I raise my arm and hold my sleeve against my nose and mouth to try and avoid breathing in the smoke. An alarm rings stridently in the distance, and fire is spreading everywhere. The room – no, the prison – that housed me for the past two years has already disappeared behind the curtain of flames.
I shudder to think what would have happened to me if I hadn’t left in time.
“Nerys, this way! Hurry!”
I turn back to the researcher who unlocked my prison’s door and led me out of it. He’s human, as everyone in this facility who’s not a prisoner is, and rather young, perhaps 30 years old. Usually, when I see him, he’s perfectly groomed and sharp, but at the moment, he looks quite bedraggled. His coat is stained with blood and soot. Half of his hair has been singed and burned, while the other half is mussed and disorderly. The small round glasses sitting across the bridge of his nose are bent, and one of the lenses is broken, only fragments still clinging to the rim. A gash is still bleeding on the side of his forehead.
His name is Thelyron.
However, while he does objectively look quite pitiful, right now, there is no pity for him to be found anywhere in my mind. In fact, I find his current appearance quite pleasing to the eyes. If anything, I think it’s a shame his head is still attached to the rest of his body.
However, although it would not be an exaggeration to say that I hate him, I still squint my eyes against the acrid touch of the smoke and run after him, following him down the hallway.
Only a few steps away from the door of my chambers – of my cell, really – the corpse of a man lies, collapsed at the foot of the wall in a pool of his own blood. He’s been stabbed to death. By Thelyron, most likely. He’s the man who’s been watching over me for the past few months, bringing me my meals, sometimes chatting with me of the world outside the facility. I only direct a chilly glance at him for a moment before continuing on my way.
Good riddance. Hopefully, more of these people will burn alive in the fire. I wouldn’t mind helping some of them on their way, either. I don’t have a weapon, though, so that’s not going to happen. And I don’t even know how to fight…
My eyes lock on the back of Thelyron’s head. He wouldn’t be expecting it… But no, I dismiss the idea. I don’t know the way out of this facility; he does. My survival depends on him. For now.
The two of us walk in silence for a short while, the fire still spreading around us, until I realize that we seem only to be moving deeper into the facility. I can’t be sure; it’s a subtle feeling. But I’ve lived in this place for the past two years. I’m at least somewhat familiar with its layout and design.
“Why aren’t we heading toward the exit?” I ask Thelyron with a cold voice.
He briefly looks over his shoulder at me before returning his attention to the way ahead. “There’s someone else I need to save. We’ll escape once she’s with us.”
I frown. “Who? Another researcher?” The spite and bitterness I inject in the last word tell more about my feelings on the subject than a long discourse. “I’d rather leave right now. The longer we stay, the higher the chance we’ll run into a patrol coming to extinguish the fire.”
Thelyron shakes his head. “I made sure they’d be busy elsewhere. We should still have time.”
I frown harder, but I don’t contradict him. He should know what he’s talking about. This escape attempt isn’t the result of an impulsive decision. He’s been planning it for months, now. And he wouldn’t have made his move if he wasn’t sure to succeed.
It doesn’t take long until we reach another wing of the facility, one I never visited before. Broad double doors block the way into a room. Slid into a transparent holder on the side of the door, a paper sign is stamped with a few, seemingly meaningless characters.
The first two letters are visibly products of a different hand than the “-A”, and old ink traces around them reveal that something else was written there beforehand. Presumably, it was erased in favor of the “AK”.
Glancing down the corridor, I can see similar doors. The smoke from the fire is somewhat fainter, away from the holding cells, and I can see that the next door further down is labeled “AK -C”. On the opposite side of the corridor, facing the “AK -A” door stands “AK -B”, while facing “AK -C” is “AK -D”.
…What is this place? Is this where the person Thelyron wants to rescue is?
Thelyron opens the “AK -A” door, and I follow him inside.
Despite the fire raging outside, this room is still chilly. Even downright cold. I can see my breath fog up every time I exhale. And it’s dark and empty. The room is narrow but very long. It stretches several hundred meters into the distance. On both sides of an empty aisle running down the middle of the room, cylindrical glass tanks stand upright along the walls. The front of the tanks splits down the middle, letting the two sides slide away from each other to allow access inside. Flexible tubes link these tanks to strange machinery of unknown purpose arrayed around each of them. The tubes are tipped with a long needle and dangle forlornly inside the empty glass tanks. All the tanks are unused, the machines around them silent. It’s almost like the room has been abandoned.
Except for one patch of light, deeper inside, where a single cluster of machines is still lit up and whirring dutifully.
I look down the aisle all the way to the opposite wall. “There’s no one in here,” I tell Thelyron. “Where’s the person you’re looking for?”
Thelyron doesn’t answer my question and slowly advances toward the working cluster of machines. I follow him and idly count the number of tanks we pass. When we get closer, I can finally get a good look at tank number 13 surrounded by its humming machines.
The hairs in the back of my neck stand on end at the spectacle before me. Contrary to all the other glass tanks in the room, this one is not empty. Its front is sealed shut, and a blue luminescent liquid fills it to the brim.
And submerged in that liquid floats a naked little girl.
She’s tiny, far smaller than the size of the tank holding her. It could hold a full-grown man, but the girl inside is barely older than one or two years old. Her hair is black. Her skin is incredibly pale, like it’s never been exposed to the light of the sun. At first, I think she’s an elf, but then I notice the two furry ears on top of her head, peeking from her hair and leaning listlessly against her skull. And her tail, between her legs.
What kind of creature is that?
Even though I’ve been a prisoner in this place for a long time, I was allowed some books to pass the time. I’m not completely unlearned. So I’m pretty sure there’s no such species among the majin.
But that’s not what I find horrifying about this.
Similarly to the other tanks in the room, a number of tubes stretch from the machines around it and pierce through its transparent glass surface. But where, inside the unused tanks, the end of the tubes only hang there harmlessly, in this one, all of them are stabbed in the girl’s small body, deep enough for their needle tips to entirely disappear inside her flesh. They pierce through her arms, her chest, her legs, even the back of her neck. And these tubes aren’t empty, either. The machines around the tank pump a strange, gooey black fluid through these tubes, driving it toward the little girl. Minute tremors regularly shake her body when this black substance seeps into her veins, but she doesn’t seem to feel any of them. Her eyes remain closed, as if in sleep.
I take a step forward in horrified fascination, almost pasting my face against the glass. “W–Who is she? What are you doing to her?”
“Her name is AK-A-13. She’s… I suppose you could say she’s your sister,” Thelyron says slowly.
My eyes narrow as I step back from the glass tank and turn an icy glare toward him. “I have no sister,” I say in a flat voice. “My parents didn’t have time to give me a sibling before you people murdered them right in front of me. You may have forgotten about that little detail, but I did not.”
“I’m sorry,” Thelyron says, shaking his head. The gutless trash doesn’t meet my eyes. “But I stand by my words. For all intents and purposes, she is your sister. The last surviving one.”
I grit my teeth and growl, “I have no sister.”
Thelyron sighs, and his eyes turn to the little girl floating inside the tank. A convoluted mess of emotions shows on his face. Regret, fear, hope, affection. Mostly regret.
Eventually, he just shakes his head and heads over to one of the machines to fiddle with its controls. I’ve never seen such things before, so I have no idea what he’s doing. Soon, however, I get my answer.
The machines stop pumping black sludge into the little girl’s body, and with short metallic sounds, the needles retract out of her skin. Now unsupported, the tubes start drifting aimlessly in the blue luminescent liquid filling the glass tank. Only for a few seconds, though, as immediately afterward, a small drain opens at the bottom of the tank, and the blue liquid flows out, slowly lowering the girl at the same time.
“Is she the one you want to get out of the facility, then?”
“That’s right,” Thelyron says, nodding.
It doesn’t take long until it’s empty, then the glass tank opens with a quiet hiss, and the little girl slumps forward. I push Thelyron out of the way and catch her before he does.
“Don’t put your filthy hands on her. I’ll carry her.”
Thelyron doesn’t say anything and takes a step back from us while the little girl falls into my arms. Her body is very light and very cold. She’s still wet, the blue liquid she’d been submerged in coating her skin. It feels slimy to the touch, quite unlike water.
I look at Thelyron. “Give me your coat.”
He does, and I wrap the girl in it.
All this jostling finally seems to wake her up. Her eyelashes flutter for a moment, and her eyes slowly crack open. A gaze full of confusion meets mine for a moment, before her face twists in pain. She lets out a small moan and hastily closes her eyes again, her small body squirming in my embrace. For a few seconds, she tries, unsuccessfully, to open her eyes again, but eventually, her attempts taper off, and she slips out of consciousness again. Her breathing deepens, and she seems to fall asleep.
I gently slap her cheek a few times. “Hey. Hey, are you all right?”
The little girl remains unresponsive. Thelyron shakes his head. “Let her sleep. We may have found her unconscious, but it was definitely not restful.”
I gaze at the girl’s peaceful sleeping face. My eyes are attracted to the pointy dog ears on top of her head, twitching toward every sound as if chasing them.
“Why couldn’t she open her eyes?”
“Because it’s the first time in her life that she’s used them. Light hurts her, but she’ll quickly get used to it.”
“The first time…? Wait, are you saying that she’s always been sleeping inside that thing?”
“The incubation tank, yes.” Thelyron nods. “Ever since she was born.”
My arms tighten around the girl’s diminutive form, and I glare at Thelyron. “What were you people doing to her?”
Thelyron sighs and shakes his head. “It would take too long to explain. Now that we’ve rescued her, we need to leave before the distraction I created loses its effect and someone finds us.”
I grit my teeth, but he’s right. I nod and straighten up, hugging the little girl against my chest. Through the fabric of Thelyron’s coat, I can feel her tail swiping left and right from time to time, and sometimes, her ears flutter against my neck. It tickles.
“Are you sure you can carry her?”
“I’m sure. Let’s go.”
She’s not heavy at all. And while she may not be my sister, I don’t want this man to touch her with his blood-soaked hands.
Thelyron’s plan was thorough and successful. We got out of the facility through a pre-planned route, without meeting the slightest obstacle along the way.
I follow him through the underbrush, away from the facility. We’re walking uphill. The facility is built underground, in the middle of an old forest. I don’t know where we are exactly, though. Presumably in a human country, since all the researchers and soldiers working inside are humans.
The little girl is still asleep, so she doesn’t move much, but my arms are starting to burn. It’s true that she’s not heavy, but walking through a forest is hard work, even more so while carrying someone. But I don’t want to give her to Thelyron.
I divert my mind from my exhaustion by taking deep breaths of fresh air and appreciating the outside scenery. I haven’t seen it for a long time, ever since I was brought here. I look up at the sky. I can see little of it, with the boughs of the trees in the way, but I still appreciate the view.
As we walk in silence, Thelyron leading the way before me, I start thinking. What next? What do I do, now? Where do I go, now that I’m free? The answers are upsetting. I have nowhere to go. My parents were murdered in the attack two years ago, when I was kidnapped. No one is waiting for me. I have nowhere to come back to.
When I notice, I’m crying silently. I’m not sobbing or anything, and I haven’t stopped walking, but tears are slowly trailing down my cheeks.
…What am I supposed to do, now?
It takes me a long time to get ahold of myself.
Crying is useless. No one will help me. No one will take pity on me. I have to stay strong and look after myself. I’m on my own, now. I can only rely on myself.
I glance at Thelyron. Fortunately, he’s busy making his way through the forest; he hasn’t seen me cry. The last thing I want is this bastard trying to comfort me. I think I’d kill him.
But then, I feel another gaze on me. My eyes trail down to the little girl in my arms. Her eyes are open. Like Thelyron said, perhaps, she already got used to it. At least, she doesn’t look like she’s in pain anymore. She’s just staring at me silently. Parts of her childish, innocent face are a little wet. Probably, my tears fell on her and woke her up.
We lock gazes for a while, my feet mechanically, absently following after Thelyron.
I wonder, does this little girl have it better than me? Or worse?
It takes me a while to make up my mind, but eventually I decide that her life is worse than mine. It’s perhaps a little perverse to judge her so arbitrarily, but I find it comforting. At least, I didn’t spend my entire life locked up inside a cramped glass tank underground, like a fish trapped in a bowl. At least, I have good memories I can recall.
“We should take a break, now,” a voice calls suddenly, bringing me out of my thoughts.
I raise my head to find Thelyron looking at me. And only then do I notice that my breathing has become loud and strained from the exertion of our trip. Wordlessly, I nod and tiredly sit down against a tree, resting the little girl on my lap.
“Where are we going?” I ask after a while.
“Tonarr,” Thelyron says without hesitation.
That’s… a small human country, I think? Not too far from the Frontline.
“Because she’s sick,” he says, pointing at the girl in my arms. She looks back at him silently, her fingers in her mouth and her ears twitching back and forth. Her gaze is curious but uncomprehending. I doubt she understands what we’re saying. “The euthymic solution in the incubation tank was keeping her alive – or at least, it kept her condition from flaring out of control, but now that she’s out of it, she’s going to need medication, and she’s going to need it soon. One of the necessary ingredients of the medicine is powdered orichalcum. I found a place in Tonarr that fits these needs without being too conspicuous.” He pauses and looks at me for a moment. “You should come too, if you’re willing.”
Again, hesitation takes me.
What should I do?
I have nowhere to go. There is no one waiting for me anymore.
But I don’t want to stay with this bastard Thelyron. He’s part of those responsible for murdering my parents, for destroying my life. If I don’t see his face ever again, it’ll be too soon.
I look down at the little girl. She’s gazing up at me, her brilliant black eyes reflecting the starlight. Their color is the same as mine. I feel her tail rub against my leg.
I take a deep breath.
“Of course, I’m coming. I can’t leave that girl with you. Who knows when you’ll start experimenting on her again? I need to be there to slit your throat the moment you do.”
Thelyron gives my threat a wan smile. “If you’ve rested, we should keep going. They’ll notice our absence soon enough, and they’ll realize the fire and sabotage weren’t accidents. They’ll be hunting for us. Tracking us.”
“Haven’t you taken precautions against that?”
“I have, but we still shouldn’t take any chances.” His tired eyes, underlined by dark circles, look alternatively between me and the little girl. “You should prepare yourself. The next few weeks are going to be tough. We can’t use the roads, and we can’t meet anyone. At least until we’ve gone far enough from the laboratory.”
I nod and take a deep breath before getting to my feet. The little girl squirms uncomfortably against my chest, so I resettle her more tightly in my arms.
“Do you want me to carry AK-A-13?”
I scowl at him. “No. And stop calling her that. It doesn’t even sound like a name. It sounds like an experiment number.”
Thelyron nods. “You’re right. How about you give her a name, then. I think it’s more suitable if you do it than me.”
I hesitate and look down at the little girl.
Akaran? Akamai? Akame? Akatsuki? Akasaka? Akathisia?
“How about Akasha?” I ask her, but she just looks back at me blankly. I take that for approval. “Right. Akasha. From now on, that’ll be your name.”