Chapter 5 Call it a challenge
When Anira returned to the Free Agency headquarters she was in a sunny mood. Two months of relaxing after almost a year of solid work consisting of times of high tensions only interrupted by times of near death experiences had taken their toll on her motivation. The last mission which she had done out of kindness, well out of a sense of professional duty, had left her drained and disgusted with some of the idiots calling the shots. But now she was full of energy again. She had even improved her shell-art, slightly. Well marginally. But while trying to come up with the will power to work on those blasted body techniques she had tweaked her mind-force even further. She was now slowly developing the skill of manipulating the strands of essence with the tips of her fingers giving her the ability to produce magical effects without the use of obvious hand-seals.
When she got out of the sky ferry she had decided not to take a carriage to HQ but decided to walk instead. Having arrived early in the morning she had no hurry to get there as her work did not begin officially until noon. Which at the moment was her new 'official' security circle. All things considered that was not to bad, it was just one level below her usual dusk clearance. Mostly symbolic, she thought.
The command central of the Free Agency stood proud and alone in the middle of a large flat valley covered only by meadows accentuating the tall black buildings impressive form. It also made it very hard for any would be attackers or infiltrators to sneak in unseen. The valley itself was ringed by high towering mountains which where mostly unfriendly cliff-faces. Climbing over them was a heroic task as there were no passes or any routes of easy access to bypass them. Every once in a while did a very determined individual get past the mountains and only a handful of them made it across the dozens of miles of meadows to the tower undetected. These individuals were always recruited into the agency for they had proven themselves to be enormously capable. As far as the Free Agency was concerned no one had ever declined this generous offer. A legend it fostered through the ages as it made for great publicity.
The only comfortable way into the valley was by air-ship and even that way was partially restricted. The tips of the mountains were almost constantly surrounded by angry black storm clouds and the fierce winds that shepherded them. Ships could only clear the mountains if they waited for a good day and flew over the storms or had engines powerful enough to force their way through the turbulences. Once on the other side getting to the central building was pretty easy. There was one broad comfortable, carefully observed, road leading from the air-port to the agency.
Anira was clearing her mind, slowly reverting to her professional self. The thoughts about her family, the adventures of her merchant sister in the Inner World where she was chasing after the next big luxury commodity, the vegetable garden her father was slowly spreading around their house were carefully put aside. Replaced by what Ailu had warned her about during their meeting a month ago. Considering what kind of political bullshit she would probably encounter. The best way to evade a desk job. How to not murder Kelsheron if she saw him today. She exhaled slowly. Getting angry was not going to do her any favours. She was almost half way there. The black angular tower was now dominating the scenery in front of her. The building was ancient but ugly. It had been built in a time where aesthetics had been less important than auspicious forms. Master sanctificers had gone through great pains to fit together the many strange geometric blocks that formed the building into one seamless shape. Through considerable effort and magic the windows themselves appeared as perfectly black as the stone out of which the parts of the building had been carved. Supposedly the tower stood on the crossing line of two dragon streams. The outside carefully shaped so as to deflect harmful essence while warping it in auspicious essence.
Anira always marvelled at how superstitions worked their way into the human mind. As far as she knew there had never even been any evidence that dragon streams even existed and yet years of labour had been spent to shape something to harness this invisible power directing it to the stars above. At least the part about the stars she could understand. The way they moved across the skyshell were indeed measurably determined by the events on the earth below. So having the people believe that if you watched the sky you could know the future did not seem that far fetched. But the skies could only predict the fate of man only as far as a storm front could predict that it would rain soon. During the time of the first Illumination the precursors of what today where mages actually measured cause and effect discovering that the stars reacted to what humanity did and not the other way round. As if to emphasise this point a major constellation hurriedly reconfigured its position in the skyshell with jerky motions. The Sword Saint, the wise man who opposes the ignorant, moved over towards the Bird Catcher, the man who chases after promising dreams, while Red Thoras the planet of boiling passions joined them.
Once inside she went straight to Ailu's office. Along the way she did not meet anyone she knew. The people from the Dawn Circle were already poring over their date, while those due to the Noon shift still had an hour time before they started working let alone the agents working the Dusk Circle where Anira had the most friends. She knocked on the door and entered the room without waiting for an answer. Ailu was looked up from her paperwork, greeted her absent mindedly and resumed her work. Anira poured herself a coffee, shifted a stack of papers from one of the two chairs in front of Ailu's desk making herself comfortable. When Ailu was caught up in her paperwork she hardly made any contact with the outer world any more. Her mind was so focused on the task at hand that her colleagues joked that she did not look for facts but much rather scared them out of the paper with her burning gaze. It was this concentration that made Ailu such an exceptional handler while disqualifying her completely from duty as a field agent. Anira had recruited Ailu once, only once, to help her in a mission. It had almost ended tragically for all involved as she failed to notice the bodyguard of the High Archivist storming through the corridors towards her location. Anira's smile at the memory slipped when she noticed of what recent story that reminded her.
"Anira?" Ailu asked as if seeing her for the first time today. "How did you get in here?"
"Door." Anira answered pointing at the door behind her with her thumb.
"Everything else would worry me. Ready for duty?"
"Yes. Free Agent Anira Leyma reporting for duty."
"Noted. We are expected to report for mission briefing at one this afternoon. Your next mission it has been decided will be of Noon Circle clearance."
Anira groaned. "Noon? Is that a joke? Do I look like a data miner?"
"Calm down, you know this would happen." said Ailu dropping her official tone. "I have no idea what they have planned. Kelsheron has done his best to get all his buddies on board. They have been lobbing hard in the past two months to give you the job you are least suitable for. While they have quite effectively kept me out of the loop I know for sure that it will be a field work assignment. There are enough people on your side and even more that would love nothing better than you owing them a favour."
"Oh great. Field work. I can basically see it. All the excitement that can be hand when being sent to some third rate sovereign try to explain him that his entire staff is incompetent and that the best solution would be to burn them."
"It won't be that bad."
"Or how about a census of the nomad tribes of the magma deserts of Toruquel?"
"Now you are being ridiculous."
"Or I have to descent into the inner world, go to fucking X and find a way to permanently implant a brain into the cretin King Xsistis. . ."
"OK. OK. Sorry got carried away a bit there."
"Also going to X and talking to Xsistis is now considered Dusk Circle."
Anira remained silent for a moment considering for a moment the implications of what she just heard. "What happened? Something big?" she asked.
"Very big. Apparently a group of aggressors broke into the Fortress of Terminal Justice. . ."
". . . pulverised hundreds of guards on their way in, nearly killed the Nameless Guardian. . ."
". . . and leaving no trace behind them took off with two bottled souls."
"That. Is serious." Anira said. Ailu just nodded. "Do we know whose souls the invaders took?"
"Yes." Ailu said. "They took the soul of Khrus Cydral. . ."
"Never heard of him."
"Some kind of mad genius from some time ago. Apparently they called for his evaporations because he almost caused a cataclysm and it was not the first time his soul tryed to pull of that stunt."
"And the other one."
"That monster was still alive. . ." it was not even a question Anira was marvelling at the thought that the most evil man in history, the man who had invented both the extraction of souls from living bodies as well as their use as fuel had still not met his well deserved end.
"Apparently. And now he is somewhere out there."
"You know what." said Anira quickly regaining her composure. "I am suddenly very interested in travelling to X to gather some information."
"Not gonna happen. The case is deemed Dusk Circle. It also happened some time ago, as you can imagine agents have already been dispatched."
"This disciplinary action is starting to sting a little." Anira said.
"Concentrate of getting it out of the way. What ever it is they'll through at you, it will be something easy and boring just to teach you a less. We go in there do what ever they want us to do. We will do it by the book. . ." Anira snorted at this point ". . . by the book and after that what ever leverage Kelsheron had will be nothing but smoke in the wind. He'll look like the idiot he is, lose face and we will be back working on the important cases again."
"Right you are. Lunch?"
A little over an hour later Anira and Ailu were sitting in a meeting room with supervisor Ugarko an old friend of them. The moment he entered the room it was obvious that he was quite angry.
"I am very sorry about this Anira." he said through gritted teeth. "This is a farce but I am afraid that we have to get through it."
"Don't worry Ugarko. I know that you are just the messenger I also much rather debrief with you than with one of Kelsheron's toadies. So what is it?"
"Well as you know your last mission had a lasting negative impression of the Nomad Empire and it took the agency some effort to convince our contacts with the Nomads that we were not at all involved in the incident." the repressed anger was still dripping out of the supervisors voice.
"What a nice touch to send you to tell me this, of all people." Anira said. Ugarko was originally from the Nomad Empire.
"Isn't it. I have no idea what they think they will achieve with this. But regardless. The information crystals you brought us did contain the information we needed and little else."
"OK?" Anira said. Ailu remained silent taking notes.
"There was only one bit in those crystals which was interesting. Ambassador Nahalka apparently went through some effort and considerable expense to establish contact with a group called the Society for the Advancement of General Enlightenment or S.A.G.E. for short."
"Never heard of them."
"Neither have we which is exactly the problem. It looks like S.A.G.E. works with advanced high magic or traffics with very sophisticated high magic components. This means that there is a group of extremely powerful mages making secret deals with at least one representative of one of the most influential world powers."
"And you want me to. . .?"
"We want you to go out and find out who S.A.G.E. is and what they are up to."
"You can't be serious."
"I am afraid I am."
"Lovely. Any idea where I can find this secret cabal of mages?"
"We have some indications that they may have had dealings with the Living City."
"That is all? It could be that they may have had some dealings with the Living City?"
"That is all I'm afraid."
"This is ridiculous. What about the ambassador Nahalka?"
"Are you really going back to him to ask him? Even if you did he is just a middleman. While he did a lot of work to establish contact between S.A.G.E. and the Nomad Empire he does not seem to have more information than we have already. But you can of course feel free to try to infiltrate his home again and ask him some questions, without further deteriorating the relationship between the Free Agency and the Nomad Empire even further if you please. Regard it as a challenge."