We were in the War Room, a round chamber where a root of the inn emerged in a round platform, allowing for a tighter connection to Gertrude Hunt. Innkeepers and our inns existed in symbiosis, always aware of each other but distinct and separate. Linking with the root merged us into one.
Screens lined the walls, some physical, some holographic projections. The one to my left was wrapped in thin tendrils of wood pulsing with pale light at regular intervals as the inn untangled the feed from Wilmos’ shop, crunching through the werewolf’s encryption. I asked Sean if Wilmos usually encrypted his surveillance footage and he said yes. Apparently, the old werewolf was touchy about random people knowing his business. It was taking so long that I formed a couple of chairs for us. I sat in mine, but Sean stalked around the room, his steps measured, his face unreadable.
In front of us, on a huge screen, Karron hung like the ominous orb of some cosmic magician.
A large planet, almost twice the size of Earth, Karron floated in an envelope of green atmosphere. It wasn’t a cheerful grass green that hinted at plant growth or the blueish green of shallow oceans and life-giving water. No, it was a deep sickly shade of green, the kind of color one could find associated with undeath in a video game. Beneath the green, the outlines of rust-colored continents curved around the planet interrupted at the poles by vast placid seas.
“Tell me again,” Sean asked.
“It’s a cold hell made of methane, electricity, and dust. Methane liquifies at -260 F. Those polar seas are -300 F. There is no oxygen or phosphorus. The atmosphere is soup, dense and nitrogen rich. The snow is electric and made up of hydrocarbon particles.”
I zoomed in on one of the continents near the equator and the uniform rust broke into individual swirls and ridges as if some enormous being had left a fingerprint on the planet’s surface.
“The dunes of Karron are born of electrified sand and methane winds. The wind blows east, but the dunes point to the west. That’s because the electricity makes the hydrocarbon particles of the sand stick together. At the equator the dunes are over 100 meters deep. A craft attempting to land there will be swallowed whole. The static electricity of the sand will fry circuitry and wiring, and most of the typical ship drives will stop functioning.”
“Buried alive, blind, deaf, and unable to move,” he said.
“Yes. Even if the craft hovers in the atmosphere without landing, it would be like flying through a sandstorm except that the sand is electrified and sticky and would immediately clump to the hull. Within minutes, the craft would become a ball of sand with a hefty charge. If the weight didn’t bring it down, the havoc that the dust would play with all the systems would.”
“What about the oceans?”
“The file on Karron,” I told the inn.
The screen blinked. A dark ocean spread in front of us, a deep greyish green. Something rippled under the surface. The liquid bulged, and a mass of flesh emerged, formless but solid, like a microscopic organism somehow enlarged to a gargantuan size. The pallid flesh slid and slithered, pulsating, twisting, a Lovecraftian nightmare… It turned and vanished into the frigid depths.
“I thought you said no oxygen or phosphorus,” Sean said, his face grim.
“It’s cyanide-based life. Vinyl cyanide membranes instead of lipid ones. That’s about all we know about the Karr. They live in the oceans, they destroy anything that tries to intrude into their domain, they do not trade, and they do not communicate. They never leave the planet.”
“What do they eat?” Sean wondered.
I spread my arms. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Sean’s eyes were dark. I knew exactly what he was thinking. There was no way in. We would never make it to the surface, let alone land safely.
A tendril brushed my arm. Gertrude Hunt had sensed my anxiety. I patted the tendril gently.
A soft pulse of magic told us the recording was ready. Sean waved it onto the central screen.
The shop lay empty except for Gorvar dozing on a padded pillow on the floor. I fast forwarded. Hours flashed by in minutes. Occasionally Gorvar rose to stretch or drink some water.
Finally the door slid open and Wilmos strode into the shop, carrying a huge bag with odd bulges that looked suspiciously like weapon barrels stretching the fabric from the inside. Gorvar jumped up and bounded over like an overgrown puppy. Every time I saw Gorvar, he was either menacing or aloof and indifferent. Now he was spinning around in circles at Wilmos’ feet. If I wasn’t watching it, I wouldn’t have believed it in a million years.
Wilmos put the bag down and crouched. Gorvar licked his face. The grizzled werewolf hugged his pet. “This was a long one, wasn’t it? I’m getting too old for this shit. Hang on, I brought you something.”
He reached for his bag.
The doors behind him snapped open. A creature surged into the shop. It was eight feet tall and clad in a tattered dark robe with a deep hood and wide sleeves.
Wilmos spun around, planted one knee on the floor, leveled an energy hand cannon at the intruder, and fired. A glowing packet of energy left the barrel with a tell-tale zing like loose change shaken in a coke can sizzling with electricity.
The robed figure dashed sideways. Wilmos’ burst missed, hitting the shelves instead. Weapons went flying.
The creature zigzagged, as if weightless. Wilmos kept firing, each burst chewing through the carefully arranged merchandise on the walls.
The intruder jerked its arms up, and for a second, I saw its hands, pallid, bony, with too-long fingers tipped with yellow claws. Wilmos sighted and fired. The energy spark hit the creature dead on. The air in front of it rippled, and the burst died, absorbed. Wilmos tossed the cannon on the ground and yanked another firearm from the bag.
A ball of orange lightning tore out of the intruder’s claws and streaked toward Wilmos. He lunged to the side, but the lightning chased him and splashed over his body. Wilmos convulsed, drumming the ground with his heels.
Gorvar shot forward at the intruder. The robed figure caught the huge wolf by his throat and clawed him, once, twice, almost impatient. Gorvar flailed, his eyes full of rage. The creature stabbed his stomach with his claws and ripped them upward, tearing through fur and muscle. The light dimmed in Gorvar’s eyes. It tossed the wolf aside, almost contemptuously, as if he were a discarded wrapper, and moved over to Wilmos.
The big werewolf wasn’t moving.
The robed figure picked him up by his belt. A shimmering grey bubble streaked with red veins formed around the two of them, lifting the intruder above the ground. The bubble flew toward the door and out into Baha-char. The doors of the shop slid closed.
I motioned to the inn, rewinding the recording to the spot where the creature raised its arms, and paused it at the precise moment the ball of orange lightning broke free of its fingertips. The tattered robe, the bony hands that could have belonged to a corpse, the yellow claws, and finally the lightning. There was no doubt. Whatever it was, it was just like Michael. I looked at Sean and saw the confirmation in his eyes. He remembered the fight as well as I did.
“He was targeted because of us,” I said.
“It’s too early to tell,” Sean said. “Wilmos has his fingers in a lot of pies.”
I pointed at the screen. “A corrupted ad-hal, Sean?”
He didn’t say anything.
“If Wilmos even suspected a corrupted ad-hal was around, he would’ve come to us immediately. He fought Michael with us. He knows what they’re capable of. And it didn’t kill him. It took him.”
Wilmos was bait. We both knew it.
“If Wilmos is bait, and this is a trap,” Sean said, “then we’re meant to follow. The trap only works if we walk into it.” He looked at Karron still looming above us. “How are we supposed to follow it there?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it expects us to die trying.”
“Why?” Sean frowned. “Seems too elaborate. Why is it even targeting us in the first place? Does it want revenge for Michael?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s chancy. If it was me, I would just wait and ambush us at the shop. We fought one of these assholes and it almost kicked our asses. Two or three could finish us. Why not take Wilmos out of the equation, wait for us to show up, and then.” He hit his left palm with his right fist.
“I don’t know.” I got up. I was tired of not knowing. “Give me a communication screen.”
The inn helpfully sprouted one for me on the wall.
“Who are you calling?”
“Someone who knows more about Karron than I do.”
“Another innkeeper?” Sean frowned.
“No.” Innkeepers didn’t care about Karron. There was absolutely no chance that one of its residents would ever make a stop at the inn. No, I needed someone with an in-depth understanding of the galaxy. I knew just the person.
Now we just had to figure out what it would cost us.
The galaxy was full of nations. Some were republics, some were empires, others were democracies, anocracies, autocracies and other forms of government not found in human dictionaries. At any given time, many of them were in conflict with each other. Interstellar battles were expensive and required a prohibitive amount of resources, and most nations recognized the need for peaceful adjudication, which was where the Arbitrators came in. They tried to resolve disputes between cosmic powers before they flared into devastating wars.
The Office of Arbitration was an ancient and mysterious entity, and the Arbitrators themselves were beings of unprecedented power, carefully chosen from a variety of species. They possessed encyclopedic knowledge of the galaxy and commanded great respect, and they were to be treated with the utmost courtesy at all times.
“You look like one of your corpses,” I said.
On the huge screen George dragged his hand over his face. Normally he resembled one of Tolkien’s elven princes, tall, lean, golden haired, and elegant in an ethereal way. He liked when people underestimated him, so he often pretended to have a limp and walked with a cane. I had it on very good authority that he was a superb swordman. He was an even better necromancer. That I had witnessed personally. Seeing thousands of undead claw their way out of the barren soil of Nexus was something I would never forget.
The George I saw today was entirely different. His long blond hair had broken free of his ponytail and hung around his face in greasy strands. Dark bags clutched at his eyes. He looked haggard, and his silk doublet, which must have been as white as fresh snow at some point now resembled snow after a week had passed and most of it melted into mud.
He stared at me, his blue eyes distracted. “Hello.”
“When was the last time you slept?”
The Arbitrator pondered the question. “Some time ago.”
He didn’t seem like he was altogether there. He must’ve been extremely sleep deprived. Judging by the blue tint in the white of his eyes, he had taken a lot of boosters to keep himself awake, probably one after another. Whatever the problem he was facing, he’d smashed his computer-like brain against it, and it left him stumped.
“You should shower, George. And then sleep.”
He raised his finger. “Not yet.”
He thought about it. It was almost as if his brain was on a five second delay. “Valkkinians.”
Ah. Valkkinians were exceptionally difficult.
“Light or dark?”
That man had the best luck. “They refuse to see you?”
“You offered fire?”
“Record what I’m about to say so you will remember.”
He obediently waved his fingers at the display.
“You’re going to take a shower. You must be clean. Don’t use anything with perfume in it. Don’t tie your hair, don’t shave. Then you are going to land near Oharak Mountain, by a stone stele. It’s three hundred meters tall, you can’t miss it. You are going to take your shoes off and walk barefoot up the mountain path. Every 67 steps you will stop and kneel. Do this five times, then wait. An elderly Valkkinian will come to see you. Tell him you are my friend. He will help you.”
George struggled with it for a few seconds. “How do you know him?”
“He stayed at the inn.”
“Valkkinians have never stayed at Gertrude Hunt. I checked.”
“Not my inn. My parents’ inn.”
George frowned. “That can’t be right.”
“Because I asked your brother, and he said your parents never hosted them.”
My heart made a valiant effort to leap out of my chest. Klaus was alive.
I kept my expression calm. “Klaus didn’t encounter them. It was right after he and Michael turned twenty-one. They went on a month-long trip to Japan. Michael was a Toyotomi Hideyoshi fan, and he really wanted to see Osaka Castle.”
George stared at me.
“George! Shower. Stone stele. Lots of walking. Call me when you’re done. I need your help with Karron.”
I would tell him to sleep first but it would be pointless.
George scrambled to his feet and stumbled away, puling his shirt off his back. I aborted the connection.
Sean tilted his head at me. “Your brother is alive.”
“And he is an Arbitrator.”
That explained everything. Whatever George was working on had to be vital and secret. Arbitrators were extremely close-mouthed. They wouldn’t go to just anyone for information, but George and I had a prior professional relationship. I was trustworthy.
There was no reason George would seek Klaus out when he knew where to find me. The only way it made sense was if Klaus was in. If he was an Arbitrator and therefore cleared for all classified information. And it also meant that Klaus was either on equal footing with George or his senior.
That’s why Klaus went off the grid. I was afraid he’d died.
I leaned back in my chair. When I got a hold of my brother, I would pitch a fit. He had no idea what was coming to him.
“Do you think he’ll get back to us?” Sean asked.
“He will. As soon as he can.”
George had many flaws, but he always paid his debts.