Kal strode quickly through the colorful crowd, checking the position of the sun for the fifth time in as many minutes.  A pair of gawking tourists shambled into his way.  He bit back a curse and pushed past.  When Ulric and Deidra’s son Obrin had gone missing, the distraught parents had come to Kal for help.  He meant to make good on that trust, but time was fleeting.  He might already be too late.
       He glanced down and ran a hand over the pistol and saber-like sword that hung at his belt, making sure each weapon was loose in its holster and loaded with a fresh charge pack.  He reached under his knee length coat and rearranged the straps on his armor, settling it snugly on his slightly taller than average, lean athletic build.  It was a comfort.  The armor was designed to defeat the lightning-hurling weapons commonly used in Kal’s hometown of Arkebis.  Its ceramic strike plates would deflect at least a couple shots. Today, that might make all the difference.
       He pushed his charcoal colored, wide brimmed hat further back on his head, revealing the hard angles of his face and his shoulder length black hair.  His bright green eyes, the color of spring leaves, stood out starkly against his caramel colored skin.  That was good.  Today he wanted to be recognizable.  His plan, and Obrin’s safety, depended on it.
       Kal felt fingers brush against his belt.  He thrust his hand out and grabbed a skinny wrist, clamped down hard and wrenched the intruding hand away from his money chain, drawing a yelp of pain from a plain clothed man in his mid-twenties, barely younger than himself.  He glared at the pickpocket before shoving him roughly away.  Kal shook his head and moved on.  He had barely noticed that in time.  Not good, he scolded himself.  He was Kalrin Vallis, an agent of the Aleph Association, an attunweiyld trained in the arcane art of attunement.  He knew better than to let his mind wander.
       Kal exhaled, sending his fear and worry out with the expended breath.  He would be no good to anyone, especially Obrin, if he couldn’t keep his wits about him.  He focused on his surroundings, the well-worn flagstones beneath his feet, the heady mix of exotic perfumes and incense, the rhythmic beat of drums.  Nykos Street was one of the busiest in the city of Arkebis.  Jugglers, fire eaters, acrobats, caricature painters and more came from the far corners of the Sea of Clouds to perform on Nykos Street, drawing crowds of travelers and sightseers almost as exotic as the performers themselves.
       There were few locals in the crowd.  Most longtime residents of Arkebis grew tired of Nykos Street and wrote the place off as a massive tourist trap.  Fools, as far as Kal was concerned.  How could anyone live right next to something so intriguing and not take advantage of it?  Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to take in the flavor, not today.  Today he needed something else Nykos Street had to offer.  The city of Arkebis was riddled with subterranean shafts and caverns.  There were so many, not even the maintenance guilds had managed to map them all or even knew how deep the systems ran.  The natural caves were often used by outcasts, recluses and, of course, smugglers.  It was a gang of the latter who had kidnapped Obrin.  The smugglers were holed up underground, and the tunnel that led to their lair had a secret opening near Nykos Street.
       A shadow passed overhead.  Kal looked up to see the keel of a large cloud cruiser passing slowly through the sky.  The sight was common enough, after all, Arkebis city’s skyport was a major trade hub.  Cloud cruisers flew into port at all hours, traveling to and from the far corners of the Sea of Clouds, the vast airy expanse where the Many Worlds hung like islands in the sky. 
       When Kal was a boy, his mother had given him a set of sky charts for his birthday, actual skycharts, used by real sailors.  The charts detailed locations of the large bergs and smaller cays that were collectively called the Many Worlds, well, part of them anyways.  No man had ever charted the whole of the Sea of Clouds.  He had snuck down from his room more than once, borrowed a lamp and formed a makeshift tent with his blankets to hide the light.  Those nights he had spent hours pouring over the charts, enthralled by every mark, every berg, every cay, every line indicating weather patterns, every cryptic or misspelled note.
       As an agent working for the Aleph Association, he’d jumped at every assignment that offered travel. He’d journeyed throughout the berg of Elarin, the land mass that held his home town of Arkebis.  He’d visited the five other bergs that, with Elarin included, comprised the Vaustian Cluster which, in turn, was governed by the Vaustian Republic.  He been beyond the Vaustian Cluster, seeing Moltina, Nevarr and Aybaz.  Even so, he knew he’d only seen a handful of the marvels the Sea of Clouds had to offer.
      The cloud cruiser above him creaked loudly as it repositioned its side mounted, wing-like sails, putting the ship into a turn.  Its aft mounted propellers were revolving slowly, allowing for deliberate, controlled flight through the city’s airspace.  It was a freighter Kal noted, capra class.  The original propellers had been upsized, and the standard, wooden masts that held the sails had been replaced with new masts made of lightweight metals.  He frowned skeptically.  True enough, the modification would give the ship some extra speed.  However, the domed skydrivers placed periodically along the ship’s keel were crackling fiercely as they labored to keep the large ship in the air.  The freighter was probably carrying a shipment of refined alch and its cargo holds were undoubtedly filled to bursting.  With a cargo that heavy, slightly upsized propellers and a smattering of lightweight building materials would provide minimal gains at best.  He shrugged to himself.  The Many Worlds needed alch to feed their boilers, create light, provide heat, generate power, almost everything.  Maybe the little extra speed the ship could manage paid off in the long run.  All the same, if it were his ship, he would have upgraded the engines before the sails or propellers.  Capra freighters were notoriously gutless.
       A street performer blew a gout of fire from his mouth.  The crowd gasped in delighted surprise.  Kal took the opportunity to duck into one of the many winding alleyways that ran throughout the city.  He followed the narrow backstreet through a few twists, turned right after a fresh smelling bakery, and then left at a small but noisy art studio.  A short distance later the alley ended at an iron fence.  Kal hopped over and dropped into an open air storage space set between the backs of three tall buildings.  The area was filled with weathered crates and the smell of wet wood.

     A woman was standing at the far end of the storage space.  She appeared to be leaning casually against a large barrel, but Kal could see her hand rested close to her sword hilt.  He tipped his hat by way of greeting and smiled.  Rena Kulmain was of average height and slim build.  She wore her honey blonde hair in a complex braid behind her head.  Her normally compassionate light brown eyes held concern.  Her face, which was used to smiling, was set in a tight frown.
       Rena looked up. “You were right Kal.  Gara’s men are down there alright.”  She hooked a thumb towards an open storm grate.
       Kal took a purposeful step towards the grate.  “Well, better get going then.”

         Chapter 1