Subject 23, four years old, 945
“Subject 23, how are you today?”
Oh, Mr. Five! You’re back! It had been a little while since the last time Mr. Five had come to talk with me. I had no idea how long I had been floating in this inky blackness but, I was able to hold on and not lose myself thanks to Mr. Five periodically talking to me.
“Yes, I am back. Subject 23, I think you should be able to come out soon… Is that something you would like?”
Out? What is out like…? It had been so long since I found myself in this place, I had only the vaguest recollections of what the place beyond the blackness was.
“Yes, I think you should be ready to come out and meet your family. I will be with you soon.”
You’ll be with me…? I’ll get to see what you look like Mr. Five!?
I didn’t get an answer, not exactly, but I got the feeling that my excitement had pleased Mr. Five. If Mr. Five was pleased, then that was good. I floated in the inky blackness, alone once more.
I sat up and felt my stomach and throat constrict painfully. I can’t breathe! There was something in my throat, and it was so bright I could not see anything. I was cold, so cold I could not stop shaking. I wanted to cough, but the thing was stuck. I could feel snot coming out of my nose and I was crying.
Suddenly, a sharp pain struck my back. Thrown forward by the painful thing, I felt whatever was in my throat come out. I coughed, and my stomach felt like it was squeezing. A lot of water and smelly slimy stuff came out of my mouth and nose, as well as a long black thing.
“Subject 23, are you ok now?” That’s Mr. Five’s voice… so he’s here with me! I quickly turned my face in the direction of his voice, but I still could not see anything properly.
“There, there, do not be alarmed, for I am with you.” As he spoke, I could feel him gently rubbing my back. It felt nice. I started shaking again, and Mr. Five stopped rubbing my back. He started rubbing both of my arms very hard and it hurt. I tried to pull my arms away, but he squeezed them tightly.
“Subject 23, do not pull away. You need to warm up.” At the sound of his voice, telling me to stop trying to pull my arms away I froze. I have to do what he says, if I don’t listen then he will leave me! The thought of being left alone was scary.
Eventually, the pain from Mr. Five rubbing my arms got a bit better, and I wasn’t shaking anymore. I could also see a tiny bit now. Mr. Five was wearing a black cloak that hid his face. I want to see what he looks like… but I bet he would be angry if I tried to look. I could not make him angry, so I decided to not try and peek.
Mr. Five stopped rubbing my arms and held something out in front of me. I squinted in the still too bright light and was able to make out that I was being handed a sort of long shirt and a towel. I reached out and took the towel, using it to wipe the slimy stuff off of my body. Doing that helped warm me up some more also. As I was getting into the shirt, Mr. Five was watching my movements closely.
Even though I was naked, it wasn’t embarrassing. If it was Mr. Five then I knew there must be a reason why he was watching me dress. When I finished, he nodded and motioned for me to follow him. I got up and quickly followed him out into a long hallway. It was a bit easier to see in this room, but my eyes still hurt. Mr. Five was walking very fast, I was having trouble keeping up with him. By the time we came to the door at the end of the hallway, I was having a hard time breathing.
After going down the long hallway, we passed through a very large room with tables in the middle, and lines of doors along both walls. Mr. Five turned to me. “It seems that the restoratives have prevented about eighty percent of the muscle atrophy. That is more than I expected, this is where you will be living for the next while. Your room is this one. It is forbidden to enter the room of another child. Go into your room and sleep, I will be back in the morning.”
I nodded. “Thank you for saving me from the black place, Mr. Five.” He gave a quick nod and left me, so I did as I was told and went into my room. Inside my room, there was a table and chair, a bed, and a little girl. On the table was a plate of food, a glass of water, and a small round object. I turned to the little girl.
“You aren’t supposed to be in other people’s rooms!” The little girl looked back at me.
“This is my room. That’s what Mr. Five said.” I looked at the girl suspiciously. She was about my age, probably. Maybe a bit shorter than me, at the very least I had to look down to look her in the eye. She had black hair and gold eyes, her hair was tied to the sides in twin tails with a piece of string.
I shook my head. “No Mr. Five brought me to this room just now and said it was mine; you must be mistaken.” The girl put one hand on her chin and furrowed her eyebrows.
“Mr. Five brought me to this room too and said it was mine.” The only conclusion then, was that we were meant to share. However, there was only one bed, one table, one chair, one plate of food, and one round thing. As I was thinking about what to do, the girl nodded.
“It’s ok; I don’t get hungry so you should eat it.”
“Are you sure?”
The girl nodded. “Thank you then.” I went to the table and started eating the food. It didn’t taste very good, but as I ate, I started to feel very hungry. Before long I realized I had eaten everything. The girl hadn’t moved while I was eating, and she now pointed at the round thing.
“You have to take the pill too. My sister always said that pills are good for you.”
I looked at the round thing. It didn’t look like something you would eat. “Your sister said that these are good for you?”
The girl nodded. “Yep! My sister was amazing.”
I frowned. “I don’t have a sister, I wish I did.”
The girl seemed to think for a moment. “I know, how about I can be your sister!” Her voice was cheerful as if this was the most obvious thing, and in retrospect, it was.
“I scooped up the pill thing and ate it, I wanted to be a good sister too, like the girl’s older sister. Since I was taller that meant I was the big sister, and I had to set a good example. Suddenly I realized something important, something I had somehow forgotten. In a panic, I turned to face the girl.
“Do you have a name? I don’t have a name, but Mr. Five calls me Subject 23.” The girl thought for a moment.
“I… I don’t know. I think I used to… but it’s sort of hard. Like it’s far away…” This wouldn’t do, my new little sister needed something I could call her. As I looked at her, thinking about what I should call her, the inside of my head got really itchy. I tried to scratch it, to make it stop, and after a bit, the itching subsided. When it went away, I was left with a name in my mind.
“Stali! I’ll call you Stali! That’s a good name for a sister!”
The girl thought about it, rolling the name over her tongue a few times before she smiled and nodded. “Un! Stali! I like that name!”
Subject 23, Four Years Old 946
I blocked the cut that was coming towards me with the flat end of my blade before dropping into a low stance. Sliding forward across the floor, I lunged upwards. Bringing the point of my knife to the throat of Subject 36 I froze.
“End!” At the call of the trainer, I stepped back away from Subject 36 and put my knife away. Recently, all of the kids who lived here had been learning to fight with knives and other small weapons. Periodically we would spar with each other like this. If you lost three times then the trainer would bring you down the long hallway towards the black place. I didn’t want to go back there again, so I made sure that I never lost even once.
Sometimes they would bring someone back, but often the kids who went to the black place did not return. Subject 36 looked scared; he had just lost the third time, so he would have to go to the black place. I’m just glad it isn’t me. Stali had never lost either, though I never actually saw her fight. That was probably a good thing since we were being trained to be assassins and take care of bad guys.
The lady who was training us hid her face just like Mr. Five did, but she never told me her name. Still, Mr. five made it clear that we were all supposed to obey her when he came to introduce us on the first day. Subject 36 was looking down at the floor when the woman came down to him.
Subject 36 grimaced and raised his head.
“You lost.” Her voice was empty, she since was simply stating a fact. Subject 36 looked like he was about to say something in retort, but thought better of it when the woman put a hand on the cane she always had strapped to her waist. While losing three times would get you sent to the black place, talking back or not doing what we were told would get us hit with that cane.
I had never been hit since I had to set a good example for Stali. I got a lot of extra food because of how well I behaved. The last time he visited, Mr. Five had even said I might be able to advance to the next hall soon, and that he was pleased with my progress. I was sad at the thought of having to leave Stali, but at the same time, I was excited to be making Mr. Five happy. I was also wanting to see someplace new, I had lost count of the number of times I had slept in this hall.
Subject 36 was led out of the room through the door that led to the black place, and the rest of us worked together to put the tables back in the middle of the room. When the room wasn’t being used for training, it served as a sort of common room for all of us to interact with each other. There were lots of things that we were allowed to do, as long as we were good and followed the rules.
Today though, I wasn’t planning on doing any of the things in the common room, I was planning to hang out with Stali in our room. I had been told I would probably be moving up in the next few days, so I would probably have to leave Stali behind. Hopefully, they would let her move up soon as well; after me, she was probably the most talented.
I swung open our door and immediately spotted Stali lying on the bed that we shared. It had been cramped at first, but we had eventually gotten used to it. She was laying on her stomach and kicking her feet in the air. When she heard the door open and shut at my entrance, she jumped up.
“Wentee!” that was what she called me, a sort of blending of my number “twenty-three” became Wentee. She had insisted that it wasn’t fair for only her to have a name when I had a number, so after much deliberation that was what she had settled on. It had made me uncomfortable at first, but she eventually convinced me by promising to only use it when we were alone. As the days had worn on, I did eventually warm up to the name.
“Wendi! Guess what?” She looked extremely excited as she beamed up at me. I had been growing pretty fast recently, though when I wasn’t with Stali I wouldn’t have noticed. She was still about the same size she had been when I first met her, but I was now a few fingers taller than her. The fact that I was growing so much taller made me happy as the big sister, though it really frustrated Stali, what with how she now had to crane her neck at a hard angle to be able to look me in the eye.
Stali took a deep breath and exclaimed, “They told me I could move up! I get to go with you!” I blinked for a moment, letting her news sink in. A smile broke out across my face, something that only Stali seemed able to cause.
“That’s great! I was so sad when I learned that we would get separated!” I grabbed Stali and pulled her into a hug. I’m so glad I get to stay with my sister!
“Wentee”, Five Years Old 947
Stali and I had spent some time in the “next stage”. Long enough that neither of us could remember how long. I was even bigger now. Stali only came up to about my chest. I didn’t know why she wasn’t growing. maybe it had something to do with how little she ate. Seriously, I had never seen my little sister eat even a single bite of food.
That didn’t matter though, she was my sister, so I would look out for her. I really needed to. The second stage was awful. The slightest failure was punishable by intensive torture. I was constantly on my toes just to avoid misstepping. The threat of the sensory deprivation room was bad, but it paled towards what would happen here. One trainee was suspended above a tub full of corpse worms so that his feet and lower legs were submerged, then had healing magic continually cast on him.
My one rock, other than Stali, was Mr. Five. He was always worried about me, often coming by to check on how I was doing. After one particularly bad session where I had been forced to undergo surgery to enhance my muscles, he apologized repeatedly that I had to go through something like that. It was ok though because I knew he was doing it for my own good; After the surgery, I was suddenly much stronger, able to keep up with the other kids who had been at this stage for much longer than I had. I just wanted to be able to please him by succeeding and surpassing whatever he expected of me.
On the bright side, Stali was around more often. There were fewer trainees in this section, so it was a lot harder for her to make herself disappear into the crowd as she had always somehow done back at the first stage. Often, as I was undergoing the pain resistance training or the augmentation, Stali would sneak into the room, just out of sight of the agent who was working on me, she would mouth words of encouragement, or if she was able, lightly brush my hand. It was these brief moments of respite that gave me the strength to live up to Mr. Five’s expectations of me.
I wanted to do the same for her, but every time I tried to follow her, she would manage to slip away somehow. I asked her numerous times how she was managing it, but every time she would just chuckle and say she wasn’t sure what I meant, she was just walking normally.
It was the start of just a normal day for me when I was approached by one of the trainers after breakfast. She had Stali behind her, who looked really excited. I knew why right away of course; this was the trainer who only ever approached you when you were deemed ready for stage three, “Subject 23, Lord Five has determined it is time for you to proceed with the final selection for stage two.” I nodded. I was ready.
The trainer led me to a door that I had occasionally seen other children brought through but had never dared approach myself. As we walked, I whispered to Stali in such a way as to avoid the ears of the trainer who was escorting me. Our training had proved extremely useful in forging our bond as adopted sisters. “Stali, do you know what’s ahead?” It was, in my mind, extremely likely that Stali had slipped past the door at some point. She was much better than me at hiding and tended to be a bit curious.
She shook her head, “Nope! But I’m glad I get to go with you!”
Before too long, we had arrived in front of the door. It swung open to receive us, but the interior was too dim for me to see properly. I gulped, for some reason growing anxious. Beside me, Stali gripped my hand and led me forward with a word. “It’s ok, I’ll be with you!” I’m supposed to be the big sister… I couldn’t let my little sister be the one to protect me, confirming my resolve, I pushed my way through the darkness and into the room.
As soon as I was through, the door swung shut behind me with a thud. I whirled around in shock, as the lights began to increase in brightness. I shivered and turned around. I was met by the sight of Mr. Five, standing next to a cage. On a table in front of the cage was a row of daggers. “Subject 23.” I jumped to attention; I had long ago learned that Mr. Five liked prompt obedience. “The time has come for you to demonstrate your resolve. Take a dagger.”
I stepped forward and picked up a dagger. I had been taught how to maintain weapons ever since I had come out of the sensory deprivation stage of training, but this was the first time I had held a weapon that felt this cold. I looked to Mr. Five and he nodded.
“Good, that blade is enchanted. It will inflict the most pain possible from a single cut. You will enter the cage now, and prepare yourself.” Wait, I’m going into the cage? What about Stali…? As soon as I entered the cage, and turned around I had my answer. Stali had picked up her own dagger and was in the cage with me. I was struck by panic. Mr. Five’s voice rang out, and I turned to face him. “I will be back in one hour. When I return, I expect one of you to be dead.” My heart sank. No! I can’t! I won’t! I had never questioned his orders before, but this, I couldn’t…
“It’s ok Wenti.” I turned at the sound of my sister’s voice. To my surprise, we weren’t the only ones in the cage. There was a boy in it with me. To my surprise, I recognized him. It was Number 36, the boy I had sent back to the sensory deprivation tank a year ago. As I looked him over, I heard Wenti nearby me. “See? Mr. Five only said one of us had to die. Since he’s here too, we can kill him! Then you and I can stay together.”
I gulped and nodded. That’s technically true, we can do that… but I haven’t killed anyone before…True I had known what I was being trained to do. But being trained for something and doing it… There was a difference. The boy seemed to be somewhat delirious, he was barely holding together as his eyes darted around every which way.
Distantly, I considered the fact. I did that to him… I could have lost the fight, I hadn’t ever lost one before but I knew he had already lost two… It’s my fault he had to go back. It was blindingly obvious to me now why most of the people sent back to the sensory deprivation never came back. I hefted my dagger, feeling the weight of it, and the cold of the metal against my skin. I slowly approached him, and his eyes landed on mine.
“Who… who are you!? Stay back! G-get away!” 36 scrambled back away from me. As he flailed his limbs, I could recognize, he was unarmed. In this room, only Stali and I had weapons. Am I supposed to kill an unarmed person…? Of course, I knew that I would have to do that eventually. But for the first time? It had ironically been impressed upon us all how important life was, and we were forbidden from actually hurting each other in training. The penalty for even accidentally harming a fellow recruit was extreme.
I shivered, and my dagger fell from my hand, clattering onto the floor. “Stali, I’m sorry, I can’t do it. I broke him, I can’t kill him to… I just can’t…” I could feel tears beginning to form in my eyes. Stali nodded.
“It’s ok Wenti… I’ll do it.” I watched. I wanted to look away, but I decided I shouldn’t. I was already forcing my sister to do what I should be doing, but I should at least bear witness. Unlike me, who struggled with the idea of it, Stali walked straight up to 36. Glancing down at him, she hesitated only for a moment, and then swung the dagger once, severing his throat cleanly. His face twisted in pain; Mr. Five had evidently not been lying about the enchantment. But he could not scream, only gurgle out painfully.
Before long, Five came out and collected me from the cage. He was pleased and showered me with praise, which was confusing. I had failed I couldn’t do it. I looked back over my shoulder at 36’s body. I could see Stali, still standing over him. She caught my gaze and shrugged. “It’s ok Wenti, I’ll keep you safe.” I nodded. I’m so lucky to have such a caring little sister! The door swung shut, blocking my sight of her. But I wasn’t worried; somehow I knew. Stali would always be with me. Facing forward, I advanced onwards towards stage three.
Five, Seventh Month of 947
I growled to myself and strummed my fingers on the table angrily. Everyone is retarded. I had just finished sending a response to “Rowell”. The moron had planned to pursue Stahlia to Ang Village. Seriously. Why do I even bother? In all honesty, the fact that Stahlia had been sent to Ang village in the first place was due to a mistake on the part of a now-departed clerk.
Besides, what the hell is that succubus thinking? Going after a whole town’s worth of men!? Idiots, the lot of them. The best I could do was warn her not to lay a finger on Stahlia or Dominic. The two of them were still needed. Drumming my hands on the desk, trying not to strike it too hard as to not shatter the wood, I heard a knock on the door. “Enter.”
23 entered. I hadn’t given her an alias yet, because she didn’t need one. Out of all my subordinates, she was the most competent. Of course, what would you expect from an [Assassin Prodigy]? Seriously though. Two Prodigy talents popping up in the same generation, of the same household? So soon before the next war? The gods must be screwing with me. Frankly, it was a boon that she had arrived when she did. Her talents were going to prove very useful in the coming strife.
And she’ll serve as a good deterrent if Stahlia ever actually tries to go through with her hair-brained schemes of revenge. Based on how she acts around that cat, all I should have to do is show even a drawing of 23, and she’ll fall head over heels to do whatever I want her to. I drug myself out of my thoughts. “23, your report?”
The girl gave a crisp salute. “Lord Five. The target has met Mortis by my… by my hand.” If only she would lose that stutter, she would be perfect. For the umpteenth time that day, I began drumming my fingers on the desk. Everything is so… irritating.
For better or worse, 23 had a very selective stutter. It was likely an issue with the indoctrination program; things like this cropped up from time to time. Whenever she reported a kill, she would hesitate before claiming the credit. This went all the way back to when I had arranged her first kill. Upon me discussing it with her, she had clammed up and insisted tearfully that she hadn’t done it, all while apologizing for her failure.
The thought of how perfect that first kill had been… In any case, it brought a smile to my face. I had placed her in the cage with the trash 36 and left the room. Of course, I was actually watching the whole time. Usually, a subject would wallow about and take until the very last moment before finally hurriedly killing their target. Not 23. 23 was a natural. If I didn’t know any better, I would even argue that she was a Demon of Wrath if I hadn’t seen her appraisal results myself.
The girl had, as soon as I left the room, broken out into a smile. Walking up to 36, no skipping up to him. She had brandished the knife in his face. The poor boy had recoiled in terror, begging to know who she was and what she wanted with him. Had that stopped her? No. 23 was far too perfect for that. She started out small, a light cut over his chin, made so fast you could barely see the knife move. Watching the way she gauged the distance, even accounting for how he would flinch, to leave such a fine shallow cut… it made me smile just recalling.
Of course, the enchantment on the dagger had activated, crippling 36 with debilitating pain. 23 had giggled. She was thrilled to see him suffering before her. Her next cut, she took off just the tip of his finger, watching his reaction carefully. She’s studying how the degree of injury affected the intensity of pain. That’s what I had thought at the time, but watching her work as she continued her training, I was convinced that she was simply a sadist.
She spent the better portion of the hour carving poor 36 up, piece by excruciating piece. I was amazed at her dedication. She took great care to avoid any major arteries, any wound that would allow the poor failure to expire. As her given hour neared its end, only then did she finally slit the boy’s throat. Even this cut, she kept it shallow, such that it would take him time to bleed out fully. When I came to get her, she was playing with the corpse, drawing patterns on it with the dagger’s blade.
Of course, she reacted to me immediately and stood up, drenched in blood. I let her out of the cage and she bounded up to me as if she was coming back from visiting a friend’s house. My wonder hadn’t ended there though, as I was leading 23 out of the room, she had turned and looked back at the corpse, intently, as if studying a piece of art. After a moment, she had broken out into a smile and turned back to follow me further down the hall, humming some little ditty to herself.
I was pulled from my recollections by the same 23 in the present clearing her throat. Right, work to attend too. So irritating. If anyone else had gotten my attention In that manner, they would be dead. I began drumming my fingers on the desk again. “If that concludes your report 23, you may retire to your room. I will send someone for you later if anything comes up.” 23 did a curtsy and bowed her head before saluting and backing out of the door. Seriously, she’s nearly perfect. If only she could overcome that stutter. I skimmed over the report I had been reading before 23 had come in to make hers, the only sound in the room was my own breathing and the one, two, three, one, two, three… rhythm of my fingers on the desk.
A crack formed where I had been drumming. Fuck! This is so infuriating! Why do I have to be the one doing paperwork!? Head stuff was always Mephistopheles’ thing! Fucking Summer Champion!
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