“Mr. Standridge, there’s been complications.”
“Mr. Merton, please don’t tell me the janitor took out our guys.”
“Actually, sir, he did. Two .22 rounds. Both in the head.”
“At least seventy yards, sir.”
“Where in blazes did he learn to shoot? Did we do a background check before we hired him?”
“We did. He worked at Starbucks for three years. That’s where he left from when we hired him.”
“Weird. Where were they?”
“Copperstone. He had a kid with him.”
“Couldn’t be older than fifteen.”
“Tell Summers his leash is off. Do whatever it takes to take out Butch McCallin.”
“And the boy?”
“And whoever else is with him.”
The Wind Kingdom. If they hadn’t seen it before, they would have thought its name had turned on itself. The entire capital was leveled.
According to Fredryk, captain of the Wind Guard, an army of wizards had come through and destroyed the place.
“We’re out of practice,” he said. “We all are. We should have seen this coming. We lay our swords down and say, ‘It’s just fine,’ and another opponent sees their chance and takes it.”
“And the king? Where is he?” Mikael asked.
“The king is dead.”
An eerie silence fell over the landscape.
“Dead. Their leader brought a chunk of the mountain on top of him. “
“Leader. Who was he?”
“I don’t know.”
“How many other casualties?”
“They weren’t after us. They were after what we guard.” Fredryk pointed to the mountain. “The portal is in the mountains. That’s where they went.”
“No less than a thousand.”
“Class?” Henrohf asked.
“Strongest probably fifteen, weakest six. Leader maybe twenty-three.”
“What do we do, your Highness?”
Delegon shrugged. “I may be over six thousand years old, but I’m not the one you should be asking.”
“He means me!” yelped Ximazu. “Surely you men have deduced that unless someone on the other side breaks the barrier, they cannot get through.”
“If you step into a blocked portal, you won’t get to the other side. You’ll just be at the other end until someone breaks it.”
“So they’re just waiting.”
“Unless the barrier has broken.”
“That doesn’t tell us anything.”
“You follow them, kids! You go in there and fight them.”
“And get ourselves killed?”
“You can’t die in the In-Between.”
“Then neither can they! What kind of a plan is this?”
“The kind that saves the Panthiverse.”
Mikael looked at Henrohf. “You up for it?”
Henrohf shrugged. “I do what you do. Only better.”
“Well, then. Fredryk, lead the way.”
The portal laid in a cave about a half mile down a trail in the mountains. There was little talking along the way, just the clop of the horses’ hooves on the rocky path.
“There it is, my friends,” said Fredryk. There was no more of the path. Just the multicolored entrance to a seemingly never-ending tube.
They had to practically yell over the noise it made, almost like a large waterfall. It looked to be twisting, giving it the appearance of colored sand being poured down a funnel.
“We’re going in there?” said Mikael.
“Not us,” said Delegon. “You. Our mission is here.”
“So there’s going to be the two of us fighting a thousand wizards at the end of a portal unaffected by time?”
“Pretty much,” said Ximazu.
“And we won’t be able to kill any of them.”
“Or you can stay here and let the Night’s Edge dominate the Panthiverse.”
“Point taken. Henrohf, are you ready?”
“As I’ll ever be. Though I’d kill for a last meal of roast chicken.”
“All right, then. What do we do when we get through?”
“Find the five children. Get the shards of Chryzthon. Find Tunkoh and stop him.”
“With all his power, do you think that will be possible?”
“Oh, yes. I forgot to give you this.”
Delegon walked to his horse, lifted the left side of the saddle, and withdrew a long object wrapped in canvas. “This has not been seen for over a century. It has cost me much to keep it hidden. But now I think it’s time to give it to its master.”
Mikael started to take off the canvas off.
“Don’t unveil it here. And do not lose it.”
Mikael didn’t understand, but he nodded and slid it into the back of his leather tunic.
“How will I know who the children are?”
“You’ll want to dive headfirst into the portal opening. If you don’t have enough speed, the force of the portal won’t carry you through,” said Ximazu.
Henrohf shifted. “That’s comforting. Mikael, how about you go first?”
Mikael nodded and stood about four yards from the portal. With three running steps, he jumped and dove headfirst into the tube, followed by Henrohf.
They didn’t touch the bottom of the portal. They just flew through it. It seemed to be made of crystal. The color of it was mostly deep, deep purple-black, but streaks of many other colors ran through it. They couldn’t tell how fast they were going, or how long it was. It felt like they went through in both an instant and an eternity. Whether that was because the other side was blocked or the portal was unaffected by time, Mikael didn’t know. But he knew that it was somehow material; he could see their objective in front of them. Around a thousand figures hovering in the portal. In front of them, the portal stopped abruptly. The barrier.
They drew their swords, knowing they wouldn’t do any good. They slowed, then finally stopped. Strange.
“Ah, there you are!”
They had only seen him once, but they hardly recognized him. His face and hands were ash black. Only circles around his eyes retained their original color.
“You honestly think you can oppose the Night’s Edge?”
“And you honestly think you can stop Ethsaren?”
Tunkoh chuckled. “Ethsaren will fall first. Just as the Night’s Edge defeated Asnarei, he will defeat Ethsaren. Then Kyrios, the most powerful.”
“Kyrios has the power to stop you the moment that barrier breaks.”
“Don’t make me laugh.” He lifted his hand and waved his fingers. A golden light swirled around it. “Even this small amount of Esiran is enough to keep Kyrios away from me. No, friends. The Night’s Edge will rule. And I beside him. Now I hate to say it, but you are in my way.” He thrust his hand out. Black light enveloped the pair, holding them in place. “I may not be able to kill you here, but I can keep you in one place until my friend cracks this wall.”
Movement wasn’t an option. Mikael’s muscles were strained to their limit, the work of Tunkoh’s borrowed power.
For reasons he didn’t know, Delegon’s words echoed in his ear: “You may need this…It’s time for it to find its true master.” Something behind him began shaking. It was the unknown object the Water King had given him. It pulled itself from his tunic and began to glow. Red. The brightest, strongest red Mikael had ever seen. And with one loud crack and a flash of light, the black power disappeared. As did the canvas around the object. The object was a sword.
Mikael followed his instinct and thrust his hand out for the sword. Both he and Henrohf (how they did it without anything to propel them, they would never know), threw themselves at Tunkoh. His soldiers watched as these two men attacked their leader, without so much as a drop of blood falling. Tunkoh again attempted to shroud them in darkness, but Mikael’s sword deterred it. Henrohf spun in the air and swung his foot into Tunkoh’s face, buying enough time for Mikael to grab him and push him into the wall of the portal, which he noticed was, in fact, material. “What do you hope to gain by all this, Tunkoh?”
“You don’t seem to understand, Mikael. When I have the Esiran, I will be strong enough to defeat the Night’s Edge myself. No one will have the power to oppose me. Now I’m sorry, but as I said before, you are in my way.” He copied Henrohf’s spin kick and slammed his foot into Mikael’s temple, then executed the same move to Henrohf.
Mikael’s vision blurred. He knew he couldn’t die here, or so Ximazu had said, but maybe he could be struck unconscious. It was very possible…
“This isn’t a good idea. How do we know the file is even here?”
“All you have to do is put this into a high-level executive’s computer,” Butch said, handing her a small, square box. A USB plug stuck from the end. “A box will appear that has two options, ‘Upload’ and ‘Cancel’. Don’t worry about all the fancy text above it, just click Upload. In a few seconds, you’ll have access to Merton’s email server. Search for ‘Project Ironthorn Details’, no spaces, right-click and click ‘Download to drive’. Then come back out.”
Robert, Brianna, and Butch—Now identified as Alex Williams—sat in the small silver Ford Focus across the street from the spacious parking lot of Standridge Enterprises’ main facility. The idea was to send in Brianna with a hidden camera, pose as a worker, and find the Ironthorn file. She was beginning to have second thoughts.
Brianna stared at Butch, deadpan.
“I’ll repeat it once you’re inside.”
“What if I get caught?”
“I’ll be right behind you. And you’ll be able to contact me through the earpiece.”
“Right. You’ll tell me how to pull a triple air kick on the spot.”
“I mean, if you don’t want to find it, then I can go get it and get us all killed.”
“Whatever. What kind of worker should I pose as?”
“Janitor. You’ll have a surprisingly broad scope of access.”
“And try not to use the pistol.”
“And don’t draw attention to yourself.”
“And if you get caught-”
“I get the idea.” She popped the door. “Here goes nothing.”
Butch opened the computer they had brought and pulled up the feed from Brianna’s hidden camera. “Let’s hope she doesn’t-Oh, crud. Brianna, you don’t go through the main door.”
Her voice crackled through the computer. “I figured it would be less conspicuous.”
“Well, yeah, but you can’t exactly nab a uniform that way.”
“Good point. How do you suppose I get through the fence here?”
“Is the gate unlocked?”
She walked to the gate and tried the latch. “Open.”
The camera showed Brianna step through the gate and shut it behind her with a loud screech. “Next?”
“Find whichever back door appears to be used the least.”
Though Robert had seen many buildings during his search across Arizona, none had been as large as this one. It had to be over ten stories high. “How big is this company?”
“Hundreds of millions a month. Several hundred minor facilities in each-Brianna, the door on your left. Try it.”
Brianna turned left and turned the knob on a rusty door. “Won’t budge.”
“Lean over so the camera points at the ground.”
The computer showed the damp concrete in front of Brianna’s feet.
“Doesn’t look like it’s used much. Kick it.”
“Just the knob. It’s fairly rusty and it looks loose.”
Robert leaned into the front seat. “Uncle Butch, are you sure this is a good idea?”
“I thought the idea was to be silent.”
“This door is our best bet. Now use that muscle I know you have and kick the doorknob off.”
“Well, here goes…” the camera feed when fuzzy for a moment, then cleared up. “Ouch.”
“Yeah. The door’s open.”
“Okay, take the next left and go through the door that says ‘staff only.’”
“Is that safe?”
“Of course it’s safe. If you see anyone, just tell them you’re the new hire.”
The camera showed Brianna take a left and pass two doors, then swing open a set of double doors with ‘STAFF ONLY’ in bold letters. The room she walked into was filled with shelves upon shelves of boxes. Several workers sauntered across the room pushing dollies laden with boxes, others holding clipboards or tools. “I think we’ve got the wrong room.”
“We weren’t aiming for a particular room. Go tell someone who appears to have status that you’re the new janitor and don’t know where to go.”
Brianna approached a man in a tidy suit and began to talk to him. A puzzled look crossed his face, then he pointed behind her and said something too soft to be picked up by Brianna’s earpiece. She turned around and walked for the door.
“What’d he say?”
“Seven doors…this hall…I thought…busted…minute…”
“What? Brianna, can you hear me? You’re breaking up.”
“Uncle Butch, I can’t…wrong…are…” Nothing.
Butch took off his headset. “So much for that.”
“Our crummy equipment malfunctioned. Knew that stupid earpiece wasn’t worth thirty bucks.”
“But how’s she going to get through?”
“She’ll have to do it on her own.”
The earpiece had stopped working. She had lost communication with the only person who knew what he was doing. She had an overwhelming urge to go back to the car, but she knew what she had to do now. She had to finish this.
Then again, she had no clue what she was finishing.
She followed the man’s advice and opened the seventh door down the hall. Brooms, mops, and other cleaning devices she had never seen before lined the walls of a small room. Several neon green vests hung on the left side of the wall, one of which she grabbed and slipped over her head. She pulled out a mop bucket and put a mop and paper towels in it, hoping no one would notice that it didn’t have water in it, then shut the door and pushed the bucket down the hall. She nearly collided with a woman stepping out of a door.
“Sorry.” She started to walk past.
“Oh, who are you, honey?”
“I’m the new hire.”
“Oh. Well, there’s a mess outside Standridge’s office. Some dope tipped the coffee cart.”
“Yeah, coffee cart. Twenty-first floor, outside Standridge’s office. Number one hundred seventy-one. You can use the elevator.”
“Sure.” Brianna nudged the bucket to the elevator and pushed the ‘up’ button. Ten seconds later, three men stepped out and walked past her without a glance. She pushed the bucket into the elevator and pushed the number 21. She couldn’t believe she was actually headed for this man named Standridge who would kill her without a thought if he knew what she was doing. Then again, she did have the pistol Butch had given her. She could make him give her the file. But she didn’t know how long it would take to get back to the first floor. She would just have to wait for an opportunity.
“What’s she doing?”
“She’s going right towards him.”
“The main facility.”
“Why not just gun him down right here?”
“Because that’s not how it works, kid. You take out Standridge, another person just like him will fill the gap.”
“You think the file is with him?”
“I guess we’ll find out.”
The twenty-first floor was quite different from the first, though the offices were set up in a strange fashion; they reminded Brianna of a hotel. The floor was short carpet, not yellowed tile like such which composed the first floor. The walls were painted yellow-brown, and the doors were dark crimson. All except the one hundred seventy-first one, which was stained dark brown on the bottom. Paper cups, coffee, cream, sugar, battery powered coffee maker, and spoons all over the carpet. The spilled coffee cart.
Right outside Franklin Standridge’s office.
She kept her fingers crossed that he would leave the office for several minutes so she could get to his computer . But she wasn’t sure that someone as important as him would have anything important enough to get him out. She could use the pistol, but Butch had said that was a last resort. If only she could communicate with him…
“What on earth is she doing?”
“Looks like she’s cleaning up a mess of coffee materials.”
“No, I mean she’s right outside Standridge’s office. What’s she doing there?”
“Well, if she’s trying to pose as a janitor, she would have to clean stuff up, right?”
“They wouldn’t use mop buckets on this floor. You can’t mop carpet very well. The bucket’s a dead giveaway.”
Butch reversed the tape, then paused it as Brianna was looking up. “That man walking towards her.”
“What about him?”
“That’s Kaleb Summers.”
“I thought you laid him out in Chicago?”
“What’s he doing here?”
“Probably looking for me.” He picked up the headset, switched it on, then off, then on again. “Brianna? Brianna, can you hear me?” He took it off, then opened the glove box and pulled out the .22 Robert had given him. “I’m going in. You stay here.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“You’re supposed to stay in the car.”
“Stay in the car.” He slammed the door and Robert locked it. Robert watched Butch practically sprint to the gate, then grabbed the computer and set it in his lap. He saw that Butch might be too late; Kaleb was talking to Brianna.
“Who are you?”
“The new hire. Someone sent me up here.”
“Hm. I didn’t know Standridge hired a new janitor.”
“You’re standing in the coffee.”
“Oh. Sorry.” The man stepped back.
“What’s your name?”
A pause. Butch wouldn’t want her to give her real name.
“Kaleb. Kaleb Summers.”
Brianna’s heart skipped a beat, but she kept calm.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have business with the president.” He stepped around the mess and into Standridge’s office. Part of her knew she should ditch the mess and run for it, but the other part knew she had to act natural. Butch was watching; he would come if she needed help.
No one recognized him. Yet. But he hadn’t seen but three people. He had gone through the rusty door, through the hall, and made a wrong turn. Now he had to go back and find the elevator.
A security guard stopped him. “Sir, do you have clearance for this area?”
Clearance? “Yeah, it’s…” He pretended to search his pockets. “I must have dropped it in here.” He walked into a room not five yards from him, followed by the security guard. He looked under the chairs and tables while the security guard eyed him suspiciously. “Maybe under that cabinet…” He walked to the file cabinet just beside the guard and quickly smacked the guard’s head against it hard enough to put him to sleep. “Sorry, bud. You seem like a nice guy.” He hurried to the elevator. If anyone was watching the security feed, they had seen the last twenty seconds.
From what he had seen, Brianna had gone to the twenty-first floor. If he was wrong, he would be too late.
The first office outside the elevator was numbered ninety-two. He had to be in the right place. Ninety-three…one hundred three…one hundred nineteen. Then the hall split.
On the right, the numbers rose. They also rose on the left, but the letter ‘B’ was added. And behind him, security guards were coming out the elevator. He went right. Heavy footsteps fell behind him. One hundred thirty-seven. Another right. The guards were still making the other turn. He bumped into a woman carrying a stack of paper and nearly lost his footing, but caught himself and kept running without apologizing. The door on his right read one hundred fifty-eight; he was almost there. He slowed to a walk after he turned the next corner. It turned out that he wasn’t too late after all. Brianna was still stooped outside Standridge’s office. He jogged over to her.
“Time’s up, Brianna. We need to go.”
“Uncle Butch, the man was-”
“Summers, I know. You need to go. Take off the jacket and go back the way I came.”
“He went this way!” The guards’ voices carried through the halls.
“And you brought security with you.”
“If they knew what we were doing, they’d be on our side. Now get out of this building.”
“You say that as if you weren’t staying.”
“I’m not. I have to check the office. The keys and your brother are in the car. If I’m not back in ten minutes, go back to the house.”
“Without me. Tell the guards I’m crazy and tried to kidnap you or something.”
“So they don’t think we’re together. Try to stall them. Get!” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. She followed his instructions, handing him her gun as she passed. “You’ll need it.” He nodded. As soon as she turned the corner, he stood at the edge of the doorframe and kicked the toppled cart across the hall. Seconds later, the door opened and a man’s face came out the door, searching for the source of the noise. Butch swiftly threw his fist into his jaw and his foot into his knee. He was quickly repaid by the man’s fist flying into his chest. It was Summers. “I knew you were behind this, you-”
Kaleb’s stall cost him. Butch hammered his fist into his gut five times, pinning him against the wall. Summers swung his elbow into Butch’s ribs, throwing him to the opposite wall. Summers reached behind him and withdrew a knife from underneath his suit, now stained with blood from his mouth. Butch ducked to avoid a slash in the neck that tore into the wall instead. He jumped to his feet and grabbed Summers’ wrist before he could make another move, then bent his hand backwards to make him drop the knife.
“That’s quite enough, Butch.”
A man was standing at the door of the office, arms folded. Butch let go of Kaleb’s arm.
“I don’t know what sort of misunderstanding this is, but I’m sure it can be sorted out. Step into the office, please. Kaleb, drop the knife.”
Butch followed instructions. Where the guards had gone, he had no idea. He actually wished they had caught him now.
The office was large. There were three massive desks, a small refrigerator, a television, microwave, and sink. It looked more like a small house. A window overlooked the thousands of cars filling the black parking lot.
“Have a seat.”
“What is this, some setup where you tell me I’ve failed and then shoot me where I stand?”
“By no means, my boy. Unless you wish to make it that.”
Butch sat down. Only now did he have a chance to take a good look at the man. He was tall compared to Butch and could probably have made use of a treadmill for a few weeks. His hair was white, but he wasn’t wrinkled. He didn’t look to be a day over forty-five.
“You’re Franklin Standridge?”
“I’m afraid that file was labeled “Confidential” for a reason.”
“Why would you need to hide it from your employees?”
“To keep it out of the press, my boy! It’s called ‘business’. You start producing a new product and hide it from your competitors.”
“Yeah. I’m sure.”
“Goodness, you will take some convincing, won’t you? Been reading too many novels? Want to put those law books you’ve read into action?”
“I’m just trying to figure out why I was almost killed for that file.”
“He nearly put a bullet in my head in the Los Angeles facility.” He pointed to Kaleb. “That’s where I found the file. I knocked him out.”
“Well, I thought he was…that is, umm…”
“I can assure you, Mr. McCallin, that I did not have any knowledge of my head of security’s actions. Nor do I have any ill intent here.”
“If you don’t, then you have a lot of explaining to do.”
“He tried to kill me because I had a confidential file. And it doesn’t take a genius to know that your head of security would be well informed enough to know not to shoot employees in the head based on whether they saw a secret file. Make sense?”
“I can see your logic and your skepticism, Butch. Maybe I’ll just have to show you.” He opened his desk and pulled out a cream yellow folder. He placed his gun on the desk gently. “This is Project Ironthorn. A physical copy of the email you saw. It’s a new tech that takes more explaining then I have time for. It’s going to begin a new era of–well, everything. It will change the world.”
“All due respect, Mr. Standridge, but this doesn’t explain anything.”
“My boy, how about I stick to fixing the world and you stick to your lawbooks.”
“I’m still a little skeptical.”
“That’s fine. Everyone’s skeptical. You just worry about your life and that sweet little family sitting in the Ford Focus outside, and you’ll hear about Ironthorn everywhere you go when we’re finished. Do you think you could see yourself out?”
Butch nodded and rose from his seat. He still knew they were up to something; Standridge knew too many details that he wouldn’t if what he was saying was true. But if he went for his gun, he’d be dead before he could put a bullet through either of them. Not that that would accomplish anything. But he still needed the file. He observed the room; it was large enough to do a few kicks. He could put Standridge to sleep and take the gun out of Kaleb’s hands before they could blink. It would be easy; jump, spin, and three well-placed kicks, and they’d both be unconscious. But there was the problem of security. There was a camera in the corner. He wouldn’t make it to the elevator.
“What are you waiting for, Mr. McCallin? Did you want some coffee before you left?”
He had no choice. He threw himself into the air, focused his momentum into his legs, and threw his right foot across Standridge’s head. His body thumped onto the desk. He came back down, crouched, as three silenced bullets flew over his head. He readjusted and aimed his foot at Kaleb’s hands. Just before the gun fell into the corner, something stung his foot and shoulder. He had been hit.
Don’t panic. One more airborne kick was blocked by Kaleb’s forearm. His other arm grabbed Butch’s leg and twisted. Butch spun and fell face-down on the floor. His other foot smashed into Kaleb’s face before he could move again. The kick bought enough time for him to get up and pull his gun. He didn’t fire, but a quick smack put Summers on the floor. He put the gun back into his waistband.
The file lay on the desk beside Standridge’s head. Butch picked it up and opened it. It was identical to the file he saw in Los Angeles. It was at least fifteen pages of graphs, mathematical equations, and ten-syllable words that Butch had never heard. But he had the file. Now he needed someone who could read it.
A blaring noise interrupted his thoughts. An alarm. He had to get out. One step reminded him that his foot had a hole in it. He limped as he ran to the door. Just before his hand contacted the knob, something popped, and pain shot through his arm. Another pop, and his hip stung. His legs gave out underneath him. It seemed he hadn’t hit Kaleb hard enough.
“Give me the file, McCallin. We could easily put you in prison for this.”
“And I’m certain I could too,” Butch said in between breaths.
“Give me the file.”
“Come and get it.” Butch lunged to the window and began to throw the file out. Kaleb squeezed off another shot that plowed through his right thigh. The folder fell out of his hands and spilled across the floor. Kaleb jumped for it and grabbed most of the pages, but two pages were caught by Butch. He smashed his hand through the window and dropped the pages out the door, tearing ribbons into his arms. Kaleb shouted and kneed Butch in the head. Butch fell, limp, onto the short carpet.
Kaleb walked three steps to the door and locked it. The guards wouldn’t be coming. He looked back at Butch. “You should have obeyed.” He fired a bullet through his own arm, grunted. “Gotta make it look real,” he said. He pointed the gun at Butch, who was too weak to resist. “Goodbye, Mr. McCallin.” The gun bucked in his hand, and Butch saw nothing else.