Spiritum – Chapter Twenty-nine

29.

For hours, Iona thought, planned, prepared, and reconsidered, but now the time had come to decide. Either she would go through with the scheme she’d spent all day putting together, or she would lie down in her bed and forget all about it. Whatever her choice, she didn’t have long to make it. Time was running out. Darkness had fallen and everybody had turned in though she doubted there would be much sleeping done that night. Everyone was still on edge, probably fearing the possibility of another attack. Iona knew she was. She tried to put such thoughts out of her head and think logically. Surely, the Mahleeka would have realized the academy wouldn’t let them infiltrate it a second time so close to the first. At least that’s what she hoped. The sky was black but the light from Valarayan meant the hillside outside her window was lit up like Downtown Tylest. Nothing could move without being spotted from miles away and, every time she went to the window, Iona saw only an empty hillside bathed in heavenly white. It was time to choose.

The hours since her covert training session with Sahel and Boltan had largely been a battle with herself, spent working up the courage to carry out her plan only to talk herself out of it and then regain her nerve sometime later, a never-ending cycle that had continued all through the afternoon and into the night, with the odd bit of planning thrown in as well. It was dangerous; not only dangerous but life-threatening, crazy even. So many dangers lurked in the forests of Selson, and that wasn’t even considering the Mahleeka who’d probably murder her as soon as look at her. But those people needed help, and the masters weren’t going to do anything except hide. That, and the potential rewards from what she planned to do, not just for herself but arcanists everywhere, were far too great to ignore. It would spread through the Confederacy and beyond like wildfire. When people heard of what she did, they would think again about the way they treated those with the power of Arcana. They would be free of the stigma that hung over them their whole lives like a cloud of poison. The galaxy would finally see them for what they were worth and turn to them in its time of need. That’s what she thought of whenever she felt discouraged or afraid, and that’s what convinced Iona to keep going despite her fears.

When not bouncing between being a fearless master arcanist and a scared little girl, Iona spent much of the evening packing the rucksack she carried her smaller valuables in when she arrived at the academy, ticking items off the list she’d put together as she went. It wasn’t a very long list: food, drink, a change of clothes, her water bottle, and her holo-pad. She didn’t have anything else she thought would come in handy for a trek through the forest and she hoped not to be out there for very long. But despite having intended to take only essentials, it wasn’t long before Iona was packing things that were of little value beyond mere sentimentality. A pink stuffed elephant given to her many years ago by her birth mother, a drawing book she enjoyed sketching in when not reading or trying to grow her abilities, and a piece of pink Soruntium rock given to her as a birthday gift by her adoptive father from his days as an astro-miner were just some of the things she packed only to then discard in favour of things that would actually be of use. Though there was one non-essential Iona just couldn’t bear to leave behind: her copy of The Collected Arcane Legends from the Ancient Lands of Karasen. It was the only real book she owned, given to her by her birth parents when she was learning to read. The faded cover, broken spine, and bent pages reflected its age and use. She had so many others stored on her holo-pad but it was that dusty and battered old children’s book she kept coming back to. Despite its simplistic language and prose, its epic tales of powerful arcane warriors, virtuous healers and champions of peace and justice never failed to captivate no matter how many times she read them. And she had read them many times, to the point she could recite them practically word for word. Iona loved its weight in her hands and the feeling of the paper rubbing against her fingertips when she turned the pages. It made her wish she owned more real books. They’d become so rare, and copies in good condition were hopelessly expensive. Everyone just used holo-pads these days. 

It was still light when Iona finished packing, or at least the things she had to hand. She would have to venture from her room for the rest, and she couldn’t do anything until everyone had gone to bed. She spent the rest of the evening pacing, trying not to overthink her plan and talk herself out it, which she did, many times. Soon enough, the time arrived, but Iona could only stand and stare at the rucksack on her bed.

No, she thought. This is crazy. I’m going to get myself killed. The military will be here soon. They’ll handle it. She was about to start unpacking when something stayed her hand. But what about the arcanists? What about helping her people? What about becoming what she was born to be? Then Iona saw her face, that bitter frown and those cold eyes. Llannaeia would go out there; she wouldn’t hide away in her room because she was scared. She would go out there and do what had to be done. Iona gave herself no time to reconsider. She zipped the rucksack up and slung it over her shoulder. She could be just as strong as her big sister. 

She consulted her list of everything she’d need for her journey. There were still a few things left to get. Her first stop was the quarters of the Head Instructor.

With the academy under lockdown, getting out of the building wasn’t going to be easy. Just about every precaution had been taken to ensure there wouldn’t be a repeat of last night. All doors to the quarters of students and staff were locked at 6PM sharp and wouldn’t be unlocked until 6AM the following morning. They used some special locking code that kept them from being opened until the lockdown was lifted, effectively turning every room into a prison cell. The wings of the academy were gated off from each other by metal shutters that wouldn’t open for anybody without authorization, along with all the building’s exits. Finally, according to the memo sent out, senior and master arcanists would be patrolling the corridors until the military arrived sometime tomorrow morning. That, combined with all the other systems in place, made it all but impossible to leave the academy undetected, but Iona had a plan.

She went to the recently-added hole in her wall. It was odd to think the result of one of her biggest mistakes would now be so vital. On the other side was what looked like a supply cupboard, empty save for a few shelving units and toolboxes. Iona took hold of the gnarled edges and pulled herself through, just slim enough to fit. The edges dug painfully as her upper body hung from one side and her legs dangled from the other. It felt like she was lying on a saw blade, the pain worsening as she wiggled her way through though soon she was lying on the floor below. Her body ached from the fall but she dragged herself up regardless and set to rummaging through the boxes. It didn’t take long to find what she was looking for. Iona held the tool to the light flooding in from next door: long, thin, and silvery with a pair of buttons at the middle. Back through the hole she went before striding to her bed. Her room’s air vent was directly above, the grate held in place by a screw at each corner. Even when standing on her tiptoes on the bed, Iona could only just reach it. With the touch of one of the buttons on its side, the tool came to life. A blue light appeared at the end. Iona held it to the first screw and it started to spin, drawn from the hole before falling onto the bed. Three more and the grate itself fell, leaving only a dark opening in its place.

Iona couldn’t help but be apprehensive. Crawling around in the ducts wasn’t going to be pleasant. They were probably cramped and dirty and possibly full of creepy crawlies though she guessed those were the least of her worries. She slid the screwdriver into her pocket, took hold of the edge and launched herself up and pulled as hard as she could. It would take a few attempts before she managed to pull herself all the way up. She found the ducts exactly as she expected: dark, narrow, and filthy. The layer of dust before her was like a carpet. It smelled like something had died in there, and she couldn’t see more than a few inches though the light on her watch helped with that. There wasn’t much she could do about the smell.

Iona started crawling, careful not to make too much noise. Dragging herself along wasn’t so hard though it was no less uncomfortable. She’d never been in such a tight space before. She didn’t like it one bit. Not being able to spread her arms and legs made it feel like she was trapped in a very small cage. With no map to help her, she was forced to rely on the grates over the vents to figure out where she was going, the gaps in the metal providing a clear enough view of the rooms and halls below. She was above the corridor outside her room. It was silent below. Iona guessed she was alone and continued on.

It wasn’t far to Lorsek’s quarters. His were on the same floor as hers though her method of getting there made it a lot longer and harder than it had to be. The quarters of some other instructors were closer, but it was the Head Instructor’s Iona wanted. His was the only passkey she was one hundred percent certain would unlock every door in the academy. She’d also heard from some of the older students that the Head Instructor was an incredibly heavy sleeper. How and why they knew that, Iona wasn’t sure if she wanted to know.

All this pushing and pulling was tiring her out. It wasn’t long before Iona regretted entering the ducts. Her elbows and knees ached from the constant bashing against the sides, she was covered in dirt, the smell seemed to be getting worse, and the lack of space was starting to get to her. She wasn’t claustrophobic, but she hated feeling trapped, and never had she felt more so than now. It even seemed like the walls were closing in, as if she’d fallen into a trash compacter. That was a disturbing thought. Iona continued regardless. She’d already come too far to give up so easily. Slowly but surely, she was getting closer to where she needed to go.

Just a bit further, she would tell herself when the thought of turning back crept into her mind. Just a bit further.

It finally seemed like she was above the corridor outside the Head Instructor’s quarters. She’d paid close attention to the directions she took and which corners she turned. It’s difficult to see where you’re going when all you have is the view through some dusty old grates to guide you. Iona pulled herself around a corner and arrived at another vent. The noise rising from the darkness told her she was in the right place.

According to the students she’d spoken to, the Head Instructor was a terrible snorer though their stories didn’t do justice to the racket coming up through the vent. He was as bad as Boltan, perhaps even worse though Iona couldn’t complain. It only made getting in and out unnoticed easier. She wasted no time removing the screws from the grate though the hole was too small to pull it back through, leaving no choice but to let it fall and hope the Head Instructor was as heavy a sleeper as was claimed. Iona gritted her teeth as the grate fell away, bracing herself for the crash that followed. Lorsek stirred a little, but the snoring continued. Iona exhaled with relief before lowering herself through. She couldn’t see a thing though she knew where the bed was thanks to the noise coming from it. She found her way to the desk and tried the top drawer. There it was on top of a stack of files. Iona picked it up and held it to her watch’s light, a plastic card with a line of grooves along its far edge. She was amazed they were still being used anywhere in the galaxy, especially at a so-called “hi-tech” arcane academy.

Iona slipped the card into her pocket and returned to the spot beneath the vent. It was too high to reach by herself so she brought over the chair from under the desk. This time she managed to pull herself up in one go. She crawled back the way she came. Now armed with the Head Instructor’s passkey, she had access to the whole academy, including the entrances and exits. It would also allow her through the shutters separating the different wings though, despite how little she wanted to, Iona stuck with the ducts. The last thing she needed was to run into a member of staff patrolling the corridors.

Her next stop was the cafeteria. She was going to need food and drink and didn’t feel confident scavenging for them in the woods. It would be much easier to stock up before she set off. It was quite a way to the cafeteria but obtaining the Head Instructor’s passkey filled Iona with the confidence she needed to keep going. For the first time, she felt like she could actually do what she’d set out to. She was fairly sure she was on the right track. She doubled back a little way before turning a corner and heading toward the elevators. That was going to be the hardest part. Her newly acquired passkey meant she could use the elevators, but she didn’t want to risk drawing the attention of any nearby members of staff. She could always have used the stairs but that seemed just as risky. That left only one option.

Soon enough, Iona found her way blocked by another grate. The elevator shafts were on the other side. It was nothing to remove the screws and push the grate out of its place though, again, her only choice was to let it go falling to the bottom and brace herself for impact. The crash of metal on metal echoed up through the shaft and sent a shiver through Iona. She prayed no one heard that. Now for the tricky part. She stuck her head through the opening and scanned for something to grab onto. There was a ladder opposite, but it was too far out of reach, and nothing else as far as she could see. The academy used grav-lifts, meaning no cables to grab onto. The ladder was her only hope, but it was too far away. With a run and jump, she’d reach it no problem, but good luck with that in such a tight space. She might be able to fling herself to it with enough force though she didn’t fancy her chances of grabbing on as she fell past it. One mistake would see her plummet to her death. That would be quite an anticlimactic end to her mission. Arcana crossed her mind. She could just float to the bottom like a feather. It was the simplest option, but Iona didn’t trust herself to try. She could just picture herself descending elegantly only to lose control and go crashing to her end.

Iona rested her head on the filthy metal, defeated. How did she ever think this was a good idea? Now she was stuck in a dirty ventilation duct with nothing for her trouble except a stolen passkey and about a dozen new infractions to add to her ever-growing list. She could still use the elevators or the stairs, but she couldn’t risk being caught, not after coming so far. It was useless. The confidence she’d felt minutes earlier had been stripped away. She still had a chance to turn back and pretend this stupid episode never took place. She could return the card and get back to her room long before morning broke. Lorsek would know someone had been in his quarters, but he’d probably never find out it was her.

She’d just started pushing herself back when a distant sound broke the silence, an airy whir like a soft breeze in a field. It came from above. Iona stuck her head into the shaft and looked up to see the blue light getting bigger and brighter as it approached. She got an idea, but she had to be quick. She had only one chance; a moment too early or late would mean disaster. Iona listened carefully. It was close, only a few metres away. She readied herself, then took a breath. She saw the light first, almost blinding her before she threw herself forward, nothing to do but pray she’d picked the right moment. Instead of falling, she found herself lying on another surface, and opened her eyes to see the walls of the shaft scrolling by. With another sigh, Iona rolled onto her back and let the elevator carry her to where she needed to go.

The lift came to a stop, and it was time to move again. Quickly, Iona removed the grate above the doors and scurried into the duct. She listened to the footsteps leaving the lift, not moving until they’d faded well out of earshot. It wasn’t far to the cafeteria from here. She turned a few corners and passed over a few shutters and patrolling members of staff. The smell wasn’t so bad on the ground floor. That was something, at least.

Iona dropped onto the tile floor at the far end of the lunch hall. The main lights were powered down but the strip lights along the walls helped her see where she needed to go. She made for the kitchens though, even at her pace, it took a little while to get to there. The lunch hall was one of the biggest areas of the academy, often accommodating hundreds of students and staff at once. The entrance was locked but the passkey made short work of that. Iona was a little uncomfortable raiding the fridges, freezers, and cupboards for food and drink but she guessed saving the lives of two dozen students and staff would more than make up for it. She’d probably be out there a few days and did her best to take only what seemed like the right amount to keep herself going. She settled with a few tins of Kenga fruit, a couple boxes of Juberries, several packets of Chikera meat, a loaf of white crusty bread, a pack of chocolate brownies, and half a dozen cans of Yakla Juice. She’d probably find drinking water along the way. Even if she wanted to take more, she’d have to find other means of carrying it, her rucksack now filled almost to bursting point. She had no hope of fitting through the ducts now. Luckily, her remaining stops weren’t far.

Her next stop was one of her favourite parts of the academy: the library. With the ducts no longer an option, Iona swiped the card over the scanner by the cafeteria’s main door and stuck her head out. The corridor was deserted. The library wasn’t far away but she moved slowly nonetheless. She’d come way too far to let impatience mess it up now. There were no shutters or members of staff in the way, nothing but the emptiness she was used to as a result of her late-night strolls. The library was another of the academy’s larger areas, perhaps even bigger than the cafeteria. It didn’t have any old-style books with pages you could turn, its contents stored in huge mainframes connected to row upon row of holo-computers. It looked more like an IT hub than a traditional library. As touted by the Head Instructor in his introductory address, the library had a distinctly modern look compared to the rest of the academy, with its sleek and shiny surfaces and curved desks made of coloured glass and seats made of fine leather. The academy had invested a lot of money in upgrading the library not long before Iona arrived, one of the reasons she chose it as her place of study.

The lights of the mainframes bathed everything in a glow that made Iona feel like she was walking through the aquarium in Tylest. That, combined with the echoes of her footsteps to punctuate the silence, created an ominous atmosphere. She’d never been in the library at night before. It was a bit creepy. She went to the nearest computer, not wishing to spend more time here than necessary. There was an unnerving feeling in the air. It reminded Iona of the stories about the arcanist who died after experimenting with his powers and now haunted the academy.

No, she told herself. That’s just a story. Stay focused.

The computer came to life with the brush of a finger over its sensor, the main screen projected before her eyes.

“Please state desired content”, an upbeat voice said.

Iona had to think for a moment. “Selson… maps”? In an instant, the holo-screen was filled with a list of articles, all containing the words Selson and maps in their titles.

“Now displaying seven hundred and fifty-seven results for Selson maps”. The computer almost sounded pleased with itself. “Please state desired article”.

Iona sighed, too many articles to sift through. She’d be here all night. She hadn’t thought this through very well. “Clear list”. The screen was empty once more. “Selson maps, year One Thousand and Fifty-five AV”.

Another list appeared. “Now displaying fifty-three results for Selson Maps Year One Thousand and Fifty-Five AV. Please state desired article”.

This was turning out to be a lot more difficult than she’d anticipated. How could there be so many maps for just one year? “Er… landscape maps”? She hoped that was the correct term. To her relief, the list shortened to a handful of articles.

“Now displaying nine results for physical maps of Selson Year One Thousand and Fifty-Five AV. Please state desired article”.

Iona wasn’t sure which one she needed. Scanning the list, she noticed each referred to a different region on the moon. “Selson, Kantora Region Physical Map. Year One Thousand Fifty-Five AV”, she said, repeating the name of one of the articles on screen. The academy was in Kantora. She guessed there must be eight other regions on Selson.

“Now displaying Selson Kantora Region Physical Map Year One Thousand and Fifty-Five AV”. The list was replaced by a map, and Iona’s eyes lit up. It showed everything from hills to mountains to forests and fields and the occasional lake and river too. She whipped her holo-pad from her rucksack and set it down on one of the glowing spots on the desktop.

“External device detected. Establishing connection. Connection established.

“Download article”.

“Downloading article to external device. Download complete”.

She did the same with the other maps for good measure. Who knew where her journey would take her? Satisfied she had what she needed, Iona swept her finger over the sensor and the computer went dark again. She made for the exit as fast as she could. She thought she saw something move in the dark out of the corner of her eye. She was halfway to the exit when a crucial thought dawned on her. She returned to the console and started it back up, doing her best not to look to the darkness around the edges of the library.

“Selson, Mahleeka territory, year One Thousand and Fifty-Five AV”.

Only one article appeared. “Now displaying one result for Known Mahleeka Territory on Selson”. Iona took a minute to scan through the document. Apparently, the Mahleeka’s presence was concentrated mostly in the Dorta region, north of Kantora, though there was little information on the locations of individual settlements. She downloaded the document to her holo-pad before powering down the console and leaving the library. She was almost ready to leave. There was just one more stop to make.

As she crossed the threshold, Iona was greeted by snoring almost as bad as the Head Instructor’s. She’d originally wished Boltan’s quarters were located next to hers rather than on the ground floor, but now she was thankful for it, not sure if even the thick walls between them would be enough to drown out his clamour. She closed the door and turned on the light to find her friend lying on his back with the covers pulled to his chin. Her attempts at waking him were ineffective. Boltan was another heavy sleeper. If only she could shoot electricity from her fingertips. 

“Boltan”, Iona whispered, shaking and poking him as her patience wore thin. He didn’t respond. She repeated herself until, finally, his eyes opened.

“Iona”? he murmured, probably unsure whether he was awake or dreaming. “What are you doing here”?

“Quick. Get up and get dressed”. All the sneaking around had left Iona paranoid. Every moment was another she could get caught.

Boltan sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Why? What’s going on? You’re filthy”.

“Get dressed and I’ll tell you”. Iona was losing her patience. Now was no time for questions.

Boltan eyed her suspiciously. “I’m not doing anything until you tell me what’s going on”.

Iona hesitated, then sighed. She had no choice. “We’re going after the Mahleeka. We’re gonna save the others”.

Boltan stared at her as if she’d spoken in a different language. “What?! Are you crazy”?!

Iona’s heart skipped a beat. “Keep your voice down. You don’t want us to get caught do you”?

“I’m not getting caught because I’m not doing anything, and neither are you. Go back to bed”. Boltan lay back down and pulled the covers over his head, but Iona wasn’t about to let him go back to sleep so easily.

“We need to do this”. She shook him as hard as she could.

“No, we don’t. The military will be here in the morning. Let them take care of it”. Just like Boltan Sleck to let others solve his problems for him.

“Don’t you see what this is? This is an opportunity for us to make a difference, for arcanists everywhere”.

Boltan sat back up. “What the hell are you talking about”?

“If we rescue the others then people will start trusting our kind again. We won’t have to hide away anymore. They’ll start looking to us for help. Just like they did with Erladein the Unbreakable and Sephyera the Healer”.

He looked at her like she was crazy. “Who”?

“The legends”. Iona was shocked he had to ask. “The arcanists of ancient times. You don’t know about them”?

“No I don’t. And besides, didn’t you hear what Sahel said? Those stories are all made up. They’re just fairy tales”. Iona felt like she’d been punched in the gut.

“They are not”!

“Whatever”. Boltan rolled back over, “Just get out of here and go back to bed”. He sat up again. “How did you even get in here? We’re under lockdown”. Iona took the passkey from her pocket and held it up for her friend to see. “Where did you get that”?

“Lorsek’s quarters”.

Boltan’s eyes widened to the size of melons. “Have you lost your fucking mind”?!

“It’s the only way we can get out of here”. Iona returned the card to her pocket.

“Do you have any idea what they’ll do when they find out you broke into the Head Instructor’s quarters and stole his pass card? You already nearly got yourself expelled once. They’re not gonna let you off this time”.

“They might, if I save the others”,

“And how are you gonna do that? You don’t even know where they are”.

“No”, Iona admitted. “But I know the Mahleeka mostly live in the Dorta Region. That narrows it down a bit. I’m sure I’ll be able to find out where they are when I get there”.

Boltan shook his head. “OK, let’s say you do find them, what are you gonna do then? How are you gonna save them”?

Iona paused, realizing she hadn’t given that part much thought. “I guess I’ll figure that out too”. She did her best to hide her unsureness. The more questions Boltan asked, the more Iona realized she hadn’t thought her plan through all that well. But she couldn’t turn back, not now.

“And what if the Mahleeka catch you? They might hurt you. They might kill you”.

Iona had thought of that. “Well that’s just a risk I’ll have to take”.

“You’re insane”. Boltan lay back down. “Just put that card back where you got it and get back to your room before anyone finds out what you’ve done”.

Finally, it was clear nothing she could say would get him to follow her. But she couldn’t let that stop her. “Fine. If you won’t come, I’ll just have to go by myself”.

Boltan sat up again. “Are you serious? You are. You must be if you stole Lorsek’s pass card. This is madness”.

“Don’t you think I know that? It’s insane. But we have a chance to make a difference for our kind. Nobody’s gonna care if the military saves them. It’s just another day for them. But if we do it, then people will take notice. And besides, we can’t just leave those people out there. Who knows what could be happening to them? What if the military doesn’t make it in time”?

“I understand. But it’s not your responsibility to save them, and you know barely anything about Arcana. Not enough to help. It’s too dangerous, even if we both go. Think about it; if the instructors thought they could handle it, they would have. Just let the military take care of it. That’s their job”.

“I have to try”.

“Why”?

“For them. I have to go now”. Iona headed for the door.

“I won’t let you do this”. Boltan sounded more unsure than intimidating.

“Try and stop me”. He just sat there, as expected. “I always knew you were a coward. Go back to sleep”.

Iona held back her tears as she left the room, turning off the light as she went. It saddened her that Boltan wouldn’t accompany her and it wasn’t long before she felt ashamed of the way she spoke to him. She couldn’t blame him for not wanting any part in her scheme. He was right about everything. She wished she could go back and apologize, but there was no time.

She planned at first to use the main entrance, but it was quite a way there and, more than likely, crawling with members of staff. Instead, Iona headed for one of the side entrances. She met nobody on the way, nor did she encounter any enhanced security measures. Soon enough, she was at the door. This was it, her last chance to change her mind. When she opened that door, there would be no turning back. She stopped and thought about everything Sahel and Boltan said, then made up her mind. A cool breeze drifted in as the door slid aside. She took a breath and then stepped into the night, the first real step on her journey. The door closed behind her, and she strode fast toward the path down the hill, worried that her lifting of the lockdown might have alerted any staff who might have been nearby. They’d soon arrive to investigate. She couldn’t let them stop her, not now, nor could she allow her friend’s words to discourage her.

They might hurt you. They might kill you.

Boltan’s words filled Iona with fear. Already she missed the warmth of her bed. It was a chilly night. She wasn’t looking forward to sleeping in the forest. She tried to put those thoughts out of her mind. The great arcanists of legend didn’t get to have their names remembered for millennia by shying away from a little cold and discomfort. She reminded herself why she was doing this. For them and for herself and for arcanists everywhere.

Iona looked to the sky. Valarayan hung high and bright, washing the hill and forest in its calming glow. It shone a pale, pearly white, but she could still make out the greens and blues of the oceans and continents. She was still staring at her homeworld as she made her way towards the dark wall of trees. She wondered if anyone was staring back.

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