‘It started about a week ago,’ said the mayor of Capernaum, a dignified-looking merchant, whose eyes rimmed with black attested to the severity of the crisis unfolding before him. ‘They attacked a nearby farmstead, left one survivor to send a message, and killed the rest of the farmhands. They’ve demanded a thousand pieces of gold, or else after seven days they’ll attack the city.’
Rei and Zai listened intently to his tale. They had arrived at the gates of Capernaum at dusk, and, after introducing themselves to the gatekeeper, they demanded to meet the mayor immediately. He obliged only too well, and now in his residence he narrated his city’s travails to their would-be saviours.
‘Two days after that a man came knocking on our gates. He looked like he had run miles, like he had been running for his life. He told us that his town had just been destroyed by bandits, because they ignored their demands for a thousand pieces of gold. There were around ten of them, he said, but they were all very strong. His town’s militia fought back, but their weapons had no effect—the wounds they inflicted healed before their eyes. Some of the bandits wielded strange powers, like beams of light shooting from their palms, destroying whatever it hit. I asked him if he was sure they were humans. He said that they were. It got me wondering; how can humans wield the powers of the Abaddon and the Seraphim? Were these the remnants of that experiment?’
Zai shot a furtive glance at Rei, whose face was a blank mask. She had once been a part—the centrepiece, even—of the experiment involving the Abaddon and the Seraphim, an experiment that ultimately failed, leaving her with nothing but immense combat power and a broken future. How would she react to the return of that spectre to her life, returned in a form she abhorred from the bottom of her heart?
There had been a war, recently concluded, between the two godlike races who lived to the north and the south of the human lands, the original inhabitants of Geos, a war between the Abaddon, who possessed the pinnacle of physical strength, and the Seraphim, who manipulated light into an instrument of war. It was near the end of that war, whose battles had been fought mostly on human lands, that the experiment was begun. There were some who started thinking that the war occurred on human lands because they were unable to defend themselves, since they were weak, far weaker than the two combatants. Changing this situation required drastic action. So they harvested the cells of the Abaddon and the Seraphim from fresh corpses found on the battlefield, and infused humans with these cells, hoping that this would result, if not in their complete transformation into these races, then at least in their acquisition of their powers.
The first batch of the experiment was a failure. The test subjects—orphans gathered by the experimenters (there would be no shortage of orphans due to the war)—rejected the cells implanted in them, with ghastly consequences for the hosts. It took the experimenters some time to figure out how to overcome the rejection, and some more time before they saw manifestation of the Abaddon and Seraphim powers in their subjects. After numerous successful batches they realised that, no matter what they did, the test subjects would never be able to express more than half of the strength of the original Abaddon and Seraphim, and they tried looking in another direction for power. Someone then suggested that the cells of the two races be infused in one human.
Rei, a five-year-old girl recently orphaned by a bandit attack on her village, was chosen to be the test subject for this phase of the experiment. She did not reject the cells, as they had feared, but neither did she develop powers transcending those of the two races—in fact, even though the powers of the two races manifested in her, they were only half as strong as those of the best of the previous test subjects. Some of the experimenters thought that, perhaps, this was the limit of humanity. Human bodies could be limited in how much power they could contain. Shortly after the war ended, when funding for the experiment was drastically reduced (since many saw no more need for it), and with no change in Rei despite a year of observation, the experimenters finally gave up and let Rei go.
‘How did you know of the experiment?’ said Zai to the mayor.
‘I was one of the merchants who procured their test subjects,’ said the mayor. ‘I gathered those orphaned by the war and sent them off to the experiment. I am ashamed of what I have done, and even more ashamed that I had made profit from it, but back then I thought that it was the right thing to do.’
Rei did not react to his words, Zai noted. He didn’t know what her true feelings towards the experiment were—surely she felt a degree of gratitude for them, giving her shelter during a time when orphans were often left to starve to death. But then again, her shelter came at a terrible price. Zai was in no way connected to the experiment, but he had heard the stories from those who were. Some of the procedures were painful beyond imagining. Successful test subjects were often made to fight each other to the death. It was no environment for a child growing up, Zai thought.
‘Do you have any ideas where these bandits might be based?’ said Rei, bringing the conversation back on topic. She seemed determined not to touch upon the issue of the experiment.
‘I have tried sending scouts,’ said the mayor, ‘but most of were too afraid to go, and of the few who were willing, none have come back yet.’
Just then a bell sounded from one of the watchtowers on the town’s wall. ‘The scouts are back!’ cried one of the lookouts.
The three rushed to meet the returning scouts. But they met only one; they found him in the quarters of the gatekeeper of the northern gate. He was haggard-looking, exhausted both by the gruelling journey and, from the expression on his face, the terror he felt.
‘He looks just like that man,’ said the mayor, and Zai knew that he was referring to the survivor of the town that had been destroyed by the same bandits that were troubling them now.
‘Do you know where they are?’ said Rei. To an outsider, it would have seemed that she was a professional to the bone, interested only in the contract and how to fulfil it. But to Zai this talkativeness (Rei rarely spoke during the intelligence-gathering part of the mission) was a sign of turmoil in her heart. It seemed that for her this mission was personal.
‘My party encountered them in the forest west of Capernaum,’ said the scout, ‘but I’m not sure if that’s where their hideout is.’ He paused, shuddering. ‘They killed them all; I was lucky my friend threw himself in front of me. A beam of light hit him, and his body blew up. I ran while they were still fighting, and I don’t know why they didn’t run after me. I’m sure they could have.’
‘They’re sending another message,’ said the mayor quietly. ‘Resistance is useless.’
‘Hey, you’ll never know ‘til you try,’ said Zai jauntily.
‘You’re ordinary humans,’ said the mayor ‘What can you do against those… those monsters?’
‘I wouldn’t say we’re ordinary humans,’ said Zai, and he resisted the urge to cast a sideward glance at Rei. ‘Anyway, they’re also still human, even if that have all those crazy powers. Hit them where it hurts, and they will get hurt.’ He flashed a smile at the mayor. ‘Trust me.’ He turned to Rei. ‘Are you ready, partner?’
‘Wait,’ said the scout as tried to prop his body up with his arm and looked at the two mercenaries. ‘You’ll go after them, just the two of you?’
‘It’s better for you than fighting them in the city tomorrow,’ said Zai. ‘Unless you have a better idea.’
‘You don’t understand,’ said the scout. ‘They’re—’
‘Look, I know how scary they are, okay?’ said Zai. ‘I’ve seen the originals in action; the Abaddon and the Seraphim once fought a battle near my hometown. I know they can kill you just by wagging their fingers. And these people are not much weaker than that. But I’ve been through worse—not a lot, I would admit, but I’ve fought against worse monsters than these hybrids. So unless your mayor is willing to risk this town and its citizens, we’re better off taking the fight to them.’ He turned to Rei once more. ‘You coming?’
‘You talk too much,’ said Rei as she walked out of the room. Zai trotted after her.
They were some distance away from Capernaum when Rei broke the silence. ‘Nice speech you gave back there. But do you have a plan?’
‘I dunno,’ said Zai with a shrug. ‘We can pick them off from long range, then close in when they’re weak enough.’
‘Remember, they can do long range, too,’ said Rei. ‘Some of them can cast Seraphim light spells.’
‘Then we better be perfect at dodging,’ said Zai. Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks and raised his left fist, a signal for Rei to stop and listen.
‘They’re coming,’ he said, drawing his crossbow. ‘To our right.’
Rei said nothing; a ball of light glowed softly on her right palm.
‘They’re close,’ said Zai. ‘Shoot now!’
Rei threw the ball of light on her palm towards a clump of trees to their right. As it came into contact with a tree the ball expanded, triggering a powerful explosion that threw gouts of soil and wood and levelled trees. Immediately afterwards a hail of light beams flew towards Rei and Zai’s position. Zai tumbled out of the way, and Rei jumped a distance away as a barrage of explosions rocked the spot where they had been standing. She looked to where Zai had landed, and she raised three fingers. Zai nodded. Three of the bandits had shot the light beams. The plan was to take them out and swing the long-range battle in their favour. There were the others, though, the Abaddon-like humans with physical strength and accelerated healing. They would probably form a wall around the Seraphim-like humans while they prepared their spells. The two had to rely on their quickness and the co-ordination of their attacks to create an opening in their defence and then exploit it.
Rei put her hands together and then drew them apart, forming a shaft of light that materialised like a spear. She took it in her right hand and threw it at the bandits. They split formation seamlessly, avoiding the spear of light, but it landed right in the middle of their formation, and shards of light erupted all round it, peppering the group with deadly projectiles. Some of them didn’t react fast enough, and their bodies were pierced with the brilliant shrapnel.
Among those who were struck were three of the Seraphim-types, Rei saw, noticing that their wounds were not healing fast enough. The ones who were uninjured rushed to the aid of their fallen comrades, and Rei seized this opening, using her explosive leg strength to lunge towards the Abaddon-type nearest her. She drew her sword and swung it upwards at the same time, but his opponent turned around and raised his scimitar to parry the incoming blow. Their swords clashed with a fierce clang, with enough force to shake Rei a bit. Concentrate, she though, clenching her teeth as she took another step, closing distance with another Abaddon-type who was too focused on his stricken comrade to notice the melee. This bandit’s reflexes were much slower than the other, since Rei managed to cleave him from shoulder to hip before he had time to ready his blade. That’s one down¸ Rei thought. Make that two, she corrected herself, noticing the dagger-like arrow sticking out of one of the Seraphim-type’s eye.
The bandit Rei had crossed swords with earlier noticed, this, too, and with a feral roar he charged furiously at Rei. As she turned her attention on him, Rei heard the swish of something flying through the air, and a second arrow struck the heart of another wounded Seraphim-type.
‘Find the other one!’ shouted the bandit who had been rushing towards Rei as he raised his blade to strike her down. Rei dodged to the left, but his opponent smoothly changed the downward swing into a horizontal slash. Rei raised her sword just in time to avoid being decapitated, but, again, the meeting of the two blades jolted her.
‘Rei!’ came a worried shout from the line of trees, and Rei dropped down to the ground, narrowly avoiding a beam of light directed at her. She looked around and noticed that the third Seraphim-type was up on his feet once more. Clucking her tongue, she dashed towards the line of trees, with two bandits on her tail. Another pair headed towards where Zai’s voice was last heard, and one was left behind to guard the last surviving Seraphim-type.
Once within the shadow of the trees, Rei turned around and prepared another spear of light, knowing that the same trick would never work twice, not if this outfit was as smart as she thought they were. She threw it at the caster, and this time the Abaddon-type nearest him shielded him with his own body. They learn too fast¸ thought Rei, but it barely flashed in her mind before she had to dodge and parry a pair of scimitars directed at her, wielded by the two Abaddon-types who had been chasing her. She tumbled away from the two; she, too, had learned that matching the strength of these Abaddon-types with her own strength would be a losing battle. So instead she relied on the other half of her abilities; she formed a ball of light on her palm and threw it at the pair attacking her. The two jumped out of the way, away from each other, and Rei used a burst of speed to exploit this momentary opening. Once she had closed the distance with one of them she did a one-handed downward slash that was easily brushed aside. In her right hand, however, was another ball of light. This she sent flying towards his body. It exploded on impact, tearing his body to shreds. During this time the other bandit had closed the distance and swung his scimitar down on Rei, who tumbled out of the way.
‘Damned monkey!’ he cursed as he leapt towards Rei. In one smooth movement, as soon as he had landed, he swung his blade down. Rei had no time to dodge the blow, but she instinctively raised her sword to parry it. She staggered backwards, but thankfully her guard held up. The bandit grunted as he forced more strength into his arms, but after hearing two thuds, he lost strength in his right arm as a pair of arrows struck them. Rei used this moment of weakness to brush the sword off and execute a downward slash that split him in half.
‘Took you long enough,’ said Rei.
‘I knew you were hanging,’ said Zai. ‘Five down.’
Rei nodded in response. Then a shiver ran down her spine as her head spun to look towards where the Seraphim-type stood. ‘Oh, crap,’ she said, ‘Run.’ She had noticed that an orb of pure white now shone where the Seraphim-type once stood. That’s a spell even I don’t know¸ thought Rei. She noticed that the two who had been chasing fruitlessly after Zai have returned to their comrades. An area spell?
‘Zai, to me!’ she cried as she ran towards the bandits.
‘Are you insane?’ shouted Zai from behind her.
‘They’re aiming for the—’ A tempest of light cut her off. She dove to the ground, and the blinding rain missed her head by inches as it struck the forest and razed it to the ground.
‘For the trees,’ she continued. ‘You okay?’
‘No, I’m not,’ said Zai as he got back to his feet. ‘How the hell do I fight those monsters without cover?’
‘I’ll draw the three away; you take out the caster,’ said Rei.
‘Right,’ said Zai. ‘I know you’re as strong as a bear, Rei, but you’ve been throwing a lot of those light beams around. You sure you can still go on?’
‘I’ll be fine,’ she replied, but her laboured breathing belied her response.
‘Hey, Rei, let’s slow down,’ said Zai. ‘There are four of them left. I’m sure they won’t be attacking any towns any time soon.’
‘No!’ shouted Rei, making Zai jump back. She took a deep breath, and continued in a calmer tone. ‘We can take them all out, right here, right now. So let’s do it.’
Zai looked on silently at Rei as she prepared another light spell. She’s really heated up by this thing…
Rei and Zai were able to hold that lengthy conversation (lengthy in a battlefield, that is) because the four surviving outlaws chose not to attack them. They realised that fighting piecemeal had caused their number to be whittled down by their co-ordinated attacks, so they decided not to make a move unless all of them were involved in it. Their remaining caster prepared another huge spell, similar to the one that levelled the forest. But before he could unleash the spell, a thin beam of light pierced his wrist, and the reflexive jerking of his hand made the orb of light lose control, swallowing him and his comrades in the explosion.
Rei looked on, shocked.
The beam of light didn’t come from her.
‘What do we have here? Pretenders playing at soldiers?’ The voice came from a figure who sat atop one of the few trees that survived the destructive hail of light. She was a small girl clad in green, holding a golden parasol almost as tall as she was that she perched on her right shoulder.
‘Yes, I know.’
Despite the human-like profile, there was no mistaking it—the pointed ears, the angular facial features, and the palpable aura of power that radiated from her.
She was a real Seraphim.