‘And what was that explosion?’ said the mayor of Capernaum. ‘I believe it came from the direction of your fighting. Do you know what caused it?’
‘Ah, that?’ said Zai, scratching his head with a short laugh. ‘That’s nothing to worry about.’
‘But whoever caused it might bring danger to our town,’ the mayor protested.
‘She won’t,’ said Zai, flashing a wide grin at the mayor. ‘You have my word on that.’
As this conversation took place Rei stood a bit behind Zai, staring broodily at his back, not even reacting to her partner’s crack.
‘Well…’ the mayor muttered to himself. He was silent for a moment before answering. ‘I’ll take your word for it, then. So the bandits have all been dealt with?’
‘Yes. They won’t be bothering your town again. In fact, they won’t be bothering anything except scavengers and flies.’
The mayor nodded in reply, staring gravely at the floor despite Zai’s attempt at lightening the mood.
‘I am ashamed to have been part of the experiment,’ he said. ‘Nothing good came out of it.’
Zai found nothing humorous to reply with, and Rei looked up at the mayor, her mouth a grim line.
The two mercenaries left the town of Capernaum to the cheers of its citizens for a job well done. Or, at least, that’s what the townsfolk thought. (The mayor had paid them in full, in any case.) The two knew differently, of course. Their job was halfway done when something happened, brought about when an unlikely pair interrupted their battle. And then another thing failed to happen, turned down by the sullen young woman walking before Zai. She still hasn’t discussed that decision with him, and he was reluctant to press her about it.
Zai understood her reluctance to accept help from the Abaddon and the Seraphim, the two races whose battles brought chaos to the neutral humans. He was an orphan like Rei, but, unlike her, he lost his parents under far less violent circumstances. His mother died giving birth to him, and his father died when he was barely a teen, succumbing to some epidemic as it swept across their village. Zai had little anger for the two races—in fact, he had special respect for the Abaddon, who had once come to their village and liberated them from the tyranny of a group of brigands who had made camp nearby.
Unfortunately, Rei had no similar experience with them. All she knew about them was that they fought their war over human lands, one that led to widespread banditry and, ultimately, to the deaths of her parent. Also, her powers came from them. Zai wondered how she could live with her powers while hating their source.
The pair took the main road from Capernaum to Caesarea, the capital of the human territory in Geos. The journey would take two days. As they passed the miles in silence, Rei mulled over her decision to reject Mei Lin’s offer. She knew now why they had to deceive her; she wouldn’t have been able to draw on the full strength of her Seraphim abilities otherwise. But she still resented them for that. When she saw Zai fall unconscious beside her the horrible sight of her parents’ mutilated bodies flashed in her mind. Afterwards she rushed at them, the fear of loss, of being alone once more, lending strength to her rage and forcing her to cast prudence aside.
I’ve lived this long without depending on you. I won’t start now.
The two finally reached the headquarters of the mercenaries’ guild in Caesarea. The city was the biggest one in the human territories of Geos, extending far beyond its original walls erected by the first settlers after escaping from the wrack of their world. The governor’s palace, the embassies of the Abaddon and the Seraphim, the various academies, and the mansions of the rich were found within the old walled city; the merchant’s quarter was just outside the south gate. The further one lived from the city centre, the poorer one was, until the outskirts were filled with shanties erected by refugees from the last war, hoping to find some security from the war by living near the great city.
The mercenaries’ guild main office was found in the merchant’s quarter, a nondescript two-storey building made of mud bricks. The two walked in and headed directly for Kinu’s room.
‘Hi,’ said a seated Kinu nonchalantly, sparing a glance at them before resuming reading a piece of parchment. ‘I didn’t expect you to be back so soon.’
Rei said nothing; her piercing stare was all the answer she gave him. Kinu sighed theatrically as she turned away from him.
‘I take it she didn’t like what I did,’ he then asked Zai after they watched her shut the door behind her. Zai shrugged in response.
‘She did well on her first try, you know, casting a spell that could blow up a mountain. But when they asked her if she wanted in, she said no. It’s always hard to read any woman’s mind, but that one… Her mind could be speaking some plant language, for all we know.’
‘Well, that’s too bad. But moving on,’ said Kinu as he stood up. ‘I’m still kind of glad you’re both here. I’ve got a hot one for you two.’ He walked towards Zai and handed him a small scroll. ‘These clients of ours… They don’t care how much it costs, but they care about how quickly—and quietly—you can do the job.’
‘Well, I hope they won’t regret saying those kinds of things,’ Zai said with an impish grin before walking out of Kinu’s office.
Once out in the corridor, Zai opened the scroll. After a quick scan of its contents, he whistled.
‘Rei’s not gonna like this one bit.’
Rei didn’t like it, as Zai had predicted, but she didn’t have a choice, either. Kinu later told them that the guild won’t accept other cases until this one was solved; all available mercenaries were out in the streets, helping in one way or another in this case. And so, the next day, she found herself walking behind Zai, looking up at the castle-like walls of the Abaddon embassy in Caesarea.
One of the Abaddon’s emissaries to Caesarea had been assassinated a few days ago, and the tenuous truce between the two powerful races that lived north and south of the human lands had been stretched thin once more. The Abaddon naturally blamed the Seraphim for the murder, and the Seraphim accused the Abaddon of killing one of their own for the sake of brinksmanship. There were very few within either camp who wished for the situation to be resolved peacefully, and so the ones who provided the biggest impetus for a peaceful resolution of the situation were the humans, who had suffered terribly during the war and would not want to experience the same misfortune again. The mayor of Caesarea (who was also the head of the alliance of human towns; he was, in essence, the de facto leader of all humans) requested the mercenary’s guild to send people who can enforce a neutral investigation of the assassination. Somehow Kinu managed to convince the reluctant Abaddon chief ambassador to allow his people into the crime scene “to help find a conclusion none could disagree with.” And so Rei and Zai followed a surly guard from the gate of the fortress-like Abaddon embassy, through the heart of the main building (where, curiously, all doors leading to other areas were closed, and all they saw were the hostile glares of the Abaddon), and then finally to a large room in the corner of the building. There was only one small hole in the window to mar the otherwise well-kept room, a perfectly round hole from which only a few spider cracks radiated.
‘One of the Seraphim did it, I tell you,’ said the guard. It was his first words to them after his explanation of how they should conduct themselves inside the embassy, his first words where he treated them as anything other than trespassers; in fact he seemed to be acknowledging them the investigators that they were supposed to be. ‘No one else could make a hole that precise in a glass window.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Zai playfully. ‘I bet you I can make a hole like that with a longbow.’
The guard frowned, if that were possible for someone whose face was already a mask of surliness.
‘Perhaps you could,’ he conceded. ‘But there was neither arrow nor quarrel on the emissary’s body. Can you make your arrow disappear after hitting its target, too?’
Zai grinned. ‘Okay, so that I can’t do. Now,’ he said as he stood up from his inspection of the window, ‘may we see the body?’
‘That is impossible. We have already buried him.’
‘Seriously? Oh, this is great. We only have your word as proof that there was nothing on his body.’
‘Are you calling us liars?’
‘No, I’m not, but you clearly aren’t thinking straight.’
‘I am thinking straight. We know that one of the Seraphim did it. No one else had any reason to. Not to mention that no one else could do that.’ He pointed to the hole in the window.
Zai sighed, having given up on reasoning with the Abaddon guard.
‘We’re sorry to disturb you, then. We’d like to leave now.’ Upon hearing those words, Rei stopped scrutinising the walls of the office and turned to stare at him. ‘Let’s go, Rei. We’re done here.’
They were guided out of the embassy through the same path they took in; the Abaddon refused to give them too much information about the interior of their embassy. Their exit was just as silent and as hostile as their entry, and the pair took a big sigh as soon as their escort left them to return to his post.
‘We won’t get anything out of that guy,’ said Zai, not hiding his exasperation within earshot of the embassy. ‘Geez, I hate stubborn people. If someone wants to make a war between their races start, of course he’ll make it look like the Seraphim did it.’
‘What will we do, then?’ said Rei, still looking askance at her partner. ‘We hardly have a clue from the crime scene.’
‘I’m a long-range weapon user, remember? I know how snipers think.’ He grinned. ‘I already have the most important clue from that room, and any more time we spend there is just less time to investigate that clue. I looked out the window of the target’s room, and thought to myself, where’s the best place to shoot from? And I just happened to see that tower with a convenient view of the Abaddon embassy.’ He pointed to the library tower of Caesarea’s school of medicine. ‘It’s not a public place like a church, so I’m sure they have records of who were in there during the time of the killing.’
Normally, only students, instructors, and certain support personnel would be allowed into academies, but Kinu gave the pair a warrant signed by the mayor that designated them as the official investigators of the assassination, and that everyone in town should co-operate with them. There was nothing stated about punishment for those who refused to obey, but the mayor’s reputation as laissez-faire when it came business but strict regarding security matters would speak for itself. Presented with such a document, the chief of the guards of the school of medicine allowed them in after some grumbling. To avoid a total of loss of face, he subjected the mercenary pair to a barrage of admonitions about damaging or pilfering school property, in response to which Zai nodded wearily. Rei was about to step past the gates when she suddenly stopped, her gaze fixed on some distant thing only she could perceive.
‘Rei?’ said Zai with some concern.
‘I remembered something I have to do,’ said Rei, and Zai understood the look in her eyes, if not her words. She had sensed something amiss. ‘Catch you later.’
Rei walked away, aimlessly it seemed, leaving the opulent walled city and towards the residential areas. The towering houses that blocked out the sun and the narrow streets gave off a feeling of confinement, even constriction, but Rei walked on, guided infallibly by her instincts.
Another turn into another nondescript street, and Rei finally caught a glimpse of her quarry. A light grey cloak fluttered briefly before disappearing into another corner.
‘At least someone’s not following the dark-coloured cloak trend,’ thought Rei irrelevantly as she picked up the pace to chase the fleeing figure.
The two cloaked figures played their game of chase through the maze-like outskirts of the city, like ghosts barely catching sight of one another. Soon they were in the very edge of the city itself. As Rei turned another corner, her instincts compelled her to take a small step to the right. Something whizzed past the spot where she had been. Taking a swift glance at where she saw the projectile come from, she took a deep breath and then dashed forward before leaping up to the rooftop of the only stone building in a sea of wooden shacks. There, she stood face-to-face with her mark.
He was a lean young man with blond hair, cut short except for the part that covered the left half of his face. Rei was already above-average in height, but he was taller than her. His light grey cloak hung loosely from his shoulders, and underneath he wore light chainmail armour. A gladius hung sheathed on his belt, but no bow could be found on him.
Rei drew the longsword from her waist. ‘You fired an arrow without using a bow, but you don’t look like one of the Seraphim. What are you?’
The man said nothing in reply. He locked eyes with Rei, no longer thinking of fleeing. Rei took his invitation and charged headlong towards him, her sword held high in the air. She brought it down over her foe’s head. He drew his gladius and easily parried her blow with it. Rei’s eyes widened as she noticed how easily the man’s short sword stopped her much heavier blade, but she shook her shock off and hammered the gladius with her longsword. The man’s guard held, and he turned Rei’s sword aside as he threw a kick at her exposed left side. A gasp of pain escaped Rei’s lips as the man leapt away from her. He stared evenly at her, as if inviting her to try again.
‘Don’t screw with me!’ said Rei, lunging towards him. The man turned her blade aside again and delivered another kick to her left side. Rei used her Abaddon powers to redirect her sword’s momentum, bringing it under his guard to slash at his leg. The man used his pivot leg to step away from the swing; his foot was within a whisker of being severed. Rei took a step towards him, not giving him a chance to balance himself, but she had to take a side step to avoid being skewered when the man sent a beam of light from his gladius.
‘It’s unfair how you can swing that sword around like it’s a knife,’ said the man. ‘I can barely keep up with it.’
‘You’re not even taking this fight seriously,’ Rei spat out.
‘It wouldn’t be fair if I did.’
‘Like I said,’ said Rei as a formless blade of light twice as tall as she was formed in her left hand. ‘Don’t screw with me!’ She charged at him, brandishing both blades.
‘Looks like I have to take this a little more seriously,’ said the man. A light blue aura covered his body as he dodged nimbly to avoid being hacked by Rei. Rei tried to redirect her swings, but she found that the strength in her right wrist wasn’t enough to change her sword’s momentum. When she started calling on her Abaddon powers, the weapon of light in her left hand disappeared.
‘Abaddon powers don’t mix well with Seraphim ones,’ said the man, disappointment evident in his voice. ‘You should know that already.’
‘What?’ said Rei in astonishment.
‘You should be more surprised, imouto. Here I am, using Seraphim powers, yet my gladius can block a weapon twice its length. Aren’t you wondering how I can do that? Or maybe you’re just slow.’
Bewilderment overcame Rei’s anger at being insulted. Imouto…? What is he talking about…?
White light shone from the man’s free right hand. ‘You are not unique. You were just the third of us.’
‘The third,’ Rei, frozen in shock, muttered to herself. She remembered being told that she was the first of a new batch of hybrids. Was it a lie? Or was the man before him the product of an altogether different experiment? Just what the hell is going on?
‘Better dodge this one,’ said the man as he etched a strange looking circular symbol in the air with his blade. Each stroke left a line drawn out of light. ‘This is the same spell I killed that emissary with, and I don’t want you dying on me.’ He then sheathed his gladius. ‘Nii-sama would be very mad if that happened.’
Rei’s body tensed up as she observed a spiral of wind centred on the man before her. The ball of light in his right hand sucked all the energy around it, expanding as it did so. The man then held up his hands as if he were carrying a long object before him.
‘Quirinus,’ he said as the ball of light transformed into a spear, one so blindingly sharp that Rei could feel it cutting her even from a distance. Concentrating all her Abaddon powers in her feet, she waited with bated breath for his throw.
‘This spear will pass through everything, but will only pierce its intended target.’ As he said that he threw the spear straight at Rei, who dodged to the right with a side step. As soon as she landed, the man was right in front of him, his body glowing with a light blue aura. He was already in the stance for a strong straight punch, and he threw one full force at Rei’s stomach. The mercenary flew back before colliding with a shack, smashing it to pieces.
‘I’m just the second,’ said the man, turning his back on Rei. ‘You should get stronger sooner, imouto. Nii-sama’s waiting for you.’ Soon after that, as if flying with the wind, his form disappeared from Rei’s sight.