“Tell me I didn't just give away the biggest clue I've had to finding my father in the last ten years. Tell me, you didn't trick me into giving up my family's heritage…”
Raven's voice coming through the comm was quiet and so tightly controlled it was enough to send chills down anybody's spine. There was a moment of silence as he waited for an answer. None came.
“That package. It WAS Na-Ailleag. Wasn't it, Wolf?”
“Yes, Raven. It was.”
There was a crash. Possibly as the comm flew against the wall. Or maybe it was just something else being broken, because the connection didn't fail.
“We have it under surveillance, Raven. We really need to know if it goes where we think it does. And we will get it back,” Wolf said, not sure the agent will hear him.
“Thirteen years, Wolf. Thirteen years I've been doing your bidding, in the vain hope that somehow, somewhere it will lead me to him. You PROMISED you will help. You had no right to keep me in dark. No right to take it away from me. I'm done with you lot and your subterfuges. So tell me: where is it? Because I'm going to get it back, Wolf. Right here, right now. With your help or without it. WHERE. DID. IT. GO.”
It would have been pointless to try to calm his operative down. Wolf knew that. He sighed and looked through the notes.
“I will give you the intel – all of it – as soon as you get back to Prague. I cannot jeopardize the operation for anyone's personal interest. Not even yours, Raven. This is too important.”
“I'm NOT going back to Prague, Wolf. You can stick all your protocols, all your operational interests, all your need-to-know up your fucking ass. I'm going after this. And YOU know that it will go much smoother and with much less carnage if I don't go blind. Your choice.”
The director pulled at the longer stubble along his jawline, trying to calculate whether his agent still had a chance to intercept the package. It was true the Agency had some surveillance on it, but there was always the danger of it being discovered and disabled. So unless the package ultimately was going where they supposed – and where there was a person to pick it up when it comes – they ran a very real risk of losing it. Albeit temporarily. The network in Europe was too tight to let something like Na-Ailleag stay hidden for too long.
“Look, Raven, you can follow the trail back. We know where the package has been… well, part of it, anyway. Throwing yourself after the artefact will ultimately not help you, and you know it.”
“Screw you and your logic, Wolf. Just tell me, where it went after the hand-off.”
“I'll send you an address,” Wolf's voice responded somewhat impatiently. “But for heaven's sake think this through.The place will most probably be heavily guarded. And the artefact itself is...”
“Thanks,” the agent interrupted the director with a snarl and ended the transmission.
He threw the receiver on the bed (with somewhat unnecessary force) and rummaged through his piece of luggage, throwing a few necessities into a small drawstring pack. Then he pulled out all the hidden pieces of his Desert Eagle and quickly assembled the gun. He checked it again as his phone beeped with an incoming message. A pin on the electronic map pointed to the industrial quarter. A warehouse. It could have been worse. It could have been better. He will need the newbie. Damn MORIA to hell.
He called a cab and finally came out of the bedroom. The living room was empty. The suite was quiet. The second bedroom's door were opened a crack.
He didn't knock. He could have noticed the start or the shell-shocked expression of Osprey, but right now he couldn't care enough. He threw the drawstring pack at her.
She caught it and automatically slung it over her shoulder without a protest.
“We're going out. The pack has emergency supplies. Don't lose it. We're getting the artefact back, so I need you to find me that signature again. Same rules as the tunnel. Keep behind me, follow orders, be careful and pipe up if anything feels wrong. Also pipe up when you have the signature, no matter how faintly. Now come with me.”
He offered no other explanation and she didn't ask any questions, only gripped the string of the pack tighter. A waiting cab took them to a part of Paris that was everything but touristy and deposited them in an alley which would have been decrepit and scary even under the noon sun. Raven motioned for her to follow and set out at a pace she had trouble keeping up with without running. For a man his size his footsteps were surprisingly light.
After a few turns between industrial halls and warehouses they reached yet another warehouse, but this time Raven stopped at a corner. He crouched a bit lower and tapped his shoulder, which Risa understood as an order to crouch behind him and put her hand on his back again. When she did, she noticed he was suddenly holding a gun.
I wonder if I get one too, she thought. Not that she could use it, if she did. But Raven didn't offer her one. Instead, he spent a few moments peering around the corner into another dark alleyway.
There was no night guard, no security outside, which was suspicious, if this was indeed the place. On the other hand, places like this could be guarded twenty different ways without humans patrolling the premises. There should at least have been security cameras around the building. But he couldn't see any. He crept forward with Risa in tow. There was a small door in the long wall. No keypad, nothing that would look like an alarm. Just a simple lock.
Thorne suddenly shuddered with a recollection of his first encounter with a magical security system. It now seemed like a lifetime ago. But it made him turn to Risa:
“Any magic on or around the door? Like an alarm?”
She squinted her eyes, focusing, then shook her head. Maybe they were lucky and the system has not been engaged for the night yet. Although that might turned out to be a mixed blessing, if there are people still at work inside. Should they have waited till later?
Raven leaned against the door, listening through them. No sound. He tried the handle. It was locked. He pulled a small kit out of his pocket and got to work. A moment later the tell-tale click sounded into the night.
“Any sign of magic, tell me. Any sign of the RIGHT magic, tell me at once. Otherwise keep quiet, keep behind me, don't do anything stupid,” Raven repeated his orders in a gravelly whisper, before he pushed the door handle. He positioned himself at the side of the door as they swung out on well-oiled hinges, keeping Risa behind himself as he crept in. The door lead into a relatively small, musty smelling space, that might have been a locker room.
It was dark and there was still no sound. It seemed the work in the warehouse was finished for the day after all. They moved speedily through the room, finding another door in the far wall. Those were not locked and Thorne scowled in bemusement as he carefully listened before opening them and stepping through.
They were – as far as Risa could tell – on the main floor of the warehouse now. There were boxes and shelves, cranes and forklifts… and a lot more open space than she would expect. Judging by the expression on Raven's face that didn't make him any happier. The light was dimmed. Apart from a faint electric hum it was eerily quiet.
Raven leaned to her:
“Do you see it?”
She shook her head. She contemplated telling him he must have the place wrong. The shine of that thing – whatever it was – should have been clearly visible, if it was anywhere in this warehouse. But then she remembered that disguised shine that was part of her interview and kept quiet, focusing twice as hard. Raven took her hand off of his shoulder now, as he whispered:
“Hug the walls whenever you can. Don't be too close on my heels, but don't dilly-dally either. Quick and silent.”
We have to find it.
He started moving around the perimeter of the hall, gun drawn. Risa kept a few paces behind him. Every so often he turned to her and she shook her head. No package. But no danger either. There were a few faint glows on the shelves they were passing, but it only took her a second to determine none of them was hiding anything else. She would have loved to find out what they belonged to anyway, but knew better than to go exploring now.
They rounded a corner. As their eyes grew accustomed to the lack of light, Raven could make out a silhouette of a walkway up on the far wall. If there was anything like an office, it was probably up there. And if there was anything like a strongbox the smugglers would keep valuables in, chances were it would be in that office. What remained was to find a way up. They continued, him scanning each of the aisles they passed carefully for any activity, her doing the same thing, looking for glows. Another corner and they were under the walkway. There were stairs leading up at the other end of it. Raven headed straight to them, still hugging the wall, looking up to see if there was anyone covering them. There seemed to be no one. He crouched even lower, reaching for the first step, when Osprey's hand tapped his shoulder and her head jerked in the direction of a stack of boxes closer to the front of the warehouse. Raven fell back into the deeper shadow under the walkway and she whispered:
“There is something… a glow… behind those boxes,” then she shook her head as his eyes narrowed. “Not the package, but it seems to be moving, so I thought you should know.”
“Stay under the stairs, I'll check it out.”
She crouched low under the lowest stairs and watched as he crept to the stack of the boxes, peeking around to the other side. There seemed to be nothing, except a crate lying on the ground between two stacks of boxes. The crate was open and Thorne could see tufts of the packing straw brimming over its edges. He looked back at Osprey and she frowned and pointed somewhere as if diagonally across the stack. Raven crept around the corner and out of her view. He gave the open crate some berth, but only enough to still be able to peak in. The vase inside didn't look interesting or extraordinary to him, apart from being ancient, and so he moved on to examine the cross aisle. It was empty and he decided not to simply round the stack and see if he can get back to his newbie and on upstairs, where there could be something interesting.
Risa kept her eyes on the stack of the boxes. The glow looked like it might come around the corner of it any minute… now. And indeed, a silhouette of a man peeled itself from behind it. He was shorter than Raven, she noticed, and not as strongly built. She crouched even lower, as the figure looked furtively right and left and then headed for cover of the nearest row of shelves, away from her. Another head peeked around the corner of the stack. It was Raven, but he wasn't looking at her, and Osprey almost involuntarily pulled herself out of her cover, just a bit, to signal to him. But he saw the other man and he moved to catch up with him, just as a few things happened at once. There was a noise from upstairs, which made the man turn, as he did, he noticed Thorne.
“Raven,” he breathed just as the other one whispered “Fox,” in the milisecond before his head snapped to the walkway.
Just then the floodlights in the entire warehouse came on simultaneously, something heavy landed about halfway down the stairs and a big hand grabbed Risa by the neck, pulling her up across the railing. She didn't even think to start struggling, as a huge bloody knife held by the second big hand descended in front of her eyes, positioning itself to stab. Blood thrummed in her ears and part of her brain realized the man who held her must be huge. He was certainly strong enough to keep her oxygen supply severely limited.
Raven jumped behind a forklift for at least a semblance of cover, but his gun snapped up, bearing on the attacker. He would have recognized that sneering face – that vicious yet victorious grimace – anywhere.
“I should have known it was you...” the man snarled at him. Obviously, the recognition was mutual. “Who else would be stupid enough to send people to MY kingdom. I thought you learned the last time… whoever you send, you will lose. I don't play around, you see. But I guess, you don't care. Well, if you want to lose another one, I'll be happy to oblige.”
There was a core of molten hatred in Raven's chest as he steadied his arm, lining up the shot. But Azad was holding Osprey in front of him as a shield. And Thorne couldn't bring himself to shoot.
“I have a gun and you have a knife, Azad – or is it 'Aloodeh' now? - How do you think this is going to go down?” he asked instead, his tone almost conversational.
The huge man laughed. It was an ugly sound.
“Oh, we've seen that the last time too, didn't we… Come out, give yourself up, like the good boy you are… or you can watch a bit first...”
He brought the knife closer to Osprey's face. Thorne could feel his jaw clenching as he inched out of his cover, hoping for a better angle, for his enemy's mistake… His gun held steady. And then, suddenly, Azad moved and his finger squeezed the trigger even before he consciously realized the opening was there.
The big man slumped to the ground, releasing Osprey in the process. She staggered down a couple steps before grabbing the rail with her left hand to steady herself. A shot rang out from a different aisle and another body toppled down from the walkway – apparently Fox wasn't idling either. Raven was at Osprey's side in two leaps and he kicked Azad's body over, to make sure the wannabe warlord turned smuggler is really dead. Then he turned to his green partner:
“I told you to be careful!” his frustration, mixed with something very much like fear or worry seeped into his voice, but the girl didn't seem to pick up on it.
“I was!” she protested.
“Are you hurt?”
She shook her head, finally releasing the death grip on the railing as he nodded and turned away from her. He ran upstairs and two more shots rang out as he cleared his way to the office.
Or perhaps cubicle would have been a better term, had he time to think about semantics once he got there. As it was, he was more preoccupied by the sight of a body in a pool of dark blood on the floor. He swore, this time aloud, as he fell on his knees next to his nephew.
“Philip!” it was more than useless to call out his name like this, the soldier part of him knew. That part that automatically assessed that the boy was still breathing – his breath shallow and thready, but it was there. And his heart was still pumping… unfortunately it was pumping the blood out of an open wound… to his right kidney, Raven discovered, his mind more than a little detached, as he automatically turned him so he can examine the wound more closely. The newbie – Osprey – landed next to him, pulling out a medkit. She looked like she knows how to handle it too, which might have been surprising… if there was time for surprise. He reached for the emergency transmitter and dialled the sequence.
“+8Blueδ, we have a code red on my position, requesting medevac stat. Lion is down. +8Blueδ out”
He didn't wait for response, dropping the transmitter and taking some of the medical supplies from Osprey. Together they stemmed the bleeding and dressed the wound. Philip's eyes flickered open and he grabbed Thorne by one hand. Thorne moved, supporting his head and leaning close, as his nephew whispered to him.
“It was here… I tried to… I'm sorry… sent to London...”
“It's alright, hush now. Your report can wait when you're all better, Lion. Hold on, and that's an order.”
Raven's voice was gruff, but it seemed to calm the young agent. He nodded and closed his eyes again. Raven grabbed the transmitter again.
“Where's that helo, Ram?” he demanded “I need it here five minutes ago, I don't care about air traffic control! Just get it here. +8Blueδ out.”
Then he turned to Osprey, who moved a bit out of the way, but didn't let go of Philip's hand. She was, however, looking at her own right arm.
“Are you alright?”
“I'm fine,” she lied, but he couldn't tell.
There were footsteps on the walkway and Thorne lifted his gun, only to let it fall back to his side as a ginger head poked around the door.
“Raven…” the man's eyes flickered to the ground. “Oh god… is he?”
Thorne just growled.
“He'll survive. No thanks to you. I fucking WARNED you about this!”
The ginger – Fox – raised his hands, palms up, in defence.
“He was already gone, when your message came through. And I only heard from him this morning, that something big was up… so I came as quick as I could.”
Raven looked ready to tear the younger man apart, but a sound from the transmitter made him reconsider. There was a whir from the window, as the medical squad swooped in from a helicopter hovering over the warehouse. There was a small recon team with them as well and Raven barely nodded to them as they dispersed to search the hall. Fox looked after them a bit wistfully, but as the medics busied themselves with Lion, Raven caught the redhead by the arm.
“This 'something big' where did they get it from, Fox?” his voice was emanating danger.
“It went to London,” the man volunteer, squirming a bit.
“So I was told,” a quick glance at Lion, who was just being tied to a stretcher and lifted through the window. “And not what I asked. Where did it come from?”
Before the ginger could respond, one of the medics turned came up to Raven
“We're all set. You coming with us?”
Raven shook his head, just as Fox nodded emphatically.
“I'm not. Get Lion proper medical care ASAP, Nightingale.”
“He'll be fine, Raven. Not what a doctor would normally say, but he's lucky to have just one kidney left, after that donation couple years ago,” the medic clapped the agent on the shoulder and headed to the window. Thorne shook his head, not really wanting to think about the time when his other nephew came perilously close to heaven's pearly gates. Instead he refocused on the man he was still holding.
“Well, Raven, seeing as I'm standing to lose by this whole operation,” Fox said with another wistful look first out of the window and then after the recon team, rummaging through the main floor's crates. “I suggest you make it worth my while to give you that information… unless you want to ask someone higher up, who might give it to you free… or not...”
He visibly perked up, after seeing Lion in the hands of the Agency staff and after the medic's assurance. It was still entirely the wrong thing to do and say, as he would have realized a second later, had Osprey – whom Raven temporarily forgotten was even in the room (and he cursed himself for not sending her off with the medics) – not spoken up.
“Uhm, Raven? I found… a thingie...”
She stood by the office desk, leaning over something on it, hands folded behind her, as if she didn't want to run a chance of touching it.
“Can you tell what does it do?” Raven asked, still not releasing his grasp on Fox.
“Oh, it's just a trinket, nothing major,” the Agency's friendly smuggler smirked, cocking his head speculatively. “Increases speed or agility, or something like that… an… enhancer, if you please. No value for you, I'm sure… but… it's worth something to me.”
“I wasn't asking you,” Raven growled at him and looked at Osprey.
“Uhm… yeah, I think he's right,” she nodded, slowly stretching her left hand out and brushing the artefact with her fingers. It gave her a pleasant jolt of energy and she closed it in her palm. She almost couldn't resist saying 'mine' as she did… but she bit it back last second.
She looked at Fox and he looked first at her, then at Raven and then stretched out his palm. Now it was Osprey's turn to look to her partner. He hesitated for a moment, then nodded. She hesitated a bit more, but then dropped the small object on Fox's palm.
“It came from one of their contacts in Venice. A smaller one, recently 'acquired', as far as I know,” Fox shrugged, pocketing his loot. “I don't have much on them to tell you, Silverleaf's primary target didn't really do much business with them… you know how it is, a middleman of a middleman of a friend… But I do have their approximate location.”
Raven's look was piercing, but he finally released Fox and the ginger crossed to the table, making a small show of massaging his – no doubt bruised – upper arm. He grabbed a piece of paper and a stub of a pencil and scribbled something down, handing it to Raven.
“And if you don't need anything else, Raven,” he drawled, walking to the door, “I'll see you when I see you.”
Thorne let him go, sighing as his hand automatically combed through his hair in thought. Then he turned to Osprey, who was now standing in the middle of the room, unsure what to do next. Which, Thorne had to admit, made two of them.
You can follow the trail back. Wolf told him that a few hours ago. And he damn well will. Because he couldn't follow the trail forward without jeopardizing Lioness, among other things. And because the damned director was right. The artefact itself would not ultimately tell him, where to look for his father. But it's trail might. If he can track it back far enough…
He knew what he should do. He should return to his superiors like a dutiful soldier and request their clearance for his new mission. Of course, if he did go back to Prague, chances were Wolf wouldn't let him go to Venice, no matter what he said. And he definitely wouldn't give him a partner to do it with.
No, he has to go right now, if he is to go at all. He can send Osprey back with the recon team. He should send her back. To safety.
“Let's get out of here,” he said. “The recon squad must be about done as well. They'll give you a lift back to Prague.”
She looked at him, as if she was waging an inner war.
“I… I'd rather stay with you. Finish the mission,” she said after a moment.
He should have told her the mission was finished. He should have sent her home. But something in her eyes stopped him. Something in her eyes and that little worm of a voice in his own head, that whispered, that the trail he was about to track was strewn with magic. Magic he couldn't read.
But she can, he thought, almost despite himself. And she can handle herself too… for a rookie. And who is to say that my mission isn't the one that needs to be finished… by the two of us.
“In that case… I hope you like Venice,” he said, tucking away his gun and fishing out a phone from the small emergency pack he grabbed from her hands.