Xersa, Armando and Izdahl were in the Kelcho’s home office. Armando and Izdahl sat impatiently, as she studied the image Armando had pulled from his dreams.
“We did some research on it but we couldn’t find much,” the architect explained.
“This looks like the mark from a mercenary guild. It’s actually a variation on a symbol that Zaitis created,” Xersa said, as she turned the drawing in several directions, looking at it from a variety of angles. She narrowed her expressive eyes, as a series of memories played through her head, though she kept some of her thoughts to herself. She continued, “The guild’s members were all over but the headquarters was in a Terada territory. That group was supposed to have been disbanded almost thirty years ago.”
Xersa chose not to add that the main reason the guild was ordered to disband was because of Armando’s test results during his childhood. News had leaked about Armando’s potential. With the type of record the guild had, there were many who’d been concerned that someone would at least try to kidnap him or his family. The hope was that, in breaking up the most dangerous mercenary guild and harshly punishing its members for various crimes, a message would be sent to the less powerful mercenary guilds. The ultimate goal was to eliminate the risk to Armando and his family.
“We’d found evidence that this guild was involved in a series of kidnappings and assassinations,” Xersa explained. “However, we couldn’t pinpoint exactly who was hiring them. To my knowledge, all of the members are in jail or dead.”
“Could it be that the guild was still secretly operating?” Izdahl asked.
“It’s not out of the question,” Xersa said. “I’ll start an official inquiry into it. We’ll work the matter from another angle too. I want you to talk with Uldar Kivanch, a prominent guild master. He’s highly familiar with the ‘unofficial’ history of all the guilds. It’s time I collect on one of the favors he owes me.”
Dagmar enjoyed the scenic view of his gardens, as he and Balvan celebrated a recent success. Months ago, he’d petitioned for the Kelchos to include a vote on the building of the Ymir Briger museum at the bi-annual leadership meeting, which would take place later that day. His most recent attempt to get permission to build the structure had been a few years ago; it had failed with a 4 to 3 decision against his plan. Most of the Kelchos had still felt that permitting the building would be a slight to the more powerful Amasis.
Focused on other long-term objectives, Dagmar had put aside his goal for a while. He’d refused to request a vote on the matter at every meeting, not wanting to come across as desperate. Instead, he’d taken more time to secure the support of other Kelchos, managing to bring Jalva Nieri to his side. She’d confirmed earlier that morning that she would vote with his contingent, which also included Kelcho Ziyad and Kelcho Terada. He’d appealed to Jalva’s strong sense of respecting those who had saved the planet centuries ago. He’d also pointed out that his clan had suffered the greatest losses. She’d been unwilling to form an alliance with him in previous years, believing that he was overly ambitious and lacking in ethics. However, some steady collaborations in subcommittees they’d run over the past few years had changed her mind, though only enough for her to support his views on the museum.
“Xersa won’t be as powerful now,” Dagmar said, satisfaction threading through his voice. “
“I’ve never trusted her judgment,” Balvan told him. He watched the elaborate water exhibit that was a short distance away, as they sat on a bench near the largest fountain of the three in the garden. “Unfortunately, we still don’t have the ability to remove her from her position of leadership. The other Kelchos remain repulsively eager to follow her.”
“They’re not concerned enough that two of this planet’s most important resources are in her territory,” Dagmar said, referring to Armando and Izdahl. “Or, perhaps they are and bow out of fear.”
“That’s why fail-safes are necessary,” Balvan reminded him. “No one Kelcho should have so much at their disposal. Not only is her great-grandson a Core Guardian, the data I’ve seen on that human architect shows that he could become quite formidable. Someone of Zaitis’ caliber under Amasi control isn’t what I’d call an ideal situation.”
“But Armando doesn’t know what he could do yet and we need to keep him from fully awakening.”
“How can we do that when she’s given him access to the Book of Truths?” Balvan asked, letting out a curse of frustration. “She reluctantly admitted to all of us that the Stealer of Souls is what he could become. Yet that still isn’t enough to sway the other Kelchos to contain him.”
“And another attempt on his life can’t happen at this point, not without suspicion heading to us.”
“Well, I tried to do my part decades ago,” Balvan said.
The two had engineered the attack on Armando’s family. They’d felt that letting Armando manifest his powers would be too dangerous. When the attack failed, they’d had to devise other methods. Dagmar had eventually been able to create the blood replica for gaining control of Armando, though that tactic hadn’t proven fruitful yet. The replica continued its resistance, alternating between spewing insults when he tried to interact with it and purposefully going completely catatonic for days at a time.
Dagmar pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, as he thought of how often his patience had been tested. He’d even read the Blood Replica Spell numerous times to make sure he hadn’t missed an important step. He’d surmised that he’d done it correctly; it was just that the replica of his target was especially belligerent. In the meantime, Dagmar remained apprehensive about the flow of power to the Amasis. His only real consolation was that Armando hadn’t tapped into what was supposed to have been his potential.
“When Armando visited Zaitis’ statue with me, I know he didn’t see who was hidden within that field,” Dagmar shared with Balvan. “I’m quite proud of myself for hiding Volpe there. I’d allowed Armando near the statue to test his abilities. Imagine how close he was to the one who killed his parents and he didn’t even know it.”
“Why did you insist on me keeping Volpe around?” Balvan demanded. “We should have disposed of him, after he returned from the job. His tactics led to that ugly battle. All he had to do was quickly deal with those Medinas and—”
“I know how things happened,” Dagmar said, drily. “I was part of the fighting. And don’t be so damned shortsighted. The reason I’ve kept Volpe in suspended animation for so long is that he’s too valuable for us to kill. We might need his services again. If Armando came face to face with the murderer of his parents, it would psychologically break him. Look how deep his hatred was for Nitelge. I could see him swinging back that way and becoming even worse. If he releases the type of powers he supposedly has, in a fit of rage, it will help me justify him being put down.”
“It was quite a gamble,” Balvan commented.
He cursed, as he thought about the implications of what Dagmar had done. He was loathed to admit it but the Terada was one of the weakest clans. If the Amasi became driven to take revenge, the Havad might be able to withstand it but the Terada’s place was not as secure.
“The ability to see souls was dormant at the time I took him to the statue and I doubt that’s changed,” Dagmar said. “Plus, even those with the strongest version of that ability would have to break my spell to see Volpe. Perhaps Armando doesn’t even really have any of that power. We’ve assumed he’s going to be much like Zaitis but we could all be wrong.”
“Armando’s ‘accident’ may have triggered several powers. It’s not like Xersa would tell us.”
“She’s more worried about the Basheil coming back to the planet than about Armando bringing ruin to it,” Dagmar stated. “Unfortunately, most of the other Kelchos agree with her, likely because the Basheil sightings are still appearing at our outposts. However, I think that the greatest danger is already right here on the planet and Xersa is protecting him.”
Armando stood on the cliff from where he’d fallen several years ago. He took a deep breath, forcing away the images from the plunge that had led to his coma. He put the high-powered binoculars to his eyes, taking in the statue of Zaitis that was in the distance. Even from far away, he could feel the resonance of the protective field. It felt as if something was pushing against it, trying to reach him. It was different than the last time when he’d seen it. Before, it had caused him fear; now, there was a strange anticipation in his heart and curiosity threading through his mind.
Izdahl was beside Armando, doing his best not to voice his reservations again about being in a Havad territory. The two had arrived in the arid area thirty minutes earlier. It had taken Armando almost all of that time to leave the car and walk to the cliff. He’d turned to Izdahl for soothing encouragement and, knowing what he’d needed, Izdahl had held his face tenderly and offered words of loving comfort. When Armando had been convinced that things would be alright, he’d left the car with Izdahl behind him. Now, as Armando looked out at the vast, dry landscape, he wondered why he continued to be drawn to it. A breeze kicked up swirls of dust, slightly obscuring parts of the statue.
“I’m sorry.” Armando reached out and clasped Izdahl’s hand, giving it a squeeze. “I know you don’t want me to be here but thank you for supporting.”
“Not good enough.”
“Not even if I give you an ‘I’m sorry’ kiss, Izzy?”Armando lightly teased, making Izdahl laugh.
“Let’s go down to that damn statue,” Izdahl said. “The sooner we finish looking around, the sooner we can get out of here.”
“Alright. Should I dive over the cliff or will we be driving?”
“That’s not funny, Armando. Stop making macabre jokes.”
Izdahl gave his lover a warning look and then led the way back to the car. They arrived at the statue a short while later.
“Is this helping?” Izdahl asked quietly.
“I feel like there’s something I need to figure out,” Armando answered, as his eyes focused on the head of the statue. He paced for a few minutes, as Izdahl watched him.
“I need to see a map,” Armando finally said.
Izdahl went to the car and returned with his tablet. He found an image of the area. Armando took the tablet from him and searched for various maps, until he saw the one he wanted. He activated the tablet’s holographic function, projecting a large 3D rendering of the entire planet. Then he zoomed in on the coordinates of Zaitis’ statue. Accessing more information, he learned that the statue marked the center of the planet.
“It’s true,” Izdahl confirmed. “Many thought Zaitis was arrogant to build the statue, let alone putting it where he did.”
Armando’s mind working in ways it hadn’t before, he searched for the coordinates to the scene of his parents’ death.
“The valjeel attacked my family in an area directly across from this statue.”
“Yes, and the last battle between the clans fanned out from there,” Izdahl said. “Others have seen the connection before but the significance isn’t clear.”
“Is there anything on the exact opposite side of where the battle took place?”
“Nothing major comes to mind, at least not on the scale of the importance of the statue and the battle.” Izdahl spun the hologram of the globe and requested that the search engine they were using calculate the opposite location of where the battle started. “It shows that the point would be in one of the Ziyad territories. That’s where the Elite Nakra Hein will be held. Do we need to go to that place now?”
“I’m not sure.” Armando let out a long breath. “Still, there could be a substantial element. Two points with such important events line up and there’s likely a third significant location.”
“We’ll have to come back to this issue,” Izdahl said, glancing at his watch. “You have your appointment to talk with Sunja about your dream. After what we learned about the guild, she’s not going to like you missing a session. She might be able to pull more from your mind.”
Armando let out a grunt of pained frustration, not wanting to leave yet.
“There’s more,” he murmured, as he held his head in his hands. “I know there is! If only…”
His voice trailed off, as a drop of blood slid out of his nose and over his lips. He wiped away the blood with his hand but more drops continued to fall. The protective shield around the statue pulsed twice as strongly as either of them had ever seen it do. Izdahl grabbed Armando and tried to pull him away from the statue. Armando shrugged him off and moved even closer, wiping away more drops of blood, which were coming at a faster rate. The electric hum of the protective barrier changed drastically, rising in volume. Armando put his hand against it and the barrier disappeared, leaving the statue exposed to the arid air after almost 300 years.