PHOENIX RISING - Book 1: Orphans and Oracles
There are few people in the world who can claim to have been orphaned twice.
For Karlos Seghers, the news that he had been orphaned once came on the same afternoon that he was made parentless for the second time. He was still trying to process the original bombshell when he heard the screams downstairs.
As something of a completionist Karlos would never normally have been home at two o’clock on a school day. But after seeing the contents of the neatly labelled manilla envelope that he’d found in his locker at lunchtime, there was no way he could have made it through a brutal double Geography session with the aptly named Mr Savage. Not with his mind racing the way it was.
He had to be there when his parents got home. He had to show them the documents, to ask them the meaning of this birth certificate belonging to a Karlos Hayes, the adoption certificate putting this boy into the custody of Gerolt and Katja Seghers, and the death certificates of Lydia and Oliver Hayes, whose causes of death were both listed as ‘stab wound to the heart’.
Well. Perhaps he didn’t need to ask the meaning, as such. That much was clear. His parents weren’t his parents. What he really wanted to know was why they hadn’t told him this. Why they hadn’t told him anything about his real parents. He was thirteen now. Did they think he was still too immature to handle it?
Or perhaps it was all just an elaborate hoax— But no. It would be such a completely non-sensical thing to do. Besides, he doubted if any of his classmates would be capable of such a convincing-looking forgery, let alone want to do it.
Still, upon arriving home, he nevertheless checked online to see what these documents were supposed to look like in the UK, where all these events had apparently taken place. Not that he really knew what they looked like on Laurus Island, either. No wonder his parents — not his parents — had never agreed to take him to the UK on holiday, no matter how many times he had asked them.
He stared blankly at the matching images on the screen, the last traces of doubt slipping away.
Should he have known? He didn’t look all that much like his parents, it was true, but then again not all of his friends did. Well, maybe they’d found presents in their lockers, too. It wasn’t like he’d stuck around to see if he was the only one.
Then he heard the front door open and close. The sound of voices. His parents… not his parents… were home.
He stood, certificates in hand, ready to go downstairs and confront them. To ask for an explanation.
Only he didn’t. He just stood there.
What would he say? Everything that came to mind sounded so ridiculously theatrical, so like one of those soap operas he hated.
He almost took a step, then hesitated.
Coward, he thought. You just don’t want to talk about it, do you?
If his self-reproof had been intended to spur him into action, it certainly failed in this respect. After all, it was true: he didn’t.
The minutes ticked by. More doors opening and closing, more distant talking.
And then the first scream rent the air.
The certificates dropped from his fingers to flutter insignificantly to the floor.
That was his parents. Not his— No, his parents.
He swallowed, listening to the shrieks and shouts and something else, too: snarls that sounded more animal than human. He knew he should have rushed downstairs, tried to find out what was happening, to help them if he could.
But he didn’t.
He didn’t leave his room. He didn’t even make it as far as the door. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help them. He was simply petrified, rooted to the spot.
Eventually, he didn’t know how much later, his legs functioned enough to take him to the top of the stairs. There hadn’t been any sounds for some time, although whether this time could be counted in minutes or dozens of minutes he couldn’t honestly say. He didn’t even try to pretend to himself that this silence might be a positive sign.
He peered downstairs towards the hallway. The front door was open, as was the sitting room door. From his current position, though, nothing else looked out of place.
His legs were trembling so hard that he had to grip tightly onto the bannister just to get down the stairs. Finally, he stumbled into the sitting room. The sight of the bloodied, unmoving pair was a confirmation, rather than a shock.
Just over the threshold he stopped. He didn’t go any closer. There was no point. He simply stood there, like he’d stood upstairs, his body doing nothing, his mouth remaining firmly closed, but his mind unable to stop its endless monologue.
Don’t lie to yourself! You knew they were being attacked. All those sounds didn’t leave much to the imagination, did they? And what did you do? Nothing. You didn’t even try.
Numbly, he forced himself to focus on what was in front of him. His dad was nearer to the door, fallen next to the coffee table. There was blood on his front, but also on his head, his hair horribly and untidily matted. Part of Karlos instinctively itched to smooth it out, but a bigger part of him had no desire to go so much as a step closer. His eyes alone moved to the coffee table and the matching bloodstain it sported. That explained one of his dad’s injuries, at least. He took in the two cups of coffee on the table, barely touched, still lightly steaming. The image seemed so unreal somehow. Abnormal and normal. Disquieting and comforting.
Reluctantly, his eyes continued to move onwards towards where his mum was lying. Only her head was visible. Her body was covered with one of the blankets that they always kept on the back of the sofa, now wet with blood. For an instant he felt relieved but a second later he realised how odd it was. Why would—
It was then that the scruffy-looking man appeared in the doorway between the kitchen and sitting room.
For a moment they just stared at each other, the scruffy man’s eyes first widening then narrowing to slits. “You—” he growled.
Then, finally, Karlos found his legs and speed. He turned and raced out of the front door, out into the little suburban street, screaming for help. When it came to saving himself, he had no hesitation.
He had barely gone more than a dozen yards, however, when another man appeared, running down the street towards him. The panic threatened to overwhelm him. What was he supposed to do? His original pursuer was nearly upon him. He was trapped. He tried to veer away from them both, across the street, but he wasn’t exactly the most athletic student in his class. Even if he had been, the newcomer was moving at a speed so fast it hardly seemed—
And then the man was gone, a pale blur flying past him without even the briefest of pauses.
What? He wasn’t—
The boy twisted round just in time to see the powerful kick that sent his would-be attacker sprawling onto the road. This new man was rescuing him? He felt a spark of relief, then remembered what he’d left behind him in the house. How could he possibly feel relieved after that? Did he even deserve to be rescued? But however much guilt he felt, he knew without a shred of doubt that he wanted to live.
“Don’t you dare come any closer,” his rescuer spat. For someone Karlos had never met before, he sounded incredibly angry on his behalf.
The scruffy-looking man got warily to his feet, his eyes flicking from man to teenager. His fury was even more palpable than the pale man’s, although Karlos didn’t know what right he had to be angry when it was his parents he’d murdered.
“Do you have any idea what he—” the scruffy man began, then stopped, looking beyond Karlos, towards the end of the road. Karlos glanced behind him but he couldn’t see whatever it was the man was looking at. Could he be crazy? Was that it? The man took a step towards Karlos but his advance was immediately checked by the newcomer. For a moment he looked torn, then snarling an obscenity, he turned and ran. Karlos sagged with relief.
The pale man started to follow but at that moment there came the unmistakable protests of tyres and brakes that were being put through more extreme manoeuvres than their manufacturers had ever intended, and a series of cars squealed their way onto the street.
What should we do now? Karlos thought, looking helplessly at the pale man for direction.
The man hesitated, then smiled at him. It was only when he smiled that Karlos realised quite how sad he looked. The anger had hidden it before but the smile was no mask at all. “It’s okay,” the man said. “You’re okay. My name’s Michael. You’re safe now.”
You singular, that was. Karlos tried to repress his shudder, to push aside his guilt, to prioritise. “But—” He gestured to the people now pouring out of the cars.
“It’s okay, Karlos,” Michael said again. Compared to everything else that had happened, his knowing Karlos’s name didn’t come as much of a shock. “They’re on our side.”
Side? “They’re the police?”
“No. They’re…” He paused. “We’re Daedalus.”
Daedalus. Karlos had, naturally, heard the name before. As one of the largest organisations headquartered on Laurus Island, it would have been strange if he hadn’t. It wasn’t like his home country was terribly big, after all, not even half the size of Luxembourg, at a mere 1132km². Karlos had, however, assumed that the organisation was just another big business concern, something like Lampman Enterprises.
As he sat to one side in the main office of the headquarters in question, dazedly watching the employees running back and forth like bees in a hive, he reflected on how wrong he’d been. Half these people he had already seen around on a daily basis. People from the train, one of his school’s cleaners, even the man who ran the local newsagent.
“Recognise anyone?” asked a cheerful voice.
Karlos jumped. He’d been so preoccupied with his own thoughts that he hadn’t noticed the blonde man standing next to him, despite his considerable height. It was only when he thought how at odds with the general atmosphere the man’s voice was that he realised how down everyone else seemed. Karlos frowned, resenting his good humour.
“We’ve been keeping an eagle eye on you for a long time,” the man said, grinning.
“Apart from when it mattered.”
“Ouch. Guess that’s fair, though. The name’s Butler, by the way. Nice to meet you properly at last, after just being your stalker for the past few years.”
“For God’s sake, Butler, read the bloody room,” said an irritable looking older man, glaring daggers at him as he hurried past.
Butler pulled a face. “That’s Allen. Bundle of fun.”
The man, still in earshot, turned to glower at him, nearly colliding with a middle-aged woman coming from the other direction as he did so.
“Can’t you look where you’re going?” she said. Her face was blotchy with smudged makeup.
“Gwynn,” Butler informed him. “Almost as much fun as Allen.” Did he actually expect Karlos to care who these strangers were? Because he really, really didn’t. “Anyway, I’ve been asked to take you to see Silas.”
“Silas?” Yet another new name.
“What, nobody told you? He’s the boss. So, how are you bearing up? Ah, sorry, silly question. Pretty shocked and upset, I’d imagine. Have a sweet.” Karlos took it automatically. The man winked at him. “I always have a stash on hand for Silas.” For his boss? Wasn’t that a little weird? “Anyway, on the bright side I guess you’re not physically hurt, or Michael would have sorted you out.” Seeing Karlos’s confused expression, he added, “He’s a nurse.”
Really? Karlos wasn’t entirely sure what his image of a nurse was, but he was pretty sure it didn’t involve street fighting. As he followed the tall man out of the main room, he started to focus more on the faces of the people they were passing. Like Gwynn and Allen, a lot of them looked upset or bad-tempered. “Were you guys watching my parents, too?” he asked Butler. It was strange to think that all these people he didn’t know might be grieving for them as well.
“Huh? Oh, nah. They were the ones doing the watching.”
“Eh, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say or not, but your parents were part of Daedalus, too.”
“They’re researchers and lecturers. At Laurus Uni.” Were, not are. Idiot. Even as he said it, though, it sounded stupid. After all, Butler was hardly likely to be mistaken about who his colleagues were.
“Well, fifty-fifty I guess. Half their job was working at the uni, the other half was looking after you.”
Karlos’s insides clenched up. Looking after him wasn’t a job. He was their son, not work.
“Okay, so just down here. Man, I wish he hadn’t switched offices. I mean, I get why, but— Oh, hey Astra. You okay?”
A dark-haired young woman wearing a check cap had rounded the corner, almost walking into them. Her whole face looked red and puffy: she’d clearly been crying. Was she upset about Karlos’s parents, too? “I’m fine,” she muttered, scowling. She opened her mouth again, then her eyes fell on Karlos and she merely shrugged and hastened away, pulling the cap even further down over her eyes as she did so.
“Ah well,” said Butler. “Guess she’s taking it pretty hard, being in charge of Intelligence and all. I promise you we’re all a lot more light hearted when people haven’t died. Talking of.”
He stopped outside a nondescript door. This must be Silas’s office, although the man wasn’t alone, it seemed, going by the raised voices coming from within. Karlos frowned. That was Michael, wasn’t it?
“I made a promise!” his rescuer was saying. “It was her dying wi—” At the tall man’s loud knock, however, he broke off at once.
Butler, not waiting for an invitation, pushed open the door and entered. “Brought him,” he said unceremoniously, gesturing towards Karlos.
Michael smiled in Karlos’s direction.
“Thank you.” The other man, presumably Silas, nodded at him. “Hello, Karlos. Please take a seat.”
Karlos did so, looking at him curiously. For the boss of such a big organisation he seemed awfully young. He was dressed smartly enough, in a light grey waistcoat and matching trousers, but he appeared to be about the same age as Michael: mid-twenties at most.
“Rain said he has the details about the mug, by the way,” said Butler. “Do you want them now or after?”
“After,” said Silas.
Karlos felt a growing sense of irritation. Here was the man who had ordered surveillance on him, who had employed yet failed to look after his parents, who had summoned him to his office, and was now ignoring him while he chatted to his subordinate about a mug. “Are you actually planning on telling me what’s going on?” he demanded, glowering at Silas.
The man turned back to him and for a moment Karlos was startled by the cold intensity of his blue-grey eyes. “My apologies,” he said in a smooth, business-like fashion. “My name is Silas and this is Daedalus HQ.”
“And Daedalus is your organisation?”
“Not exactly. I’m the current leader, it’s true, but Daedalus itself has been around for centuries.” Centuries?
“What’s it for? It’s obviously not just a normal business if you make it your job to follow me around and spy on me.”
Silas’s eyes flicked towards Butler, who mouthed the word ‘sorry’ while looking anything but. Silas sighed. “I suppose, in a way, that’s our primary job: protecting the descendants of the group’s founders, which includes you.”
“Why would they — we — need protection?”
Silas didn’t reply immediately, instead glancing down at his phone. As Karlos was to learn later, the device was all but glued to the man’s hand.
“Sorry, am I keeping you?” he snapped.
Silas’s calm expression didn’t change, but an iciness started to radiate out from him. “I’m afraid I have a lot of demands on my attention today. To answer your question, your ancestors had certain privileges and responsibilities that led to feelings of resentment and fear in those less upstanding members of society. For this reason they created Daedalus as a kind of support system.”
“Okay, but why is Daedalus around now? Why didn’t it disband ages ago, after my ancestors died?”
“Well, after what just happened, I think you’d agree that you still need protecting, wouldn’t you?” said Silas.
Karlos flared up. “I wasn’t the only person in need of protection, was I? How about my parents? You were their boss!” Another mouthed ‘sorry’ from Butler. “You should have taken better care of them!” Deep inside, Karlos might have admitted that he was attempting to shift part of the guilt he felt onto Silas, but he told himself that his frustration was justified. The man’s detached efficiency irritated him. Did he even care about their deaths?
Silas’s expression didn’t so much as flicker. “I should probably tell you that Gerolt and Katja weren’t actually your real parents—”
“I know! Or rather I know that they weren’t my birth parents. I think after thirteen years it’s okay to call them my real parents, don’t you?”
For the first time a cloud seemed to pass over those blue-grey eyes. “You know? How?”
“The same way that I know that my birth parents were murdered too. Someone who doesn’t think I should be kept in the dark sent me the documents.” The three adults exchanged glances. They were keeping something from him, weren’t they? He gave full vent to his pent-up anger and guilt. “For a group with such a basic primary function, you’ve hardly been very successful, have you? There’s just me left, and that’s only thanks to him.” He gestured at Michael.
There was a short silence. Michael and Butler both looked uneasy, while their boss remained expressionless.
“That’s a bit—” Butler began, but Silas cut across him.
“I’m afraid you’re right,” he said, with a small, professional smile. “I’m sorry. We took our eyes off the ball.”
Karlos clenched his fists. How could the man be so cold in a situation like this? “Maybe you should consider stepping down and letting someone more competent take over. Someone who actually knows what they’re doing and doesn’t get their employees killed.”
“Hey now, that’s not fair,” said Butler.
Michael added, “He did his best.” Karlos didn’t get the impression that he really meant that, though. What had they been arguing about before he and Butler had arrived?
Silas let them answer for him but he returned Karlos’s gaze unflinchingly, fixing him with his grey-blue eyes before finally glancing down once more to read something on his phone’s screen.
“I mean, it’s not like anyone could have seen it coming,” Butler said. “Apart from the Oracle, of course.”
“The Oracle?” Karlos asked, noting the resigned look Silas was giving his thoroughly unrepentant subordinate. As a Latin student Karlos was aware of historical and literary oracles, figures that people would turn to for predictions about the future, but on modern day Laurus… It must be some kind of weird acronym or pseudonym, surely?
“He sent us a message telling us that you were in danger,” Silas said. Ah, so that was why they’d all turned up when they had. Karlos felt rather stupid for not wondering about it before. “As his name implies, he can — allegedly — tell the future.” Was that true? Karlos couldn’t help but be sceptical. “As soon as we got his message we sent as many people as we could to the house.”
“Why not warn you earlier?” Karlos asked. “If he’d done that—”
“Who knows? I have no idea why he decided to get involved in the first place. He’s not the most forthcoming of people.” The man looked back down at his phone, then got to his feet. “Unfortunately, I’ve got to go back to the police station,” he said. “Apparently they won’t do anything without me there in person.”
Karlos bristled. “I’m sorry my parents’ deaths have caused you such a headache.”
For a moment the man said nothing, just looking at him with that icy calm expression. Karlos wondered if he was finally about to snap. He almost wished that he would. Part of him wanted the argument. In the end, though, Silas merely said, “You have my sincerest apologies. I can only promise that we’ll take much closer care of you in the future.” A short pause. “Michael will be looking after you.” He nodded his head in the pale man’s direction.
Michael looked surprised then, Karlos was relieved to see, pleased. “Thank you,” he said. Was that what they had been arguing about, then? What was going to happen to him?
“It’s fine,” said Silas. “He needs someone who can keep him safe, after all.” His blue-grey eyes flicked back to Karlos. “I presume you won’t want to stay in the same house?”
Karlos swallowed. “No.”
“That’s probably for the best. We have much more secure places. You’ll have to sleep in a hotel for tonight but I’ll get Helen to make a shortlist of possible locations. You can choose which one you prefer.” Karlos was hesitating, loathe to thank him, when the man added, “Somewhere within easy commuting distance of the school would be best.”
Had they influenced his education, too? Karlos wondered darkly. “Right,” he said, his gratitude dying away unspoken.
A year later, the second manilla envelope arrived.
If you want to know what happens next, you can read the full novel!