Betrayer of Worlds (Part 2)
In the sanctity offered by his own quarters high up in the towers of Palladin, Stoto turned his grumbling attentions to the task he knew he had to be quick in following. First making sure the heavy studded oak doors leading in were securely bolted and barred, he began the scrabble through his misfit collection of potion bottles and gnarled books as withered with age as he to find what he wanted.
Checking the names across the spines of books on the tall shelves along one side of the first room, he found the one he wanted and tugged it from its resting place. A crooked finger flicked along the pages scattering dust as his mind muttered and schemed, still boiling at the inconvenience and lost opportunities of Jono’s new plans.
Well he would pay them back! A smile cracked across his face at the thoughts and at last his fingers found their mark. Hidden in the pages were hand written notes in his own scrawny handwriting, illegible from the prying eyes that fate might tempt to look over his work whilst he was elsewhere in the palace. The High Priest had always been suspicious of him, and he suspected that there were others too who would dearly love to pay him out. He cackled as he surmised that none had come close to exposing him at all.
Sidling to the end of the dusty volumes with the book balanced on one arm, he thrust his other into the darkened recesses behind the shelves, and struggled for a moment with concentration etched to his face. Then his fingers found their mark, and the bookcase edged silently open revealing the dark void behind and the hidden room that no-one but he knew of. The shelving was well-balanced on its base, and it made barely a sound as it moved. Still, he gave a cautionary glance to the barred oak door, reaching out across the ether to sense any other minds that might be trying to spy on him.
Satisfied there were none, he picked a spluttering tallow candle from its holder in the wall and stepped on through to his most secret of hiding-holes.
Water trickled and dripped echoing hollow in the gloom. Here and there, illuminated in the brief passing of the flickering candlelight, cobwebs strung out like so many intricate lace patterns shuddered silently to the breeze that blew through the cold passage. Ignoring the suprisingly loud rattle of his own footsteps in the tight confines, Stoto pushed on to the end of the short tunnel where it opened into no more than a small room, buried deep and safe within the thickness of Palladin’s old stone walls.
Setting the candle to a rusted holder he turned his eye over the materials set out in the dusty grasp of age darkened shelving. His equipment was still here exactly as he had left it. It had been a while since he had felt the pressing need to use it, but that time had predictable been long in coming. His hands stole over the casings of complex off-world electricals. Jono and his people had never been ones for technology, invariably choosing to let it all pass them largely on by unnoticed.
That was not to say that it was impossible for those determined enough to gain possession of whatever they desired. There were always smugglers within the depths of spaceport bars willing to bring anything into orbit for the right price.
He flicked on a power switch, and hoped there was still enough juice left in the power cell to do what he wanted. Waiting for old electrics to warm up, he cast his mind out one last time on the ether to probe for anyone seeking to spy on his work. Like white horses on the crest of waves on the sea his consciousness floated and weaved its way over rooms and through walls until he was satisfied that no-one was near. Then, opening his eyes he saw in the warm glow given off from the machine that the time was ready, and leant forward to operate the controls.
* * * * *
The air above the machine exploded into an array of shimmering light. Somewhere in the box electronics hummed, as the drain on the power cells grew ever stronger. The smell of ozone and ionised particles hung heavy in the weasel man’s nostrils, though he never flinched in the harshness of the glow. In mid air patterns of haze slowly resolved and formed until the very molecules of the cloud took on form and gained the personality and features of something else.
A line of static wavered in the image for a moment, causing Stoto to hurriedly reach for control knobs and adjust. Silently he cursed himself for not sourcing new cells after the last time he had had cause to use the machine. It was too late now for such regrets and all he could do was spin the dials and hope for the best.
Then in the final few seconds the image became complete and began to roll in suspended air. A pair of eyes appeared, and then a mouth, and suddenly a High Lord was there in the room in all its magnificence casting a beady eye down on the withered form of the man everybody took to despise.
“Stoto!” it hissed.
Stoto bowed forward in humble acknowledgement.
“Indeed, High Lord.”
“Why have you taken to call on me?” the disembodied head inquired, “It has been many dakrum. This can only mean one thing; you have information that you wish to sell on.”
A trickle of sweat beaded on Stoto’s greasy forehead. One corner of his mouth twitched.
“For a price.”
Silence boomed deafening for a moment in the darkness of the hiding-hole as the head regarded him with probing eyes. At last the head broke the tension and spoke.
“I see, many things,” it purred slowly, its eyes appearing to glaze and focus elsewhere, “I see schemes and plans that speak of desires for riches. I see your soul laid bare, Stoto.”
Stoto shivered uncomfortably, wondering whether he had made the right decision in calling on the High Lords. Time had muted so much of the fear and he had forgotten just how intimidating they could be.
“I have no desire for riches,” he crawled with a false laugh, “Only desire to serve.”
The eyes refocused and fixed him in their icy glare.
“Do not tempt me, Stoto,” boomed the voice, playing into every corner of his mind, “Your flimsy mind tricks cannot hide your inner being from me. The ether never lies.”
As it spoke the words, he felt the uneasy probe of the High Lord’s mind across the ether, etching its way through his psyche like a hot knife through butter. It shocked him how they could perform such a feat across such distance and worlds.
“Your motive is profit, and personal gain,” spoke the voice, “Nothing more.”
It regard him for a moment before the shimmering projection shuddered into low laughter.
Stoto looked up uneasily.
“Do not fear,” said the head at last, “If money is your motive then money it shall be.”
“However, I must be certain that I wish to pay for such information as you might have.”
A digital eye brow moved higher across the image.
“After all, how do I know that what you offer is worth what you will demand?”
Insects crawling on the wall might have died in the paralysis of the stare fixed on the wavering image of the face. The masked threats hung heavy in the dank air as Stoto considered his position. At last he spoke, forming his words carefully in his mind a sentence at a time.
“There are those who seek the Orb.”
He stopped to judge the reaction of the face. To the unobservant it might have seemed as though the High Lord treated the comment with a state of impassiveness. But Stoto caught the flicker in the eyes.
“Go on,” the head hissed.
Stoto smiled, at ease at last. The bait had been swallowed; now all he had to do was land his prize.
“Jono has sent an expedition forth to seek it out. They say that he knows more than others.”
Stoto smiled and waved a finger.
“Not so fast my friend,” he tutted, “I have not received any payment for my troubles.”
“You are mistaken in who you call your friends, Stoto.”
He shrugged off the threats.
“I do not work for free.”
“Maybe we High Lords are not so interested in what you have to offer.”
Seconds ticked by in the gloom. Another flicker of static edged across the shimmering projection.
“Even so, I know you would dearly like to know.”
A sneer edged across Stoto’s face as he gauged the reactions his words would provoke.
The face stared impassively, considering its options closely.
“What do you want?” it asked at last.
Tension inherent in the air for the last few minutes began to ease. He knew he had his fee.
“Platinum credit,” he snapped.
That would cover him for much that he might have succeeded in embezzling over time from that which Jono had handed to the old man and perhaps a little more besides. There was no sense in asking low.
“Agreed. You will meet our agent in the main city.”
“I cannot come immediately. For me to leave so soon would invoke suspicion and might force the expedition sent to change its plans accordingly.”
The head’s eyes seemed to sparkle on the words.
“So the expedition has left so soon? Interesting.”
Stoto brushed the probing comments aside.
“You do not know and cannot be certain of anything. Do not try to cross me now.”
“You are in no position to tell us what to do.”
“I think I am.”
“Do not tempt us. We have powers beyond even your understanding.”
“And lose your best chance at the Orb in the process?”
The question hung sharp in the air. The head considered, than backed down.
“As you wish. Our agents shall be ready in the city. You know the location?”
Stoto bowed his head low.
“Then make sure you are there.”
Without waiting for response or reply the shimmering image folded in on itself and was gone, leaving only the harsh smell of ozone and ionised particles sharp in the damp air.
Stoto smiled – at least something had gone to plan. Disconnecting several wires from the still warm equipment, he took out the now exhausted power cell and hooked it under his robes for taking to the city. If he needed to use the equipment again it would require a fresh source of power. He could source spares on his trip to the city. Happy now that all was ready, he picked up the spluttering candle that was now no more than a flickering stub and made ready for the trudge back out of the hiding hole to hide his work before he was missed.