A SERPENT'S PREY
Crown deflected my first blow easily. He simply held up his sword in the right place and metal rang against metal. He did the same thing with the second attack and the third.
It looked like a repeat of our previous fight. Crown could predict every move I made and neutralize it as easily as sneezing. As for me, I was the same fool as before, rushing at him, relying alone on my inherent strength. I looked even more foolish now, swinging some weapon I had never used before.
At least that's how it looked.
Something was different this time, though. I could sense Crown trying to compute the odd number in this equation. He didn't really have to think about fighting. His arms and legs had a fighting instinct built into them. As he warded off every wild strike, his mind pondered -- what is wrong here? What has changed?
The Nobles watched us. If they were looking for entertainment, they weren't getting any. They might as well have been watching a retarded man play chess against Bobby Fischer.
But Crown wasn't beating me. We fought for two whole minutes, and he was still only on the defensive. Surely there must have been an opening for him to use by now?
After another minute, the Senator yelled, "For fuck's sake, Crown, finish him!"
Crown wanted to. I saw the need for the final blow in his eyes. And he could have had it from the moment I attacked.
But, you see, that was the thing. I gave him plenty of openings. I had no concern for defense. None at all.
I was, in fact, waiting to feel his metal in my flesh again.
Before I had come to battle, I had thought about the first fight. When was the only time that I had been able to make contact with Crown? When did the only blow of mine land on him?
When he had stabbed me.
Only when he could shed my blood could I harm him.
Only when he killed me could I kill him.
I wasn't looking for victory. I just wanted him dead. I needed him dead to protect everyone I had ever loved.
This wasn't what Crown had expected. All of his tactics were based on the reasonable notion that the other fellow wanted to live. He hadn't anticipated going against a man who got in close without fear, who was willing to throw it all away just to see Crown dead, whose eyes snarled, "Just do it, you son-of-a-bitch, just go for the kill and we can end this..."
Another minute passed. I could faintly hear murmuring from the Nobles along with the clanging of swords. I was also aware of another sound -- heavy breathing. It was coming from Crown. Hell, he was sweating.
I took no pleasure in this. My heart wasn't even really in this fight. It was back in the Tunnels. I wanted to reach out and touch my father one last time before death. I wanted one more embrace from Diana and Grandfather, one more kiss on the lips of Alexandra. Crown's sweat only told me that the end was near. Soon he would have no choice but to attack, whatever the consequences.
Instead he fell backwards. I had swung my sword on his sword with such force that I thought our weapons might break. The metal was too strong to shatter, but Crown was knocked off balance. The Nobles let out a wordless yell of shock.
I attacked again. I felt no triumph. I knew that Crown was as dangerous on his back as on his feet. He had likely learned a dozen ways to kill me from this position. I would force him to use one as I slashed his throat. Nothing could stop me.
Except one thing.
I did. Every muscle in my body froze in shock. I had expected to get my heart pierced. I hadn't expected Crown to hold up a hand and shout that word in a cracked voice. I hadn't expected him to speak, period.
But he had spoken. He had pleaded. He was on his back, trembling. His once-impassive face was stricken with terror.
And a tear left one colorless eye.
The master of death didn't want to die.
I almost continued my attack, knowing that he could still deliver the deathblow. His skills were too advanced to be affected by terror. His body was too well trained.
His soul, on the other hand, was broken. That had been the weakest part of him.
I realized this as I looked at the tear again. Then I looked at the Nobles. The Senator's mouth was opened a mile wide. The Billionaire had jumped to his feet. Other Nobles shared a similar reaction.
And Bradbury? He had leaned forward in his chair, but his expression was cool. He hadn't been anticipating this, but he sure as hell was going to take advantage of it.
I dropped my sword. The clatter was brief and sharp.
"You know why he worked so well for the Tower?" I said to the Nobles, pointing at Crown. "Because he was like you. He may be the greatest killer in the world, but he didn't became that to embrace death."
I looked down at Crown. "He became a killer to keep death away. He refined his skills to such perfection so no one could harm him."
Crown covered his face and sobbed. I turned back to the Nobles. "But there's no charity in him," I said. "He'll sacrifice himself for no one. He certainly won't sacrifice himself for you. You only saw the skills and the cold calculation and the ruthlessness. You didn't see his fear." I smiled. "He's as afraid as you are. And that's not what you need in a protector, is it?"
The Nobles looked at each other. They knew I was right.
"I'm different. I would give up anything to protect the Tunnels. Crown only joined because he wanted to be in your special shelter, too. The moment you can't give him that gift...well, look at him.
" So...does he still make you feel safe?"
I turned and headed for the door. I passed the sobbing Crown. I didn't really feel victorious, even though I had achieved victory where none had been wanted. I just felt...satisfied. I had done my duty. The Tunnels were safe.
Or so I thought.
"Jacob," Bradbury called out, "you're not done."
I stopped and looked back. I suddenly felt as tired as Bradbury looked -- tired and disgusted.
"You want me to kill him?" I said. "Do it yourself. I have no need."
"If you don't want to kill Crown, then that is your call. It is one of the many decisions you'll have to make as our new head of security."
In a night full of unexpected things this statement made my head throb. "What?"
"The Purifier," Bradbury explained in a calm voice, "is a means by which lower ranking members in our organization can achieve higher positions. It's how Crown achieved his position years ago."
"Wait a second. Are you saying..."
"You defeated him, albeit in an unusual manner. Now you must ascend into this place."
"Ascend, my ass!" I spun toward the door.
"Then we're still left with the problem of the Tunnels."
I slowly turned back to the table. "You said that the Tunnels would be safe if I took care of Crown."
Bradbury leaned back in his chair and crossed his hands over his stomach. "I said nothing of the sort."
I strode toward him, shouting, "You just...you told these people that we shouldn't worry about the Tunnels!"
"I'm not worried," Bradbury said. "The question is -- are you?"
I almost leapt upon him. Then I stopped myself and laughed. What else could I do in the face of such absurdity? "Look," I chuckled, "I don't know where you got this idea, but your little treehouse gang ain't gonna go for it."
"Actually," the Senator said, "it's not a bad idea."
I stared at the Senator. His horrified expression had given way to a more thoughtful face. He looked at Bradbury and said, "I made a mistake."
"It was an understandable one," Bradbury assured him. "In your position I would have sided with Crown. But I think we all see who the Tower really needs."
The Senator turned to me and slowly smiled. "Yes. I do."
"You people are mad," I said in a low voice. "You wanted me dead just a few minutes ago, now you're offering me a job?"
"You were willing to give your life for your people," Bradbury said. "Now give us your loyalty."
My eyes instinctively looked at Crown's weapons on the table. "Jacob, please," Bradbury sighed, "do you think that only Crown was protecting us here? Do you think that none of the Nobles carry weapons of their own? Don't you know that I could summon a whole squadron of armed men here with a single word? And even if you could kill all of us, we have people who will know our murderer. And our estates are set up to pay handsomely anyone who avenges our death. It will be a complete vengeance, Jacob, which means you and the Tunnels." He shrugged. "It's a final measure, but if you can't have safety, you might as well have revenge."
I felt like a man who was dying but didn't know why. "No," I muttered. "This doesn't make sense. What do you want from me? With all the power you have..."
"It's like you said, Jacob. Skills are secondary to motivation. Crown had the skills, but no real interest in protecting us. You have the motivation. You don't want us to invade the Tunnels? Then work for us. I'm sure you can learn whatever skills you need." He looked at the other Nobles. "The question is -- would you feel safe with this man, knowing that he would lose everything if we were to be harmed?"
Fuck me if the Nobles didn't nod and give their assent. G.K. Chesterton said it best -- a madman is a person who has lost everything except reason. If you started with their need of pure survival, then logic said that Bradbury was right.
I said, "You really expect me to protect you like the ones I love?"
"We don't need your love," Bradbury said. "We need your fear. So what's your choice?"
I could have walked out of there right then, but the Tower would soon release its hounds into the Tunnels. A war would start -- a war that the Tunnels couldn't win.
I just stood there for several long moments, expecting to awaken. None of this could be real, right? There couldn't be a secret society like the Tower. And Alexandra couldn't have existed, either. In fact, Vincent wasn't even my father. I was probably just some teenager having a dream.
Laughter convinced me that I was in reality. I turned to look at Crown. He had stopped crying and was now mocking my dilemma with his laughter. I had broken his soul. In return he could watch me sell mine.
I decided that my soul was a cheap price. I opened my mouth to say 'yes.'
The very room seemed to speak that word. It vibrated through the walls and the metal pillars.
A door opened in one of the pillars, and Alexandra stepped out.