Uprising of the Provinces
There is nothing that is greater in valor than to die in the place of another.
Pennadotian Human Proverb
Black Day – Sundate 8600DC
A vibrating twang of blades, mixed with the cries of death, spurred three children onward through the russet gloom of the golden Palace crested upon a hill. Fear of being caught up amongst the bloody battle forced strength into their exhausted limbs. Twisted shadows flickered between massive pillars that reached like claws to the high ceilings. David pulled his sobbing twin by the wrist. A dagger hung loose in his free hand, dribbling the blood of those he had slain over the floor in a scattered trail behind them.
A haze of yellow light, dancing with the glow of distant flames, shone through the colossal windows, burning the shadows like inked prints into the walls. In the valley below the Palace, the vast metropolis smoldered. Ash held a blanket over the evening, lavishing the glass, and seeping between cracks to gain entrance into the holy untainted grounds.
A soft tinkling sound reached his ears; a jingle of royal gold chimed in time with the sound of footfalls echoing through the alabaster halls.
Daniel hiccupped a sob.
David spun, pressing his hand against his twin’s mouth. He glanced at the small girl staring at him in fright. She seemed as delicately perfect and breakable as a porcelain doll, with skin and hair ashen white.
He thrust his twin into her arms, mouthing the words, “Citla, silence him.”
The girl scurried to obey as David led them further down the hall, out of earshot, slowing his pace to allow Citla a moment to comfort the weeping Daniel.
“Tsk valai.” With a twist of his wrist David pointed his blade at his brother. “By the Sun, be silent! Or do you wish me to kill again? No one can see us leave, do you hear me? No one. I will kill whomever notices us. Now be silent…” A flare of pain caught him in the chest, the potency of it causing him to stagger forward as he rasped a gurgling cough. He tasted blood in his mouth and felt it trickle out of his lips.
With a cry, Daniel scrambled to his side.
“David, stop! You are pushing yourself too hard. Your illness will hurt you more.”
“Tsk.” David pressed Daniel back into Citla’s arms. “We must hurry.” He wiped the blood away.
He shoved them both forward. “Move!”
They ran deeper into the Palace’s twisting corridors.
David ignored the burning in his chest; each breath challenging his rotting lungs.
It was all too late; the wheels of war were spinning. By now he was sure his father, the Sovereign King, would be engaged in battle with Zilon, Steward to the Throne.
He knew already who would win: Zilon the Steward, their once trusted uncle and the King’s right hand. Only, why was he taking such lengths to destroy Pennadot in a single, crushing night of mayhem and treachery?
His attention shifted, and he skidded to a halt. He grabbed Daniel and Citla and pushed them behind him in protection. Thick shadows curled like tentacles across the floor. A tall figure stepped free of the blackened waves, dashing them to one side as though they were dust. David relaxed as a gentle voice spoke.
“Chans.” The young prince replied with a nod.
The creature wandered forward on elongated legs. Large foot-claws, shaped in a horse-like curvature, tapped upon the marble floor. Around the slender ankles a shredded robe dragged, stained with the filth of battle. Chans was elegantly graceful, standing with an air of superior breeding. Large black, leathery wings folded against his back, yet to lose all their childhood feathers, but already large enough for the young Batitic to cocoon safely within. His thin, slanted eyes shone cinder red. David felt them boring into him, spying the blood that stained his shirt and hands.
He wrinkled his nose. The Batitic exuded the odor of blood conduction, a sickly magical stench akin to a poisonous sweat. “You managed to get Skyeola?” David whispered in hope for the infant he had feared they would lose to the war.
Chans inclined his head, extending one wing to reveal a basket tied to his waist. Within, a babe slept a magically-induced sleep. “I would not leave my little brother in this mess,” he whispered fondly. His bestial appearance seemed more like a tender lioness as he glanced toward the purring nursling. Carefully he closed his wings to hide the precious bundle.
“I did as you asked, Milord.” The Batitic threw a bag to David.
The prince caught it and peered into it, nodding at the contents. “Thank you. Now, you must take Daniel and Citla.” Motioning to the two behind him he paused, coughing up more blood.
Daniel stepped forward in concern. Citla’s hand caught him.
With the hem of his shirt David wiped blood from his chin.
“Take them out of the Palace. A group of Papa’s faithful paladins will meet you in the underground passages.” He felt the rasp in his voice and fought to keep his words a firm, sharp order that were not to be disobeyed. They were a clear display of his authority as a child of the star-blood.
Chans bowed in acknowledgement. “I will do as you command, Milord Prince.”
Quickly David stripped out of his ruined clothing and changed into a fresh outfit pulled from the sack, suppressing the feeling that this might be the last time he would ever see his brother. He could see the confusion in Daniel’s eyes as Citla tugged him toward Chans.
“You had best hurry.” Chans shifted on his foot-claws uneasily. “My father is in the Ljotruaithne. The province lords will break through the Palace doors at any moment. They will kill you if they find you here.”
David snorted. “Such is the plan.” He buckled the royal jewels around his neck, their weight all too familiar.
“Wait...” Daniel whimpered. “Those are my clothes...that...that is my crown.” He grabbed David’s bloodied hands, stalling him from placing the golden leafy circlet atop his own head.
“Tsk, Daniel.” David glared at his brother. “The province lords want you dead. You are the last heir to the Emerald Throne and of the Starblood. To gain rulership over Pennadot they must kill you. Someone has to die today, and since I am already dying it matters not if it is me.” His voice broke for a moment as his twin’s green eyes overflowed with tears.
Daniel’s grasp slackened, releasing his brother’s arms as he stepped back, shaking his head in denial. “You are pretending to be me...to trick them...”
David turned slowly. He had clothed himself in royal attire, displayed as a being to be worshiped in the glory of the starblood that burned in his veins, his skin lambent with cosmic light.
“That is why we were born identical, Daniel, in every detail. That is why I was never exposed, why Papa never revealed that I existed.” With more maturity than he had ever shown as a child, David reached out. Gently, he gripped his brother’s cheeks and kissed him, wanting nothing more than to remain with him.
“I was born,” he choked back blood, “so that you could live and I...I was given this illness...so that I could die for you. Pennadot must have an heir after this night. Zilon and the province lords will lose if I do this! Papa will not die in vain.”
Daniel jerked to one side. “No...no… no...no!” he screeched. “I will not let you! I order you to stop and come with us!”
“It is too late.” David smiled weakly. “This is bigger than us. It always has been.” He shoved Daniel into Chans’ strong claws. The young Batitic grabbed the prince by the shoulder, ignoring his protests.
David glanced at Citla. In her frilly black dress she was the perfect little toy of the courts. Always they had been paraded like miniature adults, and, today, they had to be those adults. To live as children any longer would spell their deaths. Reaching out he pressed a finger to her lips, brushing aside a tear that trickled down her white cheek.
“Look after him always, Citla,” he whispered. “I entrust him to your care. Be with him. Never let him out of your sight...promise me this!”
Citla nibbled her lip. “I promise, your highness.” She followed Chans and Daniel into the yellow-stained darkness.
Chans glanced back. “Goodbye, Milord Prince,” he said as he vanished in a swell of shadows.
David fisted his hands, breathing deeply through lungs riddled with holes and filling with cursed starblood. He tilted his head toward the sky encased in the pillows of smoke. This day of blackness and never-ending night was the day he had been born for, and this was the night he would finally die.
He could not fathom what had caused Zilon to become a twisted monster who would betray the Emerald Throne but he did know one thing; he would die in his brother’s stead.
And he was not afraid.
He was not afraid.
The humidity was stifling. Sweat dribbled off Chans’ furred skin. He tightened his grip on his conductor, a stick comprised of twirled wood and crystal with a small light radiating from the tip. The glow was enough to pierce the murky darkness of the ancient catacombs beneath Palace-Town. Forgotten roads had long been buried under thousands of sol-cycles of dirt. Like a network of spider-webs, the tunnels snaked their way beneath the colossal city built upon the hill of cities before it.
Very few maps had been drawn of the never-ending network. None save the royal family knew of its true purpose from centuries long past when the Lands of Livila had been at their peak and civilization had soared to magnificent heights.
Chans held within his mind the blueprints he had studied all his life. He had known since childhood that his ability to recall images had been a gift, for the catacombs would become his new home. After tonight, returning to the surface world would mean his death. His father’s anger would burn in a rage if ever he discovered that his eldest child had betrayed the Dragon to whom his blood-clan had sold their souls. Instead, Chans had chosen to save the royal heir of the Emerald Throne.
He could hear the young prince crying bitterly as they ran, and, with a swift glance behind, he saw Citla dragging him as he stumbled. She would not let him go, for David had ordered her to remain forever at Daniel’s side.
Soon the little prince would forget that he had ever had a brother who had once been the braver in the face of death. David’s existence would haunt all who remembered him in sol-cycles to come. Of that Chans was sure.
“How much further?” Citla’s soft voice carried through the darkness. The murk dragged at his limbs, thick like a cloak draped in the air, wanting to pull him back into the light above ground.
He smiled weakly. “Not much longer now.” He slowed his pace, foot-claws scraping the wet stones. Worriedly he checked under his wings. His baby brother was still safely cocooned therein. If all went well, the child would be returned to the surface and back into the arms of their father; none the wiser of the terrors that had been hidden from him.
An inhuman whine escaped from the back of Chans’ throat. It hurt knowing he would have to return his brother to the same man who would impassively murder a child such as David, but he had no choice. Skyeola belonged in the light, for a little while longer. He could only hope the kitten would grow up untarnished by their father’s ambitions.
“Come, come, this way.” He waved Citla and Daniel into a tunnel that opened up sharply on their left. Daniel’s weeping eased to painful sobs, muffled by the sodden walls dripping with acidic water. There was an abrupt whiff of fresher air. Chans tipped his head to one side; he caught the muted sounds of voices. Relief washed over him. He knew them, one was a deep baritone that he recognized as that of Lord Davies Telvon of the Icali-pi Province, one of the few lords who remained faithful to the Emerald Throne.
Flickering light drew them nearer as another voice joined the quiet conversation. By its sweet notes, it was obviously Lord Davies’ wife. It was a comforting sound to hear, and Chans was glad she had survived the horrors of battle. He knew she was with child. It was only natural, he felt, to fear for a woman who held another life within her.
He relaxed as they reached the small gathering of paladins. His job was now complete. In his five and ten sol-cycles of life, he knew he had already accomplished the task set by the tiny alien creature who stood waiting in the milky shadows.
Hazanin was the only Zaprex he had ever laid eyes upon. Some rumored him to be the last of the ancient, technologically-advanced race that had once ruled the stars above and healed the lands below. He stood only midriff-height to a Human; though humanoid in his limbs, the creature was too slim to be a living being with true bone structure. His unnatural figure was obvious even with the war robe of red, lined with weapons decked over his thin shoulder. Yet, despite being small and seemingly insignificant, there was danger in his eerie eyes, scleras shaded black with pupils gleaming crimson under square-shaped spectacles. He moved like a trained dancer, making an otherworldly and ethereal impression. The light Chans had seen in the gloom glowed from two long antennas rising from of a mop of raven hair. The little globes bobbed as the creature glided forward.
“Hazanin-sama.” Chans bowed in formal greeting, forcing his lips around the alien’s native tongue. The Zaprex was the first he had to address, for no one ignored the powerful being who ruled time and space. Even his father had respected and admired the Zaprex to the point of calling him beloved-friend.
“Konnichiwa, Chans. You have done well.” Its mechanical speech was forced through an aging metal voice-box.
Chans stepped aside, glancing at Citla, who pulled Daniel forward.
At the sight of the creature, the young prince cried out in relief. He threw his only slightly larger body into the strong metal arms of the cybernetic alien.
“You have to stop David. Please stop him. He said he is going to die instead of me! You have to stop him!”
Hazanin sighed. He placed his chin gently upon the boy’s cranium as he wrapped long arms around him, drawing him close in mothering comfort.
“Hush now my little one, ne,” he whispered, pointed ears tweaking as he reached up worn fingers, covered with a layer of green skin, to brush tears from the prince’s cheeks. The Zaprex smiled feebly, its ancient age revealed in tender eyes that held unimaginable knowledge.
Daniel whimpered. No one was coming to his aid; his protectors watched with stark treachery. He tried to struggle but the firm grip of the cyborg held him fast.
Something inside him was being stripped away as though paper was being peeled from within his mind. Hazanin placed a long finger and thumb upon his forehead, his eyes glittering in sorrow making the sudden betrayal only slightly less agonizing.
“Do not worry, my sweet one,” the ancient Zaprex whispered, “tomorrow when you wake up, this will all be gone. You will not remember David’s existence or this night’s events. It is best this night be forgotten to you. David is dead to us now, and dead he shall remain. Gomen, Daniel...gomen, my little star-prince.”
Daniel’s eyes widened as a sharp pain caught his temples and he flinched. His mind clouded as the eerie sensation of falling into nothingness swelled over him. It was worse than sleep; it was a deep pit that enveloped him, shrouding his body in darkness, dampening the burning gift of the starblood that flowed in his veins. His limbs grew heavy, and he slumped forward into a faint, murmuring softly, painfully aware of the tears cascading down his cheeks, and that they no longer glittered as they once had.
“But...but...I do not...want to forget...my brother...”