I awoke to the sound of chirping birds, having flocked onto the many branches extending from this forested region of the Ebbridge estate. It must have midnight, or at the very least something close, as I levered myself to a standing position and immediately scanned for the Neke woman that must have dumped me here. I found her leaning against a particularly sturdy oak, wearing a newly made set of green robes in a choice that I couldn't help but analyze even as she straightened herself out of the lean to face me. It likely meant that she'd possessed enough time during my unconsciousness to deal with her vanity, considering most warriors with the sort of utilitarian style. But then, I suppose that arrogance would make sense, considering she'd had the time to move me to the one place I couldn't afford to be found at.
"I see you're back, then. Good. We've got some things to discuss." the woman said as she paced in front of me like some Humdrum boot camp instructor, her voice all-too-casual for someone who should have been concerned about an unbound projector prisoner. "I won't be revealing my real name to you- there've been too many close calls, especially with hair-trigger projectors like you- but you can call me the Rose Titan. Though, seriously, what is it with your reckless- " Apt, I supposed. But as she'd paced, even despite the healthy distance she kept from me to avoid my Vocation, I'd seen her robe shift, moving in a way that only one fabric did- silk.
I tuned her out to focus on my silk projection, unable to multitask without my Vocation's puppets. As I reached my projection senses out, I was startled to find that absolutely no silk was present anywhere within my physical projection range. It made no sense! Even if the Rose Titan's robe wasn't silk like I'd thought, I'd placed enough caches of silk strands throughout the grounds that, even if I couldn't use them without revealing my presence and the accompanying violation of the Ousting's terms, they should have at least registered to my projection sense. As the Rose Titan monologued, advising me with some generic saying about recklessness, I continued to tune her out to focus on my projection, and I suddenly reached a realization- we were in an illusion. Just like when Samuel and Eliya had been tricked by that untrained Lowtown illusionist into fighting each other while on patrol last week, I was being put in a scenario that my kidnapper thought would pacify me.
But even if the Rose Titan could fool my projection senses, the indiscriminate nature of my Vocation meant it wouldn't be fooled as easily. I'd like to see how long she could last trying to maintain an illusion over the billions of bugs under my control! My plan resolved, I idly tuned in to the Rose Titan's babbling a split second before activating my Vocation.
"-and you haven't been listening at all, have you, you ungrateful-"
My Vocation activated, and the dissonance between the two scenes I was seeing stunned me for almost a full second before the insect's mental energy fueled my Vocation's general Praxis enhancement enough to deal with it. My current radius was centered in the middle of Hightown, and even as I pulled my insects into the luxury condominium at its center I could see my body laying unconscious on a soft mauve sofa as the Rose Titan pressed her hand to my forehead through the multifaceted eyes of the fruit flies feeding the Rose Titan's fruit bowl. I coalesced my current insects into a black, shifting outline of my body from before the Oust as I did my best to speak through them, buzzing out, "Release my body from the illusion, Rose Titan, or suffer the consequences."
Immediately, while the illusion's Rose Titan remained calm, her real-life body grimaced in annoyance. Speaking to my swarm rather than in the illusion, she sighed , rubbing her brow with the hand not occupied exerting her the illusion on me. "You know, that Vocation of yours has got to be one of the most annoying gimmicks I've ever dealt with. I'll do it, but I would like to note that it's a dream world, not an illusion. Your mind shouldn't even be able to perceive minds beyond itself, let alone control them!"
Not for the first time grateful for my Vocation's indiscriminate nature, I cautiously watched through my bugs as the Rose Titan lifted her hand away, and I could feel my Pith emerge back into my body from hers. Judging by her expression, she wasn't particularly happy with her current circumstances. Pushing off the couch's left arm into a sitting position, I could feel myself calm down at the familiar circumstances of a fair fight against a resentful opponent, albeit one which seemed likely to be settled with words, rather than violence. I began the conflict. "Now that we're on more equal terms, why did you help me back there?"
The Rose Titan didn't answer for a while, instead taking sips from the teacup which had been sitting on the end table beside the overstuffed red armchair she had reclined into after releasing me. Her resentful expression slowly disappeared with each sip as she calmed herself, likely with the aid of a learned Praxis Vocation.
Once her emotions had settled, her tranquil voice flowed out, her words as smooth as glass as she answered, "Long story short, Paragon's head of counterintelligence, Isaac Brin, is hiring mercenaries for off-the-books operations. One of our main recruiting pools is Ousted youth, and though your Oust was about as fishy as the Eight Oceans, Isaac decided to push your name to the top of my recruiting list with subtext even I can read as 'VIP, recruit ASAP'. Then, in what I'm sure is a total coincidence, I run into you after he assigns me to tail Kahlin, and I'm forced to save your ass so he doesn't skewer me on his darts. I knock you out before the rest of Kahlin's bodyguards can arrive, try to explain the situation in my dream world, but you freak out and now we're here. That sum things up for you?"
So the only reason I'm still alive is because Eliya's dad wants me for his black-ops squad. It's an odd method for helping me, but I can't help but thank Eliya for however she managed to finagle this miracle. But all that info-dump leaves out two important facts. "If I decide to join this group, what operations would I be performing? And who would I be doing them with?" I know the first question gives my intention away, but hopefully the second question would distract from it, and either way if Professor Brin planned my run-in with the Rose Titan, he must know of my plans for Afzal Kahlin, so it didn't really matter long-term.
The Rose Titan snorted. "Look, judging by what we heard last night, we couldn't justify ignoring the Broadcast King if we tried. Feel free to pursue him, just keep it in the scope of what we ask you to investigate. As to the team, we've already got its leader lined up. I believe you know her?" Tossing a file onto my lap, I opened it to see a face I couldn't help but instantly recognize.
"Explain. Now. Why would Professor Brin want the psychotic body snatcher that maimed his daughter to lead his team of secret military commandos?"
I understood why the Rose Titan snorted now. This must be hilarious to her, giving the bad news about her future leader being the one that dismembered her best friend and kneecapped her (albeit rather unfaithful) former fiancé.
"Isn't it obvious? Brin wants someone disposable to scapegoat if your group ever get caught and he needs to save himself. And, I'd imagine, he's confident that any issues she might have in terms of loyalty can be dealt with so long as you, with your living privacy nightmare of a Vocation, remain by her side."
The thought was a tempting one. Getting the chance to take down the holder of our family debt while simultaneously keeping your skills sharp in defense of the nation, with that extra bonus of exacting vengeance on the one who'd hurt Eliya. But my shattered remnants of memory from my first life told a different story. Back then, I'd joined a group of people I'd thought of as just as scummy as this woman in hopes of taking them down from the inside, but by the end of it, I'd slept with their leader and had conquered a city. I knew all too well how these things could spiral out of control, and that was without even counting how their sketchy boss had forced me to kill him for reasons I still couldn't recall. But I couldn't lie- my funds were running low, and despite how annoying he was, I didn't particularly want to bankrupt Leo with repeated Nudgings. And besides, from what little I can recall, in that life, there was nothing else but that group in my life that truly mattered to me. Now, I had parents counting on me. A best friend risking everything to have her father help me. And a society of projectors that, judging by what Joseph had told me, was on the verge of experiencing an uprising. I wouldn't forget who I was again, not with all of those people counting on me to stay true to my chosen path.
All that remained were a few critical questions, but if Professor Brin wasn't a fool, the answers would more than exceed my minimum expectations. "How good is this guy?"
The Rose Titan flipped through the file, presumably looking for the text which backed up her claims, as she casually responded. "She's a girl, actually. Anabelle Gage. Forced to transfer to a ramshackle male body due to metastasizing Loic's Syndrome- bit like you, in fact, apart from your lack of a deadly illness. And as to her projection skills, she's pretty weak, but going by how little training she has, she's a natural at using a little to do a lot." At this point, she's obviously flipped to the relevant section, and she hands it back to me for viewing.
Vocation: Audiovisual Illusions (limited range, high potential to strengthen parameters)
It was strong, especially going by how she had used it at the docks with Samuel and Eliya (I internally winced a second at the thought), but it was even more of a gimmick than the human-control aspect of my Vocation. At least with that, a person couldn't just accidentally stumble out of range without my consent. Still, I could definitely work with it.
I opened negotiations for my employment, but even as I outlined my terms, the grin spreading across the Rose Titan's face told me that she knew the age-old truth just as well as I did- once someone starts negotiating for a better deal, you've already sold them on buying into it. All that remains are the specifics.
"I want room, board, a guarantee of no punishment for pursuing Kahlin, and some half-decent- no, all the way decent- projection texts for me to study in my spare time. Deal?"
The Rose Titan chuckled. "Works for me. You'll be staying with Gage, be given a stipend for food so long as you complete your jobs, and since Gage's unique compensation is being an assistant at Paragon, you can ask her for the books. And as for Kahlin, I already said there's no objection so long as you don't reveal Brin's involvement. We're good."
My hand twitched as it moved to shake her hand, but I managed to stop it in time. "Pardon me for not shaking on it. I'm not particularly inclined towards touching people when that's what their Whisper Vocation requires to affect me."
The Rose Titan huffed as she stood up from the overstuffed chair, flicking a silvery projectile at me as she did so. Instinctually, I caught it in midair, finding it was made out of the unbreakable, yet still flexible silver paper used exclusively by Paragon and Paragon staff. Tilting it up to the light, I read the printed text.
Major Isaac Brin
The Scholar of Mass
Director | Principality Counterintelligence Division
Professor | Physics, Paragon Academy
Calling out as she headed towards her kitchen, the Rose Titan's pitched voice reached across the room as I heard her say, "I realize this isn't the card you want, momma's boy, but maybe it'll tide you over in the meantime. Now, I have a raging headache from your BS and a sponge cake ready to take the fall. Are you and your filthy insects getting out of here or what? The street rat's address is in the file, if that's what you're wondering."
Recognizing that perhaps now wasn't the best time to deal with an irate counterintelligence operative, I used my Vocation to plot a course which would take me in the direction of Lowtown. As I stepped down the stairwell of the annoyingly tall condominium the Rose Titan had chosen to reside in, I couldn't help but wonder about the one unexplained thing in that whole conversation- how she had known about my mother's card. Perhaps she had guessed- it wasn't like an Ousted heir would be allowed to still carry around their parent's card, and although I'd been sparing in its use, a person as presumably entangled in the intelligence community probably would have hear such an idle piece of gossip.
On the other hand, though, Professor Brin and my mother had been on the same squad during their Paragon years, and those were designed to either force the members together into a lifelong bond or crack the squad open under the pressure- and I hardly doubted that the success stories of mom and Professor Brin had resulted from the broken wrecks which tended to come from the second option. Maybe my mother was in on this, pivoting off my friendship with Eliya to convince her old acquaintance to help me out.
Still, all this affected nothing. If my mother was involved, all that would mean was that fulfilling my duties as a black ops operative was mom's method of dealing with Kahlin, rather than Eliya's. Either way, I would have to fulfill my duties to the greatest extent I could in order to protect myself and those I loved- including working with the person who had temporarily crippled one of them.
As I entered Lowtown, my shoulders set into a firm stance as I carried the folder under my arm, I quietly resolved myself to the complex subterfuge which would be my future- and that I would avoid my past errors in befriending the enemy. I would be there when Anabelle Gage needed me, her loyal second-in-command, but one inch out of line, and I would also be there to force Gage back into place.