Land of Shadows (pt. 1) (2008)

“Master! Master!” the apprentice yelled as he burst into the room.

Interrupted in his study, Durias sighed, “What is it, apprentice?” The event had to be important for his apprentice to disturb him. Or so he’d told the young Human repeatedly for the last month.

“A report from our agent in Burkeport, Master,” he reported, “It is very unusual and marked high priority by the library on Valtech Six.”

Intriguing. “Very well, place is in the reader, “ the Elf instructed. Might as well use this as a learning opportunity. While the machine read the datastick, he asked, “Why might this be important?”

“It comes from Burkeport, Master.”

“And?”

“The Arcanum has no official presence in Imperial space because of their restrictions on sorcery.”

“Very good,” Durias said as the data came up on the screen. He immediately saw why it was prioritized. “What does this say to you, apprentice?”

“It is a station diagram, Master . . . but I haven’t seen one of that shape before.” The Elf nodded, “Exactly.” He tapped a few keys on another computer. “Nor has anyone else in the Arcanum, it seems. Notice also in the notes, the top deck is open, yet opaque to recording devices. No such shield is exists in the Five Nations.”

“Master, the coordinates are beyond the Empire,” the Human pointed to the numbers.

Durias absently waved a hand, causing a comm device to float across the room to him. He keyed an internal location. “Yes. Master Durias . . . How did we acquire the latest information from Burkeport? Number . . . one seven six zero seven nine strike three six . . . yes, thank you.” He set the device down, then explained, “It will take a day or so. In the meantime, contact Kailis. Even if sorcery is not involved, this should be investigated.”

His apprentice hesitated, “Kailis, Master? Surely there is someone else, someone in the Arcanum?”

“It is precisely because he is a rogue that I want Kailis,” Durias said, “His family has been successfully moving between the Republic and Empire in secret for the three generations I have known them. Do you know how they do it without getting caught?”

“No, Master.”

“Exactly.”

“Yes, Master.”

The Elf continued to ponder the dearth of information as his apprentice slipped from the room unnoticed. The data was maddening, just a couple minutes of information, enough to be tantalizing. There was not enough detail to answer anything. Just color coded sections with each area’s apparent purpose, the intriguing top level, and some . . . no, that was strange. There were no radiation, biological, or chemical scans. Those were effectively standard everywhere, done automatically. But the information under each was blank.

So. Either there was no such radiation, life, or chemicals or the scans were not conducted. Or they had been suppressed, perhaps they were considered unimportant? Surely signs of life and radiation would be important in some so . . . unique. His fingers steepled, Durias considered the frustratingly minimalist data.

A spell that might help came to mind, one of his own creation that the processors would not be expected to know.

He was on the verge of trying it when the comm device buzzed.

It floated to his hand as one of his apprentices appeared at the door. He raised a hand, stopping the Orc as effectively as if he had cast a spell.

“Master Durias,” the Elf answered the call and listened for a few seconds, “That is a routine matter, send it to Ceswir. Yes. Very good.”

He beckoned the apprentice forward and sent the comm to its place. The Orc bowed, “Master. Myrlun says he has talked to the man you wanted and ‘the obstinate scoundrel said you can’ . . . master, I do not wish to repeat his disrespectful word.” Durias nodded. “In short, master, he said he might come by tomorrow for lunch. If you buy, master.”

The Arcanum master chuckled, “Of course he did. And do not worry about his words, Verr. I recall saying similar about my master behind his back. So the smuggler cannot say anything I have not heard before.”

He continued to chuckle softly as his apprentice, looking suitably scandalized, backed from the room. Off to studies or other duties, probably. They were all so solemn these days, Durias thought. It had not always been that way. They used to take joy in learning, about the Art and the universe. But that would have been a good couple decades before his current batch of apprentices had been born. These days, so many of the apprentices, and even young masters, seemed interested solely in amassing and hoarding knowledge, as if it was a commodity. They all obsessed about passing tests and acquiring rank. Perhaps the Arcanum had become too fixed and regimented. Well, that was a thought for another day.

Right now, the perplexing new information and his attempts to circumvent Bona’s Fifth Law of Enchantment, which appeared to be natural in origin, were more likely to retain his attention. Admittedly, he had been working on Bona’s law for the last month with little progress, but it did seem to be one of the more important blocking agents in that greatest of quests for mass produced enchantments. Even his brief forays into planar sorcery had not produced much help. Admittedly, he was far from being an expert in that obscure branch of the Art.

Thinking of which . . .

The Elf rose and moved to a cleared area of his rooms. He surveyed the freshly scrubbed floor and chose his spot. A piece of chalk was removed from an inner pocket of his jacket. After a few seconds’ thought, Durias was drawing a circle on the smooth floor. That done, he added marks at key points, characters in an ancient dialect. Four minutes later, he rose and surveyed his work. When he found no imperfections, the Elf paused to check his own protective spells and charms.

Finally satisfied, Durias locked his chamber door, stepped up to the circle, and forcefully called, “Klivrn!”

Then came the requisite waiting period. For a minor dimensional entity, like the one he had called, it should not be long. Still, the delayed gratification had driven many of his colleagues away from this method, it was much slower and more dangerous than regular sorcery. Even as a hobby though, it was still sometimes useful, like it might be this time.

Within a minute, the inner circle was filled by a nebulous form. As it took a vaguely humanoid shape, Durias pointed to a display currently showing the basic station and its coordinates. “Klivrn, how long would it take for you to travel to that place and back here?”

A sepulchral voice responded, “An hour, friend Durias.”

Spatial locations were not necessarily located in the same place on every plane of the multiverse. The Elf nodded, “Excellent. Go to this place and discover what you can about it. Then return to this circle in tow hours. In return, I will provide five medium power cells.”

“Your offering is acceptable,” the being intoned as it faded from sight.

The master was left waiting once again. He busied himself by toying with Bena’s law for a time, oblivious to the rustlings of his troupe of apprentices until Myrlun touched his shoulder. All of his apprentices gathered for their afternoon lesson, or nearly an hour of their master talking about the theory behind the afternoon’s task. While they practiced turning the theory into reality, Durias left a comm message for a colleague more skilled in planar sorcery and awaited his extraplanar visitor.

He set the agreed upon power cells in the circle a few seconds before Klivrn materialized. Or, rather, before its essence did. To date, they had no known method of moving matter between the planes. The power cells’ energy was being drained as the being touched them.

Durias, familiar with the entity, waited patiently. The room grew silent as his apprentices slowly realized what stood with them. He wouldn’t have allowed them to stay had Klivrn not been positively disposed. Finally, the entity reported, “I am sorry, friend Durias. I could not get too close or much information. The place is . . . in flux, perhaps. It if not stable. And there are protections around it, out to several miles of space, in your plane.”

“I see. Well, it is more than I knew two hours ago. Thank you, Klivrn, you may go,” the master replied. Interesting. The fact that the station had wards implied that its residents knew of planar sorcery. But the rest, he did not know enough. Someone else might. The Elf grabbed an actual pen and paper, scratched out a title and signed it. “Verr! Take this to Master Winns and tell him I would like to borrow the book, as soon as he can part with it, if he does not mind. I am certain it is not yet in the database.” The last was added in answer to his apprentice’s look. The Arcanum library was a little behind on scanning older works into the electronic backup system.

Thirmes was widely considered the authority on such things, despite the fact that he had died over a century before. Since he wrote in an obscure dialect of ancient Dwarvish, not his contemporary version, or native tongue, and enjoyed codes, Durias figured he was in for a long night of reading and crosschecking.

By morning, the Elven master has only managed an hour’s rest. Even that had not been true sleep and was only done at the insistence of his apprentices.

He hurried through his customary morning routine, including a stimulant drink, with an eye on the time. Lessons were quietly undertaken by his senior apprentices without Durias noticing, the potential implications of his study and the station whirled through his head. If his hasty translation of Thirmes was true and he had properly understood, well, he thought with a glance at the time, the possible power and knowledge trove was virtually endless. In theory, if it could be accessed.

It was too important to leave in the hands of laypersons or even adepts. Even so, some precautions ought to be taken.

An hour later, his apprentices gone, the Elf watched his computer encrypt a message he had written then translated into Thirmes’ code and dialect. With internal politics being what they were, and many master seeking advancement, Durias set the message on a time delay to give a good head start in case it was intercepted and decoded. Hopefully, only his most trusted former apprentice, a talented kid with no ambition, would get it. Since he was doing field work in the Republic, even if he did act on the information he would be a few days behind.

The remaining time before his possible lunch meeting passed at glacial speed. Durias frequent glances at the time did not help. At least he had the foresight to send his apprentices off for the day, otherwise they might have considered their normally patient and imperturbable master ill. The delays and political embarrassment such an event would cause was best pushed from his mind.

He deleted yet another mistake caused by distraction before noticing that his comm was blinking.

With a thought, he activated the device.

“Master?”

“Yes, Myrlun?”

“Your guest is here, master. Shall I escort him up?”

A moment’s thought passed before, “Recall what we discussed last month, Myrlun. If it is that Kailis, send him away.”

The Elf silently counted to six as his senior apprentice translated the coded message. No form of communication was entirely secure within an Arcanum archive. They were an order of sorcerers devoted to acquiring information, after all. Finally, the Human’s, “Understood, Master,” came over the device.

So, he had about seven minutes, accounting for the charade. Had it been Verr or most of the other students, he would not have used the subterfuge, but the Human had proven especially talented with illusions, particularly concealment ones. A pity his enchanting was so poor compared to the others.

That left a few minutes to decide on his traveling companions. Myrlun was an obvious choice, since there were other senior apprentices who could take over for a month or two and whose own progress would not be impeded by such a delay. The young Human could probably earn adept status in that time. Verr could be an option. His elemental and protection skills were admirable, for his age and level of training. But, there were few Orcs in the Arcanum’s ranks. He would be quickly missed and might raise suspicions. No, Edillae was probably the better choice Even as an older and less trained apprentice, she showed promise. Besides which, her natural talent for languages and experience with both ships and docks could prove useful on the trip. If they made it to their goal, her skills could be doubly useful. And the Human was much more trustworthy than Kailis, despite his long and fruitful relationship with the smuggler.

Shortly, Durias played for any listeners in the corridor.

Once the door opened, he paused to admire and critique Myrlun’s illusory disguise. To nearly all sense, his apprentice seemed to be escorting a young Dwarf rather than one of the nation’s least known, and therefore best, smugglers. Even as he noted a little raggedness around the edges and some olfactory slippage, Durias demanded, “Why have you brought this . . . ardwreca here?”

It was a testament to Kailis’ skills that he instantly looked offended by the insult even as Myrlun explained.

“Master, forgive me. He has the talent and wishes to be trained,” the senior apprentice learned how to put on the apology show very early. “He claims to be Alliance-born and that he only wants to learn from the best. He specifically requested you, master.”

The listeners ought to be satisfied by the mundane occurrence. He heaved a sigh, “Very well. I do not doubt that he is making up the story, but we shall see. I promise nothing. Likely as not he will be leaving rapidly.”

As soon as the door shut, resealing Durias’ wards, the net of light and sound vanished revealing the young Dwarf to be a middle-aged Goblin. Durias broke into a smile, matched by the smuggler’s, as they clasped hands and exchanged ritual greetings. Those dispensed with, the Elf motioned toward a seat and took another himself. While Myrlun served a small lunch, he started, “My apologies, Kailis, for the little show. You know how things are.”

The Goblin chuckled, “All of you book people cooped up here . . . it’s no wonder. I’m amazed you don’t all kill each other. Men were not meant to stay in one place too long. Why else would the gods make our ancestors nomads?”

“I need quiet passage for three beyond Imperial space, friend,” he replied, trying to dodge a theological discussion. Always best to do that with a Goblin. “As soon as possible. I would have preferred more time, but . . . well, it cannot be helped. I can say more when we are underway, if you can take me.”

“How long?”

If memory serves, the Breath should make the trip in a week,” Durias calculated as he spoke, “So, two weeks. And we will want to investigate while there, at least a week, probably more. A month at the outside, all told, I think.”

“A long while. Anyone else goin’ there?”

The Elf shrugged, “Fortune telling was never my strong point, Kailis. But my guess is perhaps. I should be more confident about that in an hour or two.”

“For a month, fifty. An extra ten hazard for any confrontation stationside,” Kailis decided, “Twenty in space.”

“Fair enough.” He could probably make seventy or eighty in that time. Either they were getting a deal or would be delivered somewhere nasty. Thus far, the smuggler had been loyal enough for years.

“Take-off in four hours then, port alpha, dock fifteen beta. Who else is coming?”

The master nodded to one side, “Myrlun and Edillae. Speaking of which, Myrlun fetch her, then escort our friend. I am sure he wishes to prepare his ship.” He noted with some pride that his apprentice only showed surprise for the briefest of moments. “And pack for yourself as well. Light. And quietly. Hopefully we can be well gone before we are noticed.”

An hour later, Durias’ instructions had been issued to his cadre of senior apprentices. That task complete, he sat with Myrlun and Edillae. “Do either of you have any qualms with accompanying me on this trip? If so, speak now,” he said, “It may be routine exploration or it might be worse, depending on who else knows what information we have and what it means. I tell you this, as always, so you can make an informed decision.”

Myrlun nodded his assent, as his master expected. They boy was devoted and they both knew that he was at a crucial point in his training.

The girl, they were both young by Durias’ standards although both adults, was more difficult to predict. She had only been with him for a few months. Edillae considered as she was watched, before asking, “May I know where we are going, master?”

“I’m not asking out of fear,” she quickly added, “only to be better prepared. And I understand our pilot’s reputation, so . . .”

“Excellent,” the Elf kept the smile from his lips, but not his eyes, “That I cannot answer until we are on the ship. There are those here who might use the information for their own gain and advancement, as well as my disgrace. Gods know they might do that anyway. You will have to decide on faith and your trust in me and your skills.” He left unspoken the fact that the rewards of the trip could be very impressive. Neither apprentice was versed in planar sorcery, after all, but might be in the future. Especially Myrlun, who had the mentality and focus of the art.

Meanwhile, his apprentice was staring, first at her master then at Myrlun. After a few minutes, she reached her conclusion.

“I’m in. This is obviously important, otherwise an adept would be sent,” Edillae said, “So, if it’s important, the reward must be pretty good. And you two’ll need protecting, from people out there. When was the last time you did field work, master?”

“Before you were born.”

“There,” she declared with a note of triumph. “I’m used to negotiating and dealing with all sorts of people. I can help.”

Durias smiled with a hint of serenity. “Indeed.”

A few hours later, the trio of sorcerers stood on the Archive landing field looking at their transport. The Breath was a sleek light freighter that appeared to their untrained eyes to be in very good condition. Durias recalled the smuggler once telling him that a junker ship was more likely to be stopped and searched than one that looked fresh from the yard. If that was true, then the ship certainly looked the part, although he knew Kailis had made innumerable modifications. Like concealed energy weapons and better sublight engines, among those he had seen.

They only had to wait a moment before the Goblin appeared at the ship’s lock and waved them in. According to plan, Durias had called in a few favors to quietly empty the little used pad. Kailis had used the ship’s sensors to ensure that no people were around. In theory, they were unobserved. However, since the Arcanum was well known for its ability to find information, the three still covered their faces as they ran across the narrow open space.

Only when they were aboard did they drop their cloaks before securing their gear and themselves for take-off.

Mere minutes later, they hurtled out of the gravity well, put a little space behind them, and jumped to FTL speeds.

Once they were out of the system, the Goblin entered the cabin he had assigned to Durias. Both apprentices were already there with their master. The Elf allowed himself a brief glance to be sure of his apprentices. The elder was perfectly masked, her face carefully blank. He had no worries for her. The boy, on the other hand, had faint traces of guilt. Well. They could only hope the smuggler could not read Myrlun as easily as his master could.

His own manner composed from long practice, Durias clearly stated a series of numbers. “That location is our destination, friend. Obviously we would like to arrive as quickly as possible,” he explained, “There should be a station there, a lost colony, we think.”

After repeating the numbers and receiving the master’s confirmation, Kailis paused. “Alright, I’ll go get the course plotted in,” The Goblin said, “Any problems with Gnomes?”

“No, Kailis, why?”

“Heh. No reason, just curious.”

“In that case, friend, I should return to my instruction duties . . .” the Elf waved the door shut as Kailis left. He raised a hand to stop Myrlun as the apprentice began to speak. He then flashed a few basic, ungrammatical, signs in an ancient Mehleen language of gestures. The boy nodded, obeying without question, as he had been taught. That would have to be broken soon, the master thought absently, or he will never advance in the order.

As he considered, both sorcerers reached out and grasped the energy patterns in the room. Carefully, they redrew and directed the lines of force as Edillae watched. In spite of himself, the Elf smiled. She had not advanced enough to be taught those spells, but he was glad she was curious enough to watch and try to understand. That curiosity was the mark of a good Arcanum. Like his apprentice, he wove spells of protection from eavesdropping. His own spells would cause listening devices to pick up only wind, for instance. The boy, he saw, had been studying a bit of technosorcery. The silver threads left by his spell boldly stated that fact.

Once they were done, he motioned for Myrlun to speak.

“Master, why did you say we detected a colony?”

“For two reasons. First, despite our years, I do not wholly trust our friend,” he explained, teaching a little. “For another, Kailis is a smuggler and therefore a businessman. Let him think of a lost colony, even believe it might be an Arcanum colony—“

“—and he’ll be thinking about possible profits instead of thinking about betraying us,” Edillae finished, “Very good, master.”

He chuckled at the faint tone of disbelieving awe in her voice. “I have not forgotten everything from my days in the field, Edillae. Keeping in contact with Kailis and others like him has seen to that.” He clapped once. “Now, Myrlun, play the report for our third and see if she has any insights we missed . . . on one of the portable players.” The standard one in the room was, of course, networked to the ship’s other computer terminals. And he would bet that Kailis had devices in place to store, copy, or spy on things his passengers read or watched.

While the apprentices reviewed the data they had acquired, Durias sat on his bunk and allowed himself to descend into light meditation. Still peripherally aware of his surroundings, he focused his attention inwards, seeking the sometimes elusive perception of other planes. At first, the Elf perceived the tendrils and threads of sorcerous energy that flowed freely throughout the galaxy. In this case, due to the limits of mortal perception, his sight only revealed those in the room and the Breath. The strongest were associated with elemental forces, notably the electricity provided by the ship’s reactor. Every apprentice could reach this state after a week or two of practice. Few did so after their early apprenticeship because feeling the energy became intuitive, even instinctive. He sought something different and reaching that state was often helped by passing through this one, he had discovered.

The first hints of a hazy outline were just visible, possibly even forming into a touch of clarity, when that part of his mind monitoring his surroundings demanded his attention. Durias brought himself back to merely mundane senses, finding his apprentices calmly awaiting his attention. On a second glance, perhaps clam was not the proper word to describe Edillae. Barely restrained excitement might be better. He could see the signs, from a slight flush to the rigidity of her posture, an attempt at control. Myrlun even showed some signs, although the benefits of greater training and thus more discipline kept his body loose and at ease.

Durias waited and patiently counted out nearly a minute in his head as a lesson.

Finally, the master sorcerer stated, “You have new findings from the data.”

“Yes, master,” Edillae burst, “First, the color coded areas are not marked in a standard, international, method. Except for two. If international standards were used, I would say the green decks were environmental and hydroponics. But there’s a big red patch that wouldn’t make sense. The black decks make more sense, brigs and courts. But I haven’t seen any that big before. My guess is that grey is command and control. The schematics don’t have enough information to be entirely certain.”

Useful information, the Elf thought, but hardly excitement worthy. There had to be . . . “What else?”

Both apprentices grinned as Myrlun took the lead. “Edillae found more data hidden under the main stream. I hate to be cliché and say it looked like random static, but it did. The unfortunate part is that it appears to be encoded. We haven’t tried to break the code, master. We do assume that it is original and not added by our contact since it does not match any of the standard Arcanum codes of which I am aware, master.”

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