Chapter 1

 

Elis 22

 

 

“Please state your name for the record.”

The young man blinked into the harsh yellow light, his throat convulsing as he swallowed, making the ugly bruise on his neck dance. “Uh, Kenian Deepwood,” he responded, rubbing the top of his left hand. The action didn’t quite conceal an angry red patch of skin.

The woman sitting across the dull metal table nodded at his response, her short dark hair swaying with the motion. She tapped a few buttons on the data access and retrieval device—better known as a DARD—she held in her hands. “Please state your business here,” she continued in the same dry, business-like voice.

“You know why I’m here,” he said, rolling his eyes. His head tilted back as he did so, the harsh light emphasizing the dark circles under his eyes.

She looked up, meeting his eyes. “It doesn’t matter what I know. Please make a response for the official record.”

He leaned back against the chair’s narrow back, trying to get comfortable. “I have information on the Cult of Atraxia that you may find useful.”

“Such as?”

He swallowed again. “I know their leader, I know where they’re located, and I know better than the Agency what their numbers are like.” He scratched again at the patch of red skin on his left hand, grimacing in pain. “I also know what they’re planning.”

She looked down her nose at him. “Do you, now?”

“I am—or was—a Maester, a member of Asharos’s inner circle. I was…involved in the planning process to some extent.”

She tapped a finger on the edge of her DARD. “The implication is that you were involved in implementing other activities linked to the cult.”

Kenian lowered his head, brown hair falling into his eyes. If he noticed, it didn’t bother him. “I don’t agree with what they’ve done. Bombing the lunar facility was the last straw for me. I had to get out.”

“Guilty conscience getting the better of you?”

He shrugged. “Call it what you want. I’m done.”

“What do you want in exchange?”

“I want out,” Kenian admitted, scratching his hand, a pained expression on his face. “The cult isn’t what I thought it was. All of its promises are false.”

“I’ve never been a part of it and I could have told you that,” she scoffed.

“Look, officer…”

“Agent,” she corrected him, using the common shorthand term for a Fugitive Recovery Agent. She tapped the round silver and bronze badge pinned to the left breast of her navy uniform. “Agent Drianna Snarevine.”

His eyes widened. “You don’t look like a bounty hunter.”

“That’s the idea.”

He swallowed. “I want it to be over. I want… to live the last few years of my life in peace. Well, assuming I have any years left.”

“So you would like immunity when the cult goes down?”

“Yes, but what about my brother?”

Drianna sat back in her chair, one long leg crossing over the other. “What about him?”

“My twin, Aenek. He’s the one who introduced me to the cult. Asharos told him that my illness would go away if I joined, if I put my faith in Atraxia. Aenek… he has more faith than I do. I kept trying. I really did. We were with them for years and there was no improvement in my… condition.”

“What, exactly, is your condition? Pardon my saying so, but you don’t look well.”

He looked away. “The doctors diagnosed me with Rescher’s Syndrome when I was eleven years old.”

Drianna winced. Rescher’s was an incurable illness with a one hundred percent mortality rate. From the look of him, Kenian was in his early twenties. “What stage has it reached, if you don’t mind my asking?”

He held up his hands and rolled his sleeves back a little. “I’m showing stage three symptoms.”

“My condolences,” she offered. Stage three presented a strong chance of complete respiratory failure, resulting in the need for artificial lungs if the patient in question was a candidate for such a costly procedure. If not, they were hooked up to bulky life support machines, restricting their mobility.

He shrugged. “I’ve been expecting it for a while now.”

Drianna made a note of it on her DARD. “What are you asking for in terms of your brother?”

“I want him unharmed. He’s not a bad person, really. He’s just fallen in with the wrong people.”

“You fell for the cult’s beliefs, too,” she pointed out.

“Only because of Aenek.” He put his hands in his pockets to keep from scratching. “Please. I’ll trade my knowledge for the safety of both myself and my brother.”

“How long were you on the inside?”

“Almost from the beginning. Seven years? Eight?”

“Didn’t you make friends in all that time? Is there anyone else you want saved?”

He shook his head. “My condition made most people avoid me, even though it’s not contagious. Aenek was the only one who associated with me. His close friendship with Asharos was what got me into the inner circle.”

Drianna leaned forward, intrigued despite herself and her training. “How large is the inner circle?”

Brow furrowed, he shook his head. “I want your promise first.”

“I don’t have sufficient authority to make any guarantees, but I can talk to my superiors, intercede on your behalf.”

“Then do that.” He folded his arms across his chest. “I won’t say anything more until I have your word.”

Drianna nodded, standing up. “This shouldn’t take long. If you require anything, please ask. We monitor this room for security reasons. Speak up and someone will see to it.”

He squirmed. “A more comfortable chair wouldn’t hurt.”

Her lips twitched. “These chairs aren’t replaceable. Comfortable chairs would defeat the purpose of this room. However, considering your condition, I’ll see if I can have someone bring you a cushion.”

“It’s better than nothing, I guess.”

“I will be back soon.”

 

* * *

 

 

On the other side of the glass, Drianna’s friend and long-time crew member watched the interview with a well-trained eye. She waited for Drianna to leave the room.

When she finally came out, she was clutching the DARD to her chest. Drianna joined her at the wall, looking in on Kenian. From the inside, it appeared to be four solid walls with only a door leading in or out. In reality, only three of the walls were as they appeared to be. With the push of a button, a window opened up on the outside and anyone could look in, to observe interrogations. Anyone on the outside could see and hear everything, but on the inside, a person would be unaware they were being watched, even if they knew of the window’s existence. It was one of the many ways the Agency was so effective.

“Your thoughts?” she asked.

“He seems like an honest enough fellow,” Ashrinn said, watching Kenian through the window. “Certainly more so than other targets we’ve gone after. He has…how do I put this? A good energy around him?”

Drianna’s eyes flickered towards Ashrinn. “You don’t feel any kind of deception?”

Ashrinn squinted as she considered the question. “Not that I can tell, but it’s hard to feel much of anything from here.”

Drianna nodded. “In this, I agree with your instincts. Why would he go to all that trouble of turning himself in only to lie?”

Ashrinn turned to look at her, eyebrows arched. “I hadn’t heard that part.”

“Perhaps if you pulled your head out of the weapons’ locker once in a while, the other Agents would talk to you,” she teased. “The report says he came out of the Datroya Plain on a bike and just…handed himself over to the first Agent he found.”

She frowned. “Just like that?”

“That’s what it says.”

“Who had the honour of bringing him in?”

Drianna scrolled through the report on her DARD. “Agent Tulli Northbow.”

“The name’s not familiar to me.”

“I don’t know her either. At any rate, as per protocol, he’s been in lockup for a few days. Can’t be too careful with these lunatics.”

Ashrinn turned her attention back to the window. “So, he could be telling us the truth, but this could also be one of Sigilkeeper’s ploys.”

Drianna nodded. “What do you suggest?”

“If I were you, I’d go talk to the Chief and make the arrangements. What he wants is a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things. Immunity for two in exchange for taking Sigilkeeper down… it’s a bargain. He could have asked for land, wealth, rank… anything. That he only asked for himself and his brother shows his character. He’s a good man.”

“Recommendation?”

“Ask the Chief to set him up with proper medical care. As he said, he doesn’t have much time left. If his lungs fail before we complete this…” she left the sentence unfinished. There was no need to finish it.

“As usual, your recommendations are sound. Monitor him while I talk to the Chief.”

Ashrinn smiled and turned to go back to the window.

 

* * *

 

 

The door opened again, causing Kenian to jump. He looked up. Agent Snarevine entered, followed by a tall, red-haired woman in a uniform identical to hers. He narrowed his eyes as the strange agent stood behind the chair in a relaxed posture, hands folded behind her back. Drianna took her seat. She had no DARD with her this time. The new agent handed him a cushion. He smiled and slid it between him and the seat.

Drianna set her hands on top of the table, her fingers laced together. “Kenian Deepwood, this is Agent Ashrinn Chimekin. I’ve spoken with the Chief. He agrees to your terms and offers to have all of your medical needs for the foreseeable future seen to.”

Kenian laughed. “What you mean is until I die.”

“Chief Bitterleaf wouldn’t use such crude terms, but yes, that’s the understanding.”

“What will happen to my brother after I’m gone?”

“That’s up to him,” Ashrinn said. “If he stays out of trouble, he can do whatever he likes with his life. You should know these medical expenses include funeral costs and a generous stipend. If used wisely, it will cover the cost of living for your brother from the time he’s recovered until a few years after your death.”

Kenian blinked, startled. He scratched absentmindedly at the red mark on his hand. “That’s… very generous of you. And unexpected.”

“I hope it impresses upon you the severity of this… situation. We’ve been trying without success to take this cult down. Somehow, Sigilkeeper is always three steps ahead of the Enforcers. Three years ago, they kicked this case over to our Agency. This is the biggest break we’ve had since then. Your information is so valuable that this is the least we can do. Anything you could have asked for would have been seriously considered. You asked for so little in exchange… well, it made an impression. Were it not for your ailment, you could have made a valuable member of the Agency.”

“I don’t meet the physical requirements,” he said, balling his hands into fists. There was a tone of understandable bitterness in his voice.

“Are you prepared to give us your information now?” Drianna asked.

Kenian nodded. “Where do you want me to start?”

“At the beginning, please.”

He swallowed, nodding. “So, you probably already know how this thing got started.”

“Only a little,” Drianna admitted. “We have a lot of information but no way of sorting out fact from fiction.”

“That was a deliberate move on Asharos’s part. He figured if you were busy chasing your tails trying to sort that out, then he would be free to move around in the meantime.”

Ashrinn nodded. “That fits with what we know of his personality.”

“I’ll tell you what I was told at my initiation. Asharos claims he found this book when he was a child. He couldn’t read it, but he liked the picture on the cover so much that he kept it, hiding it under his bed. He says it wasn’t until a couple years later, when he could understand most of what was inside, that he came to understand that the book was one of the forbidden ones and so guarded it.

“I don’t know how much credence to give this, but he claims he learned how to use the things written in the book. Magic. With it, he summoned a goddess he calls Atraxia and spoke to Her. That’s why he started that cult. He says She gave him explicit instructions for it. While anyone is free to join, he has very specific criteria for anyone wishing one of the higher positions. The higher the position, the higher the standards are. There are five people that can get close to Asharos, myself included.”

“Do you have their names?” Ashrinn asked.

“Mikia Faithwind, Yakima Sunfire, and Ophalia Truesonne. My brother and I make five.” He frowned. “Don’t you need to be taking notes?”

“As I mentioned earlier,” Drianna told him, “we monitor these rooms. All of this is being recorded.”

Reassured, he continued. “Before you ask, I don’t know what criteria Asharos uses to pick people. I have my doubts about how high they are, though, despite his claims. Mikia, Yakima, and Ophalia aren’t the nicest people. They’re decent enough, I suppose, but ambitious. I’m sure that I don’t meet the criteria, that they let me in because of Aenek.”

“Why was Aenek allowed in?”

Kenian shrugged. “Aenek and Asharos have been friends for years. It just made sense to me. Asharos claims that the current state of things on Atharia is corrupt, that we need to renounce technology and return to a purer state of being. He preaches a lot about technology causing many illnesses. At first, I thought he was on to something, but what you see the longer you’re inside…” He shuddered.

“Do you need to take a break?” Ashrinn asked.

“No. If I don’t talk now, I never will.” He rubbed his eyes. “Some rituals involve an element of blood sacrifice. That’s not so bad. The knife used is sharp, and it doesn’t hurt so much. For the more… important ones, they find some helpless animal. Some require a quick death, others a slow one. Those are the worst. Asharos gets this… look in his eyes when he does it. I couldn’t help feeling sick, like it would only be a short step from there to using people. For days after each one, I could hear the animal’s screams. It got so bad that I would have to skip those rituals. At first, no one suspected anything, but there’ve been questions. I had to get out of there. I don’t think they’ve noticed that I’m missing yet, but they will soon.

“It doesn’t end there, either. He chose those of us in the inner circle because, according to Asharos, we have the potential to become as he is.”

“A depraved lunatic?” Drianna asked.

“Someone able to use magic, able to summon the great goddess at will.”

“I stand by the term lunatic.”

“None of us have yet been able to do any magic. At least, not during any rituals. I neither know nor care what they do in private. Frankly, I don’t believe magic is real. I used to, but after trying so hard to find the faith to cure myself and to cast even the simplest spells, my belief faded.”

“That shows you to be a rational human being,” Drianna praised him.

“Why did Asharos let you in if you’re as sick as you are?” Ashrinn asked.

“As I said, Aenek and Asharos have been friends for a long time and the cult only strengthened it. Aenek was one of the first members, you know. He could ask any favour and have it granted if it was possible to do so. When Aenek went for magic lessons, he asked to have me included. I think my eventual inclusion had more to do with the fact that Aenek and I are identical twins. It’s possible he wanted to keep an eye on me and see if I could be useful. He was wrong about that.”

Ashrinn shrugged. “You said none of the others could do anything either. That doesn’t make you useless. It proves the non-existence of magic.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Kenian said, though he sounded doubtful.

“Where are they located?” Drianna asked him, leaning forward in anticipation.

“There are small enclaves all over Atharia and I can give you a list of those, but the main compound is on the western side of the Datroya Plain.”

“That would explain why we’ve never been able to find him,” Ashrinn groaned, putting the palm of her right hand over her face.

“That place is a wasteland. No one in their right mind would set up there,” Drianna muttered as she sat back and folded her arms.

Ashrinn laughed. “It lends credence to your earlier comments, Drianna.”

“You mentioned earlier that you knew what Asharos’s next move is,” Drianna continued.

“He’s planning an attack on an R&D facility two days from now.”

“Which one? There’s a few to choose from.”

“Yadehann Enterprises.”

Ashrinn cursed. “There’s here in Aren’march.”

“Tell Jiyandi to get the ship ready. We need to stop him. I’ll go put in a requisition for enough magcuffs to secure them for transport.”

Kenian looked at the two Agents. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to join you.”

Drianna raised an eyebrow. “Oh, you would, would you? The Agency only allows authorized personnel to travel on its ships.”

“The Shrike is yours, not the Agency’s,” Ashrinn reminded her.

“This is official business, not a private cruise.”

Kenian folded his arms across his chest, looking up at them. “You won’t find the spot without me. I can give you all the directions in the world, but you won’t find it unless you know what you’re looking for.”

The two Agents exchanged a glance. “He may have a point, Drianna. From what I’ve seen of that region, it’s impossible to navigate. During my training, they required us to fly over it to test how well we could navigate when there were no recognizable landmarks. I crashed ten minutes in and they denied me my pilot’s licence. I’ve worked as an engineer ever since.”

“Jiyandi has flown over it and has never had a problem,” Drianna continued. “It’s why I hired her. She has an instinct for direction that I’ve never seen before.”

“Even she has to know where she’s going. I’m recommending to the Chief that Kenian come with us. It’s only for as long as it takes to apprehend our targets. So long as he promises to stay out of the way and let us do our job, I see no problem with it. He may also be of use in getting his brother to cooperate.”

“For the record, I think it’s a bad idea,” Drianna said, scowling. “However, you may have a point about his presence helping to get his brother to cooperate. He also knows the layout of the compound. I’ll see what I can do, but I can’t make any promises.”

“You can and you will,” Kenian insisted. “It’s the only way you’ll find the place. If the only way is to sneak me on board your ship, do it.”

“I doubt it will come to that,” Ashrinn assured him. “As mentioned earlier, you could have asked for anything in exchange for your information. This is a reasonable request and one that may help us. If you’ll excuse us, we have arrangements to make before we can leave. Would you like to remain here or would you prefer to leave?”

Kenian shrugged. “Here is as good as anywhere else. Come get me when you’re ready.”