The Pinnacle of Power

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Disappearances

Kyros sauntered up and down his penthouse’s main hall.

The apartment was a superb two-story property, more spacious than most houses down on the ground, standing atop the most exclusive condo at UniCon Plaza. Alas tonight the penthouse was crowded and the atmosphere was heavier than the rigid muscles on its owner’s neck, shoulders and back.

He kept sparing fleeting glances at his surroundings, as he came and went back and forth through the hall. He measured each and every single one of his guests, come together for a dinner party to celebrate the graduation of Kyros the Second from the Mistagent Academy before the lad’s departure for Vidya Karannah University, three weeks hence.

Some folk were engaged in animated chats, others drank generously, and yet some more laughed merrily. Their host, however, was too tense to enjoy the pleasant evening.

If they only knew, he thought, forcing himself to play the role of splendid host to the Vardikhar and all other guests gathered in his home this evening. Not even the Selected are privy to all of the Hall’s secrets.

He was confident that everything would go as planned, though. And that none of his peers would find out what he had in mind for the fate of the Hall, as he waited anxiously for the first phase of his plan to yield results.

Be that as it may, he couldn’t stop cursing himself in his mind for being so slammed impatient. Everything will be fine, his Conscience assured him for the umpteenth time. This operation’s as easy as taking candy from a babe’s fingers.

The possibility that things might not go as planned had his stomach tied in knots though. And the sparkling golden wine bubbling down his throat was not helping to dissipate the bitter taste produced by the thought that one of his colleagues might come to discover his plans . . . Or that something could go wrong in Lúnembril tonight.

He clutched the crystal glass in his hand with strained, clammy fingers, doing his best to overcome his increasing eagerness as he sent a slight nod at old Eldrick, fellow member of the Presidential Cabinet, and Head of House Ohlreman for almost half a century now.

Old Rick still looks good, Kyros admitted, watching how Boss Ohlreman was able to keep his back straight and his head tall, as he strolled around the hall.

In all fairness, though, Rick Ohlreman had been in touch with the Inforacle for almost three quarters of a century now. That helped to keep the incumbent Minister of Agriculture as fresh and full of life as a ripe apple.

Ohlreman was long in the tooth as few folk Kyros had ever known. Rick never feared to speak his mind at the Hall, but he also knew how to keep his tongue in check when needed and so he never fell out of favor with the Great Master. Alas, since House Ohlreman had never been all that relevant within the walls of the Asthana’dikhar to begin with, Rick rarely had the Adi’vardikhar’s eyeless gaze on him.

Sometimes keeping a low profile can be very convenient, Kyros reflected, as part of his efforts to stop thinking about what should be happening at any given time, in another fancy penthouse in Lúnembril, acquired through the wide network of third parties sworn to House Draksas. It’s hard to keep a low profile when your House is not only part of the original twelve, but also one of the most powerful as well.

Everything had to go as planned if he truly wished for his plans to come to fruition before anyone had the chance to discover what he had in mind. If everything went smoothly tonight the Seductress’ small team would have located its targets by now, in some bustling nightclub at the megalopolis’ business district.

Stop thinking about it already. Be patient, slam it!

He took another sip from his glass and tried to relax, his gaze instantly falling on a few more members of the Hall as he entered the penthouse’s large living room.

A small circle including some of his most prominent guests had gathered in the heart of the room, Kyros was quick to notice. He approached the tightly knit little group, slowly and casually, and raised his glass to greet Jeorson Mattis, the United Continents of Akaladia’s Minister of Finances and Economy, and the only other Vardikhar serving the global government besides Rick Ohlreman and Kyros himself.

Like Ohlreman, Jors Mattis was past seventy now and the man had certainly put on more than a few kilos in recent years. Yet Boss Mattis was still as vibrant as ever, his fat, aging frame notwithstanding.

His rosy cheeks reddened even more, his big blue eyes sparkling like the sky at midday when his boisterous cackles rose above his companions’ laughs as the result of one of his own jokes. Although Kyros did not hear the joke he faked a smile and shook his head nonetheless, as a courtesy to his colleague . . . and how he hated himself for it.

All that hypocrisy and the fake smiles and the pats on the back and the empty compliments and the idle words and the poor jests that you had to celebrate, lest your guests be offended . . . All those folk clad in their best rags, stroking their respective egos by making plans and decisions to move the pieces, if only to prove to themselves that they could give shape to billions of lives on a mere whim.

How he loathed them all!

No wonder the conflict that put us on top was known as the War of the Gods, he reflected. For only a god has the power to shape the fate of humankind with one hand tied behind his back.

Discretion, stealth, subterfuge, caution, blah, blah, blah . . . Those were the indispensable virtues that the Vardikhar had to watch above all things, at all times. Or were they, now?

“Why must the gods hide their true nature to the eyes of lesser beings?” he’d asked Old Palyarkis once. “Why can’t we resort to the use of force to keep all those automatons devoid of a Conscience in eternal bondage? After all, none can withstand the military might that the Hall has at its disposal.”

“Because there are too many of them and too few of us.” Those were the words that the old man had uttered that day to justify the cowardly ways of the Hall. “If the rabble should ever come to discover what we’ve been doing to them for nigh on to two thousand years, neither the weapons in the hands of the UCAFs nor the powers of the gods shall suffice to appease the monster with a thousand heads, should it ever stir awake.”

To think that the old man didn’t even witness the bastard Omen, Kyros remembered, bitterly.

The Hall had been dependent on its ancient ways to survive long before the Inforacle presented its ill foretell to the Selected. Hence the despicable ways of the Vardikhar would not change anytime soon.

The Selected’s rise to power was drenched in blood. It was strength of arms that vanquished the Impostor’s followers during the so-called War of the Gods. It was also sheer force that had allowed the Vardikhar to subdue the peoples of Akaladia afterwards.

Hence crushing the rabble through the use of force, should they ever dare rise against us, ought to be no problem.

Oft times Kyros wished that he hadn’t been born in the present day and age. In the days of yonder the Selected could possess whatever they wished, whenever their hearts desired it.

If it was a certain woman that you wanted, you bought her whenever possible, or simply took and forced her to do your bidding and no one could move a finger to prevent it. The same held true for any handsome young man that you might desire, for that matter.

In the early days of their rule, the Vardikhar could purchase as many slaves as they could afford before the eyes of the entire world at large, and woe unto those who dare raise a finger in protest! Alas the problem in the eyes of most members of the Hall these days was that a handful of bastard commoners would always refuse to bend the knee.

No slamming omen should stop us from putting all those beasts in their rightful place, by any and all means necessary. If Kyros’ plans yielded the expected results he would make slammed sure that this were the case.

He would take an open confrontation any day as opposed to all that subtle sneaking around. Someone like him would have felt right at home some fifteen hundred years ago, when the Hall still waged war out in the open with real weapons, ruling with an iron fist as opposed to relying on their subtle modern means to keep the masses under its heel.

Ah, but the Adi’vardikhar, now he was the other side of the Unicoin, according to Old Palyarkis’ words. “After his first centuries in power, and based on the endless bloodbath that was the War of the Gods, the First Among the Selected came to the conclusion that the human spirit cannot be broken through sheer force.

“The brutal, endless conflict proved to the Great Vanquisher that even the most harmless man shall rise and fight down to his last breath when left with nothing to lose.”

Still, if the will of the rabble could be bent to the point that the fighting spirit of the monster with a thousand heads was broken, the Selected would truly become gods. Kyros was convinced that this would be the case.

These days, nine out of every ten commoners would never dare raise a finger against their authorities. Though all that was needed to get the whole slamming avalanche rolling was for a few rogues and dissidents to kindle the spark of rebellion in the hearts of the many.

Because of that, and thanks to the bastard Omen, the Adi’vardikhar had decreed that the need of the Selected to remain hidden from public view was much more imperious now than ever. Especially since the Hall had enough means at their disposal to remain in power, with little need to resort to violence. And those means of theirs were working, too.

“The Conscience of Man cannot be subdued through strength of arms,” the Great Master would preach. “However, the Conscience of Man can be molded and tamed through subtle, astute means. Breaking the Conscience of Man in this manner turns all human beings into weak, mindless creatures, with no need to break their fighting spirit completely.”

In Kyros’ opinion the First was more butcher than warrior. To the Master of the Selected the key was not to subdue the rabble by sheer force, but to trick the sheeple into heading for the slaughterhouse willingly.

The final result was the same. And for as bitter a pill as it was to swallow, Kyros had to admit that his liege had the right of it. For he was well versed in the history of the Hall.

“Our rise to power might have come through war,” said Old Palyarkis one day. “Though the peoples of Akaladia kept fighting our rule for nigh on to a thousand years. So the irony here is that war came quite close to stripping the Vardikhar of that which it had given us in the first place.”

Kyros was in agreement with his late father too, up to a certain point. But the consummate gambler in him could never let a good opportunity pass him by.

Nothing compared to the thrill of making an easy, quick profit at a table filled with expert, daring gamblers, when the odds are at their highest. Yet even the most daring of gamblers ought to know when to place a bet and when to pass. Even the most audacious of gamblers must know that the weakest rival at the table might win a hand every now and then.

Even the brashest of gamblers ought to admit that easy come is easy go, unless you know when to stand from the table. Finally, even the most confident of gamblers ought to keep in mind at all times that someone always carries an ace up their sleeve.

The Adi’vardikhar was many things, though gambler was not one of them. Still, the First had an invaluable card in his hands: the Inforacle. That allowed Him to see many things that were completely out of reach for His followers. So all other members of the Hall had no choice but to see the will of their Master done without question.

Yet now Kyros had an extremely valuable ace under his sleeve, and he was about to start a game against his liege where the odds would be the highest ever. And the best part of it all was that the Great Master had no idea that the game was about to begin.

And if everything goes as planned, I’ll be celebrating winning the first hand at any given time now

“Looking pensive tonight, Kyros.” Lanky Zammi, recently raised as Head of House al’Douel, sneaked behind his back so quietly that Kyros didn’t even realize it. “A Unicoin for your thoughts, mate.”

“I was just . . . reminiscing,” he muttered, before taking a small sip from his glass. “Thinking of how much things have changed over the centuries and how far we’ve come from those distant days of war, violence and senseless bloodshed.”

“Ah, the wrongfully called War of the Gods, eh?” said Zammi in a light voice, taking an appetizer from a platter on the hands of a servant clad in pristine livery that’d just passed right by them. “Aye, we’ve definitely come a long way since. In great part thanks to ya . . . House Draksas, I mean. Had it not been for your forefathers’ efforts might be the blood would keep flowing to our very day, I tell ya. Might be so, aye.”

Yes, thanks to my forefathers but not me, eh? “House al’Douel has also contributed greatly to the Hall, Zam. Your House is responsible for many of the wonders that the modern world has to offer: an underwater city, the very place where we stand as we speak, hovering hundreds of meters above the ground. Impressive, indeed . . . for a House that is not part of the original twelve, that is.”

And none of those accomplishments can be attributed to you, you pampered, slimy boarhog.

Unlike Ohlreman and Mattis, Zammi al’Douel was a young man still. The lad was barely past thirty, and he had Southeastern Asropia written all over him: his accent and his speech, his coppery skin and his hair and eyes, black as pitch. He was also shorter than the average man, skinny as a toothpick and despite his youth, Zam had more hair on his bushy brows than on his head.

Firstborn of his House and recently graduated from VKU’s Architecture Faculty, Zammi had just come to his inheritance too, which included control over all transcontinental construction companies in Akaladia, through the usual network of third parties that all of the great Houses had in their service.

House al’Douel, however, was one of the newest members in the history of the Hall, as Kyros had reminded insolent Zam; the al’Douels had been part of the great Houses for the last four or five hundred years, at best.

Besides, the man had just been raised to the Head of al’Douel a little over a year ago, following the passing of Doussif, his father. So none of the great accomplishments achieved by House al’Douel in the field of construction could be attributed to young Zammi.

In contrast, although the program to quench the Spark would always be Lyenkos’ baby, Kyros made so many modifications to the slammed thing that it was almost as much his own creation now as it was his brother’s.

Furthermore, by seeing the program implemented so successfully, he’d already contributed much more to the Hall during his almost twenty years as a Vardikhar than what arrogant Zammi al’Douel would contribute in his pathetic life.

Still, his biting words didn’t yield the desired effect on the young architect.

“Speaking of contributions,” said Zam casually between bites, as if he’d read Kyros’ mind, “I hear the program to quench the Spark that your brother created is working wonders. Care to share how Lyenkos managed to achieve this prodigy, laddie?”

“This is neither the time nor the place to discuss this.” Kyros’ gaze roamed the living room cautiously to add more weight to his words. “Not all of my guests here tonight are in the service of the Hall.”

“Nay, not consciously, perhaps,” conceded Boss al’Douel, though his left hand downplayed Kyros’ warning with a casual gesture. “But might be consciously or no, everybody serves the Hall after their own fashion, I tell ya.

“Besides, one would think that all the help here’s sworn to House Draksas, aye. And that all of the guests are connected to the Hall in one way or the other.”

“Of course,” growled Zammi’s host, while fervently wishing that the leader of Project Sandgrain called this very instant so he could bring the sickening charade to an end, sooner than right now. “But some of the guests here serve the Health Ministry or are personal friends of my son. And not all of them belong to the great Houses.”

Zam gave an indifferent nod. “Aye, tis true that. At any rate, why so tense, mate? Methinks dealing with delicate issues, be it behind closed doors or out in the open, might never make someone . . . with yer reputation so uncomfortable, I daresay.”

“Kyros is right,” Jors Mattis put in suddenly, in his typical fast drawl. “Even I could hear part of your conversation, Zam, and I wasn’t standing so close to you two. That said, I also hear the program’s working wonders. Isn’t it, Kyros?”

“It’s still too early to tell,” was his elusive reply. “The first batch of patients subjected to the treatment’s being released as we speak. Though I do admit results obtained thus far are encouraging, yes.”

He would die before allowing for his prying peers to come sniffing round his amazing discovery. Especially when not even the Great Master knew the first thing about Project Sandgrain.

“That’s good to know.” Jors Mattis took three snacks from a platter on another servant’s hand. “Now that we’re coming so close to controlling the rabble completely, the last thing we need is for someone to learn how to activate the Spark on their own!”

And this is the same idiot who was counseling caution less than a minute ago? Kyros thought, with increasing annoyance.

al’Douel gave a loud snort. “Come now, Jors! We all know the Spark cannot wake lest it comes in direct contact with the Nivid’zakuna first. Might be this fact, added to Lyenkos’ program, will suffice to sever all contact between the rabble and their Individual Consciences. Might be so, I tell ya.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that, Zam.” Boss Mattis licked his fat, greasy fingers before gobbling down the second of the three appetizers in his hand. “If the Prophecy That Is Not is meant to come true, then the Impostor will have to find a way not only to keep the Spark intact in spite of the program, but to kindle it on his own. Otherwise, the Great Master wouldn’t have ordered Kyros to quench the slammed thing in the first place.”

“That’s got nothing to do with my program,” snapped Kyros. “The so-called Prophecy That Is Not was a ruse conceived by the Trickster so his pathetic Order of . . . Bearers of Balance could keep the masses in the dark.

“The program is meant to prevent the Omen, not the Prophecy That is Not. Either way, you have nothing to worry about, Jors, for the program to quench the Spark is infallible.”

Or close enough to infallible, he thought, as uncontainable rage bubbled inside of him.

He didn’t know if it was Mattis’ nonchalance, when the man noted that the Prophecy would come true someday, or that the fat bastard had put his finger on a fresh wound—albeit unconsciously—which made him seethe.

That made no matter. The problem was that Kyros had never tolerated his peers’ overconfidence and he was definitely not in the mood to put up with their insolent arrogance this evening. Especially when al’Douel and Mattis were coming so close to the mark without even knowing it, the couple of bastards.

“Just a second, Kyros.” al’Douel’s mocking tone was even worse than the cynical smile plastered on his gaunt face. “Did you not say that it’s still too early to tell if the program’s working as well as you’ve just assured us?”

That was when he realized his mistake. “Yes, but—”

“Well, there ya have it, laddie!” al’Douel continued taunting him. “Now, if the Spark can be ignited instinctively or no, might be someone may survive the program just yet. And this means it’s still far from being infallible, I tell ya.”

“I wouldn’t take the Prophecy so lightly if I were you, Kyros.” Mattis added his own goading to al’Douel’s before Kyros could reply. “If the Great Master places so much weight on it, I believe it’s not wise for any of us to question his wisdom. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Be that as it may,” he shot back, doggedly. “We all know the Energetic Scent develops during puberty. And lest the Scent be Shielded, it can be spotted with ease past the age of thirteen.

“Therefore, if one or more patients made it out of the program completely unscathed, finding them through their Scent would be as easy as finding a rash on a newborn’s skin.

“Finally, folk with a strong, latent Spark are so few and far between the commons these days, that the problem would be solved in half a heartbeat.”

Just like it’s being done as we speak.

“In half a heartbeat,” echoed Mattis with an absent nod, whilst wolfing down the last of his three snacks with the same determination that was heard on Kyros’ voice when he assured his peers that the problem would be solved. “That’s how it always goes with you, isn’t it, Kyros? You just love to deal with any problem in half a heartbeat, and without consulting things with the Great Vanquisher first.”

The Great Vanquisher would be doing exactly as me, if the Inforacle were to tell him that someone made it safe and sound out of the program, you witless moron! That was what he would have liked to tell Mattis, if possible.

All of the Vardikhar harbored the same suspicion: soon or late the Impostor would come back to life. That was inevitable. And worse yet, the Adi’vardikhar needed the slammed holy man of old to reveal the Last Bastion of Power to Him.

After close to two millenniums in power the Great Master was not yet able to unearth the secret that would turn Him into a sort of deity . . . or so He claimed.

Kyros had heard that the Last Bastion was a sort of complex, mysterious mathematical formula, responsible for keeping apart all realms in Creation. If this was true, uncovering the great mystery would help turn the First into an entity almost as powerful as the Supreme Conscience of the Universe itself. But after spending so long in the hands of its current master, the Inforacle still refused to share the secret with the Adi’vardikhar.

The First had imposed His will on the bastard stone obelisk in all other things, but the Prophecy That Is Not claimed that the Last Bastion was reserved for the Impostor’s Conscience and his alone.

After countless failed attempts at solving the enigma, it was clear that none of the Great Vanquisher’s powers could help Him to obtain His greatest conquest yet. Thus Adijana, the Supreme Conscience of Creation, still ruled above All That Is.

Kyros didn’t know whether his master would be able to break the Laws of Physics the way He meant to and thus, rule above all realms and worlds within Creation to shape the Universe and to subdue all kinds of life to His will, in case He were able to unveil the Last Bastion somehow.

All he knew for a fact was that in spite of His amazing skills and powers, the Adi’vardikhar still had need of the Inforacle, his followers and more importantly, of His most hated adversary. Every single one of the Selected shared Kyros’ suspicions, though obviously none of them would dare give voice to their concerns.

No Vardikhar was willing to make the fatal mistake of speculating about that which was the concern of Akaladia’s Lord and Master, and no one else’s. Especially since it was the Inforacle itself that had revealed to the Great Master that soon or late, someone would survive the program to quench the Spark with nary a scratch.

What the First didn’t know however, was that this particular foretell had already come to pass. None of the Selected was even close to suspecting that the Impostor Reborn might already be walking on the face of Akaladia . . . save for Kyros himself.

The slammed Sand Grain that had managed to slip by the fingers of the Hall was not only able to keep the Spark intact; the Kanazanda beat more strongly within him now than ever!

Marnes has got to be the Impostor Reborn, Kyros’ Conscience reminded him once more. The Inforacle’s always had the right of it.

Although this didn’t mean he had to take the bait that his peers had hurled his way.

“I have no wish to discuss this further,” he announced curtly, already walking away from his two colleagues as he spoke. “Not on this special occasion, at least.”

“For fear of the guests?” al’Douel kept taunting him.

“No,” he said, firmly. “Simply because the program is perfect. It shall never fail. But even if it did, we all know the Spark cannot wake without coming in touch with the Inforacle, as you wisely noted yourself, Zam.

“So this has been nothing other than idle chatter, as far as I can tell. And now if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I haven’t seen much of my firstborn over the last six years, and he’s about to leave for university.” He forced himself to give a brief, reluctant nod to each of his peers in turns. “Zam. Jors.”

Without another word Kyros lost himself amidst the rest of his guests, mindful that al’Douel and Mattis would crack a rib at his expense the moment he were far away from them.

Let them laugh at me till they drop dead, the couple of idiots, he thought, struggling mightily to contain his increasing irritation. We’ll see who gets the last laugh here.

The program was definitely working. Out of millions of folk subjected to the treatment only the bastard Sand Grain had been released without presenting a single side effect derived from his therapy. Luckily, Kyros had foreseen such a possibility long before the Sand Grain had come along.

It’s only a matter of time before you can collect the reward, he reflected.

Again, Father’s teachings came to mind, and even a few things that Kyros had learned from Lee’s lips.

“In simple terms,” Old Palyarkis had explained, “the Spark of Connection is an energy source; it’s a sort of voltage regulator, if you will, as intangible to the touch and invisible to the eye and the mind alike, charged with regulating energy produced by the brain and responsible for managing and distributing it throughout the entire nervous system.

“In more metaphysical terms, we know that the Conscience is pure energy. So the more intense the energy, the more powerful the Spark needs to be in order to contain all that electricity running through a person’s system.”

“That’s the Spark’s lone function whilst it remains asleep,” Lyenkos had added. “Once awake, however, the Kanazanda becomes a great avenue that provides us with a complete Connection to the Intangible, along with all of the virtues that the phenomenon has got to offer.”

By quenching the Spark through Lee’s program, patients were deprived of their innate ability to Connect to the Intangible. In time their bodies withered, as all contact between the Conscience and the great source of energy was completely severed.

In simple medical terms, patients would suffer from all kinds of conditions related to the brain and the nervous system. With no aid from the Spark the energy produced by the brain ran wild and without restriction all over the nervous system. And obviously, the body of a powerful Being was all but unable to control and manage such intense charges.

A handful of patients had already taken the Final Step into Khevala, due to all sorts of cerebral complications and issues related to the nervous system, as if they’d been in a serious accident or if they were afflicted by a degenerative, terminal illness . . . Except for the sneaky Sand Grain.

As usual, Kyros had to remind himself than none of this had been his idea. The program was Lyenkos’ baby and big brother had obviously known his own creation much better than his eventual successor. That was what led Kyros to prepare himself for the inevitable appearance of the Sand Grain as best as possible, well beforehand, and with no need to consult with the Inforacle.

That didn’t make his prognostication any less chilling though, especially now that it had come true. The program was killing most of the patients, yet one of them at least, made it out of the whole process safe and sound.

And there may be others too, he reflected, glumly.

He was not yet finished going over all the names of the patients recently released from the program. He was forced to bring his inspection to a halt the minute he found the Sand Grain, for the situation demanded of his entire and immediate attention.

He didn’t even wish to contemplate Lee’s wildest theory of all: that soon or late the Sand Grain would be capable of Connecting to the Intangible on mere instinct alone.

That makes no matter, he decided abruptly, while mustering the courage needed to face what was coming. It’s too late now to try to change fate.

The mindlessness of the commoners ran so deep in their veins that most folk had already lost all contact with their Individual Consciences. More important yet, Akaladians were already completely isolated from the Supreme Conscience.

Old Palyarkis claimed that the Selected had themselves to thank for that. “Through the centuries, we’ve been able to change the course of the river that is Universal Balance with the precision of an expert surgeon.

“The Hall tipped the scales in its favor when the members of our own House perfected the methods to keep the world at large in the dark with regards to the way things truly work. The Pinnacle of Power teaches us that any creature can lose its will when isolated from Conscience.

“And when you lose your will, when you’re left with no strength of character to speak of, you also lose any fight that you might have had in you to begin with.

“So whilst the masses remain convinced that everything is fine, that their useless little lives have no meaning or purpose, the Hall shall continue to find the means to keep the rabble distracted and entertained through material matters that are as ephemeral as they are worthless.

“By keeping the common folk buried under the pressures of everyday life, the Hall can also keep them enslaved without them ever realizing it. Under such noise, with no respite and no time to look deep within, so they may listen to the voice of their own Conscience, the masses can be easily herded in any direction that we, their masters, might choose for them.”

The voice of their Conscience . . .

The phrase was a cliché, nothing other than a popular saying, in the best of cases, which people would use to counsel those who acted rashly as opposed to developing the necessary skills to come in touch with the entire Being in Body, Mind and Conscience.

Those who knew the way things truly worked used the phrase literally, though. It was the voice of his Conscience precisely, which told Kyros to bury his thoughts deep within, as he left the living room to go looking for the only person that he cared to see at this precise moment.

He found her playing the role of gracious hostess in the main hall, smiling from ear to ear at all of the guests while keeping an eye on the help to make certain that the servants were doing their jobs.

“Laretia,” he asked the young Mistagent who was his personal assistant and bodyguard, “have you seen my son?”

The tall, slender brunette in the spectacular evening dress that was as tight as it was revealing, turned immediately in her boss’ direction. “Kyros Junior went out with his friends, Doctor, sir. He went looking for you at your studio a little earlier. But since he couldn’t find you, he asked me to deliver the message as soon as I saw you.”

That spoiled brat, Kyros thought, angrily. This dinner party is in his honor and yet, he chooses to go out with his friends?

Such lack of discipline and diplomatic skills did not bode well for the future Head of a House. Good thing Kyros had sired four children, out of which, the third and only girl of the lot seemed to be the best choice to succeed him one day as Head of Draksas.

He’d just have to make sure to start training Patient Lenny in secret as soon as possible, the same as Old Palyarkis had done with him. Speaking of boys having fun with their friends this evening . . .

“Have you heard from the team yet?” he whispered discreetly in Laretia’s ear, his angst increasing with every word he uttered.

“Not yet, boss.” Laretia’s long black curls shook softly as she lowered her head to spare a glance at her chronobracelet. “It’s still early in Lúnembril, though. I’m sure we’ll hear from the girls soon.”

Kyros gave a sharp, reluctant nod.

Laretia was not wrong, he knew. The night was still young in Palaxis, and during the summer the city hovered above North Zevantika in a time zone two hours ahead of the Earth Continent’s capital. He was letting impatience get the best of him . . . as usual.

“Don’t forget to let me know as soon as you’ve heard something,” he sighed before turning around, right after Laretia tried to reassure him with a warm smile, not so different to the grins she was offering to his guests.

He put the issue out of his mind as he walked towards his studio. He strode briskly across the room and headed straight for the wide terrace beyond. He sipped a little wine then, and let his eyes roam the myriad multicolored lights sparkling in the distance over a velvety black backdrop.

A plethora of bright dots of light gave the night a purple hue. Some moved quickly, the countless flying vessels sliding through the capital’s night sky amidst a labyrinth of steel, crystal and iron. Contrastingly the lights illuminating the metal giants standing before the terrace were so still that telling them apart from the stars was nearly impossible.

As he gazed upon the splendid Palaxian night skyline Kyros went over everything that had transpired since he implemented the program to quench the Spark.

For centuries the Selected struggled mightily to find a reliable option to spot the Spark of Connection. The easiest way to do so was by feeling another person’s Energetic Scent. But as Kyros had reminded Zammi al’Douel and Jeorson Mattis that could only be done after folk hit puberty.

Finding a person’s true potential before that was as hard as finding facial hair on a little boy’s face or breasts on a small girl’s chest. The Vardikhar had also discovered that there were only two ways to deal with folk born with a strong, latent Spark.

The first and easiest choice was to capture folk at an early age to see if they could be successfully turned into Mikhurvat. Alas not all folk who met the criteria could be captured with ease and potential varied greatly from one prospect to the next.

In the beginning tests could only be conducted on orphans, street urchins and the like, and not all of them were born with a strong, latent Spark, of course.

Fortunately, some of those wretched creatures offer great potential. And even those who offer naught are still of use as slaves. Either way, none of those whelps are ever missed by anyone.

Viable candidates could also be found in scarcely populated rural areas spread across the world’s most distant, remote regions . . . Again, just as long as the Spark shone bright within them.

Not all of the country whelps could be captured with the same ease as their peers on the streets or in orphanages, though sometimes their parents or tutors were open to a monetary agreement. Desperation, hunger, or the simple fact that they couldn’t care less about their own progeny, led those ignorant country folk to sell the creatures.

That sort of transaction was quite costly more often than not, but closing the deals was much easier than Kyros had thought at first. It was surprising to see how many parents were willing to sell their offspring in those uncivilized, underdeveloped corners of the world scattered all over the place.

One would think the commons valued their whelps above all other things, he’d always thought of the rabble. Though that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case.

Sometimes, the country folk even allowed for their creatures to be tested in order to confirm their potential. Though they had no idea of what was being done to their whelps, of course.

Since every transaction was made through House Draksas’ wide, complex network of intermediaries Kyros never learned what reason pushed the country folk to sell their own children. Though that was irrelevant in the end.

The important thing is that street urchins, orphans and country folk take well to the training and conditioning programs at the Farm. The real problem was children come from society’s mid-levels.

Now those whelps had food for their bellies and soft shoes for their feet and warm beds to sleep at night and soothing, comforting words whispered in their ears by loving parents. Needless to say, that sort of creature would never be sold. And unlike their peers from society’s lowest levels, middle-class children always had many more folk than their parents to look after them, all the slamming time.

Middle-class folk would waste no time and spare no effort and no expense to put an exhaustive search together, should their beloved offspring go missing. And they certainly wouldn’t give up the search till they discovered what had happened to the creatures.

For all those reasons, House Draksas took on an exhaustive search of its own.

For decades the members of Kyros’ House searched for a much easier and better way to spot the Spark, with no need to sequester children to have them subjected to thorough examination. His ancestors invested vast resources to this end; they spared no expense and left no stone unturned until Grandfather found the best and safest way to spot the Kanazanda, some sixty years ago.

Studying Grandfather’s work in-depth was what led Lee to conceive his brilliant plan to quench the slammed Spark. Always the perfectionist, Lee had analyzed his program from all sides. And like Grandfather before him, big brother spared no effort till he spotted and corrected every single flaw that he found in the entire process.

It was ironic that Lyenkos would deem a minor, irrelevant flaw as his program’s worst defect. Especially when it was one of his many other predictions that had turned out to be the real problem.

At the end of the day Lee was not only deeply concerned with the devastating effects that his program would produce; he was devastated by another flaw that he found in his baby: the possibility, no matter how remote or unlikely, that someone might survive the entire process without suffering any consequences whatsoever.

Even from beyond the grave you still manage to make my life miserable, dear brother.

Kyros did not lie to al’Douel and Mattis. For almost eighteen years the program had been infallible. According to the follow-up software used to evaluate the program’s results, after release from therapy all bastard patients had seen their brain energy levels diminished. And they all had suffered secondary effects of one kind or the other.

It was all as Lyenkos had predicted at first: every patient’s nervous system, their brain or both, had been irreversibly damaged . . .

Save for Earlyan Marnes.

The Great Master knew not the first thing about the Marnes lad’s existence . . . yet. But how much longer will it take for the Inforacle to reveal the secret to Him?

The Adi’vardikhar didn’t know it all, as He liked His followers to believe. But there was no way of knowing how much the Inforacle shared with Him or when. Time was of the essence. Kyros had to take hold of Marnes before the Nivid’zakuna revealed the lad’s existence to the Lord of the Selected.

Furthermore, panic would run rampant through the halls of the Asthana’dikhar, once all other Vardikhar learned about Marnes’ existence. In their panic, the Selected would pounce on the lad like a shoal of frantic, starving tigersharks that had just sniffed blood on the water, fearing the worst; fearing that Earlyan Marnes was the Impostor Come Back to Life.

And then competition would be stiff, indeed. The secret had to remain safe at all costs.

Kyros Draksas was a scientist, first and foremost. He did not give in to irrational fear, as was the case with the rest of his peers. He knew Marnes posed no threat to the Hall, lest the lad receive the proper training from someone familiar with the Pinnacle of Power. But that was impossible . . . lest some Selected choose to do so.

He was treading treacherous waters here, filled with starving predators at all sides, with Marnes in tow and no idea whatsoever of what would happen once the boy came in touch with the Inforacle. The risk was worth it, though. If his speculations were correct then Earlyan Marnes was the key that was needed to reach heights never before seen by any Selected, the Adi’vardikhar himself included.

Lyenkos wasn’t the only member of House Draksas who could come up with some crackpot, illogical and most of all, dangerous theories, after all.

Kyros was dying to unveil the secret lying beyond the great mystery. How did the Marnes lad manage to survive the program and more important yet, could he truly be the Trickster Reborn?

He was so close to grabbing the lad that he could taste it.

The Impostor Come Back to Life would reveal the Last Bastion of Power to Kyros Draksas and to him alone. In case something went wrong, he could always deliver the Trickster Reborn to the Great Master, as if nothing had happened.

Yes, if something went wrong Kyros could always help his liege put an end to a serious threat against the Hall, when the First found that which He sought with single-mindedness. Victory was assured, any which way one wished to look at it. Kyros would win as soon as he got word of the Marnes lad’s capture.

I can only hope that doesn’t take much longer, he thought, overcome by an intense mix of anticipation and dread. Elsewise, al’Douel and Mattis won’t be the only ones breathing down my neck.

The secret had to be kept under wraps for as long as possible. And the fact that his peers were already sniffing round was coming to complicate things. For as much as Kyros was loath of acting with the caution and the subterfuge that had always defined the Selected that was exactly what was needed here.

Subtlety was the key indeed, though as Mattis had shrewdly put it, Kyros had never been, and would never be a subtle man. The Great Vanquisher, on the other hand . . . Well, whatever the Great Master lacked as a gambler he more than made up with His subtlety.

The First Among the Selected was quite the difficult opponent to deceive. The Inforacle would always tell Him which player had an ace up his sleeve or which gambler had the best hand at the table. And that was just the case now that Kyros had the slammed Sand Grain so close at hand.

The Marnes lad was a fascinating subject beyond the shadow of a doubt, worthy of deep examination and thorough analysis. Yet at the same time the boy was dangerous to the extreme for none could tell what would happen once he were face to face with the Nivid’zakuna.

Would he remember his past life as the Impostor and draw an ace from his own sleeve to the doom and gloom of the entire Hall? Or would Kyros find a way to force the Sand Grain to reveal the fabled Last Bastion to him alone?

Whatever the case, you’re about to find out. All he had to do here was see the Marnes lad safely to the House Draksas secret Lab as soon as possible. Sounds simple enough.

After all, the Sand Grain could not activate the Spark as if by magic to elude the trap that Kyros had laid out for him. The deed was as good as done. Perhaps someday Lee’s predictions would come true to the doom of all, but claiming that the Spark could wake without coming in contact with the Inforacle was too much, even for mad Lyenkos Draksas.

Try as he might, Kyros couldn’t think of a way to accomplish a feat with no precedent, not without basic knowledge of the Pinnacle of Power at least. The idea was so absurd that it was almost amusing. Ah, Lee and his love of metaphysics!

Slam it, dear brother, he gave a nervous chuckle. You were one true mad scientist and there’s no doubting it!

As usual, leave it up to poor, foolish Kyros to clean up after another one of big brother’s messes—

His mirth ended when he heard the unmistakable sound of high heels clacking on the terrace’s marble-tiled floor behind his back. He turned around slowly, in complete hold of his emotions once more, and fixed his gaze on beautiful Laretia as she approached him with a tiny, black rectangular device in her right hand.

It was about slamming time too, Kyros thought, excitement bubbling in his veins as he took the portphone from his assistant’s fingers.

“This is Draksas,” he announced through the communication device’s speaker. “What news do you have for me, creature?”

“Boss Draksas,” replied the team leader, in a trembling voice. “We . . . we found the targets, Doctor, sir. But . . . something went wrong and—”

“What do you mean ‘something went wrong’?” he echoed, a chilling dread freezing his spine as he spoke. “Explain yourself, Mikhurvat.”

“I–I’m truly sorry, boss.” The girl hesitated more and more with every word. “I . . . I can’t explain it! We took care of the boy’s friends, but . . . it looks like Mistureth ran into some kind of trouble.

“She took Marnes into a bedroom, locked the door and . . . and then we heard noises coming from the room . . . Loud, violent noises, Doctor, sir. We broke into the room and . . . and . . . and they were both gone!”
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