“For the love of a woman who will not return your affection.”
“We do this for our queen, Mir.”
“Oh, that’s rich! I can’t decide which is more ridiculous: for the love of a woman who will not return your affection, or for the love of a queen who is no longer our queen.”
“I did not ask you to join me, brother!”
Quiet returned to the sewage tunnels beneath A-Tsobi’i. Only the soft sounds of gurgling fluids flowing through sluice gates and bedrock to seek out the main river deep below stirred the air through the tunnels. The two men who had been whispering to each other huddled together at the farthest end of the deepest tunnel facing westward. They watched the cold, black water of the river Essai disappear beneath the rock in a swift current.
“I follow my betters,” said the smaller man with his usual flippant tone.
“And what is that supposed to mean?” The larger man shifted his weight from one foot to the other, turning slightly to face his companion.
“You know what I mean, Tekal. We’re shadow dancers, you and I. Our kind are reviled and feared, and for good reason. We aren’t supposed to have consciences, morals, or compassion. We’re not even supposed to have loyalty—to anyone. You alone, of all our brood, held on to what you were before the Tombs of Ysen. I just…managed to stay close enough to you that some of your humanity rubs off on me.”
Silence again. The large man shifted to his original position, thinking to himself while the black water rushed past them. “That’s not true, Mir,” Tekal said in a subdued voice. “You’re a good man, with a beautiful wife who loves you very much.” He paused, and then nodded his head. “You should return to her, Mir. We are friends as well as brothers, and I cannot put your life in danger just when you finally found a woman to love.”
“Ferah loves me for who and what I am, Tek. She knows that without you, without Sol and the Burning Man, I am a monster. She accepts that, without my betters, I would kill for money. I would kill for the asking. Anyone or anything. That is what we were made to do, Tek. And do you know why, even knowing what I am, what I would be driven to do, Ferah still loves me?”
When it became apparent that Mirak was not going to continue until he got a response, Tek shook his head in resignation. “Tell me, brother,” he said quietly.
“She loves me because I know what I am. She loves me because I would rather follow you to the gates of Hell rather than submit to the madness the Red Priests created within me. I cannot cut a righteous path on my own, brother, so instead I must trust you to set the path for me. If I turned back now, I would not be the man my wife loves. Tell me then what my life would be worth, when I had abandoned my brother and forsaken the love of my wife.”
Without turning, Tekal clapped a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. “I am grateful to have you with me, Mir.”
The small man grunted. “Shall we get this over with? I hadn’t planned on drowning in an underground river filled with the refuse of our grand city, but if we must, I’d rather it be sooner than later. The smell is beginning to irritate me, and it’s not something I can cut down. Remind me: why are we doing this, rather than using the Sun Gate?”
“If we were to breach the Sun Gate, we would be forced to fight our way through to A-Kha-Tsobi’i. The boys who guard the gates and the bridge are not our enemies, and they do not deserve to die simply for doing their duty.”
Mir chuckled. “You see why I must follow you, Tek?”
It was Tekal’s turn to grunt.
“Well, shall we?”
“Life is our mother,” Tekal recited.
“Death is our father,” Mirak returned, and with an effortless dive he cut through the icy black water and was swallowed by the earth.
The frigid temperature of the Essai threatened to steal his breath away; in truth, had it not been for the tight one-piece body suit that he was wearing, Mir’s lungs and muscles would have failed him. However, the suit was designed specifically for excursions in cold climes, wet or dry, and it dramatically slowed the decay of Mir’s body warmth. The icy water had uninhibited access to his head and face, though, and the shadow dancer could only imagine that he must feel the way a condemned man feels in his few remaining moments of consciousness after a beheading. Even submerged in total darkness, buffeted by the river’s current and the narrow passages of the underground waterways, Mir had the presence of mind to curse the Red Priests yet again for neglecting to develop a mask made of the same material as the rest of his thermal suit.
Many thoughts crossed the dancer’s mind as he fought river, stone, dark, and cold. In that space that felt like eternity, as he swam ever downward and westward, most of his thoughts were disjointed, his mind wandering from topic to topic, memory to memory. The one theme that united his musings in the darkness was Ferah, his wife.
Mir and Tekal had met the proud slave woman in one of the free markets that often sprang up outside the great city of A-Tsobi’i, on the desert floor along the shores of the Essai. Slave trading had been forbidden in A-Tsobi’i since before the Rending, but slave owning had been permitted and was common amongst the five Commonwealth families. This absurd tradition had necessitated the creation of the “free” markets that had been sprouting and vanishing in the shadows of the great plateaus for untold generations.
Mir and his brother had followed Sol and the Burning Man to the turquoise waters of the Essai, and to the five massive mountain tables that held the seat of Koena. It was in the days before the Battle of Essai that Tekal had saved Ferah from an angry slaver. She had fought alongside Sol and the last standing army of Men against the Drakonni scourge. During the savage months of siege and conflict, Ferah had fallen in love with Tekal. If his brother had not been devoutly loyal and hopelessly in love with Sol, he and Ferah would likely have wed; as it was, Mir’s friendship with Ferah during and after the conflict had slowly blossomed into love, and he had married her a year after the end of the conflict. It had been a glorious wedding, made a part of Sol’s coronation ceremony.
Too glorious, Mir reflected darkly. All of the city’s most influential–and dangerous–citizens had been present, as had been half the populace of A-Tsobi’i. The other half had learned of the wedding before the night had ended. Even then, Mirak had known that his enemies would eventually try to use Ferah against him.
A deep groove in the wall of a particularly narrow passageway brought Mir back to the present. As the rushing water ushered him along, he trailed his hand along the wall to his left, following a series of the unnatural gashes in the stone toward his destination. There were no records left in the Tombs of Ysen that explained who had created the grooves, or how the job was done in such a hostile environment; however, records of their existence and purpose yet remained, and Tek—ever the diligent student—had recalled reading about them so many years ago.
Knowing about the grooves and actually using them to get to A-Kha-Tsobi’i were two entirely different matters, though. Mir’s lungs were on fire, his body numbing from the exertion of swimming in the cold water, and he was finally starting to lose his sense of direction. Up, down, left, right, north, south, west, and east were all slipping from his mental grasp. His only hope was that all of the grooves were still present, and that he could reach the end of the path before his abused body finally quit on him.
Groove after groove passed beneath his fingers, until Mir lost count, and just when he thought he could go no further a wicked current slammed his body against the wall of the stone tube. Mirak was so stunned that he almost gasped, before he remembered that he was still under water. Tek’s source had written about this part of the journey, and Mir relaxed his body, allowing the current to do with him as it pleased. A few more painful body slams, and then the shadow dancer shot through a very narrow passage that suddenly angled upwards at an almost ninety degree angle. His feet actually broke the surface of the water first, and Mir had to twist and turn to bring his head into the cool air of a pitch dark cavern.
Mir fumbled at a secure pocket on the inside of his thigh, and produced a small flexible tube about four inches long. He held the tube outside of the water, shook it vigorously, and then bent the object using both hands as he treaded water. A faint blue glow erupted from the tube, and with a few more shakes Mir had enough light to make out three walls of what appeared to be a small cavern. Where the fourth wall would have been, there was instead a dark passageway that started in the water and gently sloped upward. The tunnel was small enough that a man would have to crawl on hands and knees to travel its length.
“Fantastic,” Mir grumbled to himself, silently swimming over to the tunnel’s entrance. He had just finished pulling himself entirely out of the water when Tek’s feet broke the surface of the still, dark pool. Not a moment later, his brother’s head surfaced, and Tekal took a deep, relieved breath.
“I see that you’re still only as graceful as a drakon during mating season, brother,” Mir called out. In the secluded cavern, his soft jab seemed to boom in his ears.
“And you mean to tell me that those angry marks on your face are simply an effect of the lighting?”
Surprised, Mir reached up and tentatively touched his right cheek, below his eye. Tekal laughed when Mirak hissed and pulled his hand away in pain. That part of his face was certainly going to be swollen and dark in a few hours.
“Fuck, Tek, I don’t even recall hitting my head. You always pick the shittiest infiltration routes, I swear.”
Tek grunted as he pulled himself onto the dry ledge with Mir. “What about that bullshit speech you just gave me about ‘following your betters’?”
“I know,” Mir said, shaking his head woefully, “but I need to learn that following my betters doesn’t necessarily mean that I literally have to follow your crazy ass. Next time we need to break into the Judicial Palace, I’ll let you take your freezing sewage ride and I’ll just meet you there.”
“Oh-ho,” Tekal chortled, “so now you’ve developed some mystical power to just will yourself to any destination you want, have you? Come now, brother, you could have shared that information with me before you so valiantly jumped into the Essai before me.”
Mir shook his head in dismay and turned to start the long crawl up the tunnel. “Fuck you, Tekal. Keep mocking my power and I’ll use it to pop into your privy when you’re taking a shit. See how well you can fight me with your trousers around your ankles.”
Tekal guffawed behind Mirak, and the sound echoed up the dark passageway. “That’s why I shit in the nude, brother.”
Without warning, Mir kicked out a leg, lightly striking his older brother’s head.
“Ow! What the—”
“Tell me more about your shitting habits, brother,” Mir warned, “and I promise that you and I are going to have an issue.” Mirak scuttled ahead without waiting for a response, but he could hear his brother grumbling behind him. Even as he smiled to himself, Mir knew that he was going to suffer some form of vengeance at Tekal’s hands. Some fraternal qualities, he reflected, could not be changed by time or circumstance.
The two men shuffled along in silence for the rest of the long journey upward. Mir’s artificial torch cast eerie, restless shadows along the hewn stone walls of the tunnel. Its unnatural blue light lent a somber tone to their progress, and the shadow dancer couldn’t help but wish that the color was a bit more festive, like red, or orange, or even the same magenta worn by the city’s Spirit Monks. Of course, had the torch been any of those colors, Mir realized that he would have found some other reason to be unhappy with the light. It was too easy to see the negative in everything when his life was falling apart.
They reached an intersection in the narrow passageway, and Mir turned right and up. The left part of the tunnel eventually led up as well, but not before barreling through the length of A-Kha-Tsobi’i, toward the Crown Palace and a garrison of self-righteous guards known more for their brutality than their ability to guard. The right side marked the beginning of a much steeper grade; so steep, in fact, that the architects of the tunnel had cut toeholds into the rock to aid movement up and down its length. Mir welcomed the extra strain on his body as he climbed, because he knew that it meant they were approaching the end of the trek.
“Your light, Mir,” Tekal called out in a loud whisper. Mirak paused briefly and sheathed the torch in a material designed to remain completely opaque even with the light pressing against it. Total darkness enveloped the two shadow dancers. Another deft movement and the muted rod of light once again rested securely in the pocket against Mir’s leg. The shadow dancer took a moment to find his finger and toeholds once again, and then he carried on.
It took another half hour or so of relentless climbing, but Mir eventually bumped the top of his head against an iron plate that marked the opening into A-Kha-Tsobi’i. He had hoped that Tekal had not heard the collision, but a derisive snort from below dashed that hope.
“As graceful as a drakon during mating season, was it?” His brother’s mocking whisper was quiet enough that Mir assumed the words had not been meant for his ears; still, they brought heat to his ears and a flush of blood to his cheeks.
Ignoring Tek’s comment, Mir spread his legs as far as the narrow tunnel would allow, raised his arms over his head, and pushed up on the metal disc. It didn’t budge. Mir swallowed his frustration, climbed another two rungs, and put his back into the lift. Still, the disc would not budge, but the shadow dancer did not relent. His jaw clenched and his neck stiffened with exertion, a thin sheen of sweat building on his brow. With the terrible grating sound of rusted iron on iron, the cover finally came free from its frame, and Mir slid it aside to reveal a dimly-lit cellar.
The two assassins wasted no time pulling themselves out of their dark hole, and Tekal effortlessly lifted the iron plate and put it back over the entrance to the tunnel. The disc made only the quietest of sounds when Tek was forced to drop it into place rather than crush his fingers. As soon as the hole was covered, the brothers ducked behind a large stack of wooden crates and barrels. They waited in silence for someone to investigate the commotion in the otherwise empty cellar, but after a solid ten minutes it became clear that their unauthorized access to A-Kha-Tsobi’i had gone unnoticed.
“Perhaps next time you should just find the nearest Steel Monk and announce our illicit visit to the City of the Sun,” Tek joked with Mirak.
“Or maybe next time you should lift the damned plate, you huge piece of shit,” Mir snapped. The smaller shadow dancer was feeling particularly self-conscious, and he was uncharacteristically embarrassed by his performance with the plate. He clenched his jaw and closed his eyes, leaning his back against a large crate while he composed himself.
“Are you okay, Mir?” Tekal asked in a somber whisper.
Mir only nodded, his eyes still closed. He should apologize to his brother for his sharp-tongued outburst, he knew, but he wasn’t feeling up to playing nicely quite yet. Instead, he opened his eyes and stepped out from around the crate, fully exposing himself in the low light of the cellar. He heard Tekal step out behind him, and he paused.
“Point me at the dead, brother,” Mir said over his shoulder.
There was a moment of silence as, presumably, Tekal wondered at the emotional stability of his younger brother, and then: “We make for the Palace of Justice. There we will find several prominent Scale Monks who do not yet know that they are already dead. The high court has seen the last of its judges.”
That forced Mirak to turn and confront his brother. “If all five judges of the high court are dead…you mean to overthrow this government, don’t you Tekal?” Tek did not avoid Mirak’s hard stare, but he said nothing. “Sol specifically ordered you not to cause civil unrest. What you aim to do, brother, is treason in the eyes of our queen.”
Tekal’s jawline grew taught, a sign of stubborn determination that he had displayed since they were young boys. “She cannot have known what atrocities would be perpetrated by Garth Denzi’s government. He has killed or imprisoned every member of the government who has ever opposed any of his ideas, and then he sends Steel Monks to slaughter peaceful citizens when they protest his methods. He has repealed Sol’s ban on the slave trade, and he has brought the old free markets to the very streets of A-Tsobi’i!”
Mir raised an opened hand to remind his brother where they were. “Be calm, Tekal, I was not chastising you. I only meant to be sure of your intentions here.”
Tek swallowed and lowered his voice, saying, “I have even seen slavers attempting to kidnap entire families from the shanty towns on A-Dural, Mir.”
Attempting. Mirak knew what that meant. The unfortunate slavers in question would never have even known what had killed them. A shadow dancer’s fury was only a sight to behold by those who would arrive at the scene after the bloodshed—the victims were always dead before they knew what was happening. In this case, though, innocent families were likely forever scarred by the sight of men exploding in massive sprays of blood and bone, cut down by an unseen wind of violence and death.
Mir shook his head in wonder. “The things a married man misses,” he muttered more to himself than to his brother. “Alright, then,” he said in a louder voice, “so we do what we must to finally uproot the usurper who stole Sol’s crown. But what comes next, brother? Have you given that any consideration? The high court is dead, and Denzi knows that the rest of his puppets will follow suit. He assumes, and rightly so I would imagine, that he is on the list of the dead. What do you imagine his next move will be?”
“He will declare martial law and set the iron hand of the Steel Monks around the throat of A-Tsobi’i,” Tek responded without hesitation. That was good, at least, because it indicated that he had indeed thought through the consequences of their planned actions.
“That will do one of two things, Tekal: it will break our home, or it will finally give A-Tsobi’i enough cause to rise and take back the liberty it lost when this slippery fiend sat his greedy ass on Sol’s throne. Neither result will be pretty. We’re talking about civil war in the confines of a city, brother.”
“I know this,” Tekal responded, “but I see no alternative. We would be forsaking our vows to Sol and the people of A-Tsobi’i if we continued to allow Denzi to return our city to the den of evil it was after the Rending and before the formation of our great republic.”
“Then I ask you,” Mir said, stepping toward his brother, “why not just kill the worm himself?”
“You know the answer to that as well as I do, Mirak,” Tekal admonished. “He has surrounded himself with the unholy Red Priests of Ysen. None of our sources has yet to discover how he won the loyalty of those foul creatures, nor have we any information on how he got them to leave their pit, but they are here. There are only two people in this world who could storm the Crown Palace and successfully put an end to the snakes that now reside within, Mir. Without Sol and the Burning Man, we must make do as best we can.”
Mir sighed. “Then it’s war. Again.”
“We are weapons, Mir. I was raised to be a sword, and my conscience forces me to put myself in the hands of those otherwise too weak to defend themselves.”
“And since you’re my conscience as well…” Mir trailed off. “War it is. But if we are truly to do this for our queen and our people, brother, we must be ruthless and unforgiving of our enemies. Fewer lives will be lost the sooner our dead are collected.”
Tekal cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. “What are you suggesting, Mir?”
“We do not rest until Denzi has been introduced to his death,” Mir said, raising his right hand in front of him. Tek looked at the offered hand for a moment, then clasped it with his own right.
“Agreed,” he said. “We do not lie low, we do not relent. A-Kha-Tsobi’i will know death as it never has before.” Tekal put his other hand on Mir’s shoulder. “Now, little brother, shall we proceed?”
Mir grinned in response. “By all means, big brother. It’s been too long since I’ve danced.”
Tekal squeezed Mir’s shoulder, and then brushed past his younger brother, heading toward the flight of stairs on the far side of the cellar. Mir turned and followed, the smile instantly gone from his face. He promised himself that he would not smile again until his blade severed Denzi’s spine.
The two brothers quickly climbed the stairs and reached a solid oak door, the likes of which were quite rare in the Obsidian City. There were no oak trees within a thousand miles of A-Tsobi’i. The secret passageway they had found had led them to a rather high-end establishment, probably an inn for visiting dignitaries. Mir frowned at the opulence.
Tekal opened the door, revealing a large, well-furnished bar and lounge room. They were standing on the service side of a beautiful, dark granite bar that ran almost the entire length of the room. A huge fireplace with an intricately carved mantel lay directly ahead of them, a flight of stairs leading upward and an elevator were visible to their left, and to their right, almost twenty yards away, Mir could see the door that most likely led to the streets outside. Half a dozen couches with plump red cushions were strategically placed around the room, and more than twice as many cushioned lounge chairs filled the rest of the space. Most importantly, though, the room was filled with armed and armored Steel Monks with the flaming morning star insignias of Garth Denzi’s personal guard emblazoned on their chests and shoulders.
Most of the Monks had drinks in hand, and some were still carrying on quiet conversations amongst themselves, having not noticed the newcomers. Those sitting at the bar, however, had put their drinks down and dropped their hands to their waists, prepared to draw their weapons but apparently unsure of who the brothers were or why they had just come from the cellar.
Mir’s instincts and training took hold, and he reached out with his mind, bending the perceptions of every Monk in the room. He felt Tek do the same beside him, and the Monks at the bar cried out in alarm as the two strange men from the cellar disappeared before their eyes. A few of the more seasoned warriors even managed to get weapons in hand before the slaughter commenced.
Using this to their advantage, the two brothers engaged their plasma cutters and launched themselves over the bar, tearing into the nearest Steel Monks. Screams were cut short as the shadow dancers dismembered seasoned warriors with the practiced efficiency of killing machines.
Mir worked with the same fervor that had earned him the fear and respect of the Drakonni during the war. Heads, hands, arms, feet, and legs fell to the floor in rapid succession. He moved with rhythm and purpose, every flick of his wrist resulting in another dismembered appendage. Mir moved through the room, felling his enemies with merciless speed and precision. Not a single body thrown before him fell to the floor without first having its head removed from its shoulders, even if feet were removed first.
Tek, on the other hand, was not quite as skilled as his younger brother. Though he also ravaged the unfortunate Monks in his path, his slower dance and less precise attacks meant that he couldn’t always be as humane with his killing as Mir was. Several Monks were parceled into halves, cut straight through their torsos to collapse into large, messy parts on the ground. The super-heated plasma was able to cauterize smaller parts, so that removing limbs generally resulted in minimum blood loss; however, with Tekal’s larger cuts, the weight of internal organs generally broke through newly cauterized flesh, resulting in tangles of intestines and blood on the floor.
The slaughter only lasted a minute or so, and then the lounge room fell silent. Mir deactivated his weapon and returned the inert rod to the holster at his hip. Tek was on the other side of the room, also holstering his weapon. The brothers’ eyes met, and Tekal shook his head.
“It had to be done, Tek,” Mirak assured his brother. “Any one of them would have raised the alarm.”
“That does not mean that we can’t feel remorse for our actions, little brother.”
“These were wicked men, Tek. They were drinking and smoking as normal soldiers do. They bore Denzi’s insignia. These men abandoned their sacred duty to the people of A-Tsobi’i when they entered the employ of that man, and their regiment has been terrorizing innocent people since Sol’s throne was stolen from her.”
Tekal only shook his head again, so Mir bent to the task of performing a quick sweep of the now foul-smelling room, searching for survivors. Tekal sighed, but lent his hand to the task. When they were sure that no one was left to suffer or to wake the fury of the Temple of Might, Mirak sabotaged the elevator and Tek started dragging the heaviest couch he could find toward the flight of stairs. When Mir was finished with his work, the two brothers carried the heavy wooden furniture up the flight of stairs and used it to block the door that led up to the guest halls. Satisfied that guests of the inn, if there were any, would not stumble into the nightmarish lounge, the shadow dancers left the building through the far door that Mir had spotted during his brief initial examination of the room.
Once outside in the cool desert night, Mir and Tek found themselves on the quiet intersection of roads that led straight to the principle palaces of Koena’s governing body, suggesting once again that they had just left an inn usually reserved for visiting dignitaries. To the west, Mir could see the massive Crown Palace, it’s many towers and ramparts towering above all other structures in the small city that was A-Kha-Tsobi’i. To the north, Mir could make out the smaller, yet no less impressive People’s Palace, where most of Koena’s affairs of state were actually managed; to the south, he could make out the low-lying campus that was their goal, the Judicial Palace; and to the east, the Sun Gate was just visible in the starry night.
Beyond the gate, and on the other side of a chasm that spanned more than two hundred meters, the city of A-Tsobi’i sprawled across the largest of the seven plateaus. In stark contrast to the brilliant white composite material that had been used to construct the buildings on A-Kha-Tsobi’i, the spires and skyscrapers of A-Tsobi’i had been built with a composite material as black and glossy as polished obsidian. No one had been able to replicate the original building materials of the ancient structures on A-Tsobi’i since the Rending, and so the spaces in between the ancient buildings were now crowded with much smaller structures built out of brick and concrete. At night, the peaks of the immense black buildings were illuminated by the bright white light of the moon, and their feet were illuminated by the duller, hazy red glow of lanterns and oil lamps in the new sections of the city.
Inside the obsidian structures, Mir knew, the city never really slept. Bright artificial lights inside the massive buildings allowed trading and entertainment to be had at all hours of the night on the commercial tiers. On the residential tiers, the same mysterious energy that powered the lights in the commercial district gave the majority of the city’s population the luxury of sleek household machines that would keep food cold and fresh, clean clothes, and heat water. Only the city’s most impoverished, those that lived outside the original buildings, lived as did most of the world: with stone, steel, and fire. Not many of the ancient cities still stood, and of those that did, fewer still were hospitable to human life. Mir was reminded of his visit to the dead city of Catulan, and a chill ran down his spine.
“Come, Mirak,” Tekal called softly over his shoulder as he turned toward the Judicial Palace. “Our dance must be over before someone stumbles into this establishment and runs screaming to the Temple of Might.”
Mirak extended his mind’s field of vision as far as he could, prepared to bend the perception of anyone who might otherwise see him. Tekal set off down the broad roadway at a determined but unhurried pace, and Mir followed a few paces behind his older brother.
I hope that you and Ferah can forgive me for this betrayal, brother, Mirak thought to himself with his eyes on Tekal’s back. I am weaker than you know. But Denzi will pay with his life for what he has done. And, if he has harmed Ferah in any way, his payment shall last for days.