Saturday, 12 November 2011

Project Sky-Shell 009

Chapter 6 Of men lost to oblivion.

As Anira and Ailu walked out of the Free Agencies headquarters discussing ways to maximise the expenses as a way to get even with the people they had to thank for their task they passed a colleague of them they did not know. Hardly anyone knew Aveonato Korson. He passed the two women who had just burst out it laughter seemingly discussing transportation. Aveonato smiled and nodded. Being polite never cost anything. He had also found out during his time in the Free Agency that good manners where both a perfect cloak to hide behind as well as a key opening many doors. The two women past him hardly noticing him, although the taller one of the two did notice his greeting and winked at him. He loved this moments when to strangers for a short moment shared a friendly connection. For Aveonato life was a large startling net full of contacts that carried in them almost infinite potential. It was this sense of wonder that made him such a good agent.

    Aveonato Korson was not like most other agents an agent of the Day but one of the select few who were called to be agents of the Night. Where there were three ranks in the Department of the Day there was only one in the Department of the Night. Midnight. Most things were different for the Agents of the Midnight Circle. They were very closely monitored. Briefed and trained extensively when preparing for their missions, debriefed and tested rigorously after it and in between they were kept under constant training and mental evaluation. The Midnight Circle was the one who was called in for assassinations and sabotage. Only the most trusted clients of the Free Agency even knew that the Night Circle even existed and those that did could not simply call for their services as every mission had to be cleared by the Ethics Committee to see if such an act of force was justified. If it wasn't or if it was deemed that equal results could be achieved by the agents of the Day, the request was rejected.
    And yet agent Korson had almost constantly been in active service since he had finished his training. He noticed that he had not given much attention to his surrounding a luxury which he could only indulge in the valley of the Free Agency, but one that had to wait until he was through debriefing. For now it was important to prepare his mind for the final step of his mission. He looked around. He was just exiting the enormous main entrance hall into a side corridor which held a broad selection of lifts that lead to almost every level of the building apart from the one Aveonato was going. He looked at the people waiting in front of the many lift doors making a mental snapshot of the moment. Taking in the heated discussion between a short man and a stone faced thing female agent. The way a group of agents was talking to each other, with one of them turning away from the conversation ever so often to push with mounting aggression the call crystal for the lift. The way a piece of paper fell out of a folder gently swaying to the floor.
    That should be enough. Aveonato walked past all the people not paying any attention to them, feeling a deep, slightly guilty pleasure in doing so.
    At the end of the corridor was a heavy cast iron door marked with fire consuming sigil and cleverly hidden signs of repulsion which where placed there to give visitors a strong urge to rather take another door. Not that such kind of security was really necessary as the biggest field of repulsion was hidden right behind the heavy door. After Aveonato had passed the door he stood in front of the stairs, the least popular means of transportation in the entire valley. Hardly anyone ever took the stairs. Something Aveonato never quite understood. He loved the physicality of them. He also appreciated not being caught in a room floated by magic to life threatening heights which were often enough full of strangers. It was incredibly hard to be polite to a pack of strangers so Aveonato always felt incredibly awkward in their presence. He could do small groups and individuals but large anonymous crowds gave him the creeps.
    He took a final look around. Looked upwards following the familiar form of winding stair case up until it he could not look further up without leaning back. He tilted his head a bit to give the final picture a bit more variation. Once he was sure that he had internalized the picture before him he sealed it with the typical smell of the stair case and the muffled sounds from beyond the steel door. He then descended down the stairs to the second basement level. Here his eyes picked up the faint blue shimmering line flouting in the air swaying very gently in the natural ebb and flow of the essence of the world. Only Midnight Circle agents could see this guideline. During their training many parts of their bodies had been altered so that they could better perform their work, among the many alterations was one to the eyes that gave them the ability to see the signs that the Agency had hidden for them in plain sight. In this case it led him through the labyrinthine knots of corridors that wound their way under the headquarters. They all looked them same grey colour with walls that were decorated with unmarked doors in regular intervals. This deep the corridors did also descend and ascend forming a complex three dimensional structure.
    As the blue line in front of him started to pulsate slightly Aveonato stretched out his left hand, touching the wall lightly letting a bit of his life-force leak into the wall. As he followed the blue guiding line he started to leave a trail behind him that would eventually form a magical seal opening a gateway for him to pass. On his way he crossed several places where very strong, cleverly hidden seals of repulsion were hidden. The Night Circle took no chances. It took a while, as always, until he reached his destination. The blue line suddenly faded into nothingness. Aveonato turned left and walked right through the wall into the corridor leading to his evaluation room. He loved this last stretch of his journey. As he moved along the length of the corridor increased, what had looked like a short walk in the end took around 5 minutes. He had been told that this special trick was another measure of security that would reveal even the craftiest of shape-changers as well as reverse possible cases of possession or mental domination.
    Finally he had reached the red perfectly polished door at the end of the corridor.

"I am Aveonato Korson. Agent of the Midnight Circle. I have accomplished my mission. Let me pass."

    The door started pulsating and became incorporeal. Aveonato walked through the now open door pushing against the slight resistance left by the door. Beyonf was a large round room with a big chair in the middle. It was made of dark composite wood and metal with bunches of opal covered obsidian wire hanging out of it like thick shining hair. Beyond that chair was small metal desk behind which sat two figures one male one female waiting for him. These two people were his handlers. As it was custom they wore the dark blue robes of midnight covering their faces with featureless masks. On their heads rested the steel circlets that synchronized their minds. This, they had explained to Aveonato during his training as a child, was to impede any thoughts of treason to appear.
    Aveonato sat down in his seat. The gem-stone wires jerked to life twitching their way over his body invading his skin filling him with the pleasure of the interface. Once he had completely relaxed with a serene smile on his face the main wires made contact with the two crystals implanted deeply within the base of his skull.
    "Mother, father, I am ready for my debriefing."

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Project Skyshell 008

    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."

    "Shar Nizlaal."
"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."

Monday, 7 November 2011

Project Skyshell 007

The following chapter starts with about a page of exposition. No idea where that came from.
As No plot? No problem! told me not to erase stuff I hate I shall keep it here and kick it out during revision later. If you find your self with your eyes glazing over because nothing happens just keep on reading until you reach the line of asterisks

Chapter 4 Good intentions

There where many strange nations under the skyshell. The Nomad Empire was among the strangest of them all. Not quite a unsettling as the Living City but certainly even more exotic than Alashana then tamed desert and with a history that was stranger than that of the Meritocracy of the Order of Reason.

    The Nomad Empire had started out as a collection of wandering tribes that had little in common but their tendency to roam broadly the same region in a past so far removed from the present as to be basically lost to memory. During the rise of the precursor civilisations which were the seed of progress that gradually led to the wonders of the present day the nomads found themselves threatened by the strangest enemy they had ever faced. The comforts of the sedentary cultures that had ensnared them. This almost meant the end of these once proud and free peoples as they lost their youth to the lures of the cities, to the temptations that came from not having to go out and search for water and hunt for food. So the elders of the tribes convened to find a way to survive this attack by an enemy that could not be fought with weapons.
    After weeks of discussions, fights and honourable duels to the death they found an answer so easy that it shocked them that they had not thought of it from the very beginning. They decided that instead of waiting for the other civilisations to come and swallow them they would instead walk into them, learn of their ways, take their advantages and learn from their mistakes. So, the elders reasoned, in time they would become the most advanced of all the civilisations, friends to all enemy to none, always wandering in the way their revered ancestors had done.
    Now thousands of years later the Nomad Empire was one of the greatest empires of all. It moved freely over the world. Its people wandering from city to city, from home to home always carrying their empire with them. The Nomad's had never fought a war of aggression for their realm coexisted with every other. Only a very few times did they have to fight wars of defence. Usually when the citizens of one kingdom became envious of the Nomad people or looked for a scape-goat for their present problems, the Nomads simply vanished into the night, taking with them their knowledge, their skills and their riches.
    The only greater conflict happened when the prejudice against the Nomads had spread over several kingdoms. At this time they stopped their retreat and stood firm. This was in the time when man had tamed the flowstone giving him the ability to build floating islands that where his to control. Soon the skies of the aggressors where doted with embassy islands which bombarded the castles of the their attackers from the sky.
    It was at this time that the Nomad Emperor decided to move from the ground to the sky. Taking a large chunk from the soil which they considered their original home territory he built his castle there ripping it from the ground using high magic. Now the Emperor had his a fortress but would not stop wandering all over the planet staying true to the tradition of his ancestors.
    It was not long after that first the Elder of the different Castes of the Nomad Empire built their flying homes, followed by the most affluent Nomads. Today the Nomad Empire whose centre always is the Imperial Island overlaps many nations on the ground and dots the skies above them.

Elder of the Traveller Caste Kalasna was fidgeting with the cuffs of her silken robe. She always did that when she was nervous, impatient or irritated. Today she was all of it. She was waiting for Lahagnun Elder of the Hunter Caste to arrive. She was used to having to wait for the Elders of the other Castes who did not take her profession seriously. After all the Travellers had only appeared after the Empire had started moving into other nations. And had built the floating homes of the Empire. And had pretty much come up with every technical advancement since then. But noooo. They were the youngest Caste and hardly necessary anyway.

    If it had been up to Elder Kalasna the other casts would have been abolished long ago. How could you be proud of an ancestry that had still marvelled over the miracle of toilets and had probably preferred to go out into the bushes for the next hundred years or so because is was more traditional. She snorted in disgust. She had expected better from the leader of the Hunter Caste. After all they had been the red-headed stepchild for almost as long as the Travellers were.
    Once the Empire had moved into the cities of the other kingdoms the Hunters were no longer needed and had become the de facto army and police force for the Nomad. A mostly symbolic position seeing that the Nomads were usually protected by the police and military of the nations they were visiting at any given time anyway. Nations who did not take kindly to foreign armed forces. They did not even get the prestige that came from protecting the emperor. The royal family who governed the Empire and its many off-shoots who provided the diplomatic corps were not protected by the smelly hunters. They were protected by the Emperor's Bodyguard who were recruited from one ancient family and them alone.
    Today was an important day for both the Travellers and the Hunters. Today they might be able to strike a deal that would secure them the recognition that both there castes were owed for a long time now. That would of course only happen if Elder Lahagnun could stoop to appear here more or less in time.
    Elder Kalasna was coming up with her third theory about the biologically challenging ancestry of Elder Lahagnun, when he walked through the door. The Hunter a small slightly twitchy man in an armour that hinted at a powerful body that he clearly did not posses had an expression that Elder Kalasna liked to call 'lemon face'. The internationally accepted facial expression of those who tried to swallow something they did not really enjoy.
"Elder Lahagnun, what a joy to see you here. Only 15 minutes late. When we are having a very important guest waiting for us." she greeted him smiling with a disapproving smile she had perfected raising four generations of children.
    "Don't give me that shit Kalasna. Do you think I came late on purpose?" the Elder of the Caste of Hunters hid in his diminutive body a voice so deep that it could crush stones to dust and shatter bones.

"So. What happened today? Did you fall of your island and had to walk all the way back up?"

    Lahagnun had to fight the urge to slap some sense into Kalasna while she was contemplating if it would not be a good idea to use his lemon face to make some lemonade. While both the Elders still marvelled at the fact that the person in front of them was supposed to be the representative of the cast they had the most in common with, another door opened and Qumro the personal secretary of Elder Kalasna came in. He paused for a moment sensing that he had just stepped into a war zone but he had learned long ago to counter his superiors legendary foul moods with the most deadpan professionalism.
    "Revered Elder Lahagnun." he bowed before the one other Elder in the Nomad Empire with the reputation to have the kindness of a striped Alashanan hunting spider with a peptic ulcer. "I am honoured to be witness to your indomitable presence." Lahagnun grunted smirking into Qumro's general direction. "Revered Mother, our visitor has now finished his tour through your palace. As instructed we have seated him in the dining room for the most honoured guests. Will you see him now?"
    "Yes, Qumro we are on our way." Kalasna answered. "Please announce to our guest that we will be shortly with her."

    "I hear and obey, Revered Mother." Qumro vanished back through the door happy to leave the Elders to kill each other with their disdain.
    "I hope this is worth it." rumbled Elder Lahagnun.
    "Of course it is. I've done my research. This will open up some very interesting new avenues for us. If we play our cards right today we will be able to recruit allies in the House of Merchants and the House of Guides." Elder Kalasna was now calming down again. When the situation called for it she could go from raging wildfire to glacial calm in the blink of an eye. Now that things were moving against according to the plan. Her plan. Her temper was cooling down considerably.

    "I can see the Merchants joining us. Greedy little fuckers. But the Guides? Really? Are they not you sworn enemies?" asked Lahagnun who was trying to scratch an itch just beyond his reach under his breast plate as they walked out of the door into a luxurious corridors that was all polished stone, columns and impressive frescoes.
    "Oh they will. While they are a bunch of stuck up bastards there are some among them, especially the younger generation that recognized that their glory years have long since gone. Who needs guides these days? We know all ways, all routes everything."
    "Well there is still a lot of uncharted land in the Inner World." suggested Lahagnun who had taken out the ceremonial dagger our of its sheath, trying to carefully scratch that horrid itch without cutting himself.
    "Oh please. How exactly are they going to lead us through the Inner World if they have no idea where they are going?"
    "Well it is their duty to explore new terrain and open it up for the other casts. Is it not?" he finally reached the itch. "Aaaah." he sighed as he finally found some relief. Followed by a louder "Arrrgh!" after he accidentally nicked his skin with the knife.
    "One of these days you should learn not to use a weapon as a general tool Elder Lahagnun."

"pfff. Just a scratch."

    Elder Kalasna shook her head. She thought about comforting her companion with a bit of a sarcasm, but they had arrived at their destination and now was the time to put any difference aside. When they talked to strangers the Nomads stood as one. What ever trouble they had among each other stayed there.
She opened the door to an opulent room that had three walls that were just windows showing a breathtaking panorama of all the land far below the floating island that housed Elder Kalasna's residence. Inside the room stood a large black table that had been carved out of a giant slab of onyx. decorated with intricate patterns that were characteristic for the Traveller Caste. On the table stood a large crystal bowl overflowing with fruit that stood in bright contrast to the darkness of the table and a large crystal jug of water that glistened in the sunlight to great effect. There were four chairs set on one side of the table leaving the view outside undisturbed. In one of the chairs sat a solitary figure clad in a simple but expensive looking midnight blue cloak.

    "Elder Lahagnun, may I present you the Sage Sree." as Kalasna said that the figure at the table rose in a fluid vaguely disturbing motion. The person in front of them turned around. When Lahagnun First Elder of the Caste of Hunters saw the face of the stranger he had to use all his experience as a veteran warrior not to take a step back. Instead of a face the visitor had a white porcelain mask that covered the entire face leaving no holes for eyes, nose nor mouth but had the outlines of a face carved into it. Which while a bit eccentric was nothing that would have shocked the old warrior. What did was that the mask shifted from a neutral expression with the sound of grinding chalk into a wide unnatural smile.

Project Skyshell 006

Chapter 3 (continued)

10 Minutes later they were sitting in Anira's kitchen in the ground floor, looking out of the large window. Outside the stars had come out,some of them were rearranging themselves in the firmament adapting to the changing flows of fate in the world. The air was filled with the spicy smell of a stew that had bin simmering on Anira's old fashioned gas fire stove for hours. Ailu was to annoyed to want to be hungry. In her eyes it undercut the gravity of her disapproval. Right now she was doing some Grand High Master grade disapproving of Anira's blasé reaction to the news that she had been black marked and taken out of service for a month. She should be angry and rightly so. All this had been a dick move by supervisor Kelsheron who had been looking for a way to get rid of Anira for years now.

    ". . ." Ailu remained silent. She wanted to tell Anira to stop being childish, assess the situation work out a plan. But she could not think of way of breaching the subject in a way that would lead to any form of discussion. She thought that this had to be one of those moments when you saw how much your friendship with someone was worth to you. Anira was being as much of an idiot as supervisor Kelsheron but then that idiot had set up Anira for a fall anyway. He was by the book guy. Not one of those that took the rules and made them into their personal code, but one of those idiots that were using the regulations to hide behind them. Always playing it save, administering passionate French kisses to all arses that out ranked him and kicking everything below him that did not the same for him.
    The few times he and Anira had worked together it had always ended very close to internal disaster. Anira did not care much about rank, she was only ever interested in the outcome. 'The mission must go on.' as she used to say all the time. If she had to bend rules or ignore guidelines she would do that. Being an agent for three consecutive higher incarnations retaining all her memories and experiences from before had made her one of the Free Agencies best field operatives. As long as the mission was to her personal inclinations that is. Which was probably how all the trouble started.
    Kelsheron had only a few decades less experience than Anira, he had switched into a fresh body only a few years ago and he was still stuck in his supervisor position. Not because he was good at it but because that was all that he was any good at. He was a mediocre agent who loved to take any short cut he could find, which had lead to rather grim after action reviews. Instead of taking the advice of his superiors to heart he started to hide behind the rules. In time he became a walking rule book. The agency then decided to take advantage of his strength and make him a supervisor. A job which he did well enough. He was not close enough to the agents to scare them away with his rather lacking social skills, while he could take full advantage of his mastery over the red tape.
    The problem was that when ever he was faced with real responsibility he failed. He only had this one talent which became his prison. Being reminded of this was the worst thing that could happen. Every time he was not given 'proper' respect he would throw a hissy fit doing what ever he could to grind the agent into the dust. Most of the younger agents were afraid of him, the older ones made it a running joke to out do each other in playing along his delusions of grandeur.
    Then Anira came along. At first Kelsheron had seen an ally in her. After all this was one of the few people in the agency that had not advanced after over two centuries of service. Obviously she was a victim of cruel fate just like he was. He could also see from her considerable file that despite her decent track record, she always got the job done in the end, she blundered from one faux pas to the next. Stumbling over regulation and accidentally breaking rules with the grace of an angry octopus having a fit in a porcelain storage. He had envisioned himself as her kind mentor who would through his fatherly advice and benign kindness guide Anira to greatness.
    Had Anira played along she could have probably won a price for making the Kelsheron think that he was the secret shadow king of the Free Agency. But Anira did not play along. The reason because she still was an agent was that it was what she was good at, what she loved to do and what got her out of the bed in the morning. She was not in it for the money, nor for the power or the fantastical career opportunities. By now the ritual of proposed promotions ranging from Operation Control, the Guardians of the Night and every once in a while when the higher ups had been abusing to much substance even the Ethics Commission, was a yearly ritual. Someone with a large shining white envelope would come and Anira would take the envelope and with great care and respect rip it to tiny shreds and burn the shreds in a special bowl that she now kept for exactly this occasion.
    And Anira did not take shit from anyone. Ailu sighed, sipped her coffee and chanced a sidewards glance to her friend who was still trying to look nonchalant eyes fixed on the skyshell outside. She sighed again. This was the pinnacle of Free Agent Anira Leyma's diplomatic skills. During their first mission briefing with supervisor Kelsheron Ailu had done all the talking while Anira had remained utterly silent. The supervisor had taken this as a sign of respectful silence but it had only Anira not telling him that he was an idiot. Ailu had hoped that the mission would go well and the debriefing would end in a similar fashion.
    Of course it didn't. Kelsheron had interfered at every corner, relaying his advice to Anira while in the field. He had sent numerous messengers and scheduled various mid-term report session where Anira had to report to Ailu her progress, jeopardizing the proper execution of the mission. During the debriefing Anira had been very vocal. Very, very. At first Ailu had tried to intervene but had very quickly retreated out of the line of fire. It should have ended there. Both of them filed long, verbose complaints to operation control. Both got a rather cross standard letter by the higher ups telling them to behave. Anira blew her nose with the letter and threw it away. Kelsheron saw it as a personal insult.
    And thus the childish war between them started. The culmination was a high profile case involving the Sixfold King of the Hinkyoda qu Shyosha, the the kingdom of a hundred cities. Their king was a construct into which the souls of six people were injected. Two children, to adults, to elders a man and a woman each. The compound mind was supposed to blend the vigour of youth, the reason of the adults and the wisdom of the old. Somehow someone had abducted one of the children. Had that come to light would have meant a huge scandal that would have destabilized the monarchy. Anira solved the case discovering that it had been a plot between the other child aspect and one of the elders. She had saved the kidnapped child king aspect just in time. The traitor aspects died a tragic natural death sending the kingdom into a month of mourning, in which two new aspects were recruited and the technology in the engines powering the king were updated to prevent such leakage of traitorous thoughts in the future.
    Everybody won. Until the debriefing. This was a very high priority case for the Free Agency. So much so that even the Directors themselves attended it. Usually the supervisor would debrief the agent and the handler. But in this case supervisor, handler and agent were debriefed by the higher ups. It all went well until it was Anira's turn. She following her personal code of efficiency complained at length and in detail how supervisor Kelsheron had been an ill-prepared, incompetent liability who had seemingly got out of his way to ensure that the mission would fail as spectacularly as possible and that the mission had not succeeded thanks to supervisor Kelsheron but despite of him. What followed was a stunned silence initiated by the sound of several jaws tumbling to the floor interrupted only once by a recommendation from Anira: "The only thing this. . . man. . .should be supervising is a potato storage."

    There was an enquiry that pretty much confirmed allegations the allegations by Anira. With that supervisor Kelsheron was now banned from supervising any missions with a clearance higher than the low noon circle. Again this should have been it. Kelsheron was utterly humiliated, but also banned from working with Anira ever again and vice versa. Furthermore Anira was usually only ever employed doing duties deemed late afternoon to dusk circle clearance, so even without the ban they would not see each other ever again.
    But Kelsheron had made quite a few connections during his long career. He did attract a certain type of personality, the kind that felt as threatened as he did by people like Anira. So in what was probably his most cunning plan in his entire plan he set up Anira to go and spy on the Ambassador of the Nomad Empire. The case was originally assigned to another agent who had become severely ill shortly before the mission started and Anira was asked to cover for him. Which she did only to discover that she was spectacularly unsuited for the task at hand. But ever the professional she did it anyway. It was only towards the end of the mission that she noticed what was the purpose behind it. Her reaction was rolling her eyes and saying that she was going on a holiday anyway and that way she'd be happy to be away from the agency for a month.
    And her they sat. Empty coffee mugs in their hands sitting in a by now dark kitchen silent, only with the pot of stew bubbling happily away oblivious to the tense atmosphere.
    In the end it was Anira who broke the silence.
"Are you hungry?" she asked.

    "No." Ailu lied.
"Are you lying?" Anira made it sound like an actual question.

    "Yes. Also. It's dark."
"Maybe I should serve dinner and turn on the light?" Anira suggested.

    "In that order?"
"Of course. I am a secret agent. This is how we do things."

Ailu smiled as the tension left. Being serious for such a long stretch of time was exhausting.

    Minutes later they were eating in the now well lit kitchen. The stew had been on the fire for to long its taste overwhelming, so Anira added a bit of cold water on top of her and Ailu's serving. An added bonus was that the water treatment had lowered the temperature of the stew from volcanic to slightly to hot for comfort. They ate in silence for a while. This time not because they were avoiding a confrontation but because they were simply to hungry to talk
    During the seconds Ailu tried to reach her friend again.
"So. About that suspension thing. . ." Ailu ventured.

    "What about it?"

"Oh come on Anira, don't play stupid. What do you intend to do about it?"

    Anira ate a few spoonfuls before answering. "Nothing. I'll stay here, relax and enjoy my free time some more. It is actually very nice to be away from all the people and the danger and all that shit. I get some time for my self and I really wanted to work on my shell-art."

"Your shell-art?" Ailu had heard that countless times before. Anira's famous weak point. While her mind-force was very powerful and well developed her shell-art hardly exceeded that of a first born applicant for the higher academy.

    "Yes it is about time that I learn a few new tricks. It is really uncomfortable and extremely awkward to have to go to someone else to have my body type changed for a mission." Anira shrugged.
"You've been feeding me that line for ages now."

    "This time I mean it. What else do I have to do?"
"You can stop talking right there as I know the script for this conversation y heart anyway. Also you are evading my question. What do you intend to do after you come back and how exactly are you going to get through the month without pay?"

    "Without pay? Ailu the agency still owes me enough overtime wages to get me through three months without lifting a single finger. Apart from that I have so much money in reserve that I hardly know what to do with it anyway. Oh!" she gestured wildly with her spoon now sending little drops of stew flying over the table. "I know I will find a good charity or two and give them a generous donation!"

"And..." Ailu could not finish her sentence Anira had that child like gleam in her eyes that meant that she had for the moment vanished into her dream space.

    "And I'll get a new body ready!"
"What? Yours isn't even thirty years old. You have just grown into it why..." Ailu always made the mistake of taking Anira's wild flights of fantasy to seriously.

    "So? The rich and famous do this kind of shit all the time! Oh! Oh!" more spoon waving, this time it was still full of stew and Ailu had to dodge pieces of flying food this time "I know I get several new bodies! Like that one Prince. . . You know? Prince. . . er. . .whathisface?"
    "What prince?" Ailu was still unsure if she should humour her friend or drown her in the lake.
"The one with that tiny kingdom of his. Arse end of the world. One of those silly guys who looks like he escaped from a story. Damn. I know his name! gnnnn I hate it when this happens." Anira was now stiring furiously in her stew. "It's one the tip of my tongue!"

    "Prince Nirza?"

"That's the guy! I heard that he has several bodies. At once!"

    Ailu wondered how Anira could vanish so far into her realms of fantasy without even being drunk.
    "That is impossible Anira."
"Well he at least has a dozen bodies and he swaps them when it strikes his fancy." Anira protested. "Doesn't seem very manly does it? I can seem him in front of his. . . wardrobe? Where do you put your spare bodies anyway? Trying to decide what body to ware for dinner." Anira rested her chin on her hands with a thoughtful expression. Ailu shook her head and smiled. It was one of the great privileges of being Anira's close friend to witness her at her most child-like form. No one back at the agency would ever think that Anira Leyma the infamous harbinger of the most terror saturated form of justice had a part in her personality that was still five years old.

"Aren't multiple bodies pretty much illegal?" Anira suddenly sat up.

    "Almost everywhere. But in his eternal wisdom Prince Nirza has made an exception for himself. And when he travels into other nations he is very careful not to ever wear anything else than his official body." Ailu always fell for Anira's rhetorical questions, he friend knew that as well as she did. For some reason, Ailu liked to think that it was because of her training as handler she had a reflex to answer trivia questions to her best ability. "But then as no one has ever seen his other bodies knowing that they were his, who knows when he is actually hiding in one of his other bodies?" Ailu added.
"Right!" Anira said striking her open palm lightly with her fist, adding with wide eyes: "And who is to say that he hasn't got some trusted servants soul in his body during his state visits! You know he is sitting there at the sidelines taking note of all things as everyone concentrates on the false prince!"

    "That is. . ." silly Ailu wanted to say but she had been drawn to far into her friends little conspiracy theory and they both had seen stranger things in their line of work. ". . . a pretty disturbing thought actually."
"It is! Isn't it?"

    "Yes." Ailu's smile had gone all skewed at the thought.


They ate their desert, contemplating evil princes swapping bodies for a while.

After a while Anira who had reverted back to her more serious self asked: "So what does expect me when I am coming back?"

    "Not sure. Kelsheron is pulling every string that runs through his fingers to fuck you over."
"Pfff. As if that would work." Anira dismissed the idea with a wave of her hand.

    "It already has, to a certain degree. You do have your own friends in high places, but when you humiliated Kelsheron before all the big bosses you scared a lot of people. Scared people do stupid things. And now that you botched a mission and got suspended for it Kelsheron and his friends have been using your own arguments to force the hand of OpsCom."
"And what exactly does OpsCom want to do about it?"

    "Well when you are back you will be banned from Dusk Circle work. The best you can hope for is probably some afternoon type work and you have been revoked until further notice your right to chose assignments. . ."
"What?! That is bullshit. And horse shit. And cat shit. Stinky, runny cat shit!" Anira protested.

    "Well those are the terms. The idea behind it is that you have to prove that you are actually still able to do the missions you are assigned regardless of preference. After all you are a top rated agent and an elder of the third generation at that."
"What ever happened to working according to your strengths. Why should I be working on something where everyone knows that I will be mediocre at best?"

    "They do have a point though. . ." Ailu murmured into her chocolate.

"I heard that."

    "Sorry. But look at it from this side. You will probably get handed some kind of boring intel gathering mission. It will be a cake walk and the targets will lack the training to be any serious opposition so that you get to polish up your somewhat less stellar talents."
"What us is it to turn a weakness into mediocrity, when I could polish my strengths?" Anira sulked.

    "Well for one your strengths are far above the norm by any standards. While with only some work, paid work I might add you could turn your weak skills into assets. And if you play this smart Kelsheron will come out of this looking more of an arse than he does already."
"mmmmph" Anira admitted.

    "I also remember a certain agent mentioning that she wanted to hone her frankly ridiculous shell-art skills."
Anira considered to throw her last bit of chocolate at Ailu. But then thought better of it and ate it.
"OK. You win this time."

    "Finally you have started listening to those more wise than you are."
"Don't make me change my mind. . ."

    "Perish the thought."
"How long are you going to stay anyway?" asked Anira.

    "I should be on my way back tomorrow. But I guess I missed the sky ferry back, so I will be stuck here for another three days." Ailu answered with a smile.
"Tragic. We should drown our sorrows in wine."