EXIT POINT: Homeworld
Maesik 3 had entry ramps at every level, making it the perfect target for a multi-pronged assault. But they had to be very careful not to let anyone past them, or it would be trivial for someone to slip out with their target object and disappear into skyway traffic.
They had one shot at this. If anything went wrong there might be no recourse.
Kas slipped on his MajEye lens, bringing up an overlay of local spells. He let out a low whistle. He’d seen high-security protection schemas before, but never this close up. Outermost, a solid wall of force pushed back anyone attempting to enter. The first obstacle.
Lazlo strode up to the wards around the spire and began setting off his accessories in pale flashes of subdued light and suppressed pops. Some magic was silent but bright, other spells gave off sound or heat but no light. Most household magitech deliberately focused on visible rather than audio epiphenomenon, but combat and infiltration rarely had time for such subtleties. Doing the job right mattered more than doing it prettily.
Lazlo pressed into the forcefield as it gathered its strength at the contact point. Kas could see it thinning out the surrounding section in order to focus fully on repelling the would-be invader. He almost didn’t notice as Agneza gathered power around her fingertip, then sliced it through the thinnest section of the forcefield in a single swift stroke. The outer shield twisted and bucked, the incision warping it out of shape as it continued to strain to hold out Lazlo. Agneza slipped through the twisted opening unobstructed.
Kas stood for a moment, lost in admiration, then Lazlo cleared his throat. “Oh, right.” Kas scurried after Agneza. One day, he’d be the one slicing shields.
Lazlo made no move to join them. “Um, is he not coming?”
“He’ll be along. Recharge.”
Kas tapped the pocket storage on and passed her one. She crushed the fragile outer shell of the concentrated mana booster, power flickering briefly up her arm as her body integrated the influx of pure mana, but her other hand was already working on the next layer of defences. This one was less visible even to his MajEye, more a heat-shimmer of darkness. Mana traps, Ziv had mentioned? They were an uncommon defence choice, as unlike most forcefields and wards they couldn’t be attuned to specific individuals.
There were two ways of breaking a mana trap. Overwhelm it, or reconfigure it. The first took an obscene amount of pure energy, while the latter required finesse and a lot of time.
Kas passed it over. Agneza clearly opted for fast over elegant. Kas was a little disappointed not to see a proper mana trap breaking, but it was a job, after all.
This time he focused the MajEye on Agneza herself, watching her estimated energy levels drop, and passed her another recharge before she had to ask.
By the time the mana trap overloaded and dissipated in shreds of disconnected shadow, Lazlo had finished his own wrestling match with the outer forcefield. A quick glance back at it showed the section of shield had been warped completely out of shape, leaving a wide opening in place of the careful slit Agneza had created.
Kas berated himself for losing track of his job and passed it to Agneza. He glanced at Lazlo, but the man’s many enchanted items interfered with the MajEye and Kas couldn’t get a read on his energy levels. He’d have to ask if he wanted anything.
“Are there any alarms?” Kas asked as Lazlo strode up to the inner shield, a rippling wall of sharpened force spikes that spun in irregular arcs. The outer forcefield kept people out; this one could tear them apart. It didn’t have any obvious vulnerabilities, no weak or strong spots. It was hard to tell if it was a single field at all.
Lazlo chuckled. “Stand back.” He took a step back, rolled his shoulders, then tucked his head and charged the spinning spike wall at a sprint. He smashed into it, barely slowed down as a pulse of sound like a gong vibrated through, clearing a perfect circle around him and leaving an open tunnel through.
“Quick,” Agneza said, slipping through the opening. Already, Kas saw the remaining blades sliding in to fill the gap, and he ducked in after her.
There were several more layers of defences to get through, but Kas didn’t learn much from observing his teammates. Either Lazlo had items on his person specially prepared to deal with that sort of barrier, or Agneza dismantled them with swift efficiency. Though it felt slow, they actually were moving fast, only taking a few grains on each shield or trap. They reached their assigned entry door third, behind the team with the Silverheart and ahead of two other groups.
One complicated lock later, and they stepped inside. Kas swayed dizzily as a flood of unregulated energy immediately hit him like a wall of compressed air.
“That’s different,” Lazlo commented. But apparently the phenomenon wasn’t different enough to catch him unprepared. He tapped one of his armbands and the atmosphere thinned noticeably, the tight-thrumming weight of it evaporating. Kas gasped for air, breathing easier now.
“Entry point 4 success,” Agneza reported on her relay. “Moving up.”
Kas couldn’t hear whatever response she received, as it would be transmitted directly to her by the mental link.
“Confirmed.” Agneza closed the link. “We head left whenever possible.” She held out a hand and Kas handed her another recharge. He’d never seen anyone burn through them so fast. No wonder he’d had to bring so many.
Their assigned ingress avoided the front desk or indeed the entire reception levels, the entry ramp having taken them up toward an employee-only approach. Warning signals fizzled around the vestibule, which Agenza quickly shut down.
Their forcible entrance had already alerted the Maesik employees, the administrative personnel abandoning the interior offices in droves. Distant, purposeful chatter echoed back at them as the staff evacuated, the glow of various enchanted paraphernalia littering desks filled with stacks of scrolls and filing tomes. Large glass windows two storeys high revealed the dazzling heart of the Zha Doya commercial district; rays reflecting off shining glass and silversteel, the Skyway winding between huge radiant fern flowers furling and unfurling in midair as they followed the sun.
Nothing here evoked interest. They bore left and up, further into the tower. Administrative desks gave way to private offices and supply storage, quarters becoming closer and cramped. Every so often Agneza would check in to keep them on track. Sometimes in unexpected ways. As they scouted a somewhat unremarkable series of chambers, she paused and gestured swiftly to an unobtrusive door at the back Kas hadn’t even noticed. “That way.”
They moved up a flight of stairs and into another nondescript poorly lit hall.
Lazlo led the way, pausing at each door to search beyond, but most on this level weren’t even pretending to have traps or protections. None boasted more than a basic lock that even Kas could have opened in moments. For a research facility, it seemed awfully bereft of equipment or personnel. Kas began to wonder if the client was wrong, if this was another decoy with all the defences on the outside and nothing worth stealing inside. Perhaps the downstairs was rented to some other company to provide a veneer of activity and draw attention away from some other facility where their target resided.
Then Lazlo opened a door and everything abruptly dimmed. Intense feedback completely consumed Kas’ senses, too many spells in too close proximity overloading his MajEye. The device destabilised, shrieking and flickering with meaningless feedback. Kas cursed and yanked it off, blinking away the afterimages to point at the far corner of the room. “There. Definitely there.”
He’d gotten no sense of what the defences were, only a cascade of complex wards so thick it concealed its nature by sheer quantity.
The MajEye hissed feebly as its charge leaked away, fried and useless now. But while a valuable tool, it wasn't irreplaceable. Kas closed his eyes and focused on his own internal reserves, forcing mana down familiar paths until he felt it burn behind his eyelids. More still he sent to the tips of his pinched hands, drawing them up and apart as he released the excess between the L of each thumb and the rest of his fingers. He could feel the tension shimmering between them, thin and easily broken.
Finally, he opened his eyes. Sparks rained down harmlessly around the edge of his vision as excess undirected mana burnt away, much like it flared around his fingertips. Compared to the MajEye, his mana-enhanced vision could only pick up a fraction of the detail, but the sheer strength of the wards was still enough to cause damage. The screen he now held in place protected his eyes from the worst of the fry but his vision watered nonetheless, unbidden tears welling up and dribbling down the outside of both cheeks.
He estimated he could hold it for a couple of minutes before his reserves ran out.
“Requesting backup on standby,” Agneza said down the relay, followed by a series of raps on the orb. Through his mana vision, Kas could see it emitting a series of subdued beacon-like pulses transmitting their location to friendly relays. “We’ve found something.”
One whole corner of the room held enough wards to drop one entire C team of the kind Kas had been part of in the past, he felt sure. Now that he could actually see it, he was able to pinpoint more forcefields, another mana trap, and a hilariously ineffective stealth ward like the PinDrop utterly failing to disguise the location in any way. Unless, he considered uncomfortably, the security was just that powerful that only a fraction of its presence was being felt.
“This can’t be it,” Agneza observed. “Maesik know better than to leave a high-value target unattended. I call decoy.”
“Expensive decoy,” Lazlo whistled. Like Kas, his eyes burnt with mana, though whatever enchantments he wore seemed enough to adequately protect them. “Regardless, we have to investigate.”
“Do we?” Agneza frowned. “I smell shenanigans. These are business hours. This floor should be full of people. Even if they caught wind in time to evacuate personnel, there should be more evidence they were working here. Dropped belongings and the like. Instead, unless we’re looking at the world’s tidiest employees, I’d hazard no one’s been in here for a while.” She sighed. “How fast do you think we can demolish that thing?”
Lazlo opened his mouth to respond, then froze, a dismayed expression darting across his face. “Blud,” he swore vehemently, sparks clearing from his eyes as his mana faded.
“Let’s just do it,” Agneza said. “Check it off the list and -”
“No.” Lazlo’s voice rang hollow. “Blud. Blud’s Delusion. This isn’t real.” He swore again, this time for real, and whirled on Kas. “Get me a stack of surgers. Every second we waste in this deception is a second we might be dying out in the real world.”
Agneza’s eyes widened. She tapped her relay orb. Mana flared. “It’s true,” she confirmed after a moment. “Our logs stopped updating the moment we entered that last stairwell.”
“And no one thought to mention that to us?” Lazlo growled. “Kas!”
Kas jumped, practically throwing the surger he’d been handling into Lazlo’s waiting arms. Seeing the expression on the big man’s face, he tossed another three across as an afterthought.
His mind whirled. Blud’s Delusion was a high-tier ambush measure, one more commonly heard about on entertainment relays than actual practical missions. Supposedly it attacked the minds of everyone within a localised radius, trapping them in an artificial world of the owner’s specification, although the immense power required meant those worlds were necessarily small. In this case the owners had been clever, imitating reality enough to keep them unaware of their predicament, even providing a tantalising lure to keep them occupied for grains at a time.
If the relays were to be believed, he, Lazlo and Agneza would all still be at the bottom of the stairs, sitting ducks for whoever came after them. You weren’t supposed to encounter measures of this scale at Rank B.
You weren’t supposed to encounter them at all.
Lazlo crushed one surger after another until his entire forearms glowed with mana. Without waiting to be told, Kas passed him more. He crushed those too. Shells littered the floor under his feet. Power pulsed out in waves of discordant sound, rebounding off the enchantments on Lazlo’s armor and echoing back from the interior of the Blud’s Delusion radius.
“It’s big,” Lazlo grunted, waving a hand. Kas wordlessly passed him a dozen more surgers, which he crushed all at once. The pulse of unstable mana made Kas dizzy, and then the illusionary room disappeared.
Light and sound crashed in on him, of an entirely different nature than that which had been trapped with them in the bubble of false reality. Shouts and quick motion, footsteps and the clash of blade, the sizzle and hiss and flash of spells being cast.
They stood in the middle of a full-on battle.