Pounding footsteps. Rustling clothes. The harsh susurration of breath.
It was to this chorus that the ragged group fled, dirt-streaked, wild-eyed, trailing blood through the hallways of the underground fort. One or two of them were limping. A few more seemed to move with an odd, lurching gait. And when the torchlight threw their shadows against the stark white walls, it revealed some shapes that could have passed as human... and others so different they could only be something else. Leading them was a young man with unnaturally blue, slit-pupiled eyes. He was carrying a creature so bent and malformed it looked less a person than a lump of rock, and close in his wake came thirty more of their kin, heads bowed, bare feet dragging on the floor.
It seemed an eternity, now, since they'd burst from their cells; an eternity spent scrambling through this hostile maze. Fighting. Staggering. Blocking the path behind them with whatever they could find. They ran until their limbs shook with fatigue and their breath came in short, sharp pants. Ran until the hammering of blood in their ears drowned out all sound of pursuit. But no one stopped. No one slowed. The man with the azure eyes knew that if he glanced back at his companions, he would see no hesitation; only the grim determination of runners near the finish line, bracing themselves for one last push.
Because, to them, that was exactly what this was. One last push, for those who were recaptured would not get to try again. The lives of the Spawn – the lab rats, the failed experiments – were all too easily replaced. If they lost this mad bid for freedom, they would be slaughtered to the last man, a message from their creators to others like themselves. Disobey the Order, and this will be your fate.
The rebels knew how it worked. They'd known from the start. In the chaos of their initial breakout, they'd seen three of their own caught in snares and butchered as they thrashed on the floor. Another two had struggled away wounded, only to weaken, drop to the rear, and become cut off by guards. Both had been dragged down fighting tooth and nail. It'd been too late, too dangerous, to turn back for them.
Azure-Eyes could still hear their cries of desperation in his head.
It was inevitable, the Spawn tried to remind himself. Inevitable that his pitiful little band – malnourished, unarmed and outnumbered – would lose a few to this ordeal. But these were men and women who had never known, and would now never know, the taste of freedom. And they'd died following his lead.
It was a bitter sharpness like guilt, like fear.
"Up ahead," wheezed one of his companions, a waifish young woman with a squirrel-like tail. She was pointing to a fork in the corridor, but he saw that she was also clutching her side with her free hand. That was not a good sign. Squirrel-Tail was their fastest runner, but now, it looked like even she was beginning to feel the strain. Either that, or she'd been hiding it all along, and only now was that façade breaking down.
Azure-Eyes guessed it was the latter. He'd been doing the exact same thing. With the other Spawn on the point of collapse, it was more important than ever not to demoralize them, not to let them see how exhausted their leader was. But even so, the weakest ones were lagging, their misshapen limbs quivering with strain. They would not last much longer. And neither would he.
"Vasir – right or left?" he panted, pausing to suck in a great lungful of air, and to push a rebellious lock of chocolate-brown hair out of his sweat-drenched face.
The creature on his back was already craning over his shoulder to look.
"Left," it croaked, in a voice that sounded like the hinges of a rusty gate, "And then the second stair to your right. Don't stop! We're almost there."
"Okay," Azure-Eyes rasped, grateful beyond belief. He had seen the flames of hope die to mere embers in the eyes of his companions, but now they were rekindling, growing bright and hot. "Okay, guys. Keep… keep moving."
They picked up their feet, knowing that Vasir would never lead them wrong. The old man had once glimpsed the fort's blueprints under the arm of a negligent clerk, and although he'd had but a second to study them, a second was all he needed. That was his unique ability: not to forget a single thing he saw. In the Order, it had earned him a name where so many went without. And it had earned him a job, to memorize his masters' unimportant old records, like he was a living file.
After years of servitude, it was darkly fitting that this same ability was being used to guide the rebels on the quickest path to the exit.
The group barrelled down the left fork, up the stairs, their aching limbs forgotten. A couple of guards foolish enough to stand in their path were almost instantly torn apart. And then, at last, they were face-to-face with their goal. Not forty feet ahead was the mouth of the tunnel, and sunlight – not the pitiful light of torches, but actual sunlight – was streaming through the treetops onto the ground beyond. The grass was alive with leaf-shaped shadows, a glittering mosaic of colours and shades. To the Spawn, who had barely any memories of the world outside, it was undoubtedly the loveliest thing they had ever seen. Spurred by the sight, they quickened their pace.
And then, suddenly, they were no longer alone.
A solitary shape, a person, stood halfway between them and the mouth of the tunnel. He must have been leaning against the wall, but so swiftly and silently had he moved that, to the eyes of the Spawn, he seemed to have materialized from the shadows themselves. The group stopped short in amazement, sizing up this new arrival.
The youth – for he was indeed no older than nineteen – bore their scrutiny with perfect indifference. Tall, but very slim, he shouldn't have been an imposing figure; should, in fact, have seemed almost fragile. But standing there, edged in light, he had the same look as his own drawn blade: cold and merciless, beautiful and deadly. Even his hair was grey as steel, grey as ash. It hung to his waist like a shroud, half hid his face behind a side-swept fringe. Pale as he was, and dressed all in black, he might have stepped straight from a monochrome painting. His eyes were the only bright colour of him; large and exotically slanted, accented by almost effeminately long eyelashes, they were an eerie golden-amber, and seemed almost to glow.
It was with a stark, unnerving intensity that their stare swept over the group. Azure-Eyes could almost sense the stranger weighing him up, with the same meticulous detachment one might use to study some strange plant or insect. He shuddered, wondering why he could not shake off the sudden dread that crept up his spine.
"He's one of us," Squirrel-Tail whispered, as if to herself. "Those aren't human eyes."
Azure-Eyes gave a reluctant nod. "Look," he called out, shoving his misgivings aside, "I don't know who you are, or how you got here… but if you're Spawn, you shouldn't be standing in our way. Come on. Come with us. If we hurry, we can lose them in the woods."
The stranger did not reply.
It was then, as a cloud passed over the sun outside, that something indefinable seemed to click into place. It was then that Azure-Eyes stopped trying to believe in Squirrel-Tail's words. He's one of us.
On his back, Vasir had gone still in sudden realization.
"No," the old man shrilled, his voice cracking with terror. "No! It's him – Experiment Thirteen!"
The Spawn felt his blood turn to ice.
Experiment Thirteen. It was a name well known within the Order, and one synonymous with death. The subject of a thousand dark rumours, all swiftly silenced. The last and youngest of the dozen and one successfully created Savann. The humans' greatest achievement. Their deadliest weapon.
"I have been instructed not to let you pass," said Thirteen. His voice was inflectionless, and almost whisper-soft. "Turn back immediately. You will be eliminated if you persist."
Eliminated. Like they were mistakes to be corrected on a whim.
A hush fell over the group. The world they had fought so frantically to reach lay only twenty feet away, but those twenty feet fell beyond the implacable silhouette of their foe. Already, their keen ears could catch faint thuds and crashes coming from behind. Their pursuers would soon break past the doors to the entrance hall, which they had jammed with broken planks. Time was running out, and it was running out fast.
Azure-Eyes felt his hands clench into fists. He opened his mouth – whether to rage at Thirteen or reason with him, he didn't know. But before he could speak, a leathery brown blur jostled him to one side, cutting him off. It was one of the other Spawn, a massive creature with spikes protruding in a line all the way down his spine. Maddened by the freedom that was so close, yet so far, he had shoved his way to the front of the group, heading straight for Thirteen.
"Traitor! I'll crush you like a bug!" he snarled, and lunged, fangs bared.
"Stop! STOP!" shrieked Vasir. But it was too late.
The Savann moved like chain lightning. A single step took him inside the guard of his opponent, into the space between the grasping claws. His arm lashed out, and to their horrified eyes, the movement was so blindingly fast that it seemed to have flashed out of existence entirely. Then it reappeared, relaxed by his side like it had been a moment ago, only now it was dripping with blood.
And Thorn-Back was falling to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut, both hands scrabbling to stem the flow of lifeblood from the gaping red hole where his throat had been. A horrible gurgling sound escaped him. His body convulsed, then stilled. He did not move again.
A hissing gasp rippled through the group. For a moment all they could see was the spreading pool of red at Thirteen's feet, and the gore that looked so incongruous upon those elegant fingers, and the body of their companion who moments ago had been so strong, so vital, so alive.
Then, with a unified cry of outrage, they attacked.
To Azure-Eyes, what happened next could have lasted for a heartbeat or an eon. The world seemed to recede until the shouts and screams were mere echoes and there was only action and reaction and the flash, flash, flash of a silver blade. In the narrow passage, unable to bring their full numbers to bear, all he and his fellows could do was press forward. Forward, while white flames sprang up around them, and arcs of blood sprayed against the walls and floor. Those who could use magic were hurling it with desperate abandon, but it seemed they were battling against a ghost, an apparition of silver and black. It was there one moment and gone the next, spinning out of their reach, then darting back in to strike with lethal precision.
And then the menace was upon him, and he was fighting like he'd never fought before.
Thirteen was fast, so much faster than anything Azure-Eyes had encountered in the Order's fighting pits. They came together in a crazed flurry of strikes and counter-strikes, and the next thing he knew, his forearms were bleeding freely, burning from blows he'd only barely managed to deflect. Cursing in pain, he reeled back. Then, suddenly, Squirrel-Tail was there, dropping from where she'd clung to the ceiling, diving straight into the fray. And as Thirteen veered to avoid her plunging strike, Azure-Eyes seized his chance, lashing out from the other side with all his remaining might.
The impact – the first to actually land – threw the Savann several feet, knocked the breath from his body in an audible hiss. For a second, just a split second, the Spawn began to hope.
Then Thirteen straightened. Their gazes met. And Azure-Eyes saw with sudden finality that they were all going to die.
He and Squirrel-Tail were in mid-leap, going for a second attack, when it happened. Their enemy made a sweeping gesture with one hand, and both of them were thrown back by some unseen force to smash against the wall. Even as they brought their own telekinesis into play, struggling to fight off the inexorable strength that was slowly crushing them, he knew it was no use. They were losing.
The command seemed to come from a great distance away.
The horrendous pressure lifted. The world, which had begun to grow hazy, came back into focus. Slowly and painfully, Azure-Eyes and Squirrel-Tail struggled to their feet.
A portly human male in a white coat stood next to Thirteen, surveying what looked like a scene from hell. No more than eighteen of the group had survived. And only the crippled Vasir, crouched by the side of the tunnel where he'd dropped, was still unscathed. The rest were slashed and scorched and broken, some of them barely on their feet. The mutilated bodies of their friends and comrades lay on the blood-slicked floor, the stench of burnt flesh and opened bowels drifting through the air.
The human wrinkled his bulbous nose in disgust.
"I hope you've learnt your lesson," he said, in a congested sort of voice. "Now surrender, and beg nicely, and I might be persuaded to give one or two of you a second chance." He looked pointedly at Vasir. "If not…"
"If not?" the old Spawn echoed.
"If not, I'll have Thirteen paint the place with your blood. That might be a good idea, anyway; spare me the trouble of arranging your punishment later." He let out a phlegmy cackle, like he'd just cracked the funniest joke in the world.
Hatred, thick and cloying, rose in Azure-Eyes' throat.
"I've got a better one," he spat, simply too tired and angry to care if he lived or died. "How about you fight us yourself? Find out what it's like to do something other than talk."
The human turned a rather interesting shade of puce.
"Do something? I'm the Keeper, you insolent fool. Who else could have sent Thirteen?"
The group's uncomprehending stares seemed to goad him on. "You have me to thank for everything he's done," he bragged, while the Savann in question stood at his side like a statue. "I ordered him to give you that warning, and I ordered him to stop your little escapade. 'Wait at the entrance. And if anyone tries to get past you, kill them,' I said. And he did."
He gestured at Thirteen's neck, so all could see that he was wearing a collar of sorts – a thin black band of leather with a silver clasp, on which was engraved the numeral XIII. "That's the power of our technology. Thirteen's will is my will, the will of the Keeper. It's a job few have the aptitude for. As a matter of fact, I was the only one available on such short notice." He puffed out his chest. "I suspect that's already earned me a promotion."
He petted Thirteen on the head as if the young man were a favourite bloodhound. Azure-Eyes shuddered in disgust at the gesture, feeling an unexpected wave of pity for the Savann, who, he realized with a start, was just as much a prisoner as they had been.
"You're a parasite," hissed Squirrel-Tail, apparently thinking along the same lines. "You can get promoted as many times as you like. It won't change the fact that you're worse than scum."
The Keeper's face scrunched up like a dried prune at this comment. "Oh, I would've enjoyed beating some respect into you, little girl," he snarled. "But no – I gave you and your friends a chance to play nice, and you threw it in my face. So here's what you're going to do… Turn around and run back the way you came. Yes, go on. I'll give you five seconds before I set Thirteen on your tails." Pulling out a bronze pocket watch on a chain, he dangled it mockingly between finger and thumb. "Let's see how long you last."
There was a moment of silence. Then Azure-Eyes gave a dark, humourless grin.
"I think that's our line," he growled.
Behind him, the rest of the rebels drew themselves up a little straighter.
They would not die hunted like livestock. They would go down fighting to their very last breath.
"What? You… what?" spluttered the human. He clearly hadn't expected the Spawn, sorely outmatched as they were, to stand their ground. A sudden twitch of uncertainty crossed his corpulent face.
And Azure-Eyes felt inspiration strike.
"Tell me, Keeper, is your new pet is as good at protecting people as he is at killing them?" he asked. "More to the point, how many suicidally angry Spawn do you think he can he keep off you at the same time? Do you want to find out? Because when this fight starts, every single one of us is going for your head. Now, let's see how long you last."
As he spoke, he and the others began to stalk forward. Slowly. Deliberately.
The human gulped. It appeared that, no, he didn't want to find out.
"I'm warning you," he cried shrilly, "you won't get away with this. Stop… stop right there. Do you hear me?"
"No," said Squirrel-Tail. The group kept going.
The Keeper took a step back.
Azure-Eyes knew what was going to happen before it actually did. He saw the Keeper look about in mild confusion as every Spawn halted in unison, and every eye fixed expectantly on him. He saw Thirteen turn to consider his master, those eerie eyes strangely intent. He saw the human's uncertainty morph to horror as realization dawned upon him. He was standing behind Thirteen.
And if anyone tries to get past you…
He never even got the chance to scream.
"Yes!" Azure-Eyes yelled, as the Keeper's corpse slumped to the ground. "Yes! Now, through the side! Quick! Break through the side of the tunnel!"
The rebels needed no further prompting. A section of the wall had already been damaged by Thirteen's telekinesis, and now, they converged beams of energy upon the cracks. Those who couldn't do so simply hurled their bodies at the solid stone. Under the combined force of their blows, the side of the tunnel began to crumble and cave, rays of sunshine streaming in through the cracks. Azure-Eyes could have laughed aloud for relief. This was it. This was freedom, and Thirteen could not stop them. He could only do what he had been commanded to – kill any who tried to pass through the tunnel's mouth.
With shouts of joy, the Spawn poured over the rubble, streaming into the forest they had almost died to see. Some of them were weeping freely as they ran.
Last to go were Azure-Eyes, Squirrel-Tail and Vasir. But as they followed their companions, they found themselves glancing back at the motionless figure of Thirteen. He was looking down at the body of the Keeper he had killed. And although his face was as emotionless as ever, they thought they saw something flash, so swiftly they wondered if it had only been their imagination, in his eyes.
Something like triumph.