Note: This chapter is still very fresh and unedited. Please consider this to be an early draft as long as this message still stands.
There may be a couple of inconsistencies with some minor details of the story so far. I’m going to fix them sometime next year when I’ll do my first editing run on what has been written until now.
Back to Arratan
Adano was directed to wait in front of the office of Rolan Clearlight, until further notice. After a few minutes he heard hooves clopping on the hard concrete floor of the underground complex. An armored elven warrior and a black unicorn appeared. Adano quickly identified the warrior as Tethir, one of the three champions of Ailissa. He openly transmitted: “Oh, welcome, Tehtir, I’ve seen you fights against the warrior from section 73 of the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan. Adano Rahec is my name. I’ve been recently become a guest member of section 73.”
The elf openly replied: “Nice to meet you, Adano. We’ve been summoned to discuss some delicate matters with Rolan. We’ll be back, soon. Please wait a minute.”
Without further ado, the elf and the unicorn entered the office of Rolan for an apparently highly important and confident discussion. Having nothing else to do, but wait, Adano too a look around and identified a subtly hidden magical control panel for a beverage dispenser. Apparently, the beverages here were free of charge (at least that what Adano guessed since all items had the same price annotated with a symbol that he hoped represented zero), so he ordered a regular green tea. A wall panel slid slideways and produced a tap that filled hot green tea into a paper cup. It was surprisingly strong, intense, and delicious.
Adano considered the possible consequences of not forwarding any intel to AMI either due to unwilligness, or his own inability to penetrate the secrecy of the SMHA. He realized that he was at a big disadvantage here, because he knew almost nothing about the culture of this habitat, or that of Alyade. He decided that he would soon question the locals about that as aggressively as possible.
When he got slightly bored, Adano tried to levitate his paper cup with the rest of the green tea with magical powers. Surprisingly, it didn’t feel to hard for him. His training with Jolan must have paid off. Confident with his newly acquired magical skill level, he started spinning the cup. Slowly at first, and then increasingly faster, until the liquid visibly rose at the border of the cup. When the liquid started rising to the top, he slowly stopped it, and begun turning it into the opposite direction.
He repeated that procedure many times, until he was interrupted by Tethir and the black unicorn exiting the office of Rolan and confronting him. The black unicorn introduced himself: “I’m colonel Railanen Kondra, leader of the prime anti dragon unit, and AMI agent. I will be your primary AMI contact. You can also address my partner major Tethir, but Rolan prefers you talking with me one on one to keep it simple.”
Adano couldn’t hold this obvious question back and addressed Railanen privately: “Why is one of the champions of Ailissa only ranked major, while you, his partner, are a colonel?”
“We always get this question! And our answer is as always: We prefer it this way. We’ve declined promotion offers for years. The situation got so unacceptable for command that we got promoted to ‘honorary major generals’ with the respective pay grade, but the official rank as colonel and major respectively. Thinks quickly get weird when you are a national hero.”
“Isn’t it a bit unconventional for national heroes to be active members of military intelligence?”
“You don’t understand how we operate. Your assessment is therefore uninformed.”
“Are you going to inform me?”
“We have decided it’s best not to inform you about our skills and modus operandi. Let’s just say that we are very special agents.”
“Is there anything that you can tell me that I should know?”
“Yes, we will try to stay near to you. We’ve give you a signal emitter that will call us to you.”
Tehtir handed Adano a magical device with the size of a large coin and a golden button in the middle of it.
Railanen continued: “We cannot however guarantee that we will able to heed that call. Strategical or tactical reasons may prevent us from that. Only use this in the most dire emergency, please.”
Adano thanked these AMI agents.
Then Railenen transmitted a document to Adano with the associated note that there have been recently redacted recordings of a meeting of the high council of Alyade. He requested that they were to be scanned immediately.
Redacted recording of high council meeting from the perspective of field marshall Tarkan Banewind
Due to the severity of the offer of the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan, the situation was classified as national security emergency. My presence was of course required. Also, the imperial ambassador Vera Vermillion requested to be present. We waited for the arrival of vice chief Lairesh and vice shaman Sapestris of the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan section 73.
Eventually the elf Lairesh and the deer Sapestris arrived and stood before the high council next to the human chief Modi.
President Harmon Allsong greeted them openly: “Welcome to the high council of Alyade! Thank you for coming to this hearing. The name of the Scintillaing Mist Hunters of Arratan is renowned far and wide. Getting such famous visitors is an honour for us. But let’s come to the point. As you should know, your offer is politically very explosive. First of all, a very necessary question: Is it really sincere?”
Chief Modi answered that immediately: “Of course it’s sincere. Why would anyone make jokes like that?”
The dwarf in the excessively shiny full plate armor, prime laureate Zarik Nostone, shouted back: “In order to damage the economy of Alyade by wasting the prevcious time of the high council!”
Sapestris defended Modi: “I can testify that the offer we proposed comes from our clan leader Arnivar himself.”
President Allsong inquired: “That is interesting. At least I believe you. Your high reputation binds you to your honour for keeping such a promise. Yet, I need to ask you what the exact terms and conditions of your offer are.”
Modi explained: “The Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan offer non transferable reputation debt tokens to entities helping us to capture the traitor Zaphenix. Tokens are distributed upon successful capture in proportion to the fractional contribution of the capture, as judged by Arratan. The reward is limited to a monetary equivalent of 5 billion Arratan Mark. I will transfer a file to all of you containing the precise terms and conditions of this offer, including a magic signature by Arratan himself.”
I was quite shocked when I heard that offer. After all, 5 billion Arratan Mark were the net value of a small kingdom. The SMHA were quite capable of paying that amount, but such great rewards weren’t offered since the Long War. And then such sums were the bounty that was put on gods! Under any normal circumstances, offering such a divine reward would have been absolutely excessive. No doubt that the SMHA want to make an example of out the betrayal of Zaphenix. With such a great bounty on his head, he and other potential traitors would be nowhere safe within all of Arratan!
Within the economy of Arratan non transferable reputation debt tokens were more serious than regular debt. Such tokens implied transferring a fraction of the reputation-generated income to the party holding the tokens. So, in addition to being indebted, party issuing such tokens also pays with its good name and the rewards it gets through that. For that reason, issuing reputation debt tokens were a relatively rare act.
Vox populi Alita Hardwood asked Modi openly: “Are you aware of the situation that the republic of Alyade is currently in?” Alita Hardwood was the elf who represented the people’s chamber of the senate of Alyade.
Modi countered: “We don’t care about your local politics. Our offer is valid for all parties willing and able to accept it. That’s also the reason these tokens are non-transferable. It’s about the relationship between us and the parties who help us. No third party is allowed to interfere.”
So, at least Modi was quite aware how explosive such an offer would be. In the end, the reward would go to the individuals and parties who helped most, and those couldn’t be forced to pass on that reward to their rulers – at least not directly.
President Allsong announced: “Thank you for handing us the details your offer, chief Modi. Of course, with a matter of this gravity, we will need to discuss your offer among ourselves. We would appreciate it, if you stayed here in the case that we have further questions.”
Modi acknowledged: “Very well, we will wait for a while. After all, we aren’t sure about the whereabouts of Zaphenix anyway. Disclosing his present and probable future location to us would also be actions covered by our offer.”
“We understand that. Thank you.”
The minoraur Vera Vermillion protested openly: “What is there to debate? Do I really need to remind you of passage 9 of the Integration Treaty? Alyade is required to reject any support by third parties that is directed to Alyade or its subsidiary entities. If anything, the offer of the SMHA must be directed to the Empire of Avenoi directly!”
Calmly, Modi responded: “We do not have the option to modify our offer like that. Our offer is by definition directed to the smallest entity supporting our efforts to capture Zaphenix. It would seem unreasonably hard for that smallest entity to be a whole empire. Even though we may understand the particularities of your local politics, we do not have choice to accommodate our offer to them. It has been issued by Arnivar directly with the addition that no alterations to it, no matter the circumstances, are allowed.”
Vera Vermillion demanded: “Then there is only one possible answer from this council. The Republic of Alyade needs to reject it!”
President Allsong disagreed: “It lies within the power of our sovereignty to pursue courses of action that may disagree with the terms of the Integration Treaty. The consequences of such breaches may be relatively clear, but we still have the freedom to decide for ourselves!”
Incredulously, Vera Vermillion shouted: “Are you seriously considering an open violation of the Integration Treaty? That act alone will most definitely poison your relationship with the Empire! And if you actually decide to support the SMHA, your fate will be certain annihilation!”
Allsong countered: “Certain annihilation? Those are exceptionally strong words for a diplomat! Certainly it does not lie in your personal authority to decide about the consequences of potential breaches of contract. You should know your place, dear Mrs. Vermillion.”
Vera Vermillion was visibly fuming with anger and eyed President Allsong with sheer contempt, but decided not to utter any improvident words. Instead, she signed and admitted: “I am sorry. Of course it’s in your authority to make any decision you please. I just wanted to point the most likely consequences of the most unwise decisions.”
Allsong acknowledged: “Thank you. Now, I need some time to think about the proposal of the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan.”
Within that turmoil, I had a private discussion with president Allsong. I implied: “The offer of the SMHA is too enticing to be ignored. Although they are a very deceptive and secretive clan, their code of honor and reputation is nearly impeccable. If they proclaim such an offer as this, they are honor bound to fulfill it! We can’t risk letting such an opportunity go to waste. An alliance with the SMHA might turn the tide and grant us full independence!”
President Harmon Allsong, the fabled elven master archer replied: “We have to be careful here. It seems that the SMHA are extremely desperate to capture this Zaphenix. If they offer their support to everyone who helps them in their quest, they will soon be enmeshed in a whole range of obligations that they may not be able to fulfill, even though they are honor bound. What if both Alyadese forces and Avenoi forces support them in catching Zaphenix? They would be honor bound to support both sides, which in a case of open war would create an obvious conflict. In that case they would claim that this conflict of interest would allow them to remain neutral and help both factions in the future wherever there will be no conflict of interst. Therefore, we cannot count on the SMHA to support us in the case of a war against the empire of Avenoi.”
“Yes, I’ve come to the same conclusion. But if we manage to support the SMHA and prevent the empire of Avenoi to support them in their vendetta, then we would achieve a massive advantage. With the support of the SMHA, Herak will think twice to attack us ever again. We could be completely free from his tyranny. The trick is supporting the SMHA without Avenoi becoming suspicious and preventing Avenoi from supporting the SMHA!”
“Even if we were to achieve that, it would quickly become public knowledge that the SMHA were indebted to us. Such a situation would be a clear violation of our obligation not to accept the support by third parties, according to the Integration Treaty. The most likely result would be a direct attack of Avenoi on us.”
“That is questionable. Herak won’t quickly attack us, if we recently gained the favour of the SMHA. The SMHA would have all rights to retaliate frighteningly against Herak.”
“I seriously disagree! Wouldn’t it be very expedient for the SMHA to let their debtors be wiped out? Letting us help them out just to get defeated by Herak would be a double victory for the SMHA. No, we must not count on them helping us out in our conflict with Herak Avenoi.”
“Expedient yes, but that wouldn’t be honorable behavior. And the SMHA are known to be quite honorable, even though they are legendarily secretive.”
“Would it be wise to bargain the future of our nation on the continuation of the tradition of the SMHA of being honorable? After all, we live in very uncertain times. And if the SMHA are really part of a conspiracy that caused the disappearance of gods, their previous reputation of honor will quickly amount to nothing.”
“I am aware that this would be a large gamble, but this is our last best chance to achieve full autonomy. [REDACTED #1] We cannot risk letting that future unfold by doing nothing!”
“That is a fair point. [REDACTED #2]”
“Exactly. And that’s the reason why we cannot under any circumstance risk Avenoi gaining the favor of the SMHA. We must be certain to gain their favor, while depraving Avenoi from it.”
“That would seem like a difficult task. Do you already have a plan for achieving that?”
“Well, the offer of the SMHA reeks of desperation. This implies that Zaphenix has stolen something of incredible importance from them. Whether that’s an item or information doesn’t matter at first. We need to convince the empire that this thing is more valuable to them than the support of the SMHA.”
“What could be so important?”
“Anything that’s related to the disappearance of gods. According to AMI, there is serious evidence that the SMHA were involved in the events that lead to that mysterious event. If Zaphenix has some information of what really happened, and then it’s quite plausible that the revelation of that information might harm the SMHA on a massive scale. That’s why they put so much effort into retrieving Zaphenix.”
“Wouldn’t it already be too late to stop the spread of that information, if Zaphenix has already escaped their immediate grasp?”
“Not necessarily. If Zaphenix hasn’t reached the party who he wants to disclose that information to, the SMHA might still very well prevent the worst for themselves. And in that case, capturing Zaphenix and getting that intel out of him would create the opportunity to blackmail the SMHA by threatening to release it to the public. Apart from the possibility that the intel itself might be useful all by itself, of course.”
“That is quite devious, Tarkan. And quite befitting to the mindset of the ruthless ruler of Avenoi, to be honest. Now, just hypothetically speaking, why shouldn’t we try to get hold of this Zaphenix ourselves?”
“Quite frankly, at the very least, because it would be too risky for us to attempt that. If just one of those hypotheses turns out to be false, or we will be unable to get hold of Zaphenix before everyone else, it will all be for nought. Supporting the SMHA directly is a far safer path and quite sufficient for our goals.”
“I see, those are interesting thoughts. And I generally agree with your estimation. However, the imperial delegates are smart. They may come to similar conclusions and therefore would attempt to capture Zaphenix anyway. And even if they didn’t succeed with that, they will most likely help the SMHA to capture him in the process. In either case, the Empire wins. We would have to prevent them from doing anything that helps anyone to capture Zaphenix. Do you see any way to achieve that, Tarkan?”
“Maybe there is a chance for that. [Redacted #5] The Empire might then mistrust the forces of Areol and would need to employ forces from the heartland of Avenoi. At least that would delay them quite a bit. That would grant us enough time for us to make our move.”
“Now that seems like proper plan. By seeding mistrust, we will slow down Avenoi and quickly make our own move. The biggest problem I see here is the question how Areol will really react. If they get their claws on Zaphenix before anyone else, which they are likely to do anyway, we have a big problem. [Redacted #6]”
“I agree. [Redacted #7] Of course that depends on whether Zaphenix does have some critical intel that can be effectively used to blackmail the SMHA.”
“So, the situation looks quite complex and uncertain. [Redacted #8] To me, it looks like we don’t have enough information to make a robust decision. We might have to err on the side of being too conservative and just don’t support the SMHA at all.”
“But if we don’t help them, Avenoi will probably end up helping them, strengthening their position. That is not acceptable, especially since time works against us. I’d say we need to support them, even if it’s extremely risky and will most likely trigger plan B.”
“No, the risk is too high. [Redacted #9]”
“Then we must make sure that we really don’t turn them against us. I see an option for that. If information is what we currently lack, then we need to gather more information as quickly as possible. Let Railenen’s unit spy on the SMHA in secret. He will probably be able to make a sound decision on whether it’s worth supporting the SMHA or not.”
“Are you saying we should delegate the decision about the violation of the Integration Treaty to Railanen?”
“I don’t see any better option. Railanen ist loyal to us, and our cause. He is well able to make good strategic decisions. If he is in the field with the SMHA he may find out critical information that might turn the tide either way. Not having him out there would be a strategic mistake, in any case. And if we sent him in order just to gather information, that is hardly to be seen as support for the SMHA. But if he finds out that it’s clear that it’s the best for Alyade to support them, he will be in the best situation to execute that support. After all, his unit is one of our best.”
“As much as I understand the logic of your reasoning, I feel highly uncomfortable delegating the decision on peace or war to a single soldier.”
“I absolutely share this discomfort, but I don’t see any better viable course of action for our republic.”
“Then it must be done so anyway. [Redacted #10]”
“Yes [Redacted #11]”
“I see, and I agree with you. Please proceed with your plan with my blessing. I will see to it that Zarik will support us. Alita would of course interpret our ambitions as treason against the people of Alyade, so it’s imperative that she’s kept in the dark, even though she may suspect our course of action. Either way, this conspiracy of ours will sooner or later come to light. In that case, we will be condemned no matter what. Do you really love Alyade so much as to accept that personal fate?”
“Of course I do, Mr President. Even if my reputation will be completely ruined, I am more than willing to offer that sacrifice. And I assume the same is true for you.”
“Obviously you know that I had to ask that question. Thank you very much for your loyalty to the spirit of our nation! I will now proceed with our common plan.”
“Very well, Mr. President. And thank you. Whatever will happen, it has been an honor to work with you.”
“Thank you very much! It has been a great honor to have such a faithful supporter in you, Tarkan Banewind.”
Eventually President Allsong announced: “We will have to delegate the decision on the support of the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan to our senate. I’ve called all senators for an emergency plenum. Until then, please let us ask you a few questions, honored delegates of section 73. First of all, what are your plans in the case that you don’t get any help from any of us?”
Modi answered that briefly: “We would travel to Aergalath, the capitol of Areol. Zaphenix will probably request help from his mother Zartezia Areol. Unless you have any better information, that is the next logical place to seek for clues about the current and future location of Zaphenix.”
President Allsong seemed to be pleased: “Very well. That seems very reasonable. Since Aergalath lies to the South of Alyade, I ask you whether you have heard any news about that region.”
Modi played ignorant: “I am not sure what you are alluding to, Mr. President.”
Allsong revealed: “There have been numerous reports of the infamous dragon terrorist Kyuravek making raids around our Southern border region. It’s not unlikely that you will encounter him during a journey to Aergalath. I’m not sure you aware of the strength of Kyutarvek, but he has been making raids on basically all regions of the whole continent for decades. Since then he has been undefeated. Even though he has no divine blood, he is one of the oldest and most experienced dragons of all of Arratan. His combat strength is fabled to equal that of a demigod, at least.”
Modi replied: “You don’t need to lecture us on the legendary Kyutarvek Anissar. He’s certainly one of the most famous warrior of Atraxea, and his exploits have spread throughout the whole world. However, our stance in this mission is adamant: We will request the help of any party encountered, no matter their polticial or personal affiliations. That even goes for the father of Zaphenix!”
The whole council seemed shocked by that stark comment. Allsong coughed deliberately and inquired: “Excuse me, Kyutarvek is easily the most wanted terrorist of the continent, and you consider employing his services in the hunt for his own son? Have you lost your minds?”
Modi started grinning widely: “Yes, indeed. That is our plan. As we’ve stated so far, we don’t care about your local politics. We as Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan have to make a clear point: Betray us, and no power in the world will come to your help, not even your own family. You will be hunted to the end of time and find no refuge, no safe haven, no respite. Everyone you know will help us to drag you back to our domain. And when the time will come, you will have to expect the worst. We will not allow anyone to interfere with this message we need to broadcast to all of Arratan. Let this be clear! Arnivar’s orders about this have been absolute and uncompromising.”
This announcement has shut up everyone in the council for a couple of moments. Finally, Allong has collected his composure and announced: “Your message has been abundantly clear, chief Modi. We do not intend to stand in the way of your Vendetta. But he have to warn you that Kyutarvek may not be easily reasoned with. He would most likely ignore your status of being a section of the powerful Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan, and just attack you for the goods in your possession. The very least we can do is to provide you with an escort until you reach our Southern border.”
Allsong then asked me: “What kind of escort do you think would be sufficient to protect them from Kyutarvek? A dragon hunter division?”
I was surprised about such an ignorance: “Even the SMHA 73 and a regular dragon hunter division would most likely be defeated by Kyutarvek. The recent rise in his power is absolutely shocking! If our latest intel is to be trusted he could even mow down two regular dragon hunter divisions. If we really want to make sure the SMHA 73 are escorted safely, I would recommend sending out four top dragon hunter divisions, in addition to the Railanen’s secret unit. After all, Kyutarvek is an absolute monster in combat. Ideally, we should send out Ellen Carter. She’s a very experienced AMI operative and battle hardened.”
Vera Vermillion criticized: “Wait a minute! Isn’t offering an escort for the SMHA, at least indirectly offering them any support in their quest to hunt down Zaphenix?”
Allsong countered: “Thank you for pointing out this possibly contentious point, diplomat Vermillion. No, we have to state clearly, that this escort only has the mandate to provide for the safe travel of section 73 within the borders of Alydade. Unless otherwise decided, the escort may not provide direct help for hunting down Zaphenix.”
This time, Vox Populi Alita Hardwood contacted the President, me, and Prime Lau Zarik Nostone: “I won’t let you play a thinly veiled game here. You do plan to support the SMHA in secret, don’t you? Don’t do that! That would be your downfall! And of course the downfall of all of Alyade. The nation you have sworn to protect at all cost, no matter what. Do something irresponsible, and I will sure that there is no world in which you will be safe!”
Carefully, Harmon Allsong replied: “Of course we have the best interests of Alyade in mind. There can be no question about that. And sure, it would be irresponsibly reckless of us, if we ordered anything that might be interpreted as a violation of the Integration Treaty. Do you think we are stupid? We are planning nothing that amounts to anything like that. And I feel personally offended by your rash allegations, Vox Populi Alita Hardwood!”
Imperial diplomat Vermillion requested: “If you actually go ahead to provide an escort for section 73, I insist that a unit of our imperial security forces will also accompany section 73 together with your escort.”
Allsong agreed: “Very well. Do as you please. I do not have any objections. But due to the severity of the threat posed by Kyutarvek, we will send out four anti dragon divisions to escort section 73. At least, if the senate will agree to this measure.”
Modi interjected: “Then I hope your senate will make haste about this decision, because every second we spend debating is a second that Zaphenix will use to escape our grasp!”
Allsong held up his hands and proclaimed: “We are already handling this as a national security emergency, so the senators should start debating the issue within twenty minutes. In any case, there are a few questions to you that you accelerate their decision process. Let me ask you first what you know about the newly formed Atraxea Defense Alliance.”
Calmly, Modi responded: “The last time I checked, the Atraxea Defense Alliance had the status of being a regional defense alliance not officially recognized by the Directorate. This may have to do with a couple of illegal expansion conflicts within this continent, including the annexion of Alyade by the empire of Avenoi. The Directorate won’t accept the legitimacy of a defense alliance that has grown due to illegal wars.”
Vera Vermillions broadcast extreme outrage and disapproval about this statement, but before she could speak, President Allsong intervened: “I assume you mean the Peace Directorate of Vedria. We acknowledge that it doesn’t recognize the Atraxea Defense Alliance as legitimate defense alliance, but that doesn’t diminish it’s de facto status within Atraxea as influential political body. Be that as it may. In any case, Kyutarvek is seen as outcast and criminal not only by the Atraxea Defense Alliance, but also by other nations. I must warn you that working together with him, or any other terrorists, will earn you great disapproval by most factions within the continent of Atraxea!”
Modi calmly insisted: “Thank your for your clarification, but I become tired of having to repeat our stance here: We really do not care about local politics. It is of no concern for us whether those who assist us are labeled by you as heroes, traitors, criminals, or terrorists.”
Allsong tried to make his point clear: “Ok, now you are really getting through with your point. However, I must make clear that your stance has the potential to offend the Atraxea Defence Alliance in a major way, and that the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan could be rejected entry to the member territories of the ADA in the future.”
Modi coldly replied: “If that were to happen, the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan would not hesitate to neutralize the leaders of the ADA as quickly as possible.”
Inside I screamed: “Well, this escalated far too quickly!”
Sapestris emphasized: “It is indeed within our mandate from Arnivar that any force opposing our vendetta against Zaphenix is to be met with extreme prejudice. And if this is still too diplomatic for you, let me rephrase that: Stand in our way, and you will get crushed.”
The dwarf Zarik Nostone suddenly laughed and burst out: “I really like your guts, chief Modi and vice shaman Sapestris! This is so refreshing. We should have a drink together as soon as possible! Friends or enemies, I don’t care. People like you who dare to threaten the gods themselves are the stuff of legends. Hail to you, no matter what destiny will unleash on us!”
Vera Vermillion exploded: “This insolence is unheard off! Your leader Anivar must have become absolutely drunk on his power, trying to bully a whole continent into submission! This is absolutely unacceptable! I demand an immediate apology!”
Completely unfazed, Sapestris replied: “It does not within our authority to provide any kind of apology. We are merely relaying the words of Arnivar. If you have a problem with that, please feel free to write an official complaint letter to him. I’ve heard that this have become a popular form of suicide these days.”
Vera Vermillion just sent out extreme indignation and anger, but didn’t dare to speak another word.
President Allsong annouced: “Council adjourned. I think everyone here needs a short break. The meeting of the senare will commence soon. I invite everyone present to join in. Everyone here now knows what’s at stake.”
— End of recording.
Adano was quite taken aback by the level of trust that AMI has placed on him not to spill the beans about all of this. Even if the most incriminating and critical parts of this discussion have been censored, it was clear enough that this time field marshall Tarkan Banewind and president Harmon Allong were intent on ignoring proper procedures and employed the service of AMI for their own agenda. The subtext of this was of course: ‘Tell anyone about this, and you are royally screwed!’ What kind of secret service would entrust strangers with these kind of secrets? Of course, one that really didn’t trust them at all, and wanted to test them by watching how they deal with false information. Worst of all, he wouldn’t have any easy way to confirm which parts of this recording were true and which were tampered with.
It was still a lot of infiormation for Adano to take in. The politics of this worlds seemed to have grown to be quite complicated. That’s why Adano asked Railenen: “Thank you for your trust. I’m new to this world, so I would like to have some more information on your political struggles. First of all, who is the Peace Directorate of Vedria exactly and how did this Atraxrea Defense Alliance came to be?”
Patiently Railenen explained: “The Peace Directorate of Vedria emerged from the ashes of the Long War. It’s the political body in control of the superweapon Vedria, a flying city with the power to erase kingdoms and gods alike. For a long time, it had enjoyed the status of a de-facto world government. The Directorate itself is comprised of seven max gods who make decisions of the basis of simple majority. One of the most important roles of the Directorate consists in regulating large scale conflicts within Arratan. For such conflicts, the opposing parties are required to get their desired conflict be permitted by the Directorate. Lately, there have been a lot of large scale conflicts that weren’t legalized by the Directorate. Officially, the Directorate disapproves of such conflicts and holds the offending parties in contempt. However, the violations of Directorate doctrine have become too numerous for the Directorate to punish effectively. That’s how Herak Avenoi succeeded in conquering Alyade, despite that annexation not being acknowledged by the Directorate. Now, the Atraxea Defense Alliance is the political body of the kingdoms and empires on this continent who pursue an imperialist and expansionist policy in complete disregard of the disapproval of the Directorate. Even a couple of years earlier, such a think would have been unthinkable. But the power of the Directorate has evaporated so quickly that the Atraxea Defense Alliance went on to expand its sphere of influence nearly unopposed.”
Adano was puzzled: “What factors contributed to the loss of power of the Directorate, despite its possession of an overwhelming superweapon?”
“Most people were very happy about the peace that the Directorate brought to them. However, it came at great costs. There are three reasons that many are unhappy with the Directorate. First, the Directorate requires a large mana tribute for the upkeep of the systems of Vedria. Then, there’s the long winded bureaucracy revolving all kinds of large scale conflicts, which many claim to be interfering with their own autonomy. And last but not least, there’s the requirement for large groups to participate in peacekeeping missions started by the Directorate. A lot of people got the impression that the increasing number of ‘peacekeeping’ missions needed to maintain the authority of the Directorate were not much better than the commands of the various warlords during the Long War.”
“Then, what’s your opinion on the Directorate?”
“We understand the position the Directorate is taking. However, our first priority is national sovereignty. With regards to that, the Directorate is nevertheless a far lesser evil than the empire of Avenoi, and the Atraxea Defense Alliance in its back.”
“In other words, you hate the Directorate, but you hate Avenoi and the Atraxea Defense Alliance more.”
“Those are your words, but they aren’t too far from the truth.”
“Great, now please let me have some information on the nations surrounding Alyade, and their respective stance of the Directorate and the Atraxea Defence Alliance, respectively, of course including Areol and Avenoi.”
Railanen snorted and began: “Let’s start with the easiest part. To the North of Alyade there’s the small independent nation of Cormogyn, ruled by the human god king Cormo. He’s a clear supporter of the Directorate and a clear enemy of the ADA. To the West of Alyade, there’s the indepentent unicorn nation of Hedra, ruled by the unicorn god queen Volya Hedra. Hedra has a policy of being a neutral as possible. My own parents were from Hedra, by the way. Many citizens of Hedra decide to support Alyade by adopting the citizenship of this nation, but that’s a purely personal decision. Officially, Hedra does not support Alyade in any way. To the South of Alyade there’s the kingdom of Areol, ruled by the dragon queen Zartezia Areol living in her capitol of Aergalath. Areol is quite loyal to Avenoi. South of Areol, there’s the heardland of the kingdom of Avenoi, the core nation of the empire of Avenoi. This is where god emperor Herak Avenoi rules supreme from his capitol Herakopolis. To the West of Ailissa there are the Zartezian Alps, ruled by the demon god Laneg, who has an extreme disregard for external politics on any kind. Lastly, beyond the Zartezian Alps, there’s the kingdom Zartaxis of the human god king of Zartax. Zartax is the last remaining strong opponent of the Atraxea Defense Alliance, and has great connections with the Directorate.”
Adano took quite a few minutes to process all of this information. He concluded: “It seems that those nations who has evaded being taken in by the ADA do have some kind of god protecting them. I assume that dragon queen Zartezia Areol is not a god, and therefore could not effectively resist the aggression from Herak Avenoi, am I right?”
“True. The dragons of Areol tried to recruit a protective god for themselves, but failed. Their last effort involved the individual now known as Kyutarvek Anissar. He was the previous ruler of the nation of Areol, previously known as Anissar. He attempted ascending to a god, but when that failed, he deserted his people and his family, and went on to randomly ravage the whole continent in search for magical items that would increase his power. And I need to add that he has been quite successful at that. Not once has he been effectively captured and stripped of his possessions!”
“I assume this predicament is due to the relatively low population density of dragons, and the requirements of many people to sacrifice themselves in order to create an ascendon item. Dragons are few and proud. They are not eager to sacrifice their future in the game, in order to turn one of them into a god, am I right?”
“Yes, you are quick to connect the dots in this game of ours, Adano Rahec. And of course, the elves of Alyade would have created an Anluminar item themselves, if there wasn’t this extreme doctrine of fighting on without the help of any gods.”
“Such a doctrine could not be unopposed. I assume that there is a large faction of Alyadese who would be willing to violate this doctrine and try creating an ascendon item, in order to turn one of them into a god who can effectively oppose Herak Avenoi.”
“One would have reason to assume that, but the reputation of Alyade as the Godless Republic has become so absolutely dominant that any such movements have been degraded to the absolute fringe. Alyade lives from its reputation of defying the gods that any deviation from that doctrine has become effectively unthinkable.”
“But of course that clashes with the reality of you being ruled by the god emperor Herak Avenoi. And of course he can only keep us his rule over you with tyrannical means.”
“This really hasn’t been hard to guess, but it’s nevertheless true. Anyway, I’ve been informed that there’s now a break in the senate plenum. You might want to use this opportunity to get in contact with your delegates.”
Then, seemingly from nowhere, Tethir proceeded to give Railanen a long kiss on his mouth.
Without letting this opportunity going to waste, Adano asked: “And what’s the cultural meaning of that kind of kiss, if I may ask?”
Railanen quickly replied: “What do you expect? We are romantic partners. Actually, we are married.”
“Great. But this raises a few questions for me. First of all, isn’t reproduction here in Arrtan sexual? How is viable offspring produced? Doesn’t this require one male and one female of the same species?”
“Indeed it does. We don’t actually planning on producing any offspring?”
“Even though you are national heroes? Don’t you get a lot of flak for entertaining this kind of relationship and announcing your unwillingness to use your high status to produce some high quality offspring for Alyade?”
“Of, you think this is an easy matter? Let me tell you, it is not! We’ve been repeatedly pressured to mate with genetically compatible partners. Despite all this pressure, we’ve adamantly declined. We are almost all the time involved in high stakes missions for Alyade. Even if we had any offspring, we would hardy find any opportunity to interact with them. That’s not what we want. We are national heroes who give everything to protect the republic! We are a dream team, and that’s how we came together, realizing our common fate in this role. And the nation has grown to accept that this is our fate.”
“I’m sorry for being so insensitive!”
“You are forgiven. In fact, I commend you on your courage to ask such questions. And now, please use your opportunity to get in touch with the rest of your section.”
While Adano moved to the upper levels of the Citadel, he berated himself for not asking about the nature sexual intercourse within romantic relationships within Arratan, when it comes to homosexual and/or interspecies couples. Such cultural matters were handled extremely differently within the expanse of all the cultures of the ZCC. While some cultures took even the suggestion of sexual intercourse as reason for immediate banishment, for other cultures the sexual intercourse between anyone and anything was not only accepted, but seen as strict requirement of etiquette.
Then Adano realized that he probably wasn’t out of telepathic reach of Railanen and dared to ask: “I’m sorry, this is quite embarassing for me, but I request a short briefing on the sexual policy within Arratan about non sexually viable romantic relationships.”
“Liberal standards apply here. And if you care to know it, I like being licked in my sensitive areas.”
Before Railanen could reveal more details, Adano replied: “Thanks for that intel! I appreciate it.”
That was a close call of Adano. While his elite training included all kinds of sexual intercourse, he was really not willing to commit any kind of cultural paux fas.
Yes, all kinds of sexual intercourse you can dream up, and much more!
Adano met Modi, Lairesh, and Sapestris in the main lobby of the Citadel. They sent out their surprise at seem him here. He needed to improvise a good explanation quickly: “I was requested in a hearing. I planned to use this opportunity to gather some intel.”
Modi answered: “That is quite interesting. Who has interviewed you, and what have you found out?”
“I am sorry. I have pledged not to reveal any details.”
In a rather cyncical tone, Modi replied “Sheesh, the Alyadese must have put you under such pressure for you to make such a pledge. What makes you so afraid of not revealing anything, even in private?”
“Maybe I’ve really been put under some pressure, but independent of that, I don’t feel eager to reveal Alyadese secrets to you without anything in return.”
Modi started laughing loudly and asked Adano privately: “It seems that you have adapted to the culture of Arratan rather quickly, Adano. What do you want to know exactly?”
“Does Zaphenix possess any information that could be used to blackmail the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan?”
“Your question is very vague, Adano. People can try to blackmail us with any of the many secrets in our possession. Without more detail, I cannot possibly answer that question.”
“Does Zaphenix know anything about the Disappearance of Gods?”
“Ah, I see. You’ve been fed with the rumors that we Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan are somehow connected to the Disappearance of Gods.”
“And what’s the relation of those rumors with truth?”
“I’m not authorized to talk about that. Please address our shamans Zathinax of Sapestris!”
‘What a suspicious answer’ Adano thought. It confirmed to him what Rolan Clearlight revealed to him about the structure of the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan. It’s their shamans that really are in the know. One reason more to get in contact with Sapestris!
Adano asked her: “I assume that you’ve been informed about my recent conversation with Modi.”
“You are assuming that any conversation with our chief is forwarded to me? What do you think of us, Adano? Privacy is tantamount for us Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan!”
“I really don’t get you or your policy!”
“Ah, don’t feel bad about that. That’s very intentional.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No, seriously not. We hold privacy is seriously high esteem. If there was anything important between chief Modi and you, you will have to repeat it for me. Anyway, I’m very pleased to meet you here.”
“Ok, then I have a really simple question for you: What’s really going on here?”
“You really have to be more specific, dear!”
“What are you really after in this mission?”
“There’s really no need for you to know that!”
“Okay, fair enough. How have you met Zathinax, then?”
“So it is, then. You forgo critical information about the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan for rather irrelevant personal information.”
“How am I supposed to work together with you, if I don’t really know you?”
“I really don’t want to talk about my past with Zaphenix outside of Arratan. A lot of incredibly painful stuff happened back then. Both of us have made clear that we don’t want to get reminded of our past, and most members of the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan accepted that, and stopped pestering us about that. There are of course exceptions, but I would appreciate it, if you tried not be another one of those.”
“Can you then at least tell me what really brought you to Arratan? Did you try fleeing from your past, or was there something in Arratan that was unique?”
“Arratan is a place in which secrets and mysteries are abundant and get celebrated. People want to uncover them, but that’s quite natural. The point is that here, this process is a great challenge, even for the most trivial of mysteries.”
“And what about the big mysteries like the Disappearance of Gods? I get the impression that people can devote whole lifetimes to those.”
“Yes, they do. I’m not surprised that you got wind of the Disappearance of Gods. It’s one of the most debated topics in Arratan right now, and very rightly so.”
“Do you happen to know anything about it?”
“Actually, our section was tasked with finding out clues about it in the neighboring nation of Cormogyn before we got the mission to seek Zaphenix. I can’t say that we managed to figure out much. And the little we found us is of course confidential.”
“Do you think that there is any way that you could get Arnivar to share his collected information on that topic with you?”
“Only if he decided that we really need to know about it. And that is something that is pretty much outside of our control.”
“Isn’t there any way to get into a closer circle of trust around Arnivar?”
“Nearly everyone who learns about the way that the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan operate, which is not a secret, asks that question. Even if I possessed such information, I would at least need to claim that it’s confidential, or just deny its existence. Do you see now how pointless it is to ask us such questions?”
“Pointless, and frustrating. Which is why I prefer asking about you. Have you found what you have sought here in Arratan?”
“This place fulfills its purpose for me.”
“That answer doesn’t sound very enthusiastic. It feels like you are missing something.”
“You may be up to something there. Look, I still feel broken from what happened in my past. I usually try to cover that up, but it’s pulling me down again and again. There’s no problem with this world. The problem lies within me. As much as I am able to help others, I feel helpless about solving my own problems. Eventually, I will be able to overcome this. I don’t feel any urgency about this matter. I am already old. Old enough to realize that haste is futile. I may have problems, but I have decided to master them at my own pace. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
Just for reference: When people in the Zone call themselves “old”, they usually mean having experienced at least a subjective millennium. That is of course only possible, if they have at one time accelerated their thought processes above the norm.
“I have a lot of respect for the old. My mentor and my coach were quite old. And they were amazing persons. Even though I had despised them for their strictness and eccentricity. I kinda miss them, but I miss my wiseguide Diolineda infinitely more. I really feel lost here.”
“Do you hope that I would say anything that might make it easier for you?”
“Isn’t that what you do to help people around here?”
“If so, that is not my primary intention. I merely offer different perspectives. Sometimes those perspectives help others to move forward, sometimes they don’t. It’s not about things being easy. It’s about making sense of ourselves, and our relation with the world.”
“My relationship with the world has broken down. I feel like a part of me has died with my disconnection from wisenet. I do not know how I am right now.”
“And yet you haven’t given up. You are still seeking for answers to important questions. That is pretty admirable. Few would have the strength to go on after receiving such a sudden and extreme shock like you did.”
“Inside I feel like I’m going crazy, but I cannot allow myself to fall into that kind of pit. I need to remain strong.”
“You are seeking refuge in the strength that had defined you as Exaltationist. That is a completely natural and rational reaction. There’s nothing wrong with that, and you should stick to what you can maintain about yourself.”
“Thank you for your advice!”
Adano hoped that being open about his inner struggles would help him getting Sapestris to open up to him. So far, she’s setting clear boundaries, but maybe with time he might be able to transform this counselor patient relationship into something else. Of course, Sapestris would easily see through that, but Adano had the hope that there was at least a part in her that wanted something else. If there was anyone within this section of the Scintillating Mist Hunters of Arratan that he needed to get to befriend, then it was Sapestris. She seemed to be quite reasonable. Zathinax seemed to be much more complicated, but perhaps there was still hope for him.
“You are very welcome, Adano Rahec. As my good friend Danisho would say ‘Every person is a bundle of mysteries that awaits being solved.’ I appreciate our exchange on how we really feel. It’s what I enjoy most in this world: Getting to the ground on what makes us feel uncomfortable in this world. You might see that as strange, but that’s how I find most meaning here.”
Adano felt exhilarated. Things were working out far better than he had expected. That, or Sapestris had laid out a trap for him that he completely fell for. And even if that were the case, Adano really preferred falling for that clever trap to the bleak and unguided reality that he was currently being immersed into. But in that thought there lay danger. Adano was keenly aware that he had to keep himself together, otherwise he would risk everything.
“So, you find joy in suffering. That’s one of the earliest lessons for Exaltationists. But I’m pretty sure you are aware of that.”
“Yes, and you are still thinking way too simple.”
… to be continued …