Author's Note: It lives! For those of you who thought this story might be dead, I apologize for the extreme delay. Sometimes life just gets in the way, you know? But it's back now, and I vow that this story will be FINISHED! Someday…(I have no idea how many more chapters there are left, I just write the story.) In the mean time, I present the next installment. A huge thank you to all who have reviewed, especially the few who kept poking at me to keep writing. I appreciate the praise and encouragement, and I hope you enjoy the continuation.
Chapter 11: Master of the Craft, Part I
The line was a secure one, both parties had made sure of it, and yet the female's voice seemed subdued, hushed, and a little hurried as though afraid of being caught in the act.
"Do you have confirmation?" the male voice asked.
"Affirmative," came the reply in the same secretive tones. "She is alive."
There was a pause. "You are sure?"
"Yes. I've spoken with her personally." The woman cringed inwardly as she said it, knowing what her superior would say.
"Yet you do not know where she is hiding?"
"No sir, I've not been able to ascertain that yet."
"It is imperative that you do so immediately. Your next objective, then, is to do just that. Find her. Understood?"
The young woman swallowed, licked her lips, and found a voice for the words sticking in her throat. "Sir, is this an official Hunt order?"
"No," came the reply. "And it may not come to that. For now we need to discover where she is and if she will allow contact." A pause. "So find her."
"Yes sir," she confirmed. "I also have a status on the other target."
"He has cut off contact with the STNJ Hunters, though not with the administration. He is working out of the Factory, and has been since the attack. Surveillance shows no unusual activity."
"Who is handling the Hunts?"
"The most senior Hunter at present is Karasuma Miho and she is organizing and performing the Hunts. The office is under the supervision of Kosaka, Tokyo Police."
"Very well," the male voice replied. "Continue observation of the Factory and monitor Zaizen's movements. We'll monitor Tokyo police channels from here. Priority one is Sena."
"Understood," she replied before disconnecting, snapping the cell phone closed and holding it tightly in her fist, her other hand gripping the steering wheel of her car. She was uncertain how to react to the exchange – on the one hand she had not been ordered to Hunt Robin, merely to find her. However, finding her meant her superior was one step closer to that end if he chose to exercise that power. And no matter how she spun it, she could not avoid her complicity in Robin's Hunt if it came to it.
She would do as she was ordered. She had no choice. And yet, after the attack of the STNJ she had fervently hoped that the young fire witch would have the common sense to find a dark hole to hide in a stay there.
Doujima started her car and pulled out of the small niche she had chosen as a surveillance post near the factory, a frown furrowing the brow beneath her light blonde bangs. She was going to look for Robin, yet she secretly hoped she wouldn't find her.
Juliano's thoughts were interrupted by the rattling of ice cubes in his guest's now empty glass. He reached for the heavy crystal decanter on the table between them and Inquisitor Koushon extended his glass for the refill, nodding his thanks. He took a sip of the fine scotch and grimaced ever so slightly. "Your hospitality is admirable, Father, considering the recent animosity between us."
Father Juliano looked hard at the Inquisitor, squashing the smug smile on his face. "You did not come here so that we could catch up on old times. This is no social call."
"Ah, but old times may end up being just what we discuss, Father."
Juliano schooled his expression to cool neutrality. "Perhaps." He took a sip from his own glass, quelling the shiver scotch always gave him. "May I inquire after your agent, Grieg?"
Koushon inclined his head. "You may. Ivan is recovering. The road is long, but he will overcome." Then he looked to Juliano, cold blue eyes staring out of an equally cold face. "And may I enquire about Agent Excelior?"
A ripple of unease passed through Juliano, though he carefully suppressed it. Morgan excited in him a concern that had long passed casual. The reports he was receiving from the island were not favorable where she was concerned. Rather than schooling her new power, she seemed utterly at its mercy. And the power, so Adrian reported to him, seemed only to be gathering in strength. And she was being fairly uncooperative besides. "She is recovered," he lied calmly to his unwelcome guest. "She is with Father Adrian, as always."
Koushon smiled unconvincingly. "Of course."
The two men sat back in matching leather wingback armchairs before the large fireplace in Juliano's comfortable private study, firelight casting the two men in a circle of warm light that died just several feet beyond their chairs. Inquisitor Koushon spoke again, this time in tones barely above a whisper. "And Amon?"
Juliano studied his adversary carefully. At the speaking of the young Hunter's name the Inquisitor had lost all his swagger, turning instead to a seriousness that told just how worried Koushon was about the implications of Amon's cooperation with his rival. "And is that why you have come?" Juliano asked carefully. "Do you still desire his knowledge? Do you still make designs against him?"
Koushon sat back in his chair, studying the play of light on the cut crystal of the glass in his hand. "No, that is not my reason for wanting a meeting with you. Curiosity is all I harbor where he is concerned."
Juliano highly doubted it, but allowed Koushon to segue without argument. "And your reason then for calling me is what?"
"Unfinished business," was the cryptic reply.
"I agree there is much left unresolved between us. So much in fact that I must ask to what you are referring to specifically."
Inquisitor Koushon was still turning his glass slowly. "My agents tell me that you have not made good on your word, Juliano, as to your young Hunter in Japan." He hadn't said her name, but both men understood the person in question. "I hear there has been no search, no Hunt ordered. Nothing at all."
The stillness of Juliano belied the fear and rage he felt at that moment. "I hardly see how this concerns you, Koushon."
The Inquisitor sat forward in a sudden movement. "And I am here to discover how you can be so very unconcerned about it."
"And I remember telling you in no uncertain terms that my Hunters are my business and mine alone. You are meddling in matters that don't concern you, so I must assume that you are trying to play the same card as before in order to force my hand. And I told you then that the information Zaizen has promised you does not exist."
Koushon scowled. "Zaizen plays no part in my reason for being here. I speak of another matter."
Juliano took a measured breath around the tightening in his chest. "Enlighten me, then."
There was a pause as though Koushon was considering how to phrase his next words. "I speak of Robin's mission, and the very real danger she is in."
For a moment Juliano was without words. "Continue."
"I have discovered Robin's reason for being in Japan. Not as a replacement Hunter as was supposed. That was for Zaizen's benefit I'm sure. I refer to the Arcanum."
"I'm not going to ask how you came by this information."
"A wise move, Father." Koushon smiled. "My methods for gathering intelligence are what have allowed me to reach my current position. But I take it, then, that it is correct?"
Juliano was wildly uncertain where this track was headed, knowing only that the destination was not somewhere he wanted to go with this man. "Why don't you say what you have come to say, Koushon?"
"Because my information comes with a price." He sat back and clasped his hands demurely.
Of course. This snake of a man was capable of nothing less. To deal with him was to make concessions he had no desire to make. And to give this man more information than he already had was dangerous. But if it concerned Robin… the ache in his chest now felt more like familiar despair now. The thought of his granddaughter weighed very heavy on his mind and heart. "I can't imagine," Juliano said softly, "how you think I would negotiate with you after what has happened. I have every reason to believe you are trying to orchestrate my downfall."
"Of course you're right," Koushon conceded benignly. "You distrust me. So how about I give you a little information for free? As a sign of good faith?" His look was mocking, challenging, and Juliano's temper rose just as Koushon intended it to. Without waiting for an answer, he rose and strode to the fire, turning his back to the Master Hunter. "My informants tell me that there is a situation developing in Japan. In the Walled City region to be specific."
Juliano knew to what Koushon referred. Strange reports were leaking from that area that a fight had begun in the power vacuum left by the death of a woman whom many believed to be the leader of the witches in that area. He said as much to Koushon, who nodded. "That is correct. In fact, a migration has begun throughout Japan to the Walled City by witches on the Solomon watch list. And witches are fighting there. And dying there. And do you know why?"
When Juliano made neither sound or gesture, Koushon continued. "For an object. An object that is said to bestow extraordinary knowledge and power on the owner." The inquisitor turned to look at his audience. "The Fragment of Wisdom. The Arcanum of the Craft."
Juliano sat back in his chair. "I already have this information," he said smoothly. "If this is what you are here to tell me then you are wasting your time."
"Let me continue," Koushon said with a silencing gesture. "Witches are searching for it and fighting for it, but no one can find it." A pause. "But I know who has it."
"And this is the information?"
Koushon smiled slowly. "Oh yes."
Juliano bristled. "And why would that concern me?"
"Because you know her too." He allowed this information to sink in, watching Juliano's face morph from anger to uncertainty to trepidation. "Yes," he confirmed. "Robin has the Arcanum."
This brought Juliano forward in his chair. "And how do you know this?"
"You forget, when I was last in Japan I questioned Robin personally."
"And you're telling me she told you she had it?"
"No, but I saw it."
"She showed it to you?"
Koushon smiled again, a terrible, cold smile, and Juliano felt suddenly his blood chill. "In a manner of speaking."
Juliano was on his feet without recalling making the decision. "Explain yourself," he growled, stepping toward Koushon.
The Inquisitor raised a hand to halt his progress. "First, we discuss my price." Juliano's face must have shown the outraged anger he felt, which only made his abuser smile more. "In exchange for this information you destroy any designs you have on bringing my recent actions before the High Council. And you will give me any and all information you have concerning Zaizen and the orbo so that my department may act to bring him down."
Juliano realized his hands were clenched into fists and he relaxed them slowly, swallowing the insults he longed to hurl at this hateful man. Making a deal with this devil was disgusting. He would be letting him off the hook for the underhanded, dangerous, and potentially disastrous plans he had tried to execute. But Robin was worth any price, however hard to swallow. "Done." He stepped uncomfortably close to the Inquisitor, allowing his greater height to intimidate. "Now tell me what you know."
Koushon, surprisingly, did not step away. "Gladly," he replied. "Your mistake, Juliano, is that you've been laboring under the illusion all this time that the Arcanum was an object to be possessed. Not that you can be blamed for this misunderstanding – everyone else assumes likewise. But I am telling you, the Arcanum is not a thing, it is a power bestowed on a person. A Craft in itself, if you will, and a custodianship of ancient wisdom recorded nowhere else."
"And you are saying that Robin has been bestowed with this power?" Juliano whispered. His heart was racing, his vision loosing focus as he began to digest the magnitude of what Koushon was telling him and the implications only he understood.
"Yes, when she destroyed Methuselah the Arcanum in her possession was passed to Robin," he confirmed. "I've seen it with my own eyes. She is powerful, Juliano. Immensely powerful. Beyond reckoning, in fact." To Juliano's astonishment, Koushon moved in even closer and caught his arm. "Horrifyingly powerful, and now she is missing."
"Since your attack on the STNJ there has been no contact. She might be dead." Several moments ago the idea of Robin being dead would have been heartbreaking. How grotesque that now in the back of Juliano's mind, under these new terrifying circumstances he actually longed for it. He felt the bile rising in his throat.
"She's not," Koushon countered, driving the imaginary knife in deeper. "My agent has made contact with her. She is alive and unharmed. And in hiding."
"Find me, if you can."
These were the only instructions Sastre had given him, yet Amon needed no others. The lesson of the day was to track the target and engage in combat. And while the island stretched on for ten square miles of largely inhospitable ground, Amon nearly smiled with relief. Hunting in the open was something he was good at. He set off at sunrise from the manor with unhurried pace, hands in pockets, breathing in the fresh ocean air filtered through the sturdy if stunted Holm oaks that sheltered in the central valley of the island.
Once outside the manicured lawns of the monastery, Amon slowed his steps even further and began to look to the ground. His prejudiced opinion of Sastre's hiking skills led Amon to believe that he would keep to a path, however insignificant it may be. But he knew his Master would think of this, and would delight at making the ordeal as arduous as possible. So Amon looked for any sign from bent grass blade to disrupted shrub to scuff mark in the dirt to guide him after the Master Craft user.
Several yards away and to the left there was a defined boot print in the looser dirt off the well worn path and it pointed off into the shoulder high scrub that began its climb up the mountain at this point. A little probing showed similar prints ranging off after the first in the same direction. So carefully Amon parted the shrubs and placed his feet quietly, following the trail.
It was good to be alone for a change, with time for his own thoughts. If he tried hard enough he could imagine he was on a walk for pleasure rather than a Hunting exercise. His only solitary time was at night, alone in the confines of his room. But Amon no longer felt alone in those dark hours. Since his strange interaction that day in the library with Morgan, Amon had felt a presence forming, and his memories of her had been his constant companion ever since. Even now as he scanned the terrain with close scrutiny it was impossible for him to ignore that her eyes had looked upon this landscape as well; that her steps printed this island.
It wasn't that he was different. No, he couldn't say he had changed. And yet something had shifted in him, in his unconscious mind, in his soul, and the door had opened as though he had been able to all the while. She had brought this about; Morgan. That day in the library when she put the book in his hand and spoke those words in his ear, it gave him a course of action. It gave him a reason to fight. And though he wasn't ready to admit it even to himself, it gave him hope. Of what he wasn't sure exactly. But he read that poem until the light faded outside, then intermittently through the sleepless night that followed. And the more he read it the more her face coalesced in his mind. Robin. Pale and beautiful like an angel rendered by Botticelli with a soul of fire burning behind the limpid pools of her green eyes. That thin, seemingly fragile, seemingly childlike young woman was everywhere it seemed, as though the place had absorbed her essence and the air he breathed intoxicated him with her past inhabitance. The warm and silent presence he had become grudgingly addicted to was wracking him with shuddering withdrawal. He couldn't fight it any more. He wouldn't. The poem had spoken of light, and the only light Amon could imagine was hers – pure and white despite the darkness all around her. At least her memory was with him now, keeping him focused, allowing him to cup his fingers around the flame of his own humanity lest Solomon succeed in completely snuffing it out.
That next day with Sastre had been priceless in Amon's estimation. He had arrived to the lesson haggard looking from lack of sleep, though perhaps his eyes shone too brightly, probably misinterpreted as the first symptoms of insanity. Sastre looked smug, a cat licking cream from his whiskers as he took in his student's bruised eyes and pale skin, noted the stiffness and care Amon took as he walked – symptoms from the 'teaching' of the day before. No threat here, he must have thought, no contest. And the overconfidence slid into his quiet voice as he asked, "Did you study the book as I told you to do?"
The smirk took its time sliding from beneath Sastre's mustache, holding its place as though denying Amon's ability to have answered in anything other than the affirmative. When the truth set in, however, Sastre's eyes sparked crimson. "No?" he echoed, allowing the repetition to hold the vague weight of a threat.
Amon didn't even look up from behind the veil of his hair shielding both sides of his face. "No," he repeated simply, letting one hand rest lightly across his abdomen, over one of the scars he had incurred saving Robin's life. He pressed and felt the deep ache. He needed to remember if he wanted this to work. He had to remember.
"If you lose the anger then the channel will open and your focus will harness the power of your Craft. You alone stand in the way of this happening. Stop fighting your nature and start fighting him, a turn of events that will take him by surprise and allow you to excel." Morgan's words to him the day before. The single spoken thought that had started this. He hoped he was strong enough.
Sastre had stood then, advancing slowly upon his belligerent student. "I'm afraid this lesson is going to hurt, then," almost spitting glee at the thought of a well justified thrashing. From the inside pocket of his coat he brought forth a recognizable book and flipped it open with one hand, standing casually in the middle of the large, empty room. "Let's read it now, together."
He cleared his throat dramatically and began. "We stand collected as stars in the sky, no order but yours, Lord." At this his eyes flicked up from the page and Amon felt a wave of energy heading his way. His first instinct was to clench his fists or hold his breath but instead he did the opposite, relaxing, breathing, and timing his response. The Craft flashed to a dead halt several feet from him, and Sastre cocked an eyebrow. "Hmm."
"One light may burn brighter than the next," he continued in his reading, "but all pale and disappear within the sun's light, light of the Lord." Again his eyes rose from the page, this time with a much larger surge of power behind it. Amon could sense, almost too late, that he was not ready to block such a large attack and he spun to the side, hearing the impact of Sastre's Craft reverberate on the cold stone wall behind him.
"Uh huh," Sastre intoned, flipping pages idly in his book, seemingly vindicated by Amon's reaction. Amon took another deep breath, letting his hand rest again on the scar, calling for stillness in his head, seeking to quell the antagonism this man so easily roused in him.
Sastre was reciting once more, and the two men began to circle each other slowly. "You must kill, without regret, all those who are outside our Lord's love, for surely to live beyond the touch of God's guiding hand is an abomination, cold and empty, and in the teeming void Satan will find his opportunity - "
His recitation was cut off as Amon's Craft lifted Sastre from his feet and threw him several yards back, landing ungracefully on his backside. In the calm Amon sought he had made the realization that Sastre had arrogantly neglected to guard himself, so sure was he that Amon would or could not attack. Now Sastre looked around him, anger and confusion vying for dominance. Anger won, and he scrambled back to his feet, leaving the book where it had fallen.
The circling began once more, but Amon felt light now, unencumbered by worry or fear. Suddenly the world seemed crisp and focused, and he felt in control of the power that welled within him, gathering at his command. He knew, however, that if he were to score another hit it would not be as easy the second time – Sastre was no fool and would not underestimate him twice. "This is your purpose," Sastre spat, now reciting the book from memorization. "to know the darkness that spawns temptation, to touch the power that breeds corruption, and eliminate such threats with the Lord's power." Amon knew another attack was coming, could feel it gathering, and yet he dropped his shield, sending instead a surge of energy to meet Sastre's head on. They met and collided with a clap like thunder, sending both men back several steps.
His Master's eyes were wide, looking at Amon as though for the first time. "How…" fell from his lips and died there.
Amon advanced slowly, every step gathering power. "Focus your will," Amon said softly but clearly, sending a burst that bounced off Sastre's shield. "Abandon your desire." Another attack, larger this time, leaving no room for Sastre to counter, only defend. "And become an instrument of God's justice." And he planted his feet, throwing both arms out before him, sending a surge of power forward. While it did not penetrate his Master's shield, it did push him back several steps, leaving him quite literally against the wall.
Sastre's mouth was open, either in shock or to catch his breath. "I thought you said you didn't read the book," he accused, pushing away from the wall.
Amon allowed a small smile to appear. "I lied."
The smile reappeared as Amon paused in his hike to rest and survey the surroundings. The trail was leading him in a serpentine path around and up the mountain. As he climbed he left the valley behind and views of the ocean came into view; startlingly blue water with equally blue skies, the hint of a storm passing on the horizon far to the south. Somewhere on the mountain above a fight was waiting for him, but he felt no need to rush toward it.
He could not think on that small victory over Sastre without thinking of a very similar victory he had witnessed just several months before. They had set up a trial for her in the caverns beneath Raven's Flat and watched from the safe perspective of a camera as Robin flawlessly executed her test. He could still see so clearly the transparent look of unhurried concentration on her face, and the relaxed confidence she exuded as she performed what seemed to be an impossible feat. He had been unnerved by her ability, a feeling that stirred no small measure of annoyance in him, and had marveled what a difference a pair of glasses could make to a power that had previously seemed sporadic and uncontrollable.
Yet now he frowned as a new thought occurred to him. His Craft too had been a wild and untamed beast before something as small as a poem and whispered conversation shifted his focus and concentration, allowing him to redirect his power into a useable channel. Perhaps… could it be possible that his small gesture of concern and belief in her abilities had allowed Robin to harness the full power of her Craft? He stared at the ground as he trudged over uneven rocks, mulling the thought. Well without a doubt Robin was extremely powerful. It was presumptuous to assume that a pair of glasses could succeed where the Solomon Master Hunter Program could not. This thought spawned another – to whom had Robin been apprenticed? While he was sure there were at least a handful of Fire Craft users at the rank of Master, none was higher than Juliano.
Juliano…Again the letter appeared in his mind, the letter Father Juliano had written to Robin before Koushon's team had Hunted her. He didn't have any idea where it was now, but the force of the words and the emotions behind them were fresh in his mind. For such an eloquent man the note had been fairly jumbled; sentences that swung wildly between apology and resignation, hints of a larger purpose to her sacrifice and yet raw, tearing grief at the thought of losing her. And love. Yes, it seemed Father Juliano had a surprising well of love for Robin. It was a mystery. Amon frowned and kept moving forward. Perhaps it was a mystery that needed solving.
The wind was whistling with more force here on the heights of the mountain, and he could almost feel the answering call of his Craft to the moving air. It was uniquely bizarre to have such a sense of space around him, to feel a mental contact with the air that surrounded him, knowing that now he could call upon it to be both sword and shield if the occasion demanded it. While he would never describe it to another as such, he had to admit that it made him feel a little more in touch with nature and made the vast expanse he looked out upon seem just a little smaller.
Amon shook his head of these worthless thoughts. He had to concentrate, now that he could see where his tracking was leading him. Father Peter had told him offhandedly at dinner one evening some of the history of the island, and the topic of the first monastery had come up. Peter had told Amon that the ruins of that structure still remained high up on a bluff, and now Amon looked upon them with his own eyes. An ominously beautiful gothic façade still remained standing, the rest crumbled to the foundations, and Amon knew this was where Sastre would be waiting for him. He approached stealthily, yet he could sense eyes watching him, and knew the strange sudden absence of breeze was no accident. Setting his jaw and summoning his shield, he climbed toward the ruins.
The next chapter is being written and will be posted soon. Thank you for reading!