“It is clear – abundantly so – that the sensory system as a whole will have to be completely re-worked. Logic trees appear adequate to perform simple tasks for guidance feedback, but you have neglected to implement even the most rudimentary of shielding and so aural input is rendered meaningless.” Their faces, expectant and nodding in the right places, express an appropriate level of interest. “However, motor function responds well within expected parameters; I expect my initial schematics were put to good use.”
“Mostly,” a voice amongst the group pipes up. Several faces turn to regard the speaker, who instantly blushes and then attempts to straighten and rally by opening his mouth with a plan to support his one word contribution, then shuts it again.
What would I have said in the past? The past? The concept of the past conveys a sense of long before and yet it was simply a number of weeks back when I would have been standing here right now, lecturing to the great uninitiated: students. It has always been Kaado’s philosophy to allow some of the more senior members of his krewe the privilege of teaching. I say philosophy, rather than instruction, because Kaado has always been deliberately vague on the notion of rank and the respect which it accords. Kaado expresses the burden of his intellect and thus the greatness of his knowledge is to be filtered by those who have become acclimatised, adjusted and hence prepared; I have a private theory that Kaado is bone idle.
“Golem,” I say. The randomness of the word appears to have the desired effect and the student looks to other members of the group arrayed before me.
“Sorry?” he asks.
“No. I said, Golem.” I feel the smile break into my cheeks and leave him to establish the intent: set-up or assurance.
His posture has lost all signs of confidence now and the rest of the group, whilst not actually moving, manage to define a tangible field, isolating the hapless individual.
“G. O. L. E. M.” Startling everyone, including myself, the voice resonates with its familiar poise and Kaado smiles at me from the back of the group as the students move apart to allow him passage. “What does it inspire? To you, our progeny still, what does the word Golem mean?” Kaado stops in the middle of the group, glancing from student to student.
“Genius-operated Living Enchanted Manifestation?”
“No! Demonstration of superior intellect!”
“Golems are not intellectual!”
“Our intellect, you buffoon!”
Kaado winks at me as the group descends into heated and enthusiastic debate. “Master Treen, I do believe your students are otherwise engaged. Would you accompany me elsewhere?”
Exiting into bright sunshine feels unusually rewarding and I can’t help stopping to bask for a moment. “What does it mean to you, Master Kaado?”
“Hm?” The elderly asura turns, squinting in the glare. “The word, Golem?” He shrugs. “Freedom, Master Treen, freedom.”
I have a sense I know what the old master is alluding to, but there is no cause to question; Kaado has always preferred a considered debate and I file it away. “I wish you would stop calling me master.” We start to make our way along a tree lined avenue, which eventually connects to the main city of Rata Sum.
“Why? You practically run the krewe, you actively lecture our newest recruits,” he gestures back at the building we have just left, “your knowledge of golems supersedes mine and-” he shakes his head and holds up a hand to ward off my attempt at any protest, “-and, fact is fact, Treen, what you are building challenges much of my past work – have you ever considered teaching at one of the colleges? I could certainly put in a good word for you. I bet Dynamics would bite your ear off at the chance of recruiting you on to their roster.”
This change in conversation and his candid, somewhat diffident attitude is setting me on edge. “Are you well, Master Kaado?”
“Yes, of course I am well.”
“Then why this walk, this talk?”
“Not everything in life should be questioned, Treen.”
“Yes it should.” I am certain of this, but what could he mean? Perhaps this is something else that should be filed away for later consideration.
“We almost lost you, Treen. The circumstances of which I would have to say were extremely suspicious. Just like that, you were gone for weeks.”
Ah, here we are, and so soon. “Yet I am back now.” I do not like being so rational with Kaado; it feels as though our roles are being reversed.
He seems to sense this. “True, yes of course.” We stop and Kaado offers a resigned look. “I am glad we had this conversation. Take some air, Treen. There is no immediate rush to get back to the lab.” At this he smiles and wanders off, returning the way we have just come.
Have I just been assigned end-of-life? Watching his back recede I consider that perhaps I will take some air, thank-you-very-much!
A new feeling is making itself at home and the six odd week gap in my memory and thus absence seems to have triggered inevitable processes within the krewe. Perhaps I am being paranoid. Kaado’s somewhat cryptic behaviour is not really that unusual, but is immensely frustrating, confusing and serves only as a distraction from my goals.
My goals – oh dear, is it getting dark out here? I feel like I have been standing still for far too long and… confused goals? What was I planning?
“Are you okay?”
I almost lose my balance as I spin to acknowledge the unexpected query, but stability is enforced in part by a pair of beautiful green eyes radiating genuine concern.
“Yes, quite fine. It seems my well-being is everyone’s concern today.”
“Habitual, sorry.” Her smile is overly familiar and mildly disturbing.
“Context and action – I suspect yours is unintentional.”
The green eyes narrow and her smile vanishes. “What are you going on about?”
It’s odd but I suddenly feel like I am on the wrong side of this encounter. “Was there something you wanted?”
Shaking her head she takes an uncertain step back, black pupils in green flitting furtively from side to side. “Asbjorn,” she whispers. “What are you up to?”
Her tone is conspiratorial and I have to resist checking our surroundings; this is slightly unnerving. “If you don’t mind, I have work to be getting on with.”
“What? Asbjorn, what is going on? What are you up to?” She reaches out to take my arm.
“Excuse me.” As I fend off her questing hand I realise that she is armed, which adds substantial weight to my concerns. Then there is movement to my right, just a glimpse – peacekeepers! Two of them, patrolling side by side, approach along a stretch leading from the hub of the city. “Nice to meet you,” I raise my voice, startling her and drawing the attention of the peacekeepers. “Very nice to meet you!” I keep my voice raised, not giving the mad green-eyed asura a chance to respond, and start to walk away. “Extremely nice, definitely a pleasure and we really must do this again!”
I think I held my breath all the way back to the lab and as I enter the confines of my own domain, it releases with a whoosh, startling a few technicians. Safe.
“What are you doing back here?” a voice squeaks behind me.
The yelp is involuntary and my heart lurches. “What is it with the spontaneous interrogations today?” I round on an asura who returns the yelp and flinches away. “Linctu! What do you want?”
Tears form instantly as she stammers an apology. “Master Kaado, he said you were to take some time-”
“Air, Linctu. He said to take some air. What is going on around here? I am fine. Perfectly fine. All of this concern for my welfare is starting to get irritating.”
“It’s not that, he…” She trails off, eyes widening.
“What? He what?”
“N-n-nothing,” she manages another squeak.
“Linctu, what is going on?”
“Mother Bear, give me patience!”
“Master Treen, what are you doing here?” Kaado enters the room, a couple of other asura trailing behind him.
“What am I doing here? I work here!” As my voice rises with indignation it dawns on me that perhaps I am not presenting a very stable state. I catch Kaado signalling to Linctu and the others, and before I realise what is going on, I am once again alone with the venerable asura.
“This is my fault entirely,” Kaado mutters. He starts to wander around the main area of the lab, his hand trailing across benches, picking up parts, turning them over and then placing them down again, until he stops in front of a lifeless golem. “A power suit and golem all in one – it’s been done before, but something tells me that with your ability, this creation will be a cut above the rest.”
“Kaado, what is going on?”
“Yes, yes. What is going on?” Sighing, he pats the golem casing and turns to face me. “I could ask you the same thing, Treen.”
“Is that supposed to be a trick question?”
Kaado deflates. “You have me at a disadvantage, Treen. How much do I know? How much do you know? It appears we have a stalemate.”
“Stalemate? Kaado, for the love of the Eternal Alchemy, what are you going on about?”
“Oh dear. It seems that I have done you a disservice.”
“Kaado, I was always a patient student, but there are limits.”
“You’re not involved in the thefts then?”
“I-” I am stumped, that is what I am. “Did you just say theft?”
“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear me, what a mess this is.” Kaado plonks himself down on a stool.
“Kaado, I think you had better explain what is going on.”
Nodding, Kaado leans on the bench. “I am sorry, Treen. This has all been a terrible misunderstanding.”
“Bear’s teeth, Kaado – just tell me.”
Kaado blinks. “Bear’s teeth?”
“You just said Bear’s teeth.”
“No I didn’t.” I feel… anger. There is a lot of it; a ball of frustration is collecting like a knot in my chest…
“Oh,” says Kaado. “I could have sworn you did.” He shakes his head.
I grind my teeth. “Just tell me, Kaado.”
“It all started when you disappeared, although it took us a while to realise that something was amiss – your trip to Lion’s Arch was nothing unusual, given that it had been scheduled for weeks.”
“My trip?” I have a vague recollection that I was on my way somewhere, before the accident took place.
“Yes, you had arranged for sea water samples to be collected, you remember?”
“Oh, yes of course – the corrosion testing regime for the new seal designs.”
Kaado nods before continuing. “When you failed to return later that evening, Linctu went out to make enquiries. She established that there had been an incident at the gate on that very same day, and when she returned to inform us of this fact, we naturally assumed that you had simply been delayed.
“The following day, however, was a different story. Linctu was beside herself with worry, so she went to Lion’s Arch to find you.”
“Linctu went to Lion’s Arch?” I am impressed. Linctu usually finds it a challenge to leave the lab.
“Yes, imagine that,” chuckles Kaado. “She was a wreck, but she went through with it, despite other members of the krewe offering to go.” I picture Linctu, standing before the gate, steeling herself before stepping through. “She established contact with the krewe in Lion’s Arch, those you had planned to meet, and it was then she knew immediately that you had never turned up.”
“What does any of this have to do with thefts?”
“Well, it was a number of weeks before we could find anything out at all. Chance was on our side though when firstly one of our krewe overheard an unusual conversation about an injured asura. It was a few days after that when my own enquiries revealed an odd reaction at mentioning your name to some of my peers. This one asura, Qwaug – the self-prescribed potentate – seemed very interested in you and even asked for me to repeat your name, a fact I was astute enough to take note of. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time he was holding you in captivity. I had Linctu follow him whilst I called in a few favours with a friend close to the Council. What struck me as peculiar at this stage was the reticence of even those few I’ve always felt I could trust – to an extent.
“Following this Qwaug proved futile at first, until Linctu noticed that he was always meeting with some other fellow, the one we later established was responsible for taking care of your medical needs. Upon instinct, she adopted a different tack and followed him instead. It transpired that this was actually the same asura our very own krewe member had overheard previously.”
“Theft, Kaado – what does this have to do with theft?”
“Yes, yes I am getting to that part – the detail is important, Treen, or have I never taught you that?”
Kaado frowns but continues without further remonstration. “It still took us another couple of weeks, and I made further, slightly more discreet, enquiries with affiliates to the Arcane Council – never directly of course. We were certain by this point that you were being held by what we thought of as a rival krewe and I decided to take action. I bluffed my way in, confronted Qwaug and – so to speak – came to your rescue.”
“Yes.” Kaado holds up his hands. “Now you have to understand, at first we believed this to be a subversive tactic undertaken by another krewe to obtain proprietary data. Yet it was a day or so after your release I started to realise the picture was incomplete. There was nothing wrong with the theory around your capture – but this failed to explain why my interactions with some had tweaked a few ears.
“This morning we confronted Qwaug’s lackey. Along with a couple of krewe members, we detained him before he could get to his lab and, following some initial persuasion, elicited particularly interesting information. It transpires that Qwaug was never interested in our krewe, only you. You see, Qwaug’s krewe happen to be an insignificant sort as far as furthering asuran development goes, or you could say are utterly unknown. Logically – apparently – this gave them an advantage when tasked with carrying out an investigation on behalf of one, maybe more, members of the Arcane Council.”
“It must be something important for the Council to be involved.”
“Not particularly – and in all truth, I cannot be certain it is actually a member of the Council.”
“Wait – not particularly? You’re saying whatever has been stolen is not important.”
“Exactly. It’s more the how, rather than the what.”
“Someone has infiltrated the Gates. When travellers pass through the gate network, someone is managing to redirect their belongings during transit.”
Kaado stares hard at me whilst his revelation sinks in. Is he looking for tell-tale signs of guilt? Kaado believes, or believed, that I am embroiled in a grand venture to pilfer gate travellers’ belongings. I should feel furious at his accusation; just the mere hint that I would disgrace our krewe with such an act is nothing short of total and utter contempt of our bond.
“You thought that I…?”
Kaado nods. “Yes.”
“Brilliant! I am honoured you hold me in such regard, Master Kaado.”
Kaado laughs, slapping the bench. “Praise the Alchemy – I believe that I owe you a significant apology, Treen. But in my defence, there were one or two occasions you appeared a few gates short of a logic circuit. I mean, fancy believing yourself to be – what was it you called yourself? Ah yes, Asbjorn the norn hunter!”
“What?” An icy coldness grips me.
“Hm?” Kaado wipes at a tear of mirth.
“That name. Where did you hear it?”
Before Kaado can respond, a muffled thump vibrates the very rock around us, causing dust and fragments of stone to rain down from the ceiling. Then the screaming starts.