“Of course I do.” Kal sighed, truly regretful.  “I don’t like the idea of going in alone any more than you do.  But, I know Gara.  He’s not stupid, but greed and pride are he weaknesses.  If I offer him something up front in exchange,” Kal patted the money chain hanging off his belt, “he’ll take the money and figure profit now is better than profit later.  However, if I threaten him in front of his crew it will wound his pride.  If that happens, all bets are off.  He might have me shot just to save face, hang the consequences.  That’s why I need to go alone.  If I meet him in force, he may think I’m trying to bully him, or worse, he may think I’m threatening his image in front of his crew.”

       “So that’s why you’re carrying nothing more than your sword and pistol.  Enough firepower to avoid looking weak, but not enough to seem like you’re spoiling for a fight.”


       Rena blew out a breath. “You’re walking a thin line.”

       Kal waved his hand in a conciliatory gesture. “I know, but if you want the bear’s apple it’s better to tickle his belly than swat his nose.”

       “Where do you hear these sayings?”

       “Sailors mostly.”

       Rena pursed her lips, clearly not satisfied. “What if your plan falls apart?  What if Gara won’t give up Obrin.  What if he decides not to let you leave either?”

       Kal smiled. “That’s easy.  If you hear running and screaming, you’ll know I’m in trouble.”

       Rena snorted. “Fine.  Smudge will be listening for your ‘signal’ too.”  She pulled her ankle length coat aside, revealing a long, powerfully built rifle leaning against the crate behind her.  The Nevarrian thermal rifle fired molten copper slugs which cut through armor with alarming ease.  The shortened barrel held a bayonet, and the standard trigger had been replaced with a pistol grip.  “If there is trouble,” she gave Kal a meaningful glance, “I’m asking questions later.”

       Kal nodded.  Time to go.  He looked down the storm grate, checked his weapons one last time and climbed inside.

       The rusty ladder creaked in protest as he climbed down into darkness.  He jumped off the last rung and splashed into a puddle of frigid water.  The passage was dank, but smelled more of mold and damp than sewage.  The walls were partially hewn out, expanding the natural cave.  No surprise there.  Plenty of tunnels underneath the city had been modified for human use.

       Kal stopped once he was out of sight of the entrance, bowed his head and gave a quick prayer to Ulmanos.  Ulric and Deidra were Obrin’s parents.  They had come to the Aleph Association and, in turn, to Kal himself in their hour of greatest need.  People did that.  Over two hundred years ago, the Aleph’s founders had risked everything to help attunweiyld just like Kal avoid unjust execution, spiriting hundreds away from the grasp of a tyrant.  After every other avenue failed, they had dethroned their oppressor in open rebellion.  Later the Aleph turned to teaching.  They shared knowledge and arcane training, showing people they could be strong, that through industry and dedication they could stand on their own feet, that they didn’t need tyrants, that they didn’t have to be afraid.  The Aleph had trusted him to be its agent, to be the bearer of those values.  It was more than a job.  He prayed he would not fail that trust.

       Fortunately, he had more than just his human abilities to rely upon.  There were nine suns that orbited the Many Worlds, including Kal’s home berg of Elarin.  The suns produced energy called weiyld.  People trained as attunweiyld could harness that energy, use it to empower themselves or control the world around them.  Kal himself had received that training from the Aleph Association years ago.  Control your breathing, order your thoughts.  He repeated the mantra in his mind.  It was the first thing the Aleph had taught him about attunement.

       He forced his mind to a state of emptiness, exhaling his worry, fear and uncertainty in a single breath, leaving his mind a blank slate.  He filled the void with memory.  He was a child again.  He was enjoying one of his precious vacations from school. He was working as a cabin boy. It was the only way he was allowed to be on ship, to spend time with his mother who was part of the crew.  There was a storm. The ship heaved to and fro, pushed like a feather before the grandmother of all tempests.  Warning claxons screamed while sailors dashed about on deck, frantically fastening lines and working the sails.  Wind whipped Kal’s hair, and hail stung his face.  Above him massive sheets of lightning tore across the sky, the following thunder loud enough to shake the ship’s deck.  He was overcome with wonder, the joy of the experience, the awe of it, standing in the midst of such power and stunning, deadly beauty.

       His memories acted like a beacon and a bridge, calling the weiyld of Syrithis, the fifth sun.  It appeared before his vision, winding in and around everything in the tunnel with an insatiable curiosity.  Kal’s feelings called the weiyld.  It rushed to him in a torrent, buffeting against his mind, demanding to be let in, to see everything there was to see.  He opened the door to his soul, but only just a crack.  There was temptation to give in fully to the weiyld, become one with Syrithis, rejoice together in discovery, curiosity and knowledge, revel in all the terrible beauty the Many Worlds had to offer.  But no, danger and madness lay down that path.  Instead, he allowed the weiyld to flow through him, granting it access to only the smallest portion of his mind.  The turbulent flow of weiyld changed into a steady stream.  The attunement was complete.

       His senses burst with information.  He eyes pierced the darkness.  He could make out individual chisel marks on the tunnel’s roughhewn wall one hundred paces away.  He could hear the heavy thrum of a cloud cruiser passing overhead and knew by a small grinding noise that its left propeller was slightly off balance.  He smiled, basking for a moment in the joy of the experience.  Then he felt a momentary pang for those who had never felt the rush of attunement.  Anybody could learn, of course.  The Aleph encouraged anyone who was interested to take lessons, but only a handful completed the difficult training.

       He shook the thought from his mind.  Time to focus.  Syrithis made the trail simple to follow.  The smell of sweat still lingered in the air where men had passed, and he could see where numerous boots had recently scuffed the floor.  He followed the trail as the tunnel led steadily down and to the left.  After a few minutes, the passage straightened into a long corridor.  There was a sentry standing at the far end.  An alch powered lamp crackled fitfully on the ground by his feet.  Beyond the light, the passage opened up into a larger cavern, but Kal couldn’t see much past the sentry’s heavy set shoulders.  The sentry, apparently unaware of Kal’s approach, shifted his feet and rubbed a thickly scarred hand over his chin.  There was a deep frown on his deeply weathered face, a truncheon on his belt and a red triangular patch on the breast of his rough leather vest.  That was Gara’s symbol.  This was the place alright.  Kal took a breath, arranged his face into a mask of cool disdain and walked casually towards the light.

       The sentry straightened, put a hand on his truncheon and rasped in a gruff voice, “I don’t know why you’re here, but I don’t want you.  Go back.”  The guard flicked the charge lever on his truncheon.  It buzzed for a moment before settling into a long steady hum.

       “No,” Kal replied, purposefully ignoring the guard’s weapon, “I’m right where I need to be.  Tell Gara that Agent Kalrin Vallis from the Aleph Association is here to see him.”