No doubt, what stood before Rei and Zai was a real Seraphim.
The precision with which she attacked the bandit―she didn’t kill him outright, which would have dispelled the spell he had been casting harmlessly; instead she disrupted his casting with an attack to her wrist, causing his spell to lose control and take out even his comrades―attested to that, as well as the feeling of foreboding creeping down their spines as she cast her gaze upon them. The two mercenaries could only stare back and wait for her next action.
After some time, it was Rei who broke the uneasy silence.
‘Hey,’ she said, ‘remember that time we fought that sea monster in Tyre?’
‘Yeah,’ said Zai quietly.
‘They said that one’s even stronger than the Abaddon or the Seraphim, right?’
‘And we still beat it, didn’t we?’
‘So compared to that, this one’s a piece of cake, won’t it?’
‘Hold your horses, partner,’ said Zai. ‘We’re not even sure if we need to fight her.’
‘You’re half-right,’ said the Seraphim, and her soft voice managed to reach their ears, even with the considerable distance between them. ‘I’m not interested in fighting the human. I’m only after the pretender.’
‘Like hell!’ shouted Zai. ‘You mess with my partner, you mess with me.’
‘As I’ve said,’ she said as a blinding flash shone from her body. Rei heard a thud near her, and she turned to see Zai collapsed on the ground. ‘I’m only after the pretender.’
‘What did you do to him?’ screamed Rei as she rushed towards the Seraphim. But one of the bandits suddenly stood up to block her approach. He was at near the edge of the Seraphim-type’s failed spell, and his injuries, which were lighter than for the others, have already healed. He raised his scimitar to cut down Rei, who was out of position to dodge or defend herself. She put in an additional burst of speed, hoping to outrun him instead. But before the blow came, a giant rod of metal swung down on the bandit’s head, crushing his skull. Rei recklessly leapt away from this ambush, twisting her ankle in the process. She fell down to the ground as she stared at the newcomer.
What she found standing before her was a mountain of a man, clad in a crimson shirt studded with leather plates. He wielded a metal rod almost as tall and as wide as he was. Is that a tonfa? Rei thought, noticing the handle jutting out of it.
When she looked at the face, she noticed that he was not human. His pointed ears and brow ridge attested to that.
An Abaddon? Here?
It was another opponent that she could not match, even if she were at full strength. But when she started concentrating her Abaddon powers on her foot, she realised that she had a chance to escape. Enmity existed between the Abaddon and the Seraphim, even now, more than a year after the conclusion of their century-long war. They maintained their standing armies, kept close watch on their ancient enemies, and waited for a chance to renew the war. If the Abaddon and the Seraphim fought here, she could use that time to heal her ankle, get to Zai, and escape.
As that thought flashed through Rei’s mind, the Seraphim spoke up.
‘Oh, my, Ei-chan, I thought I told you I’ll handle this alone?’
Rei was about to look around to see if the Seraphim had a companion hidden somewhere, but she noticed the Abaddon shaking his head, as if in reply to the Seraphim’s question. What the hell was that?
‘Ah, well,’ said the Seraphim, as she took a long leap, landing squarely on the Abaddon’s broad shoulder, ‘since you’re here, we might as well teach this pretender a good lesson.’
They’re allies? Rei thought in shock. It was inconceivable that any one of the Abaddon and the Seraphim would speak civilly to each other, let alone be allies, but it was right there in front of her. She brushed aside her astonishment and focused on healing her twisted ankle, while keeping an eye on the next moves of the unlikely pair.
‘Hey,’ said the pixie-like Seraphim, ‘if you don’t get up from there, this won’t be fun at all.’
Rei gritted her teeth, but she refused to budge. She didn’t have the strength nor the concentration to spare to stand up while her foot healed.
The Seraphim sighed audibly before pointing her parasol at Rei. ‘If you insist,’ she said as a beam of light shot out from it.
If Rei tried to dodge now, her healing would have been interrupted, and her injury would probably worsen. So instead she concentrated her Seraphim powers in her finger and fired a beam of her own in an attempt to deflect the incoming attack. It barely worked; the Seraphim’s beam flew by inches from her ear, but she survived. And her foot’s now completely healed. She had a chance now.
Or so Rei told herself. The truth was that her battle with the bandits had taken a lot out of her, and so had her last spell. Her decision to cast the light beam at full power had been the correct one―had she held back, the Seraphim’s spell would most likely have struck her. But now she had nothing left to fight with, save her flagging physical strength.
And even if she were at full strength, she doubted that she could defeat one of them, let alone both.
‘Oh, you’re finally standing up,’ said the Seraphim as she clapped her hands. ‘Let’s go play with her, Ei-chan.’ The Abaddon raised his weapon in reply, and then he dashed forward. To Rei it looked like a steel wall charging towards her. Blocking it would be futile, so she waited for the very last moment possible before evading the attack; otherwise the Abaddon would have time to adjust to her move. What she didn’t count on was that the Seraphim would guess where she would dodge, sending a hail of light towards her. Concentrating all of her remaining strength in her foot, she managed to dodge the Seraphim’s trap with a timely leap away. But she landed on one knee, gasping heavily. That was it; she was spent, exhausted beyond measure.
‘Tired already?’ said the Seraphim. ‘That’s good, that’s good. I guess this time the lesson will sink in. Ei-chan.’ She tapped the Abaddon’s shoulder, who responded with a nod. Another charge was coming.
Get up, said Rei, forcing herself to get up, to move, to show any resistance. But it was useless―she couldn’t even muster the energy to fear her impending death.
Then she felt a strange energy bursting from her body, flowing through her. It flooded her with a superhuman strength—no, it would be better to say that it was inhuman. In one fleeting moment, she understood everything.
The Abaddon brought his metal tonfa down with enough strength to crack the ground, but Rei brought her empty hand up to meet it. A strange beam of light erupted from it, and it met the Abaddon’s weapon with a deafening clang. The Seraphim tapped the Abaddon in the shoulder and pointed at Rei’s left hand.
‘We better run, Ei-chan,’ she said. ‘We won’t survive taking that head-on.’
The Abaddon leapt away from Rei in one powerful step, taking him back to where the trees that surrounded the clearing once stood. He noticed a glint of light above the distant mountains, the herald of a new day.
The Seraphim had already seen that, and she was more focused on Rei. ‘That’s the sigil of Sol,’ she said, biting her lip. ‘That’s too strong a spell for a first-timer to use.’
A strange network of white lines, forming a roughly circular sign, was drawn on the ground beside Rei, and it was connected to the index finger of her left hand. Rei raised her strange weapon, and its tip met the sun’s first ray. A chariot of light materialised in front of her, charging with blinding speed towards the pair.
The resulting explosion was felt and heard even in Capernaum.
* * *
Rei’s sweat trickled down her forehead and dripped into her eyes, which were already reddened due to an earlier outpour of tears. She blinked it away as she raised her mattock high, and then brought it down on the parched earth, further widening the hole she had been digging ever since the sun rose—ever since she found out that her parents were dead. She was digging their graves.
She had left home hours before sunrise, out to do her usual chore of picking out the worms and caterpillars from their growing crops. They would be ready to harvest in a few days, and it would do them no good if pests could eat them before they could be sold.
Finished with her chores, she directed her steps back home. Rei was within sight of their tiny cottage in the forest when she heard a crash and a scream issue from it. Shrinking in terror, she hid behind a tree as soon as she heard the sound of rough voices coming from her home. Then she heard another scream, one she recognised as her mother’s, followed by the sound of metal cutting flesh, and her right arm moved on its own, wishing to pull her out of her hiding place and into the house. She had to grab it with her left hand and weld it close to her to prevent it from moving. Her fingernails dug deep into her wrist, drawing blood, as another crash and another sound of metal on flesh emanated from her home.
After some time, the voices slowly disappeared, and Rei risked taking a peek from behind her hiding place. She saw the back of five or so men leaving her house, taking away with them the various stores of food that they had prepared for when winter came. After she saw the last of them disappear, she ran quietly but hurriedly into her home.
Amidst the shattered furniture were the bodies of her parents, their throats slit cruelly. She took her mother’s hand and dragged it outside the house. She had to bury them before preparing her meal, Rei thought. Her actions were incongruous, her movements stiff. Only the tears falling freely from her eyes gave sign to how much their deaths have affected her.
She, of all people, had no right to mourn them. She stood by and allowed them to die, a sin she would bear for the rest of her life. She would forever burden herself with buying her own life with her parents’ deaths, and so she had to live on.
A few days later, Rei was out in the village, dragging a small cart full of tomatoes and eggplants.
‘How are you, Rei?’ many a villager would say to her as she passed them by. ‘Are you and your parents well?’ She would bow politely, and say, ‘Good morning,’ but nothing more. Her house was too far away from the village for them to know what had happened.
When she returned from the village, she saw in front of her home a golden-haired man talking to the innkeeper of the Rolling Moss.
‘Is that her?’ said the unknown man, his eyes fixed on Rei.
‘Yes, sir, that’s Rei.’
The golden-haired man then walked over to her. She ignored them and tried to get back to her home, but he blocked her path.
‘I heard what happened to you,’ he said.
Rei looked down and tried to move around him, but he persisted in blocking her path.
‘What will you do with your life?’ he asked.
‘To live,’ she answered. ‘Now leave me alone.’
The man was taken aback by her answer. Most of the orphans he had met either acted tough and swore vengeance on whoever had killed their parents, or gave in to tears, wishing to see them again. But she confronted the truth so readily—that revenge was futile, and death permanent. This was not a child he could trick.
‘I will tell you the truth,’ said the man. ‘I have been collecting orphans all over the human lands and trying to give them the abilities of the two races. Unfortunately, some of them don’t survive the procedure, and so I have to keep on finding people. But those who do survive get to keep their powers forever.’
Rei looked up and stared at his face ‘If I go with you,’ she said, ‘I can become strong?’
‘If you survive, yes. Stronger than any human.’
‘Then I will go.’ The man nodded and walked back to the innkeeper. He handed him a bag of coins before turning to Rei.
‘Follow me,’ he said. Rei nodded and walked after him without a glance at the innkeeper.
She had been taken to an ordinary monastery in a nearby city, and, after being shown her bed, she was introduced to the other children. They all had dead eyes that no child should have, just like hers. That night, before going to bed, she looked for the man who brought her there. She found him in the monastery’s dining hall, writing a letter.
‘What is it, child?’ he said. He stopped writing and turned to face her.
‘When?’ she said, and the man nodded, understanding her question.
Almost a week passed by after those words before he met that man again. It had been in the dead of the night, when all the other children had been sleeping, when she heard a soft knock. She opened the door and found him standing before it.
‘Follow me,’ he said, and Rei followed him wordlessly.
They were in a part of the monastery forbidden to the children, containing a door that was kept locked at all times. The man unlocked the door and took a torch from an alcove before entering. Behind the door was a flight of stairs that led down—how far down, Rei couldn’t tell.
At the bottom of the stairs was a cavernous chamber, where white-cloaked people shuffled around. Some were accompanied by children as young as she was, and others were carrying wounded teens between them. The nearest group of white cloaks snapped to attention when the two walked in.
‘My lord,’ said one of them, bowing down with a flourish.
‘I thought I told you not to call me that,’ he replied coldly. ‘In this world, that title is no longer mine.’
‘But—’ He was interrupted with a raised hand.
‘Enough. Take this child,’ he said, turning to point at Rei. ‘She will be the first sample of the new experiment.’
‘As you wish,’ the white-cloaked man replied.
‘Survive,’ the man said to Rei. ‘Show me your strength.’ As he turned to climb back up the flight of stairs, she caught the glimpse of a tattoo on his left wrist—a crowned sun.
* * *
‘—ah, she’s always like that.’
‘But seriously, I wasn’t expecting that. I thought she’d cast a lesser sign as a last resort—still a powerful spell, mind you—, but I didn’t expect a full-blown divine sigil from her first try.’
‘You should have been with us when we dealt with the mad auroch of Antioch.’
‘Not that story!’ Rei screeched as she sat up.
‘Rei,’ said Zai with a smile. ‘You’re awake. You should’ve told me sooner.’
‘What are you doing with them?’ she screamed as she pointed at the pair who was seated beside Zai. They were the Abaddon and the Seraphim who had attacked them.
‘Ah, them,’ said Zai nonchalantly. ‘The Seraphim is Mei Lin, and the silent Abaddon with her is AA. They’re good guys.’
‘No, they’re not,’ her voice no longer a scream, but still very much hysterical. ‘They tried to kill us, remember?’
‘Not really,’ said the pixie-like Seraphim. ‘If we wanted you dead, you wouldn’t even have seen us.’
‘Kinu asked them to train you,’ said Zai. ‘At least, that’s what they told me. Anyway, the first lesson seems to have worked. Don’t you remember your last spell?’
‘My last—’ Rei clutched her head as vague flashes of memory washed over her. She remembered seeing everything as fragile objects, and understanding how best to shatter them. ‘A sigil.’
‘The sigil of Sol,’ said Mei Lin, ‘summoning the chariot of the Sun. You foolishly used it here and caused all this destruction.’ She swept her hand around them. ‘Tell me if you’ve seen any other pretender do something like this.’
The land had already been razed by Rei’s fight with the bandits, but traces of that battle could no longer be seen. Instead, a giant crater dominated the once forested landscape.
‘I—did this?’ stammered Rei.
Zai nodded. ‘If it weren’t for that big guy’—he pointed at the Abaddon—‘I’d be toast.’
‘How did I do that?’
Mei Lin cleared her throat. ‘We’re not supposed to teach you anything until you accept our offer to train you full time, but… When you have thrown away what holds you back, you allow the thing that empowers you to show up.’
‘No more free advice,’ said Mei Lin. ‘Now, will you train under us or not?’
Rei stood up and stared icily at the Seraphim. ‘I refuse,’ she said before turning away and walking back to town.
‘Hey, Rei, what are you doing?’ said Zai as he stood up, alarmed, and scrambled after her. ‘Wait up!’