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Guidance Withdrawal chapter 15

(Michael Hrenka) #1

Guidance Withdrawal

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Chapter 15

Back to Arratan

Being teleported was always at least somewhat disorienting. In the best case, you were given a detailed preview of your destination, so you knew what to expect. But in games like Quest/Mevara you did not get that luxury. Teleportation here was apparently the effect of powerful magic. In reality, it still involved your body being dematerialised and rematerialised by the wise, but with less comfort features than usual. Apparently, Adano had been materialised into a general waiting area.

Rake Venice was standing next to him, still accompanied by his bodyguards. Rake transmitted to him: “Please wait here while I discuss your arrival with the officials.” Then he left the waiting room through one of four exits.

There weren’t any windows in this room. In a corner there was a small magical device with ornamental trees and unicorns playing some kind of ambient music. Just what was it about waiting rooms that made them so universally dreadful? Of course Adano was nervous. He accepted being interrogated by the city council. That was part of his plan. He didn’t have much valuable information, so he couldn’t betray his fellow Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan too much. However, some of the questions the council would ask him might reveal to him the way they thought. Perhaps they’d even let him in on information that might help him to navigate this world better. The decision to agree with the interrogation had been quite spontaneous on his part, but still he was confident that he would come to master the challenge. His training should certainly have prepared him for situations like these.

Adano had just started considering what questions he would ask the city council when Rake Venice reentered the room and told him: “We need to brief you before the meeting with the city council. This is the required etiquette training. I hope you understand the purpose of that. Please follow me.”

The exit Rake had used before led to a corridor with multiple elevators. Magical elevators! Adano rolled his eyes about that detail. Mevara was supposed to represent a medieval society, powered by magic. But of course things got complicated when you let Canonical Age players play a game while retaining the knowledge of all of human history. Using mana as replacement for electrical energy easily gave rise to the appearance of devices used by Industrial Age civilizations. Some parts of the setting even were appropriate for a Smart Age civilization. Magical spirits, golems, synths, drones. In many respects, the world of Mevara was more advanced than your run of the mill industrial civilization. It were just the expectations, the game design, and most importantly, the role of the gods, which still resulted in more or less a feudal society within such games.

The elevator went down about three floors when it stopped. He was led through just another corridor into another waiting room. This time smaller, with cheaper wooden chairs, grey walls, no music or decoration, and terribly stale air. This time he had to wait for 15 minutes before he was called again by Rake Venice. He was escorted to an office room with a small badge on its door in elvish script, which Adano couldn’t decipher. Rake pointed his hand towards the door and Adano complied by entering.

It was a strange room. The walls were painted black, with the ceiling displaying a static picture of a starry sky. In a corner next to the door there were plenty of chairs. In front of the large central blue desk there was a simple chair and a couch that looked like it was supposed to be used by large quadrupeds like the unicorns that were a prominent sight of the city. Behind the desk was a tall elf of indefinite age (as was always typical for elves, if anyone wondered about that). The elf had fair skin and straight long hair ranging down to the middle of his torso. Interestingly, he just wore a casual and plain green shirt with short sleeves and short green trousers. His green eyes were almost shut, but scanned every detail of Adano’s body with machinelike precision. The male elf simultaneously pointed two fingers of his left hand to the chair and two fingers of his right hand to the couch. Adano chose the chair.

Then the elf started grinning friendly, yet somewhat mischievously, and spoke to him via the usual metanet channel: “Ah, hello. I’ve been looking forward to talking with you. Please feel welcome here. I’d like to offer you a hot or cold beverage. Of course I know that you have reasons to suspect it to be poisoned. Well, it’s too bad we need to meet under these circumstances…”

Adano quicky interrupted him: “Who are you?”

“Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you. Who are you, and where do you come from? Since you are with the Scintillating Mister Hunters of Arratan, you’ve probably be given a cover story. Let’s start with that.”

“As far as I know I’m not required to reveal anything to you. I’ve only promised to be interrogated by the city council of Ailissa. I suspect a single person doesn’t make a whole council.”

“That is true. Let me explain. This is a preliminary talk I wanted to have with you, because we have reason to suspect our council might be infiltrated by hostile forces. We don’t want any critical intel to transpire to them. So, you should talk with me first. I know you are not required to do that, but let me wager a guess. You only agreed to that interrogation, because you had the clever plan to figure out useful information about the council during that interrogation yourself. Well, at least that’s something that I would have done. And I guess you are that smart, too. So, why waste time with the council, if you can get the information you want much more easily from me?”

Adano was indeed trying to do what his interlocutor suggested. This elf was clever. Adano would need to be especially careful with him.

“Why would you be willing to share information with me so easily?”

“Oh, that’s because I think that sharing our knowledge as openly as possible is to our mutual advantage. We live in interesting times. The more information we can get, the more sense we can make of what’s happening in this world right now.”

“What’s so interesting about this world right now?”

“Well, what’s on the mind of everyone at the moment? Oh, that’s so hard to guess. It’s obviously the disappearance of gods. How can it be that hundreds of gods seem to have vanished at about the same time? The only explanation is that a huge conspiracy has been going on. And that’s obviously a very big deal. I’d like to figure out the role that the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan have played in this conspiracy.”

“What makes you think that the Mist Hunters did have something to do with it?”

“Let’s just say that there are rumors implying an involvement of the Mist Hunters.” The elf paused briefly, then continued: “Anyway, we know the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan and how they operate. Even if they are involved in the disappearance of gods, most of their members wouldn’t know in what function exactly. It’s their chiefs, but most importantly their shamans who have an idea about what’s going on. But even most of those don’t know the whole picture. The one who does know everything is the leader of the whole Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan, max god Arnivar. We have reasons to assume that Arnivar is at the center of the conspiracy.” The elf let that sink it, then went on: “Now I have many theories about what could have happened, and all of them imply a massive upheaval of the balance of power in Mevara. Yet, it’s not clear what that means for the Republic of Alyade. Alyade is famously known as ‘The Godless Republic’. It’s a title that we are actually very proud of. The last god of Alyade has been neutralized in the turmoil of the Long War. And afterwards Alyade has been ravaged by the tides of that war, fighting for one side, then for the other, and eventually trying to stay as neutral as possible. It’s the power games of the gods that have forced us to fight for sides we didn’t feel any kinship with. That fed our hatred for those imperialst gods, especially for that tyrant god emperor Herak Avenoi to whom we are supposed to bow to.” The elf let out a loud sigh.

Adano quickly noticed that the elf liked talking a lot, since he went on talking: “Yes, officially we lost against Herak, but instead of an unconditional victory we managed to settle for the status of a semi-independent region. Against an empire led by a god! How did we do that? Essentially by the sheer boldness of standing up against the demands of a tyrannical god. Herak may defeat us in battle, but he will never conquer our hearts! Alright, that might sound a bit cheesy, but it’s true. While we could have settled for being ruled by a god emperor who offers peace, order, and protection, we chose not to. And Herak had no other choice than to negotiate with us. Gods rarely negotiate with mundanes. And we have forced him to accept a deal that prohibits him from entering the territory of Alyade. That has been unheard of! And that’s only one of the reasons why we are known as the godless republic in all of Arratan. It’s not that we are the only republic in Alyade without a god running it, but we are certainly the most notorious of all of them. And we are very proud of enjoying that status. So, why am I telling you that? Well, how do you think a medium sized republic like ours can stand up against the overwhelming power of the gods?”

“I honestly don’t know, but I suppose you are going to enlighten me about that.”

The elf’s grin slowly broadened: “Absolutely! As you know, the reasonable thing in Mevara is for mundanes to seek protection from hostile gods by aligning themselves with a god who promises to be their protector. For a long time the people of Alyade have been reasonable in that way. But then we have stopped playing that predictable reasonable role. Instead, we chose to be unreasonable and challenge the gods on our own. We decided to be unreasonably bold and stand on our own against the overwhelming might of the gods. At first, we were belittled for that seemingly crazy choice. But then, eventually we showed the world what we really were made of. And that kindled a fire in all the souls of mundanes in Arratan who were looking for a new kind of challenge. We were the underdogs in this game of Quest and that made our defiant republic magnetic for all the adventurers who wanted to make a name for themselves by standing against the gods themselves. We became the stuff of legends. We attracted some of the most powerful heroes of Arratan. That is the reason why we can stand so strong against gods who want to crush us. And now contrast that with the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan who are commandeered by a max god who isn’t used to being challenged by anyone. Well, how do you like your presence in the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan so far? Have they been open or helpful to you?”

“Are you suggesting I should rather side with you?”

“Not exactly. You see, getting intel about the Mist Hunters is really hard. They are exceptionally elusive. That you are with them offers you the opportunity to learn a lot about them. You should stay with them. But it would be great, if you could share any information you get from them with us.”

“Why should I do that?”

“Well, what do you want here in Arratan? We might be able to give you what you want. But for that we first need to know what it is that you desire.”

Adano needed some time to ponder about that question. If he told him that he was after the secrets of the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan, his interlocutor might provide some additional insight, and everything he would have to do would be sharing some of the intel. But if Adano claimed to want to escape from Arratan to get reconnected with his wiseguide, he would probably do a lot of work, before his wish was fulfilled, if at all. It’s quite likely that he will be given just promises or false information and nothing more. Would that really be worth the price of betraying the tribe that adopted him in this wisedeserted world?

As Adano remained silent, his interlocutor inquired: “I wonder what it is that you are thinking about. Is it that you don’t know what you really want, or are you rather scheming what to tell me in order to get the best possible deal out of me? As I know you Exaltationists it’s probably a mixture of both. Are you used to an existence without wiseguidance?”

Of course, the elf had to assume that Adano was aligned with the Exaltation due to his unnaturally purple skin. Purple has been the faction color of the Exaltation since its inception. But what was the purpose of that question? To elicit some kind of emotional response! Adano remained steadfast with the help of his regulator and showed no visible reaction. He presented his best poker face.

The elf took a brief look to the stars on the ceiling and commented: “Clearly you don’t want to reveal anything about yourself. I understand that. And why should you? You don’t even know me. Let’s do this civilized way and let me introduce myself. I am general Rolan Clearlight, head of Alyade Military Intelligence. And what I want is you to help me figure out the mysteries we are currently confronted with. I assume you want to solve those mysteries, too. After all, who in Arratan wouldn’t? So far we have no reason to trust each other, so I propose a deal. We start with little tidbits of information that we share with each other. Quid pro quo. The better information I get from you, the better information I will provide you with.”

While general Rolan Clearlight mentioned that a highly decorated elvish uniform materialized over his shirt. His badges showed four stars, giving credence to his claim of being a true general. Just a few seconds later, this uniform disappeared again, and he was back to his plain casual style.

Adano coldly objected: “I see a problem with that. In your position it’s much easier to verify the information I give you, while I mostly have to trust your word.”

“That’s a fair point. I’d like to invite your friends to this meeting, but unfortunately it has to stay absolutely confidential for security reasons that you are probably smart enough to guess for yourself. So, let’s do this a bit differently. If you don’t reject out deal outright, I will provide some preliminary information that you may be able to verify after our talk. If you want to get more, you just need to provide some intel to me or my agents. What do you think about that?”

“Are there any contractual obligations that are implied here, if I don’t reject your deal?”

“Other than keeping the anything we will discuss here absolutely confidential, there are none. I won’t recruit you officially as member of AMI, unless you really want to. Instead, I will treat you as external informant who’s free to do as he pleases.”

That was actually an excellent offer. Way too good and easy for Adano’s taste. There had to be some catch to it. He even wouldn’t seem to be forced to betray the tribe that he was beamed into. So, what did Adano have to lose by not rejecting this enticing offer? He pondered on that question, hard and long. Adano wasn’t bound by any oath of loyalty to the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan. Also, they didn’t seem to be very warm, open, or even helpful. Instead, they dragged him along with their opaque quest. What if they were really entangled in a villainous conspiracy? But then, they could also be the heroes in this world and had to remain to secretive for good reasons. Without further information, Adano had no way to distinguish between those options, however. He had to get more insight into this tribe, and he would have to ask questions anyway. Sharing his insights with a third faction would most likely not be noticed by them, so the risk involved was quite low. Eventually, Adano made up his mind: “In that case, I’m all ears.”

“Great! Let me start with something that probably won’t surprise you. Since section 73 of the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan have entered Alyade, we have been monitoring their movements continuously. Your sudden appearance hasn’t eluded our eyes. You appeared to have suffered from some kind of disconnection or disorientation shock. Given your spontaneous materalisation within section 73 of the Mist Hunters I have reason to believe that you are somehow involved in the conspiracy I’ve mentioned before. Of course, it’s also possible that you just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, or that you have been given the mission to infiltrate them by a third party. What’s your version of the story? Well, you don’t need to tell me the truth. You might well start with the cover story that the Mist Hunters provided you with.”

Adano felt quite naked before this spy master who had clearly done his homework. Either he had some informant within section 73 or he had field agents who observed section 73 from the outside, or even both. This was disconcerting. He wouldn’t be easily able to lie to this general.

“Ok, they told me that I should claim that I’ve won a lottery while was in Asgard. Winning the lottery allowed me to join the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan.”

“Thank you! I can’t completely discount that story. It’s obviously not how the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan operate usually, especially given their high degree of elitism, but there’s the chance that this story could actually be true and it’s just a small part of a giant scheme. Or is it?”

Obviously Rolan Clearlight had no intention to believe the first story he had been told, so Adano just admitted it has been a fabrication: “I can’t tell you that for sure, since I have reasons to suspect that my memories have been tampered with. But according to my current memories I have neither won any lottery nor have I been in Asgard recently.”

“I see, so what has happened instead, according to your current memory?”

“For nearly 100 days I’ve been trying to get away from … from my past. I’ve been hopping through various habitats in the Hathor habitat belt who had very strict information policies and wouldn’t let others follow my tracks easily. And one morning I suddenly was beamed into the midst of section 73 without any prior warning.”

“Actually, that’s not a very unusual story. Many people come to Arratan to escape their past. Some even go so far to alter their memories in order to disconnect themselves from what has happened to them. Going so far as to fake spontaneous teleportation isn’t unheard of, either. If your story was true, you would most likely have a specific plan. Exaltationists usually don’t act in the heat of the moment, especially when it comes to altering themselves. So, this does make a pretty decent second layer cover story. What’s the next layer?”

“There’s no third level cover story or something. That’s the truth.”

General Rolan Clearlight seemed to be somewhat enraged and disappointed: “Oh, really? Usually members of the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan have between three and five cover stories. Either you are kidding me, or they want to signal that you aren’t really one of them.”

“In fact, I only have a guest member status with them.”

“Alright. Your story is at least kinda believable, but it doesn’t explain the irregularity of your appearance. Do you know what I mean?”

Adano had to guess he meant something about the mode of transportation, the place, or the timing. Well, the timing may be the most exceptional one. Apparently he was teleported to section 73 some two minutes after the lockout had been put into force by Arratan. As head of a secret service, the general would probably know about that and he would also likely know when he appeared in section 73 exactly.

“You mean the two minutes?”

“Yes, the two minutes. I don’t believe you to be an exception to the rule, but rather that you have arrived before and have been teleported within Arratan afterwards. Still, your destination within section 73 is highly suspicious. It’s definitely a pointer to the significance of that section. Given the way of your sudden appearance a god or Arratan herself must have brought you to section 73. That’s a big deal. Do you claim you have no memories of being in Arratan prior to your appearance within section 73?”

“Yes, I do still claim that to be the case.”

“Ok, then I’ll tell you how this looks to me. A god aligned with the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan dropped you in the midst of section 73, after which your regulator executed a program that blocked your memories of your past in Arratan, turning you into some kind of sleeper agent who would be activated under the right conditions.”

Adano was shocked by that scenario. A moment later he was even more shocked that he hadn’t considered that possibility before himself. Was something interfering with his mental clarity? Well, the disconnection shock obviously. Or was there more? Some kind of malware perhaps? And what was this presence he called Mysterious Shadow? Should he tell Rolan Clearlight about that? No! That would be madness!

“The problem with that hypothesis is that you wouldn’t be able to tell me more, even if you wanted to, since you would be completely clueless. Still, someone powerful is making a clear statement about section 73. Do you have any idea what kind of statement that could be?”

Adano had wondered why he had appeared there, and chief Modi had been quick to suggest a connection to a Quest item the section was looking for. But telling him about that would mean betraying the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan, even if it was apparently not too hard to guess that they were after an ascendon item. Danisho even claimed that revealing that information would be pointless. So, what could Adano offer to Rolan?

“That they were on a very important mission?”

“Perhaps. What do you know about that mission, this apparent vendetta against the dragon Zaphenix?”

“Honestly, I’m hesitant to divulge even the little that I currently may know. After all, the Mist Hunters might later find out that I betrayed them, and then I wouldn’t be able to dig any deeper.”

“Good point, but I suspect what you think you know is misinformation that they feed you to test your loyalty. Given that assumption, whatever you reveal at this stage will be irrelevant to our strategy, because it’s either false or obvious anyway. There’s no way for the Mist Hunters to figure out what you tell me now, unless you somehow suspect that I happen to work for them, at least indirectly. So, if you got in trouble for telling me what you know, you will be rewarded with the revelation that I’m actually working for the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan. And that information would be quite valuable to Alyade, unless they already knew that, too. But that should seem to be extremely unlikely for you, since if we had such dealings with the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan, we would have probably gotten rid of Herak already.”

“So what about that offer that you’ve gotten from vice chief Lairesh? Would you use that promised gratitude to defeat Herak?”

“What do you think? Well, as long as we have to maintain the appearance of loyalty to Herak, we would be obliged to reject such an offer, since it would threaten Herak’s position of power.”

“Does that mean you won’t help section 73?”

“It merely means that we won’t help section 73 officially. What we will do covertly is a different matter entirely. Of course covert actions bear a great risk to us. If Herak found out about such missions, he would have reason to punish us. He might even go so far as to try burning down Ailissa again. Therefore, we will won’t support section 73, unless we think the reward is really worth it, and that we are likely to succeed. While the reward is definitely great, given the great reputation of the Mist Hunters, our chances of success might not be as great. Zaphenix is a powerful and quick dragon. We might have a strike force that’s up to the task, but if Zaphenix manages to team up with the dragons of Anissar, our chances will be greatly diminished.”

“Who are the dragons of Anissar exactly?”

“The kingdom of Anissar lies to the South of Alyade and is ruled by the dragon queen Zartezia Anissar. It covers the mountain range called the Spirit Mountains which separates Alyade from the mainland of Herak’s core kingdom of Avenoi. Furthermore, Anissar is quite loyal to Herak. Zaphenix was born to queen Zartezia Anissar and king Kyutarvek Anissar. A dozen years later, Kyutarvek decided that being dragon king wasn’t good enough for him and since then went on an ego trip to become the greatest fighter of Arratan, so far without complete success. He abandoned first his kingdom and then his sons who weren’t interested in being his pawns. However, there isn’t much bad blood between Zaphenix and his mother Zartezia, so we expect him to team up with her. Bringing down Zaphenix while he’s under the protection of Zartezia would be extremely difficult, and it would immediately trigger a war with Herak. But if we had the support of the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan, we could succeed.”

Fighting a dragon queen and then a god? Rolan seemed to think that the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan were powerful to pull that off.

“And if you failed?”

“Then it would be time to evoke plan B.”

“You aren’t going to tell me what plan B is, right?”

“No, doing that would be too much of a risk”

“I see. But you assume that your strike force and section 73 are able to defeat a dragon queen and a god?”

“The dragon queen possibly, but certainly not Herak. For defeating Herak we request the assistance of more powerful sections of the Scintillating Mist Hunters. Their top 20 sections are known to have been able to defeat gods, mostly because they have gods within their own ranks, too.”

Did section 10 fall into that category, too? Adano was afraid to reveal his ignorance of the structure of the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan by asking such a question.

“Anyway, let’s get back to the mission of section 73. We are to believe it has something to do with the vendetta against Zaphenix. If that’s true, I see a couple of possible options. First, it could be an actual vendetta due to some severe misbehavior of Zaphenix. Let’s call this option 1. We don’t know what kind of misbehavior that was, but apparently it was severe enough to warrant a vendetta and the support of the whole SMHA for helping to capture him. What easily comes to mind to be is option 1A: That he was involved in the big conspiracy, and what caught divulging information of that to other parties. What’s questionable about this scenario is how he could escape from section 10. Then there’s option 1B: That he has stolen something of great value from the SMHA. An ascendon item might warrant the extreme lengths the SMHA are going to in order to retrieve it. Alternatively it may be some item that’s involved in the conspiracy. Given that it’s an item that’s connected with the disappearance of gods, it could be even more important than an ascendon item. Other possible kinds of betrayal are also plausible, but they would need to be connected to the conspiracy in some way or another to warrant the extreme measures of the SMHA. Now, let’s come to option 2: That Zaphenix hasn’t actually done anything wrong, but still operates for the SMHA, and merely acts as bait for this vendetta for some deeper reason. It could be an elaborate distraction maneuver, in order to draw attention away from the real action. And finally there’s option 3 that the mission of section 73 really has nothing to do with the vendetta, whether it’s real or a mere fabrication. Have I missed something?”

Hearing this detailed analysis, Adano started feeling ashamed of himself. Why hasn’t he explored those possibilities himself? Instead, he jumped to conclusions in his prior discussion with Danisho. He was clearly not on top of his game, and he would need to fix that quickly. His mind was racing.

“What if the real target of the SMHA is really the dragon queen, or Herak, or someone connected to them?”

“Yes, that’s a possibility that would fall under option 3. If the SMHA are involved in the disappreance of gods, then this may be the next phase of their plan. To make certain gods disappear with more aggressive means.”

“What if the SMHA aren’t involved in the disappearance of gods at all?”

“Well, in that case they would still try to make use of that situation in some way. In any scenario, we need more intel to figure out what they are planning. Their actions will be decisive in the biggest power shift in Arratan since the Long War. And that’s probably why an apparent outsider like you has teamed up with them. But regarding to the question what you want, I still don’t have an answer.”

There was definitely something strange going on in Arratan. Was that the reason he was sent here? To figure that out? Danisho had suggested that. But should he stake everything on that suspicion being true? What if he had a completely different mission? What if he just had to do the reasonable thing: Get out of Arratan, rather than getting distracted by supposed tests or missions? That had been his plan initially, but his talk with Danisho opened up an alternative to that.

“I don’t know what I want. First, I just wanted to leave Arratan. But then I would just continue my flight from the past. There’s no clear destination for me to go to. And here at least I may have a mission. If I really was sent into the center of a big conspiracy, I want to figure that out.”

“Great! Let’s do this together. You need to take special note what section 73 will do once they meet Zaphenix, and especially how Zaphenix reacts. That just might give you a hint whether he was just playing a particular role. Anyway, it’s probably good if you know that our sources have seen SMHA sections with representatives of gods or even gods themselves before they disappeared. This seems to have been going on for years. So, it’s probably a conspiracy that has been going on for quite a while. For a long time I’ve heard through various sources very high up in the hierarchy that they were supposedly trying to create some kind of super-ascendon item that ought to be used to enforce lasting world peace. I’ve tended to dismiss that as disinformation so far. But Adano, do you know how ascendon items are created?”

“Hundreds or thousands of players sacrifice themselves and transfer all their energy to a specific item that gets enchanted. Afterwards they get banned from the game permanently. That’s a very selfless sacrifice for the sake of the remaining players.”

“Yes, and allegedly this conspiracy of gods tried to do the same thing, but with gods sacrificing themselves rather than humans. For a long time I thought that gods were too selfish to try that, but perhaps this time was different. The Long War really messed up a lot of people for good, gods included. Well, if they actually went ahead with that plan, it would explain why so many gods have disappeared without a trace. It would also fit quite nicely to the observation that most of those gods had Paxist leanings, or were neutral at least. Yet, we see no trace of a super-ascendon item. However, nobody knows how super-ascendon items would behave, so it could be that Arnivar helped creating one, but doesn’t know how to use it. Or that he tried and something went terribly wrong. I tell you this just in case you do actually happen to encounter some mysterious item that you can’t classify. It could very well be connected to an attempt to create a super-ascendon item.”

“That’s a fascinating theory, but you don’t think that this is likely, do you?”

“Yes, I think it’s more likely that the missing gods migrated to a different habitat, or that they are hiding somewhere, preparing some plan to change the future of Arratan. If the latter is the case, then any information about their plans transpiring to others would have tremendous consequences. Perhaps Zaphenix got hold of such information, for which he’s hunted now. However, I have a last theory that may be the most disturbing of them all: That Arnivar somehow managed to neutralize and silence all the gods that were involved in this apparent conspiracy. What’s missing in that theory, is the motive, though. Many of those gods were close allies of him. Some were even members of the SMHA. Therefore, my guess is that the gods are really hiding in order to form some kind of secret alliance that possibly plans ruling Arratan from the shadows. In that case, Arnivar would merely be the visible figurehead of an organization that’s much more powerful than him and the SMHA. I tentatively call this organization the ‘Dawn of Shadows’. Either way, don’t mention any of these theories to anyone. I’ve just told them to you to sensitize you to the range of likely possibilities. If you have any information on which of my theories could be closer to the truth, I would be grateful. Even if you suspect that you’ve been given disinformation, it might still be valuable to me. We probably won’t see each other again for quite a while, perhaps we will never meet again. You can relay intel to me via the AMI operatives general Ellen Carter and colonel Railanen Kondra. I’m telling both of them that they should support you in your efforts. Don’t talk with anyone else, even if they can prove to you that they are AMI agents!”

“You seem to have a lot of trust in someone you just met and who hasn’t actually promised to work for you.”

"So it must seem to you. I have told you quite a bit, although much of that are merely plausible guesses that nearly anyone could come up with. The point is that I know much more than I have told you. And that should keep you motivated to dig deeper into the mysteries of the SMHA.

“But you don’t know why I have appeared in Arratan?”

“According to Arratan, you have entered the habitat as part of your Andromeda educational program, which should mean that this is your first prolonged period of guidance withdrawal. If this is really combined with altered memories in your case, that would be unusually harsh. Is there anything in your past that would warrant such a harsh treatment?”

“I failed entry into an ultra elite training program of the Exaltation. Perhaps this is the way I wanted to prove my worth to myself.”

“There’s still a possibility that’s more extreme than that. Your presence here could be a part of your aspirant training.”

“But I’ve never subscribed to aspirant training. I’m way too young for that.”

“Well, that’s what you are supposed to believe. Aspirant training involves very extreme levels of mind and memory alteration.”

“You really like far-fetched hypotheses, do you?”

“I certainly didn’t get my position for rejecting such hypotheses out of hand. Sometimes reality really turns out to be weirder than most people imagine. And I’m prepared for that.”

For a moment Rolan seemed absent minded. Perhaps he has been contacted by someone else via the metanet. He started concluding the meeting: “I must soon attend other matters. Let me tell you what will happen next: You will be interrogated by the city council, and you shall not under any circumstance reveal any details of this meeting, or that we met at all. Instead, you need to memorize the information you are supposed to tell them. They are in the file I’ve just sent you. Don’t tell anyone of the existence of that file! Work for us, and be rewarded. You will sooner or later encounter Ellen Carter or Railanen Kondra during your travel. You can trust them with your life. But still, here’s the most important thing I can give you along the way: Be careful!”

The way Rolan pronounced those last words were slow, deliberate, and deadly serious. It wasn’t clear whether they were meant as a threat or a warning about the dangers he’s likely to encounter. Probably that ambivalence was deliberate. Still, in any case, it sent down a shiver down Adano’s spine.

… to be continued …

(Michael Hrenka) #2

This chapter was a bit rushed at the end. I will add a critical element to it, that’s supposed to foreshadow a very central element of the plot. Implementing that element in the wrong way would break the plot. So, I had some difficulties coming to terms with that. Also, the chapter is quite unpolished. If you have any comments, PM me, or just reply here.

(Michael Hrenka) #3

Ok, the first polishing of that chapter is completed. I decided to postpone the “critical element” to a later stage of the plot.