The Sixth



— - —


The doors to the infirmary crashed open, and Aaron's security detail poured into the hallway. Behind them came the Overseer, in a full on sprint towards the single illuminated room on the floor. His guards flanked the door, and he ran in, only stopping once inside to catch his breath.

There were two other people standing in the room, and one laying on a bed attached to several life-giving machines. The Blackbird and Green were standing next to the bed, upon which was Sophia, the Nazarene. Seeing her, Aaron stumbled over towards the bed. He placed an uncertain palm on her forehead. Her breath was shallow.

"What happened?" he asked, his voice ragged. "What happened to her?"

The Blackbird's face was sad, but Green appeared slightly annoyed. "You know what happened to her, Aaron," she said. "She was hung up with silk nails. She's cursed. This is what happens to people who are cursed."

Aaron shook his head. He knew the truth of what she was saying, but he had not believed it would come so quickly. He remembered the first night they had spent together, when she had told him what she was capable of. Dancing through time, she had called it. He had laughed. Then one day she disappeared, and when she returned her wrists were punched through with dark iron nails and her side had been skewered. He had not laughed then.

The nails, though. Felix had known what they were. Something old and dangerous. He had warned about them then - warned about what would happen to her blood. The Fountain could protect them from sickness, but-

Curses? he had said. No, unfortunately not. Curses are an unnatural thing. That is a wound I cannot clean out.

But she had persisted. Her work continued, and the projects she managed flourished, but she would have bouts of weakness and agony that would last for days, then weeks. The last one had stretched on for three months. Felix had tended to her using the treatments the Blackbird had recommended, but it had become evident that her condition was worsening.

“You said that you could prevent this,” Aaron snarled at the Blackbird. “You said your magic would keep this from happening.”

The Blackbird held up his hands. “I made no such promises. I said I could delay the inevitable, but this is the inevitable, Mr. Siegel. She is fortunate to have lasted this long. Those nails were not designed for someone who survived a crucifixion.”

Aaron turned back to her. He felt heat building in his face, something sharp and broken festering in his gut. Sophia’s skin had begun to darken, first along her arms and now creeping up to her chest. Mottled black and grey, like frostbite. They had wrapped them in bandages to keep the seeping down, but the bandages had soaked through.

“How much longer?” he asked.

The Blackbird sighed. “Days, maybe. Hours, more likely.”

Aaron didn’t react. The room was stuffy and still, the only sound was the clicking and beeping of the machines, the soft rush of air with every assisted breath, and the ticking of a clock on the wall.

“I would be remiss,” the Blackbird said, “if I did not remind you that our previously discussed arrangement could prevent this.”

Aaron stiffened. “That’s not what we’re here to do.”

The Blackbird shrugged. “Maybe not. But the terms of the contract are clear. Stay the hand of death. This-” he gestured down to Sophia’s withering form, “-is death. This is what it looks like.”

“You don’t have long to decide,” Green said, tapping her foot impatiently. “Once she’s gone, she’s gone. There’s no getting her back.”

He felt the heat again. In a flash, he wondered if they had exacerbated her condition to bring him to this point - to force a decision. There had been almost unanimous approval when the contract was first discussed - specifically from those with the most to gain. Green, the Archivist, the Lesser. But Sophia had resisted, and thus so did Aaron. It is not our purpose to live forever, he had said. It’s our purpose to do right by the Foundation.

Easier to do right when there’s no time limit, Green had responded.

He took a deep breath, and then another. He stood up and adjusted his tie. He closed his eyes and focused. Focused.

“Death,” he said in the prepared Latin, “make real your avatar. Appear now.”

The room grew cold and still. The sounds dimmed until all that remained was silence. There was a dark figure in the corner, a grim phantom beyond which was nothingness. Aaron saw the Blackbird shiver, and Green clutch the railing of Sophia’s deathbed.

“Aaron Siegel,” the voice whispered, barely a sound at all. “I would tell you that I am surprised, but man’s convictions have been discarded for less.” The figure cast its empty gaze down on the bed. “A terrible decision awaits you, doesn’t it?”

“Produce the contract,” he said. His voice was hollow.

There was a rush of air, and something like rattling laughter followed it. The spectre reached into its tattered robes and pulled out a long, black quill. In the air before them, a spitting and shimmering red line appeared, hissing as it burned and smoked. Beneath it appeared the words JAMES AARON SIEGEL, O5-1. Aaron reached out and grabbed the quill from the shadow and dragged its razor tip across his palm. A thick line of blood pooled up in his fist, and he gripped the end of the quill tight until it was full. Then, with a swift flick of his wrist, he scrawled his name across the line. The ink sizzled and burned for a second as it hung there, the only source of light in the room, and then disappeared.

“One more,” the voice said, gesturing down towards Sophia. A stark white face in the shadow grinned. “Thirteen names.”

As it had before with his name, the line appeared again with the words JESU SOPHIA LIGHT, O5-2 beneath it. Aaron reached down and pierced Sophia just above the breast with the end of the quill, where the encroaching rot had not yet touched. Blood jumped into it, and using her hand to hold the pen Aaron traced her name in the air. The ink danced around in the darkness for a moment, then it too disappeared.

Then they were all there, a long line of names and signatures.


There was another rush of air - a mocking laughter, Aaron thought - and then the lights came back up. The figure in the corner was gone, as was the quill. He looked at the spot on his hand where the quill had broken skin and saw nothing. When he looked up, the Blackbird and Green were both looking at him incredulously, and then all three of them looked down at the bed as Sophia began to cough. She brought a hand up to her face and rubbed her eyes, blinking them against the light. She turned to look at Green and the Blackbird, and then again to look at Aaron. When she saw him, her face darkened.

“Oh, Aaron,” she whispered, her voice hoarse. “You didn’t.”


— - —


Calvin was drowning. He was adrift in a sea with no surface and no floor, and the dark grey of the abyss surrounding him as far as he could see. Water filled his lungs, his chest, his eyes. He gasped and clawed at his throat, desperate to seize even a single other breath. He screamed silently, and then the water filled him.

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