‘Welcome to our empire,’ said Mei Lin with a smile to Rei. She stretched her arms out as if to encompass its extent. In her right hand she carried her customary golden parasol.
Their ‘empire’ consisted of a sizeable clearing within a vast forest on the eastern border of the human lands, about a day’s walk from Rei’s old home. In the middle of the clearing stood a stone cottage; its walls showed signs of age, but it was otherwise in good repair.
AA mutely stood before the house, and Mei Lin, perched on his left shoulder, did all the introductions.
‘How was the journey?’ she said. ‘I’m sure you’re tired. You can take a rest insi—’
‘No,’ Rei cut her off abruptly. ‘I came here for one reason only: to train.’
‘I see,’ said Mei Lin. She tapped AA on the shoulder and spoke to him. ‘Please prepare a meal for us. I’ll take care of her first.’
The silent Abaddon nodded and walked back to the cottage. Mei Lin hopped off her shoulder and landed on the ground. As soon as her feet touched the earth, Rei flinched, as if struck by a strong blow.
When they first met, she remembered the feeling of foreboding that crept down her spine as she stared at her and Zai like a hawk before mice. But her presence this time was more overwhelming; it was as if Rei were a flickering flame about to be snuffed out by a strong wind before her.
‘Rest and food are important, young woman,’ said Mei Lin. From her parasol erupted a staff of light roughly five times her height. On its end was affixed a curved blade. ‘If you don’t rest and eat when you can, you won’t survive long in this world.’ She smiled at Rei, one that a predator reserved for a prey it wished to toy with, and then she charged.
Rei mustered her courage and drew her sword to meet the storm.
* * *
‘The Seraphim are involved?’ said Kinu to Zai.
They were in Kinu’s office in the headquarters, the morning after Zai’s information-gathering excursion.
‘I don’t know, to be honest,’ said Zai. ‘The only thing I’m sure of is that I saw one of the Abaddon exchange message with a man, who then talked to someone who then entered the Seraphim embassy. It’s not exactly proof of a Seraphim conspiracy. I never even saw one of the Seraphim. The guy with the hood could be an Abaddon spy, for all we know.’
‘Is there any way you could find out?’
Zai was silent for a moment. ‘Their security around the embassy’s a tough nut to crack, especially at night. I could stake out one of the entrances and wait for Mr Hood to come out, but…’
‘If you get caught at this time, it’ll be tough to explain to the Seraphim why you’re staking them out. The Abaddon would get suspicious, too.’
‘Well, yeah, there’s the political stuff, too,’ said Zai. ‘I’ll do my best not to get caught, of course, but that means I risk letting this fellow slip under my nose.’
‘Okay, Zai, I’m letting you do this.’ Kinu heaved a sigh. ‘But do prioritise not getting caught. We might have other ways of getting leads, but if you get caught, and our neighbours to the north and south get it into their heads that the other party might be pulling something on them…’
‘Yes, I understand,’ said Zai with surprising seriousness. ‘I lived through that war, too.’
* * *
‘Why would you help me?’ Rei asked as she shared a meal with AA and Mei Lin.
Rei’s fight with Mei Lin had been completely one-sided. Even when she summoned her own light weapon, it was a formless thing easily shattered by a blow from Mei Lin’s scythe. Besides, while she wielded her Seraphim blade, she was unable to call upon her Abaddon powers and was easily cornered by the agile Mei Lin. After forcing Rei to concede defeat, the Seraphim dragged her into the house and sat her on the dining table. AA then placed a bowl of soup before them and took out a chunk of roasted meat and a basketful of bread.
‘You came here without knowing that?’ said Mei Lin as she tore a tiny piece of bread. ‘How cute.’
‘Do you know where I got my powers from?’
‘I do,’ said Mei Lin. ‘Some humans desecrated the remains of my brethren, as well as those of Ei-chan’s, and they cultured whatever they got on orphans, intending to use them as living weapons. She took a sip of soup. ‘But you had nothing to do with that, right? You were just a test subject.’
‘I volunteered,’ said Rei. ‘I wasn’t tricked into being a test subject; I offered myself to be their guinea pig because I wanted to have your powers.’
‘Then I hope they’ve been helpful to you,’ said Mei Lin after she had wiped her mouth with a piece of cloth. ‘Listen, Rei-chan. I understand why your people did what they did. I can even forgive them. They did what they felt they had to do. A cornered animal would do all it could to survive.’ She pointed to AA. ‘Ei-chan knows that fact all too well.’
The giant Abaddon grunted and nodded.
‘If I can make peace and live with a sworn enemy of my people, then letting your kind’s sins be water under the bridge is child’s play to me.’
* * *
As he crouched on the roof of a house overlooking a darkened street, Zai pondered inevitability.
Kinu had warned him of the risks involved in trying to infiltrate the Seraphim embassy, not that he needed any warning; as a spy without diplomatic protection, were he caught, he could be tortured at leisure before being executed without trial. Neither Kinu nor the mayor of Caesarea could intervene to save him—if the Seraphim knew, or even suspected, that he was working for a foreign power, they might just start a war against all humans. It would be a war with only one winner.
So Zai tried to find another way of getting the information he needed. Calling in all the favours owed to him over his years of working as a mercenary, he collected snippets of information from people he thought could help him: embassy guards, retired and current diplomats, spies and spy hunters, etc. All of them technically worked under the mayor, and he could have just used the authority given to him to demand information from them, but he opted against doing that. For one thing, people tended to be more cooperative when they felt as if they were doing someone a favour than when they were being ordered. For another, and more importantly for Zai, using official channels would make it easier for Abaddon and Seraphim spies (he was sure they had them in the human government) to notice his actions. Since the whole point of the circumspection was to avoid detection, gathering information that way was not really an option.
His informants gave him confirmation of what he had already known: there was a leak high up in the Abaddon embassy. One of the city guards deployed around the embassy walls overheard a conversation about what the Abaddon official’s assassination meant. Was it the culmination of their internal mole hunt? Would the stringent security measures over the embassy finally be lifted? A high-ranking official in the city’s security apparatus received an overbearing request, almost a demand, from the Abaddon for the Caesarean city guards to keep the Seraphim away from their embassy for at least five kilometres. When asked for a reason for their ‘request’, their enquiries were ignored.
There were dozens of other bits of information from all over, painting a picture of a frantic mole hunt within the Abaddon embassy. One detail, however, did not reach him, and it was the one most important to him: the identity of the mole. None of his contacts heard a name mentioned, neither any of those being investigated, or even suspected—except that of the recently assassinated official.
And so he was back to resorting to the method he was most reticent to use. It was also, unfortunately or fortunately, the method of gathering information that he was best at. This was why he lay crouched on a roof overlooking an alley that led from the Seraphim embassy at an hour past midnight.
This was, in fact, the third such night that he had staked this particular street out, that same one the spy he had been chasing passed through, a sleepy residential area, a stretch of road that was useful for shaking off a tail—no one else passed through here, except for those who lived here, so anyone out of place would have been noticed easily. But it was also easy to stake out for that very same reason. Since rarely did anyone use pass by it, those who weren’t residents who used the street would easily be noticed.
Zai heard footsteps approaching his position. Peering carefully over the ledge of the roof he was hiding on, he saw two people walking slowly towards him, both of whom wore thick cloaks and carried baskets filled with fruit on their right hands. One of the figures had shoulder-length grey hair, while the other had a hood over her head. He heard the old woman open the conversation.
‘It’s been colder than usual this time of the year, hasn’t it?’
‘It has been indeed, ma’am,’ replied the quiet voice of a young woman.
False alarm, then, thought Zai. They live here. They’re not the ones I’m looking for. His hunch had been confirmed by the way the two purposefully moved towards one of the houses on the street—the one directly in front of his hiding spot, in fact.
‘Normally,’ continued the old woman, ‘I’d be able to carry both of these baskets on my own, but the cold must have numbed my fingers. That’s probably why I dropped that basket of pomegranates. Thank you ever so much for helping me pick them up.’
‘It was nothing, ma’am. I was glad to help.’
Wait, the other one’s not—
They soon reached the house opposite his perch. The old woman slid in the key to the door, but before she turned it, she first turned to the other figure.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to stay, even for a while? Have a snack or a drink or something?’
The other figure shook her hooded head. ‘I’m sorry, ma’am, but I have to get back home soon. Maybe some other time.’
‘That’s a shame,’ said the old woman. Leaving the key in the door unturned, she reached for a round red fruit in the basket under her left arm. ‘Have an apple, at least.’ She held the fruit out towards the other figure, who nodded and accepted it, handing back the basket of pomegranates as well.
‘Take care, then,’ said the old woman as she bowed. The other figure bowed her head in return and watched the old woman enter her house.
She’s not from around here. She just used that old woman to pass by without raising suspicion. The fact that she needed such deception meant only one thing. She’s in the game.
Zai prepared to leave his perch, making sure that his joints weren’t stiff after hours of staying still. As soon as the sound of a lock being turned echoed in the alley, the hooded figure turned and walked purposefully, though not with haste, towards the road that led deeper into the city. Above her, Zai leapt from roof to roof, keeping pace with her while remaining hidden from sight.
Once we’re near the embassy, I don’t think I can keep following her like this. Not with all the guards and sentries they have there. He had to stop her before they got to the city walls. But how?
He did have one option planned out, but he didn’t want to use it if he could help it. But I guess I have no choice.
Leaping to the roof of the house ahead of his quarry, he then stood up in full view of the hooded figure, causing her to freeze in alarm. The half-eaten apple in her left hand fell to the ground.
‘Halt! I am an agent of the government of Caesarea,’ Zai cried as he pointed his left arm at her. He hoped that his voice was menacing enough—he knew that the single-shot crossbow hidden beneath his left sleeve would be no match for a bolt from the Seraphim. He had to intimidate his prey in another way. ‘If you don’t wish to be driven from the city, do not resist.’
‘Human,’ replied the figure, ‘I am not you enemy.’ In contrast to the polite tone she used with the old woman, her voice now was full of majesty and might, which felt as if it belonged more in a courtroom. The speaker then lowered the hood of her cloak; curls of the faintest gold fell down to her waist. She stared up at the mercenary with earnest eyes. Zai felt as if he had been pierced by a beam of light that had been shot from them.
‘I am a mediator between the two races. I am here to avert another war. Perhaps we have the same goal.’
* * *
‘Um, we’ll be working on your Abaddon powers today.’
Mei Lin was perched on a branch of the tree nearest their house, her face a mask of unease. I think I know why, thought Rei.
‘Shouldn’t Mr AA be the one teaching me instead?’ she asked.
‘That’s the thing,’ said Mei Lin tentatively as she scratched her cheek. ‘You see, Ei-chan hasn’t spoken to anyone other than me for years now. Something about a vow of silence… I hope you’re not offended.’
Rei shook her head. ‘But the training…’
‘Ah, don’t worry. He gave me the instructions. I can oversee your training… And if all else fails, I can just ask him when he gets back from hunting. Ehehe.’
Rei sighed inwardly. ‘Shall we begin, then?’
Mei Lin put a finger to her forehead and closed her eyes.
‘Let’s see… If Seraphim powers are a realisation of the instinct to destroy, Abaddon powers are derived from instincts to strengthen, restore, and protect. Or something like that. Do you remember our battle near Capernaum? You probably wanted to um, stop us that time… which is why your Seraphim powers awakened. Had you wished to protect or heal someone instead, or wanted to be stronger, your Abaddon side would have been probably the one to awaken instead.’
Rei cast an awkward glance at the ground but nodded for her to continue.
‘The easiest part to master among the Abaddon skills is strengthening. In fact, you look like you use it almost effortlessly when you wield that longsword around. You’re probably also familiar with restoration. Whenever you perform healing, that’s actually attempting to restore the body to its original state.
‘Oh, and Ei-chan told me to tell you not to worry about mastering protection. Even among the Abaddon, there are only a few who have mastered it, and he doesn’t think half-humans can use any of the protection spells anyway—much like how you can’t use any of the greater Seraphim sigils, I guess.’ Mei Lin shrugged in conclusion.
‘So, how do I train for it?’ Rei asked. Mei Lin grinned in reply and she shrank in terror.
‘Oh, we have to awaken it first.’ She leapt down from her perch, and Rei felt a surge of strength from her as soon as her feet touched the ground. ‘You’ll have to fight me till you’re dead tired, and then you’ll have to survive Ei-chan’s attacks later.’
A scythe made of pure light, seven metres in length, materialised from the parasol in her hand as she took a menacing step forward towards Rei, who resisted the urge to give ground and readied her longsword in both hands.
‘I hope this goes better than last time,’ said Mei Lin before she charged.