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Yesterday's remaining hours was devoted to two chores: both of which were completed alone. Enzo unpacked his belongings. There weren't many. Serviceable clothing made up the bulk of his duffle bag. Enzo typically wore sturdy, heavy fibered pants built for the rough terrain of rock climbing in dark colours that might blend in the night. His shirits were combinations of t-shirts, hooded sweaters, and warm pull-overs. In winter months he wore a dark blue stocking cap, such as the one pulled low over his forehead when he left Tehya's building. He had fingerless gloves and an overcoat that fell below the waist. There was plenty of room to conceal a weapon, but he typically carried no more than a sidearm and knife when not on the hunt.

Completion of the second task was what allowed him to journey smoothly to Nikolskaya street. He'd studied the rest of the night far beyond familiarity with the region. Corrado always said knowledge was the greatest weapon, and to make plans for every contingency. They would study the layouts of cities for days before considering an ambush. They had to know the territory as well as the thing they tracked and in many cases better-than if they were to walk away with the kill.

Maps were embedded in a wrist band currently concealed beneath his sleeve. The band, a blend of fiber-carbon and rubber, would also cover fares, provide identification, and transmit data such as map files as needed. Despite apparently walking out with nothing on him but the clothes on his back, Enzo was incredibly prepared for the day.

On the sidewalk, he zipped the coat as guardian against the cold, and headed for the nearest train station. The next time he emerged topside, he was momentarily stunned by the grandeur of frozen Moscow. The downtown district was truly a wonder. Everything in sight was designed to inspire intimidation and awe. Unlike the great cities of Egypt and Europe, where grandeur was synonymous with art, Moscow's elicited one emotional response from him.

'They say we will all be Soviets.'
He could almost hear the fear in his mother's voice carried on the wind. She'd been strangely unresponsive when he told her where he was going. A surprising response, he'd imagined some sort of comment about his destination. She said nothing other than I love you.

He entered headquarters through a decoy entrance in an alley a block away. Once inside, a heavy iron door with a giant round wheel for a handle swung inwards like portals in submarines. He ducked to step through and followed a long, narrow passage that despite his lack of height forced him to bend at the waist to traverse. The passageway was pock-marked with tiny ventilation holes and Enzo guessed would fill the steel tube with poison gas if necessary. This was a bottle neck, meant to protect headquarters from unexpected breeches, and perhaps, slaughter anything that attempted to pass within. He set his jaw and continued another thirty meters where a second hatch waited.

A computer-voice broke the silence.


"Zayin. Vincenzo Dolan. Atharim Identifier çādē-ṣāmek-ṭēt-ṭēt."
The phoenician code rolled from his tongue cloaked in a french accent.

There was a quiet mechanical sound that made Enzo look briefly over his shoulder. When he looked back, a slot had opened in the hatch and a sort of viscous screen was revealed. He took a breath and gently placed his fingertips against the reader. The first time he'd seen one of these devices was in Vatican City. It was used to program his identity into the Atharim databases. He'd assumed it had something to do with fingerprints. He was wrong.

An electric chill shot up his arm. His jaw clenched and the hairs spiked on the back of his head. It lasted only a moment, but his identity was confirmed and he pulled his hand away. His fingertips were blue. They quickly returned fleshy pink.

Magnets released the hatch and he stepped into a beautiful room. The floors, walls, and ceilings were covered with white glass that glowed from behind. In the center of the room was an onyx black desk. A man in a full black on black suit sat behind it. He was distracted by a screen that Enzo could not discern so he approached and waited quietly.

The man spoke with a thick Italian accent but he did not pull his gaze from the screen. His fingers continued to work on the desktop. "You are Vincenzo?"

Enzo nodded. "Yes."

"Door at the end of the hall. Knock once and enter. The Regus is awaiting you."

Enzo glanced down the hall.

"Thank you, sir."
He unzipped his coat and took a steadying breath. He was surprisingly calm as he approached the Regus's office, a lonely silhouette summoned for what, he would soon discover.
Firas Boshoven was the one to open the door. He was near Vincenzo's age, but was perhaps slightly more portly around the middle and thinner of hair than the Frenchman. Firas had great respect for Enzo, and he lowered his gaze reverently upon meeting the man face to face. Enzo's tale was sadly all too common among Atharim, and his heart ached for the man's substantial loss.

"I am Father Firas Boshoven," he said softly as he offered to shake hands. But he was eager to remove himself from the path of the one Enzo was here to truly greet.

When the Father stepped aside, Enzo would behold the warm, dim room that made the Moscow office of the Regus. The walls were covered with wood paneling and the floors were warmed with an enormous area rug. A seating arrangement was placed against one wall; against the other were floor to ceiling shelves. Upon them sat books spanning many decades of ages as well as artifacts of Armande's personal significance. Among them all was a silver picture frame that encased a black and white photo of a man none in the society would recognize. He was nobody; merely a priest: a deceased priest.

A number of holoscreens collapsed at Armande's desk as he stood. He met Enzo half-way and shook the man's hand as well. They clasped forearms and each quietly studied the other. They were of similar height and build with nearly identical colored blue eyes.

"Welcome home." Armande said finally and gestured that Enzo make himself comfortable. With the wave of one hand, Firas was dismissed and they were left alone.

Armande returned to his desk.

His posture was relaxed, yet engaged as he laced his fingers together. "I regret to hear of your mentor. Corrado was a good man and an even better hunter. I admired him greatly."

A flicker of recognition crossed Enzo's steeled gaze as he greeted the priest. He recalled Firas' presence during the rites - cool and collected, watchful from the side. The shade of his robes had been black as a charred blade, as they were now.

"A please to see you again, Father."
Enzo's response was as quiet as Firas, as though the rooms they inhabited were too reverent to disturb the quietude by idle chatter.

Which left him alone with the Regus. The man was the Atharim incarnate, and Enzo lowered his gaze before that of his renown leader. "Regus, it is my honor to stand in your presence once more."
Enzo was sincere. Armande Nicodemus was truly a great man. His knowledge alone was awe-inspiring, but he was also a force of execution so sharp that to dwell on the danger could send a man to tremble.

He was led to sit, which Enzo did without hesitation. "Thank you for the condolances, Regus. You knew him far longer than I had. You would know he died fulfilling his life's work."

Enzo looked down.

Heart pounding, Enzo slid to his knees at the side of his mentor. He gripped the older man's hands as they clutched at his wounded chest and knelt close.
"Corrado," he'd uttered in disbelief. Corrado's gaze was clear, if pained, as it sought Enzo.
But their parting words shot white-hot fury through his body.

"Avenge them, Enzo. With every kill, avenge them."


Oui, monsieur,"
Enzo replied, jaw tense. He squeezed his mentor's hands one last time and kissed him gently on the forehead as he died.

Then he grabbed his shotgun and left.

And after the memory passed, he once more looked to the Regus.

"What may I do for you, Monsieur Regus?"

Enzo was correct. Armande had known Mr. Sabbatini much longer than the Frenchman. Corrado's reputation was enormous among Atharim. He was widely considered the greatest living expert on dreyken hunting among the society as a whole, and Armande was not too proud to admit Corrado's knowledge exceeded his own. Such was based off the fact that Corrado dealt almost exclusively chasing down the wretched creatures for over the last half-century.

Armande sat near Enzo, but not without grabbing a display glass from his desk. He gave it to Enzo. For the moment it remained empty.

"In fact, it is about Corrado I wish to speak today, Enzo. You are his only living apprentice, and as I trusted his judgment on Dreyken, so too do I also trust your judgment above all other Atharim on this matter."

Armande gestured that Enzo activate the glass. He'd already pre-programmed it to recall a specific data file to be retrieved from Enzo's thumbprint.

The image that sprang to life between them was a still-frame from a video. It showed a close up of a man's forearm. The cuff of his dress shirt had been rolled above the elbow. The skin itself was light-colored despite the shadows of the dimly lit scene. The remains of a tattoo could be seen beneath puckered, scarred flesh. "Have you a guess what creature might have given such a wound?"

He watched Enzo's reaction closely.
Enzo did not wish to bear the responsibility the Regus was placing upon him. Corrado Sabatini was indeed a reputed hunter of Dreyken and Drakaina, but Enzo was his apprentice only a short while. He inherited much of Corrado's knowledge, but Enzo was not the man's clone.

He looked to the floor, humbled by the Regus's trust. I have not earned such faith.

"Thank you, Regus. I will do all in my power to live up to such honored faith."

The image illuminated between them, and Enzo studied it with fascinated care.

The injury was old, such was plain to any man's eyes. It had long ago healed, yet the ferocity of the scarring indicated either poor treatment, savage wounding, or both. Yet the lines of scarring were straight and careful, like five torturous channels drained down the flesh. The man to have survived such an attack bore great danger to his life.

Enzo ripped sad eyes from the image, and returned them to the Regus. "I have no doubt in my mind. The wound was drawn by the claws of a dreyken. But Regus, what disturbs me, is the calculated care the dreyken took to inflict such a wound and then to leave the victim alive. According to Corrado, their bloodlust should not allow such patient toying. They rip their meat to shreds and devour the victim indiscrimminately. I do not understand the meaning of this."
There his ignorance showed. Perhaps within the depths of Corrado's experience would have an explanation, but Enzo doubted it, and Corrado was gone. In so much as Enzo's apprenticeship imparted, Dreyken simply did not behave in such a way.

"Mmm. Indeed," Armande murmured. After a moment of consideration, the image was closed and something else was projected in its place. He did not, as of yet, hit play.

Enzo passed his first test. The correct identification of a dreyken wound. Such was the simpler of the two tests of the morning. The second he passed by analyzing the meaning of a wound. Why indeed would a dreyken scrawl such marks into human flesh only to leave the victim alive?

"Answer your own question, Enzo. Under what circumstances would a victim find himself surviving the attentions of a dreyken intent to devour him?"
The crease of throat deepened the lines on Enzo's brow. The Regus posed a puzzle that Enzo was eager to solve, but he was not Corrado, he had only the inheritance of his master's training to base a guess.

He worked through his thoughts aloud. "A hungry Dreyken is nearly impossible to control himself. The scent of blood can draw him like a shark to blood in the water. For him to stop means something intervened. Something interrupted that separated monster from victim. The victim could then escape."
He posed his thoughts like a question, but the Regus was unresponsive. Enzo could not discern if his train of logic was correct or not.

Something nagged at him, though. His frown deepened and the blue of his gaze grew distant as he pictured the horrible scenario. Dreyken can toy with their victims for weeks, but once the torpor takes them, they devolve into frenzied beasts.

He studied the image again. Five full, torturous paths scrawled like claw marks into a door. He saw something new, this time, and he reconsidered what he judged as shadow and smudge to be something far more intentional. "But this was careful. The dreyken wanted the victim to suffer. I think they were Atharim. If that's the case, I will hope that the reason the victim survived is that he was saved before the murder could be carried out."

He voice trailed distant then, as memory of salvation burst down the door. Yet, in Enzo's case, salvation came too late.

"Very good." Armande replied as he stood. Afterward, he crossed to his desk and retrieved the means to transfer data to Enzo. Contained within were the collections of studies he'd prepared following Aria's translation of the Voynich Document. It all related to Apollyon. Almost every piece of knowledge Armande possessed about the creature.

"The image you were studying was taken from that of a video of the survivor. You were correct in your assessment. Something did intervene, but we do not know what. Nor do we know why the Dreyken was so intent to make the individual suffer. The video is part of data I am assigning to you to study. Meditate on it, Enzo. Know it as well as you know your own soul. For I am going to send you on a mission. You will assist a woman, another Atharim, named Aria, whose task it is to slay Apollyon." He knew recognition for the dread beasts' title would flash behind Enzo's bright blue eyes. So much like the man in the video itself.

"Apollyon heralds the end of our age, and to us, he has proclaimed himself. Without a shadow of a doubt, he must be annihilated. Whatever fell future awaits when the Ascendancy dies, our fates will be better than the alternative. Yes, Enzo. You heard me accurately."
Complete shock. Enzo remained, yet his mind was out of body. He could not fathom the magnitude of what he was being told. More, he did not want to comprehend what he was being asked. The end of the world rested on the moral epithets of his shoulders? It was a burden he was unworthy to bear.

He stood and followed the Regus. "Begging your pardon, Regus, but Apollyon, oui, must be stopped, but you say he is the Ascendancy. Our Ascendancy?"
He was the CCD. To murder him was to strike an arrow into the beating heart of the world. Enzo could not be such a bowman.

"Il m'est impossible de le faire."
His incomprehension muttered in his mother's tongue before he could stop himself. He quickly corrected himself, although in retrospect the Regus did not need the translation. "It is not possible, Regus. I cannot assist in the assassination of the Ascendancy."
The horror with which he shook his head was plain.

"How might I even get close enough to him to carry out such a murder?"
Enzo showed his doubt for he pivoted and sought answers from the empty air like he might pluck them out of nothing.

Enzo followed him to his desk. While Armande sat behind, drawing his hands along the touchpad that made its surface and thus summoning files, he paused in order to allow his gaze to settle on the young man.

Enzo was an eager young man - young insofar as in comparison to Armande himself - but the distance behind his bright blue eyes was not altogether unfamiliar. His dark hair was more lackadaisical than it could be, but the purposeful disarray lent an air of authenticity to their claim: the claim that Armande uttered as he touched the tip of his fingers to the point of his chin.

"This is how you will get close to him."

An image splayed to the air between them of a woman younger than Enzo himself yet similarly cast with the essence of heavy responsibility. "She's an army physician. A geneticist according to her credentials. She was one of the ones rescued in Dominance V by Custody forces. She's here in Moscow assigned to classified work. Yet this begs the question, why was she in Dominance V in order to need rescued unless she is of utmost importance to the army. A kremlin geneticist is going to help us whether she knows it or not."

Enzo was quiet, and Armande knew he was being ambiguous. A twitch quipped the slim corners of his mouth. "She's going to authenticate your genetic heritage, Enzo.. You look just like him, you know." He watched the young man's expression as he puzzled through the riddle.


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