Copyright © 2023 Ashlyn Nafina
Summary: An elite, shape-shifting agent takes on a mission that has even the big brass scared. A series of surprises leads to a change of perspective for the agent, and the beginning of a revolution for the world.
Notes: In recent days, I’ve been working on a visual novel version of this story. So a lot of changes have been made to the story itself. I think that some of those changes should really make it back into the original, so that’s what this is.
This is a rewrite of the original story based on some visual novel work that never did get finished. I’m hoping to release some of the assets from that game effort, including the soundtrack that is already available on SoundCloud and Bandcamp.
This story is woven through several different perspectives and time periods, which will hopefully not be too confusing! Each section specifies the perspective.
Original notes below:
The amusing back-story of this story: Me and a group of friends were planning to release an RPG (video game) and spent a while coming up with a world and characters for it. We never did get our act together to build the game, and I was a little lukewarm on where the story was going anyway. Later on this emerged based roughly on the world, so I guess you say that it’s fan-fiction for a game that never was. It takes place a thousand years after the RPG would have.
Five minutes, thirty-six seconds.
It’s all the time I’ve got to make a decision which could be the most important decision I’ve ever made in my long, long life. Could be the most important decision that any of us has ever made. It shouldn’t be me making it. I don’t have that kind of authority, moral or otherwise. But here I am.
She’s sitting across from me, in a dim, hazy room lit by a single overhead light. Dark brown hair, brilliant silver eyes, young. Just a little girl. Way too young for the knowing look in those eyes.
The light squeaks slightly on its mounting in the ceiling as it moves slowly back and forth, shadows crawling around the crates in the warehouse. She looks me straight in the eye, calm, accepting of her fate. A ship’s foghorn sounds as a bell dings, out in the harbour.
The cold steel of the pistol in my hand provides empty comfort tonight, leeching my warmth. The girl crosses her arms, and re-crosses her legs, and looks me in the eye still. Waiting.
I feel a drop of sweat make its way down my back, and I am still no closer to the damnable decision.
It’s like she can hear the gears turning in my mind. A raised eyebrow… a slight smile. Daring me to say no, knowing I won’t.
Less than four minutes now. Tick… tock… tick… tock…
How did it come to this? What’s happened to me?
Let us start at the beginning of this mess, I suppose. Maybe a pattern will emerge from the chaos, and my decision will be made.
“Yo,” I replied as we did a lunchroom drive-by past each other.
After a mission, I often woke up hazy like a fever dream gone wrong, the remains of my last identity spiralling down like a toilet bowl as I grab for reality.
Then I’m famished. Shape-shifting, both in the mental and physical senses, was pretty exhausting.
“Agent five-two-three,” the overhead speaker scratched out. I groaned. I hadn’t even had a chance to get any lunch yet. “Agent five-two-three. Please report to briefing.”
I sighed… so much for lunch.
Ahh, the hallowed halls of HQ. The soaring atria, the cushy sofas to take a break on, the floors and floors of offices and meeting rooms. The light from the two suns angled in from the blue sky above via skylights all over the building.
One might be tempted to look at this scene and think of a bank or some other wealthy business anywhere in Rajma, the capital city of the Carads. But it wasn’t.
It was in that place that we were made into elite Agents, Carad scientists picking the cream, Relian Tear-mancers working their dark magic on the crop. In that place, our BPGs let us take on any form for a mission – lovers, colleagues, wives, husbands, enemies, even pets. Infiltrate, gain trust, and push buttons. Flip switches. Cull when necessary. And then… we disappear, never to be heard from again.
All to keep the peace of our world.
Of course, HQ wasn’t always this pretty. It wasn’t too long ago that we went through the “intimidating fortress of stone” phase, and before that I remember something that involved vaulting arches and stained glass. My memory gets a little fuzzy somewhere around then… I guess a thousand years will do that to anyone.
My intuition felt the fuzzy bokeh of time closing in, and I dragged myself back to the present. The now. New mission.
“Five-two-three, I have something for you,” Jens started off as I walked into his office that day, my shoes making no sound on the wood floor. As I said, we had no identity of our own any more, none that we could remember. It was part of our training – an identity of our own would interfere with our camouflage. Thus I am my ID number.
“We’ve been following a terrorist group for a while now, and we’re very close to ending it.”
Jens looked around nervously, the little sideburn braid in his black-purple hair swinging as he searched the room. Then he dropped a static generator on the desk.
Spies in HQ? We don’t get spied upon, we are the spies!
I pointed at the static generator with shock on my face, and he shrugged apologetically but barrelled right on rather than explaining.
Jens slid a dossier folder toward me on the desk, and I leafed through. Not much to go on, there. Names… pseudonyms, obviously. Vague descriptions, photos of rugged mountains.
“Let me level with you, five-two-three,” Jens continued. “We’ve already lost five Agents against this target.”
“Five?” I replied, the shock evident on my face again, no doubt. “What’s the target?”
He nodded back. “We’ve finished many of their leaders… bastards don’t die easy. But this one individual somehow escapes every time. Four Agents didn’t even return from trying.”
“Four? I thought you said we’d lost five.”
Jens grunted sourly as if his lunch hadn’t gone down well. “I did. The fifth came back in the shape of a chair. Real wood.”
Ugh… that’s the sort of thing Agents do when they’re done, if you know what I mean. Wood can’t shape-shift. It didn’t happen much, because we could only shape-shift inside HQ. That this one somehow managed it outside of HQ was an earthquake I had to keep inside for the time being.
“Someone is feeding them info from the inside,” he continued on implacably, lip twitching slightly. “And this bitch knows some things of her own.”
“You couldn’t mean…”
“It’s possible that she is even a runaway Agent,” Jens replied with another nod. “I don’t know why someone would d–” He looked down, sighing heavily and massaging the bridge of his nose, seeking composure again. “They’re taking a caravan through Asterbré, something to do with Tear Stones. We could ambush them, but we need to get the head. Whack that, and the hydra falls apart. Which is why we need our best to infiltrate the group.”
He nodded toward me, and I grimaced, though I couldn’t help a little beam of pride at the compliment as I replied.
“Consider it done.”
I waited until I left the room to grin and rub my hands in excitement. Finally, a real challenge! Should’ve sent me to begin with…
BPGs are powerless to change an Agent’s form once they leave HQ; something housed deep in the bowels of HQ gave it the oomph, or so the rumours went. But either way, we have to choose our avatar carefully. “Avatar” is what we call the disguises we take on. We become that persona, to the outside world.
I stood in my dormitory, looking out over the lights of the city of Rajma, bright even in the daytime. The floor-to-ceiling windows gave me the sensation of perching in an eyrie. I suppose even most citizens of Rajma would consider this exquisite for a hotel room, but that’s sort of what it was. It’s not like most of our actual work was done in HQ.
Rajma. Rā jì mà, in the tonal Carad language. The capital city of the Carads, the heart and soul of the people. There’s nothing else like it in the known world of Casilan. Innumerable spires, roads and walkways weaving in and out in 3D glory. Subways. Automated cars. Curving, shining glass in a thousand colours. After all this time living and working out of HQ, I guess I still never get tired of looking at it.
A wiggling worm of premonition was rummaging its way through my mind, but I had no room for doubt. I dragged my attention back to the task at hand.
Intel said the target was a woman, so that’s what I held in my mind’s eye. Maybe I could get closer this way.
Gender comes and goes at HQ.
We lived those lives vicariously, but we always remembered that there is a core of us that is Agent. That the avatar will eventually disappear, and I will become five-two-three again.
My normal androgynous form that I kept at HQ was a well-worn groove, a canal of stability carved through a shifting land. But inevitably, I had to let go of it and jump out of the flyer, hoping that wouldn’t be the time my parachute failed me.
I willed the change, and I could feel myself becoming… soft. Pottery reverted to clay, ready to be reshaped. That was the dangerous moment, when anything could happen. I held my chosen avatar around me in my mind, feeling what she would feel, imagining what it would be, to be her. I’m not just becoming her, I am her. Always have been.
The ultimate in method acting.
I looked down at my hands as I flexed them, their slender forms harbouring plenty of calluses. I felt nimble on my feet. I’d chosen an average female form. 167cm tall, medium build, fast fighting reflexes. Standard Relian type, well-adjusted for the brutal desert: dark tan, hair somewhere between turquoise and sky blue, dark red eyes. Slightly pointed ears.
The Relian look might be exotic by Carad standards, but I suppose several thousand years of mutation from an unknown source, as the rumours go, can do that to you.
A few moments alone in my dorm suite, flowing and becoming, both mentally and physically, and for a time…
I shall be known as Keia.
“Let’s get this done,” I said out loud, testing out the voice as well.
It was fun to be cute on missions, once in a while. Everyone lets their guard down, and they never see it coming ’til I strike.
“I must leave you here, Keia,” the Relian said, making a particular two-handed greeting gesture for “good luck and safe journeys” over a bow from the waist. “It has been an honour to serve.”
The sudden heat of the desert hit me like a Rajma trolley, but I recovered quickly. How did Relians do this like it was nothing? I knew the theory, but it was never a pleasant change.
“Thanks for the lift,” I said, repeating the hand greeting and the bow. “I appreciate it.”
He bowed again and then walked back toward the portal he’d opened from HQ.
The city itself had the patina of a walking ghost. Beautiful glass mosaics, covered in dust. Cobbled streets, half the stones worn or cracked. Crowds of merchants and other pedestrians, unsure why they were there, but promising to themselves that they’d figure it out tomorrow.
Once upon a time, Astrebré had been a mighty city. The buildings were still there, and plenty of people, but it had long ago lost its social and economic battle against the more free-spirited city of Relia.
A low haze of dust hung in the air near the city’s central market square, warped periodically by visible waves of heat rising from the pavement. The two suns blazed down mercilessly, their light weaving into each other’s shadows and highlighting them in subtle colour. A great many artists have staked their careers on its aesthetic significance.
I walked among the market stalls, some with blessed shade, listening for rumours of my target, dropping a hint here and there to the right ears that I might be available for mercenary work. Putting my proverbial finger on the pulse of the city.
“No, I can’t channel much Mana. They said I had no talent for it, but that’s actually useful for working around Tear Stones.”
“Yes, I have good fighting reflexes. I am a ninth level Ka Te. Do you need an up close and… personal demonstration?”
“Sure, I’ll be around town in case someone needs a guard for a caravan?”
For good measure, I also checked in with the mercenary guild. Asterbré had originally been a centre for the mining and study of Tear Stone. It still was, really, though most of the study moved to Relia in later days. There was still a fair amount of dangerous work to be had, so a mercenary guild was still in business in Asterbré.
Chances were, if our terrorists were looking to make a dangerous crossing with expensive goods, they’d check in there. So I posted a calling card tailored to their needs and crossed my fingers.
A few hours later, I parked myself at a cute little cafe and sipped at a cold punch of local fruits. I was starting to wonder if I’d misjudged my technique. But then I saw a Relian heading toward me, quietly pushing her way through the crowd. Or perhaps, the crowd quietly pushed itself out of her way. Dark and radiant turquoise hair marked her an initiate if her outfit didn’t. Surely I hadn’t already found my target? A bit suspiciously fast, if so…
I groaned inwardly, hoping this visit was for business and not pleasure.
Only the truly proud of the Initiates wore their full uniform, unless they were fresh out of the academies, but she didn’t look young enough for that.
Dark turquoise hair cut in sharp geometric lines: third-degree initiate.
Dark red, sleeveless robe with a diagonal seam across the chest, narrowing to strips of cloth that ran nearly to the ground: initiate of the flame.
Two sky-blue pendants, Tear Stones in the shapes of comets floating above her ears: secondary in wind.
A single ruby-hilted dagger with a crystal blade: Ka Te master.
Close-fitting black shorts covered what was visible of her hips and legs to a little above her knees. Two gold bracelets on each arm and fine hide boots with turned tops completed the ensemble.
As she drew closer I could make out the glint of her golden eyes.
She did indeed match one of the descriptions I’d gotten from Jens, so I mentally cracked my knuckles and stood.
“Oh great Initiate of the arcane, how may I serve?” I said to her, making the hand greeting for “I am humbly honoured by your company” over a bow.
It was the appropriate greeting in our situation, and she nodded to me.
“You are Keia?” she asked in a clear, melodic voice. I nodded.
“You would offer your services as a body guard?” Again I nodded, thinking I knew what was going on. I was wrong.
“Then I challenge you to a duel. Senshen Market Square, two blocks west, five minutes from now. You win, I hire you. You lose…” She chuckled delightedly, turned on her heel, and walked west.
So. Business and pleasure. I rolled the last of my fruit punch around my tongue, pondering what sort of pain I was in for.
I found the initiate in the square, as she’d said. She was flowing from one stance to another, spinning, stopping, stomping a foot down, fist punched out, spinning again, as if performing a kind of dance.
“Are you ready?” she asked me during a momentary pause.
Senshen Square was a market and gathering area. A great face, two-thirds suns, and one-third moon, was engraved into the centre. Two and three story buildings loomed up around our ad-hoc arena. A small crowd had surrounded the square, murmuring expectantly, but I noticed that they were all carefully, and intelligently, staying out of the centre of the square itself. The muted hum of conversation, bartering, and music could still be heard in the background.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied, smiling a little, punching the air and bouncing around lightly in my own warm-up. Someone in my position would be at least a little hesitant.
She smiled back mildly and flowed into a defensive stance, meeting my eyes as I did the same. Not the forward stance with outstretched arms that would signify that a demonstration of Mana channeling was imminent, but a hand-to-hand fighting stance.
It looked like I might survive this without blowing my cover after all!
At first we merely circled around each other for a few moments, looking for any weakness, the murmur of the crowd rising slightly. Her eyes sparkled with challenge. I’ve seen Relians fight, and I know their school of Ka Te inside and out. I saw no weakness in her movements. She’d apparently seen enough herself and lunged in. I automatically flowed to the side to avoid the hit, and we were fully engaged.
Instinct took over and I rode out the battle, neither taking hits nor giving them. Round and round we went, blood pounding in my ears, nothing existing outside of the dance. The Initiate grinned as if enjoying herself substantially, and I had to admit that I was enjoying a real challenge, as well. The endorphins were practically singing through my veins.
I’d begun to tire and to wonder what would end the fight when a chance opening left me with my stiff hand pointed her trachea, a killing pose. She stared at me along my arm with hard eyes, shaking slightly and taking ragged breaths, then lowered her hands calmly. Sweat dripped from my face. Only then did I realize that she’d had me in the same check. Applause rose up in the crowd around the square as it started to disperse.
“You fight well, Keia. I will hire you,” she said as she nodded to herself. “My name is Tasha Emerald River,” she continued, making the hand greeting for “I have wronged you, and ask forgiveness” over a slight bow and a lopsided grin. “Mana is good, but it won’t stop a well-placed dagger before it’s too late. Please join my group at the North Gate before tomorrow morning. We will leave at first light for Belio.”
“I would be honoured,” I responded, bowing.
Belio had been listed in HQ’s report as an area of suspected activity for the terrorists; this had to be the group. I’m still a little suspicious of how easy it was to find them, though…
Only then did I notice the silver-eyed, dark-skinned girl on the side of the square slip away, long after most had already gone back to their business. She’d been watching the fight with furious intensity.
Silver eyes, nearly white, really, were something I’d never seen in a Carad. Her looks otherwise matched one. Silver eyes were unusual even in a Relian initiate, and this one certainly wasn’t that, by the shape of her ears.
I wasn’t sure how she fit into the puzzle, yet. But Agents have a way with intuition, staring at the dice thrown on the floor and picking out the pattern. Sooner or later, the understanding would come to me.
I chose an inn near the North Gate, a place I’d seen several fighters heading, and then went downstairs to see if I could pick up anything further from conversations. I grabbed a drink from the counter and parked myself in a dark corner of the tavern’s main room.
The tavern’s walls were mostly cracked, chalky white adobe, with bits of pigment swirled in, here and there. The floor and tables were carved from dark wood that might well have been as old as me. A few players and a singer laid a sultry mood over the place with their song. Somewhere behind the counter, a stick of incense burned.
The match with the Tear-mancer initiate had worn me out more than I’d expected; she was formidable. If she had something that needed more guarding than even she could provide, it must’ve been impressive indeed.
A conversation at a nearby table caught my ear.
A red-haired, grizzled fighter with scars on his cheeks spoke up first. “Didja hear about that fight Ms Emerald River picked with one of the new guards? I hear they practically left scorch marks across the central square.” His thick, drawling accent left no doubt that he had come from Kaji, the birthplace of Ka Te.
An androgynous fighter at the table sputtered and scoffed, and rolled their eyes toward the rafters. “Yeah right. No one gives Tasha a challenge. I hope it weren’t too hard to clean up the guts of her opponent.”
The four occupants of the table laughed, and someone punctuated it by pounding the table. The androgynous one caught sight of me and gaped for a moment before calling out.
“Hey! Ain’t you her? The newbie she fought?”
Ah well. I guess I couldn’t hold back and observe forever. I stood with my drink and headed toward their table, nodding.
“Yep. That’s me.”
Looking around the table, I saw faces half way between excitement and fear. The person who spoke looked away first.
“Mmmm… glad you’re on our side,” they said to more laughter, as they made a space for me.
The Kajian grinned, a fearsome sight with gaps and metal stand-ins.
“Jeri, Hala, Moriko, and I’m Fen. Nice ta’ meet ya.”
After I sat, Fen continued, “So where’d you learn to fight like that?”
Ah, to the fun part of being a spy: making stuff up and keeping it consistent.
“Ohhh, here, there, everywhere, you pick it up, you know? I started out in a monastery you probably wouldn’t have heard of… it’s been gone for a while, now.” Insert artfully mild sadness.
“Uh huh,” Jeri replied, proffering a sly grin. “All right then, keep your secrets.”
But the moment was quickly forgotten in a flurry of tears and laughter after a series of stories that must surely have been at least half fiction… except that one tale of “long ago” that I recognized from having been there in person.
I stood suddenly, feeling the room spin around me a bit.
“I, uh… gotta get some sleep ‘for ‘morrow…”
I saw concerned faces but shook my head, causing another wave of dizziness.
Argh, this body is a real lightweight!
It was hard to predict things like that at a micro level, when you were shifting. Past time to go pass out.
Tasha Emerald River had gathered quite a merry band of guards, more than I’d met at the tavern the night before. Tear Stones, the basis of many interesting Mana artifacts and quite priceless in this quantity, turned out to be her cargo. We were to accompany Tasha with a caravan across the empty, treacherous deserts of the Relian outback. Our destination was to be the city of Belio, a port town on the coast of the vast oceans of Casilan.
A rowdy assortment of characters of questionable-looking dependability, but unquestionable skill, had set forth with us at first light. Their raucous, laughing voices left some room for doubt, but their scars and the way they held themselves did not. Many were hired help like me, if I had to take a guess. A few regulars, maybe.
Tasha rode on her sand beast comfortably, between its two humps, near the front of the caravan; the strange silver-eyed girl from the square rode beside her, the two of them in subdued conversation. So they were together. I still hadn’t pieced together how the girl fit in the puzzle, though.
Behind those two rode the precious cargo, and ringed around all of that, myself and my fellow guards.
“Not too bad of a day, huh?”
I looked over toward the voice and found one of my fellow guards. Behind him stretched the endless dunes of the Relian outback, and beyond that, so hazy in the distance as to be almost indistinguishable, a towering mountain range. Here and there a sand beast bawled for some water, gladly given since we had brought so much.
“I’m Nilo,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m actually from Belio, which is probably why I got invited along on this trip,” he continued with a smile. “How about you?”
“I’m Keia,” I replied. “I was in Asterbré when the call for mercs came. As for me… I’m from here and there, all over. I just try to live in the present.”
More artful wistfulness.
He nodded, not put off by my evasiveness.
“I see. Good philosophy, living in the present! Ever been to Belio before?”
“I haven’t seen much of the oceans,” I replied. I mean… technically it was true. No one has. “How is it?”
“How is it! Why, it’s one of the most interesting places on Casilan,” he said, smiling and gesturing at the air. “Did you know that this continent was originally a plateau in a huge mountain range?”
I shook my head truthfully. I’d never been much of a scholar.
“I’ve studied it extensively,” he continued, lecturing to an invisible audience hall. “There are legends that the ocean levels used to be much lower. At one time, then, Belio was more of a ‘gateway to the plateau’ town than an ocean port. The Rengai Mountains are the tops of that range.”
“Huh, interesting!” My reaction wasn’t feigned this time, either. I’d heard these sorts of rumours over the years, but never a fully formed theory, before.
“Yeah!” he enthused, apparently flipping to the next slide. “It’s why you see so much cold, inland architecture in Belio even though it’s a temperate ocean port, now.”
“Ah, professor!” I interjected with a raised hand. He looked very briefly abashed and then laughed, gesturing for me to continue. “I wonder what’s down there. I mean if it was a gateway to the plateau, surely there were cities that are now underwater… or was it too long ago for that?”
Nilo shook his head vigorously.
“Oh, no, they are definitely there! Some day I hope I’ll get to explore them.”
With a grin on his face to outshine the sun, I thought. A scholar mercenary; how unexpected.
“Hey, some of us are going to poke around in an abandoned village near here,” Nilo said to me as the campfire embers fizzled into the night sky. “Wanna come?”
“Sure, okay,” I replied, looking at him slightly askance. I wanted to stay focused, but I also needed to have social bonds in the group. “Let me go grab my day pack.”
I had to admit that I had some genuine curiosity, too. I’d never really spent much time in the Relian outback. People were kind of where my job was at.
My feet were crunching over the brittle sand toward my tent when I felt a chill, as if eyes stared at me intently, which is usually a bad sign in my line of work. I mentally let the hook set and followed it to its source across the camp.
It was the silver-eyed girl.
There she is again, boring holes in my back. What’s her deal?
A little shiver went up my spine, thinking about Jens’ warning about missing Agents.
Does she have something to do with that? She’s awfully interested in me… I need to be careful about that one.
My exclamation was unfeigned. There actually was an abandoned town there, though it looked like it had been looted pretty thoroughly.
Skeletons of buildings sat on the packed sand ground, perhaps once constructed from solid adobe, but now missing any sort of roof, windows, or even doors. Debris that might have been tables or toys at one time was strewn about the place. Hardy desert plants had sprung up, and were reclaiming the place for nature, however slowly.
An image haunted my mind, but it was hard to match it to the sight in front of me. I wanted to recall having visited this place when it was still in one piece. I could almost see it, children running in and out of a building and laughing here, laundry on the line there… casual conversations…
“Oh nice,” Nilo yelled from a few houses over. “Check this out!”
The rest of us jogged over.
Well… I didn’t expect to find skeletons besides the buildings.
A collection of metal bits vaguely forming a human shape laid on the ground near a broken house. Its synthetic skin was all gone, so it was hard even to tell what gender it had been. He’d found the remains of a Carad android.
Judging from the mostly bored reactions of his fellow explorers, they’d already checked for a power core or conscience core, and not found either.
“Come on, guys,” I said suddenly, not realizing I was speaking until the words had already left my mouth. “Leave the poor thing in peace. Let’s… leave all of this grave in peace.”
I can’t say I’d been an android rights activist up to then, but the looting still felt ghoulish. I could imagine the villagers of this town looking on sadly, and the whole exercise somehow translated into our mercenary group looting my own memories. I shouldn’t have interfered for the sake of my mission, but I’d done so impulsively.
Nilo shook his head.
“Sorry. You’re probably right. Well, let’s get back to camp?”
I ended up deep in thought, missing most of the trip back.
What exactly is life, anyway? I could shape shift into an android with my BPG. Would that make me less alive?
I felt unexpectedly old and worn, looking at all of these places that once were. No one else remembers them. My many years of memories seemed to blur together on me, like a watercolour painting with too much water.
Heavy thoughts from such a small incident.
Earlier than normal on one day, Tasha called for a stop for the evening. Everyone jumped down to the sand and began unpacking their tents and dinner gear. I wasn’t sure at that point how much trust I rated in their group, but this sort of surprise put me on high alert.
“Is everything okay?” I asked her casually as I walked over. “We’re stopping pretty early today.”
“Actually!” she said with a smile and raised eyebrows. “I am stopping here to show you something. Are you game for a little hike?”
She clapped her hands as if she were in for a treat.
“I, uhm… sure?”
I’m sure I sounded as wary as I felt, but she just muttered, “great!” and headed off to grab some gear.
“What are we going to see?” I asked her when she returned. My Agent gestalt-intuition didn’t sense any menace in her, but I might’ve mentioned not liking surprises.
“You’ll see, you’ll see. I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.”
I sighed. What, can she read my mind now? Wouldn’t that be troubling.
We headed off toward what appeared to be a rock formation in the distance. As we drew closer, it became more of a spire, and against the darkening sky, I could swear I saw some sort of glow around it.
That was certainly a surprise; that avatar wasn’t supposed to have much Mana sensitivity. Was I imagining things from a trick of the light at sunset?
“Do you see it?” Tasha asked me suddenly.
“The spire… or… the glow around it?” I asked her uncertainly.
“Ah, good!” She clapped her hands again, smiling delightedly. “Then this trip won’t be a waste of time. Let’s see…”
After a short hike up the base, we walked up to what looked like a blank wall, upon which Tasha placed her hand. Her eyes closed, and she seemed to just stand there, feeling the warmth of the rock for a few moments.
The whispering, humming sound was the only warning I had before something that looked like purple, glowing vines spiralled out from her hand in an interlocking pattern of a complexity I couldn’t hope to follow. Lavender flowers seemed to sprout all around it as the vines set into place, and a scent I couldn’t quite place filled the air around me.
I jumped back, not expecting to be able to see Mana channelling so clearly. At least, I had to assume that’s what it was, from descriptions I’d read. She looked at me sharply.
“You could see that too? Interesting. Hmm. Unexpected…”
Tasha was muttering to herself under her breath like a Carad scientist making notes on a particularly interesting experiment.
“Sorry,” she continued finally. “Well, let’s go.”
I nearly had “go where” on my lips, but when I looked back where her hand had been a moment before, there was a rough cave entrance.
I followed her down.
A dim, lavender-tinted glow came from further within, reminiscent of the strange halo I’d seen around the spire.
Relian eyes were theoretically better at the dark than Carad eyes, and I could guess that it gave me a slight visual advantage in the cave, for keeping my footing. But it was something more than that. I felt as though it was not quite light I was seeing by. A shape ahead in the cavern path widened into a full cave floor, where my next surprise awaited me.
“Whoa… incredible,” I whispered, suddenly distracted enough by the sight to forget about my worries over her motives.
The crystals themselves were beautiful enough. They lined the walls of the cave in a motley assortment of shapes, colours, and angles. But a fey light shimmered from them in waves, and I was pretty sure I was seeing more in them than a shape-shifted Agent-Relian should have.
I could hear something, too, like a sound just barely on the edge of one’s hearing, so I strained my ears to listen. Almost like a young child singing innocently in the background. The harder I strained to hear it, the louder it became.
Tasha was smiling at me. “Only a little bit of Mana channelling, she says.”
Her face swam back into focus as I pulled myself away from the siren song of the cave walls.
“What is this place?” I asked quietly.
“This,” she said in a quiet whisper, herself, “is the Holy Cathedral of the Initiates. One of the largest veins of Tear Stone on Casilan.”
“What?” I whisper-yelled in shock. “This… but…” I chuckled a little. “I thought it was a building in Relia or something.”
Her eyebrow shot up. “Oh? So you’ve heard of it, but didn’t know what it was. I’m more surprised that you’ve heard of it at all. It’s one of the closest secrets of the Initiates.”
I was too bewitched by the ambience of the cave to berate myself for slipping my facade for a moment. These were things I shouldn’t have known. Ahh well, too late to take it back.
I closed my eyes and listened to the singing, which seemed to be coming from inside me as much as around me. The waves of lavender light were visible even with my eyes closed. It calmed me so that I could proceed with a level voice.
“All right,” I said slowly. “Stop me if I’m belabouring the obvious: why would you invite me into this secret and holy place? I’m just some mercenary you hired.”
“Would you believe,” she said, turning to me with the same smile she’d used to concede the Ka Te match, “that as an Initiate, I saw promise in you, and wanted to scout you?”
I stared at her, deadpan, for a few seconds, waiting for the laugh to crack from her joke. But it didn’t come.
“No. I don’t believe that,” I said finally, turning back to the crystals.
“Well, believe what you will. Oh! That’s interesting!”
Tasha was pointing at my BPG pendant, which was glowing slightly. I’d never seen it do something like that before, and considering what it was, and what it did, that was alarming. Had a BPG even been taken into a place like that before? The concentration of Mana in that place must’ve read well above any charts I’d seen.
Instinctively, I reached down and cupped it in my hand, and it began glowing even more brightly. Images flashed through my mind, places I’d been, and people I’d been, long ago. Some of them I couldn’t remember ever being. The intimate moments of strangers who were somehow me. Centuries of loneliness and strife, of sacrifice. Pain.
I’d never experienced anything like it, and I’d never heard of an Agent experiencing such a thing. A less strong mind might have gone mad.
The cave, seemingly more alive than ever before, perhaps even trying to comfort me, began to sing. Audibly this time, judging by Tasha’s reaction. Her glance was darting around, as if surprised by what she saw in the cave around her.
I wrapped my hand around the pendant and… Felt. The unstoppable force of the cave’s Mana met the unbreakable dam of my hardened Agent heart, and the dam lost.
As if on cue, a hazy image of a young child appeared in the centre of the cave floor, apparently the source of the song. The child looked familiar to me, like a word on the tip of my tongue. If only I could remember. I mentally pushed harder…
Off to the side, through the waves of light, I could barely see Tasha staring at me with her scientist face again, as if she were taking notes on this strange specimen she’d found.
The cave was awash with colour and song, and I let its tides pull me away into peaceful oblivion until Tasha gently led me out into the cold desert night.
We sat together silently on a rock ledge outside the cave for a long while, just staring out into the moonlit dunes, listening to the sound of the sand on the chill wind, and looking at the distant lights of the camp. The residual heat of the rock from the harsh, sunny day, warmed us from below.
Finally, I broke the silence.
“What the heck happened in there? Was that what you were hoping for?”
Tasha looked over at me, and she stared at me quietly for so long that I started to wonder if she was about to start lecturing me, or just too tired to talk about it.
She looked back out at the dunes and spoke to them instead.
“Every Relian can hear, see, and channel Mana to some degree. Some more than others. You have a certain something about you, and I was curious.”
She turned to me again, and I felt that her look was half studying scientist, and half suspicious martial artist readying for a threat.
“The Mana currents flow through and around you in some very strange ways. And part of it has to do with that Tear Stone necklace you have. I would give a great deal to study it.”
I bet you would, I thought grimly, shocked back to the present of my mission. I stood up and brushed the dirt from my pants.
“Sadly, neither of us are up for sale,” I replied with a sing-song tone and some finality. “Back to the camp?”
Tasha nodded back at me, and we started back down to the base of the spire, but I could feel her considering eyes on me still.
As the grim trek through the desert dragged on, Nilo lightened the mood for us all by telling bawdy jokes, and occasionally even pranking the other guards. One particularly unlucky guard had a poor night’s sleep on account of sand beast dung somehow finding its way next to his tent. The smell had been intense. We all had a good laugh, even the target.
It reminded me a little of the shenanigans inside HQ between Agents, making me feel more at home.
Over time, Nilo and I spent more and more time together, feeling more relaxed, sharing more of that story of a background I’d been carefully crafting, keeping warmth together, sharing meals together. We became better and better friends, against my Agent judgment, perhaps a bit more than just friends. But it was hard to resist the temptation to be close to someone, if only for a short time.
After several uneventful days, the caravan pulled up next to a small oasis in the middle of the rolling sand dunes, which still stretched as far as the eye could see. A large pond of crystal blue water glinted under the harsh suns, multi-coloured shadows on the ground behind the large milk fruit trees. It couldn’t have been any larger than the cafeteria back at HQ, but to all of the parched and sand-blasted caravaners, it looked like heaven.
“Right, then!” Fen bellowed out to us. “We stop here tonight! Set up a perimeter. Two-man watch all night up there.” He pointed to a large hill formed of rock behind the pool. “Switch off every two hours! Get movin’!”
As it happened, I drew lots with Nilo for the third watch, a few hours after dark. I was dozing at the base of the big hill when Nilo jostled my shoulder to wake me. The rock and the sand were still warm against my body, but the air had definitely taken a chilly turn. Hundreds of stars spread across the dome of night above, a careless swipe of a painter’s sparkling paint. Great flows of sand moved with the wind in the distance, making a sound suspiciously like ocean waves.
“Ready for the watch?” he asked.
“Sure, I’ll be up in a jiffy, soon as I grab my jacket.”
Nilo laughed and headed up the small path around the hill, toward the top.
I stalked back toward my tent, padding as silently as I could across the sand. As I came near the cook fire burning down to embers, I heard two voices speaking quietly. Hoping for an interesting eavesdrop to help my case, I crept closer and hunkered down. I was shivering from the cold by then, but the conversation made it worthwhile.
“…think they’re getting close now,” the first speaker said. I recognized it as Tasha’s voice. She laughed a little. “We shall have the last laugh, however!” The tent glowed an unnatural blue, likely a globe of Mana-generated light. “Gods, you should’ve seen it!”
“Yes indeed,” the second speaker responded. A voice I didn’t know, a young woman. Interesting. Maybe the silver-eyed girl? “One of their best assets, hoodwinked right out from under their noses. Our greatest achievement since the first.”
“But do you think she’ll really go for it?” Tasha replied. “Old habits die hard.”
The other sighed feelingly. “Don’t I know it.” The silence stretched on for several moments. “But there can be no other way forward for us,” she said at last. “Not just for my people, but for all of Casilan. Your experience at the cave proves it.”
“That my ancestors would do such a thing! That they’d even conceive of such a thing!” Tasha replied with a harsh edge in her voice. A woman of quicksilver passions, this Tasha! But then Initiates of the Flame were often like that. I could see a silhouette of a knife by the Mana light, her crystal belt knife thrust into the air by a fist. “We have fallen far, but I will bring honour to my clan once again!”
“Patience, Tasha of the ancient Emerald River clan,” the other replied calmly. “HQ is starting to get desperate, as you well know,” she said. “The big brass know about the BPG-A by this point. They send out the big guns.” Amusement coloured her voice. “But we have moved in time. We will have our target.”
I barely kept myself from swearing. They could not possibly be saying what I thought they were saying! But then, they’d warned me nervously that someone knew more than they ought to know. Just how much did they know? Was this the same HQ they were talking about? And what was an BPG-A, anyway?
I couldn’t say that conversation was about me for certain, but it was a worrying development.
“What kept you so long?” Nilo asked, with a smile to take the sting from his words.
“Just had some trouble finding my jacket,” I replied as I sat down for my two-hour watch, giving him a peck on the cheek.
I’d been going with the flow of his attraction, hoping to work my way further into the group. But I had to admit that a warm sleeping roll might be nice sometimes, too.
We were sitting back-to-back on the top of the rock, leaning against each other, enjoying shared warmth in the cold desert night.
“So,” Nilo started tentatively. “If you don’t know other parts of your past, tell me how you became a ninth level Ka Te.” A grin lit up his face. “‘Cause that’s what they’re saying you claim.”
“I believe it!” he replied excitedly. “Beat the Tasha Emerald River in a match, I’ve heard! Not an easy thing to do!”
I laughed quietly and sighed. “‘Beating’ her is a bit of an exaggeration. As to the source of that skill… I’m sworn to silence. I spent a lot of my childhood at a monastery, learning with the monks. I can’t tell you more than that.”
“Bahh!” Nilo replied with another grin. “Your whole life is a secret, at least tell me about that.”
I paused for a moment gathering my thoughts, listening to the after-echo of the cave song. “That’s one of my few honest secrets that I actually know the answer to.”
I surprised myself, feeling a touch of genuine sadness in the words.
Nilo let the topic drop, and we sat a while longer, backs together. I guessed if I was ever going to ask, that was the time.
“What a job we’re on, though, eh?” I said casually into the night, as if simply trying to wash away the awkwardness of the previous topic.
“Oh, this is pretty normal for those two,” he replied.
“Yeah, you know, Astra. The little girl that hangs around Tasha?”
I smiled at him. “Huh. Are they related or something? A long lost sister?”
Nilo’s big grin came back as he laughed and responded, “Doubtful, though they might as well be.”
I tried to sound as casual as I could when I replied, getting to the point.
“What could someone possibly do with that much Tear Stone…?”
Nilo shrugged. “Who knows? Probably safer not to know.”
Ah well. It seemed even the veterans didn’t know, and didn’t want to know.
I noticed then that my hand had somehow wrapped around his, but the small contact brought the loneliness of my situation into focus, and I left it there.
I’d started to feel sleepy when Nilo suddenly squeezed my hand back. His face was beautiful, glowing slightly with his gentle expression cast like marble in the moonlight.
“So,” he said tentatively, quietly. “Stop me if I’m saying something dumb. But I don’t think anyone from the camp can see the top of the rock we’re sitting on. Just sayin’.”
Warning bells were ringing quietly in my mind. My thoughts rushed furiously for so long that he seemed to deflate.
“Never mind,” he said, downcast. “I’m just…”
However, he didn’t finish his statement, because I turned around and covered his mouth with mine. A sudden flash of heat ran through me. We both paused and then laughed into the night at the awkwardness.
All of my vaunted Agent detachment was disappearing. I felt myself sinking deeply into the reality of Keia, my avatar, feeling her very real existence all around me. The waters closed over my mind, and I was back in the womb, reborn. It felt almost as though Keia, separate from me, was determined to do this, to grab this happiness. I recognized the thought as a dissociation that HQ trains us against, but before I knew what was happening, I was drawn in fully.
Keia is me, and I am Keia.
The mask became the reality. Who was this five-two-three character?
I was far more gone than an Agent on a mission should ever be. As Agents, we have to tread a fine line between role play and becoming our characters. I felt myself crossing it, but my willpower was failing me. The dam of my hardened Agent heart wasn’t what it used to be…
It was at that moment that I realized that I/we/Keia were actually falling in love with him, a feeling so old and rusted that I hardly recognized it.
I let go of the lifeline my training was offering me and let the current of passion take me.
Later, when Jeri and Hala came up to replace us, Nilo and I both headed toward my tent. Even if the new guards smiled, they said nothing.
Her fingers flew over the little squares floating above the desk. The air around them hummed with pools of light, the edges of the squares pulsing in cycling colours. A symbol on the top of each square described a phoneme of the Carad language. Tiny static fields buzzed as she pushed against them, the “keys” pushing back against her fingers as if they were solid objects.
A brief moment of consternation and pique passed over her face, and she swiped the whole keyboard to the side, causing it to disappear, and a new one to appear in its place. The new one had completely different symbols, but it didn’t slow her down in the least.
Agent six-four-three, HQ’s most skilled Carad machine hacker, had herself a fun weekend project. Like all Agents, she had no real gender or identity of her own inside HQ, but like all Agents, she had her preferences. Today was a twenty-something Carad hacker sort of day.
She tossed her purple-black hair to move it from in front of her face, not missing a beat with her work on the terminal, muttering, “give up your secrets!” under her breath.
“Oh?” she sang under her voice, before following it up with “Oh!” As the words she’d been looking for slowly decrypted onto the terminal, she settled on “Woohoo!” and copied the data to a personal device for safer reading back in her quarters upstairs.
Things were fairly uninteresting for the next few days on the trail. We rose early, packed all the tents and cooking implements, and rode until lunch time. Stopped for a minute for a quick bite to eat from trail rations, and trudged onward. A halt for dinner, and a quiet watch in the night. Then another day of the sun beating down upon us mercilessly. Even Nilo was brought to quiet eventually by the journey through the tedium, staring out at the landscape as if lost. Only Tasha seemed unaffected by the intense heat, a common physiological side effect of extensive work with Mana of the Flame.
It was several days into that trek that we finally saw the peaks of the coastal range come into view. Just another day or so to Fu Sāi Tsen, or as those in the know liked to call it, Sāi Tsen. An underground settlement in the desert. But that would come with its own complications…
“Listen up, everyone,” Tasha called out to the camp when we’d gathered that night. “I’m sending Astra, Fen, and Jeri in to restock our supplies in the cavern town. Everyone else must not go with them. Stay here.
I’d spent many years living in Sāi Tsen for a mission, a long time ago. I was curious what it looked like in the present. She was right though. They don’t like Relians. Which, for that trip, was me.
I’d resigned myself to another quiet night in camp when I felt that chill of eyes on my back again. I turned around and found Astra staring at me.
“I saw those ears of yours perk up,” she said. “Why don’t you come with us?”
“But didn’t Tasha just say…”
“Well.” She shot me a mysterious smile. “No one has to mention it to her, do they? I’ll vouch for you.”
“They don’t like Relians,” I muttered. “This is a bad idea.”
“Ah,” she said, nodding sagely. “As a Relian, yourself, I suppose you wouldn’t know much about the place besides that. I imagine that sort of first-hand info could be useful to a mercenary in her future jobs, but it’s fine if you want to play it safe.”
Ah, checkmate. I couldn’t exactly admit that I didn’t care about future mercenary jobs on this route. Keia the Mercenary would definitely jump at this opportunity.
“Fine, fine. Let me grab my cloak. But if this all goes south, it’s on your cute little head.”
I really hoped this jaunt would pass uneventfully, but that was probably never in the cards.
Astra told the others that she’d cleared one more to come along, but she didn’t say who. Her actions on that night caused me to wonder again what Astra’s relationship was to the terrorist group, and to Tasha, who was the theoretical leader of the caravan. She strode ahead with an air of command that felt beyond her years. Astra seemed unconcerned about being in this place.
I wore the cloak with the biggest and loosest hood I owned at the time. The last thing I wanted was for them to see my Relian ears or hair colour. But more importantly, it was a dark blue cloak.
The believers of Dzé Kài among the desert dwellers, the seekers of divinity, wore blue robes when they were on a pilgrimage. They wandered the depths of the deserts searching for the faces of the gods, occasionally meeting up with caravans. Conveniently, they also did not show their own face until they’d seen the faces of the gods in their own visions. So even though the general custom in Sāi Tsen was to lower hoods, I wouldn’t be required to do so.
I had been personal acquaintances with the woman who had accidentally inspired the religion, long ago, but it had evolved rapidly.
I just hoped that they wouldn’t ask me to spin and sing, which was something a seeker might do in order to bless others. I had learned about the practice in my long time doing missions, but I can’t say I could pass as a seeker, myself.
No one greeted or stopped us on the way in, but my trained senses heard the minute crunches of gravel and caught the flickering shadow of a moved corner of a cloak on the crags above the path. No doubt they’d been preparing for us for hours, seeing us coming across the dunes.
In any case, who would dare break the rules of this town? These tough desert dwellers had a reputation. Everyone knew that Fu Sāi Tsen was a community of desert-dwelling Carads who despised tech and magic, alike. That gave them a real hate-on for Relians, who weren’t exactly shy about importing Carad tech when it proved useful.
And if someone didn’t know the rules, they’d learn pretty fast after entering. If they survived the attempt.
I shivered slightly, but a smile crept onto my face, not a frown.
The danger is actually kind of spicy, here, I was thinking. Love it.
The cave dwellers seemed to relax a bit when they saw us trading in the market stalls. Spears were set down, and conversation hummed quietly again.
Fen led the trades, and he did so with his hood down, his face in full view, as expected of everyone besides seekers. Everything was fine until the very thing I’d dreaded came to pass.
“Kài,” I heard someone say behind me.
I turned around, keeping my face hidden deep in the hood of my blue cloak. I carefully made the hand sign of the seeker to the warrior striding up to me.
“Please,” the woman said. “Would you bless my baby?”
The same strictures that made lowering my hood undesirable also made refusing such a request undesirable.
I truly did my best, the rusty memories slowly coming back to me. I spun in circles, shaping my arms and legs the best I could. I sang the words I could remember, as in tune as I was able. But apparently, it was not convincing enough. A murmur rose in the crowd around us, and two children started giggling and pointing, wondering what I was doing. I tried to focus harder, but the kids just laughed harder, as if it were a hilarious mummery. That was enough for the woman who’d made the request to give me a suspicious look, and then the children’s laughter infected me as well, and it was all over.
I’ve always had a weakness for the smiles of children. Ah well.
The murmuring of the crowd had shifted to a somewhat angrier tone as understanding of the situation dawned on their faces.
“You’re no seeker,” a warrior said as she strode up to me, eyes narrowed. “It’s bad enough that you’d come into our home under false pretences, but to mock our beliefs… Show yourself.”
Suddenly we were surrounded by veiled warriors with spears.
I considered briefly, my eyes darting to and fro, that I might try to claim that I was a beginning seeker, to work my way out of the situation. But it was clear that I wasn’t enough of one to pass. I lowered my hood to a chorus of quiet gasps from everyone in the area, and we all raised our hands in the air.
“Hmph. You’ve worn out your welcome, outsiders,” the leader continued. “Did you really think we wouldn’t find out?”
Fen was trying his best.
“Hold up, hold up,” he said with his hands still raised and in clear view. “That one wasn’t even supposed to leave camp.”
“Too bad for you. Now none of you will leave alive.”
Well… nothing for it. I flowed into a Ka Te defensive stance, twin daggers singing out of their sheathes. The warrior appraised me again, her eyes opening wider, a predatory smile slowly painting her face.
Relians who fight with nothing but martial arts skills are pretty rare. A small and fierce one with obvious competence at it must have amused the warrior. I could nearly hear the argument in her mind between wanting a match with me, and showing grudging respect for a fellow warrior.
“Well, well, seer-ling,” she said finally. “One that fights with her own hands and steel. You amuse me, after all. We will let you go with what you have. But do not come back.”
We high-tailed it out of the cave, and I noted grimly that warriors were now posted openly at its entrance. I could feel their eyes on my back as we beat a hasty retreat.
“What… the… HELL?” Tasha was in fine form when we returned. Her words seemed to turn the edges of my face crispy with the heat contained within. “Did I not say for everyone else to stay at the camp? And pretending to be a seeker of all things?”
“Don’t be upset with her, Tasha.”
I took my eyes off the Initiate long enough to see that my unlikely saviour was Astra.
“I asked her to come.”
Tasha looked back and forth between us, and then stormed off without another word. Astra just gave me a knowing wink and disappeared into her tent.
“I don’t like the looks of that,” I said grimly as I lowered my looking glass.
We’d had several more uninteresting days on the trail. The Canyon just screamed ambush though.
We’d just crested the hill that led into the ravine below us. They call it the Rengai Canyon, a jagged tear through the rocks of the Rengai Mountains. But it was through the canyon, or over the mountains, and the latter simply wan’t an option. Thinking about the air up there, so thin and cold that it would barely be breathable, caused my own breath to catch briefly.
Belio was on the other side of those mountains, and it was too late to go around them. When we stopped at Sāi Tsen, we could’ve detoured around the mountains along the coast, but that came with its own dangers, not the least of which was adding several days to the trip.
I had asked Tasha about it earlier, and she said, “Well, the longer we’re out, and in view of the coast, the more likely we’ll be seen by… bandits.” Her smile had said that she knew quite well that the correct phrase was “constables”, but I had let it go.
“Why did we even come this way?” Nilo said as he rode up next to me, still eyeing the canyon. “I thought there were ways around these mountains.”
“There are,” I replied, trying and failing to hold back a smile. “But it adds many days to the trip. And we might be seen by… bandits.”
My smile, matching Tasha’s watt-for-watt, told Nilo everything he needed to know about my understanding.
“I like you,” he quipped.
The ravine cut through steep, rocky walls on either side. Rock protrusions and spires dotted the top of the Canyon, providing natural hiding places. Light vegetation provided cover along the sides. An absolutely perfect place for an ambush.
The scouts didn’t find anything interesting to report, but I could taste a battle on the air anyhow.
I sighed. “Well, let’s get this over with.”
The attack came as we were mid-Canyon. I’d almost dared to hope we’d escape an ambush, but it was not meant to be.
Yells of defiance and horse hooves echoed out around us, clouds of dirt hanging in the air. We puzzled out in retrospect that the raiders had seen us coming and circled around on both the entrance and exit of the gorge. Then their comrades had swooped down along the steep sides to herd us into the trap.
Purified Tear Stone was a tasty prize, especially that much of it.
Our group was badly outnumbered, perhaps two to one. I took the scene in a flash, shaking my head at the bad odds. The dust kicked up by the fighting made visibility difficult. I saw Nilo fighting a group near the front of the train and admired his precise sword work. But I didn’t have long to stare, because a large group of the raiders focused in on me with a yell and began their attack. I had no time for anything at that point except exercising my Ka Te to the ninth level, dual blades flashing, and a grimace on my face.
I was getting very tired, going through the forms and defeating one enemy after another. As soon as one fell to my blades, another raider took their place. Due to my position in the rear guard, the raiders had managed to separate me a little way away from the rest of the group, who were oblivious to my peril farther up the Canyon.
Still the raiders kept coming. The situation was becoming dire, and feeling slightly desperate, I switched to another fighting style particular to the Agents, one taught only to us by HQ.
Confused by the strange techniques, my part of the battle finally turned against the raiders.
When the last one dropped to the dirt with a pained groan, I looked around, panting and holding my bleeding arm, and realized that, by then, I had a small audience. Including, I noticed with consternation, Tasha and the silver-eyed girl.
Who had seen me fighting with the strange Agent style?
I cursed my sloppiness and chalked it up to losing my detachment for the past couple of days. Bad habits breed bad habits! I vowed to get back on the straight and narrow with my real job after that mess.
“Are you okay?” Nilo asked me, concerned. I nodded.
Tasha looked very tired, the kind of tired one can only achieve by a constant channelling of Mana. Astra just looked thoughtfully at me in a most disconcerting way.
Six-four-three’s bed felt strangely abrasive on her back as she laid on it in her dormitory room. A faint buzzing sound somewhere in her room irritated her like a fly lazing in circles around her head, but she didn’t have the motivation to hunt down the source.
A long week had passed since she’d finally finished decrypting the files she’d pilfered. Six-four-three didn’t know what to expect when she found the files. She didn’t really even have an aim; it was just practice to keep her sharp for one of the skills she employed at HQ against Carad systems. But that stab in the dark had been a jackpot. Or a curse. It was hard for her to tell, anymore.
She knew that HQ had its own secrets, but this secret would blow the entire organization wide open. Or even the government. Perhaps multiple governments!
Worse yet, it implicated herself and every other Agent, and it couldn’t be ignored. Six-four-three had taken leave to try to process it, but she couldn’t imagine herself returning to her work. Not ever.
The Pandora’s Box was opened, and the laments could not be stuffed away, again.
Staring into the cook fire the night after the Canyon, ruminating about what had happened while listening to the crackle of the flames, I was given a visit by the silver-eyed girl herself.
“Keia?” she said to me. “I am Astra. I’m pleased to meet you, and glad to know that we and our cargo are in such capable hands.”
As was expected of me as a Relian, I stood and made the hand sign for “I am honoured” under a bow.
“I’m pleased to meet you as well, Astra.”
She bowed back and led me aside a little way, gesturing for us both to sit down facing the fire, a stare about a thousand kilometres too distant for that young face.
“That was a most peculiar fighting style you were displaying back there,” she said without emotion. “Most peculiar. I admit I have never seen the like in my time out here.”
My heart beat faster as I thought about my responses, quick as lightning.
“It’s a secret style passed down by the monks I trained with,” I said. The best lie is obviously the near-truth. “It’s considered a family secret, so I would just as soon that it’s forgotten.”
She looked at me then, a piercing sort of look like she’d measured you to fit a tailor and knew the state of your underwear. The moon and fire light reflecting from her eyes seemed to match some inner thoughts she didn’t share.
“Of course. How is your arm?” she asked as she casually touched the bandage.
I reeled, dizzy. The world seemed to rush away and then back to me. Like losing the signal on your Carad video set, but on reality. Almost like a resonance of the feeling I get from using my BPG.
When it finally stopped, short as it had probably lasted, my head was still spinning wildly.
I should pull the chute from this assignment, I thought. There’s too much attention on me from those who would apparently know what they’re looking for. My identity abstraction is also failing me, and I’m slowly turning into the character I created. Something also seems to be physically wrong with me, now.
I made it all the way to starting to consider escape plans when I shook my head. I still felt confused, and I was tired from my fighting exertions, which was probably affecting my judgment. But either way, I still wanted to see it through. If I can’t take them down… who can?
How would I even escape, out in the middle of the desert?
“Are you well?” Astra asked me, a slight smile on her face as if she damned well knew the answer already. But I kept my facade.
“Yes… perhaps a bit tired.”
“Then I shall leave you to your sleep,” she replied, standing. “We have a trek ahead of us tomorrow into Belio.”
Long before we reached the town of Belio itself, the evidence of the sea was everywhere: rolling sand dunes shifted into carved cliffs full of verdant vegetation and an occasional waterfall; a delightfully chill breeze kissed my skin, even during mid-day; vast clouds filled the sky, and the air carried a wet tang. Sand tracks gave way to muddy roads of dark soil, which gave way to cobbled roads. At last, we crested a hill, and the vast expanse of Casilan’s oceans spread out before us.
The city of Belio itself laid along a narrow inlet from the ocean, surrounded by stout walls. We were spotted fairly early by the guards mounting the walls, and greeted before them by a customs bureaucrat. Sensing where the leadership in the caravan rested, he headed for Tasha.
“Initiate of the dark arts,” he said respectfully, bowing over a practised “I am honoured” on his hands. “I am charged to examine all caravans entering and exiting the township of Belio. May I have your statement of intent, and declaration of cargo?”
“I am Tasha Emerald River,” she said, dismounting and landing lightly on the pavement with the grace of a bird. “I travel with my lady’s maid and a contingent of mercenary guards to make a delivery at the Xien wharf. We carry assorted Tear Stone tools to be shipped around the continent.” After all I’d seen so far, the small lie didn’t really surprise me any more.
He nodded respectfully, but none of us were surprised that there was a “but” involved, from the pained look on his face. The bureaucrat shook his head almost imperceptibly and spoke in a quieter voice.
“We’ve had disturbing reports from the Relian capital regarding a, ah, potential plot in Belio involving quantities of Tear Stone. We have, ah, been instructed to check all cargo entering and leaving the, ah, city.”
He seemed apologetic, but Tasha’s eyes sparkled dangerously, the gold of her irises catching the sun.
“D… do I look like a criminal to you?” she responded coolly, incongruously tripping over her words. That could be useful to me; did this one stutter when nervous? “Sensitive tools, as in sensitive to sunlight and open air. I have contacts in the capital as well and I wouldn’t want them to hear that their tools were delayed for ghosts of plots.”
“No, Initiate of the Flame, no, you don’t, and you wouldn’t,” he responded nervously, swallowing, apparently considering his job. “Very well.” He bowed again over “good luck and safe journeys” and then gestured us through the gate.
But I saw Tasha let out a tense breath once we had passed into the city.
Belio, being a port town, was verdant beyond belief for the inlanders in our crew. Clean cobbles and pavement replaced dirty and dusty streets. Thinly walled buildings, often made of wood and white stucco, and with many windows and breeze-ways, crowded the streets. Vines and flowers were abundant throughout the city. Wide boulevards lined with trees meandered through the hilly terrain. Fountains gushed continuously with a display of water wealth that bordered on the obscene.
We finally stopped at a small inn called The Dancing Mage, a little way into Belio. Tasha swung down from her mount and turned to us.
“Nilo, Keia, I want your assistance today while making the delivery. Meet Astra and myself back here at the inn around 16th. We’ll proceed at that time to the wharf.”
Nilo and I bowed, and we headed off to see a bit of the town in the hours until the delivery.
I wondered, idly, if this wharf to which we were delivering was involved in the terrorist group HQ was tracking. The one I was apparently in the midst of. I was pleased that I seemed to have gained some trust in the group, but something was nagging at the edges of my intuition, never a comfortable feeling.
Something didn’t add up. I need to keep an eye out.
“So!” Nilo said suddenly, and I jumped a little, pulled back from my anxious thoughts. “Err, sorry,” he continued. “How about we take a look at that architecture I mentioned before? And then we can get some lunch.”
“Sure,” I replied, trying to brush off my nervousness as we walked away, arm in arm. “I was just wondering why they wanted us in particular.”
“Huh? Oh, to come to the wharf?” Nilo asked me. “I dunno, I’m an old hand, and I guess they were impressed with your skills? That part of town can be a little rough sometimes.”
I walked around the Stately Quarter of Belio with Nilo, gawking at the mountains they called buildings. From this high up on a hillside, the many boats in the harbour were silent but still animated, as they made ready to voyage out over the Casilan Sea. Most of the hustle and bustle around us had been left back where we came from.
He regaled me with tales of what had changed since he grew up in Belio, and how many things had not changed.
“See here,” he said, stopping in front of one building. “This is the Centre for Art History. It’s clearly old, and in a very different style than the main part of town.”
“Huh, you’re right,” I replied. “This would look more in place at the Starlight Monastery in the mountains than a coastal town.”
I looked over at him to see his eyebrow slightly raised.
“Monastery, huh? Was it Starlight, then?”
I shook my head and cursed my sloppiness inside, again. Of course it wasn’t the Starlight Monastery that I trained at. I really didn’t want him thinking about it and questioning me innocently.
“Hah, not that easy,” I replied as lightly as I could, walking off to end the conversation.
Most of the buildings in Belio, the parts that were more loudly inhabited, were clean, white stucco, and clearly not designed for cold. The art history building loomed over us. Its giant pillars and walls looked carved out of a hillside, and its doors must have taken a whole tree to build.
I’d never thought much about it on earlier visits to Belio, but wood that size would still be a hot commodity in this area. There wasn’t that much forest to spare, even on the coast. Where had it come from?
“But here’s the real kicker!” Nilo exclaimed, pointing to some squiggles chiselled into the stone, brushing the dirt from their grooves.
I raised an eyebrow at him.
“It’s writing!” he continued. “But no language anyone has ever known. Cool, huh?”
He’s right, I thought, I’ve never seen writing quite like this before, and that’s very unlikely.
Something deep and frightening seemed to stare at me from a chasm of the unknown, like a shadow from a beast overhead, passing so quickly it might’ve been one’s imagination.
What did we really know about the history of this planet of ours? Could we really be so sure in our stewardship of it?
Although… I thought someone in HQ was studying something sort of like this? I shook my head to clear my thoughts and stay focused.
Nilo was back to grinning. “I’m tellin’ ya, I’m going to find those old cities!”
I walked around the central market area with Nilo, looking at various shops. He regaled me with tales of what had changed since he grew up there, and I enjoyed looking over the varied merchandise.
“Wait here, and I’ll go get us something to drink,” he said, striding off toward a nearby booth.
I sat on a bench that ringed a fountain, trying to match up my older memories of Belio with the present. I felt a small hand tugging at mine and looked over to see a boy with no parents to watch him. He grinned at me with youthful abandon.
“Hey there, little man,” I said with a smile, bending down a bit to be at his eye level.
“No time for that, five-two-three,” he replied in a serious voice, and yet he somehow kept right on smiling.
It was then that I noticed his BPG, similar to mine, yet subtly different. Twin snakes wrapped around his wrist with Tear Stone eyes.
“Got some intel you’ll want.” I looked around quickly, but Nilo was nowhere in sight. “Four-nine-six”, he giggled apologetically.
“Four-nine-six? Is that you?” I chuckled at my fellow Agent’s appearance. “Well, make it quick! I’ve got company.”
“Then listen, and listen fast. That train you came in with? Three of the mercs we saw there were definitely involved in this. Good job on the sniffing. Nine-six-one has tracked down another of these guys, and he spilled some of his guts. Figuratively, and unfortunately, later on, literally. He didn’t know a whole lot, but he knew some stuff he shouldn’t. There’s someone selling Agents and HQ out. Watch your ass, pal.”
“Thanks for the…” I started, looking around again for Nilo, but when I looked back, nine-six-one was gone; and not a moment too soon.
“Street urchins bothering you?” Nilo asked with a smile as he handed me a drink.
A redacted excerpt from History of the Isles
TOP SECRET – NEED TO KNOW
The long-term history of our world of Casilan is not well known. However, through a thorough analysis of what sources are available, some conjecture may be attempted.
Millennia ago, Carad scientists hypothesize, humans arrived on this world from elsewhere. Carbon-dated fossil records bear out this theory. All signs of human bones and artifacts date back to less than three thousand years, and then they abruptly cease.
Ancient records tell of a time when cities existed in places that are now firmly covered in ocean. Not many of these cities have been explored, or even discovered. The few that have, have largely been covered by massive domes that had cracked and allowed ocean water to invade.
The cities’ designs show signs of having been built without the constraints of domes or ocean water. All signs point to the domes having been added later on. Evidence suggests, then, that humans arrived on Casilan in a time when the oceans were much lower, and then the oceans rose rather rapidly.
We don’t know the exact event that precipitated the oceans’ rise, but it’s clear that the event had a massive effect on the human population as well.
One theory suggests some sort of radiation effect having an unknown relation to what we now call Tear Stone. It’s unknown if Tear Stone was brought from the mother world, sometimes referred to as “Eh-arth”, as it’s been highly resistant to carbon dating. However, its pervasiveness throughout the planet would suggest that it has been growing here for a very long time before humans arrived.
In the context of this textbook, we are mostly concerned with the effects that this “radiation event” might have had on humanity. In particular, that it represented the genesis of our two races: Relians and Carads.
The Relians, of course, experienced many physical changes, perhaps due to their proximity of the bulk of the known Tear Stone in the world. They also reached a symbiosis with Mana, an effect of Tear Stone, giving them the ability to sense and somehow manipulate it.
The Carads, our own nation, experienced a rapid acceleration of mental abilities. While our outward appearance didn’t appear to change much, based on records, Carads have a measured mental capacity increase of anywhere from five to an astounding two hundred times, in rare cases.
However, this researcher has uncovered evidence that a third race arose from those mutations, one found far away on remote isles in the Casilan oceans. This textbook will cover that information in further detail.
TOP SECRET – NEED TO KNOW
As a clock struck 16th, we met again at the inn. Tasha and Astra lounged on a bench in front of the inn, standing as we walked up.
“Thanks for coming,” Tasha said. “M… moving these around can be dangerous.”
Astra nodded in agreement.
“Are we expecting trouble?” I asked, noting her nervous stutter again. Tasha shook her head no, but looked away from me.
“Can’t be too sure, you know,” Astra filled in with a bland expression.
Foreboding filled me as I wondered what would make the usually strong and confident Initiate trip over her words several times that day. It had also seemed like Nilo was dodging my questions earlier about why they’d ask for the two of us in particular. Something was off. Something was going down, but I still couldn’t put my finger on what.
High alert time.
“Okay,” I replied, “but something is making you two nervous, and as a professional, I need to know if there’s a threat I need to watch for.”
Tasha and Astra turned to look at each other, but they said nothing, and I could read nothing from their poker faces. Nilo, on the other hand, was always ready to play the light-hearted clown.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a smile. “They always get nervous like this when we’re nearly done. I mean, surely you must know by now that all of this is not… squeaky clean.”
The last two words were spoken with an exaggerated whisper. Tasha gave him a sharp look, but he went on.
“What? If she’s half the warrior she seems to be, she’s already figured that much out. Anyway, if I were the constables, the wharf is probably where I’d make a stand. And there’s not much room for an army. We need our best in place, and the two of us aren’t half bad, if I may say so, myself! So, are you still in?”
He finished with a shrug as if it were already an old matter. At my nod, he turned around, and the two of us waited for Tasha to channel Mana to levitate the crate of Tear Stones. We walked along either side of it and pushed it along with us as they led the way down to the waterfront. The leaves of the trees lining the boulevard leading down to the docks were rustling in the cool breeze.
All I could do at that point was to go along with it until I could finish puzzling it apart, and hopefully make the first move. I was nearly “done” there, myself, after all. Just a little bit more.
Fifteen minutes or so later, we walked up to a building with a dilapidated sign reading “Senshen Wharf” in rusty letters. Not Xien. Once again, I was unsurprised by the duplicity displayed by this pair, taking their goods to the “wrong” wharf. But who would trouble the comings and goings of a full Relian Initiate, the next thing to nobility in that nation?
The pair of women preceded us into the building as we walked along a dim corridor lit by ailing Tear Stone globes. The quiet of the hallway felt unnaturally intense compared to our footsteps on the dusty floors, and a mustiness in the air threatened a sneeze I didn’t want to inject into the silence.
Ideal place for an ambush, I thought, but who would ambush our group? Constables? In this case, that’s me. Rival terrorists?
There’s too much I don’t understand, too many variables.
I felt dubious about Nilo’s cover story. I was tensed to the bursting point, yet holding the most relaxed outward appearance I could manage.
Those two certainly seem to be expecting something specific.
This large waterfront building is probably a major centre of operations for the terrorist group, I thought, and very likely Tasha and Astra are high in their ranks. Maybe Tasha is even their leader.
And then there had been that disturbing conversation I overheard during the caravan. They “moved in time”? They’ll “have their target”? Maybe this is the final shipment of Tear Stones they need for their scheme?
At last, all of the neurons fired at once, all of the lines crossed neatly, and the answer was clear as crystal.
Their “target” is me.
Someone selling out Agents, Agents disappearing…
Astra studying me…
Nilo getting close to me, disarming my suspicion…
And just like that, it was too late.
Tasha spun around and finished casting Mana on me, to paralyze me. Nilo grabbed me by the hands and pinned them to my back. All three of them looked at me without a trace of malice. Perhaps a trace of sadness, even. Just doing their jobs, I guessed.
Nilo’s voice came from somewhere around me.
“Careful, careful! Sheesh!”
Everything is too late.
Pain and a dryness in my mouth woke me. Something rough pressed into my cheek. All was darkness. Slowly, as I came fully conscious again, I wished for the headache and the oblivion.
I was lying on a small bunk in a dark cell of some kind. Iron bars blocked the only door. My only companion was the flick-flick of a candle on a desk next to the bunk, along with a meal on a tray. Sitting up quickly provided an instant object lesson as I grabbed my head again, trying to will the pain away. The smell of the food brought an unsettled feeling into my stomach.
Something felt wrong. Something missing.
What have they done to me? Oh no…
I saw it and groaned with the first true understanding of my predicament – my BPG, previously disguised as my Tear Stone pendant, was missing from my neck.
Those two hadn’t been worried about being attacked by constables or rival groups or anyone outside. They were worried about being attacked by me. Waiting for the perfect moment to jump. And Nilo was in on it, obviously, gaining my trust. What had Tasha gleaned from our time in the cave? Did she already know what my BPG was back then, commenting on wanting to study it?
The hunter had become the prey.
What a fool I’d been, thinking I could play the hero and succeed where others failed.
The memory of Jens’ static device dropped into my mind’s eye, just as it had on his desk. Four-nine-six’s words came back to me, too. “Watch your ass, pal.” Well, now I knew. And unless I missed my mark, I’d have the full story within a week. My skin crawled, just thinking about it.
See, tech that would let unsavoury elements transform into anything and anyone was not to be thrown around. Not only is each BPG keyed to the Agent, but it will go into a sort of self-destruct mode if removed from said Agent. We get a week to get back to HQ to reset it, at that point. The alternative was not to be contemplated: to be trapped in one form forever, and probably hunted down by other Agents for the rest of one’s life.
I thought back to when this all began, standing in my room in HQ, flowing and becoming. Some part of me instinctively tried to do it now, banging against the bars of the cage of my avatar, but of course that was no more successful than banging on the bars of my cell would have been.
I struggled for the Agent aloofness, the separation from the avatar. But strangely, even though it was all in my imagination, I felt that I was watching a bridge across a great chasm burn. The bridge that led back the way I came. All I could think of, for some time, was a glorious night atop a watch hill at an oasis, magic in a cave, and kind eyes staring deeply into mine. And even more strangely, that path seemed like it led home.
After thousands of years, I was tired. Very tired. People weren’t meant to live this long.
I stared into the candle, clearing my mind again from such strange thoughts, trying to think of a way out of my predicament. In the background, I heard the vague noise of a ship’s bell ringing, echoing the pounding in my head.
“Ohhh… oh, my poor dear,” the woman said, tucking a grey hair back into a bun and reaching out to touch the face of a young girl whose sleep she’d inadvertently interrupted. The woman had seen a strange shape in the porch of a closed business and gone to check if someone needed medical attention.
The girl rolled over and snapped to attention in an instant, hands up in a Ka Te defence stance. The old woman jumped back but didn’t run away, concern in her eyes.
The girl on the makeshift sleeping mat sighed, apologizing to the woman.
“I’m sorry, grandmother,” she said. Relians called women much older than themselves “grandmother”, and there in the outskirts of the Relian capital itself, most of the population was Relian.
“My dear,” the older woman said once again, catching her breath as the young girl looked up at her with bright silver eyes.
(Is she an Initiate runaway? No, I don’t think so… what is that burn on her wrist? It doesn’t matter.)
“Do… you need a place to stay for a bit?” the older woman asked. “My granddaughter just left to stay in the dorms at the University of Relia, so it’s lonely around the house. People call me Mima,” she said, reaching out a hand.
“I’m…” The silver-eyed girl hesitated, uncertain. “You can call me Six for now.”
“All right,” Mima responded, pulling her up from the ground. “Let’s get a real meal into you.”
The next day I heard footsteps echoing along the hallway before the guard unlocked the door to admit Astra. My vision was slightly blurry, my headache still burned, and I was sweating in spite of the chill from the rock around me.
Although I should’ve considered this as an opportunity to try to figure out what was happening, and how I might get myself out of the situation, I wasn’t in top mental form. My first reaction was pure, blind fury.
How dare they?
As soon as she stepped into the room, I lunged for her with a Ka Te killing sequence.
…Or rather, I tried to do so. Within a fraction of a second, I was hanging in the air, frozen. Or perhaps simply trying to move through a room full of very solid jelly; it felt much the same.
“Now, now, five-two-three,” she said. “Let’s not have any of that unpleasantness. Tasha has cast a Mana slowness holding on you, to prevent any quick, clever moves. For your own good. Can we agree to be civil?”
I sat down slowly and nodded, not seeing any other way to proceed. I glared into those brilliant silver eyes, intelligent beyond their years.
“Well, you’ve got all the cards now,” I asked, spitting contempt. “Don’t you? What’s next? Add another Agent notch to your belts?”
Astra shook her head slowly, pulling up the chair from the desk.
“What’s next… well… that is up to you, Keia. HQ is far away. You could be helpful to us. What would it feel like to have an identity of your own? How long has it been for you?” she asked musingly.
She had also brought a tray full of lunch and had set it on the small table.
“I will leave you to your meal. We’re not your enemy, and I am happy to tell you everything, now. Think on it, Keia, and let me know.”
Thought about it I did, and I still saw no way out.
“I’m sorry, little girl, but you cannot see Tasha Emerald River. You need to find your parents and stay with them whilst here on the university grounds.”
The undersecretary of the College of Mana Delving felt inordinately uncomfortable in front of this girl and her piercing eyes, and her even more piercing knowledge. How did she know about his affair?
She neither responded to his statement, nor moved from in front of his desk, simply staring at him as if he hadn’t spoken.
“I really must ask you to leave, young lady, I’m sorry.”
The girl nodded solemnly, briefly holding her ground, still. But eventually, after a drawn out moment, she rolled her eyes and began to walk away.
“I’ll be back, Dai,” she said over her shoulder with a jaunty, sarcastic wave. “We can do this for as long as you like.”
Dai felt his blood pressure rising as the girl walked away. The nerve!
Unseen by both parties, a woman stole away from where she’d hidden behind a pillar, following after the little girl.
Six hadn’t thought this through, she realized belatedly. It was much too late to have second thoughts, after she went rogue and destroyed her BPG bracelet. She’d thought that perhaps people would be more likely to trust a child, and that she’d chosen an age high enough to avoid this exact sort of nonsense. But apparently she would’ve been better off with a slightly older body.
Too late now… much too late. This was her form forever, now, and she would grow old and die just like any other person. But all of that knowledge HQ had gifted her would not go to waste – her blackmail data against Dai rolled around in her mind, and she would keep at him, feeding him dribbles until he cracked. He was her only way to Tasha, and Tasha was vital to her plans.
Or was he the only way?
Six sat at her table at the al fresco cafe on campus, having a snack. When the eyes on her back finally became annoying, she called out to the nearby table.
“I know you’re watching me, you know,” she said. “You might as well just come on over and we can talk.”
“Gah,” she heard a woman say, as the woman strode over to Six’s table and sat down across from her.
Six waited her out in silence, until the woman gave a solid tsk and finally started talking on her own.
“I can see why Dai is annoyed with you. But I’m too curious to let it go.”
“Knowledge is a virtue,” Six responded around a straw, bringing another scowl to the woman’s face.
“Maybe this was a bad idea.”
The woman began to rise, brushing non-existent dust from her red Initiate’s uniform, and flicking back turquoise hair that was not actually in the way of her face.
“Wait, wait,” Six said, holding up a hand and speaking candidly for the first time. “I’m sorry, Tasha, I just… I’ve built up such a wall, and it’s so hard for me to be honest with people. Sit, please.”
If Tasha Emerald River felt surprise that the girl knew her name, she didn’t show it as she nodded curtly and sat back down at the table, the metal of the chair scraping on the pavement.
“So,” Six said with a sigh. “I’d like you to delve me. You’re looking for a particular thing that’s out of place.”
Tasha’s turquoise eyebrows raised in doubt. “What am I looking for? If you have a disease, you’d be much better off just going to a doctor.”
Six laughed, a tinkle of silver bells rolling across a floor.
“No, I’m not here for that. I want you to examine my vertebral arteries, near the subclavian. Fine details. This is just to save us from a lot of convincing so we can get to the fun stuff.”
Tasha closed her eyes, and a light breeze seemed to waft around her chair, even though nothing physically moved. The fallen leaves of a nearby tree rustled slightly as they shifted in the non-existent wind. Suddenly, Tasha’s eyes shot open.
Six smiled winningly at her, and said, “Yes, yes it is. That’s why I put it there. Can we skip the preliminaries now and talk about the thing for which I came here?”
Astra visited me several times over the next few days, displaying considerable knowledge about the inner workings of HQ. And surprisingly, of my previous assignments and exploits.
“I knew who you were as soon as I saw the fight in Senshen Square, you know.” Her girlish smile was in deep contrast to her grown-up demeanour. “That was the whole point of that fight – to verify that we had an Agent. There are subtle bleed-overs from the Agent style, and Tasha is skilled enough at Ka Te to force it out.
“I’m really quite happy that they sent you, of all the candidates. You’ve been many people over the years, but always you’ve fulfilled your missions with flair and bloody brilliance.
“I’ve got great hopes for you.”
And in a later visit…
“Your diplomatic work during the Verilan uprising of 2153 was inspired,” Astra said, as if it were open knowledge in any textbook. “No one knew the governor had been replaced until he’d delivered a request for a truce, and by then it was too late to recant.”
I just stared back at her. The Verilan uprising had been over two hundred years ago, a country that no longer even existed. I had to smile though. It had been a fine piece of work.
Another day, she came with awful jokes.
“How many Agents does it take to change a light bulb?”
I stared at her in disbelief.
“Two! The first transforms into a ladder. The second reaches up to take the old bulb out and transform to become the new bulb for the glory of Casilan!”
A giggle snorted out of my nose before I could remember that I was supposed to be a surly prisoner.
Astra rose to open the door, but spun around as if she’d had an afterthought, her skirt flaring briefly.
“How are you feeling lately, Keia? Little interesting, isn’t it, the effect the absence of the BPG has on you?”
She put a finger to her lips, as if feigning confusion.
As she closed the door, I realized for the first time that I’d felt no desire to hurt Astra. If anything, I felt the sadness that an older sister might at seeing her favourite sibling misguided. I missed the relatively easy closeness I’d had in the group, during the caravan, but I still missed my comrades at HQ even more.
My strange and lengthy headache had finally faded. I knew they were softening me up for the final blow, but by then, I found it hard to care.
It was time to accept my fate.
Nilo walked into the jail cell on one of the days. So distracted I’d been, I’d not even noticed him until I heard the clang of the unlocked door.
I gave him the sharpest look I had left in me. I think even Tasha might have been proud of the fire within it.
“Please. I’m not a week old. Spare me your bromides. (tsk) I’ve gotta say, you really had me going. I thought we had something.”
I almost felt pity for the man as I saw the pained look on his face.
“We did,” he said sadly. “We could still.”
At the withering look on my face, he stared down at the floor again like a beaten puppy.
“Are you joking me? Hah, wow, you’re a real piece of work.” I knew it was neither fair nor productive to take out all of my frustration on him, but I couldn’t help myself once I got started, and it poured out with increasing force like a crack in a dam. “You led me here like a lamb to the slaughter, and I’m sure you know who and what I am, now. Or did you just want to keep my pretty face around once I can no longer change it? It’s not real, you know.”
He sat there for long moments, staring at the ground, until I started to wonder if I really had hurt his feelings. I tried to stop it, but the idea that I’d done so caused me no small amount of pain inside.
“What’s it like?” He looked at me with something like compassion on his face. “Doing all those missions, putting on all those faces, you know… that stuff.”
I sat back against the cold stone wall and breathed out slowly.
“It’s like being one whorl in an endless tide breaking upon history,” I ventured. “We’re the good guys, Nilo. If you care at all for the future of Casilan, you’d let me go so I can do my job for another thousand years. I don’t know what they’ve told you, but this can’t come to any good.”
He looked up at a corner of the room. “Well… Let’s say I’ve heard multiple sides to this story, and I have my own ideas about right and wrong. And HQ are in a grey area at best.”
He let loose with one of those patented Nilo mischief smiles that made it impossible not to smile back.
“Would you rather it be a different place?” he continued. “If they had a retirement plan, would you leave? Would you take a break and travel with me?”
The sudden barrage of questions going every which way briefly knocked me off my mental balance. The last even echoed some of my own confused feelings.
I tried to get back on a level, grabbing for my anger.
“We’re not even on the same level of existence, pal,” I replied, looking away from him. “I’ve lived at least fifty of your present lifetimes. Whatever you’ve heard, they intend to do good. We all do. Depriving HQ of Agents isn’t going to solve anything.”
Nilo looked thoughtful, nodding and standing, smiling.
“It wasn’t a lie. And I’ve made sure they treated you well. Give us a chance.”
I could hear ships out in the harbour, water sloshing somewhere nearby. The deadline was coming, any hour. It was almost as if I could feel the form of Keia solidifying around me, a second skin poised to become my first. More terrifying, I could feel that identity solidifying inside my mind, as well.
Mind and body, body and soul.
I am she, and she is me.
I gave up and began crying quietly. There was no point left in bravado. No more grand Agent purpose. No more shape-shifting. No more travelling the world, setting wrongs right before they even got started. I’d never see HQ again outside of an interrogation chamber, and probably never see my room in the dorms. Strangely, I’d never missed my bed and my view of the sparkling neon night lights of Rajma more.
All I was, at that point, was a vulnerable young woman, a Relian making her way through a hostile world, no purpose, hunted…
I supposed that there were worse ways to go. Fast reflexes, mana sensitivity… cute. These would all be serving me as I tried to escape and make my way in the world that was left to me.
Was there something inherently Relian about me? Inherently female? I’d never really felt like I had a gender. What did come before? When I’d stopped fighting her, Keia felt strangely comfortable to me.
And then the relief hit. Why did I feel relief? I supposed it was because there was finally an end in sight. I could put down the burden. I’d never allowed myself to admit how tired I was. Finally, the struggle was over. I could leave the business of saving the world to younger people.
Weirdly, I couldn’t really think of anyone at HQ who was younger than me. I couldn’t remember seeing anyone truly new come in, in ages. There were a lot of us, so who knows, maybe I just didn’t notice.
My tears passed, and all I felt was calm and resignation, and oddly, determination. I’d lived all this time through a lot of challenges, and I wasn’t planning to go down easy.
I’d make them pay for what they’d done to me.
In re: History of the Isles
TOP SECRET – NEED TO KNOW
It is unknown where the researcher who penned the book learned what he seemed to know. It is also unknown the extent of what he actually knew. But HQ cannot allow the information to fall into general circulation. Recommend extraction, to be held indefinitely in facility.
The Lost Tribe
A redacted excerpt from History of the Isles
The Ba’hari were a peaceful, island-dwelling people who inhabited an island called Ba’har. This tribe were neither Carad nor Relian, having moved far away before the flood. Unbeknownst to the other two, a third race had arisen.
The Ba’hari were more isolated than the other races, having settled on an island that was far out to sea, even before the flood. Consequently, preliminary research shows, their mutations took a different direction than the two races on the known parts of Casilan. If indeed the make up of Tear Stone and geology nearby affected the character of their changes, theirs would likely have been quite different.
Ancient records imply that the powers of the Ba’hari may have had something to do with morphology, the changing of form. However, these accounts are largely considered wild conjecture in the academic community. Little proof exists for this theory.
Conspiracy theories of an even more conjectural nature point to a plot by the Relian and Carad governments to subdue this potential threat to our sovereignty preemptively, fearing that so-called shape-shifters could replace any of us for their own means. However, no academic of any repute would truly put this absurd idea forward as truth.
TOP SECRET – NEED TO KNOW
A mere two hours before my time was up, I was given another tray of food. About half way through my meal, the guard outside my cell dozed off in the middle of his meal.
I looked around quickly but saw no one moving around in the hallway outside. His own tray of food sat about half-eaten on the table in front of him.
Going back and searching my own tray, I found a key that was stuck to the bottom of a bowl. Trying it on the cell door, hardly daring to believe my luck, the lock turned with a quiet ka-chunk, and the door swung open.
I was free!
I suspected that my currently-young fellow Agent had somehow prized his way in here and freed me. Even now HQ was probably taking over the building, and they’d surely be able to fix my BPG. All would be well now.
Grabbing the guard’s Carad pistol, I rummaged in a cabinet containing my knives and other possessions and found the BPG itself. Fastening it back around my neck, I felt an immense sense of security and, well, Agent-ness. The cold metal stung my neck, but warmed rapidly. I knew then that a part of me would probably always identify itself as Keia; the acceptance had gone too far. But I was five-two-three once again, back in action. One of the elite. With a little over an hour left to find the others and get the heck back to HQ!
The hallways were quiet, too quiet. It was odd that there were so few people around the building who would stop me, but I thought that perhaps they were all in other areas, fighting with the Agents.
I heard someone whistling in the distance and followed the sound. Even if nothing else came of the assignment, I’d finish it honourably by taking out the leader of the terrorist group, Initiate or not. The leader must be her, I thought. She was the only one with the power to organize something like this. Tasha’s face, with that mockingly sad look she’d had when she’d bound me, still haunted my inner eye whenever I thought of her.
The whistling came from a large room with an open door, a warehouse full of boxes ready to be shipped or stored. With my Relian avatar, even with the very tiny ability I possessed to channel Mana, I could feel the resonance of the immense number of Tear Stones in the room. The air seemed to shimmer with light and a humming sound, though I could neither see or hear anything physically.
My BPG was glowing again. The wealth in that one room could’ve bought entire small nations.
“Do you want to talk, Keia?” I heard a voice echo out from behind a stack of crates. Astra’s voice. I dodged around to where I thought the voice had originated, holding my gun out at the ready, but no one was there.
“You are no longer bound, you know,” her voice called, seemingly coming from several different directions at once. She was right – I’d been able to move at full speed for some time.
“It was I who gave you the key, and gave the guard his special treat. Please, say you’ll come talk with me,” she called, almost pleadingly. Despite my best efforts, the part of me that was Keia leapt up inside and calmed the rest, and I felt moved to know what was going on, at least.
“Okay,” I said to her. “I am bringing my weapon with me, and I won’t promise you anything, but I’ll listen. You’ve only got a few minutes before I do what I came for and take down Tasha. And then… my fellow Agents will have some pointed questions for you, no doubt, when they find out what you know.”
A puzzled silence followed that statement.
“Keia, there are no other Agents in the building. None that will rescue you, anyway. And the Tear-mancer of clan Emerald River is not our leader. Your mind is in turmoil, and time is short. Let us talk.”
Astra seemed to appear out of thin air at my side, having ducked around one of the stacks of crates, her too-knowing silver eyes looking into mine.
“Follow me to an area where we may sit, and I may explain a few things to you.”
As we sat, I aimed my pistol at her, ready to fire. Her calm face betrayed no nervousness.
“Let’s make this quick,” I told her. “After what you’ve done to me, I don’t plan to make it painless. You’d better have a good story for me, and I make no promises except to hear you out.”
“Yes,” she said with a sigh, “that was our deal. There is no way to soften this, so I will be blunt.
“True, my name is Astra, but before that I was known as… six-four-three. Yes, I can see from the surprise on your face that you know of the apparently infamous case of the disappeared Agent.
“As you probably know, I was one of the most gifted Carad machine operators the Agents had ever seen. I could hack into anything, retrieve any information, change any information, with no one the wiser. It was my curiosity that fatal day that prompted me to hack into the files of HQ itself, just to see what was in there.
“To put it mildly, I found some interesting things. Things so top secret that I had to spend several weeks off and on decrypting them, bypassing alarm triggers, and all other sorts of nonsense. What I found inside would change my life forever: the true history of the Agents. Allow me start at the beginning, though.”
I was finding her stories at the same time increasingly difficult to believe, but too many details of the story of her time as an Agent matched up with what I’d read. She continued on, implacably.
“The secret files at HQ had much more information than the researcher who wrote that book.
“We know little of our culture now, what part our shape-shifting ability played in it. But inevitably… the others discovered us.
“When the governments of Carad and Relia learned of the Ba’hari, they felt threatened. Who knew who might be a Ba’hari spy? They decided to work together to contain this ‘menace’ first, no matter how unlikely.
“Ba’hari were captured, and horrible experiments were performed on us. Finally, they were able to create it: the BPG. Its true name: Ba’hari Power Governor.
“Somehow the Relians were able to channel Mana and use Tear Stones to make a device which would effectively siphon a Ba’hari’s power into itself. The Carads added circuits to detect its location and limit that power, control it. The device around your neck does not grant special powers to a receptive Carad or Relian. It controls your own power for you like a nanny.
“Most of the Ba’hari were at first unwilling, but a couple of weeks spent as a pet convinced them otherwise. It went against all of our beliefs, our spirituality. Instead of growing old and eventually letting the soil take us, we were forced to live forever. Instead of reproducing naturally to allow future generations of Ba’hari, we were forced to renew our own bodies indefinitely.
“Unable to take what was happening to ourselves, all of our beliefs violated, and our families sold into this horrible slavery, we eventually gave in. A little creative brainwashing by HQ, and we all believed the story you still believe to this day, our culture brutally crushed.
“And us… just literally nameless and faceless enforcers of their laws. Psychological projection is a harsh mistress, and they’d turned us into their own fears.”
Astra stared at the ceiling, seemingly lost in her own memories, but she shook her head, snapping back to the present to continue her story.
“For my next assignment, I’d taken a slightly younger version of the form you see in front of you now, similar to the original form of our people. When I’d fallen away from the immediate radar of HQ, I destroyed my BPG. I felt like I’d lost control of my body; I was thrown violently to the ground. An immense vise was crushing me down; no, the weight of an entire city.
“My head pounded with a headache that lasted for days. I felt a part of my soul leave me. Quite literally, as I knew from HQ’s files. I will probably never transform again.
“But it had to be done so that I could free my brothers and sisters. Only completely free from HQ would I be able to accomplish my task. They would know of the destruction of my BPG, but my hope was that they’d think it an accident; I went into hiding, taking no chances.
“I had no identity that I remembered, as none of us do. I adopted the name Astra el Rahim, Star of Truth in the old Ba’hari language.
“That was when I found my way to Relia…”
“Tasha was the descendant of the leading Relian involved in the creation of the BPG, Tehara Emerald River, working at the College of Delving at the university, at that time. You see, I’d quietly worked a small physiological change into my form, one unmistakable to delving.
“When she finally believed my story, she was incensed beyond belief. Tasha is a woman of great passion, quick emotions, and steadfast resolve.”
I chuckled and mumbled “understatement” under my breath.
“By combining our knowledge,” Astra continued, “we were able to create the BPG-A process, the BPG awakening. It reverses the effects of the initial BPG bonding, freeing a Ba’hari back to their native powers. They can change shapes at will and are untrackable by HQ.”
“The BPG-A process requires the destruction of a quantity of purest Tear Stones, as well as the incorporation of some which must be replaced after every few Ba’hari. Tasha has been able to provide these through her connections in Relia. They surround you now. Enough to free many of our people.
“You can choose to believe who you will: us or HQ; but my story is true. You must choose of your own free will – that is part of the process, and why you are completely unrestrained. The decision is yours.”
She leaned back quietly in her chair and watched me.
“Don’t take too long… I’m afraid there’s worse yet to tell.”
Which brings us full circle.
Three minutes, thirteen seconds remaining until my BPG self-destructs. I’m sweating the bullets that should be issuing from the gun, shaking because I hear the truth in what Astra has told me; I know, deep inside, that it’s true. Some part of me that was never lost in the Agent brainwashing knows it to be true. Who am I, really? Five-two-three still wants to shoot, to stop the vicious lies, and go back to the life I know.
The holes in the stories HQ told us, the ones I’d tried my best to bury, are mocking me inside.
“One more question,” I say to her. “And no evasions. You said you sought me specifically. Why? Sure, I’m good, but there are a lot of good Agents.”
She smiles at me then, a far more warm and personal smile than I’ve ever seen out of her.
“Why me?” she says. “That’s always the question, isn’t it? You truly are their best, and we need you. You have the strongest sense of justice and humanity of any Agent I’ve known. It will be a grievous blow to them. But this question, at least, has an even simpler answer. Before we were captured, you were one of my siblings.”
I feel like I’m tumbling down a rabbit hole, a deep, deep rabbit hole that leads to somewhere considerably less desirable than Wonderland. All my understandings of the world are crumbling around me, and a new vision of reality is becoming clear.
“Why,” she continues, “do you think you felt that strange sensation during our conversation after the attack? We are attuned to each other. And without my BPG in the way, our connection is felt. Sister.”
Finally, something clicks in my mind. I feel at peace and know what must be done.
I lower my pistol and lay it on the ground beside me.
“Okay Astra, you win,” I say. “What now?”
“No, we both win!” she replies with a smile. First, Tasha helps you avoid my fate.”
Tasha Emerald River, the smile of a redeemer on her face, steps out from behind another crate. Less than a minute remaining, she removes my BPG once again and casts a special Mana holding on it to prevent it from self-destructing, and to silence its homing device. Then, to my complete surprise, she hugs me warmly, friend to friend. I’d almost forgotten what it feels like. A true friendship not mediated by HQ and espionage. And now, I can make real friends, and I’m looking forward to my own life, as Keia.
Tears come unbidden.
“You are now Keia el Rahim, warrior and liberator of the Ba’hari people,” Tasha says. “I welcome you to our group. It will take some number of months before we are able to use our BPG-A process to fully restore your powers from this, but rest easy knowing that it will happen. In the meantime, you can stay and help us with some intelligence reports.”
I stare at them, bemused.
“All that time spent in the cell, that was just to give me time to feel what it’s like to have a fixed identity again, to be someone, wasn’t it?” I ask. “To give me a foothold on a normal life again.”
Astra nods at my quick understanding.
“And you have no idea how much work lies ahead of us,” she replies to me. “You may yet quail when you hear the rest of it. As I implied, the troubles don’t stop with freeing our people.
“We will have to move on,” she continues. “They will know how long you spent in this town before losing the signal on yet another Agent, and they will come, as they always have, to investigate.”
Suddenly, my mind grasps on something that had been bothering me for some time during her long speech.
“If we’re so closely related, can we fix you using my BPG? I mean, like a blood transfusion…” Astra’s eyes go wide; she must not have thought about that possibility before. Tasha gets a skeptical look on her face but she already seems to be working her way through the new puzzle.
Surprisingly, my eyes also find Nilo, standing to the side.
“Jerk.” I punch his shoulder jokingly as he laughs back.
It’s time. My people, waiting to be free at last!