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The proverbial choice
In his daily summary of events, there was only the briefest statement that something out of the ordinary happened within his capital. That something was the confiscation of a small cafe into the hands of a young man whom transformed meager tables and university students into a war command room. Odd indeed. Certainly, further investigation revealed the identity of said commander. A name that pricked Nikolai's memory strong.

Jacques Danjou.

The commander of Legion Premiere was a hard negotiator. Of course, when spending half a billion dollars to save an entire Dominance, he had listened to the finalization of the deal. Danjou was young for such responsibilities, but his manner and cunning were forthright.

The reason the Frenchman was in Moscow and operating war rooms out of Nikolai's cafes was something the Ascendancy was curious to learn. Intelligence would certainly provide the answer, and Nikolai intended to read what they reported as the truth, but more importantly, he wanted to hear it from Danjou himself. For few people intrigued him as the young commander had.

"Extend an invitation."
He ordered, "Today."
And even as he spoke, staff departed to carry out the task. For certainly this was no simple invitation.

Danjou was being summoned to the Kremlin.
The Legion had never been much of one for long logistical chains, confining red tape, or lagging bureaucracy. When tasked to do something, it was always accomplished quickly and efficiently, with a level of autonomy granted to subordinates not seen in standing armies. In part due to the high levels of experience and qualifications of Legion members, and also in part because they weren't shackled with having to stay in line with an elected or ruling government's intents.

The only delay they hit was getting clearance for Jacques' motorcade. When 'VIPs' were moving around the city, the CDPS tended to prefer being informed, especially if said person tended to travel with well armed guards and had already butted heads with VIPs in the city.

Two locally-sourced armoured SUVs escorted the Legion's lone staff car, a 1941 Citroën Traction Avant, were soon directed through into the Kremlin's parcade, and Jacques left his escorts to mingle in the provided lounge for attache's and bodyguards, and was escorted through the winding and lavish courtyards and corridors that made up the seat of the most powerful government in the world.

A government led by what many in Africa considered a god, or perhaps a demon. A being to be feared and never trusted. Many smaller tribal religions or perversions of main-stream ones saw him as a proverbial Antichrist or a bringer of end times. But, those same groups thought the same of particularly wet springs, dry summers, and were often awash with other silly superstitions.

Such beliefs held no sway over Jacques. He knew of them, and would strive to understand such beliefs of course, but only to know how best to correct them, and to track which factions might later prove a danger.

While walking the halls, he quietly chastised himself for letting himself become so distracted with the ongoing issues tormenting Africa, and allowed himself to at least admire the artistry and history found within the Kremlin's halls, at least until he was shown to the door of Ascendancy's office.

Jacques waited briefly as an attendant announced him, and after a short delay was shown inside. He was dressed in his oddly featureless variant of a Legionnaire's dress uniform. He lacked rank insignia's, wore no national flag and instead had the flag of the Legion, and even lacked the white fourragère, a sash marking a combat veteran. His uniform was well tailored and fitted, well kept and clean, and it was that lack of arrogant bragging that set him apart from so many other military leaders in Africa.

His infantry saber had been left with his guards, of course. His characteristic Landwarrior glasses were tucked neatly into a pocket. He stopped a few paces short of the Ascendancy's desk, and offered a casual salute in greeting, his prosthetic hand proving not quite able to properly straighten properly, a rare occurrence that was a result of the technology being a few generations behind what was available in the CCD.

"Bonjour, Ascendancy."
The blink of a light, and Nikolai swiped his hand through the signal. A video opened and the round face of one of the administrative staff appeared. The man was in his upper fifties and had wavy hair thick with gray. The barest hint of a beard touched the point of his chin. His cheeks were heavy with weight, the skin loose around his jaw as he spoke. "Ascendancy, Mister Danjou has arrived. Would you like me to show him in, sir?"
Ismail aged poorly the last ten years Nik knew him. Thankfully, age had yet to touch himself and the blessing of immortality again crossed his mind. The man waited patiently as Nikolai felt his eyes roam the myriad other open screens around the holo-image of his head. Jacques Danjou had been on his schedule since this morning. He'd had a summary of the man prepared for hours, but hadn't an opportunity to review it yet.

"Five minutes then show him in."
Nikolai responded and the video closed. A sweep of his other hand minimized the entire system, from which he recalled the summary.

Originally from Aubagne, currently residing in Casablanca. He rose to the rank of captain in Legion Premiere, descendants of the French Foreign Legion pre-Custody. The death of the company's entire leadership team left Jacques the sole surviving member of sufficient rank and qualification to assume command. Since then, acting as CEO, he made certain that all of his successes in battle were captured by media in some shape or fashion. From the local news coverage in Nigeria to reporter-coverage of his rescue of a Woman's College. Most recently, the exclusive coverage by an American independent reporter named Lawrence Monday in Sierra Leone. As successful in business as on the field, Nik crossed his arms and studied the eyes of his picture. What were his intentions? A lot of coincidences led to his sudden rise to Legion chief-executive. Everything since was carefully orchestrated to show the world his capabilities. When their forces were the only option available in Mecca, Nikolai had been forced to call upon their arms, and at quite the price too. How much did Jacques know going into DV of the civil unrest? Did he incite inflammatory tensions in DV as he did in Sierra Leone, only to miraculously salvage everything in the end?

He was quickly sweeping northern Africa into his control. With this young man at the helm, Legion Premiere was toppling war lords and folding governments. Intelligence was hard at work monitoring the Legion's progress but doing nothing to hinder it. Meanwhile, analyses attempted to decipher his ultimate endgame. But in all the analysis and pattern recognition, nobody thought to simply ask him his intentions. He was beginning to show enough momentum to be taken seriously. Especially as his trajectory across Africa was leading toward a volatile Dominance as it was.

The man that entered was clean-cut, freshly shaven and young. Oh so young. Nikolai minimized the remainder of his screens - little boxes of light that collapsed to the desk in front of him. A quick trio-tap on the desktop pulsed the lights to dim glows, effectively shutting out the world and obscuring the most technologically advanced office in the world. They were left with the antique woods and heavy curtains of Russian antiquity.

The Ascendancy rounded his desk to greet the CEO. They were near to height and deceptively appeared near the same age. Danjou had the precision of a military-man's attire, an innate talent that Nikolai lacked but that his stylist was certain to impress. His own suit was a rich, warm black with a subtle sheen of silk woven in the thread. The style was timeless, as was the man himself. There was a youthfulness to Jacques missing in Nikolai. His hair was nearly styled. The Arcus band had been replaced since his fight with Regus. The metal now encircling his head was formed from rare metals pulled from the Imperial Treasurery. Rhodium gave the sleek points settled around his temples a glossy reflection. Platinum and ruthenium hardened the band to such a point that adding further energy from the Power only made the band more resistant to the outside elements. It was osmium that gave the silvery metal a blueish tint upon the slightest angle of the eye. None would ever know but him, but each component of the band was pulled from about twenty different pieces from the treasurery. Russian luxury was reknown, and the coffers of the tsars were once very deep. The land was brutal, but from it came the most rare and valuable pieces of the earth.

As if the Arcus Band was not enough of a reminder of Jacques' location, a beautiful orange and black crescent was laid into the wood paneling, the same symbol that adorned Nikolai's lapel. As he offered a hand in greeting, he gestured that Jacques fully enter the room as power brimmed to life. Waves of Aether pushed the door closed on their own accord, something his staff was used to observing. Foreigners, less so.

"Bonjour, indeed."
He replied, hiding his distaste at the use of a language harkening back to another age. Instead, he gestured that Danjou could sit. Nikolai leaned against his desk, meanwhile, without retreating behind it. "Welcome to the Kremlin, Mister Danjou. I trust your transit was uneventful."
Propriety aside, he tried to put the commander at ease, if only by releasing the power and removing the darkness hovering around his countenance when it coursed his veins. "It is a pleasure to meet you in person. Allow me to extend my gratitude yet again for your valiant efforts in Mecca. You saved Custody lives, and for that I am grateful."

Pleasantries aside, given that he paid this man his own personal money to save said lives, he continued. "What brings you and your Legionnaires to Moscow?"
His eyes fell to the prosthetic hand.
Jacques was shown in after less delay then he had expected; a common 'power move' he had had to put with many times in Africa back when the Legion had been just another private security company. Nikolai, the Ascendancy, was more polite in person then he would have expected as well; as the most powerful man in the world (both politically, and as recent displays had demonstrated, in magic as well) had every right, as many would have seen it, to be dismissive and arrogant of anyone.

The displays of wealth and power were lost on him; as works of art, he could appreciate them, but he saw such things as what they were. Ostentatious baubles, meant to show power and importance; something Jacques himself was guilty of, he well knew. His uniform was finely tailored, the Legion's staff car was nearly a century old, but ostentatious displays had their place in the world. As did, in his opinion, tradition.

"Your CDPS is very responsive when requesting routes to the Kremlin, especially when one drops a name such as yours, Ascendancy."
He flashed an amused smile; the phone conversation between his aid and the CDPS representative had been interesting, to say the least. They had not been happy to have received such a request on such short notice, but mid-conversation someone in the Kremlin had notified them that the Ascendancy himself had requested Jacques' presence.

While he preferred to stand, mostly out of his own comfort rather then in defiance of being seated in the presence of another (another common power-move he had had to put up with often in Africa), he unbuttoned his uniform jacket with his left hand, and tugged his pant legs to sit comfortably in the offered chair.

What had brought him to Moscow? It had always been his end goal during their brief journey across the CDC. Stops in other major cities, meetings with survivors of the Jeddah evacuation, and at the regional offices of companies and manufacturers that had the expertise or equipment that interested him for his work in Africa, had been mere stepping stones along the way.

To drum up public interest in his people's cause, and the plight of those he was coming to represent. To find volunteers, and to make the connections that his people would need in the coming months as they fought to rebuild the economies of the nations that had flocked to his banner. And more importantly, to help them further resist and advance against the aggressions of other nations and Al'Janyar, the rising extremist force that had been sweeping eastern Africa.

"3D printers. Vaccines. Medicine. Experts of science and medicine. Social workers, doctors, nurses. Soldiers, police officers, fire fighters."
A mischevious smile, and a faint arm-raising shrug and shake of his head, "Things the people of the CDC are loathe to give up without hefty bills or some very ambiguously worded contracts or off-the-books agreements. I understand why, of course. One does not become rich by being a philanthropist."
"All valid reasons to be in Moscow."
He replied. Although despite what Jacques implied by his latter statement, such commodities were likely to be at their best price when approaching their Moscow headquarters. In such a large city, competition was fierce. Markets existed on every scale of production: mass-manufacturing provided inexpensive goods while some specialty orders could be achieved at any price. In fact, Nikolai almost joked that the Legion could afford it, but without knowing Jacques better, he couldn't be sure how it would be taken. Best to remain on formal terms until then.

Back to the point at hand. Nikolai was not a capitalist pig. His parents even took him to church as a child. Or, his mother did. His father usually worked on Sunday mornings. With the family out of the house, and fewer distractions, the hours were some of the most productive on a weekend. So Nikolai was at least aware of the value of charity. What was more important than good intent, however, was fostering an economic atmosphere where successful corporations could venture into philanthropy if desired. Perhaps even fostering an atmosphere of peer pressure, generated through social media and public awareness campaigns. When a business was overly generous with their profits, their apparent use of good charity attracted more business, generating a positive cycle that improved the bottom line and public welfare simultaneously. Of course, that required the underlying pressure from society. Nikolai himself would never force a private entity to use their funds for a specific agenda. Not that there weren't pressures. Agenda ran both directions.

Which brought Nikolai around with a smile to put Jacques at ease. He laced his fingers across his lap, "Well why don't you tell me what your biggest requirements are and we can perhaps work something out. I'm not going to say I find myself to be the one destined to save the world, especially if it does not want me to, but you and I know something about the world it does not even know about itself. You have the ability to see the greater good -- what do I call you, by the way? Do you prefer Commander Danjou? Mister Danjou? Or plain Jacques? -- You have the ability to see the greater good, a long-term vision. A project you seem to have concocted already. I'm curious about your vision. If you come seeking technology and medicines, things to improve public health and social welfare, I am inclined to think those are your priorities. Is that the case? Is your priority the public health and welfare of Africa? Or is it something bigger? Something more--"
he paused, considering his words.

Then the smile slipped into something more noble.

"--something more everlasting?"
Jacques let out a tired laugh at the question of what his greatest needs were. That list was far too long, and prioritizing any one thing over all the others was a delicate affair. He was fighting a war with an army of faceless enemies, both corporeal and conceptual. Famine, disease, economic collapse, social strife, and a half dozen armed conflicts across as many fronts.

He would never have made it as far as he had if it weren't for the people that for some reason or another had flocked to his banner. His Legionnaires were the best he could ask for; not simply for their military professionalism. They were all good men, and too few women, driven towards a cause so many in Africa saw as impossible to reach. Not simply Africa, the world at large, which had long since turned its back on the strife and horrors of that forsaken place.

And the army of volunteers that had answered the call; he had trauma surgeons from a dozen foreign nations. Teachers, both young and eager and the retired and experienced. Just that morning, he had gotten off the phone with a trio of industrial plumbers that had folded a floundering starter-company in Boston and brought their expertise, and their families, to Algeria on the promise of a challenging and rewarding job that paid...very little, compared to what they could have been making back home.

Just what did he want? A clear conscience, for one. To be able to sleep in a bed at night, stomach full and a glass of clean water on his bed-side table, and not know that a mere glance out a window would reveal a world in which such simple things were so far out of reach for so many.

"When a child can go to school rather then have to sell firewood, or their bodies, to support their family. When a father can tend his crops and earn a living wage to send his child to school. When a mother can walk the streets without fear of reprisal for daring to show her face, when she can work and seek out an education."

The thought of what so many had been willing to give up on the promise of a chance 'to do the right thing' brought an honest smile that burned away that tired laugh. There was hope yet, after all.

A chuckle then, and he looked to Ascendancy with a shrug, "A day when soldiers aren't needed anymore."

It was a distant future; but it could be reached one day, he thought. A light to cast back the darkness of hatred and distrust. "Africa is a rich continent. But every day, more is lost to the deserts and waves. Extremists are tearing apart the north east. In-fighting and corruption has prevented a dozen countries from unifying to stop them. The same corruption and in-fighting that created the fertile soil Al Janyar sprung from."

"Edward Bulwer-Lytton once wrote a well-known phrase, that the pen is mightier than the sword. Most, however, are unaware of the full quote. Beneath the rule of men entirely great, The pen is mightier than the sword. Sadly, there are few such leaders in Africa, and until there are, I fear that I must continue with the sword, to open the way for such leaders to rise."

"My men need strike fighters, attack helicopters, surveillance and strike drones. Powered armours, vehicles, ammunition. But I am not in the CCD to ask for such things. Sierra Leone needs experienced factory and mine foremen, teachers, doctors, vaccines. Guinea needs...everything. It has been without a government for decades, ruled by warlords. The damage there is deep-routed in the people and the infrastructure. Liberia needs lawmakers and leaders. Mali and Burkina Faso? Skilled conversationalists. Much of those regions have already been lost to the desert, and I fear it is far too late to recover there."

"What do you call them in the CCD? Channelers, yes? Some are killed in the streets by their own families or neighbors. Feared as witches and warlocks. Others are used by warlords and criminals. Some few are becoming warlords themselves. I've only one in the Legion. He is a good man, perhaps too willing to use his gifts in war. Something I've yet to require of him, but he would if I asked, I fear. That is a gift that can benefit many."
He indicated his prosthetic hand, the stump of which had been Healed by his man in question. "A few have answered the call in Africa and come forward, but I've no one who can teach them. They do what they can, each seems to have learned different abilities, and some can teach each other a little."
A day when soldiers were no longer needed was coming.

Al Janyar was one of the dozen groups with enough momentum to make it into the Ascendancy's regular international briefing. So far the group was being monitored, but little intervention had been undertaken on their part. Northeast Africa bordered too close to DV to dismiss altogether. The middle east and north Africa were cousins in world economics. Prior to the decimation of the area's oil reserves, petroleum and propane were the primary exports, targeting mostly China, the US, and large swaths of the CCD, particularly former India. Jacques was completely correct. Despite the historical instability in the region, there was great economic potential. Nikolai exploited the potential in DV, thus far, which was evidenced by the relative peace, prosperity and human rights advancements in the region. Africa, however, remained untouched by his hand. "You need an ally,"
he began. Jacques saw first hand that DV wasn't perfect, but the majority of the unrest was laid at the feet of one man. If Africa advanced only half of what the Dominance achieved, Jacques would be pleased.

The region always had a high potential value in terms of commercial and CCD foreign policy interests, especially in economic development, supported through enhanced trade and investment ties, have been traditionally viewed as the most effective means of advancing CCD goals for peace and stability in the region.

His attention was sharply focused on the list of needs Jacques generated. The CCD generally maintained international military presences, even including the supplying of arms to various African countries. That trade could shift to the Legion, instead. Rather than providing the military financing as currently stood, they could reroute the investments in military exercises, research, and weapons development to their partner, the Legion. If Jacques agreed to terms of partnership, of course. The economic support provided by trade and investment in the region would prevent further poverty and instability, undermining the foundations in which bred militancy, political violence, extremism and hostility. Jacques command at Mecca already impressed Nikolai once. After meeting the young man, he was further impressed.

"Africa remains significant in CCD economic and foreign policy. You're well aware that the CCD economy is nearly invulnerable to political and economic upheavals, and I could provide further freedom in pursuing economic and strategic activities in Africa if I chose to. Long-term, these countries need to shift to more manufacturing and other non-resource intensive activities. Many central countries remain largely out of the main trade flows. Let me tell you a story I recently heard myself.

"Accra, Ghana, a man named Solomon had been in the pineapple business for twenty years. He sold pineapples for juices and salads. Some of the fruit is sold domestically, but most is exported to Berlin, Paris, and Rome as well as their neighboring regions. He had 100 people working for him at one point in time. Last year, they exported 3,000 tones of pineapples, which was actually significantly reduced due to low rainfall that year and decreased the crop yield. Over all, business had been as good as could be expected these twenty years, with his company growing at a steady pace.

"Yet, despite the growth of his business, trade and export over all became much more complicated as time passed. Control meant to crack down on illicit trade at ports among other industries impacted his pineapples, which were time-sensitive and subject to rot. For instance, at the Accra airport, Solomon must arrive with his pineapple shipment in person. Yet the traffic on Ghana's highways is volatile. Government authorities have "check-points" at multiple sites along the route, and every time the physical goods must be checked, scanned, and usually paid additional "fees" to pass just to get to the airport. Arriving at the seaports on time is just as difficult, if not more so, for missing a ship's departure could result in the over-ripening and ruination of an entire crop of pineapples. Any delay is a huge blow to his company. So things were difficult, but doable.

"Until last year. Ghana's government began to demand higher fees for check-points. Conflict among domestic policies delayed transport of all goods, but perishables were most vulnerable. In a year of low rainfall, the cost of pineapples increased already, adding in the loss of perishable goods stuck in check-points at seaports and airports, and Solomon's pineapple company was bankrupt by the end of the year. Twenty years of growth undone by government squabbling. Rome, Berlin and Paris now get their pineapples from Costa Rica. Solomon now drives a truck to make a living.

"That's just simple economics, Jacques. Inefficiencies, costs, even the loss of internet signal and a textile exporter in Kenya can't book a shipping container for three days and loses a deal with Hong Kong because of it, or else pay for air-lifting out of their own pocket. Add in the complication of warring governments, civil unrest, outright violence and warfare, and blood-thirsty channelers and it's no wonder the continent can't escape this dark fate.

"We need to intervene, Jacques. It's time. You've already begun. All the things you suggested would do nothing but help the region, but manufacturing, jobs, trade and safety will not come until the corruption is rooted out, the in-fighting ceased, and the land unified.

"You can do all that but not without help. You need strike fighters, attack helicopters, surveillance and strike drones, ammunition. You said you're not in the CCD to ask for such things, but you're sitting in front of me now and I am telling you I am willing to see you acquire what you need.

"I only ask for allegiance in return.

"I can see you get the money you need for your vaccines, books for your schools, food for the starving, water purifers for the underdeveloped.

"I can also see that you get the teacher you need. If you agree, I'll send Commander Vellas to your channelers. You've seen his work first hand. If necessary, i can go myself."

He smiled slightly at that idea. "I've been able to channel for decades, yet I have never used my power to conquer. I won't use it now, either. You can trust my aspirations in that regard.

"I only ask for allegiance in return."

He was calm, and waited patiently for Jacques to come to the most logical conclusion. It was rather inevitable. He knew what Jacques would say. He could practically feel the winds of destiny dancing through the air.

So many of Jacques meetings had ended without any gain for less. People expecting boons in return for their donations or investments was only logical, but they never understood that the resources and rights they sought to buy with their money were not his to give.

He did not think of himself as the ruler of Sierra Leone, or Guinea, or any of the other nations whose governments had fallen to his cause. But those men and women had offered money in exchange for defined privileges. They expected to purchase mining rights, freedom on environmentally damaging practices, or cheap labour.

He was being offered the weapons his soldiers needed to get their job done. Weapons that would save the lives of his most valuable resource, as well as the lives of those too far out of his reach to protect from their own governments.

He was being offered the medicine and food people under his protection needed to survive. The supplies they needed to have some normalcy returned to their lives, a chance for their children to have a future.

He was being offered a chance for Channelers to learn how to use their abilities, rather than fear or abuse them. A chance for them to find the confidence in self and in society to be the boon to humanity he knew they could be.

And in return, all he needed give was his soul. Perhaps a bit melodramatic, but he had long prided himself for holding allegiance to no one flag, no one government. Legion Premiere had been favored no one country or company in their contracts. And the Legion had in turn done the same.

But how could he say no? How selfish need he be to think that being able to look himself in the mirror was more important than the benefits the people would reap from such an arrangement?

The people of the CCD lived well; financial stability, social security. There was no fear of disease or famine, no fear of war or discrimination. The man had unified two continents, dozens of countries, under one flag and to one cause. It was a strangely painless decision to make.

"You have it."
Nik breathed a sigh of relief. For a moment he worried that he had misread Jacques. He was independent and stubborn, but he needed to continue to do what he did best. With bigger powers on his radar, most of Africa was an afterthought for Nikolai. However, he believed what he spoke earlier. A better economy and more stable government would only improve the CCD. Others had argued much the same for the remainder of the world, what with it being in a rather bad way, or so he was told. Why now? They would question it, of course. None of the standard answers would work

In the end, his obeisance was clear. Nikolai nodded. He would follow through with his promises. Buying Jacques' allegiance was costly, but worth it. Like he said, It was time.

"There will be much to arrange. You'll need to remain nearby for discussions."
They spoke on the details for some time after until Jacques departed on a handshake and promise for future arrangements.

***Several days later***

Some days later, the first such plans were outlined for Jacques. He received a call early one morning from Ascendancy himself describing a fundraiser to be held that Saturday evening. They were projected to raise over three billion Custody dollars for humanitarian aid. Leveraging the PR and personal contacts he had, Nikolai fully expected the value of funds to be raised would expand once corporations offered services, supplies, and medicines at low or no-cost simply in exchange for the attention from the Ascendancy.

Specifics regarding the transfer of funds were forthcoming, but it was very clear that Jacques and the presence of his entourage were required. Furthermore, it was a white tie affair, with the only exclusion for religious robes and formal military dress. He would be introduced at the time, and expected to give a speech that would be pre-screened by the EoA officers prior to delivery.


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