Pickman bowed again to the Emperor.

“Thank you, your majesty.” Pickman drew from his jacket pocket a briefing he had prepared in Mandarin for the Council. “A copy of my briefing should have been distributed to all of you in today’s agenda.” The sound of pages being turned filled the room, and Pickman paused. “We, the Royal Intelligence Service of Candanadium, have uncovered some questionable activity in Terra, in both Edofasia and Novmir that is of great importance to Candanadian, Akarean, and greater Kaltach interests.” The present Councillors suddenly became noticeably more attentive - if there was business in Terra important enough to concern Akarea, a country about as far away from Terra as one can get, it must be incredibly serious. “It concerns the activities of Dr. Rudolf Diels. He is a Candanadian national, and a criminal wanted by the Candanadian Crown. He served our former authoritarian regime as an enforcer of sorts, and entered the services of the Edofasian state after our silent revolution.” Pickman said Diels’ name in Oseanian, as there hadn’t been a need to transliterate his name into Mandarin until now. “Until recently, his duties have mostly been internal, concerning the censorship of information and dealing with dissidents against the state and church. However, he is also a zealot for the Edofasian faith, and has deep connections within the Church, which has earned him a notorious reputation in Edofasia and in Terra at large.” One Councillor rose to ask a question.

“If he is a northerner in Terra, then why is he an enemy of Akarea and Kaltachia?” Murmurs of approval rose through the ranks of the Council as several others stood.

The Emperor rose. “Sit down, Minister Wei. The Director will finish speaking before questions are taken.” He sat down again, and the ministers bowed before returning to their seats.

“The Councillor’s concerns are not entirely invalid, and they will be addressed in due time.” Pickman continued. “As I was saying, Diels has not been involved in any matters threatening our security until now. For the past month or so, Diels has been on the move across Terra. He has uprooted from his office in Scarlao, a city in the south of Edofasia, and has moved north into Novmir. We believe he is currently in Novigrad. He seems to be chasing something and someone, particularly, a slate miner from Scarlao. A man named Jonah Northlane.” More murmurs broke out in the chamber. 

“Order in the hall. The Director will be heard.” The Emperor rose again.

“Labourer Northlane has been threatened by Diels with death, as he believes that Mr. Northlane is in possession of a divine artifact, a device of the gods. As a result, Northlane has fled his home in Scarlao and has proceeded north, seemingly in an act of desperation. Now, we don’t know what led to Diels forming this conclusion or why he views it as a matter of such importance, but we do know that he will stop at nothing to bring down Northlane and obtain the artifact in his possession. He has left a trail of death and destruction behind him, and he has enlisted the help of the Novmiran government in attempting to kidnap Northlane. Our intelligence indicates that Labourer Northlane has inside knowledge of the Edofasian Church and the Ordinators of the Church, a subject that we have little knowledge on. As such, we have begun the process of attempting to extract him from Novigrad. He has accepted our offer of asylum, but currently, he is in the hands of a local gang, potentially with links to Diels. RIS agents are working hard to ensure his safety and security, but to do so effectively and efficiently, we require at the very least for the AUIS to stand down and allow us to operate without hindrance in Novigrad. If Diels or even this labourer can be brought to Candanadium, it will allow us to gain an unprecedented amount of information on Edofasia and Terra at large and expose some of the inner workings of the Edofasian state and church. For Akarea, this potentially means leverage over Cenaesia in trade and in diplomacy, and through our intelligence-sharing arrangements this will provide the AUIS with whatever intelligence we gather. Once this event breaks the news, Councillors, there is no doubt that it will be disastrous for the Terran Commonwealth and Edofasia.” Pickman took a deep breath and turned to address the Emperor. “I have finished, your majesty, and I will be happy to answer any questions that the Council might have.”

The first Minister of Defence Elect for Fujing, a short man surnamed Tsai, immediately rose and began to speak in a hurried pace. “Director, thank you for this information. I do have several questions and concerns, I will begin now.” He read the notes he had scribbled onto his papers throughout Pickman’s address before continuing. “I understand that the Labourer No-ah-tah-rane is currently in Novmir. Novmir is essentially the opposite side of the planet, and we have no real formal connections with the nation other than basic trade tariffs and all. Should we agree to assist, what form of support exactly can the northern kingdom expect from us?”

“Officially, we do not know if the AUIS has operations in Novmir, but if it does, we would like to establish a joint operation in rescuing Northlane from the Novigrad mafia and ensuring his safe delivery to Candanadium. Depending on the situation, we may even have to transfer him through Akarea and take the long way from Terra to Candanadium, during which Akarean support would also be necessary.”

The Minister of Demography, Elect for Bantang, rose. “You speak of a device of the gods. Surely no such thing can possibly exist? What exactly is this Labourer carrying that is of such an incredible value and scarcity that it warrants and I quote a trail of death and destruction? I’m sure you understand, Director, that we have absolutely no desire for any such trails in our Union, let alone such trails as laid in pursuit of that which sounds outright…” The Prime Minister Elect for Sun Yan, without rising, chimed in - “fictitious.”

“Of course there is no proof of such a device’s divinity, but the device is definitely in Northlane’s possession and this is what Diels believes it to be, a divine tool. We don’t know if it’s out of his personal fanaticism or some other reason, but Northlane considers the item nothing more than a bit of meaningless tat, a bit of meaningless nothing; he’s been declaring it as an art piece on border crossings and often calls it an artifact, but I digress. In any case, it is Northlane’s personal property, though the Terrans do not hold personal property in such high regards as us. As for Diels’ rampage through Terra, he is able to wreak so much havoc because he has the support of the Edofasian and Novmiran governments, as well as extensive connections on the ground. In Kaltachia, his abilities are lessened, and he will not be able to operate with the same effectiveness as he would in Terra. We are in the dark as much as you are on this, Councillor, and we hope that we will uncover the truth once we can extract Northlane from Terra. I am not exaggerating my words. The situation really is in complete disorder.” Pickman used two more Mandarin proverbs to emphasize his point, and the councillors expressed various sounds of understanding. 

The other Minister of Defence Elect for Fujing, Lim Fung-hsiao, rose, his usual steely gaze softening for just a moment. “If I understand correctly, this is less a problem of Labourer Northlane and his trinket but more one of Criminal Diels and his violent and destructive international tantrum. If that is the case, and I hope I can rely on the support of the Fujingese cabinet when I say that the nature of the device or its being smuggled internationally is irrelevant; we can therefore rationalise support as best as we can conceivably provide.” The rest of the Fujingese cabinet, who sat at the front of the room on the left side, cheered in agreement. The other cabinets echoed similar sentiments, some turning to murmur amongst themselves and others standing to announce their support. It was soon clear the hall was in favour.

“Thank you, Minister, for your words of support. I sincerely hope that this chamber will vote to support us in bringing this criminal Diels to justice. If there are no further questions for me, I would yield the floor, your majesty.” Pickman bowed towards the Emperor.

The Emperor rose. “Thank you Director. We will have the formal results delivered to Candanadium by the secure-phone within twenty-four hours. I will nominate a managerial task force to handle the finer details with you when the time comes.”

---

Pickman upended the cup into his mouth, finishing the last mouthful of coffee, before placing it back onto the table as he tapped away on his laptop. He had brought an adjutant to Fujing, his secretary, fresh out of the RIS training academy, to gain some experience in the field and to brush up on his Mandarin, and so Pickman had dismissed him shortly after the Council finished deliberating, to let him have free roam of the city. That would also let him have some time to draft a report for the Office of the Chancellor and the Privy Council, the latter of which had not been fully briefed on the matter regarding Diels and Northlane. His power nap in the back of the car from the airport had energized him, and as the sun began to set over Fujing, he was finally feeling refreshed. He knew that the jet lag would screw with him later, though, and he was probably going to wake at some ungodly hour, but for now, he was focused on what was in front of him.

The Glass Palace was one of the more unique government headquarters in the east and, indeed, the world. A great towering glass skyscraper some eighty stories tall, it was the tallest building in its vicinity and the third tallest in the entire city. Its interior was modern, all bright colours, metal and glass and abstract geometry. The lounge he found himself passing the time in was located in a rather uninteresting corner of one of the middle floors of the building: a few bright green sofas were positioned around bamboo-wood coffee tables and bamboo-stalk plantations providing shade from the equatorial sun beating down on the building. Above him, lighting fixtures hung adorned with abstract fittings of jagged bars of white metal, which did reflect the light and scatter it across the room, so as to illuminate the area for reading and conversation, but not to cause glare on screens nor glossy paper. It complimented the natural light that poured in through the glass walls, which ran from the base of the building to its very tip, meaning that the whole floor was full of sun. It was like sitting in a scene from a science-fiction movie; a quick glance at the buildings below however, all poured concrete and rusted metal fixtures with buzzing neon signage and exposed piping and cables, quickly bought perspectives back into reality, which was just part of what made Fujing the way it was. 

It was at this moment Pickman’s phone started to ring. Recognising the number on the screen as the number of the Akarean government’s automatic messaging system, he answered the call and remained silent. The synthesised, vaguely female voice started to speak.

“Please confirm your identity as Director Pickman.”

The speech software was clearly designed for the Akarean languages, as Pickman’s Oseanian name and title was pronounced with Mandarin syllables, making them sound completely skewed and strange.

“That’s me.” He replied in Mandarin.

There was a short pause as the software interpreted his response. “Thank you. Director Pickman, you have 1 message. Message number 1: Please make your way to Room KF61076-B immediately. Thank you, Minister Lim. There are no more messages. Goodbye.” The computer system hung up on him, but he’d already stopped listening. The laptop was packed up, his coffee cup binned, and by the time the dial-tone rang to signify the end of the connection he was already making his way to the nearest set of lifts, his old leather RIS satchel slung over his shoulder. This wasn’t his first time in the Glass Palace, so he had a rough idea where KF61076-B would be, but it was going to take him some time to get there, especially with his prosthetic. He had been offered a wheelchair by the building’s security, but he had declined. It would be unseemly for the Director of the Royal Intelligence Service to be seen wheeling himself around the headquarters of the Akarean Government.

Minister of Defence Elect for Fujing Lim Fung-hsiao had a lengthy and impressive career. Military service, intelligence work and election as a Minister all culminating with his being appointed the director of the Akarean Union Intelligence Service. He knew Pickman well, as did Pickman know Lim. Arriving at the small meeting room, Pickman nodded to the six security guards standing outside, who were watching in all directions and making sure the general vicinity around the room remained clear of anybody but the two intelligence service directors. Moving through the door and closing it behind him, Pickman bowed to Lim, who bowed back, before they both took their seats at the single table in the middle of the room.

“Director Pickman, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance once more.” The Minister had switched to Oseanian, to make sure that the security guards would not pick up on their conversation. Lim Fung-hsiao had studied at the Royal Naval Academy of Port Newcastle, and spoke Oseanian the same way Pickman did, like a native.

“All the same, Minister Lim.”

“Now then. The motion to support you with the situation at hand regarding Dr. Diels and Northlane was approved by a swaithe majority of 93 percent. I’ve spoken with the other Ministers for Defence already and we have constructed a task force of AUIS operatives and crew commanders to be dispatched immediately. This operative is now classified…” Lim pulled some sheets of paper from inside his suit blazer, flipping through them to find a short stub from the dot-matrix printers which were a commonplace means of producing physical papers quickly within the Akarean government. “...Alpha-Uniform-Indigo-Sierra-dash-Golf-November-dash-two-six-four-six-nine-five-three.”

“AUIS-GN-2646953, got it. The RIS has given the operation the moniker of Operation Safe Haven, though that is subject to change.”

“I’ll add that to the abstract. Now then, we have begun the necessary preparations to send fourteen AUIS operative crews to Novmir - this puts up to 168 men to the task.”

Pickman gulped. “A small army. Does that mean the AUIS has no existing presence in Novmir?”

Lim almost grinned. “Just one permanent crew, plus a few extras who are off on their own errands. We don’t have much business in Novmir, and they don’t have much business here neither, but we like to keep tabs nonetheless. Their presence will make the provisions easier, since we already have some infrastructure. Small army; big threat.”

“I only hope that their presence will not draw unnecessary attention to our operation. I trust you have read up on the files about Task Force Epsilon?”

”Of course. I should expect a certain degree of cooperation, although I understand Epsilon likes to do their own thing.”

“These men were Rangers in the Candanadian Army, so yes, that’s what they’ve been trained to do. However, we’ve brought in two more from Sudardes just for this operation, under diplomatic cover of course. They have been keeping close tabs on Northlane, so that leaves Diels for you.”

“Very well. How much information do we have about Diels’ movements at present?”

“From our understanding he is staying at the…” Pickman squinted at the name of the hotel, then decided against attempting to pronounce it. “At an upscale establishment in the centre of Novigrad, with an armed Edofasian escort. We have reason to believe that he is receiving support from both the Novmiran government and underworld, though at the moment we believe the Seventh Light, the gang with custody of Northlane, is unaffiliated with him.”

“A complicated web of alliances and owed favours that could only be found in a nation as twisted as Novmir. Well, at least we know where he is. We’ll focus on intelligence at first and work up a plan to extract Diels as promptly as possible. Are you sure you’re okay with looking after Northlane? I understand Epsilon Actual has assumed control for that side of things, at least for now.”

“I am confident. Epsilon Actual and Epsilon Two are more than capable in their duties, and have proved to be incredibly efficient so far. The former tends to be a bit of a loose cannon, but he gets things done. Epsilon Five and Epsilon Six should not disappoint either.” Judging by the reports from the RIS attache at the embassy, Klaus Dietrich, he was not a fan of Epsilon Actual’s methods, but Pickman knew better than to doubt the man. After all, he owed his life to the person now known only as Epsilon Actual.

“Very well. Anyway, I must apologize for the brief nature of our meeting today but I hope you understand I suddenly have an awful lot on my plate. We’ll have boots on the ground in Novmir within 48 hours, diplomacy depending. You know what they’re like.”

“Of course. Hopefully I will have an update from our people by tomorrow morning. Would you happen to know how I can pin down the Prime Minister? I have several messages from the Chancellor that should be brought to his attention. You know, clerical matters and KU affairs. The KU Congress is coming up soon, and the Chancellor has been receiving word from Luxlein that they want our involvement in some sort of international organization.”

“The Prime Minister Elect for Fujing and the Union will probably have returned to the residency block by now, filing papers about pollution and funding for dirt paths in rural nowhere towns. I think he might appreciate a break from the monotony, so if you’ll allow me a moment…” Lim pulled out his phone, one of the ultra-secure models made bespoke for government and intelligence use in Akarea and its allies, not unlike the one in the possession of the man known as Epsilon Actual. He punched in the number for the message system, authorising himself and leaving the Prime Minister a message to expect a visit from Pickman shortly. “I trust you know the way to the residencies.”

“Yes, of course. I’ll leave these untranslated reports with you so that you can familiarize yourself further with the operation.” Pickman took out a manila folder from his satchel and placed it onto the table, embossed with the crowned tri-maple in gold and the words MOST SECRET - HOCHGEHEIMNIS stamped in red. OPERATION SAFE HAVEN was written in blue pen at the top of the folder.

“Thank you. Oh, when do you return to the north?”

“I’m in Fujing for the rest of the week. The Chancellor has, ah, graciously decided to grant me a week’s vacation. Officially, I’m here on unofficial business.”

“Officially unofficial, classy. Well, we’ll keep you updated by the secure-phone, I’ll try and keep from disturbing your mini-vacation too much though. Oh, if you get a chance, head on over to the Ascension Dragon Bar in 81803, just a few blocks over, and tell them I sent you. You’ll get some good stories out of them, or at least a drink or two.” Lim winked, before picking up the files from the table and slipping them into a briefcase, clipping it shut and shuffling the combination lock. Pickman gave a short laugh.

“I’ll see if I can make some time for that. Take care.”

“All the same.” As Pickman turned to go, he lingered at the door for a moment as a short wave of pain shot up his missing left leg, as if it was being set ablaze, or being crushed in a vice-like grip. He grabbed on to the door frame as he fell to the floor, suddenly losing strength in his stump.

“Arthur? Are you alright?” Minister Lim called from the room as the two security guards by the door helped him to his feet again.

“It’s okay.” He tapped his prosthetic. “Just phantom pain.” He straightened his collar and picked up his fallen satchel. “Strange.”

“How so?” Minister Lim had made his way to the door.

“It’s been almost twenty years since that’s happened.” Pickman shuddered at the memory. “I just hope it’s not a sign of things to come.”

[Image: pTaBLJC.png?1]
Kingdom of Candanadium
Königreich Kandanadium

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#17
Chapter 10: Debt



Several days had passed since Vlad had made himself known to Jonah and Pavel. For a moment, Jonah reminisced. Pavel, a stranger met on a train going nowhere in particular who within a few short days became his only friend in a world of utter madness. And yet he didn’t even know his last name. Did he have one?
 
In that time neither Vlad nor any of his men had paid the two a visit. Instead they had stayed inside the flat, only leaving for absolute necessities. Dragging their ankles through the snow that was deep enough to lose the lower half of your legs in to get to the nearby convenience-shops and markets never went without glances from passers-by; the man on the bench reading a newspaper, the child on the street corner with a cigarette, and the tracksuit-clad youth waiting for the bus. All undoubtedly Vlad’s men, keeping eyes on the apartment block – Jonah knew they were watching, and Jonah knew that they knew that he knew they were watching too.
 
In the meantime, however, it wasn’t inherently a problem. They were keeping to the rules for now, not leaving the general vicinity of the apartment complex. Jonah would buy food from the market around the corner, small bits of meat and bags of vegetables. Pavel had taught him the necessary Novmiran – as far as languages went Novmiran words were straightforward enough but the pronunciations were hell and the grammar was simply something else. Every transaction was an act in tactfully deflecting small talk from the locals, little old ladies clad in huge coats as they peddled their wares, their shouting of prices and deals creating vapour in the sub-zero winter air, that swirled and convoluted before dissipating.
 
Meanwhile Pavel would go to a nearby carpenter’s outlet for building supplies. He and Jonah had decided to at least put a modicum of effort into making the apartment liveable again after Ivory had destroyed the place, given that it was likely going to be their domicile for the next short while. They had repaired the gas and electrical systems already, and were working on patching up the floors and walls. In an effort to make the place more homely Pavel had even bought a small television and a rug from a second-hand shop, as well as a couple of lounge-chairs from a moving company’s furniture outlet. The fat old lady who lived on the ground floor of the apartment block had stared daggers at Pavel as he dragged it all up the stairs, the lift having been out of commission for at least three decades now, but its presence hanging there nonetheless, tauntingly.
 
The two had exchanged phone numbers, and Pavel had seen to it that Jonah got a SIM card for service in Novmir. They rarely used it however, instead talking at the apartment, often thinking about how they’d execute their great escape from Novigrad once the time came while they toiled away rebuilding kitchen countertops and wiring plug sockets.
 
Yet, the main crisis remained unsolved. The artefact was missing, taken by the Ivory and now in places unknown. Pavel had a reasonable conviction that he knew where it would be, but it was the other side of the city – with half of the Seventh Light sat outside watching their every move there was no way they’d be able to get there. They just needed an excuse, a break to get out of the apartment, then they could put their plan into action.
 
There was a knock at the door.
 
The two rose from their tasks in the kitchen, looking at each other then the door. The last time somebody had been in the apartment other than them, they did not knock, instead barging in, beating Pavel to a pulp and threatening Jonah to a similar fate should he not cooperate. No, a knock at the door was polite – the politeness was both welcome, and terrifying. It reeked of malice.
 
“I’ll get it.” Jonah rose, brushing the sawdust off his lap as he walked to the door. He unlocked it, but before he could open it or even so much as grab the handle the door swung open. It was Vlad.
 
“Gentlemen! Good evening.” His awful nasal voice was grating, the fake camaraderie turning the air bitter. He muttered under his breath, “How fucking long does it take to open a door?” He entered the apartment, while two masked men took positions at the door, blocking the way. Vlad strode into the kitchen with all the swagger of a gangster up on his power, and upon seeing it part-reassembled almost twisted his fat lips into an ugly smile. “Oh! Well this is most unexpected, Bahahaha! Taking initiative, I see. Clearly this was not the rat’s idea-“ he vaguely waved his hand in Pavel’s direction while forcing eye contact with Jonah, who wanted to look away but couldn’t bring himself to. “-so I will thank you for at least trying to fix the ABSOLUTE MESS you made!” Vlad extended his hand to Jonah who had followed Vlad through to the kitchen. “Thank you Jonah.” Jonah shook the hand tentatively, before Vlad grew impatient and whisked his arm back. “You shake my hand like a fucking homosexual. Now listen to me.”
 
He turned away and marched over to the living area by the window to deliver his monologue. The television was on, some local soapbox drama chirping away a tale of a revealed affair. Irritated by the noise, Vlad kicked the television off its table, the glass smashing as it hit the just-repaired floor. Pavel’s eye twitched.
 
“Now then. Pavel has a car. He will take you both to Belelsk in Ward 43 tomorrow, you must be there for no later than 4 AM. If you’re late I’ll fucking kill you. Some animal thinks he can owe me money then jump town. HE. FUCKING. CANNOT.” As he screamed he stamped the floor, his big leg smashing through a floorboard that had just been repaired mere minutes ago. “Jonah, he doesn’t know your face so he won’t be alarmed when you enter his shop. It’s a liquor shop on Krasnoye Lane. Get chummy with him, then beat the shit out of him. But don’t kill him. Dead people can’t accrue interest.” There was a long silence. “Well?”
 
Jonah spoke. “We’ll get the job done.”
 
“Thank you.” That sick smile returned. “If you can get any money out of him, well, aim for a few hundred thousand at least. No doubt he’ll have all his cash there since he’s planning to leave the city. Deliver it to, well, Pavel knows where.” Vlad hopped back over the chair to make his way out of the flat, leaving a dusty muddy boot-print on the cushion. “4 AM, you have to get there before he leaves town.” Vlad spat on the floor, as if he were marking his territory. Like some kind of animal. “See you later gentlemen.”
 
He and the men in the doorway feld out of the apartment, slamming the door behind them. The clatter of their going back downstairs slowly faded out, and then there was nothing. Then, Pavel lept over to the television. “Man, my fucking TV man!! Man… Fuck!”
 
“Pavel?” Jonah sat down on the countertop, watching out of the window as Vlad and his henchmen poured into their car and drove away.
 
“Yes?”
 
“Where’s Belelsk?”
 
Pavel realised. His face lit up. “Fuck man. That’s right next to Kiselovsk.”
 
“And what’s in Kiselovsk?”
 
“Ivory.” Pavel rose from the smashed TV and turned to face Jonah. “I think we caught our break.”
 



 
It was dark and visibility was terrible. The only thing that could be seen in front of them was the snowfall, the car’s headlights trying to power through the winter and illuminate the road, but ultimately failing to light up more than ten or so meters afore the nose of the car. As such, Pavel drove a little slower than usual, just in case of any animals or fallen trees, but he did not expect to encounter other vehicles at such an antisocial hour. Indeed, they only encountered one or two passing vehicles on the whole ride, orbiting the city to reach the satellite towns to the north, trundling down barely gritted roads that were hardly paved enough to warrant the effort, through towns that had no name.
 
Then, they arrived. At the very edge of Kiselovsk was a large warehouse, formerly owned and operated by a reasonably sizeable firm that had manufactured tyres. The company had gone quietly bust in the 1980s, and through inheritance passed through endless hands before eventually arriving in the possession of up-and-coming mob bosses. The façade was convenient for Ivory, who now used the building as their main base of operations. The Ivory, one of countless gangs of mobsters and knuckleheads all trying to get their hands on the means to control Novigrad. And yet, they’d taken the artefact. They had no relationship with the Seventh Light, yet they were compelled to steal such an item which to anybody who knew no wiser should have been completely and utterly uninteresting. It could only mean then that Ivory was working with or for the nefarious Diels. Pavel and Jonah both knew that they had to move fast.
 
As Pavel rounded the last corner putting the warehouse in view, he switched off the car lights so as not to draw unnecessary attention. They pulled over on the side of the road, under the shelter of some trees. They climbed out, closing the doors softly just as the clocks struck 2 am. They were both clad in winter coats; not so big as to impede their movement, but big enough to conceal their guns. They hoped they wouldn’t need them.
 
They approached the warehouse, keeping low and taking advantage of the low light around the outer walls, arriving at an open window, the only window on that side of the building, about a storey up. Pavel gave Jonah a boost, who peered through the window. There were two people in the room, both sleeping on folding chairs by their gaslight, the only source of light and warmth in the room. He climbed through the window, pulling Pavel up behind him, before they both snuck over to the two men and grabbed their throats from behind, choking them in their sleep. Neither of them woke up before dying. A painless death.
 
They kept moving, slowly opening doors and sneaking through the mostly empty warehouse. Sometimes they’d encounter some goon or thug, which they’d trip up and choke from behind before moving on. They worked their way through each room of the warehouse, all bare red bricks and chipped wooden fixtures, rusting metal and smashed glass. They searched every container, locker, bucket and shelf, but there was no sign of the artefact.
 
Then they reached the top floor. They opened the door from the stairwell quietly as they had every other door so far.
 
Then it fell off its hinges.
 
It collapsed into the floor with all the grace of a crashing blimp, the noise deafeningly loud in the silence of the winter night. It smashed straight through the floorboards, splintering and shattering before coming to rest in the foundations between that floor and the ceiling below. Instantly, the sounds of approaching, hurried footsteps could be heard.
 
Bolshoye…” Pavel moaned. Two men burst into the room, one tall and slender, the other short and round. Jonah pulled out his gun and shot the little fat man, who then unceremoniously flopped onto the floor, blood pouring out of his chest. The other man cried out.
 
“Fuck man! Who the fuck are--!!”
 
Before he could finish speaking Pavel had sprinted over and wrestled him to the floor, putting a gun to his head.
 
“WHERE IS THE ARTEFACT?”
 
“The fucking WHAT? SHTO??
 
“DIELS GOT YOU TO STEAL AN ARTEFACT FROM CENTRAL NOVIGRAD, WHERE IS IT?? GDE ARTEFAKT??
 
To Pavel’s surprise, the man simply began to laugh. “Man, that piece of shit? Some mad doctor that one, paid us so much fucking money for such a little piece of nonsense nothing. We gave it to him the same day, I—”
 
Pavel pushed the gun into the side of his head even harder. “Where is Diels now?”
 
“He got me to send it to him at the Krasnoye Zvezda Ploschad.”
 
“…The hotel?? Man, I thought he’d have chosen somewhere a little less on the chin.”
 
“Haha… you and me both. Now listen, if I were you I’d put your gun away now. You do not want to be killing me. Do you know who I—“
 
Pavel pulled the trigger. The spurting blood sputtered over the floor for a few moments before slowing to a trickle. “Don’t tell me what to do menshe suka.” Pavel stood and turned to Jonah who had been watching Pavel’s back but was still listening to the conversation. “We’re checking in at the Red Star Square. Nice hotel in Ward 2. Very posh man. I hear there is somebody of great interest to us there.”
 
“Got it. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
 
They went over to the window in the corner of the room, throwing it open and climbing out, using the drainpipes and electrical boxes to drop down safely. As they disappeared into the forest, using the darkness and cover afforded by the trees to return to their car safely, a man in a pristine blue suit watched them from within warehouse. Around him were several dead bodies, and the gun in his hand was still smoking. He had been keeping the other gangsters from interrupting Northlane and Pavel; their having finished signalled the time for his own departure. He put the gun away before straightening his tie and leaving. While he admired their use of the window he preferred to take advantage of the now unguarded front door.
 
He moved swiftly through the town of Kiselovsk, ducking down alleyways and behind stores before arriving at a smoking shelter out the back of a betting shop. It was dimly lit by a yellow light that loudly hummed above. There was nobody around. He pulled out his secure-phone and made an urgent call home.
 
“Walter and Pavel are safe, but I have some concerns. Not only do I understand that Mr. Diels has the artefact… but I believe they intend to attempt to retrieve it themselves.” The voice on the other end of the phone started shouting countless expletives, enraged at this turn of events. “No, I will not be acting on it. I will continue to observe and assist as needed. I have, aha… a certain conviction that they will encounter an obstacle shortly the likes of which will delay any foolish behaviour on their part… If it transpires to not be the case then I shall make it so… Do not worry, the situation is under control. However as usual I’ll leave the politics to you.” He flipped the phone shut and slipped it back into his suit pocket.
 
As the man in the blue suit emerged from the back of the shop onto the main street, he saw a dark grey coupe disappear into the night. Inside it were two men, one a fugitive from Edofasia and the other a survivor of an upbringing in the criminal underworld.
 
“We still have to do it.” Pavel swore in response, to which Jonah sighed. “I mean, Vlad is going to be on our cases if that guy actually hops town, at least before we can get his money off of him. The last thing we need is the entire seventh light after us. If we actually do what we’re told then that means that we get to fulfil our commitment to him as well as working towards getting Machinations back.”
 
“Pah.” Pavel rolled his eyes and sunk back into his chair, adjusting his grip on the steering wheel. “You say that as if it’s a good thing.”
 
“It’s really not, but we have no choice.”
 



 
As they pulled up to the Belelsk liquor store they’d been sent to, they were both quite surprised to see that they were not the first ones there. In fact, several similar unremarkable coupe cars were parked outside. It wasn’t until they parked up and got out of their cars that they saw the store’s windows had been smashed in. There were bodies on the floor and sat outside were a small gang of seventh light thugs counting paper banknotes.
 
“Shit.” said Pavel.
 
“I don’t like this.” said Jonah.
 
“Me neither.” said a horribly familiar nasal voice from behind them. They turned around to find Vlad stood pointing a gun at them, changing between Jonah and Pavel every second or so. He was seething with anger, his little eyes wide and bloodshot, his teeth grimacing. His skin was red with rage and his voice was dripping with fury. “Keep your hands where I can see them and get in the FUCKING car.” He motioned to the car behind him. Pavel and Jonah looked at each other, shrugged, and climbed into the back of the car, Vlad grabbing them as they passed and shoving them inside before slamming the doors closed as he passed them to get to the driver’s seat, while one of the thugs from outside the store climbed into the passenger side. As Vlad sat down and closed his door, he pulled the lock switch before starting the engine and driving away. The thug in the passenger seat turned around to the back seats, holding Pavel and Jonah at gunpoint. They looked at each other, then to the gunman, then to Vlad, then at the floor and out the window respectively.
 
“Now then gentlemen. Let’s have a talk.”
 
Pavel smirked. “Sounds good to me.”
 
“Shut the fuck up you utter fucking ruinous disgrace of a bastard child. Your parents hate you and are glad to be dead. Don’t make a FUCKING JOKE OF ME.” Vlad slammed his steering wheel. “Now then. Where is my money? Because I will tell you where it is. My money is in Belelsk. Yet for some reason I get calls telling me that there’s some skinhead yokel and blonde hair blue eyed fuck making noise in Kiselovsk. Why did you go to Kiselovsk when I told you to go to Belelsk?”
 
Jonah answered. “We stopped for fuel and ran into trouble.”
 
Vlad sighed, gripping the steering wheel tighter as they left the town and rejoined the regional road heading back for the city centre. “What a fucking disappointment. I thought I could trust you. I guess Mister Fucking Bitch Faggot Comedian Liar over here kept you around for a reason after all. No, I’ll tell you what happened. I don’t know if you wanted glory or fame or if there was personal vendetta or otherwise, but you went to an Ivory warehouse and you killed Piotr Olga’s son.”
 
“…Who?” Jonah asked. Pavel stared at the floor of the car, his face pale.
 
“I’ll tell you who.” Vlad spat the words. “Piotr Olga is my brother. We had a disagreement in the sixth light and split, years ago. I continued the light while he became Ivory. But I am a kind man, and a philanthropist. I was in the middle of working things out with Piotr. Then he turns around and tells me two of my men have killed his FUCKING SON!!” Vlad started stamping on the brake pedal of the car in rage, screaming and storming as the car jolted and rocked forth and back before eventually stalling, sputtering to a standstill in the middle of the road. Even the gunman in the passenger side looked alarmed. Staring at the floor and exhaling deeply, Vlad put the handbrake on before continuing to speak, his voice lower and slower than before. “Normally I’d fucking kill you both. But do you remember what I told you before I gave you the liquor store job?”
 
There was a moment of silence.
 
“Pathetic. I told you that dead people can’t accrue interest.” He restarted the car and continued to drive, the forestry around the empty country road slowly folding away into itself and making way for urban sprawl that increased in density as they drove. After a few minutes Vlad continued speaking. “We were going to buy land from Piotr, to get the ball rolling. It was good land, in the city centre. We were going to build a fucking club. But now Piotr isn’t interested. He associates my seventh light with the death of his son and wants nothing to do with me. That means that means of income is now closed to me. I will be expecting you both to make up for that. Eight hundred million rubles, with four hundred percent compound interest daily.”
 
Pavel and Jonah didn’t respond. They both stared into space, unmoving. Jonah wasn’t quite sure exactly how much eight hundred million Novmiran rubles was, not that he needed to. The four hundred percent interest meant it would be impossible to ever conceivably pay off. Pavel however was fully aware of the reality of the situation. After all, the 800+400 combo was one of Vlad’s favourite ‘fuck you’ signature moves, and one that he’d dealt out himself at that. But to be on the receiving end of it, well…
 
“I don’t care how you get the money. Get a job. Rob a bank. I don’t fucking care. But if you don’t keep up your payments I’ll rip your skin off and use it as protection while I rape your bleeding corpse.” He drove around a corner before pulling up at outside the apartment block they’d been holed up in until today. “Get out of my fucking car.”
 
They climbed out, as did the gunman in the passenger seat, who barked at them in Novmiran. Pavel translated. “He wants us to go inside.”
 
They went back into the apartment block and up to their apartment, the thug following closely behind, who stopped at the door, letting them go in before closing the door and locking it from the outside. Pavel tried the door, even with the key, but couldn’t get it to budge. “They’ve added another fucking lock on the outside.” Defeated, he slumped down onto the floor, wood splinters digging into his backside, but he didn’t care. It was hard to care about much in the face of such adversity.
 
Both exhausted, they retired and slept through most of the day, neither of them uttering more than a few words, both buried by the anxiety. By the time they woke up again, the total debt had risen to three hundred and twenty million rubles.
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#18
"On my mark...NOW" the harsh voice barked out. The door was kicked right off its frame. Men in leather jackets with white slashes on the arms rushed in. The crew was small. Just 5 men with uzis and shotguns. They met no resistance at the door. They quickly checked each room before reporting "No ones here boss. Must have run off"

one of the goons said. "That or Vlad has them doing bitch work by now. Find the fucking trinket so we can get paid. Already gonna get cut because we didn't grab the Edofasian." Boris spit on the floor. That was several million rubles less than the jobs payout could have been and with the Seventh Light digging its fangs into him. It'll only be a matter of time before the guy got himself killed. The place was torn apart in minutes when a shout rang out. "The stupid fuck didn't even hide it. Just left here in his bag" Everyone laughed. "Give me the thing then. Lets see what we're getting paid for" Boris said. The cube was lifted out of the bad showed off to the group assembled in the living room. It's gears spun and and hummed along almost silently. Laughter erupted again. "We're getting paid to deliver a fucking sculpture...I can't believe this shit" one of the men said before tossing it to Boris. Who was immediately snapped out of his good mood. "You stupid fucking cunt. If you fucking so much as scratch this thing you'll be doing the talking to the scary motherfucker with the scars." The men shut up quickly. And began to shuffle out of the apartment. 

The black sedan sitting outside still running with a young driver who looked beyond stressed. The kid was no older than 14. As the men pilled into the back Boris got in the passenger door. The car started down the bleak road. "Fucking relax you little shit. This is the easy part. And after this its payday. You'll like paydday." Boris said. The kid was too nervous to speak amd just sighed and nodded. Heading towards the hotel. "So you think this Diels is gonna pay up? Seems like a lot of money for such an easy job" "Are you braindead? The guy rents out an entire fucking floor of the classiest place in town and you think he's gonna stiff us?" 

They finally pulled up and the gate guard of the hotel waved them through. Boris spoke "You know the rules. Only two go up with me to deliver. The rest of you wait at the front door. Kid you're coming with me. I wanna show you how this life pays better than working in some factory. Leave your gun. Take the perogis" 

"So tell me Boris Olga how does it feel to be the most competent gangster in Novmir. Because I've hired no less than three different crews to do exactly what you've done and NONE of them even considered bringing me perogis" Diels said. He was all buisness today. A full black suit and his hair slicked back. His scars dulled a bit and a smile across his lips. The artefact. HIS artefact sat on the desk under his hand. Diels had not let the thing out of his immediate area since they handed it to him.

 "Im surprised. This job wasn't difficult. No one was even there to protect the thing." Boris said with a grin. Sufficiently flattered by Diels silver tongue. 

"And these are delicious. Who made them. Surely you can't cook as well?" Diels said

"My...my mother did.....sir" the young boy spoke up. Wanting any bit of credit he could get 

"A fine cook and mother to raise a boy with such manners. Trying to slip the noose of poverty boy? You're far to nice to actually want to live like a degenerate. Mother not know how her boy pays the bills?" 

The Kids eyes flashed with pride and then a deep sadness. This man had not only read him in a matter of seconds. But called him out in front of his gang" 

Diels took a soft tone with him "We all do what we have to kid. Don't mistake my words for belittlement. And heed no mind to these pukes if they snicker at you. They'd kill for what you have..Now as we were saying. You brought me my item. And for that you will be paid. Martha dear!" The secretary walked to the table with two fine suitcases and opened them both. Filled to brim with rubles. "For the safe return of my property this is yours." Diels pushed one of the suitcases towards Boris. "And this one will be yours once you bring me Northlane" 

"He's in deep with the Seventh Light. I don't know if I'll be able to bring him in alive." 

"Alive...dead. It doesn't really matter now. You'll be paid either way. But if you do manage to get him alive. Bring him your father. He'll know how to get him to me back in Edofasia."

"Is that it then? We're done here?" Boris said. With this much money on the table it was never as simple as walking away with it.

"Come on now Mr.Olga I am a man of dignity. I wouldn't double cross you after you've done your job correctly. The police aren't awaiting you outside and my men aren't going to make a mess on this fine carpet. I'll be calling on you should I have more buisness in Novmir. Now Auf Wiedersehen my good man" Boris and his men left quickly and reconvined out by the car. The kid looked at the suitcase and Boris. "So uh. What now" Boris broke into a grin "Now. My friend. We get fucking smashed" 

Diels was graceful on the dance floor. His movement's swift and organic. Martha could hardly keep up. Her fine silk gown almost new (though she had owned it for years) the nearby band on the small stage played upbeat swing music not commonly heard in Novmir. Diels research team took the time to enjoy the fine wine and meal the kitchen staff prepared. Lots of Edofasian and Candanadian dishes were featured. Flirting with the servers and thoroughly enjoying themselves. In a few days they'd be back to regular work. Significantly more mundane than what the good doctor brought with him. 

Diels himself retired early with a bottle of Meisterjäger. Sitting in his private quarters with his artefact. He imagined all that could be done with it. "A new golden age for mankind in the palm of my hand" he muttered to himself drunkenly. 
He fell asleep at his desk. A report from a new archeological find in Akarea on his laptop screen. 
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#19
Written in collaboration with Akarea

Chapter 11: Welcome to Novigrad

Novigrad

The Royal Candanadian Embassy in Novigrad was, when compared to other embassies and diplomatic buildings, a relatively modest one. Its red-brick buildings were tucked behind high razor-wire topped walls, and although it featured an Eostrist chapel, it was tucked away from public view, alongside the Candanadian supermarket and on-site apartments for embassy employees. Below the unassuming facade, however, was a series of tunnels and bunkers to be used should the aboveground structure become unsafe or overrun, like the original Candanadian Embassy in Scarlao. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had learned its lesson on being too flashy and overt in Terra, a continent where the scars of colonialism still ran deep. Thus, the embassy in Novigrad was designed with security and defensive viability in mind, while still trying to be familiar to its employees. The basement featured a canteen, a medical facility, an emergency safe room, and held the most sensitive documents, communications equipment, and encryption codes. Unsurprisingly, the barracks and RIS section of the embassy were also in the basement, which, today, was filled by a small crowd of AUIS operatives, having just landed in Novigrad from various cities in Akarea to assist in Operation Safe Haven, the newly adopted RIS moniker for the various operations tied to Diels’ presence in the city and the miner he was chasing.

The Akareans, about twenty in number, were dressed in dark fatigues, with maroon berets adorned by the golden sun of Akarea on the left side. They stood clumped in a corner, quietly chatting among themselves and smoking; glancing almost compulsively at their wristwatches, as opposed to the four suited RIS men in the other corner, lounging on opposite ends of a small leather sofa. With their horn-rimmed glasses and woollen suits, they were indistinguishable from the regular embassy bureaucrat or functionary, and once in a while one of the Akareans would throw a concerned glance their way. They had been told to wait for the RIS liaison and  of the RIS’s finest, not four common desk jockeys who seemed to be there only to sip at their coffees. 

“Do these bastards even know what’s happening here? Who the hell are they?” One Akarean operative spoke in a tone that was low enough so that his compatriots and colleagues could hear him. He spoke in Mandarin, just to make sure the four men would not understand.

“Better yet, who the hell do they think they are? Isn’t this supposed to be a secure area?” Another chimed in.

“Surely the northerners are not this sloppy? They must have a reason for being here.” By now, the Akareans’ glances had become less than subtle.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The man on the left side of the couch uncrossed his legs and looked up from the magazine he was seemingly reading. “Surely gentlemen as professional as you all would know the first rule of the trade?” He spoke gently, in perfect Mandarin. The conversation melted away. The soft hum and beeps of the embassy’s encryption servers in the corner of the room could be heard.

Before the gathered Akareans had a chance to reply, the door to the room swung open. In strode another man dressed in blue, carrying a stack of papers under his arm and an uncapped fountain pen tucked behind his ear. He unceremoniously dumped the stack onto the meeting desk, looked up at the group, and frowned.

“You are with the AUIS, yes?” He scanned the crowd and addressed them in Kanadiaans, which he had been told they would be able to understand.

“Yes.” The Akarean faces replied in unison, standing at attention, which was ever-so-slightly off-putting. His frown did not dissipate.

“Pardon me. I had thought that you would have gone for a more covert uniform. No matter. Welcome to Novigrad, gentlemen. I am Klaus Dietrich, RIS liaison at the embassy. These four are some of the RIS’s best.” Klaus Dietrich gestured at the men still lounging on the couch. One of them gave a little half-hearted wave. Dietrich could almost feel the Akareans collectively raising an eyebrow, but their expressions did not change.  “I trust you are all well briefed on the situation at hand, so let’s not beat around the bush. My colleague, Dr. Ulrichsson, has recently confirmed that Mr. Diels is, indeed, in the city, and he is in possession of a most curious device, the property of Mr. Walters of Luddishaven.” Epsilon Actual’s diplomatic passport and embassy ID identified him as Dr. Robert Ulrichsson of Slaemtkortbaer, agricultural trade attache to the Royal Candanadian Embassy to the Novmiran Federation, and he had spent months mastering the Westland accent, in Oseanian, Kanadiaans, and Trefjalli, and had memorized the life of Robert Ulrichsson down to the most minute detail, like what brand of bread he liked to buy at the supermarket. For all intents and purposes, he was Robert Ulrichsson, even though Robert Ulrichsson did not exist. Not many knew of his real name and origin, and sometimes even he forgot, for there simply was no reason to remember. It was way too dangerous. It had creeped Dietrich out initially, but he preferred not to think about how dangerous the men he worked with really were. “Unfortunately Dr. Ulrichsson is currently away conducting operations in the field, as he has been tasked with the safety of Mr. Walters, but we may expect him at any moment, at which point we will need to respond to whatever information he has brought us. Therefore, I want each and every one of you on high operational alert. That means full kit and vehicles ready to go. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir!” The gathered Akareans echoed in perfect Kanadiaans.

“Any questions?”

“No, sir!” The corners of Dietrich’s mouth reluctantly turned upward. The Akareans were unmatched in their discipline, and he had found that Akarean agents rarely had much to say about irrelevant matters. There were times, however, when all that discipline and protocol became an obstacle.

“That’s what I like to hear. If-” Dietrich was cut short by the sound of a throat being cleared from behind him. Epsilon Actual, who had slipped into the room unnoticed during the short speech, emerged from the dark corner he had waited in, approaching Dietrich and pushing him out of the way unceremoniously.

“I do apologize Klaus, but I fear I must cut your speech short. There has been a development. The disgraced former-doctor Diels has possession of the device and is leaving the city, hmm, very soon. Mr. Walters, in the meanwhile, is bogged down by an unfortunate gangland affliction, and we will, somewhat, ah, struggle to proceed without his safety guaranteed.” Dietrich couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard the most minute amount of concern in the Epsilon agent’s voice.

“What do you mean, Mr. Walters is bogged down?” Dietrich interjected. He ignored the discourtesy to himself, as Epsilon Actual, or rather, Robert Ulrichsson, was polite to a fault unless there was a good reason not to be, and so far, what he had said sounded like a very good reason.

“He is being held captive in an apartment just southeast of the central city zones. They believe him indebted to a certain, ahem, figure with considerable influence in the Seventh Light. I trust you know who I’m referring to…”

“In that case, it may be safer for him to stay put. You said that Diels is leaving now?” One of the men sprawled out on the couches suddenly sat up. 

“Intelligence is vague at present. He could leave in five minutes, five hours, or five days. All I understand to be concrete is that his business in Novigrad is finished and that he would much like to leave as soon as he can.”

“It seems to me like this is the perfect opportunity to remove Diels as a threat to the Crown permanently.” Another one of the Candanadian agents spoke. “Where is Diels’s last known address?”

Otel’ Krasnoye Svezda, 56386 Viktoriya Ulitsa.” Epsilon Actual pronounced the address perfectly. If one didn’t know of his skills, it might even be easy to believe it had been rehearsed. The blue-suited agents rose, and the one who had just inquired about Diels’s address spoke again.

“Sounds like it’s time for us to get a move on, boys. Klaus, you’ll have to contact Mr. Walters and inform him of the situation. As for you,” He gestured at the Akarean agents. “You’ll have to divide yourselves into two groups. We wi--” He was interrupted by a sudden cacophony of shuffling uniforms and stamping boots, as the group of agents perfectly split into two halves without uttering so much as a word. “...I suppose that’s done with. We, uh, will retire to discuss our own plan of attack.” He slapped one of his fellow agents on the shoulder. “Los geht’s.” One by one, the Epsilon agents filed out of the room.

“Right, you heard the man. We will reconvene in, let’s say half an hour. Grab everything you need.” Dietrich closed the door after the Epsilon agents.

“Yes, sir.” The Akarean agents spoke in a perfect chorus. Dietrich shook his head once more. He sketched a salute to the group, and pulled out his mobile phone.

----

CHUJ!” Pavel bellowed as he slammed his shoulder into the door and collapsing onto the ground once more. He had been trying to get the door to the apartment open for the last hour or so, to no avail. Fists, elbows, shoulders, boots, even one of the curtain poles, all had no effect against the door. Jonah and Pavel combined probably had a good 500 pounds on them, but even so, the lock on the other side had not budged. Wincing, Pavel made an effort to sit up and rubbed his shoulder in a small attempt to soothe the sharp sensation of pain as Jonah poked his head out from the bedroom.

“It’s no use. Save your strength.” He walked over to the sink, took out a glass, and held it under the tap, then summarily emptied it into the sink after seeing the numerous particles, which he assumed, or at least hoped, to be rust,in the water.

“Fucking Vlad.” Pavel grunted and managed to get to his feet, giving the door another boot. “Fuck this. Is there any water?” 

“Only from the tap, and I don’t think you want to drink that.” Jonah held up the glass he had just used, rust and other particles still clinging to the rim. Pavel made a face.

“Dumb bastards want us to work but won’t even keep us watered.”

“Should I call the police? Put an end to this once and for all? They didn’t take our phones for some reason.” Jonah pulled out his phone.

“The police? Funny joke, man. Half of them belong to Vlad, half to Piotr Olga. Another half belongs to whoever gives them the most money.” Pavel managed to chuckle.

“But that would make three hal- never mind. Stupid idea. Forget I asked.” Jonah slid his phone back into his pocket.

“Besides, is not profitable for Vlad to keep us here. Even someone dumb as him will remember to feed us sometime. What-” Pavel was interrupted by Jonah’s phone vibrating. “There it is, man.” Jonah took the phone out of his pocket again.

“Unknown number. You think it’s him?” Jonah held up the screen.

“Who else? You want me to take it?”

“No, I think that’ll just piss him off even more. Hang on.” Jonah pressed the answer button. “Zdravstvuyte.” He knew he butchered the pronunciation as soon as the Novmiran word came out of his mouth.

“Mr. Northlane. You’re becoming quite a hard man to reach. Are you in a safe location?” Klaus Dietrich’s voice was the last thing Jonah was expecting to hear. For a second Jonah couldn’t understand a thing, but then realized that he was speaking in Oseanian. The initial meeting at the embassy had felt like a decade ago.

Da. I mean, tá, I mean, yes. Well, not exactly. What’s going on?” Pavel has a confused look on his face, hearing Jonah switch from Novmiran to Edofasian to Oseanian. Jonah held up a finger, telling him to be quiet.

“You are still being held captive by the Seventh Light, I presume?”

“Yes. They have locked the door to my apartment from the outside. We have been here for almost twelve hours.” Jonah paused. “How did you know?”

“It’s my job to know. Listen, we know where they took your artifact, and we’re going to go get it back. We’re coming to get you as soon as we retrieve it, and we’ll be getting out of this country. Pack your things, maybe arm yourself, and be ready. You’ll know when we get here. Do you still have all the documents the ambassador gave you?”

“Yes, I do, but what is going on? Where is it? Where is Machinations? When are you coming?” Jonah’s heart raced at the thought of seeing Machinations again.

“It’s in the possession of Diels. I can’t tell you when exactly we’ll be coming, but I expect it’ll take us two hours at least. Just stay put, and I’ll inform you of any updates.”

“Yes, I know about Diels. Is he leaving? What’s happening?” There was a long pause. Over the last twelve hours, concerns had turned through anxieties into abject fear as the two realised their chances of intercepting Diels grew slimmer and slimmer. Jonah in particular had taken quite badly to this, his emotions ripping at his heart. The more he thought about the artifact, the more attached he became to it, and he longed to feel the sensation of the gears spinning in his hands once more. He didn’t dare tell Pavel about any of this, in fear that he’d think that he’d finally lost his marbles.

Eventually, the silence was broken by Dietrich. “That’s all I can say for now. Keep safe. We’ll talk again soon.”

“No, you have to answer me!” Dietrich’s words ripped at his heart. Liquid brimmed his eyes, as the frustration boiled over. “How could you let him win?” Jonah’s voice had become a shout. His face burned.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Northlane. Auf wiederhören.” Dietrich hung up.

Jonah slipped the phone back into his pocket, walked back over to the twice-rebuilt sofa and sat down, his head in his hands.

Then it happened. A bright, brilliant light so powerful that it was easily the brightest most intense light he had ever experienced, even through his closed eyelids. The light came from behind his eyelids. Behind his eyes. The realization overwhelmed his mind. The light was coloured, but it was a colour that he had never seen before. His whole body was on fire. He tried to stop himself from screaming at the glory and the terror of it all, but it was fruitless; in the blink of an eye he was on the floor, yelping and rolling in unbelievable agony.

The image of the artefact was burnt into his mind. Then, suddenly, it was over. The whole ordeal lasted perhaps thirty seconds or so, but to Jonah it seemed an eternity. He was out of breath and felt sick. Pavel had watched the whole thing from across the room. He didn’t know what was going on. It terrified him.

“The fuck??” He slowly walked over to Jonah who hadn’t moved from the spot on the floor he’d landed during his, whatever it was, and hadn’t removed his hands from his eyes trying to shield himself from the awful light.

Without moving a muscle more than needed, Jonah talked. He could only manage a quiet murmur, which frustrated him because he had such a great deal to say. “Pavel.”

“Yeah man?”

“I think I have an idea about what that thing is.” Jonah rubbed his eyes, the crud from countless restless nights falling out.

Pavel squatted down next to him, his face wearing concern. “Yeah?”

“Let’s just say, it’s connected to a history I’d rather forget.” Jonah slowly and carefully opened his eyes, cautious so as not to invite the light back into his body. “But this history, it’s not the sort of thing that gets left in the past so easily, you know?”

Pavel scratched his chin. “I think so man. I’ve got history too. But I’ve never done anything like that just now.” He paused for a second, the only sound in the room coming from the wind whistling through the cracks in the walls and window panes. “You okay?”

Jonah looked at the ceiling, almost dejected. “Not really. It’s a special kind of history. I don’t know how to describe it.” Feeling strength slowly returning to his body, he sat up, turning around to lean with his back against the front of the sofa. “But that artefact, I think I have something of a connection to it. A connection more noteworthy than the fact that I dug it up.” He chuckled softly. “Hell, I’m not even sure if that is just a coincidence anymore.”

Pavel was not a brainy man. He knew this. He was okay with this, generally, but here and now he wished he had a modicum more intellect if not just so that he could better understand what had Jonah in such a sorry state. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s okay, I think few people would. You don’t really need to either.” Jonah stood up, having more or less recovered from the episode. “All I know is we need to get to that hotel.”

“I understand that bit better.”

[Image: pTaBLJC.png?1]
Kingdom of Candanadium
Königreich Kandanadium

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#20
Meanwhile...
Shangjiaochuang, Jiu'a, Akarea

Now that the monsoon season had passed by to terrorise those further south with incredible rainfalls, it was unbearably hot. The cheery voice on the radio gave a measure of 31 degrees, but it felt more like 40 – or 4000 – as Po Hong toiled away with his steely tools, chipping away and cutting away huge chunks of soil, bagging them up and throwing them into his small cart. It was monotonous work, digging these shallow trenches along the side of the hill, and the intense heat of the sun pounding on his back made it no easier. He pulled his straw hat down to the left a little to keep the light from his eyes.

Hong was a rice farmer, the most prestigious of the Akarean occupations. After all, Akarea was an empire founded on rice, a foodstuff so great and so filling and coming in such great yields that it would feed and fuel armies and wars and form the foundation of one of the world’s earliest great civilisations. The work didn’t feel glorious though. There wasn’t much glory to be found in the rural towns of Jiu’a, labouring at the ground, surrounded by hills caked in dense jungle, trees driven to the ground in droves and desecrated for pulp so that the empty space they leave behind can be repopulated with cascading rows of rice plants, the trenches of water and bushes of their leaves giving the sides of hills throughout the region their famous ridged zebra-stripes. No, Jiu’a was not a place that bore much excitement or fame, and Hong’s hometown of Shanjiaochuang was a far cry from the glitz, glamour and cultural exports of cities like Fujing and countries like Bantang. Hong was a workhorse for a model of civilisation thousands of years old. He knew it, and despite having no real say in it – at least after largely failing school a good couple of decades ago – he wasn’t upset or bitter. He had a purpose, and was content enough to hold a pole and swing his arms all day long in exchange for an envelope of cash every other week.

The solar powered radio propped up against the wheel of his barrow chirped away to itself, a merry labourer’s folk tune in the air; Hong swung to its rhythm. The town was visible at the foot of the hill. Towards the centre, there were numerous four or five storey concrete blocks housing families and workers, their ground floor units selling groceries, flowers and second-hand computers. The outskirts of the town, where the tarmac ended and the dirt tracks began, was largely composed of several smaller houses, usually two stories but sometimes one, and much older than the town centre blocks, often made of brick and wood. There was the occasional minivan parked outside or the odd motorcycle propped up against their walls, and the occasional field of vegetables or pond of fish was interspersed between them. Each house was painted its own colour with its own particular variety of flowers in pots hanging from the windowsills.

From Hong’s high perspective, up the side of the hill, he could see it all. Sometimes he would stop for a brief reprise and gaze down at the children playing in the street, the men in the market hollering, the train trundling through the small station – sometimes it even stopped, a few locals boarding and alighting, though most of the time the trains sailed right through paying the town no attention nor second thoughts, faces in the windows gazing idly at the buildings as they whizzed by, the whole town coming and going in just a few moments, lost in the hills and forgotten in lieu of a destination of far greater importance.

No, Hong wasn’t just contented. He objectively liked his life. It was boring and, all things concerned, pretty uninteresting. But that was the beauty of it all! It was calm, it was peaceful, it was serene, and above all else (particularly the urban divas who he had quite grown to despise) it was pretty easy living. He grew food, followed the teachings of the Gheng, enjoyed a good meal (particularly Khyarslagaar-style curried rice) and always tuned into his favourite television programmes on an evening. Sometimes he'd go drinking with the other boys from the farm, his compatriots and colleagues, the fields his office. They'd sink beers in the choice hutong bar for the night, playing silly games and jesting with one another. The morning after would be a ritual of painkillers and noodles in broth. It was an idyllic life, Hong fancied.

His pick collided with the earth with a mighty thud. This thud was harder and deeper than the past ten thousand, and the pick did not travel quite as far into the earth. Realising he had come up against a rock, the third rock that day no less, he turned around, throwing his pick into his barrow, and retrieving his wider shovel. He drove it into the ground over and over, repeated shallow jabs helping him etch out the size and position of the rock in the ground so that it could be levered out. He scored its left-hand side, marked the bottom-left corner, then started scoring along the bottom side until he reached the right-hand side, which protruded from the ridge above at a roughly thirty-degree angle. Curiously, this rock seemed to be a perfect right-angle. Nature has produced stranger things, he thought to himself as he drove his spade into the ground and started trying to haul the stone up. He tugged, pushed and yanked the handle of his tool to no avail.

Confused and very, very warm, he sat back on his barrow which let out a small squeak as the rusted rivets supported his weight. In the heat of the sun it took him a few minutes to realise that the rock may in fact not be a rock, but some larger something that was right where they wanted to grow rice. To confirm, he swapped back to his long pick and chipped away the top layer of earth, right down to the hard object. He poured a little water from the drinking canteen on his hip onto the object, washing away the black earth to reveal a shiny, metallic surface. It was reflective; in it, he could see his face under his hat, the exceptionally round nose that he’d been picked on for protruding from his rather small face, narrow eyes on either side gazing back at himself as his mouth hung slightly agape.

Realising that he probably wasn’t going to haul this up himself, he put down his tools, and started walking back along the ridge and down the hill to the small hut at the foot of the farm. There, his supervisor and the farm’s owner, an older man called Tao Ho, was inside, reclining on an old chair with a bottle of water in one hand and a newspaper in the other, enjoying a break from the hot atmosphere outside. When Hong walked in, the door squeaking a little, Ho looked up from his paper before casting it to the table beside him.

“Farmer Po. Although perhaps, you are Labourer Po today.” Ho let out a small chuckle. They spoke in Mandarin, the language of the northern Akarean nations, as the farmers who came thousands of years before them would have. Some things really don’t change. “Has the heat bested you?” Ho had a very deep voice, which trembled slightly as his aged vocal cords curved upward for the higher tones.

“Not the heat, but an obstacle in the ground.” Hong looked at Ho, who above all else had a remarkably large forehead. He wore large glasses that made his small eyes look a little more normal in comparison with his big mouth. “Can you come look?”

Ho opened his water bottle, drinking the rest of it in a few gulps, before closing it and casting it to the same corner of the table besides him as the newspaper, which was still folded to the sports page. “Of course.”



An hour later, all the men who had been working on the hill were gathered around the large portion of the ground they had dug open. Before them was the corner of some great bronze object, which extended out of the side of the hill by roughly a metre. It appeared roughly cubic in shape, although it was impossible to tell how far into the earth it extended and therefore precisely what shape it was and, therefore, what it was and what purpose it served other than to get in the way of their farm.

They all stood around, gazing at it idly. It was now well into the afternoon, and while it would remain light for another few hours the sun was getting ready to dip below the peaks of the furthest hills, ceasing its torrent of cruel heat for the day. Roughly fifteen men anywhere from twenty to fifty years old, all very warm and soaked with sweat, toyed with ideas in their heads as they rubbed their chins in thought.

They, much like Hong, were contented with their simple lives. Therefore, the discovery of the big bronze thing under their farmland made them feel very uncomfortable. It was a bit too interesting for their uninteresting lives. They wondered, silently, that if this large hunk of metal were to be revealed as something genuinely important, their easy lifestyles might be affronted, possibly even lost. It was a disturbing idea, and one that none of them particularly liked.

One of the farmers finally broke the silence. “Tamade! We’ll have to pull apart the whole hill to get this thing out.”

Another barked back. “Ey, ey, it’s not like that’s beyond us. I mean, look at it! That amount of bronze has to be worth something… Is that not a good enough incentive?”

A third chimed in. “How do you know it’s real bronze? Could be plastic.”

The second scoffed before speaking again. “Huuuh? Plastic? You fucking dimwit! Why would someone bury a massive plastic cube?”

Hong interjected. “Who would someone bury a massive cube of any material?”

Ho rubbed his chin. “Maybe there’s something inside it…” His face lit up as the crusted old brain behind his eyes churned out a steaming fresh idea. He turned to face the others, eager to share his thought, a rarity at his age. “My granddaughter’s boyfriend studies archaeology in the Capital.” Some of the farmers screwed up their faces as the idea of Fujing, while others cooed with awe at the impressive academic achievement. I’ll drop down to the town now and talk to her on the telephone. You can all go home for today. Xie xie.” The others stopped bickering, able to find common ground in appreciating an early finish.

And just like that, the fifteen farmers on the hillsides of Shanjiaochuang instantly dropped all thoughts and concerns regarding the big underground cuboid, at least for the evening. They picked up their tools and trod down the hill and back to the town, parking their carts of mud at the foot of the hill and hanging their tools up in the little shed, which Ho locked as he left last. They jeered and bantered for a moment as the sun finally dipped below the far peaks walking along the sandy paths that straddled the fields of vegetables and paddocks of cows around the edge of town, before they all took various turns and shortcuts going their separate ways.

Suffice it to say, they had no idea.
[Image: chinese_seal.png]
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