The Dragonslayers harbour dark secrets about the Sorcerers. And because of this, Miguel makes a decision for the sake of Dalet. (Part follow-up, part prequel to "Then The Reaper Man Came", vaguely ...
The only thing that was better about the Vione than the military bases, according to Miguel, was the fact that there were dormitories instead of barracks. It allowed for some semblance of privacy, however slight.
The Dragonslayers had been surprised, but delighted that there was a dormitory exclusively meant for their use when they moved in. Master Dilandau had felt generous that day after seeing his own quarters and allowed them to choose their bunkmates. Miguel automatically bunked with Dalet, of this there was no question. Guimel wheedled out of rooming with Ryuon, who could manage to calm the irrepressible blond for all of five minutes, to stay with Shesta. Gatti and Kagero, alike in manner, came to an a suitable arrangement that involved staying out of each other's way. It had been a rather chaotic but amusing experience, but the excitement quieted slightly after Master Dilandau assigned their rooms.
The dorm rooms were very simple in dÃ©cor; two narrow beds per room, two footlockers and two desks that mirrored each other from opposite walls. There were communal showers, unfortunately, but no one was really bothered by it. "Shyness" was not a concept understood as much as "decency", although it seemed to Miguel that Guimel was unable to grasp either.
Master Dilandau's quarters were much more impressive, of course, equipped with its own shower and bath. Miguel hadn't seen much beyond Master Dilandau's sitting room. It was lavish in its furnishings, as one would expect of Master Dilandau's rank.
Miguel took a special curiosity to the oddness of the Vione. He was already knowledgeable about most aspects of Floating Fortresses. Miguel always thought they were excessive in size and rather limited when maneuvering, but they had the space to deploy more than twice the amount of guymelefs and infantry units at one time than any other army in Gaea. The Vione was more than capable of it, but there was no army to deploy. That wasn't what Miguel considered odd about the Vione though, it was its atmosphere.
For one thing, it was not built like a general's Floating Fortress. The dormitories and common mess hall were dead giveaways. The Dragonslayers were practically free to mingle with the engineers and personnel during mealtimes, if they so pleased (but Master Dilandau frowned at any socializing outside the unit and no one wanted to displease him). There was none of that neat compartmentalization that all Floating Fortresses had. Miguel was accustomed to hierarchy, yet the Vione was so... egalitarian. It was-for lack of a better word-/weird/.
Miguel, interested by the anomalies of the Vione, often went by himself to investigate the Fortress whenever he had downtime.
It wasn't until later that Miguel found out that the dormitories were meant for the Strategos' military personnel, all of whom were non-combatant. To say he was surprised was an understatement. Miguel had assumed that the Strategos kept a reserve militia onboard as the Four Generals did. Although it did explain why there were dorms instead of barracks.
Yet there were metal hangers hooked on the walls and ceilings. There was also the seemingly permanent but curious smell of oil in some of the workrooms.
It was from Santos, a young but bright Destiny engineer, that Miguel learned that the Vione was originally a weapons vessel.
"It was a major facelift, let me tell you," Santos had said seriously despite his blithe tone. "I mean, this thing was ready to kick the bucket. Its engine was basically shot because it was so bloody ancient and didn't meet the energist criteria anymore."
Miguel nodded. The energist criteria was a safety measures guideline that any dragenergist- or levistone-powered transport had to meet before it could be authorized to operate.
"Trust me, the Vione wasn't this pretty before it got restored."
"But why restore it?" Miguel asked, curious. "Why not just build another one?"
Santos shrugged. "Well, for one thing, Zaibach doesn't have the resources or manpower to build another Floating Fortress. Our industrial factories are being concentrated solely on manufacturing guymelefs and weapons. The production time of a Floating Fortress is two to three years tops. It's takes too bloody long.
"Anyway, whatever. Now, what the Emperor was asking for was something a little more special than a mere weapons or army vessel. This fortress was going to be like the mini-Zaibach of the sky. It was ludicrous! We told him it would take several years to build the Fortress just to meet the expectations he set, but the Emperor wouldn't have any of that. The next month, he gave us a junk bucket and told us to fix it within a timeframe of two years.
"It was like being handed a death sentence," Santos muttered. "But we managed to finish it in a year and a half."
Miguel found it all very fascinating, which was why he sought Santos out whenever he could.
Dalet had obviously found his discoveries boring when Miguel consulted him about it, but he listened regardless as Miguel paced around their room. It wasn't until Miguel realised that Dalet had fallen asleep that he decided these conversations should remain strictly between himself and Santos.
Well, okay. It wasn't so much as realize as it was because Dalet interrupted Miguel by suddenly snoring rather rudely.
It was cute, but Miguel tried not to think of it like that.
After three months, Miguel realised why the dorms were not a privilege as his unit was led to believe, but a convenience for a darker reason.
It began, Miguel recalled, with Shesta.
Schedule was something that Master Dilandau valued. It vexed him immensely when it wasn't executed correctly, which was why it surprised Miguel when Shesta didn't arrive for breakfast one morning. While Shesta often resembled a lightning rod when it came to Master Dilandau's wrath, he didn't like to incur Master Dilandau's displeasure if he couldn't help it.
Master Dilandau was less than amused by Shesta's absence. Guimel informed him that Shesta wrote a note saying he felt ill and arranged an appointment at the sickbay. As far as Guimel knew, Shesta had been gone since early morning.
"If Shesta wishes to be apart of this unit," said Master Dilandau sharply, "He will be here when we begin training. Otherwise he won't get his other two meals for the rest of the day. I suggest that you retrieve him from the sickbay, Guimel, before you think of eating anything."
Master Dilandau's scathing tone implied that Guimel would not be eating anything at all either until Shesta was accounted for.
"Yes, sir," Guimel rose from the table and bowed obediently, hurrying out of the mess hall.
Miguel and the others thought nothing of it, continuing with their meals and daily rituals. Dalet attempted to unsuccessfully steal Miguel's last strip of bacon, but settled on a piece of egg when Miguel concentrated his efforts on defending his bacon. Dalet popped it into his mouth with a grin.
"Mooch," Miguel accused with a threatening wave of his fork.
"You know it," Dalet said proudly, licking his lips with a smack. That... caught Miguel's attention more than it should have.
Kagero and Ryuon discussed things like civilized human beings, tactfully ignoring the rude slurping and munching their younger counterparts made. Master Dilandau listened in on their conversation and added to it. There was always a respectful hush whenever Master Dilandau spoke, as to hear his words perfectly, and then noise would drown out whatever reply Kagero or Ryuon made.
Miguel found it infuriating, since he was sitting too far away to hear.
Gatti tried to maintain order, rather ineffectively, when a glob of porridge landed on someone's nose and sparked a noisy argument at the far end of the table. Master Dilandau watched it all with an amused look. Miguel secretly thought that Master Dilandau enjoyed seeing Gatti get all huffy when things weren't going his way.
The whole table turned when Master Dilandau did. Guimel stood there, looking befuddled. There was an older aristocratic-looking gentleman beside Guimel who had spoken, whom Miguel assumed was the source of Guimel's confusion. Miguel had never seen the man before. The man had rather hawkish features framed by a mane of silvery brown hair and wore a black robe with a red sash. He carried himself regally, like a nobleman.
It was unsurprising that Guimel's return with the man went unnoticed. Destiny engineers, workers, and military personnel were coming in and out of the mess hall as they pleased. Mealtimes were always rather disordered affairs.
The man bowed formally. Yes, Miguel thought, definitely of noble blood. His eyes were a dark blue. He had the kind of face that aged well. Little tidbits of observation filtered through Miguel's mind before they were carefully brushed away. They weren't important.
"Forgive the rather unannounced appearance I've made, Captain," he greeted charismatically. "But Doctor Nichol is otherwise occupied at the moment."
Master Dilandau had been appraising the mysterious man rather coldly but quickly recovered with a smile, charming for the moment. "Please, no apologies are necessary, Doctor...?"
"Gerard," he inclined his head slightly. "I thought it would be best to inform you privately on the matter of Private Shesta."
Master Dilandau's cool considering eyes narrowed. "In private? Is it that serious?"
"If you would please come with me, Captain," Gerard made a gesture towards the doors.
Miguel watched as Master Dilandau calmly rose and followed the doctor out. Noise instantly stirred the table's occupants to life once the doors closed behind the two men. Guimel sat down beside Ryuon, unusually quiet. There was speculation about whether Shesta was ill and sparked unseemly discussions on the possible diseases he might have.
Miguel couldn't help thinking about Gerard instead. There was something about the man that was uncomfortably familiar, but he couldn't find a reason why.
"Hey," someone poked him rudely. It was Dalet. "You look serious."
"That man, Gerard," Miguel said without being prompted. "Does he look... does he look familiar to you?"
Dalet chewed thoughtfully on some bacon which Miguel belatedly realised was his. "Hmm, no, can't say that he does," he turned back to Miguel. "Why?"
"Nothing, never mind," Miguel muttered.
Down the table, Miguel saw that Guimel hadn't touched his food yet. He was speaking to Ryuon quietly. Miguel couldn't read lips very well yet, but he thought he saw Guimel say something about 'screaming'.
Master Dilandau didn't return from wherever Gerard took him, not even when it was a few miets past the hour the Dragonslayers were scheduled for exercises. At a loss, Kagero and Gatti mulled over what to do. Gatti finally took charge when it became clear that Master Dilandau wasn't intending on returning.
Master Dilandau and Shesta were still mysteriously absent after exercises and weapons training, by lunch the severity of the situation dawned on the Dragonslayers. The mood grew solemn when they finished weight training and studies on field and battle strategy.
At dinner, Miguel was acutely aware of the two seats that remained ominously empty. He tried concentrating on eating his food, but he only managed to push it around his plate before he set aside his utensils and waited for everyone else to finish. He had no appetite.
Interestingly it was Kagero that broke the silence.
"It must be serious then," he said, looking properly worried. "Master Dilandau wouldn't desert his duties if it wasn't."
No one could find anything to say, but they didn't need to. Miguel could read their faces and know their thoughts were the same as his. They feared the worst, it was hard not to.
The silence continued throughout the evening, even when they returned to the common room to begin their studies. Miguel and Dalet sat at the worktable closest to the fireplace, as it was their favourite spot to study. Miguel diligently went through his maths textbook, though his mind occasionally wandered to Shesta's well-being. Dalet's boot kept tapping against his underneath the table, but that was Dalet's way of being anxious.
Finally, he said, "I'm sure Shesta's okay."
"It's not like him," Dalet didn't even look up from his books as he spoke. "He fights when he's got broken fingers, even when he's sick or in pain. Shesta was fine yesterday. At training he threw Gatti down like he didn't weigh shit, didn't he? Sick people can't do things like that. Not when Gatti's fully armoured."
"Maybe it's a technicality that's keeping him," Miguel offered. "You know how those doctors can get. Remember when they tried to quarantine Guimel?"
Dalet wouldn't allow himself to be consoled. "Master Dilandau would relieve him if that was the case. Lord Folken gave Master Dilandau the authority to do that, didn't he? This isn't any stupid technicality."
Miguel withdrew his verbal attempts at comfort and used his foot instead, giving Dalet's boot a nudge. He knew it was understood and accepted when Dalet nudged back.
They returned to their studies without saying anything more.
It wasn't until the Dragonslayers were preparing for lights out when the door burst open like an explosion and two familiar figures stumbled into the common room. Well, Shesta stumbled in, Master Dilandau was supporting him.
Everyone immediately jumped to their feet, alarmed but alert.
"Someone take him," Master Dilandau snarled.
Ryuon and Guimel were instantly there to relieve Master Dilandau of Shesta before anyone else could even blink. Master Dilandau handed Shesta over to the two without his usual brusqueness and lowered his voice to give them their orders.
"Hai, Master Dilandau," Guimel and Ryuon chorused together. They began the task of taking Shesta to bed. Miguel thought Shesta looked rather pale and dazed-no, /drugged/. Painkillers? It was hard to say.
Master Dilandau noticed the faces peering at him from near their doorways. "Everyone, get in the common room!"
No one asked any questions and did as they were directed. They settled around the fireplace, because that was where Master Dilandau was pacing back and forth in stiff angry strides. It was silent again, but it was tense now. Something was wrong if it had Master Dilandau worked up like this. Miguel felt like he was in the presence of a feral animal capable of ripping the twelve boys present into pieces.
Master Dilandau said nothing until Guimel and Ryuon reappeared nearly fifteen miets later and, noticing Master Dilandau's barely concealed rage, they took up positions behind the couch Dalet and Kagero were sitting on.
Master Dilandau ceased pacing once they were all assembled and stared at the empty fireplace for a moment before speaking.
"It's come to my attention this afternoon that we're under certain obligations," he began, not turning to face his soldiers, "That weren't mentioned when any of you were recruited to be members of the Dragonslayer Corps. I'm sure most of you are aware that the Dragonslayer Corps is an experimental military unit, authorized by the Emperor for the purpose of initiating Operation Destiny."
It was classified information. Miguel hadn't known these things until after he signed on as a recruit, as it was with everyone else. It had been rather thrilling to find out they'd be able to play such a crucial part in the upcoming war.
Master Dilandau's voice took on a bitter edge. "There was a vital detail that wasn't pointed out to any of you on the service contracts you signed. You've all consented to destiny experimentation."
It was like the air had been sucked out of the room. Miguel couldn't believe what he just heard. The room erupted in disbelief and outrage.
Master Dilandau ignored the outbursts and continued. "I wasn't aware of this fact until this afternoon, when I went to see Folken for an explanation as to why Shesta was now, as that bastard Gerard put it, 'under Zaibach custody until further notice'. As of today, that section of the service contract is now in effect and will be conducted by the Sorcerers."
"They can't do that," Miguel had never seen Gatti look so furious. "None of us were even aware of this bullshi-"
It happened too quickly for Miguel to describe it. But Gatti suddenly fell back on his seat awkwardly, one side of his face red from where Master Dilandau struck him. It had been like watching a viper strike. Even now, when the room had been alive with insolence Master Dilandau could still inspire fear and silence.
"You should have read the entire contract then," Master Dilandau told Gatti, red eyes glittering dangerously. "Am I allowed to continue, or do you have anything more to say?"
Gatti held the side of his face, staring up at Master Dilandau. "I have nothing more to say, sir," he managed stiffly but respectfully.
Master Dilandau held his gaze until Gatti's dropped away.
"Unfortunately, I can't do anything about this. It was sanctioned by the Emperor, according to the people I've spoken to about this problem. Because of our unique situation aboard the Vione it's been deemed a classified matter. It can't be done in the daylight where the Vione personnel can see. No one must ever know these tests are being conducted."
Master Dilandau finally turned to address the entire group. "This means that these experimentations never happened or never will happen. We never had this conversation. Neither myself or Shesta were ever absent at any point throughout the day. To speak of it past this point is treason and punishable by death. Understood?"
There was an uncertain chorus of "Hai, Master Dilandau" before they were dismissed.
Miguel doubted anyone slept very soundly that night.
It was always done at night, when the halls of the Vione were empty of personnel. The dorm rooms proved to be the key in taking "test subjects" into custody. It was less disruptive if there was a struggle. As Master Dilandau was instructed to say (Miguel and the others now knew this) the instances of waking to find attendants in black robes ready to escort them to labs never happened. The shadows with red sashes were merely figments of their imaginations. The experiments were vague nightmares they forgot as soon as they woke.
Miguel learned early on that it was better to leave with the shadows quietly rather than struggle needlessly. There was never any hope of escape anyway. The attendants could be ruthless when they were required to be.
The reaper sessions themselves were instances that Miguel would rather blot out from his memory. It grew easier to do so as time progressed. There was not much else he could do other than pretend the experiments never happened.
It was never spoken of. At least, not freely. Miguel and Dalet spoke of their experiences briefly to see if their sessions were at least similar. They weren't. Dalet never spoke of them again after that, and Miguel couldn't blame him. It was frightening to think of what exactly the Sorcerers were doing to them.
It had been a few weeks since Miguel's last reaper session, and while he was glad for it, it began to gnaw at him.
The attendants now came more often for Dalet rather than Miguel. It had usually been only once or twice a month for each of them, but for Dalet it was more frequent. Tonight was the fifth time this month, each reaper session barely a week apart. Dalet had stopped fighting against his captors a while ago. Miguel wasn't sure what brought about this docility in Dalet, but it made him apprehensive and worried. Dalet didn't know the definition of obedience to anyone except Master Dilandau.
The sessions were usually quick, within one or two hours they would haul an unconscious Dalet back into the room and unceremoniously dump him back into bed-or floor, depending on how unconscious Dalet was. Now Dalet was lucky to get back in three hours.
It was why Miguel was now watching over his friend as he slept, worried out of his head.
Dalet's breathing evened out, deepened, becoming a familiar rhythm that Miguel knew very well. He had curled up on his side the moment he had crawled into bed, which almost made him look childlike and vulnerable. Dalet looked bone-white in the dark of the room, dusky shadows playing over his inexpressive features. It hid the old nightmares. Darkness to smoothen the mask, Miguel thought. Like cracked porcelain. Miguel would never dare to say that to Dalet, because it sounded weird to say that to another boy.
He felt the familiar urge of wanting (/or is it needing?/) to protect his roommate, his closest friend. A desire he quelled with the thought of Dalet kicking his ass in response to his daft sentiments. Dalet wasn't some weak victim in need of rescuing, but Miguel felt helpless and loathed the feeling. He wanted/needed to do something for Dalet, however futile the effort might seem.
Miguel was tempted to smooth out a few misbehaving strands of chocolate-dark hair, a severe contrast to Dalet's eerie pallour, but didn't dare to. There was something about the thought of the act that made him think twice, as though doing it would irreversibly destroy something. It was a stupid notion, but he forced himself to keep his hands where they were. He didn't think Dalet would appreciate it.
There were bruises along Dalet's thin wrists, caused by the leather straps of an operating table that Miguel himself knew very well. There was also a smudged streak of dried blood along his pale throat-and Miguel really didn't want to think about where it came from and how it got there because if he did he thought he might be tempted to slay the damnable Sorcerers and their bastard attendants. The Sorcerers were growing careless, leaving marks on their valuable little "test subjects" like this. The unexpected bitterness that accompanied the thought was almost enough to choke Miguel.
He kept vigilance over Dalet for another half hour, at a loss on what do to. There was always that nagging fear in the back of Miguel's mind that Dalet wouldn't return at all. Either dying from the toll the reaper sessions took on him or, worse, becoming a permanent addition to the Sorcerers' laboratories.
There was no worse fate.
The thought made Miguel's fists clench.
Strangely enough, when he had enough of a grip on reality to realise what he was doing, Miguel knew it was too late to go back.
Far too late.
Before he'd gone, Miguel thought that his younger roommate had stopped breathing. Panicked, he checked Dalet's pulse and finally noticed the dark streak of dried blood on his pale throat. Miguel's hand had lingered on the skin for a fraction longer than necessary and he snatched it back as though burned.
He didn't understand the unexpected wave of longing that crashed into him and, in some ways, he didn't want to.
That weird, painful sensation Miguel felt when he touched Dalet-he knew it had something to do with what he was doing.
He had pulled on his pants, shrugged on his jacket, buttoning haphazardly, tugged on his boots and left. He hesitated at the door long enough to think about where he was going, feeling the old terror returning to his skin. But after a lingering glance back at Dalet's sleeping shape under the blankets, Miguel quietly slipped out of their room into the empty hallway.
He was worth protecting.
The long, disturbingly familiar trek through the Vione was a surprisingly easy one to make. He could close his eyes and know exactly how many steps it would take to reach the door he sought. Miguel and so many others walked down these very hallways so many times, or had been snatched away from their quarters in the dead of night, or drugged to passivity if they fought their "escorts" too much.
The hall had the unpleasant smell of oil and machinery from the levitation engines in the sector behind him. His boots echoed unnervingly down the unfriendly corridors, as though it was impatient to reach its destination before he did. The echoes sounded different in the dark compared to the day-more unsettling, as though he were a clumsy wraith. His skin prickled. The promise of pain seemed more tangible as the door came closer.
Behind the door was a place of cruel shadows. It was a room full of collective pain. The Dragonslayers feared and despised the room and its inhabitants far more greatly than any enemy they've ever faced, even more so than the Dragon. But no one ever spoke of it, because mentioning it aloud would make what they ignored real.
Miguel realised he was shaking.
(pain, fear, hate, tears, terror... nowhere to turn, nowhere except the towering reaperman in black with the hurting hands... can't breath through the black... they'll say goodboy when I don't scream)
He sucked in a panicked breath and stood still, struggling to reign in those demons crawling beneath his skin. He couldn't do it-/this/, whatever it was, whatever it meant. Miguel wanted to be away from this place.
(a mistake, a mistake, run away to dalet, hide with him, run, run, run before they-)
When the door opened before he could do anything, Miguel realised that they had been waiting.
He stared at the dark figure swathed in light, trying to find his voice through the unbidden terror that flooded through his body like a typhoon. It ripped apart his courage and threw the remnants into the void of the black monster framed in the doorway. It wore a red sash.
"I have a proposition," he croaked, voice small in the corridor.
Miguel didn't see the monster's smile but he felt it burning a mark on his face. Instinct made him want to bolt, but he realised it was too late to escape the jaws of fate.
Far too late.