The Pinnacle of Power

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The facilities housing the Mistagent Training Academy were one of the greatest achievements ever accomplished by the brilliant minds of the Selected.

Built in secret under the tallest peak amidst the great mountains of the Kalladban Range, on the edge of Zevantika’s North Pole, the Mikhur’vihar was also one of the hardest destinations to reach on the face of Akaladia. At least for those who had to do so in the Tangible World.

The only vessels authorized to land at the Mikhur’vihar were the private turboplanes transporting the Children of the Hall for their obligatory six-year internship at the Academy, and the large, semicircular aerofreighters filled with provisions, and the bulging aerocoaches teeming with potential prospects—or rather the toys—that were molded into useful weapons by the hands of the Vardikhar.

The only way to reach the Farm in Sparzanna was via a direct flight; quite a risky proposition as it were, due to the ever-present blizzards and the sharp steepness of the rock giants and the frigid gales that turned flight maneuvers into a nightmare, even for the slickest of pilots.

Turboplanes did not face as many problems when landing or taking off but aerofreighters and coaches were such behemoths that the Academy was no stranger to accidents. The big cargo vessels that made it past the perils awaiting them atop the Kalladban Range would touch down once a week upon the Farm’s landing pad, a sprawling platform concealed under the cover of a spathaka dome so thick and white that it blended in perfectly well with its snowy surroundings.

That sort of vessel was reserved for the servants and the minions of the Hall, however. The Vardikhar and their firstborns had a very different and most of all, a very discreet option at their disposal to visit the Mikhur’vihar.

Conditions around the Academy were so adverse, in fact, that escape was an impossibility for the many aspiring Mistagents training at the place, or even for the Selected’s own progeny when sent to attend middle school at the Mikhur’vihar.

The possibility of a strike against the Farm was completely out of the question. For only a handful of folk knew of the Mikhur’vihar’s exact location and none of them wished to see any harm come to the place. Yet, every time that so many volatile youths with a propensity to violence were gathered at the same time and place, security was a must.

For this reason—and not so much because of the possibility of escape or attack—the Farm was equipped with the most advanced surveillance gear that Technolectronics had to offer: holocams, energy shields, heat and movement sensors, auto-repeating turboguns and a security force comprised of graduates from the Academy itself.

Taking human nature into account, out of all that top gear it was the human element, precisely, which used to present the most breakdowns.

“Complacency tends to cloud judgment and numb the senses of those who feel too comfortable in their jobs,” Old Palyarkis used to say. And, as an expert doctor of the mind now, his son Kyros knew the virtues and flaws of human beings well enough to know that Father’s words were true.

He could have reached his destination within the Mikhur’vihar with ease, though he wanted to make certain that the security staff kept awake at all times. So it was disappointing to find out that the two guards stationed at the surveillance booth guarding the main entrance to the Barracks Block were certainly not at their best this afternoon.

When Boss Draksas appeared literally and without warning at their workstation both brutes gave such a start that Kyros couldn’t keep a smirk from touching his lips. The first guard, an imposing mountain of brawn, with a grotesque scar running above his right eye, was lounging placidly on a chair standing before the control panel with both feet resting over the console.

The second guard, an even bigger mass of muscle than his partner, and a man with a face that not even his mother could love, was leaning casually against the wall rising next to the yellowish-green energy shield keeping the Barracks Block secure.

This second oaf had both arms folded across his chest, his legs crossed in a posture that was much too casual for a security guard. Neither of the two men had recognized the Selected who materialized in their midst yet, when the beast with the scar was already falling from his seat. The second moron jumped up and gave a sharp grunt before clearing his throat as he stood at attention.

“B–boss Draksas,” the man babbled clumsily. “We . . . um . . .we weren’t expecting to see you here this afternoon, Doctor, sir.”

As if I were to announce my arrival beforehand to a couple of lazy Mistagents, Kyros thought, with a shrug.

There was a reason why the least talented of all Mikhurvat graduated from the Academy on a yearly basis were chosen to keep watch over the place: you didn’t have to be the smartest of folk to get the job done.

“Instructor Döttersen awaits me,” announced Kyros, in a low, hoarse growl. “Do you two gentlemen plan to keep me here all afternoon long?” Both guards remained still as statues, blinking as clumsily as if they’d just woken from deep slumber.

The orangorilla with the scar managed to keep his balance somehow, and he wasted no time to rise from his seat as if shot by a turbocannon. Their initial start overcome, both guards remained as still as the frozen stands of trees rising on the skirts of the mountains, hundreds of meters below their workstation.

Four eyes were all that moved, dancing nervously about the surveillance booth to make certain that everything were in order in the cramped, square room. Doubtless, the couple of brutes left a lot to be desired of them this afternoon.

Odd that, Kyros reflected. Both men are quite capable most of the time.

So many additional security measures in place at the Mikhur’vihar must be the reason why the couple of orangorillas had turned into such inept, complacent, trusty idiots. He took mental note of the incident, deciding that he’d have to address the issue, soon rather than late.

That would have to wait, though. Checking on the current conditions of the security staff was as interesting an exercise as it was urgent, but he hadn’t traveled to the Farm this afternoon only to check if the guards were doing their jobs.

“Of course not, Boss Draksas, sir!” said the guard with the scar, in reply to Kyros’ question. The man’s hideous face turned to the console, and he wasted no time to press the switch that deactivated the energy shield. “You can go right in now, Doctor . . . Oh, and welcome, sir!”

Kyros didn’t even deign to send one last glance over his shoulder at the couple of idiots. Instead, he shoved his hand in the pocket of the fancy dark-grey suit covering his tall, stout frame to produce a tiny technopad that he turned on as he went through the deactivated energy shield.

Both guards would remain standing still as stones, their eyes fixed on the Selected’s back as they muttered to themselves under their breath, in case they weren’t holding those same breaths of theirs till Doctor Draksas faded completely from their view. Kyros was certain this would be the case.

Wondering what kind of penalty awaits them, no doubt, he reflected, as he entered the Barracks Block’s main corridor. Fervently wishing not to be permanently released, I reckon.

Serving the Hall of the Selected came with many privileges, though permanent release meant a release of all things, including the burden of life. He analyzed if the situation at the surveillance booth would merit permanent release, for what would happen in case one of the many students at the Farm decided to exploit the laziness and the complacency of the security staff someday?

The Children of the Hall, especially . . .

If a child of the Vardikhar were to be involved in some conspiracy or if he or she were forced to escape from a plot against them personally or against their House, the security detail would have a key role to play in the young creature’s chances at fleeing from the Farm.

Permanent release will be necessary in this case, he decided. Even if it’s only to make an example out of the two brutes, that ought to be enough to motivate their peers to keep their eyes open at all times, and to discourage them from giving in to the wishes and the whims of our own whelps.

His decision made, he brushed the little incident aside and took his gaze off his technopad to look straight ahead into the narrow tunnel spreading before him. It was time to focus his entire attention on the true reason behind his visit at the Farm this afternoon.

As part of their training, Mikhurvat were taught some of the secrets contained within the Pinnacle of Power, though not too much, only what was deemed necessary to turn them into the useful but disposable weapons that they all were. Still, Mistagents were smarter than most, for the Spark had to beat strongly within every single aspiring Mikhurvat.

A Mistagent’s pure intellect and knowledge far exceeded that of the common Akaladian, on theory at least. In practice, Mistagents were a hair’s breadth above the commons and thus the guards’ reaction came as no surprise.

Be that as it may, an utter lack of wits, preparation or both, had turned the guards in charge of security at the Barracks Block into a couple of useless idiots. After watching folk materialize and dematerialize at will with their own eyes on a daily basis, the pair was certainly aware of what it meant to have a complete Connection to the Intangible.

Their carelessness is the direct result of their complacency, Kyros confirmed once more.

A few Mistagents still marveled at the . . . tricks that their masters drew from their sleeves with seemingly astounding ease. But the manner in which the Mikhur’vihar’s entire security detail would behave—as if every time they saw a Selected come and go through the Intangible World were the first time that they witnessed the phenomenon—was not the exception but rather the rule concerning the way most Akaladians would behave in the face of anything that they deemed inexplicable or unnatural.

That was just as the Selected liked it. For the utter mindlessness of the masses and their flagrant ignorance provided the Hall with its biggest advantage over the commoners. Although the total and absolute mindlessness of those who are our legitimate property never ceases to amaze.

The dull, thick walls of leaden cemecrete and reinforced steel surrounding Kyros stirred an unpleasant feeling of confinement as he delved deeper into the tunnel. And the dim, pale light offered by thin, elongated lamps hanging from the flat, low ceiling overhead only helped to increase the sense of claustrophobia the deeper he went into the corridor.

If truth be told, anyone would feel the same exact way as they walked inside the walls and the ceiling of the Barracks Block’s main corridor for it felt like being confined in a coffin. Indeed. The whole slammed place feels like a giant tomb. That was precisely the intention here, to crush even the tiniest of hopes of escaping the dreadful place.

Large numbers painted in white under the ceiling were the only thing separating the barracks’ doors from the walls. Although not even those bright digits were enough to break the bleak monotony of the large, narrow corridor.

The tunnel ran straight as an arrow, save for a sudden turn right here or a twist left there, and so the passageway also felt like a maze. Doors and walls were specifically designed to isolate sound, though he was still under the impression that he could hear distant echoes coming from the barracks; indistinct, muffled voices, impossible to recognize for what they were for anyone with no idea of what lie beyond the walls.

Kyros was perfectly aware of what he thought to be hearing, however: cries and sobs filled with anguish and despair that went in accordance to the age and conditions of each little recruit kept under lock and key in the first section of the Barracks Block.

“The creation of a full-fledged Mistagent is more an art than a science.” He remembered from Father’s teachings, as he kept strolling slowly along the Block. “It’s a labor that the Hall of the Selected has refined over the years, almost to the point of perfection, thanks to the great advantages that the modern science of Technolectronics has provided for us.”

To think that the Hall came this close to shutting down the Farm once, he recalled, as well.

Then again, after witnessing the chilling visions in the bastard Omen that the Inforacle projected almost eighteen years ago, he couldn’t blame the Great Master for his desire to see the Spark controlled in the commons, at all costs and by any and all means necessary.

For that reason, the United Continents Armed Forces had seen their numbers swell in recent years as well. The UCAFs were in the service of the Hall, but if the members of the security force at the Mikhur’vihar were such inept fools, the brainless idiots in the service of the United Continents armies were worse by far and wide.

Moreover, whilst every single Mistagent was fully aware of the existence of the Selected, and forced to do the Hall’s bidding, most UCAFs had absolutely no idea of what the word Vardikhar meant, let alone know the first thing about the existence of the Hall of the Selected.

The common soldier always answered to his or her commanding officer, of course, and most high-ranking UCAFs were sworn to the Asthana’dikhar. Yet not all army officers were in the service of the Selected. Therefore, not every UCAF general, captain or commander had the slightest idea of whose orders they were following in truth.

Be that as it may, the United Continents Armed Forces had proven themselves capable in those few times that their services had been required to stifle a minor revolt here or there, every now and then.

“This is why an army’s needed in a world that, for all intents and purposes, has been in peace for over a thousand years,” Old Palyarkis had explained once.

Against folk with total access to the Intangible World, however, who may dare rise against the rule of the Selected someday as the Omen predicted, the army would stand no chance. Especially since the UniCon’s Armed Forces had not really seen that much action since the global government’s foundation, some two hundred years ago.

For that simple reason, Mikhurvat were an indispensable asset for the Asthana’dikhar.

“Mistagents are no mere soldiers,” the old man had taught Kyros. “Mikhurvat are silent, deadly, elite agents, capable of much more than just ‘maintaining peace and order in Akaladia’.”

So the First could not afford to see the Spark quenched indiscriminately amongst the commons. Only folk with a strong, latent Spark of Connection—those who couldn’t be sent straight into the Farm for training as Mikhurvat at an early age—had been subjected to the program to quench the Kanazanda since Kyros saw it implemented almost eighteen years to the date.

“Since the days following our conquest,” Old Palyarkis had told both of his sons once, “the responsibility of keeping the commons at bay fell squarely on the shoulders of House Draksas. Our forefathers were forced to apply conditioning methods, as crude and brutal as they were impractical, only to determine the Spark’s level in each person. However, all those procedures were so unreliable that determining a prospect’s true potential was nigh on impossible.”

Fortunately, the arrival of modern chemicals—added to the advanced psychotherapy and neuropsychiatric methods developed by the members of House Draksas—had rendered the old torture methods almost obsolete in the present day.

The great medical and scientific accomplishments reached over the last few decades had allowed for House Draksas to spot and separate commoners with loads of potential from those who offered naught, with relative ease. Alas none of House Draksas’ great accomplishments could be attributed to Kyros.

That thought made his blood boil so hot in his veins that the imaginary pleas of the young recruits going round and round in his mind were immediately replaced by a deep, silent bitterness.

He was proud heir to a long line of prominent scientists and physicians, all of them responsible for major achievements in their respective fields within the history of the Hall. And yet, what have you done to place your name among those of your illustrious forefathers?

It was so ironic that Lyenkos’ program had come to save the day. I may not have done much till now, but I’m here thanks to your program, Lee, Kyros nodded to himself. Whereas you, dear brother, took the Final Step into Khevala twenty years ago. And thanks to your own little brother, besides.

Be that as it may, the plan to quench the Spark of Connection would never be Kyros’ creation. Worse yet, every single bastard member of the Hall knew that it was big brother who had conceived the program. And that had been only one of the many brilliant ideas that Lyenkos Draksas had during his life.

When Lee passed on the chance to take full advantage of his own creation the fool had not only sealed his own fate; he left the door wide open for little brother Kyros to step right in. Nonetheless, the program would always be Lee’s baby.

The slamming credit will always go to my brother.

Well, at least Old Palyarkis didn’t hesitate when the time was come for him to choose a worthy heir amongst his two boys, even when that decision was not his to make.

Tradition went against the Head of a House choosing an heir of their own; the title passed on automatically to the firstborn. Should a younger child be unable to contain their ambition, they would have to fight their way to the top, on their own and with no interference whatsoever from the Head of their House.

In Kyros’ case, the old man was forced to pave the way for his second son when his firstborn and heir botched his own chance. The old man’s hand was forced when he realized that the favorite amongst his two sons had tried to dupe him.

Under the excuse of preserving the sacred, ancient principles of subtlety, stealth, discretion and subterfuge that had defined the Hall of the Selected for over a millennium, Lee had refused to see his program implemented.

“The program isn’t ready yet,” he would argue about his baby. “Quenching the Spark in such indiscriminate fashion will lead to the demise of any person subjected to the program, inevitably and without exception.”

In fact, Lee’s concerns were no different to the worries voiced by Gun-Weng Juniteki on the Day of the Omen. But from Father’s lips Kyros learned that Lyenkos went far beyond Juniteki.

“According to your brother,” Old Palyarkis had whispered to Kyros in full confidence, “soon or late, some smart shrink will find out what we mean to do here in truth, and will come to realize that instead of helping the patients the program will destroy them all.”

Unlike Gun-Weng Juniteki, who eventually decided to go along with the plans of the Hall, Lyenkos never allowed for his program to be implemented. It was all a ruse on his part, of course, and it didn’t take long for his father and little brother to discover Lee’s deception.

“A high brain energy level, added to a superior IQ, are the unequivocal and clear signs pointing at a strong, latent Spark of Connection,” Lee had explained once, whilst discussing the nature of the Spark with Father, Kyros and other members of import within the scientific community sworn to House Draksas.

Ah, but the wretched commons didn’t even know the meaning of the term Spark of Connection!

As if all those bastard, brainless automatons were so aware and awake, Kyros had thought at the time.

Sure enough, the common people had never even come close to suspecting what was truly going on around them, regardless of the high number of casualties that the program had produced since its implementation. Now, the old man on the other hand, he was quite aware and awake; he always knew how weak and feeble his firstborn truly was.

Indeed. Father always knew the truth.

Old Palyarkis was perfectly aware that Lyenkos lacked the backbone needed to rise to the top of House Draksas. Lee was only using his alleged concern for the safety and the security of the Vardikhar to hide his real concern: his Conscience was too weak to carry the burden of all the deaths that his brilliant idea would produce.

That was all, slam it.

So, under the excuse of seeking a viable solution that would please all parties involved, the old man asked Lee to provide him with a copy of his program’s blueprints, knowing well beforehand what must be done. His two sons had yet to face the Loyalty Trial that the Hall of the Selected demanded of all potential heirs, true or no: betraying and destroying what you loved most.

By the time Lyenkos refused to implement his program, Old Palyarkis had already come to admit that his firstborn lacked the backbone to be the next Head of Draksas. Thus it was that Lee’s loss turned into Kyros’ gain, when he took on the challenge to eliminate his brother and childhood hero as his Loyalty Trial.

The call had come along with a copy of the files containing Lee’s program, at a time when Kyros was working on his final papers as a Neurology Major at Vidya Karannah University.

“The Head of the House is yours, if you want it,” was the offer that Old Palyarkis made to his second son, as Kyros downloaded a copy of Lyenkos’ program into his portphone. “Do what you must to reach this goal, but whatever it is, I do not want to know.”

Well, the old man had known nothing but the end result of the offer he’d made to his second son.

Unlike Lee, the deaths of a few creatures that were but a hair’s breadth above animals would never make Kyros lose any sleep. After watching the mind-boggling idiocy and the astounding mindlessness of the common Akaladian every single slammed day, he’d never hesitate to do what was needed to be done, only because of a little risk to the cowardly traditions of the Hall.

So a few creatures will be dead in a few years. So what? He reflected, as he kept walking down the Barracks Block. After all, the reason why they’re put to the program’s because they’re all supposed to have been born with a serious condition to begin with. All those deaths can be easily justified by arguing that the patients were ‘damaged goods’ right from the start, and that nothing could be done to save them. As for any colleague that might be sniffing around . . . Well, people die in accidents every bastard minute.

Kyros had always been convinced that the program would work and he’d proven since the First ordered for the bastard thing to be implemented. And now, the full responsibility for the program’s success or failure fell squarely on Kyros’ shoulders, as if the bastard program were his own creation.

Luckily, almost eighteen years after the First approved its implementation, the program to quench the Spark was virtually infallible. That’s all that matters. Kyros gave a pleased nod, as he turned right when he reached the last corner of the Barracks Block.

The way that the atmosphere and the energy changed on each block, the deeper you delved into the main corridor, never ceased to amaze. It was like witnessing the entire training process in a matter of minutes. For the change in attitude that Kyros felt coming from each barrack, according to the age and conditions of each recruit, was as radical as it was palpable.

As he approached his destination, he was overcome by a sudden surge of pride, a glorious feeling that he allowed to wash over his entire Being. For all the risks he’d taken right from the start were bearing fruit at last.

That was why the First rewarded Boss Draksas by ordering his appointment as Health Minister for the United Continents of Akaladia. His current position allowed for him to continue experimenting with novel ideas such as nanotechnology, consciousness transference, and transgenic materials, among other things.

He only needed for one of those experiments to succeed, and then House Draksas would rise to the top of the Hall, someday not so far off into the future. His obligations as Health Minister got in the way more often than not, but if his most recent idea, the aptly named Project Sandgrain, yielded the desired results, Kyros would reach heights never before seen by any Vardikhar, his own master included.

Nevermore would Kyros Draksas finish second and never again would he have to carry the burden of unmet expectations. It was past time for him to reach an extraordinary accomplishment, a feat so great that it would see him rise like the tide at midnight in the shores of Siagos, adoptive home to House Draksas.

That was the only way for him to earn the respect of all his peers within the Hall. The curious thing was that that virtually infallible part was what provided him with the perfect opportunity to prove his worth.

Lee always liked to theorize like a madman, though one of his most eloquent hypotheses was based on a simple, natural fact. “When you try to hold sand in your hands, some grains will always slip right through your fingers, no matter how tight your grip might be.”

Alas Lee had used that analogy to describe his own program. Most patients were already beginning to show severe side effects derived from their therapy. Many of them would take the Final Step into Khevala within the next ten to fifteen years, and almost all would be death before the age of forty.

Yet one insignificant patient had somehow managed to slip through the Hall’s fingers, like a tiny grain of sand, precisely.

Before leaving the Barracks Block, Kyros went over his technopad’s contents one more time, his mind gobbling up the information displayed on the small device’s screen as he did. He had to analyze everything with the utmost care, for deceiving his liege was a tall order indeed.

Almost two thousand years had come and gone since the Adi’vardikhar’s rise to power and yet none of his followers had been able to cast him down in all that time . . . And that was only in case some Vardikhar had dared to try at some point.

Then again, no one had ever been lucky enough to find such a valuable sand grain so close at hand.

Project Sandgrain came with many risks attached to it, no doubt. But what innovative, pioneering enterprise ever came totally free of risk? And in this particular case, the reward outweighed the risk by far and wide.

Furthermore, Kyros would never be as feeble and weak as that big brother of his whom he admired so blindly for so long. That was why he’d remained in his current position within the Presidential Cabinet for three straight terms to the date. If truth be told, he never gave anything a second thought and he never hesitated.

He was the consummate gambler, true, but he always played to win. For the man who stays in touch with his Conscience at all times comes to learn how to trust his instinct implicitly and how to stay at the table till the end of the game, no matter how high the stakes.

If the Inforacle had already revealed this to the First, He’d be all over the Sand Grain by now, his Conscience assured him for the umpteenth time. That means the Nivid’zakuna hasn’t spoken yet. You still have plenty of time to play out your hand.

Big brother might have been on top all of his life, but Lyenkos was no more and Kyros never let a good opportunity pass him by, regardless of the risks implied. He was fully aware that many a Head of a House had seen their lives terminated through the centuries, oft times in untimely and painful fashion, for being insecure cowards, the lot of them.

He might be impatient and brash to the core but contrary to what his peers thought of him, he knew how to keep that legendary temper of his under control. Assuming certain calculated risks, after all, was not the same as acting on impulse.

Every Selected ought to know how to trust his or her instinct and never question your heart’s desires, lest that very heart of yours be ripped right out of your chest—

The aggressive moans and the wearisome groans that his ears picked up suddenly prompted him to take his gaze away from the ‘pad and to take a look at his surroundings instead.

He was now walking on a gridded pad of iron and steel, rising some two meters off the floor, near the left wall of a broad, brightly lit training yard that had replaced the seemingly endless Barracks Block’s corridor.

His gaze fell upon two dozen boys and girls, all between the ages of sixteen and twenty, taking part in an intense training drill with blunt blades that went from small knives, dirks and daggers to heavy, long swords, in an effort to master the art of combat with the malleablade.

At first glance one would think that modern firearms and expansive projectiles had rendered the malleablade obsolete. But Kyros knew that nothing could be farther from the truth.

A powerful enemy, like the Head of a small House gone rogue, an ambitious politician or a crime lord, too smart and greedy for their own good, by thinking they could defy the Hall, had to be taken out discreetly. And for that purpose no weapon in the whole wide, Tangible World could ever compare to those pearly or silvery spathaka blades.

Again, he remembered Father’s teachings. “Forged with the occult knowledge of old that remains safely concealed within the Inforacle, the malleablade can expand or contract in accordance to the will of its wielder.

“No weapon in the world today can go completely undetected by modern metal detectors, save the malleablade. And combat skill with the blade is only limited by the combatant’s inventiveness, imagination and experience.

“And whilst the most powerful thermonuclear bomb in the Tangible World is all but harmless in its Intangible counterpart, in the hands of a true blademaster the malleablade is simply lethal within Khevala.”

A delighted smile appeared on Kyros lips as his eyes feasted on the gleaming young bodies dancing and twisting all over the yard. Tiny black shorts and light-grey t-shirts clung tightly to the trainees’ delicate, slender female bodies or strong, energetic male frames, as they kept sparring on the yard. And every single shape was as athletic as it was enticing.

The manner in which the trainees’ bodies shimmered under the great antigrav lightrods illuminating the training yard was more than enough to arouse Kyros’ natural lust. The trainees were a delightful sight to behold, no doubt, and the best part was that each and every one of those young men and women were at his complete disposal.

Any one of the trainees could be his with a simple snap of his fingers. That was all that was required to have the boy or girl of his choosing assigned to his personal service, faster than the turkock can sing.

Life’s not only generous to a Vardikhar, he reflected. To a Selected life is beyond compare.

Too bad that business always came before pleasure. And for now he had to find a young Mistagent, though not for a fleeting moment of pleasure.

He forced himself to look away from all those bodies, as young and full of life as they were, and looked straight ahead instead, in the direction of a small rectangular room standing behind a silver-plated door at the end of the gridded plank.

“Greetings, Boss Draksas.” Valther Döttersen was already standing at attention before his office’s door. His greeting came along with a respectful bow once Kyros reached his destination. “Everything’s in place for your interviews, Doctor.”

The uniform on the Phys Ed Instructor’s body—a pristine white polo shirt and light, loose, grey slacks—was the only thing separating the giant with the clean-shaven head and the thick, fiery red goatee, from the Farm’s security staff.

Physically they were all impressive specimens . . . But this ape’s just as stupid as most of the guards.

“Good. Go get the candidates.”

Döttersen gave him a brief, respectful nod and broke into a brisk trot down the stairs leading from his office to the training yard.

Good, Kyros approved.

The chalky white man’s haste meant he was fully aware that making a Selected wait more than what they deemed necessary would never be a good idea . . . not even for those who had no knowledge whatsoever of the Vardikhar’s existence.

Kyros entered Döttersen’s office, ready to conduct his interviews. He stroked the thick, silvery whiskers covering his upper lip absently, his eyes scanning the room till they came to rest on the five holograms hovering idly above the Phys Ed Instructor’s cyberdesk.

He went around the square polyplastic desk that was a cheap imitation of thick oak, and placed his frame on the hard rotating chair rising behind the cyberdesk’s flat plasma screen. He set the cyberdrive built into the table to HD mode and suddenly, the five holograms vanished from the air, only to reappear in the monitor rising a few centimeters from his face.

That should give him the privacy that he required whilst waiting for Döttersen’s return. Kyros used the waiting period to run a thorough check on the files of each and every one of the five candidates. One more creature was all that was needed here, though he’d left this one to the end, for the girl would be the most important component of the small team he was assembling.

He was going through the third candidate’s file when the giant in the white polo shirt and the grey slacks entered his office, with five girls trailing after him.

The candidates’ chests were heaving and their attire clung on tight to young, firm bodies bathed in sweat. Kyros could have allowed for the candidates to go back to their chambers for a quick shower and a change of clothes, but the idea here was to catch them completely off-guard to see how each creature would react in the face of an unexpected situation.

Looks were a vital part of the assignment, but strength of character and the ability to improvise were just as important, if not more so.

The first two candidates turned out to be major disappointments. Physically both Mikhurvat were more than adequate, and they were the right age too, but their personalities fell quite short; neither creature proved to have the maturity needed for a mission that, while simple at a glance, was of the utmost importance.

Kyros could afford no more chances here. He was already going out on a limb, what with him going over his master’s head and all, to take any more risks.

This assignment cannot fail. Project Sandgrain cannot fail or else . . .

It was the third candidate, a girl not a day older than seventeen known by the codename of Mistureth, who turned out to be exactly what he was looking for.

“Close the door,” he commanded the girl curtly, not even bothering to take his eyes off the cyberdesk’s screen as he spoke. “So Mistureth, eh? Very well then, let us see if you’re truly worthy of your title . . . Seductress.”

The girl did as she’d been told. She turned sideways promptly and pressed on the switch that shut the sliding door from the inside before turning back around to fix her gaze on the tall, broad-shouldered man with the thick mustache and bushy brows that remained seated behind the cyberdesk.

The young Mistagent was visibly tense for her gaze remained fixed on the Selected unblinking, as she waited to hear his next command. Kyros stopped spying her from the corner of his eye and set his gaze on the slender, firm shape keeping still as a stone next to the door.

As his eyes measured the Mikhurvat from head to toes, he realized that the girl’s posture had changed somewhat. It could not be said that the Seductress had assumed a casual stance but she didn’t look as rigid anymore, either.

She’s got good balance.

The way Mistureth’s big, sweet, hazel eyes were capable of holding the Vardikhar’s demanding stare seemed to indicate that the creature was as confident as she was bold. And Kyros was forced to admit that he liked what he was seeing.

“Come,” he barked at the creature, before rising from his seat to go around the cyberdesk to take a much closer look at the Seductress.

The girl wasted no time to obey, approaching him without the slightest hint of hesitancy.

“Turn around.”

Again, Mistureth did his bidding without complaint and more importantly; she obeyed without taking her gaze away from Kyros.

The creature’s long curls, as brown as her eyes, stirred softly around the lovely features of a girl who looked far more innocent than she could ever be in truth.

She’s quite graceful, too.

The Mistagent must have assumed that she knew what the Selected had in mind though, for she’d followed his instructions in very slow and more importantly, suggestive fashion. As Kyros’ eyes caressed her voluptuous body and long, firm legs, Mistureth turned around with the grace of a ballerina and the dangerous swiftness of a pantheguar, all at once.

It was crystal clear that the young Mikhurvat was trained to please the whims of the most demanding of lovers. Seduction was the name of her game. Once her target relaxed, feeling safe and cozy in the arms of the Seductress, after arousal took hold of their senses and clouded their judgment, she would do what all Mistagents were best known for.

As far as the pleasures of the flesh were concerned, however, few could boast of being more demanding than Kyros Draksas. And, as far as lethality went, no one was deadlier than a Selected in his prime.

Before the girl turned completely around he approached her from behind and placed his hands firmly on Mistureth’s hips. The creature froze as she felt his hands on her arse. Ten long, thick fingers went up and down the Seductress’ sides, from her hips to her armpits and back down to those hips that were as firm and round as any arse Kyros had ever felt.

Someday he’d have to prove if the attributes that had given the creature her title were as pleasant as they promised . . .

But this is neither the time nor the place for that.

For now, what he needed was to confirm if Mistureth had the maturity and the strength that the assignment would demand of her. Not giving in to temptation was hard, though. For there she was, this beautiful creature, at his entire disposal with nothing other than tight shorts and a sweaty, light cotton t-shirt getting in the way.

Mistureth knew it well too, for she responded to his touch by loosening her body in a way that she must have practiced to no end, in all certainty . . . To love or to kill, depending on the situation.

It was at that moment, as his fingers were feeling her up, that the Mistagent took her first misstep. The Seductress did exactly as the Selected intended by feeling her up. She turned around swiftly, her soft, warm hands going gently around his thick neck as she did.

Kyros grabbed those very feminine hands firmly between his, and pushed them brusquely apart as an unmistakable look of disapproval appeared on his hardened features.

“No,” he growled. “If I wanted you, I would take you right now here on the desk, and you can rest assured that I will take you whenever I please. But that’s not the reason why I had you brought to me.”

Mistureth recoiled like a snake, stepping away from him with nimble, quick steps filled with uncertainty. The creature lowered her head in clear sign of acquiescence, all but certain that her mistake would cost her dearly, Kyros knew.

Yet, instead of apologizing and making up some absurd excuse to justify her behavior, the girl remained fixed in place, patiently waiting to hear Kyros’ next words as he went back to his seat behind the desk.

She knows she hasn’t been dismissed yet. That shows good balance between pride and humility. Good. “Sit down.”

The Mistagent with the face of an innocent child and the body of a full-grown woman obeyed at once. She approached the cyberdesk slowly and set her curvaceous frame on one of the two chairs rising before Kyros. As the creature took her seat, he turned his attention back to the monitor.

“I see here that you have not graduated yet,” he pointed out, suddenly. “You obviously have no previous experience. Tell me, do you feel ready for your first mission?”

“Yes, sir.” Mistureth’s voice was soft as silk and besides, there was nary a hint of hesitation or insecurity in her reply. “I am at your complete disposal.” Her big, expressive eyes remained fixed on the man with the great mustache and thick sideburns seated before her, unblinking.

“You will address me as Boss or Doctor Draksas,” he said, whilst fully appreciating what he could see clearly underneath a grey t-shirt so light and wet that it could never suffice to conceal the firm, generous bosom lying beneath the damp cotton. “Doctor or Boss, for short. Now tell me, how well do you know Zevantika?”

“I am well acquainted with the Earth Continent, Boss Draksas.” The Seductress’ voice remained calm and brimming with confidence. “I have studied it well and I’m familiar with its main cities, such as Lúnembril, Niemadar, Nuvoracrum—”

“Good. I’m sending you to Lúnembril.”

Kyros extracted the technopad from his jacket and offered it to the Mistagent. The creature wasted no time to lean over the desk to take the device from his hands.

“You shall report at the megalopolis exactly four weeks hence,” he resumed.“You will find everything you need for this assignment in that technopad. The password to access the files is sandgrain, all in lowercase, no spaces or special characters.

“Now, this assignment is quite sensitive. And since you will be spearheading the operation, I suggest you do your best to be ready within the next thirty days.”

“I’m most grateful to you for this opportunity, Boss Draksas.” The Seductress gave him a deep, respectful nod before sparing a fleeting glance at the small Technolectronic gadget between her fingers. “I will not let you down.”

Before she could lower her gaze to look at the technopad again, Mistureth was forced to rise quickly though, as she realized that Kyros had stood from his own seat.

He overlooked the creature’s words and focused instead on giving the girl her final instructions, as he went around the desk one more time. “Your name is Nandher. Vikiara Nandher. Every time you hear this name, or even a short Vicky, do not forget it is you they’re calling. You must answer on instinct as if you’d been hearing those names all your life.

“Now, Lúnembril is a huge place as you know, and since the local population is made up of folk come from all over the world there is no local accent, as is the case in Niemadar or Siagos, for instance. That being said, make sure to acquaint yourself with the local slang and the catchy phrases that all creatures your age use in the capital.

“The target is a small group of boys so innocent that they should pose no problem for you. But one of them at least, is quite smart.”

“I’ll take all of this into account at all times, boss.”

The girl was so sure of herself, he saw, that he was forced to give an approving nod. There was no need to interview the last two candidates.

“Oh, and one last thing,” he added. “First of all, by taking on this assignment you will be automatically sworn in to the service of House Draksas. Under no circumstance whatsoever are you to take orders from another Vardikhar till released by me personally. And it goes without saying that you shall never mention anything about this, lest I authorize it first.

“Secondly, this mission is for recon and capture purposes only. The target is not to be harmed in any way. Thirdly, should you secure the target on your own you will report this back to your project leader, at once and without delay.

“Finally, under no circumstance whatsoever are you to make any decision or act on your own, without consulting it first with your project leader or with me directly. Any questions, Vikiara?”

This time the Seductress gave a confident shake to her head.

Good, Kyros thought.

Mistureth was as smart and clever as her file claimed, he confirmed, not to mention that the creature was chomping at the bit to take on her first assignment. The Mikhurvat was also fully aware of the price she would pay in case she decided to be too creative or independent for her own good.

“Good,” he concluded, after visualizing his next destination in his Mind’s Eye. “Do not make me regret this, creature. It would be a shame if your first mission was to become your last assignment too.”

Vikiara gave a silent nod and made a deep bow to prove her total devotion and loyalty to her new master. The girl had not yet raised her head, though, when Kyros had already vanished from the room like a wraith

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