Councilor Lester Callahan stood in the messy corridor of the Spelltech Research Department, wondering if there had been some sort of mistake. He'd learnt everything there was to learn about the situation, but it was still a little strange to think that the Order's killing machine had been wrested away by this unassuming little thing. With her winsomely round eyes, rosy skin, and pert little button of a nose, Cyra Friday didn't look like someone who had single-handedly tamed a Savann. Rather, she looked like any other privileged adolescent, soft with easy living and thoroughly inexperienced.
Such a shame. Lester had hoped for a streetwise survivor, a person whose involvement wouldn't cause him guilt or worry. He hated to draw a guileless soul into the tangled webs of morality, to pierce a rose-tinted world with cold truths and colder decisions. But he could not let Experiment Thirteen's Keeper remain blissfully ignorant. No. There were far larger things at stake today.
Squashing his doubts, he offered a smile and a well-practiced handshake.
"It's good to see you on your feet again. I would have visited the infirmary in an hour or so to see if you'd woken up, but it seems things have gone ahead of schedule." His smile widened, crinkling the corners of his eyes. "Just as well. We have much to discuss, if you're sufficiently rested."
Flabbergasted, the Friday girl managed only a small, pathetic squeak – something like a "yeep" or a "meep". She did, however, bob her head up and down. Taking that as a cue to continue, Lester took a seat on an upturned crate and indicated that the other two should do the same.
"Nice and quiet here, isn't it?" he remarked. "Not particularly tidy, but it should do just fine." In fact, this was probably the best place for an exchange that should stay off the record. A formal setting would've been more appropriate, but it also would've been more likely to attract official attention. Which was really the last thing he wanted. After all, he was trying to make sure his colleagues heard only what he wanted them to hear. Underhanded? Perhaps. But the move was absolutely necessary. Even the group of rebel Spawn had seen the logic of it. Now, if only the new Keeper would cooperate, everything would fall into place.
Still, it was better to be safe than sorry, even with the security positioned out of conversational earshot. Catching the eye of the reedy gentleman, Lester made a casual twirling motion with one forefinger. Recognizing the signal, the other quickly began to cast a sound-sealing barrier, starting with a circle of foundational runes and continuing with layers of increasing complexity. Soon, a film of magic was rising around them, near-transparent and shimmery as a soap bubble. Lester nodded in approval. His Secretary was not a powerful caster, but the man was certainly meticulous enough to pull off this defense.
"Thank you, Reynald," he said, as the spell formed a complete ring around the trio. "Now that we can speak freely, I've been meaning to ask about your reading. It must have gone well if you've let Ms Friday past the guards."
"Gone well? It – it did, yes." Reynald suddenly looked a tad uncomfortable, as he sometimes did when his special duty was mentioned. "Yes. Ms Friday is… Well, I suppose you could say she's one of us." Adjusting his spectacles with a fastidious little motion, he stumbled on. "But sir, I don't think she's aware… that is, I haven't had the chance to tell her-"
Lester quieted him with a placating wave of the hand, his attention now focused on their young companion. By this point, she had clearly lost track of the cryptic conversation, acquiring a look of forlorn befuddlement that must have been designed to invoke guilt.
"This must be very confusing," he began. "Security clearance, a whole level off-limits, and now a Councilor appearing out of the blue. Yes, I suppose it's time we explained ourselves. You've probably already guessed that this has something to do with what you've seen – and done – in Wildemorrow forest. Beyond that, allow me to add that the subject is an important one, and sensitive enough to necessitate certain… precautions. For secrecy's sake, I thought it best to come in person, alone, with one exception." He indicated Reynald with a nod, determined to give the Friday girl the truth she was owed. "Secretary Keller here is a fifth-band empath, a very proficient 'reader' of emotions. We were just now speaking about your own trustworthiness."
It couldn't have been pleasant to discover that one's erstwhile guide was actually an informant of the Triangle. This was especially true if said informant had also been using an incredibly rare ability – second only to telepathy and clairvoyance – to intrude on one's private feelings. With this in mind, Lester had been prepared for a variety of outraged accusations and protests. But, to his pleasant surprise, none of these appeared to be forthcoming. The little brunette was clearly alarmed, but she handled the revelation well, cautiously mulling it over and then taking it in her stride. Interesting. The girl was still no veteran, but she was more level-headed than he'd expected. A good sign indeed.
"Not that there was ever any real doubt," he continued, pleased with his observation. "It was simply a matter of being sure. All I ask is for you to keep this conversation between the three of us. Do I have your word?"
"You have my word, sir." Nervous as she was, she held his gaze steadily, and he didn't need Reynald's reassurance to be convinced.
"Excellent. Now, perhaps we should start by discussing what happened this morning."
"Okay." The Friday girl took a deep breath, visibly composing herself. "Okay. Where… where should I begin?"
"From the beginning, of course," Lester replied with a chuckle. "Tell us how you met Experiment Thirteen."
Roughly an hour later, the sun was nearing its zenith, and Cyra's brain felt like a wrung-out sponge. She'd described everything from the look of the underground hideout to the white coats and uniforms of its inhabitants, and even then, the two men had pressed for more. Did she remember the faces of the men she had seen? What weapons had they borne? How many had been in the patrol that blocked her way? And so on and so forth. Wracking her memories, she had given as many details as she could, and – perhaps in exchange – Councilor Callahan had agreeably answered her own questions.
Unfortunately, the Order's elusiveness meant that there were many blanks to fill. Most decent people had heard little to nothing of the organization, save for unfounded gossip and the occasional half-baked newspaper article. Even the Triangle had all but dismissed the threat. Half-hearted investigations had uncovered only dark rumours and unsolved crimes – here a murder without witnesses, there a runaway who never returned. All of these were easily written off. After all, similar misfortunes were a dime a dozen in any city. The return of eighteen experimental subjects would finally open some eyes, but their existence had to be kept low-key for fear of the public's hostility. It would be all too easy for suspicious citizens to label the newcomers as monsters and freaks, despite the fact that their mutations had been forced upon them.
"According to Vasir, the Order calls it 'summoning'," Callahan explained, with a disapproving sniff at the term. "They must like to think they're drawing forth the hidden potential in every being. But in truth, the process is better described as a sort of restructuring, triggered and fueled by Rift-spill. You know what that is, do you not?"
Cyra nodded, feeling her skin prickle with a sudden chill. Rifts weren't discussed in detail till the end of an Apprentice's education, but nearly everyone had some general knowledge about those strange tears in the fabric of reality. No one knew exactly what they were, or where they led, if they led anywhere at all. But it was said that they leaked magic into the world, and that this magic was the very quintessence of chaos. Unprocessed. Unpredictable. Arcane energy in its purest, deadliest form.
"It is forbidden to work with such terrible power," Callahan was saying. "And forbidden for good reason. Even standing in the vicinity of a Rift may cause side-effects. But when Rift-spill is actively channeled into living creatures, it does some truly terrible things. Some die painfully. Those who survive are left with disfigurement, amnesia, madness... a host of other afflictions." He narrowed his eyes, a flash of steely disgust breaking through his mild demeanor. "And yet, as the Order has discovered, there is power to be found where ethics are abandoned. The Spawn, flawed as they are, have strange strengths to offset their weaknesses. And the Savann are nothing short of superhuman, as you yourself must have seen."
Superhuman. Yes, Cyra had once thought exactly that. Several hours ago, in a very different place, she had looked upon a fallen angel and wondered at such perfection. Now the truth was before her, suddenly bitter, making her heartstrings twist in pity. Poor Thirteen. He had paid such a terrible price for those wings.
Some of her thoughts must have shown on her face, for Callahan nodded gravely, shooting a quick glance into Thirteen's cell. "It was a grave injustice they did to him, as they have done to so many others. And yet, one must not let pity cloud one's judgment." He paused, and something about his expression – the drooping moustache, or perhaps the dour line of the mouth – gave Cyra a sudden twinge of foreboding. "For all that he is pitiable, Experiment Thirteen cannot be written off as just one more of the Order's victims. Tell me, what did you expect to do with him, once you had made your escape?"
"W-what?" A note of worry crept into the Apprentice's voice. For the first time, it occurred to her that there must be another reason for the Councilor's personal visit, another reason he'd been so forthcoming with facts that were supposedly top secret. "Well, I hoped… I was hoping we could find some way to set him free."
"That is a kind thought," said Callahan. "But I'm afraid it would be wasted on your Savann, who is neither kind nor particularly sane. If we did remove his collar, he would no doubt repay us by slaughtering every person in reach. As it stands, he is already under suspicion for multiple counts of murder, and-"
"Wait a second, sir," Cyra interjected. At some point, her fingers had wound themselves around the hem of her shirt. Now she was gripping the fabric so hard that her knuckles had gone white. "You aren't actually going to punish him, right? If Thirteen's murdered anyone, it's because he was forced to do it!"
The Councilor sighed, and seemed to deflate a little. "You misunderstand, Apprentice. I am already well aware of Thirteen's unique circumstances. The boy has my sympathy, but he is simply too dangerous to be pardoned or sent for rehabilitation. Releasing him now would put other lives at risk, and confining him is hardly a viable long-term solution. In fact, if word of his capture should reach my fellow Councilors, they would demand his immediate execution. Just think about it. In our shoes, would you free someone like Thirteen? Could you even justify keeping him alive?"
Would she? Could she? The Apprentice hesitated, biting her lip unhappily. Though she hated to admit it, the Councilor had a point – they could not, in good conscience, unleash Thirteen upon the world.
"What are you suggesting?" she asked, sullen with defeat. "That I should just stand back and let him die? There must be something more. I mean, why else would we be discussing this?"
"Indeed, why else?" Callahan allowed himself an ironic smile. "I suppose I've been trying to delay this part of the conversation. You see, there is one other option. And I doubt you will like it." When he continued, it was with the resigned frankness of a doctor delivering an unwelcome diagnosis. "I'll not beat about the bush. Arrangements could be made to have Thirteen spared, but only if you agree to remain as his Keeper. To… turn him to a proper cause, so to speak." A deep breath. "Do you understand? I intend to move against the Order with all the force I can muster. If your Savann was on my side, he would be far too valuable an asset to destroy."
A second passed in complete, frozen silence. Cyra had barely stopped herself from leaping to her feet, and now sat on her crate with her fists clenched tight, bristling in shock and outrage.
"I don't believe this," she spat. "What you're offering is death or slavery!"
"Try not to think of it so harshly. Your paths are limited, but you would be treading them for the greater good." To his credit, the co-leader of the Triangle sounded sincerely apologetic, despite the liberal sugar-coating of his words. "Still, I regret that one so young should be burdened with such a trying choice."
The Mage-in-training shook her head, fawn-coloured curls swishing with the movement.
"It's not me you should feel regret for," she shot back, rather more sharply than she had intended. "It's Thirteen. You're making some stranger gamble with his life, and he doesn't even get a say in it."
"Thirteen lost his will and his humanity a long time ago." To her surprise, it was not Callahan but Keller who had spoken. "Believe me, he would not – could not – make this decision, even if you gave him the chance." At Cyra's scandalized stare, the empath hastily shook his head. "No, no, it's not like that. I'm not actually using my abilities. Simply being in his presence is bad enough." A shiver passed over his thin frame. "It's… unnatural. Like… like seeing the void in human shape."
Cyra didn't need more clarification than that. She had felt something similar in the Order's hideout, immediately after Thirteen's mental attack. When the instinctive violence has ceased, there had been nothing at all – nothing but a terrifying, hollow absence. But could one really assume that a being so lacking in humanity was not, in fact, an actual person? Would it be immoral to deny him his rights, even if he could not appreciate them? The Apprentice hardly knew what to think. Feeling suddenly lost and defenseless, she folded her arms and hunched further into her clothes.
"I understand this must be a lot to take in," said the Councilor. "Would you like to return to the infirmary? You'll need some time-"
"No!" Cyra cut in. Emotional strain be damned, she didn't want to postpone this. It wasn't right – not when they were dealing with a person's fate. "No, I've made my decision. I'm going to do this Keeper thing." At least until I can free Thirteen in safety. It's horrible, but it's the only way.
There was a long pause. For the first time since she'd met him, Lester Callahan of the Triangle seemed honestly stunned.
"It would be wise to give the matter more thought," he said, frowning slightly. "I'll admit that your words were exactly what I'd hoped to hear, but I would not have you commit to something you might later regret. Do you not remember what I said before, when you told me about the corpse in the clearing? That man was likely the Keeper before you. Thirteen has served many masters, and he has murdered each and every one of them. This is not a decision you should make without considering the risks."
Cyra forced her face into a tremulous smile. "Yeah, I know. But I'm still going to do it." She would not bloody her hands for the sake of security and convenience. That was the only certainty in this crumbling world. "Just… just promise me it won't be the way it was in the Order. Whatever he is, Thirteen doesn't deserve to be treated like that."
"You have a good heart, Apprentice." Callahan's voice was kindly but melancholic. "If it comforts you, I promise I'll see what I can do about Thirteen's situation. Both of you will be well-compensated for your trouble." At that moment, distant bells tolled out the hour of noon. The Councilor glanced out of the window with a sigh. "Ah, but now the sun is high and I must take my leave. Thank you for your time. You're free to go home and have a good rest, but remember to come back in a day or two. Ask for Secretary Keller. He should have everything sorted out by then."
"What about Thirteen?" Cyra asked. Surely the Savann wasn't going to stay in this place? "Our house has a spare room…"
"Yes, that will do very well. But Thirteen will have to wait a little longer – he is currently in no condition to leave." Standing, the Councilor straightened his sleeves and brushed the dust off his coat. "In the meantime, I must remind you not to reveal his true identity. You will have to mention him at some point, but when you do, be sure to give him a different name. And above all, do not speak of his connection to the Order. If anyone asks what happened to you, tell them that you were waylaid by Renegades and saved by a group of soldiers. That's the official story, at least."
As if to punctuate those words, a tinny clicking sound suddenly filled the air. This time, the disturbance seemed to be coming from inside the barrier bubble – or, to be precise, from inside Keller's pocket. Sitting straighter in curiosity, Cyra watched the reedy gentleman pull forth a small white seashell, its hollow interior filled with a tiny, whirring metal device. As he fiddled with it, the clicking sound stopped, and in its place came a distinctly human voice.
"Sir? Mrs Friday is in the main hall, asking for the patient."
"Excellent timing," said Callahan, plucking the seashell from Keller's grasp. "Tell her that Apprentice Friday will be down shortly." Shifting his attention back to Cyra, he clasped her hand warmly and made to leave. "Now, it is time we said goodbye. You may stay awhile, if you wish, but don't keep your mother waiting too long."
Cyra nodded, half-aware that the soundproof barrier was now collapsing around them. Keller had released his grip on the spell, and Callahan was soon striding away, his polished shoes tapping smartly against the marble floor.
In the Councilor's absence, the newly-established Keeper did not immediately depart. Instead, she lingered at the cell's single window, gazing at the pale, ashen-haired figure resting so quietly on the other side. Thirteen's face was as inscrutable as always, his expression cold and unchanging despite the drug-induced haziness. If he had guessed the subject of their conversation, he showed no sign of it. Did he understand what was going on? Did he realize that his fate had just been placed in her hands?
Did he even care?
"You were human, once upon a time," she murmured, placing her fingertips against the cold glass. "I wonder if you remember that."
No response. All she could hear was the lonely whisper of the wind outside.
"I'm sorry it had to turn out like this. I just didn't know what else to do." In the empty hallway, her voice sounded particularly small. "Sure, I couldn't let them kill you, but this doesn't feel like a good deed either."
Still no response from the Savann. But from not too far behind her, someone gave a little cough. It seemed that Keller had not left with his superior. He was standing with one foot on the threshold of the room and another outside it, looking as if he had something to say. As Cyra turned back, he opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it, then opened it again.
"Here," he managed at last, pressing a cloth-swathed bundle into her hands. "The medics found this when they were dressing your wounds."
Hesitantly, Cyra peeled back the layer of wrapping. Beneath it was a familiar cover of worn black leather, embossed with the silver numeral XIII. It was the journal she'd snatched out of the Order, tucked away in her old cloak.
"Won't the Triangle want this?" she asked, looking up in surprise.
"We will, yes," the empath confessed, with a vague sort of smile. "But with all the paperwork going on, no one will notice if you borrow it for a bit. It's that hideout, you see. The Order abandoned it when they caught wind of us, but it'll take a good while to examine what they left." He cleared his throat nervously. "Anyway, I thought you should be the first to read this, since you're the one with Experiment Thirteen. And I… er… couldn't help but notice that you feel a little troubled. Perhaps this might help to clear things up."
"Thank y-" Cyra began, only to realize that Keller had already scurried away. She was the only one left in the deserted corridor, alone with her new responsibility.
The Mage-in-training heaved a sigh, shooting a final glance at Thirteen before heading for the exit. Everything was happening so damn fast, it felt like she was tumbling off a cliff. Head over heels, the world upside-down, expecting at any moment to hit the sea in a shock of freezing water. Yesterday, she had been the most ordinary person anyone could think of, an average student with no more to worry about than failing that test on practical spelltech. Tomorrow, she would be given a role that was way beyond her depth, thrust straight into the frontlines of an unseen war, and paired with a living weapon who was out to kill her.
And today, all she wanted to do was forget the sudden weight that had fallen on her shoulders.
A/N: Many months ago, I promised you I'd update soon. So here I am... extremely late and extremely apologetic. (And covered in all the tomatoes you've thrown.) As always, your comments are most welcome, and all your reviews will be returned. Thank you for your support!