For the first time in decades, Baeldan found himself gawking. There was a simple study table with some chairs in front of him, and shelves of books as far as the eye could see. Interspersed with the books were artifacts, electronic tablets, and pieces of art he’d never seen before. As he peered down a hallway, he could see there were more of these “clearings” in the forest of knowledge, equipped with the same austere study stations.
His mentor tapped him on the shoulder, breaking him out of his awestruck stare. “Where would you like to start, professor?” Bael could hear the smirk in Flynn’s tone. He supposed the keeper relished this reaction.
“Ah, sorry.” Bael realized he was still blocking the doorway. “If you can show me how the archive catalog works, I can go from there.”
“Of course.” Flynn sat, placing the gauntlet on the table, and accessed the terminal with his badge. “You will have access with your badge as well,” he said as he nodded toward the chair beside him. “It’s pretty straightforward. We have pieces of art, ancient technology and manuscripts in each section, and the surrounding literature mostly pertains to those items. There are also tablets you can use to search each section without having to come back here each time you want to look for something specific. That was my idea.” Flynn appeared to be in his late seventies, so Bael could see how that idea came about. Flynn stood up and picked up the gauntlet. Bael gave him a wary look.
“I’m sure you’ll figure this thing out in a jiffy,” he said as he put the gauntlet on. He gestured to the chair with his gloved hand and gave a wrinkled smirk again. Bael sat, and Flynn placed his hand on Bael’s shoulder.
“What the—” Bael spat as he attempted to jump out of the chair. He stumbled, catching himself on the table. Flynn burst out in a robust laughter. “Shit. Why would you do that?”
“Didn’t you pay attention to the debriefing? Wait, were you there for that one… maybe not.” Flynn chuckled and knocked the gauntlet on the table. “This isn’t some kind of soulbinding artifact, it’s just a tool. You should already know how that works, after all.”
“Wait, it’s just a focus? So that means the rich collector—”
“—was one of us, yes. Well, not KoA, of course, but he did have a gift. He simply chose to use it unwisely.”
Baeldan hadn’t seen much of the gauntlet since it had been recovered. Most of the work had been done by Gwen and Magic. The operation had been remarkably well planned, and he and Noah had only been there as backup.
“Anyway. I’d better get this to Analysis.” Flynn removed the gauntlet and turned toward the exit. “Have at it. You can always comm me if you have any questions.” Bael wasted no time.
After several hours of skimming subject matter to get familiarized with the system, his hunger caught up with him. He went to the cafeteria, which was mostly empty at this hour. Cydney sat by herself, so he dished up and sat across from her.
“Hey, professor,” she said, barely looking up from her tablet. Rather than annoyance, he felt sympathy. He would also rather be consuming with his mind than his mouth.
“Hello, Cyd.” He ate quickly, eager to get back to the archives. On his way he passed the arboretum and noticed Gwen sitting alone.
“It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it?” He sat beside her on the bench. “Especially given the knowledge that it exists here.”
“Yeah, it’s good. I like to use it to decompress, to think about all this… crazy shit.”
“Ah, sorry. If you’d rather be alone—”
“No, it’s fine. You can stay. What have you been up to all day?”
“Just studying in the archives. You’d find it boring, but to me it is very exciting.” Gwen rolled her eyes. “In fact, I read somewhere that places like this arboretum are created using special fiber optics that channel actual sun and starlight down here.”
“Hmm.” She seemed tired.
“Is, ah, everything all right? You are uncharacteristically quiet.”
Gwen gave a haggard laugh. “I’ll be fine, it’s just this place. It’s so advanced and organized, and you know that places like this exist for a reason. If you even knew half of the fucked up stuff they deal with here…”
“I’ve read about some of it, but you have experienced it firsthand.”
“Yeah. I wasn’t sure if I could handle it at first, but I’ve got good support. Magic’s cement shakes and such.” Bael gave her a puzzled look, but she just grinned.
Baeldan dove back into the archives as soon as he returned. Whenever he came across an unfamiliar rune in his studies, he carefully traced it on a piece of paper in the hope of discovering some new ability. So far, he just had a paper full of jibberish. He felt his eyes growing heavy, but he had just stumbled across a section full of theories about the fate of Atlantis. He caught himself reading pages at a time without remembering anything he had just read. He began absentmindedly tracing runes he had seen in the tomes and elsewhere. He felt his resolve slipping away.
All at once, Baeldan’s focus returned as he turned the page and saw an elaborate rune, surrounded by an ornate border. He didn’t even bother to read the subtext. Without looking away from the page, he traced the rune with his finger onto the table. The completed rune glowed, and the table burned away in a dazzling multicolored light in front of his eyes. As he watched, the light coalesced and formed an image of a skyline filled with tall, impossible spires and floating islands. The buildings seemed to be made of some iridescent stone, as though someone had built an entire city out of precious gems. He tried to focus more, to see if he could find any signs of life, but he was too far away. He couldn’t tell if the expanse that separated him from this wondrous place was water or clouds or something else entirely. He heard nothing at first, but gradually he could make out a woman’s voice in the distance. She was calling to him, and he felt himself shudder. The city rapidly became obscured by fog, but the voice grew louder.
When he awoke, it was Gwen standing next to him, still shaking him. “Earth to Mr. Freeze, wake up Professor Von Germanpants! Bael, seriously, I thought you’d died down here. How the fuck do you sleep so hard?”
“Ugh. It’s a family trait.” His wits took their time returning. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, I hung around in the arboretum after you left, but when it got late and I didn’t see you walk back through I got curious. You know they have actual beds here right?”
“Yes. Of course. I suppose there’s always tomorrow.” He started to stand up and shake the sleep out of his limbs. When Gwen didn’t say anything more, he glanced at her. She had frozen, staring at the table.
Where there had been a piece of paper, there was now a perfectly round hole in the table, about a foot in diameter. The edges of the hole shimmered slightly with a dim rainbow which was rapidly fading. Gwen looked at Bael.
“Guess you didn’t waste any time causing property damage.”