He sat himself up in the darkness, surrounded by rock and debris. Fragments of clay and stones crumbled off his figure and he ran his hands through his short hair. A fine cloud of dust sprayed into the hazy still air. Besides a steady stream of water which dripped down somewhere in the room, there was no sound from inside or outside. The captain was most likely somewhere under the rubble. His purported overweight guard, Belavi, was nowhere to be seen, either.
Kal picked himself up, pieces of the ceiling and wooden slabs falling off of him as he got to his feet. Dust swirled around him as the pieces fell to the muddled floor. Now he could see thin streams of light filtering in through the barred windows where the door was, still open but half covered with rock and broken walls. Then muffled shouts came in through the bars, the cool night air settling the dust to the far end of the room.
His mind still in a daze, Kal scrambled to the passageway behind the desk, now just another flattened vestige that left its broken and scattered remains atop the shattered room. The light didn’t reach this far back, but his hands found the cold doorknob and he twisted it. It opened easily.
All the lights had gone out and he looked into complete darkness. There had to be a lamp somewhere.
“Jyxxie! Lyxxie!” He turned around desperately for something to illuminate the way.
Something broke and crumbled in the far depths of the building, but it was nowhere near where he imagined the twins to be. He ran back to the entry room. Perhaps there would be something of use in the rubble of the desk. He tossed cracked wood aside, papers flew away from his hands and all he could find was a small lighting tool, a rather old-fashioned piece of technology used to light a pipe. It would do, for now. There was no sign of the captain or Belavi. Kal cautiously stepped across the thick piles of the collapsed ceiling and random furniture that had crashed down from above and made his way back to the end of the hallway, pressing on the small flame that appeared from the oblong glass object in his hand. It illumined a narrow passageway – some walls were cracked and split, a collapse further down in the shadows. He started down the hall.
“Jyxxie?” He called out again, repeating the other sister’s name further down the way. A few closed doors he passed, but they were locked and he hadn’t heard a reply yet.
The ground rumbled nearby. Sand and pebbles crumbled down beside him. Having traveled through the crypts and underground tunnels of Mono Luthor in the past, the enclosed darkness all around did not bother him as much as the fleeting fright told him he should have.
An open door down at the end of the hall. He jogged to it and shone the light through the doorway. It led into another long hallway with more nondescript doors. There were fewer heaps of rubble in this passage. Perhaps the foundation or building material was stronger here.
He called out their names again.
There was no reply. He tried every door he passed. They were all locked for the night.
This doorknob turned. His heart jumped and he opened the door wide, thrusting the small flame into the room. It was a small room, a plain desk placed in the middle of the room with a few chairs lined at the sides of the room. Windowless and dismal. A door to the left, and another door to the right. He tread lightly into the room, avoiding the large fallen slabs of ceiling that had shattered into multiple pieces upon the floor. Another distant rumble. He opened the door on the right.
Two chairs, a plain desk, and behind it, Jyxxie sat on the chair facing him. Her head had fallen back, and most of the ceiling had fallen out, exposing dark and shadowy beams across the upper expanse of the low ceiling.
“Jyxxie!” Or it could have been Lyxxie. He didn’t care. Kal dashed around the table, picking her head up. Her hands were tied behind the chair, and it looked as if her last moment had been spent in an interrogation of sorts. Her eyes fluttered, then opened wide to stare at him.
“Kal? What –” She sat up, looking around as Kal took a step back. “We were hit?”
He nodded. “I haven’t found your sister yet.” He noticed that her hands were shackled behind her.
“I know where Lyxxie is.” She got up. “You didn’t happen to get the keys from that Belavi, did you?”
“I didn’t think of it,” he looked down. He should have thought of that.
“No matter,” Jyxxie began for the exit.
The ground shook again though he couldn’t hear a crash of sorts from inside the depths of this building. He caught up with her and together, they went back out into the hallway.
“Jyxxie,” Kal began as he strode quickly beside her. “What is happening? Belavi had run out to tell the captain something you or Lyxxie said?”
She kept her eyes ahead of her. “We’re being attacked. Jacques told us that an army from the north was approaching us, but I didn’t imagine they were so near. Jacques would have told us so, he would have taken the princess out of the city, he wouldn’t have left us all here like this. That’s all I know.”
“The Sarrphin Kingdom? King Phaethon?” The flame he held began to lick his fingertips.
“Yes, though if he’s with his army, I’m unsure. This can’t be good.”
The floor rumbled in retort, and they turned a corner to where another long and narrow corridor awaited them. How Jyxxie knew her sister had gone down this way, he wasn’t sure. And was that what Jacques had seen in the distance? Whatever he had seen, it had been tens of miles away with a multitude of mountains to cross over. Was that a secondary wave? How could they have gotten to the city gates without warning? “Why would they attack us? What have we done to them?” His eyes searched his companion’s, adjusting his hold on the lighting tool.
“I don’t understand it. I don’t like politics.”
Kal didn’t pay attention to politics, though many of his brothers at Mono Luthor did. It was impossible not to overhear their conversations and criticisms of current events and figures, but never once did he ever hear malevolence from their northern neighbor, the Sarrphin Kingdom. The Court certainly had its fair share of secret dealings, but foreign policy with one so close hardly ever escaped the rumors or ears of journalists. And especially with no warning. It was incomprehensible, with no immediate motive. Was it possible they harbored an old grudge against Fathentis? Even of itself, the grudge couldn’t possibly be that old; the Sarrphin Kingdom was relatively new, only in its second king, it being only a small section of desert and coast that seceded from the Ursmades Kingdom to the northeast. Despite the secession, Ursmades let that parcel go without blows, save that their merchant lines to the west were preserved. It was a land of nomads and shifting sands. Little plant life, and even less water. The majority of their population resided in the coastal capital city in the far north. Kal’s past research of them had been superficial, glossing over a few summary tomes to learn a negligible amount of their immediate neighbor, but those contemporary files hardly contained any information on their current king, Phaethon. Who he was, what he believed, what drove him to become the king, it was unknown, at least to Kal.
Jyxxie had awkwardly been trying every door to the left and right as she passed them, and finally she found one that was unlocked.
At that moment, Kal winced and dropped the light. A dense darkness fell over them.
“I’m so sorry,” Kal proffered hastily, rubbing his fingers together and squatting down, patting his hands on the ground in search of the light.
“Burned you? It’s fine,” Jyxxie said. “What are you doing? We’ll find my sister and we know the way back out. You need to get the key from Belavi.”
Yes but, we have no light, Kal protested in silence. The cool stone floor felt good on his fingertips, and after waving his hands back and forth across the floor, he felt the lighting tool and picked it up immediately, fumbling it. It was still hot, but had cooled down just a touch. “I’ve got it,” he exclaimed, and clicked the light back on. They both blinked at each other. Jyxxie opened the door. It was a room not unlike the one she had been in, and she went to the door to the right, and finding it locked, hurriedly rushed to the other door. It opened. Kal stood in the doorway, hoping Lyxxie was alright, hoping they could leave this stuffy building as soon as possible. The light was heating up quickly again, but then he felt as if something were wrong. The air didn’t feel right. Something happened.
“Jyxxie?” He called out.
Her face appeared in the doorway. And her twin walked out beside her.
He sighed in relief. Which was which, he couldn’t tell. Both were shackled and the one that he presumed to be Jyxxie strode towards him.
“What’s wrong?” She said, her sister catching up to her.
“The attack – it’s stopped.”
Both girls paused and the three turned their heads to listen. All was quiet, and the ground shook no more.
“Let’s get out of here,” Jyxxie exclaimed, pushing herself past him. He followed her quickly, gritting against the pain of the flame that whipped down and lapped at his fingers as they jogged back to the front room.
“Your step,” Jyxxie warned as they neared the hallway that led back to the room where the captain and Belavi supposedly were. Kal went out first, a pungent odor pushing at his face. He could hear shouts from the outside and the shadows danced through the windows and open door. Somewhere, there was fire.
There hadn’t been fire when he had picked himself up from a daze. Belavi and the captain were nowhere to be seen, but the rubble did pile up high in some areas.
“They’re under this,” Kal started, trying to recall where precisely the two men had been standing. Belavi had been near the hallway, the captain was closer to the door. The twins stood side by side when he turned to look at them, and then realizing that they couldn’t help, he bent down and started tossing aside ceiling fragments and bits of furniture, pipes and broken bits of glass.
A hand. Half of it was underneath a rather large slab of ceiling. He cleared off the pieces of rock from atop it and then grasped the solid fragment. The other half was wedged underneath a chunk of rock that had dislodged from the top edge of the wall. The slab didn’t move. He didn’t want to try and break it for fear that Belavi lay directly underneath it.
“Belavi!” Kal got down to his knees, peering into the darkness underneath a corner of the slab that took all his strength to lift. “Belavi?”
He couldn’t see anything underneath and he reached into his pocket to retrieve the small light.
One of the twins cried out: “Oh, shards and daemons!”
Before Kal could successfully pull out the light, two heavy boots landed atop the ceiling slab, cracking it into two with a mighty snap. He snapped his eyes up at the girl in horror. Which one it was, he couldn’t tell, but it hardly mattered.
“You could’ve hurt him!” He turned back down and began pulling the cracked pieces aside.
“He’s already dead,” she retorted, stepping off and taking a step back. “What does it matter, he threw me into the room like I was some rabid animal!”
Kal scowled. Belavi certainly was beneath it, and it appeared that the twin was right. Half his body was still covered in debris and rocks – the ceiling slab had only put a modest shield over the mess. The hand was cool to the touch. The man’s face was still underneath some dark object. All the better. He had seen enough death for the day and he didn’t wish to see more. Kal dug his hands inside to where he imagined the guard’s torso to be. He felt cloth, a warm mass, the straps, he followed the straps down and with his head nearly resting atop the debris, he reached farther down and felt the ring of metal. He pulled. It unclipped easily and he gladly retracted his arm, ignoring the scrapes and pulls. He held up the key ring and noticed in the dim light a dark streak running down his wrist. He swallowed, suppressing a beleaguered moan and stood up slowly to his feet. The twin who had cracked the slab with her boot stepped forward to him, nonchalantly stepping onto the rubble that rested atop Belavi’s mangled corpse.
Kal frowned at her and she returned an empty gaze. He would have to find a way to decipher between the two, preferably sooner rather than later. For now, he noted that the belligerent one had a small gash above her right eyebrow. She turned around and he squinted at the contraption binding her hands together. Matching the keyhole to a fortunately unique key, he set her free and she pounced away, rubbing her wrists. The other stepped forward in silence and he freed her as well, and the three turned to the open doorway.
He was reluctant to go out. There were shouts, and the shadows from the flames were still flickering and angry. The twin with the gash over her eye was the first to approach the doorway and peer upwards from it. She looked back at the two.
“I think we’ll be okay. It sounds like chaos out there; I doubt anyone else would know who we are.”
Who we are. Kal tentatively followed the two girls. Who we are. Purported kidnappers of the princess. The only thing worse than that would be to have held the emperor hostage. Guild cronies. Or more precisely, runners. Which guild they belonged to was a mystery, at least to Kal. The princess seemed to know who they belonged to. The princess.
He paused at the doorway. The other two were halfway up the stairwell already.
“We should find the princess,” Kal exclaimed. They both turned their heads to look at him.
The one in front scowled. “The city’s under attack, I hardly care for the princess’ whereabouts – or well-being!”
The second twin’s eyebrows elevated, but she kept her mouth closed.
Kal peered up at the first one. “She’s the princess! Her safety and well-being was your responsibility! And wouldn’t it appear rather irresponsible to Jacques if you so candidly neglected your assignment?”
“Kal, she’s in the palace. She has her guard and be assuredtheycare more about her safety than we do!”
The second one turned to look up at her sister. “You do recall our assignment? Why we need her?”
She glowered down at her. “The assignment, I’m sure, has been altered, now that the city’s being attacked!”
The second shook her head and looked away.
“You’re aware of an alteration?” Kal exclaimed. He didn’t know the reasons behind this assignment, but the second twin had put out something that for some reason, neglected to pursue.
“This is not your business!” The first hissed. “If you want to look for the princess, go ahead! But I’m getting myself out of here. If the city’s under siege, the palace is the last place I want to be.” And with that, she turned and climbed to a few steps from the top, poking her head up and looking at the scene before her.
Kal looked up at the second one who hesitated. Her vacant eyes meandered to meet his gaze and for a moment, they lingered. Without a hint of her thoughts, she turned away and made her way behind her sister.
With no other option he could think of, he went up after them. He had no business being here. The bombardments had stopped but had succeeded in leaving disorder and bedlam throughout the palace streets. He could see the source of the flames now. The corner of the Court was aflame, and now he could see the tops of faceless heads and bobbing helmets rushing back and forth, shouting orders, trying to extinguish the flames, organize and make sense of what awoke them from their sleep.
There was a familiar vibration in the air, and before Kal could recall where he had heard that sound before, an airship coasted over their heads, heading south.
“It’s Ovado!” The first twin exclaimed and she soared up and out of the stairwell. The second followed her and paying no heed to the guards that ran amok, began in the direction the airship had gone.
The princess. Kal wiped his hand across his forehead and started after the two, watching in wonder as the airship began to slow and then disappear behind the building across the street.
The girls jogged now and he hastened his step while keeping an eye on the people around him. Looking behind him now, he saw that something large had grazed across the side of the building they had been in. Whatever that large object was, it left a razing gash in the stone face and disappeared into the center of the building. He hoped there were no others inside.
“You there!” A soldier’s finger pointed directly at him and the man began for him in a quick trot.
Kal quickly glanced at the two girls who were moving along at a quick pace, unnoticed by the intrusive soldier. He had no choice but to stop and let the soldier approach him.
“Who are you, what are you doing here?”
“I,” he swallowed. Through his peripheral vision, he saw the twins vanish around the side of the building at the cross-section. “I’m a visiting monk from Mono Luthor.” That much was true. “My quarters were compromised and I came outside to find out what’s going on.”
The soldier nodded. He bought it. “Well move along, get out of the palace. It’s not safe here, stay at the chapel where you belong.”
“Sir, if it’s possible, may I ask what is happening?”
The soldier began to step away, his interest drawn elsewhere. “Unsure. Keep moving.”
Kal ran from him. He hated that he was following the twins, but there was no other option. He wanted to find Shalassah, but he hadn’t the slightest idea where her living quarters were. A tall tower stood a couple blocks to the east, but if she were in there, there was no chance he could enter. Especially not at this moment. Perhaps the twin was right. She was safe. But then why did they need her to begin with? The twin had brightened at the sight of the airship. Was it the guild? He rounded the corner, and through the alleyway he could see an open plaza and the corner of a machine, the airship, planted firmly on the ground. He sprinted through the corrider and then saw the airship in its entirety. It was larger than Jacques’, and there were the twins beside the hatch door, facing a large man who gestured wildly at them. For a moment, he fancied staying this far from them until the confrontation ended. But the insurmountable number of questions that kept piling into his mind couldn’t contain him.
He approached the three in slow and assured steps.
“… needs to be done! I don’t care if one of you loses your head! Were that it you, Lyxxie, whoever you are! I keep – He needs to –” The man threw his hands up and shook them in obvious frustration.
The twin without the gash noticed his coming and turned her face to him.
He could see the other twin’s face now. Their expressions were identical: wide eyes and tightened lips.
And now the man noticed him, too.
“So, this is the monk?” He put his hands on his hips, his girth pushed forward. “Along for the ride, are you? Want to get an ear in, do we?”
Kal stopped, only a few paces away. The first twin turned to face him. “I’m not sure what you mean, sir,” he faltered, casting his eyes away, but returning them a moment later. He needed to know what was going on. “I am here for the princess, to support her and her convictions.”
“Aye?” The man’s eyebrows lowered and he pushed the girls aside and came towards Kal until he stood a foot from him. He looked at Kal up and down, and he spat to the side when their eyes met. “And pray, what convictions are they?”
“Against the Holy Vicar.” A stream of guards were coming through a covered walkway from the opposite end of the plaza. “Against the Inquisition. The dishonest killings. I speak for Father Gensia.”
The man stared at him hard, his right eye twitching between the folds.
The guards neared.
“You have a death wish, boy.” He stood up straight. “Go find your princess.”
He retreated back to the ship and the girls stared at each other, unnerved by the approaching guards. The man backed up to the open hatch door.
The guards were halfway across.
The twins started quickly. The first one passed him, the second paused beside Kal, her hand reached up to grab his forearm. “Jacques is coming,” she said quietly. “We’ll be fine. Come on.”
An inexplicable sense of relief washed over him and he started after the two. He hadn’t run like this in a long time. He could hear the guard’s metallic shuffle and he glanced behind him before entering the alleyway. The large man had disappeared into his ship, though there was no indication that he would be leaving ground. The guards paid the three fleers no heed and were settling in formation around the hatch door, which was still open.
And now he was dashing through the narrow alleyway, back into the street where he could still see the unquenched flames down the northern street. The twins took the eastern road, towards that high tower that he had speculated over.
He hastened his run beside the second twin, the one without the gash over her eyebrow, and panted: “Won’t we look suspicious if we run?”
She glanced at him. “Is anyone else walking around here?”
Indeed, no one was, and they advanced unheeded to the base of the tower. A high stone fence surrounded it, and the tall black gates in the center of the wall were open. Amid the few guards that dashed in and out, he noticed two that remained standing beside it, though looking around nervously. There was no time to see his surroundings, to see the high stone-faced buildings that neatly lined the street opposite the wall.
“Just run!” The first twin whispered hoarsely.
Kal wanted to shout against that, but his breath was wearing upon him and his side seared in sharp pain. The girls were hardly winded. Runners, after all, Kal mused in frank misery. He couldn’t exhale the groan when the girls began to sprint, and he unhappily pushed himself forward, holding his habit up around his strides. The girls weaved through a pair of guards that were entering the tower grounds. His feet pounded after them. An oncoming guard. Their terrified eyes locked before Kal side-stepped. As he did, he heard the two stationary guards voice their alarm.
The twins were going even faster now. Kal had no time to see the greenery behind the wall, no time to appreciate the grassy lawn with its carefully manicured decorations and statues, trickling fountains and inimitable hedge work. All he could see were the blonde manes and brown boots that sped up a long and wide flight of white steps. His feet tramped clumsily upon the smooth stone. The boots were nearly at the top.
Hands and gauntlets reached out at him, caught the air. He kept his palms out in front of him to keep his balance on the steps. Shouts elevated from behind. The hands were scarcer.
His feet reached the landing and the twins had vanished into the broad walnut double-doors that had been flung open. His heart fluttered, in fear or in pain, he wasn’t sure. There were no guards on the landing and he risked pausing, turning his head to see behind him. The shouts grew louder, but they were not nearing. The guards were spreading out into the green lawn, and then he saw it.
Smoke arose from the foundations of the building directly across the black gate. Kal stopped, breathless and staring. It was no fire. The sickly sound of crumbling rocks bouncing across the pavement. A sharp crack that echoed upon the facing wall. The five-story stone building was pitching forward, the bottom floor began to crumble under its own weight.
And it began to topple.
“Kal!” A feminine voice whispered harshly and he tore his gaze from the collapsing building.
A twin was standing in the doorway, furiously beckoning at him. “Come on!”
The stitch in his side ripped through him as he promptly started for her. He balled his hands into fists, inhaling sharply at what felt like a scythe stabbing from his hips into his lungs. But he picked his feet up one after the other until the twin grabbed the front of his habit and dragged him inside. The interior was dark, the full moonlight casting a long white space into the entry hall. She kept pulling him and he made his best attempt to keep up with the direction. His eyes adjusted just as she sent him shoulder-first into a cool stone wall, the corner preventing him from collapsing onto his rear end.
Bright brown eyes glittered inches from his. “Didn’t exercise much, did you?” She smiled. They were in some sort of crevice in the wall, a niche of sorts. Behind her, her twin peered around a ten foot tall marble statue. He didn’t have to see them to know that a number of guards traipsed loudly and quickly past them towards the door, intent upon what had just occurred at their tower’s gates.
“This is the Imperial Tower, and also where the imperial family lives. Shalassah should be in here somewhere.”
Kal only nodded, catching his breath and seeing what he could around them. The hall was wide, more than thirty feet across. Sage tapestries trimmed in silver and white hung from the high ceiling to the floor, crests of families and battalions, and all the various sectors of the empire that grew to government status. More guards went to the doorway, some lingered near it. Hoping they wouldn’t make a run for it again, he slid down and propped himself on the marble wall.
The nearest twin squatted down next to him.
“How did they come upon us so quick?” Kal whispered, not really expecting an accurate answer. “I saw an army when I was with Jacques, and they were hardly near the mountains on the northern side.”
She looked at him and shrugged. “Perhaps it’s another formation, backup.”
“But wouldn’t there have been any warning? No army could come over the mountains without a single living being noticing.”
The other twin beside the statue turned to look at him. “Magick?”
He looked up at her. She had a gash above her eyebrow. So it was Lyxxie who paid the princess no concern. The same who stumbled over herself to make the princess comfortable. He pushed the image from his mind: the present situation was no time for reflection. Before he could arrange his thoughts, Jyxxie hissed back: “That is ridiculous! No one knows magick these days, and how would magick take them through the mountains unnoticed! There’s no such thing!”
The twin, affronted and dubious, came and squatted down, facing the two. “How would you know? Do you know magick and the things it can do?”
And he suddenly felt as if he should not say a word. He looked away to the guards that spoke amongst themselves in the distance.
“Of course not! But you’re saying that they somehow became invisible! Well then why not cloak themselves until they could enter the palace? What an absurd theory.”
Lyxxie frowned and hastily studied the tile floor. The rapidity of her ideas was plainly apparent on her face and she looked up quickly. “The peasants are uprising!”
Jyxxie groaned too loudly and Lyxxie gestured violently.
And Lyxxie’s brown eyes turned onto Kal. “Do you know anything about magick?”
His eyes met hers. “I have never heard of an invisibility ability, but there surely would be other means of crossing a mountain or altering time.”
“Altering time,” Lyxxie echoed breathily, her eyes widening.
Jyxxie turned her head and stared at him. “And how could you know of such things?”