Chapter 5 - The Overseer & The Report
The town was practically empty, and the first rays of dawn were only just beginning to pierce the dark sky above. Stepping out of the inn, Three inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with the chilly air in an effort to dispel his drowsiness.
The town, known as Luzent, was located on the border of Calvard and Remiferia. Three and Nine would often undertake missions in both countries, making the centrally-located town a perfect base of operations.
East of the town was an official border crossing into Calvard. In stark contrast, westward lay a mountain road known only to a select few. It was a treacherous path to be sure, but also one that facilitated entry into the Republic without the need to go through the official channels.
Three headed to the designated rendezvous point--a small hill surrounded by weathered boulders. The site was deep in the mountains, and therefore free of unwanted eyes.
There, he found a black silhouette waiting for him. It was a man hidden in shadow, wrapped in a tattered black cloak that obscured his face and body both. Despite his bedraggled attire, his presence had an insurmountable weight to it, instilling a primal sort of fear into any who laid eyes on him.
'I'm here to make my report,' said Three.
In response, the cloaked figure uttered only a single word.
This man, known as the Overseer, was one of the higher-ranking members of the Organization. He was given the name of 'Emperor' from the Major Arcana, but those who served under him referred to him simply as 'the Overseer.'
As his title suggested, he watched over Three and the rest of the Organization's tools. He was the one who provided mission instructions and received their reports.
Three relayed the details of the Halldor mission to the Overseer. As he finished, the man spoke again.
'Right. Regarding Nine of Swords...'
As part of their debriefing, every member was required to report on their partner's activities. Each of the pair would separately describe what they did and what they observed their partner doing. Even the slightest discrepancy between the pair's reports was regarded with suspicion. The objective behind this requirement was to instill them with fear--fear that any plot they may hatch to betray the Organization would swiftly make its way to the ears of their superiors.
'That is all,' Three said as he finished his report.
'Very well,' the Overseer said, 'You will be contacted with instructions for your next mission once they are ready.'
Three turned to head back to town, but as he did, the Overseer spoke again. It was little more than a whisper, but it was delivered with a weight that froze Three in his tracks.
Three slowly turned around to face the Overseer. As always, his dark hood completely covered his face.
'It's been three years now. You haven't been making any more plans, have you?'
Three felt a sudden chill shoot down his spine. The Overseer's suffocating gaze was laced with a powerful malice. There was no need for Three to ask for clarification. He knew the Overseer was talking about his escape attempt three years prior.
The Emperor had personally conducted many of the Organization's purges of runaway members. As their very lives became threatened, many lower-ranking members would find themselves overwhelmed by fear, rendering them powerless before the merciless Emperor. Thus, even within the Organization--a cruel place in its own right--the Emperor had earned himself a reputation for his savagery. He was also the very same man who had tracked down Three and Ace during their escape attempt.
Had he already picked up on Three's new plan to escape? No... Three found the thought absurd. He had taken every step with the utmost care and prudence. Further, if the Emperor had obtained some proof of Three's wrongdoing, the young assassin would already be dead. This was a test. If Three wavered here, even in the slightest, it would mean his end.
'I will never again attempt something so foolish. I am a tool of the Organization, nothing more. My sole purpose is to take the lives of my targets.'
The way he cast his eyes, his calculated and practiced manner of speech, his natural breathing patterns... Three had pulled it off to perfection. Silence hung heavy in the air between them for a moment. Finally, the Emperor spoke.
'I do hope that is the case.'
The murderous presence faded from the air, as did the tension that had been building in Three's chest.
'There are certain expectations riding on your shoulders,' the Emperor said.
'I will fully devote myself to meeting them,' Three said in the same practiced tone. He moved once more to return to town and was not stopped this time.
'He bought it...'
Back at his inn room, Three let out a sigh of relief as he collapsed into his bed. Nothing had really happened during his exchange with the Overseer, but nonetheless, he felt completely drained. Without exception, each interaction he had with the Overseer was psychologically exhausting. This was to be expected, however, as he was, indeed, hiding his true intentions from the Organization.
In truth, Three had been planning a second escape attempt. The past three years had been grueling, but did nothing to quash his fervent desire for freedom. If anything, his resolve to reclaim his humanity had only grown stronger by the day. However, each day also saw his blood-drenched hands growing yet heavier with sin. He was a mere tool--human in physical form only. What few shreds of humanity still remained in his heart, he feared would be forever lost before much longer. Each new day that dawned could be the day that he finally slipped away into being little more than a device--one whose only function was assassination. Put simply, a cold-hearted monster. That was the terrifying future he dreaded above all else.
'I absolutely need to succeed this time! I need to get out!'
His plan had two requirements he absolutely needed to meet in order to succeed.
First off, he needed to avoid a direct confrontation with the Overseer.
Second, Nine could not find out about his plan, regardless of their partnership. He had to be careful to avoid even giving the impression that he longed for freedom. Of course, this meant that Three would be forced to abandon Nine--someone who had fought at his side through countless life-or-death situations. The girl was even younger than he was, but for all her genius, there seemed to be something...off about her.
Nonetheless, whenever Three thought about the moment he would pull the trigger and finally put his plan in motion, he always felt a strange sensation welling up inside of him. Strangely enough, it was a desperate urge to fill her in. There were a number of times where Three had tried, actually. Before he could even get the first word out, however, memories of Ace's sword speeding down toward him would flash through his mind. In the end, he always remained silent.
'I... I can't take this anymore! I can't let my scars define me! I know what I have to do. There's no other way.'
Three shook off the thoughts plaguing him and returned his focus to preparing for his escape.
'The only person I can trust...is myself.'
The rest of the day went by quickly and before long, dusk began to settle on the town. The day saw Three's diligence pay off at last; his final preparations had gone as smoothly as he could have hoped for. The time had finally arrived. He would set his plan into motion that night. Once Nine fell asleep, he would leave town via the mountain road. Once in Calvard, he would be traveling by car, and he had already arranged for a rental to take him up north to a certain city. Once he arrived, he'd promptly set off for Liberl via one of the international airship routes that regularly departed from the city. He had yet to decide what to do after that point. He could stay a night or two in Liberl, or perhaps head over to Leman. In any case, he needed to get as far away from his current location as possible.
He may have been in the lowest rung of the Organization and had little idea what went on among its upper echelons, but he was determined to show them all that he was capable of casting off the shackles they had bound him with.
His rising determination was interrupted by a crow flying into the room. It made a few circles in the air before landing on the table.
Taking a closer look at the bird, Three noticed a specific crest adorning one of its legs. As he did, his face twisted into a grimace. It could only mean one thing--this was the method the Overseer used to communicate.
'Now? He wants to meet now?'
It hadn't even yet been an entire day since Three had delivered his report.
'The briefing for the next mission, maybe?'
Even as he said the words, he was gripped by an indescribable sense of dread and anxiety. However much he wanted to simply ignore the summons, it was not a luxury he could afford. The only chance his plan had of succeeding was if he was able to put a good amount of distance between himself and his would-be pursuers before the Overseer realized what had happened. Were Three to ignore a direct order, however, the Organization would immediately recognize it as an act of rebellion...one that would inevitably lead to his death.
Mentally preparing himself for another encounter--one he could not avoid--Three set out for the meeting location.
The rendezvous point was the foot of a small hill deep within the mountains--the same site he had been just that morning, in fact. There remained no trace of the ominous, eerie stillness that pervaded the place before, however. Bathed by the light of the setting sun, the weathered boulders seemed wreathed in brilliant flames from a distance.
Three arrived to find two figures already waiting for him. The first was the Overseer, draped in the same tattered robe as usual. The thought occurred to Three that it made the man look more the part of the Hermit Arcana than it did the Emperor.
At the man's side stood a young girl carrying a large stuffed bear--Nine. Her attire was more or less the same as what she wore on the Halldor mission, with a few alterations to make it more functional and mobile. Her presence there did not cause any alarm for Three. After all, if they had been called to be briefed on their next mission, it was only natural she would be summoned as well.
Something felt...different, however. Three couldn't put his finger on why, but anxiety began gripping his chest.
'So you've arrived,' the Overseer said as Three approached.
'Yes. What is my task?'
The initial exchange was the same as it always was. What happened afterward, however, was decidedly not.
'Make your appeal.'
'My...appeal?' Three said slowly, the anxiety in his chest rising.
'I have received a report detailing your treachery from Nine of Swords.'
'I don't--' Three stammered.
He was at an utter loss for words. He had calculated each and every outcome that could potentially happen, going over the steps in his head time and again...and the absolute worst one possible was now playing out right before his eyes. A wave of despair washed over him. Could this really be happening again? Had Nine betrayed him, just like Ace? It wasn't possible, Three thought. He hadn't told her a thing. He knew that their relationship was strictly professional and he could not--under any circumstances--trust her. That was just how partnerships in the Organization worked. How could she have known? It didn't make any sense.
'There's been some kind of mistake!'
Three attempted to defend himself, knowing full well it was a futile endeavor.
'You can't talk yourself out of this, S... No, Three of Swords.'
Nine finally spoke, but her usual sleepy demeanor was nowhere to be found. Instead, her voice was crisp, her eyes alert. She removed a scrap of paper from within her bear and showed it to Three.
'This is your ticket for an airship voyage to Liberl. The one you booked for noon tomorrow.'
Three felt the ground fall out from under him. Amidst his shock, a small part of him wanted to yell out that the ticket was fake--that HE had the real ticket. But to do so would be tantamount to suicide.
Nine continued speaking, as though directly responding to Three's unspoken questions.
'The ticket you have in your possession is counterfeit. I swapped it for the genuine one while you weren't paying attention.'
Fresh from completing a mission that utilized this very same kind of forgery, Three now found himself the victim of the exact same trick.
'By the way, the name you used to acquire this ticket was Rhines Foghert, student of Jenis Royal Academy, correct?' Nine continued. 'That's the same name you used for your false ID on one of our missions last year. That would mean you've been planning this for quite some time, wouldn't it?'
Despite the immediate threat to his life, Three couldn't help but admire Nine's genius, strangely enough. Three decided he wouldn't even try to come up with an excuse. Nine had clearly seen right through his plan. She'd seen right into his mind, really. There was just one part he didn't understand. Even if it was her duty to sell him out like this... Even if she was a genius... He had been so cautious and prudent in every step of his plan, yet it had all been laid bare--seemingly without a trace of effort. How the hell had this happened?
'I take that expression to mean you're trying to puzzle out just how your entire plan was exposed,' Nine said, a slight smile playing at the corners of her lips.
It was clear to Three she was toying with him now. Mocking him.
'You do realize I've been watching you the whole time we've been partners, right? You've been my only target, right from day one.'
Her tone was merciless, her words dripping with thinly-veiled venom.
'Yes, I've been watching you, Three. Inspecting. Observing. The only real challenge was remaining patient as I waited for you to slip up and finally show your true colors. It's been that way since the moment I became your partner.'
Three struggled to wrap his mind around what Nine was saying.
'The fact is, you did attempt to betray the Organization. But even if you hadn't, I would have falsified whatever I needed in order to ensure your demise.'
She continued to speak, leaving nothing unsaid, despite the Overseer's presence. With each word, Three felt more and more baffled. He could understand her observing him to the degree that their job required, but where was this malicious hatred of hers coming from? She'd felt this way from the start? Why?
The Overseer, who had been silent for some time, let out a low, derisive laugh.
'I take it you still haven't figured it out? Who she is, I mean.'
Three could not, for the life of him, figure out what this was supposed to mean. He looked over at Nine, searching for some sort of clue. All he was met with, however, was a glare of pure hatred--one that made him shudder in fear. He had never seen her look that way before.
'Do you remember Ace of Swords? Your former partner?' she began, before her voice gained a measured, deadly weight to it, 'The one you murdered? He was my brother.'
Three's world began spinning. He started to feel violently ill. His senses dulled. His mind went blank. It became hard to breathe, as though he was being pulled to the bottom of the sea, the air crushed out of his lungs by its unrelenting pressure.
'Now, after all this time, I can finally avenge his murder.'
Three barely heard Nine's words as his head swam with thoughts. Ace was Nine's brother? She had known everything from the start? She had been biding her time, hiding her true intentions from the start. Always keeping a watchful eye for a suitable opportunity to arise. An opportunity to claim her vengeance.
Three stood there dumbfounded, as though he had lost the ability to speak entirely.
'I see no need for you to sputter through an excuse,' the Overseer said, reading the shock clearly written across Three's face, 'We have all the facts we need. You will be purged from the Organization. As per our rules, your partner, Nine of Swords, will now end your life.'
Hearing the Overseer's words, Nine stepped forward.
'If you wish for assistance in this task,' he said, turning to her, 'you will not be penalized. The reward will remain the same. The only condition is that you must be the one to deliver the final blow. Once you have eliminated him, your obligations will be cleared. Though I admit, the idea of losing such talent pains me.'
The reward. The right to one's freedom, gained by uncovering and then executing a partner who had betrayed the Organization. The yearning for this freedom had dominated Three's existence for years, and now Nine would be the one to gain it--in exchange for his life.
'Allow me the honor of doing it alone,' she responded, 'I will avenge my brother's death with my own hands.'
She took another step forward, producing a number of poisoned needles from inside her bear. Without a moment's hesitation, she launched them at Three.
He instinctively drew his sword and batted the needles out of the air. The combat tactics that had been drilled into him dictated he close the distance between them, yet he didn't take so much as a single step. His parry was purely reflexive, programmed into his mind through years of combat. He had no intention of truly fighting back. Perhaps it was partially because he didn't want to hurt her. More than anything, however, it was because he knew there was no point in resisting. Even if he did manage to best Nine, he would need to take on the Emperor afterward. And he knew that was a battle he had no chance of winning. Three simply accepted his fate was to die there and then, and there was nothing he could do to change it.
Nine pulled out roughly twice as many needles as before and again launched them at her former partner. In response, he automatically drew his shortsword and used both blades to swiftly deflect them.
In Three's mind, the thought slowly began to sink in--this was his retribution for killing Ace. Nine leapt at him, closing the distance, and began attacking with an even greater intensity.
Someone like me, Three thought, someone who slaughters a friend to preserve his own life, doesn't deserve freedom.
Someone like me doesn't even deserve to live.
Nine continued her assault, attacking with both her needles and her wires. Were this an ordinary situation, there was no chance she would be a match for Three in a close-quarters fight. However, his heart was not in the battle, causing a significant shift in the balance of power in the fight.
Eventually, Nine managed to decisively gain the upper hand, successfully looping her wire around Three's neck.
I'll die for her vengeance, he thought. Maybe that's the only outcome that makes sense. Maybe that's the end I deserve.
Nine deftly moved her fingers and the steel collar tightened around Three's neck.
'This is the end,' she said in a flat, frigid tone.
Three knew what would happen next. He closed his eyes, choosing to await his end in silence.
But the cold embrace of death did not come.
To be continued
纏うその姿は 《皇帝》よりむしろ 《隠者》と言ったほうが適切に思える。
TO BE CONTINUED
Continue Reading Three & Nine
|⇐ Chapter 4: Three of Swords||Chapter 6: Nine of Swords ⇒|