The view was splendid. Golden spires, silver domes and bronze pinnacles glimmered under the sun, spreading towards the heavens amidst soft, white clouds. Countless flying vehicles, as different in shape as they were in size and color, came to and fro along metal canyons, like small fish swimming amidst coral reefs in a vast blue ocean.
The Palace in the Heavens. Palaxis more than deserved its name. You could gaze upon the flying city’s skyline countless times and never grow weary of the spectacular sight that was planet Akaladia’s capital city and Air Continent.
Unlike other cities, Palaxis could not spread horizontally. The capital’s population fluctuated between sixty and seventy million these days, and since the city stood upon a huge platform designed to hover high above the ground, the gargantuan buildings were a must. Still, Palaxians did not build their high-rise wonders out of mere need; they did it because they could.
To the ears of many that was a prideful boast, to be sure, but not to Kyros Draksas. He could never count himself amongst Palaxis’ detractors for Kyros Draksas was a Selected. As he shifted his weight on his private aerolimo’s black leather seat, he relished the thought.
You are Vardikhar indeed.
The term Selected was a wrong transliteration of the Old Tongue for the real meaning of Vardikhar was Those Chosen or Selected to Rule. Alas the Old Tongue of the Selected was too old and too different to the vulgar, modern Common Tongue spoken all over the world these days. So most words and terms in the High Tongue of old had lost their true meaning with the passage of time.
Be that as it may, no translation could ever do justice to the term Vardikhar. If truth be told, the best way to describe the Selected would be Masters of Akaladia.
The Akaladian rabble might have forgotten the manner in which their forebears bent the knee to the Selected but that mattered not. The important thing was that the Vardikhar were in power. And by being raised to the Hall of the Selected but a few months ago, Kyros was now one of only twelve folk chosen or selected to rule over the lives of billions, albeit in secret.
That thought was enough to bring a smile to his lips, even on this particular morning when he fell prey to sudden anguish almost from the moment he opened his eyes. Not even that dreadful feeling of angst that had been gnawing at him for the last couple of hours or so was enough to stop him from grinning.
It was the year nineteen hundred and seventy After the Reform. At age twenty-nine, Kyros had not been the youngest initiate in the history of the Hall of the Selected, but becoming the youngest Head in the illustrious history of House Draksas was nothing to frown upon. Especially when he hadn’t been Palyarkis Draksas’ firstborn and true heir.
That honor had belonged to his brother Lyenkos, who never developed the backbone needed to rise to the top of House Draksas.
That’s correct, Kyros reflected. Lee deserves all of my gratitude. His passing was a painful sacrifice, to be sure, but it was worth it.
So pitiful that poor Lee had been in life, so weak and feeble. Lyenkos’ pathetic moralist stance in his last days was a painful thing to bear. Though at the same time, it had given Kyros the courage needed to give big brother a little push in the right direction.
It was not easy to get Old Palyarkis to see reason, to make him realize that Kyros was the best choice to succeed him amongst his two sons, regardless of what the Hall’s long-standing traditions might have to say about it.
In the end, the old man did come around and Kyros learned many a valuable lesson from Father’s lips. On second thought, next to what Kyros had to endure in the days of his youth, Lee had had it easy.
Poor Lee, he thought, with a dry chuckle. The bastard would’ve never made it past his own initiation ceremony. Why, he would have been terrified!
As for Kyros himself . . . Well, none of the intense experiences lived so far had made as much as a dent in his armor.
Lest for your first visit with the Great Master, perhaps.
This morning, however, the dread that had taken hold of him was unlike anything he’d ever felt before. This morning the Great Master’s summons had come with a terrible sense of urgency and something else . . . restlessness, perhaps? With someone like the First, you never knew.
All that Kyros knew for a fact was that his current circumstances were nothing like the way things went in his previous two visits to the Asthana’dikhar. Fear and anxiety had been there those two times, granted. But that was nothing next to the feelings preying on him this morning.
Well, whatever it is you’re about to find out, he decided at last. No use chasing shadows in the dark.
Kyros Draksas wasn’t known for his patience, though. And so the wait was becoming truly unbearable. He shifted his weight again, a long sigh escaping from his lips as his fingers stroked the thick black mustache covering his upper lip.
His dark brown eyes became lost amid the endless rows of metal giants rising tall, proud and impervious about his aerolimo. From the comfort of his seat he took it all in: the wide, cobbled paths and the stone patios and the green lushness of the gardens and the parks and the sparkling metal titans looming large above fabled UniCon Plaza.
The seat of the United Continents of Akaladia was almost a city all by itself, standing in the heart of Palaxis. Kyros gazed upon the fancy condos and the grand tourism hotels reserved for the countless politicians, delegates, businesspeople and other celebrities come from all over the world.
He turned his attention next to the tall, wide towers housing the different Ministries comprising the global government. In the end, his gaze roamed the great Senate Rotunda, a round dome glistening like a sea of silver, its waves crashing against the imposing, majestic mountain of steel and iron and glass that was Presidential Tower.
Alas the view offered little solace for the apprehension tormenting him wasn’t coming from his Conscience alone, or even that of the First, but from another eleven Consciences altogether. Try as he might, Kyros was unable to separate his own feelings from those coming in waves from the Great Master and the rest of his colleagues alike.
The situation must be dire indeed, for the First to project such . . . dread, he reflected. And that emotion is so clear, so intense, that it feels like a sort of . . . deadly disease threatening to infect and consume us all.
The mix of panic and dread kept rising as the aerolimo descended slowly towards the landing strip assigned this morning for the personal use of Doctor Kyros Draksas at UniCon Plaza’s Grand Terminal.
In spite of their great splendor, none of the towering structures surrounding his vessel mattered much, for it was not within their metal bowels that true power lie in Akaladia. The tall towers, the bulging pinnacles and the swollen domes were nothing but a mirage. And he couldn’t help but wonder . . .
What would happen if all those unsuspecting bureaucrats, wasting their lives away like the brainless automatons that they were, came to discover the existence of the Intangible World?
They’d probably soil themselves, Kyros thought, with another dry chortle that was supposed to help him relax.
His mirth was short-lived however, ending as soon as he set eyes on the sterile grey platform spreading rapidly a few meters below his aerolimo. The vessel had left the route that all aircrafts must follow on their way to UniCon Plaza, and his driver was now engaged in his landing maneuvers.
Kyros took a deep breath and stretched out his right hand to reach for the midnight blue overcoat hanging from a peg protruding from the far-side door. The aerolimo had not yet gone still on the landing strip when his driver and bodyguard was already pressing the switch that would open the backdoor of the sleek, chromed, olive green vessel.
Kyros slipped out of the aerolimo with slow, deliberate caution, and wrapped the thick overcoat around his tall, stout frame whilst waiting for the person assigned to greet him. He might not be the most patient man in the world, but there was no point in rushing and letting his increasing restlessness take complete hold of his senses.
He stood still on the broad cemecrete pad under his feet, doing his best to ignore the violent gusts swirling around him, biting at his coat like a thousand, frozen, tiny teeth. Instead of giving in to the adverse conditions about him, he made use of the waiting period to take a good, long look at his surroundings.
The aerolimo had touched down on one of the many landing strips spread all over Grand Terminal, usually reserved for the arrivals and departures of powerful, influential folk such as the many officials attached to the UniCon, and the senators and representatives of the local and regional ruling bodies of Akaladia’s remaining three continents.
Those poor bastards always showed up in the company of large entourages and were greeted by even larger retinues. Kyros didn’t know which was the worst among the two lots, the recently arrived fools or the idiots assigned to bid them welcome.
No greeting committee awaited Doctor Draksas this morning, though. He was certainly no fool, much less was he a mindless idiot, but that wasn’t the reason why no greeting committee was waiting for him. He was told to come alone with his Conscience and that was exactly as he’d done.
The broad esplanade sprawling before him was as desolate and silent as a graveyard at midnight. And at such heights the wind felt like a slap on the face, the drafts so cold and potent that his overcoat kept flapping wildly, as if wishing to grow wings to take flight then and there.
Other than the gusting gales, however, nothing seemed to move all along the pad. Kyros stood on Grand Terminal’s West Wing, about a hundred meters from the Term’s main building, a tall, square, metal structure looming large overhead.
No, it’s not metal, his Conscience corrected him, as his eyes kept gazing upon the edifice.
Judging by the blinding yellow ripples that the building sent under the sun, its face must be of pure spathaka, the wondrous mineral extracted from the depths of the Gulf of Asropia, as crystalline as water, as malleable as clay and more resistant than the world’s stoutest stainless steel.
Kyros had never been to this side of Grand Terminal before and so it was the sun’s reflection off of the building’s façade that kept him from appreciating the spathaka titan clearly. His ears had little difficulty picking up a sharp hiss, though, when one of the spathaka blocks standing at ground level slid to the side.
He pressed a hand against his forehead, squinting hard in an effort to make up the hazy shape coming his way. Try as he might, he couldn’t make out his hostess till the girl was much closer, though. She was a young, exotic beauty, he saw; her skin beamed like gold and her long black hair swirled wildly around her face, aroused by the frigid drafts.
The light-grey business suit on this woman’s body was sober and formal, yet so tight that it only helped to accentuate the creature’s slender, sinuous shape and long, firm legs. Kyros was under the impression that he was running late for the gathering, but his hostess was in no hurry to greet him, it seemed.
The tall beauty kept gliding in his direction with the casual, slow grace of a swan sliding on a clear pond, till she came to a halt about two meters from him. The striking brunette gave him the coldest of smiles accompanied by a brief but deep, respectful bow.
“Welcome, Doctor Draksas,” she said in a low, silky voice. “You’re just in time, sir. This way, if you please.”
In spite of her words the creature remained fixed in place, waiting patiently for a reply, Kyros knew. He gave her a sharp, curt nod; the kind of response expected of a man in his position.
Seemingly satisfied, his hostess whirled around and headed back for Grand Terminal’s main building, with Kyros trailing right behind her. The creature’s smile had been anything but warm or cordial. Actually, her grin had been anything but human.
So she’s Mikhurvat then, Kyros nodded to himself, whilst measuring his hostess from head to toes.
The creature’s slow, loose cadence, as she moved across the cemecrete platform, made her all the more desirable. At the same time, however, the girl’s sensuous gait reminded Kyros of a dangerous feline predator; the creature moved about with the flair that he was used to seeing in a full-fledged Mistagent.
That mattered little, however, for he felt no danger coming from his hostess. And moreover, he wasn’t as paranoid as the rest of his colleagues. None of them were too bright to begin with, but none of them were as stupid as to set up a trap for him in the heart of the UniCon, either.
The girl’s smile was the natural reaction that you would expect to see in any creature devoid of a Conscience, like all Mistagents without exception. Kyros put suspicions of potential danger out of his mind, deciding to fully enjoy the voluptuous female shape gliding before him instead.
This Mikhurvat’s been sent to bid you welcome and lead you to your destination. No more, no less.
His brief evaluation done he gave a pleased nod, forced to admit that his guide was a delightful vision, to be sure, a splendid young woman capable of arousing multiple fantasies at once. So he relaxed completely and made a mental note: once finished with his pressing business at UniCon Plaza this morning, he would make certain to spend a few minutes alone with his hostess.
To all this one thing was clear, though; the elite spy and assassin was fully aware of her charms for her hips kept swaying this way and that, with the same slow, suggestive cadence all the way. Then those hips of hers turned right and the creature headed for the farthest corner of the spathaka structure towering above their heads.
The Mistagent brought her sensuous stroll to a halt before a small, dark, metal door standing on the building farthest corner. She pressed on a dial built into the spathaka wall and resumed her march as the door slid to the side, leading Doctor Draksas into Grand Terminal.
Once inside the building, the young Mikhurvat turned right and again, Kyros followed suit. Even the large, narrow corridor that greeted them inside the edifice was totally devoid of life. Kyros was perfectly aware of the Hall of the Selected’s need to remain hidden from view at all times, but all this silent desolation was slowly chipping away at his nerves.
Nothing easier than reaching the Asthana’dikhar from home via a short hop through the Intangible World.
Alas, when he instructed his second son as his eventual successor, Old Palyarkis had insisted to no end that stealth and subterfuge must be observed at all times.
“Akaladia must not remember what it forgot so long ago,” the old man had told his second son, more than once. “The commons must never be reminded that the Intangible World is as real as the air that they breathe.”
So it was that any attempt at entering the Intangible World under the risk of discovery by the ever-present eye of the casual beholder had to be avoided at all costs. After all, no Vardikhar wished to be seen appearing and disappearing as if by magic. Especially in a world where a total lack of spirituality and beliefs were crucial components to the success of the Selected.
Kyros would have to keep up the charade to the end, and his feelings on the matter be slammed.
So be it then. At the end of the day this is nothing next to all that’s gained through the Intangible.
His hostess brought her march to another halt, this time before the sparkling silvery doors of a service turboshaft standing in the middle of the gloomy corridor.
Since patience was in short supply, and running scarcer with each passing second, Kyros approached the girl and stood by her side as she pushed the button to summon the elevator. The turboshaft gave a shrill buzz and another smile—as cold and lifeless as the first—was drawn on the Mistagent’s lips as she pointed at the elevator’s doors.
“Please go right in, Doctor Draksas,” said the creature, as the turboshaft’s doors slid open.
Without as much as another glance in the young beauty’s direction, Kyros gave another curt nod and slipped into the elevator.
The shaft was a wide, rectangular compartment, with space enough for twenty users, but it was as empty as the landing strip and the corridor that had preceded it. Kyros spared a quick glance at the chronobracelet wrapped around his right wrist before turning swiftly to look at the passageway outside.
For a nanosecond, he was tempted to ask his hostess if she had the same time as his chrono. Alas doing so was not worthy of the Head of a House. And though his training for the position had been somewhat hasty, and lacking in more ways than one, experience had taught Kyros how to avoid making a fool of himself.
It was such a shame, that matter of his hasty training, for it made him feel like he had to run all the bastard time just to catch up to the rest of his peers . . . the same as that fool, Lyenkos, had made little brother feel all their slammed lives. But any Head of a House who wasn’t a firstborn couldn’t help that.
Such is the way of things when survival of the fittest is your bread and butter.
Even if he’d dare ask something of his hostess the creature wouldn’t have heard his query. Kyros had not yet entered the elevator when the girl was already scurrying away down the hall. And before there was time for anything else, the turboshaft’s doors were closed in a pinch.
Long before the elevator reached its destination atop Presidential Tower, Kyros closed his eyes and steadied his breathing to fight off an angst that kept growing in his mind, the way Father had taught him to do when Connecting to the Intangible.
After a few seconds of deep concentration, anguish and anxiety gave way to calm and serenity, his molecular density changing at the pace set by his slowing heartbeats. Intention, purpose and a deep knowledge of the occult sciences of old allowed for his Being to dematerialize from the Tangible World like a wraith.
His senses heightened at once; he didn’t even have to open his eyes to gaze upon his surroundings clearly, for his Mind’s Eye showed him how everything had changed. The ecstasy of entering Khevala, the incomparable Intangible World, brought another smile to his lips.
His Third Eye showed him even the tiniest particles of the turboshaft’s dark, wooden walls, as if he were looking at them through the world’s most powerful microscope. Within the Intangible World, far beyond the boundaries of physicality, the pleasant smells coming through the ventilation shaft grew exponentially, and everything felt as soft and warm to the touch as a newborn’s skin.
This is how everything feels within Khevala. Only here can a man feel truly alive.
Nothing compared to the intoxicating ecstasy that was the Intangible World. Through his Mind’s Eye Kyros gazed upon it all, allowing for that glorious feeling to take complete hold of his sharpened senses. He stretched out his arms and took his feet off the ground, like a diver ready to take a plunge into deep, warm waters.
The gesture was unnecessary for the only limits that existed within Khevala were those set by your own imagination. Be that as it may, and for absurd as it might seem, he’d always liked to lead his flight, for it made him feel . . . safer. After all, you never knew what kind of dangers might be lurking inside Khevala, especially so close to the Asthana’dikhar.
Kyros flew through the turboshaft’s doors like a knife going through hot butter.
Those arrogant Palaxians, he thought, as he went through walls of leaden stone, agreeing somewhat with the capital city’s many detractors. They might think their precious flying city the pinnacle of power, but that’s because none of those fools know the first thing about the real Pinnacle of Power!
None of those billions of mindless fools down on the planet’s surface below, or high aloft in Palaxis, had ever set eyes on the Asthana’dikhar, visible to the Third Eye of those with access to the Pinnacle of Power and no one else.
At a simple glance the Hall of the Selected was a hollow, gloomy cave, almost devoid of light and life. It was a sort of simple, grotesque, leaden, stone cave, dimly lit by tiny indigo lights produced by sparks embedded deep within the rock that felt like the violet-blue eyes of a thousand little spies watching your every move.
Yet, in spite of its appalling aspect, nothing in the whole of Creation compared to the overwhelming feeling of might that you experienced within the dark-grey walls of the Hall of the Selected. The first word that came to mind to describe the feeling was opulence; not opulence in the material sense, for nothing was mass or matter within the endless reaches of the Intangible World.
In Khevala everything was energy. And in that sense, the Asthana’dikhar conveyed an indescribable feeling of might and superiority above all, like no mere mortal should have the right to experience.
Kyros flew across the cave, sending mental greetings to each and every one of his peers as he did. Relief flooded through him as he realized he was not the last Vardikhar to arrive at the gathering. He couldn’t stop thinking that he was late, and if rumor had it true, the Great Master was not too fond of tardiness.
Nine of the twelve Heads of the Houses were already gathered in the Chamber, all of them with rock-solid Mind Blocks in place to protect their innermost thoughts from the prying minds of their colleagues. Still, Kyros was able to confirm that everyone was under the influence of the same angst and dread that had been roaming in his head all slammed morning long.
He decided to ignore that troubling feeling and focused instead on recognizing the rest of his peers.
Who’s still missing? Ah yes, Ohlreman and Crisal.
Those were the two Vardikhar who hadn’t materialized in the room yet . . . or rather, those were two of the three Consciences still noticeable for their absence for there was nary a sign of the Great Vanquisher to be found, either.
“The Selected may be Those Who Were Chosen to Rule.” Father’s words popped up in his mind again. “But Akaladia’s true lord and master shall always be the Adi’vardikhar, the First Among the Selected, if the translation is accurate. And none of his followers would even dare to contemplate dethroning the First.”
So late Palyarkis Draksas had always thought. But did that hold true for every other member of the Hall?
Since the days of the foundation of the Hall of the Selected, intrigue, treason and deception had become the most important traditions for each and every single one of its members. From the Heads of the twelve great Houses to the lowliest member of the small Houses sworn to the Hall, conspiracies and counterplots were quite common.
Why, it could even be said that scheming against one another was like second nature to the Selected and their servants. Even amongst close kin, deception, intrigue and betrayal were daily occurrences, always counting with the blessing of the First, of course. For such matters were not only quite convenient to His rule; the Great Master also found His Hall’s inner squabbles, schisms and rifts amusing as well . . .
Or so Kyros had heard. He was loath of the Hall’s treasonous ways, but he also was the first to admit that such traditions came in handy every now and then. For it was those treacherous ways of theirs that allowed the Vardikhar to keep the commoners at bay.
Yet in spite of their deceitful, treacherous nature, no Vardikhar would ever dare think of turning on the Great Master for nothing escaped his all-seeing eye . . . Or at least that was what Old Palyarkis used to say—
Eldrick Ohlreman’s sudden materialization brought Kyros’ brooding to an abrupt end. Akaladia’s wealthiest rancher entered the room through the same spot that saw Kyros appear in the Chamber a couple of minutes ago.
Thin as a pole, gnarled as old roots, though taller than the average man, and with a face with more wrinkles and creases on it than dry earth, silver-haired, blue-eyed Rick Ohlreman sent mental greetings to all of the gathered.
Afterwards, Boss Ohlreman wasted no time to hover slowly and quietly across the room, to the farthest corner of the chamber, both feet dangling idly a few centimeters off the ground while he waited for the gathering to commence as eagerly as the rest of his peers.
Kyros twirled his whiskers absently and took another glance at the rest of the Selected.
In Khevala there was no need to engage in oral conversation but no one seemed interested in a telepathic chat either, it seemed. Needless to say the mood was somber. And without a word, be it spoken or thought, the wait was truly unbearable now.
Some of the Vardikhar hovered lazily a few centimeters off the ground, like Eldrick and Kyros, whilst others chose to keep their feet set firmly on the rocky ground . . . As if that could help them flee at the first sign of trouble.
Running will do them no good, just like flying away won’t help Rick or me in the least, Kyros thought gloomily, careful not to let his thoughts slip by the tight Mind Block that he’d set in place. Nobody’s out of reach for the arm of the Hall . . . or the wrath of the First.
If the Great Master had a nasty surprise in store for his followers, fleeing would be in vain and they all knew it . . .
Speaking of surprises, Adristián Crisal’s sudden appearance did come as a complete shock.
The surprise was not due to the fact that the man with the scarce, graying, golden hair, the blotchy cheeks of a clown and sunken, olive green eyes, materialized without warning. The shocker was the manner in which Crisal’s Conscience kept blinking. Blurry it looked, out of focus . . . as if projected by some old, defective technovisor.
Known for his creative genius, Addy Crisal had also carved a terrible reputation for himself because of the great love that he harbored for all kinds of substances. Booze, weed, designer, hallucinogenic drugs . . . Boss Crisal did not discriminate. The moron had never met a narcotic he’d not fallen in love with at first sight, and his substance abuse issues were no longer a secret amongst the Vardikhar.
Why, it could even be said that the man’s outrageous lifestyle was becoming legendary amongst his peers. Yet that was nothing next to the fact that Crisal’s countless minions and servants were becoming well acquainted with his excessive lifestyle, too.
The fact that the bastard owner of the world’s leading media outlets—through a large network of third parties—would dare show up for a meeting at the Asthana’dikhar in such deplorable condition . . . Well, things could get interesting this morning, what with the Selected so jumpy and all.
In all fairness to Crisal, the meeting had not been scheduled in advance. But still—
Suddenly Adristián Crisal’s blurry image was no longer the only anomaly in the Hall.
A constant, throbbing hiss echoed off the walls. The minuscule indigo lights dwindled as the buzz increased alarmingly. A black shroud fell on the Hall of the Selected and the low thrum became a deafening roar that shook the rocky walls uncontrollably.
It feels like an earthquake, Kyros thought, discarding the notion almost as quickly as it came. That’s impossible in Khevala.
The physical Tangible World was an imperfect, unpredictable realm where natural disasters happened all the bastard time. But the Laws of Physics ruling over Sparzanna, as the Tangible World was known in the Old Tongue, had no bearing whatsoever on its Intangible counterpart.
Still the room kept rattling wildly, the Chamber shivering so violently that it was as if the expansive wave of a thermonuclear blast had engulfed the entire place. Serenity was back in a flash, though, the little violet-blue dots of light springing back to life within the walls as the room remained as silent as midnight.
A hazy cloud in a grey so deep that it was almost black materialized under the ceiling. The cloud took on shape slowly and hovered lazily above the twelve Consciences gathered in the cavernous Hall, as the sparks of light illuminating the Audience Chamber burst into a thousand fragments of light, color and sound.
The abrupt blast was such a stark contrast with the dark, hazy silhouette looming large above all that Kyros’ Third Eye was instantly drawn in that direction.
At a glance the shape hovering near the ceiling looked as that of a man of average height and weight, covered from head to toes in a shroud or cloak that fluttered around him like tendrils of leaden smoke, not too different in shape or color to the walls of the Asthana’dikhar.
Alas Kyros knew this was no mere mortal man.