. . . world in crisis. What was presumed to be death by natural causes of a Nigerian scientist has been at the heart of an investigation that has brought the world to the edge of war. Britain’s prime minister said today that it was “highly likely” that Moscow was to blame for what turned out to be the poisoning of the keynote speaker of the European trade conference, and that the Russians would face serious reprisals. The Russians accused the scientist of being an arms trader and say they were preventing the dissemination of critical technology into the hands of enemies too close to its borders. As allies continue to take sides and maneuver to protect their interests, oil prices have spiked due to the tensions and uncertainty. The situation threatens to edge toward a point of no return . . .
The radio snapped off as soon as she entered her living room. A man in a hand-tailored suit sat in the chair furthest from the door. Two more men—stockier, with a military bearing—remained standing while flanking him. She’d been told to expect a meeting. “And you are?”
“Who I am doesn’t matter. Consider me your main contact at our agency.”
“You have a hint of an accent. Eastern Europe, perhaps? Let me guess, former section chief of some sort. Gone into the private sector, judging from your expensive taste in suits.”
“You’ve done well in the private sector yourself. Sorry to drop in on you on such short notice, but things are about to go off the rails.” The man shifted to keep her in view as she looped the room to approach her drink cart.
“I don’t believe in being bombarded with bad news until at least my second cup of coffee.” She poured herself a finger of brandy.
“That’s not coffee.”
“That’s why I’m in charge of scheduling my mornings.” The woman took a seat on her sofa. The brown leather couch was custom created by a Milan-based architect and designer. It had an American Walnut frame with X-shaped-sides and a curved back. The cushions were down-filled, stitched with kangaroo twine. “How bad is it?”
“You’ve heard the news. Let’s just say . . . bad.” The man crossed his legs and bridged his fingers in front of him. But she’d dealt with narcissistic CEOs and self-aggrandizing politicians for most of her corporate career. “National security basically boils down to a vast network of relationships. We prefer information to be contained. Compartmentalized. Controlled.”
“You don’t like to share your toys. I get it. However, if you could veer towards a point?”
“We have an eye on your asset. The one in the game.”
“My carefully cultivated, well-placed asset?” A derisive snort escaped her lips. “Do you have any idea how difficult it was to approach this particular asset? Do the background work up, character analysis, psychological profile?”
“We understand. But money only gets you so far.”
“The slightest mis-step and the asset gets removed from play.”
“Your asset would remain yours. We simply want to enter into a partnership with you. We just want an opportunity to observe and assess the asset, and more important, their intel. Perhaps press the asset into further service. Perhaps beyond your agreed upon parameters. For the greater good, of course.”
She tipped her glass to them. Her mind raced to figure a way out of the corner they were trying to pin her into. “It’s always about the greater good.”
Dante | Class: Bladed Guardian | Level: 7
HP: 32/116 | Status: Normal
XP: 24,280 | Next Level: 28,000
The numbers 0:59:47 flashed overhead.
Ben was dead.
His chest had been reduced to an open maw of embedded icicles, the wound staunched only because his blood had frozen along the surface, coloring the ice shards a terrible shade of pink. His body a strange tableau, a posed piece of performance art, reminding Dante of one of his action figures dashed against rocks, its limbs canted out at odd angles.
“Ben,” Dante whispered, his low voice thick with shock and with the near reverence of an unuttered prayer.
Nothing about the scene made any sense to Dante. He hesitated, waiting for his friend to rise up, cup his head to still its ringing, and complain about the sloppy gameplay. Etta crawled over to where Ben had fallen, sacrificing himself to save her. She cradled his battered form, pointlessly checking for a pulse even though his health bar was on clear display to all.
Olenka, the Russian mage, began to gesture again. Pure theater, Dante guessed. The amount of mana she’d already expended in her initial attacks couldn’t have left her with much left to spend. Any trace of the familiarity between them was gone, replaced by an impassive grimace. Part...