“Please state your name for
The young man blinked into the harsh yellow light, his throat convulsing rapidly as he swallowed making the ugly bruise on his neck dance. “Kenian Deepwood,” he responded nervously, rubbing the top of his left hand. The action partially concealed a red patch there.
The dark haired woman sitting across the dull metal table nodded at his response and tapped a few buttons on the data access and retrieval device—more commonly 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 slightly as he did so, the harsh light emphasizing the dark circles under his eyes.
She looked up, her grey eyes meeting his hazel ones. “It doesn’t matter what I know. Please make a response for the official record.”
He leaned back against the chair’s narrow back, wiggling uncomfortably. “I have information on the cult of Atraxia that you may find useful.”
“I know their leader, I know where they are, and I know better than the Agency as to what their numbers are like.” He scratched at the patch of red skin on his left hand, grimacing in pain with the action.
“This is valuable information,” she said, nodding as she entered that into the DARD. “What do you want in exchange for it?”
“Want?” he asked, confused.
She set the DARD down on the table and placed her elbows on the table, her fingers lacing together to form a rest for her chin. Gazing at him evenly, she said, “You don’t honestly to expect the Enforcers to believe that you’ll just hand the information over without asking for anything in return, do you?”
“I just want out,” Kenian admitted, scratching his hand, a pained look 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.
“Agent,” she corrected him, using the short hand for a fugitive recovery agent. She tapped the round silver and bronze badge pinned to the left breast of her navy coloured uniform. “Agent Drianna Snarevine.”
His eyes widened. “You don’t look like a bounty hunter.”
“That’s the idea.”
He swallowed. “I just want it to be over. I want…to live the last few years of my life in peace. Well, assuming I have that many years.”
“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 your brother?”
“My twin, Aenek. He’s the one who introduced me to the cult in the first place. High Priest Sigilkeeper told him that my illness would be cured if I joined. 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?”
He looked away. “I was diagnosed with Rescher’s Syndrome when I was eleven years old.”
Drianna winced sympathetically. Rescher’s was an incurable illness with a one hundred percent mortality rate. From the look of him, Kenian was in his early twenties at the earliest. “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’ve begin to show stage three symptoms.”
“My condolences,” she said softly. Stage three presented a strong chance of complete respiratory failure resulting in the need to be fitted with 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, severely restricting their mobility.
He shrugged. “I’ve been expecting it for a while now.”
Drianna made a note 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?”
“In all that time, didn’t you make any friends? Is there anyone else you want saved?”
He shook his head sadly. “My condition made most people want to avoid me. Aenek was the only one who willingly 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?”
Stubbornly, he shook his head. “I want your promise first.”
“I don’t have the authority to make that guarantee, 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 another word until I have your word.”
Drianna nodded, standing up. “This shouldn’t take long. If you require anything, please feel free to ask. This room is monitored for security reasons. Simply speak what you need and someone will see to it.”
He squirmed. “A more comfortable chair wouldn’t hurt.”
Her lips twitched. “Sadly, these chairs can’t be replaced. Comfortable chairs would defeat the purpose of this room; however, in light of your condition, I’ll see if I can have someone bring something to pad it for you.”
“It’s better than nothing, I guess.”
“I will be back momentarily.”
On the other side of the glass, Drianna’s friend and long time partner watched the conversation with a well-trained eye. Patiently, he waited for Drianna to finish talking and come out.
The door finally opened and she came out, clutching the DARD to her chest. She joined him at the wall, looking in on Kenian. On the inside of the room, 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 discreetly. Those on the outside could see and hear everything, but on the inside, you would be unaware that you were being watched even if you knew of the window’s existence. It was one of the ways the Agency was so effective.
“Your thoughts?” she asked.
“I think he’s being honest about everything. He has no reason to be deceptive.”
Drianna nodded. “My thoughts exactly.”
“If I were you, I’d go talk to the Chief and make the necessary arrangements. What he wants is a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things. Immunity for two in exchange for taking Asharos 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.”
“Ask the Chief to set him up with proper medical care. He only has a few years left I’d wager. It’s the least we can do. If his lungs fail before we complete this…” he left the sentence unfinished. There was no need to finish it.
“As usual, your recommendations are sound Kamien. Keep an eye on him while I talk to the Chief.”
Drianna started to walk away when Kamien spoke up. “You’re slipping, Drianna.”
She turned to look back at him. “Say again?”
With a sigh, he pushed the button to close the observation window and walked up to her. “You’re forgetting your training.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” she replied stiffly.
“You were showing emotion in there,” Kamien continued. “You’ve done hundreds of interrogations with no problem. Why this time? Why this one?”
Drianna shook her head. “I’ve never had to deal with anyone in his condition. It was…unsettling.”
He clasped a hand on Drianna’s shoulder. “Don’t let it affect you. This case is so close to being over with. Just…tough it out for a few more days. Ok?”
Drianna nodded, not sure what else to do. “I’ll go see what I can do about Mr. Deepwood in there. Keep an eye on him for me?”
Kamien smiled and turned to go back to the window.
When the door opened again, Kenian looked up. Agent Snarevine came in followed by a tall, thin, blond man in an identical uniform to hers. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously as the strange agent stood behind the chair in a relaxed posture, his hands folded loosely behind his back. Drianna took her seat. She had no DARD with her this time. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.
She set her hands on top of the table, her fingers laced together. “Kenian Deepwood, this is my partner, Kamien Strongshore. 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 bitterly. “What you mean is I’ll be taken care of until I die.”
“Chief Bitterleaf wouldn’t use such crude terms, but yes, that’s understood.”
“What will happen to my brother after I’m gone?”
“That’s entirely up to him,” Kamien said. “If he stays out of trouble, he can do whatever he likes with his life. It should be noted that 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. Unconsciously, he scratched the red mark 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, this case was kicked 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 considered seriously. That you asked for so little…it made an impression. Were it not for your ailment, you could have made a valuable member of the Agency.”
“Sadly, 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?”
“Preferably at the beginning.”
He swallowed, nodding. “So, you probably already know how this thing got started.”
“Only vaguely,” Drianna admitted. “We have a great deal of information but no way of sorting out fact from fiction.”
“That was a deliberate move on Asharos’s part. He figures if you were busy chasing your tails trying to sort that out then he would be free to move around in the meantime.”
Kamien nodded. “That fits with what we know of his personality and makes a disturbing amount of sense.”
“I’ll tell you what I was told when I was initiated in. Asharos claims that 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 decided to keep it. He kept it hidden under his bed. He says it wasn’t until a couple years later, when he was able to understand most of what was inside, that he came to understand that the book was forbidden and guarded it closely.
“I don’t know how much credence to give this, but he claims that he learned how to use the things written in the book. Magic. With it, he summoned 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 a higher position. The higher the position, the higher the standards are. There are five people that can get close to Asharos, myself included.”
“Do you have the names of these other people?” Kamien 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. “These rooms are monitored. All of this is being recorded.”
Reassured, he continued. “Before you ask, I don’t know what criteria Asharos uses to pick people with. 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, I suppose, but very ambitious. I’m reasonably sure that I don’t meet the criteria, that I was only admitted because of Aenek.”
“Why was Aenek allowed in?”
Kenian shrugged. “Aenek and Asharos have been friends for years. I never really thought about it much beyond that. I just made sense to me.
“Asharos claims that the current state of things is corrupt, that we need to renounce technology and return to a purer state of being. 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?” Kamien asked.
“No. If I don’t get this out now, I never will.” He rubbed his eyes gently. “Some of the 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 some of the more…important ones, they find some helpless animal. Some require a quick death, others a slow one. Those ones are the worst. Asharos gets this…look in his eye when he does it. I couldn’t help feeling sick, feeling that 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 lately 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. Those of us in the inner circle were chosen because, according to Asharos anyways, we have the potential to become as he is.”
“A depraved lunatic?” Drianna asked. Behind her, Kamien cleared his throat warningly.
“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 anything even remotely magical; at least, not in any of the 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 quickly.”
“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?” Kamien 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 of the cult, you know. He could ask any favour and have it granted if it was possible to do so. When Aenek was selected 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 and have the same genes. It’s possible he wanted to keep an eye on me and see if I could be useful. He was wrong about that.”
Kamien shrugged. “You said none of the others could do anything either. That doesn’t make you useless. It simply 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 edge of Datroya Plain.”
“That would explain why we’ve never been able to find him,” Kamien groaned, putting the palm of his right hand over his 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.
Kamien laughed. “It does lend credence to your earlier comments, Drianna.”
“Go to the docking bay and tell Jiyandi to get the ship ready; we’ll head out after him before he has a chance to run. I’ll go put in a requisition for enough magcuffs to secure them for transport.”
“With the number of cuffs we’ll need, the Chief will probably insist on sending some extra man power with us,” Kamien advised. “I’d beat him to it and request another Agent.”
“Did you have someone in mind?”
“Jiyandi’s friend, Agent Chimekin, works in this District. Jiyandi says she’s competent if a little over eager at times.”
“Much like Jiyandi herself,” Drianna commented to herself, nodding.
Kenian looked at the two Agents. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to join you.”
Drianna raised an eye brow. “Oh you would, would you? The Agency only allows authorized personnel to travel on its ships.”
“That ship is yours, not the Agency’s,” Kamien reminded her.
“This is official business, not a private cruise.”
Kenian folded his arms across his chest, looking up at them stubbornly. “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 look. “He may have a point, Drianna. From what I’ve seen of that region, it’s impossible to navigate. During my training, we were required to fly over it to test how well we could navigate when there were no recognizable landmarks. I crashed ten minutes in and I was denied my pilot’s licence. I’ve been stuck as an engineer ever since.”
“Jiyandi’s flown over it and has never had a problem,” Drianna continued stubbornly. “It’s why I hired her on. She has an instinct for direction that I’ve never seen before.”
“Even she has to know where she’s going. I’m putting my recommendation to the Chief that Kenian be allowed to come with us. It’s only for as long as it takes to apprehend our targets. As long as he promises to stay out of the way and let us do our job, I see no problem with this. 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.
“Don’t make me pull rank on you,” Kamien warned. “It’s your ship, but I outrank you by quite a bit, captain.”
Drianna stood and locked eyes with her partner. They stared at each other for a moment before Drianna sat back down, sighing, her eyes closed briefly. “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,” Kamien 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 in the end. 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 this room?”
Kenian shrugged. “This is as good as anywhere else here. Come get me when you’re ready.”