‘Welcome,’ said Zai as he closed the door on a dingy third-storey room of an inn in the merchant’s quarter of the city. His visitor, the Seraphim emissary he had been tailing earlier, was seated on chair beside the bed, casting a disapproving eye around the room.
Even though he felt petty for thinking so, he considered her discomfort sufficient payback for the bewilderment and humiliation she put him through back in that road to the Seraphim embassy. Besides, it might put her in a mood to talk. Right now I need information, diplomatic sensibilities be damned. He then recalled the conversation they had had, and he realised how difficult the task that lay ahead of him was.
‘Huh?’ The first sound to issue from Zai’s mouth back in that alley had been a cry of surprise. ‘What do you mean?’
‘A servant of the city though you might be, human, but you seem to have forgotten that I am an accredited diplomat, protected by the laws of our races. You have no right to demand anything of me.’
Zai winced inwardly. She’s a diplomat, all right. She had a way of hurting someone even with polite words.
‘Then, may I request this esteemed emissary who stands before me to enlighten this humble servant of the city as to the purpose of her wanderings at this hour?’ Two can play this game.
‘What, right here? Are you daft?’ She stared daggers at him to reinforce the sharpness of her words. ‘Are you incapable of realising why I do my business at this hour?’
Well, okay, she has a point. ‘Then has her excellency a more suitable place in mind?’
‘Well, if you request an appointment with the economic attaché at the Seraphim embassy, I am available at my office during the afternoon. We may talk at length then.’
Zai made a big show of sighing. ‘As one of the official investigators into the murder of the Abaddon emissary—’
‘Are you now?’ interrupted the Seraphim. ‘You don’t seem the type to be associated with anything official.’
Zai merely smiled in reply. ‘To continue—’
‘Then do you have any idea why Publius died? Did one of us do it?’
‘Whatever happened to holding this conversation in a more appropriate place?’ The chidden emissary held her tongue, and Zai continued. ‘As I was saying, as one of the official investigators into the murder of the Abaddon emissary, I would prefer not to be discovered communicating with one of the Seraphim, especially in their embassy. Besides, her excellency is already here. I am here. Aside from a suitable place, we already have everything we need.’ Zai grinned. ‘For a conversation, that is.’
He saw the faintest of twitches on her right index finger accompanied by the briefest burst of brilliance. ‘Were I not bearer of one of the greater sigils, I would fear for my personal safety in your presence.’ The emissary sighed with a theatrical heave of her shoulders. ‘I suppose we could hold our discussion tonight. Servant of the city, do you have a place in mind?’
Zai grinned impishly. ‘I doubt the place in my mind would be to her excellency’s liking, but her excellency has my assurance that no one would disturb us there.’
‘You grow even more distrustful with every word.’ The place he had brought her to did nothing to improve her opinion.
‘Perhaps it is crucial at this juncture to remind you that I can incinerate you where you stand,’ she said coldly as she sat up straight in her chair.
‘Perhaps,’ said Zai with a smile that was more provocative than flirtatious. ‘I wish to inform her excellency that this is one of the safe houses run by the mercenary’s guild in the city. I can assure her excellency that my only motivation for bringing her excellency to what is admittedly a squalid place is to keep our conversation from prying eyes. I mean ears.’ He leaned on the door and crossed his arms.
‘Would you please drop the “her excellency” nonsense already? My name is Cassandra, Princess of Delphi. You may call me “Princess Cassandra” or “Princess”.’
Zai coughed violently. The Princess of Delphi? The fifth in line to the Seraphim throne? What the hell’s she doing here? Along with Olympia, Eleusis, Dodona, and Athens, Delphi was one of the biggest principalities in the kingdom of the Seraphim. I guess that greater sigil business is no joke either.
‘So,’ said Cassandra as she crossed her arms, ‘do you have any idea why Publius was killed? I know it’s only been a couple of days, but I would be grateful for any piece of information.’
‘Wait, wait, wait,’ said Zai. ‘I asked you first. It’s only proper that you answer my question first.’
‘Consider my position: I’m in a suspicious-looking room with a suspicious-looking person, who happens to be standing between me and the only exit to said room. I cannot run away; you can. And even if I did succeed in running away from you, I have already told you where I might be found in the city. So I hope you understand why I would wish to get the information I need before I share mine.’
There was silence in the room some time, broken only when Zai heaved a deep sigh.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘My name’s Zai. I’m a mercenary based in Caesarea.’
‘A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Zai,’ said the princess with a curt nod.
‘Also, we’ve already met the assassin.’
‘What?’ The chair she had been sitting on fell to the floor with a loud thud as she suddenly stood up, her composure broken. ‘Who was it? What race?’
‘Well, actually, it was my partner who met him. He’s a human with, ah, special powers. Unfortunately, she was unable to make the arrest because she was, how do I say this, overpowered. Although she’s now in training to fix that.’
‘I see.’ Cassandra’s estimation of the mercenary seemed to have improved slightly. ‘Setting your partner aside, what have you found out in the course of your investigation?’
‘Well,’ said Zai, scratching his cheek, ‘I found you.’
‘Ah.’ She was silent for a moment. ‘Well done.’
‘Thanks.’ There was another moment of silence. ‘So, um, why were you secretly communicating with one of the Abaddon?’
‘How much information did you get about Publius?’
Zai was about to comment on how it was his turn to ask questions, but decided not to. ‘He was suspected of being a mole. We’re trying to figure out if that’s what got him killed.’
‘Well, their suspicion isn’t entirely incorrect,’ said the princess as she took a seat at the edge of the bed. ‘He had been leaking information to the Seraphim—or more precisely, one of the Seraphim.’ She looked straight at Zai. ‘Me.’
Zai said nothing in reply. He could see the emotions smouldering in her eyes: guilt that she might have caused his death, apprehension that she might be next, and determination to continue what she had begun.
‘In the same token you could say that I am similarly guilty of leaking information to the Abaddon. But the information we’ve shared stayed only between us.’
He recalled what she had told her back in that alley. I am a mediator between the two races. And then he considered her position within the Seraphim hierarchy.
‘So I’m taking you were trying to form some sort of backchannel between the two races?’
‘It never got that far. He never had much authority in the Abaddon government, and despite my position, mine can be overstated. But we kept each other abreast of what our respective races were doing that could threaten the other. What we did with the information was left to our own discretion.’ She sighed wearily. ‘It had not gone as well as we had hoped.’
‘And the new guy? Sloppy of you to use the same inn, by the way. I wouldn’t have been able to track you down otherwise.’
‘There was hardly any time to establish a new messenger chain,’ the princess said tiredly. ‘In any case, it was a one-time affair. That was Publius’s assistant, and he’s expressed his desire not to be associated with what he calls his superior’s transgressions.’
‘So in summary, your race is on the brink of another war, and you have no way of stopping it. Not to mention your method of preventing that war had instead been used as casus belli.’
‘A depressing but adequate summary.’
‘So do you have any idea how stop this war from kicking off?’
‘Are you interested in averting a second war between the Abaddon and the Seraphim?’
She has a habit of throwing questions back. ‘I mean I wouldn’t mind helping out a bit, if I knew what I could do.’
‘I’m glad to hear that,’ said the princess with a nod. She was silent for a while, as if weighing her options. Finally, she jumped to her feet.
‘I’ve decided what to do. I’m going north, to the kingdom of the Abaddon.’ She then fixed her eyes on Zai. ‘Mercenary Zai, I wish to avail of your service as my bodyguard.’
* * *
AA’s giant tonfa crashed down towards Rei’s head with a speed no object of that size should have. But Rei, whose body was covered with a pale blue aura, raised her sword, not to block the massive metal rod, but to parry it just enough to give her time to dodge.
The tonfa struck the ground with a loud thud, with Rei a few feet to its left. Not giving the Abaddon time to recover, she charged at him with a lightning-fast lunge.
And this finally ends it, thought Rei as she hurtled closer to the Abaddon’s left arm. They had been fighting this one-hit duel since sunrise, and now the sun shone down on them at its apex.
Suddenly, her longsword was repelled a few inches from its target by a light blue barrier with a network of geometric inscriptions not dissimilar to Seraphim sigils.
‘Aw, no fair,’ cried Rei before a light tap from the tonfa on AA’s right hand blew her into the forest.
‘Game over,’ clapped Mei Lin from her seat, a branch on one of the nearby trees. ‘Ei-chan wins again.’ She leapt down from her perch and landed nimbly on the Abaddon’s shoulder.
‘No fair!’ Rei repeated from where she had crashed. Her Abaddon powers had already begun to heal her various injuries; all that was left was the wound on her pride. ‘I thought you wouldn’t use barrier spells?’
‘“He wouldn’t teach them to you” is what I said; there was nothing about him not using them himself.’
‘Damn it,’ said Rei as she stood up. Meanwhile, the pair looked at her with approval.
She’s already pushed Ei-chan this far after just three days, thought Mei Lin. She picks these things up pretty fast.
‘Well, then,’ said the Seraphim as she clapped her hand once. ‘Shall we have lunch?’
It was the second full day of her training. After the previous day’s training, Rei felt a hunger she had never experienced before. It seemed that wielding the power of the two races properly took a lot of energy. Today, her stomach started rumbling within earshot of the pair, and she just nodded sheepishly in response to Mei Lin’s invitation.
After lunch came her Seraphim training. Rei came to Mei Lin with a pressing question.
‘I’ve noticed that my training focuses on only one aspect at a time. Will I be trained how to use both powers at the same time in combat?’
‘Well,’ said Mei Line, a finger pressed to her chin. ‘I don’t know if we can do that. I can’t use Abaddon powers, see, and Ei-chan can’t use Seraphim powers either. You’re actually unique in that regard.’
‘Not really,’ said Rei, her voice trailing off. ‘I already fought someone like me. He has a better grasp of his powers, though. Well, he did tell me that Abaddon and Seraphim powers don’t mix.’
‘Interesting,’ said Mei Lin. ‘I suppose what he says is true. I mean, you already know how contradictory our worldviews are. I’m somewhat surprised your mind can hold up with that.’
‘I’ve never thought about it that way…’ Rei’s thoughts drifted off. Where the Abaddon saw permanence, the Seraphim saw ephemerality. No wonder they’ve been at war for a long time. I don’t know how I’d deal with someone who can’t see the world the same way I do. ‘Why were you born that way?’
‘Who knows?’ said Mei Lin with a shrug. ‘There’s a story in my homeland, one told to but a few people, that we were created by gods who wished to find out how they became gods. Some believed that understanding the infinite flow of time was the key to understanding their nature, while others thought that the ever-changing nature of the universe would tell them more about themselves… Well, you can probably guess which ones made the Abaddon, and which ones created us.’
‘And where do humans come in that story?’
‘Again, who knows?’ Mei Lin shrugged. ‘You’re actually the first human I’ve talked to like this. So far, I have no idea what your true nature is… But going back, that guy you fought, did he do anything special? With his Seraphim powers, that is.’
Rei recalled the dreadful spear of light that the assassin called forth, and she suppressed a shudder.
‘Quirinus,’ she said in a whisper.
‘The spear of vengeance, huh.’ Mei Lin was silent for a moment. Well, it’s not one of the Dii Complices, but it’s pretty handy for an assassin.’ She leapt down from Rei’s shoulder. ‘Well, perfect timing. It’s time for you to perfect the sigil of Sol.’
‘The sigil of…’ An image of a flattened hill near Caesarea flashed in her mind, and she cast a look of fright at Mei Lin. ‘But your house…’
‘Hm?’ said Mei Lin with a quizzical look as she brought forth her scythe of light. ‘Ah, no, don’t worry, you won’t be using that.’ She twirled the absurdly long scythe a few times over her head. ‘Besides, it’s not sunrise, so even if you do end up summoning the chariot of light, Ei-chan could block it.’ She pointed the heel of her weapon at Rei. ‘I need you to bring out your light weapon.’
Rei did as she was told.
‘Now you might have noticed how easily I could destroy that blade of yours, even though it managed to block Ei-chan’s tonfa the first time you used it. That’s because your weapon’s still unshaped. We Seraphim can use many of the sigils—we’re not confined to using the sigil of our alignment—but our weapons take only one shape related to our alignment. That means, even though I can also summon Sol’s chariot, I have no idea what your weapon’s supposed to look like. So you’re on your own, kid.’
Rei looked askance at the blade of light in her hand, and then at the Seraphim. ‘I don’t really know what to do. Any tips you could share?’
‘Hmmm…’ said Mei Lin, planting the butt of her scythe on the ground as she put a finger to her chin. ‘It’s been a long time since the time I did this. What did I do again…?’ She held her usual pose of contemplation for a while. She broke the silence in an uncertain voice. ‘I remember thinking, what’s the most effective way, the best way, to make my vision a reality? Yeah, I guess that’s good advice. You need to imagine the shape most suited to destruction.’
‘The shape most suited to destruction, huh.’ Rei threw a glance at the trusty longsword hanging from her hip. It can’t be this easy, could it?
Alas, it wasn’t. Despite her best efforts over the whole afternoon, the formless blade of light refused to be moulded into a longsword, or indeed any kind of sword.
* * *
‘We need to stop. We’re being followed.’
Zai and Cassandra, Princess of Delphi, had been walking along a rough path in the great forest east of Caesarea,
The reason they were there was because of the only concession Zai had managed to extract from the excessively demanding princess.
‘Hey, wait a minute!’ he had said back in that tiny room in Caesarea. ‘I’m under contract right now—from the mayor of this city himself—to investigate the killing of that Abaddon official. I can’t just go drop that to play nanny to you.’
The princess glared fiercely at him. ‘You’re not playing nanny, you dim-witted boor. This is connected to your current contract. You know, I’m really worried about your mental health. Have years of fighting knocked your head around too many times?’ She sighed theatrically. ‘Listen, you’ve just told me that you have two leads left, and that I’m one of them. So stick with me—I just might lure that assassin out for you.’
Zai stared at the princess speechlessly, partly with exasperation at her unreasonable demand, partly with amazement at her gall. It took him a few moments to gather his thoughts before he could reply.
‘Sorry, princess, but I can’t take a contract without my partner’s consent.’ This was all the resistance he managed to muster, and so the mismatched pair set out into the forest to find the place where Rei had been training.
The forest was home to some bandits who dared the city’s patrol to raid the trade convoys heading to and from the city. Some of them seemed to be following the pair. They’re probably tailing us because of her, he thought, eyeing her attire, one that was too lavish for people journeying into the wilderness. Then again, they also haven’t attacked us yet because of her.
‘They’ve been following us for the last few miles. Have you noticed them just now?’
‘Princess, there had been at most thirty-two sets of footsteps following us, but twelve of them stopped some yards ago,’ Zai said evenly. ‘It is my opinion as your bodyguard that those dozen who have separated from the main group are archers who have taken firing positions, which means that they are preparing to attack us soon.’
The Seraphim looked at the human with some alarm. ‘I counted only twenty-six.’
‘There’s half a dozen on horseback about a mile behind us. I think they’re there to cut off our retreat back to Caesarea and to pursue us if we spread out and hide.’
‘Not bad,’ said the princess. ‘You might even be a decent bodyguard.’
‘Do you need a demonstration now?’
‘That won’t be necessary,’ she said as she drew a pattern of light in front of her. ‘These beasts need a show of force to drive them back to their dens.’ As she finished drawing a sigil, a triangular shape made out of light materialised before her. ‘I honestly mean you no offence, but my talents are more suitable for such a show.’
‘“I honestly mean no offence”, my ass. You’ve been mean and offensive this whole time,’ said Zai. Princess Cassandra smiled sweetly in reply as she grasped the shape in front of her, which had now taken the form of a harp.
‘The Seraphim siege song,’ she said as she played a few notes on the harp. Then her fingers flew over the strings, and the notes she played wove together to form a ringing hymn of challenge. As if in response, the trees surrounding them were snapped in half or uprooted, revealing the men hiding behind them. When a circle of trees have been levelled around her, Cassandra stopped playing.
‘Humans,’ she said in a ringing voice of challenge, ‘I have yet more songs I could play for you. If you do not wish to hear your funeral song, please refrain from following us any further.’
Many of the bandits grasped their weapons with trembling hands, eyes darting to their fellows, gauging their resolve. A few tightened their grips, willing themselves not to show fear in front of their comrades. But most of them were not ready to go to their death against a being who could summon a storm. One of the bandits dropped his weapon, and the clanging sound that rang out was like a signal for the rest of them to turn tail and flee.
‘Oookay…’ said Zai, looking around them. ‘Please remind me to accept your insults in silence.’
‘How rude,’ said the princess, letting the harp of light disappear after she had confirmed the complete retreat of the bandits. ‘Those are not insults. I merely tell the truth.’
‘That you do,’ said Zai, inspecting the display of controlled destruction the Princess of Delphi had wrought. So this is a greater sigil… I hope you’re learning something this crazy strong, too, Rei.
* * *
The next day of Rei’s training involved some sparring with AA, but most of it was devoted to finding the shape of her Seraphim weapon.
With the sun casting off his blue raiment and putting on his red sleepwear, this day looked to be as fruitless as the previous day.
Rei uttered a cry of frustration as the formless weapon in her hand shattered for what seemed like the hundredth time. ‘This is impossible.’
‘I know how you feel,’ said Mei Lin from her customary perch, a branch of a tree overlooking the training ground. ‘Seeing you reminds me of how many times I’ve failed. It felt like I’ve tried everything that popped into my head before stumbling across my scythe. But don’t worry, you’ll find it.’ She leapt down and landed on Rei’s shoulder. ‘Eventually. Now, on to dinner.’
Dinner passed by without incident and soon, Rei was lying down in her room, staring at the ceiling.
‘It’s not a blade. So what the hell is it?’ Her mind ran through all that she had tried in the past day and a half. Of course, she had started out imagining the shape of her longsword. When it failed, she had tried out various other forms of swords. Earlier today she recalled every bladed weapon she had ever encountered. None worked. At the end of her wits, she had even tried projecting the shape of spears and axes onto the formless weapon, but to no avail.
‘The shape most suited to destruction,’ Rei muttered as she stretched her palm out towards the ceiling. ‘The chariot of the sun…’
She suddenly sat upright. ‘Of course!’ She had been so focused on normal weapons that she had forgotten that her sigil was far from normal. She left her room, snuck out of the house, and headed for the grassy field where she and AA sparred.
* * *
It was night-time in the middle of the forest. More than a day had passed since Princess Cassandra and Zai’s encounter with the bandits. It seemed that the Seraphim’s idea of a show of force had been correct; they have never been approached, or even followed, by outlaws ever since.
‘How close are we to this place where your partner is?’ said the princess. ‘We’re as far from any known settlement as anyone could be. Are you sure this isn’t a ploy to get me alone with you?’
Zai sighed wearily. ‘Princess, you’ve already adequately demonstrated that were I to do something against your will, there wouldn’t be enough left of me to be compost for a flower bush.’ He brought out a map, then fumbled in his pocket for a firelighter. ‘Kinu told me that she’s being trained by an Abaddon and a Seraphim—I’ve already met them, by the way—who live far away from civilisation.’ He managed to light a spark and held it up to the map.
‘According to this, we’re almost there. So I’m looking around for a house, a clearing, any sign of habitation.’
‘A Seraphim and an Abaddon living together…?’ The princess’s brief reverie was interrupted by a burst of light from some place to their right.
‘What the devil’s that?’ said Zai as he directed his steps towards it. Princess Cassandra followed suit.
* * *
Rei held the formless weapon of light aloft as she gathered her thoughts.
‘That which drives the chariot of the sun across the sky,’ Rei muttered. A great burst of light radiated from her weapon as it responded to her thoughts. Its blade became thinner and rounder, splitting into three. From each sprang numerous tiny spines.
It was a flail, a scourge, designed to latch onto flesh before tearing it.
‘Seems a bit too cruel to be used on chariot horses, but I guess this is it.’
A small figure then burst from the house.
‘Rei-chan?’ came Mei Lin’s voice. ‘What are you doing?’
* * *
It was as if a force struck Zai with the strength of a violently swung club.
Even during Princess Cassandra’s show of force, her presence never felt this overwhelming or suffocating.
‘This feeling…’ said the princess with a mixture of surprise and awe. ‘It’s her, it has to be.’ She hurried towards that brightly lit part of the forest, ignorant of the foliage’s effect on her clothing and skin. Meanwhile, Zai was rooted to his spot by that overwhelming presence. He had to muster much of his will to move even a step forward.
* * *
‘Mei Lin, I did it!’ said Rei, showing the flail to her as if a child showing a work of art to a parent.
‘Ah, well done!’ said the Seraphim with a clap. ‘But I thought you were off fighting someone…’
‘Why would you think that?’ began Rei, but then she felt it as well. A strong presence was approaching them, and it was close.
‘This one feels familiar…’ muttered Mei Lin, staring at the yet-unseen presence. Even thought she was unarmed, with her feet on the ground she was far stronger than Rei.
The shadowy outline of a person appeared from within the forest.
‘Is that the Princess of Eleusis I see?’ came a voice from the shadow
* * *
Zai had managed to will his legs to follow the princess, and he was a few yards behind her when she heard her words.
Princess of Eleusis? Holy shit, that’s the second in line to the Seraphim throne. Why are Seraphim royalty found in these random places?
Princess Cassandra had already stepped into the clearing. Zai followed suit. His eyes adjusted to the brightness, and the first thing he saw clearly was Rei holding a whip-like weapon made of light. And then he turned to look at Princess Cassandra.
She was bowing before Mei Lin, who was the source of the overwhelming presence that he felt.
‘I have been looking for you all this time, Princess Perseph—’
‘Do not call me by that name!’ shrieked Mei Lin. It was the first time that the two humans had seen her so agitated. ‘I have cast that name off a long time ago, the day I renounced our race’s inherent hatred of the Abaddon.’
AA, who had come from behind the house, signalled his presence to Mei Lin, who leapt up and landed on his shoulder. Immediately afterwards, the presence that had been crushing Zai was lifted. By Jove, we’ve had a monster of this level with us all along.
‘Will you not return to Akhaia and guide our people to change their ways? To cast off their blind hatred of the Abaddon? Surely your example will open their eyes and show them that it is possible to co-exist with Etrusca.’
‘Whatever bond exists between me and Ei-chan had been paid for dearly. More importantly, we have considered the payment to be sufficient. Unfortunately, such a thing will not work for our brothers; they will not be sated until the blood of all Abaddon has been spilled.’
Princess Cassandra bowed her head in silence, unable to find a response to Mei Lin’s words. Zai took this opportunity to walk over to Rei.
‘Um, nice flail you have there, Rei,’ he said. ‘So, how have you been?’