When registration at the end of the day was completed, and the students were dismissed, Ariel made his way out with Terri, holding her hand as per custom.
“I really need to head to my locker,” Terri said.
“Lead the way,” Ariel replied.
Ariel’s phone buzzed in his trouser pocket and he brought it out to see “father” on the caller ID. His chest heaved slightly as a flashback of a darkened room appeared in his mind’s eye.
Ariel stood in the room holding a gun pointed not at an enemy, but a fellow agent of the Iabal court. The King stood to the side in a formal all-black suit, his dark eyes steeled in cold indifference, with his chin up and his shoulders back — both a show of his regal stature and a silent challenge for Ariel to defy him. Were it not for the severe repercussions that would follow, Ariel would have gladly sent the bullet through the King’s skull. But then, they didn’t call it high treason for nothing.
“What are you waiting for?” The King asked. “Do what needs to be done.” A tear fell from Ariel’s eye. Not only was it unbecoming of the Prince of the Iabal court, but to do so in front of his father was unthinkable.
“Ariel?” A female voice yelled. He felt someone shake him and was violently thrust from his stupor.
“What!” He replied.
“Ow, Let go!”
Ariel’s eyes widened when he realised that he had grabbed Terri’s wrist, twisting it slightly in a less than comfortable position. It shouldn’t sprain the wrist, but it was a defensive move in order to prevent someone from attacking. He relinquished his grasp on her and took a step back.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he said.
“What is wrong with you, Ariel?” she asked, rubbing her wrist and flexing it to ensure that all was as it should be. “You’ve been blanking out all day.”
“I have?” he asked with a shaky voice, all the while knowing that it was true.
“Yeah. I was just going to ask you if you were going to pick up your phone. I think it’s your dad.”
Ariel looked at his phone for a moment and saw two missed calls.
“Yes, I should call him back.”
“Fine. I’ll meet you at my locker.” Terri left him without a backward glance.
Whilst the idea of pissing off a girlfriend he had no prior knowledge of came across as somewhat comical, if this was all part of a greater purpose to serve the Iabal Court, then screwing things up would be far from humorous.
When Ariel finally picked up the third attempt at a phone call from his father, King Éamonn of the Iabal Court, he braced himself for a stern reprimand, or a cold threat. Instead, what he heard was very different.
“Ariel,” a familiar voice said. “If you are receiving this message, then our plan worked.” The male voice was deep but slightly hoarse. He panted slightly, like he had just done a long run. But what struck Ariel about the familiarity of the voice was that it was his own. “I probably scared you a bit, making you think this call was from father. I don’t have time to explain, but that girl, Terri, is the key to all of this. King Éamonn believes that she stole something very valuable from him. Take her to the Gemini Ball this weekend and I will sort things out from there. I warn you though; if you fail the King, he will terminate her, and after today’s catastrophe, you will wish he could terminate you.”
The line went dead, and Ariel stared at his phone for a moment. There was no way that he could have recorded message to send to himself, if he had no memory of it. The voice of the end of the phone a bit of virtual stranger. And what had he meant by ‘today’s catastrophe’?
By the time Ariel reached Terri’s locker, she saw her speaking with another guy. He was tall and slim, leaning against the lockers as he combed his fingers through her long blonde hair. Ariel clenched his hands into fists, narrowing his eyes at the stranger’s show of over-familiarity. As he began to approach the pair, he saw something about the boy’s face change. Beneath the almost kind looking face, with its soft features, mild-mannered smile, and pale blue eyes was what appeared a monster. Its eyes were black all over and it had high cheekbones that made it look almost gaunt. When Ariel looked a little bit harder, he saw that the boy’s dark floppy hair had grown in length and seemed almost to be writhing like snakes.
“Hey Ariel,” the boy greeted him. “I was just inviting your girl here, and yourself of course, to my party this Friday.
“And I was just telling Len that we can’t because we have a date then.” Terri moved away from the boy’s touch, grasping onto Ariel’s arm. “You promised to take me to the new horror movie.”
"Oh yeah," Ariel said. “Terri promised to hold me if I got scared.” This comment elicited a giggle from Terri but the fey stood in front of them did not appear to be quite as amused.
"Come on Ariel, I don’t invite many lower sixths to my parties. You should feel honoured. Besides, there are far more horrific things than missing out on a blockbuster movie. Like missing my party for instance."
To anybody else that might have sounded like a joke, but from the way Len’s snake like hair writhed even more furiously, and the slight tilt in his head suggested a challenge, Ariel knew this to be a threat. Whatever creature this was, it was not to be trifled with.
"Parties really aren’t my thing, but we’ll think about it,” Ariel replied.
"You do that,” Len nodded, before making his leave.
Terri squeezed Ariel’s hand and smiled nervously at him. “I swear that guy gives me the creeps. I wonder how Mob puts up with him."
"Mark O’Brien, the head boy.”
Ariel shrugged his shoulders. “Let’s just get you sorted so we can go.”
“Do you need to get anything from your locker?” Terri asked.
“I don’t think so. Let me check just in case.”
Ariel’s locker was at the opposite side of the common room and as he searched it for the second time that day, he saw a bright light scan over his hand and a secret hatch opened at the back of his locker. Checking over his shoulder, Ariel saw that Terri was behind him, looking in the other direction. He quickly took the object that was in the secret compartment out.
He leaned closer to the locker so that Terri would not see the gun in his hand. He held it with his right hand, feeling it for a trace of recognition. Ariel switched it to his non-dominant hand and was surprised to find that it seemed to fit better this way, with a trace of familiarity to it. He felt the strand of memory call to him before he could stop himself from revisiting his past.
As if showing any remorse was bad enough, Ariel had unintentionally dropped the gun he was to shoot one of the agents with. King Éamonn scratched his beard and pursed his lips for a moment, his dark eyes unwavering from Ariel’s gaze.
“You are testing my patience. I’ll give you but one more chance.”
Ariel wanted to protest the inhumanity of it all. Not only was he unaware of what he had done to be punished, he truly had no idea who was responsible for it. Regardless, he picked up the gun.
The King took off the sacks covering the faces of the two selected agents. “I was going to let you do this without seeing their faces but it seems to me that you need to be reminded of what is at stake, and the consequences you will face if you fail. Gaze into their eyes and see their fear. With one bullet, you will kill one and have the chance to spare the other. So you had better choose a target and shoot before I have them both executed.”
Ariel knew there was no escape from this. For once he was truly alone, with no one to come at his aid. For whatever reason, Bex was gone, and Vincent was silent. He braced himself for what he would have to do, but before he could take a breath in to prepare himself he heard the bullet and saw a body slump to the floor. Ariel snapped his head to the right to see whether one of the guards had shot the girl before he had.
“Well, you took your time about that,” the King said.
Ariel’s hand shook when he realised the terrible truth. He had shot Cassidy. Cassidy, who Ariel had shared his last couple of Christmas’ with when Xander had been dispatched for undercover missions. Cassidy, who had been his first kiss.
“I told you that you had a chance of saving them both, but I’m rather unsatisfied with your performance as of late. This will be a demonstration of my absoluteness to you, and to all of you.”
The King withdrew the dagger that he kept close to himself always. Before Ariel could register what was happening, blood was splattered across the floor and another body slumped down, hitting the ground with a thump.
He had killed the other agent with a clean strike at his neck.
“From now on, mercy is a luxury I cannot afford. You will all do well to remember that — especially you, Ariel. I will not have a weakling for a son. Am I understood?”
“Yes father,” Ariel said. But even as he spoke the words, he knew he was not himself at all, and the words he uttered were not his own. At that point he should have been cursing and screaming. Instead, his body stood stiff and erect like a soldier. It only occurred to him then that for some reason, he held the gun with his left hand.
“You are all dismissed,” the King said. Ariel left the room in a haze, a shadow of his former self, as though something had been ripped apart within him.
By the end of the day, Ariel had gleaned a few things from his mobile phone and a gun he barely remembered owning. His mission was to have either one of two outcomes. He was either to neutralise and extract a specific gift within Terri’s possession, or he was to terminate her. King Éamonn would not have a weakling for a son and there would be no compromising with him. Whatever Terri thought Ariel meant to her, she would be sadly mistaken, for Ariel was a Galatea of the Iabal Court and mercy was a luxury he knew he could not afford.