I frowned once I was away from the others. Laura and Derek were still farther afield, while the happy couples stayed at the table.
“Okay, slow down,” I said into the phone. “What in Tezuka’s name happened?”
“She’s gone,” Turgay replied flatly. He had tried to give me all the details first, like he always did when he got nervous, but at least now he understood to just give me the end.
I shook my head to clear it. “Right, okay…is there any reason for her to just leave?”
“Not that I can think of. We were just sitting there, talking about the…item. I was arguing with one of the scientists about it—they’re getting really possessive, it’s creepy, and actually—”
“Back to Lizzy,” I prodded him.
“Right, sorry. Anyway, she just got up and left. I didn’t think much of it at the time, since she wasn’t really involved in the conversation, but that was an hour ago, and I haven’t been able to get a hold of her.”
I took a deep breath and sent my awareness into my surroundings, feeling the soil and grass beneath my feet. Not that I thought it would help find Lizzy, of course. The range was only a little more than ten feet. I just found it…soothing.
Now, what was the right response in this situation? Send out a search party? Yes, of course. But if she was kidnapped, then it would be dangerous. Sending in the wrong people would just be adding fuel to the fire.
“Has anyone gone looking for her yet?”
“A few of the new soldiers,” Turgay said quickly, purposefully avoiding the word ‘warhawks’ in case someone was listening. “With baselines for scouts.”
Of course. The aves were still getting heat for stealing the toy box, so they were having trouble mixing with the rest of the city. They stood out far too much.
Turgay continued. “We haven’t heard anything back from them yet, and they missed their check-in.”
Well, they were clearly dead. But that wouldn’t be something he wanted to hear. “How well-trained are they? Maybe they just forgot.”
“The security chief is pretty sure that wouldn’t happen. And he won’t let me call them, in case they’re in danger and it gives away their position.”
I knew that made sense from my time with Derek and the ‘sarians. But Turgay wasn’t a military man; I could hear the frustration in his voice. He thought that was a stupid reason to delay.
I frowned. I couldn’t involve Derek and the others, not yet. Even discounting the party, this was hardly the time or the place. Lily hated violence, Flynn was still a burden, the parents were just a couple of thieves, and Simon and Seena had their own allegiances. Not to mention that Derek would jump after that girl like a hound after a hare…no. I needed to work this out on my own.
“How many soldiers did you send out? Including the fle—baselines, I mean?”
I blinked. More than I expected. “Okay, then something is definitely wrong. At least one of them would be able to call back. You got GPS or whatever on them?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Send out five more and wait.”
There was a pause of about a minute on the other end, where I could hear my childhood friend talking. Actually, if I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was barking orders.
“We sent another twenty-five,” he said finally, a little breathlessly. “That should be enough.”
That was about when I asked the question I should have asked the moment I understood what was going on. “Why exactly was Lizzy there with you?”
There was a pause.
“If you choose now to start hiding things…” I warned.
“Fine, fine,” he said hastily. “Don’t worry. I just needed to figure out how to word it. It’s just…the item emits this field. We’re calling it the Sauron effect. Anyone within a certain radius slowly goes insane with greed for it. You, me, and Lizzy are the only ones who seem immune. That’s actually why I asked her to meet me, I needed to test that.”
I swallowed as he trailed off. “What,” I said very, very carefully, “is the first thing I told you about the fantasy genre?”
“Uh…” he racked his brain for the answer. “The kid with the sword is the hero?”
“That was number two,” I reminded the ave, resisting the urge to reach through the phone and strangle him. “What was number one?”
He paused. “…if it makes you want to touch it, don’t touch it?”
“Close enough. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that your little toy screwed with Lizzy’s brain somehow, so I am officially taking this out of your hands. MC, you there?”
There was a long pause, during which Turgay tried to speak. “Wait—”
“I know you can hear me,” I said, grinding my teeth. “MC, I have information regarding the whereabouts of the toy box.”
“Right, sorry, I’m here,” the operator’s real voice chimed in a moment later. “I wasn’t before, but I have a couple programs lurking on a few—very few—phones to tell me when a couple words are used…”
“Yes, yes, you’re a champion of the privacy act,” I interrupted before she could really get into a rant. “Lizzy was driven insane by the toy box. Where would she go?”
“She was immune,” Turgay insisted. “And I don’t like involving MC—”
“There’s a very real possibility she’s one of the Composer’s sleepers,” I cut in. I still couldn’t believe it, but it was always the ones you least expected. Besides, it was good to get the worst case out of the way first. “It probably interacted with the—what’d you call it?”
“Sauron effect,” the ave muttered glumly. “And I suppose that’s possible. But Ling, MC is going to call Necessarius…”
“Not if you don’t want me to,” the woman promised. “Though I really think this is beyond your pay grade at this point.”
There was a pause as Turgay considered his options.
“Fine,” he sighed. “But don’t blame me if there are unexpected consequences.”
“I’ll call up the retinue right away,” MC said quickly. “Turgay, text me the GPS codes. And Ling, what are you going to do about the other Paladins?”
I frowned. Nothing had changed; telling them would be a bad idea.
“I’m just going to tell one,” I decided quickly. “One minute.”
I closed my phone and returned to the table as fast as possible without looking hurried.
“Excuse me, I need to borrow your boyfriend for a moment,” I apologized to Lily. “Adam, let’s talk.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 105)
A bit short, perhaps, but I think this still went well.