The Ferryman’s raft drifted across the still waters of the Grand Canals. A soft breeze swept in from the eastern horizon at its back and pushed it gently until it glided across the canal at a steady pace. The Ferryman himself, a middle-aged man of dark chestnut skin and an intricate beard of black braids laced with gold, disturbed the waters only occasionally with a dip of the oar.
Tabia cast a nervous glance toward the Dam’s Gate. The massive gateway and dam hybrid loomed ever nearer, to the point that she could spy the outlines of guards and the lanterns they held up to the night air. Yet the nearest series of ramparts that would let her onto the battlements of the first wall still seemed impossibly distant.
“How long?” Tabia questioned insistently. “I do not have all night.”
“An ill night for ill-temperament, my daughter.” The Ferryman glanced into her eyes with a father’s mirthful smile. “You need not fear the perils of the night on my raft. Gaze about you.” He gestured with one grand sweep of his arms toward the leagues of open, still water between them and the nearest dockyard or city gate. “Your woes are already long behind you. We shall arrive soon, may as well make yourself comfortable.”
“You have my thanks,” Tabia feigned a grateful smile, but still twiddled her fingers restlessly.
“It is no trouble,” The Ferryman replied. “Still, a bad way to go for that young woman who hounded you so mercilessly. I pity the shameful state of her remains. She learned her lesson too late, but it is far from the final hour for you, young lady.”
“What are you playing at?” Tabia cast the Ferryman an irritated, skeptical look. “You know that I’ve commited murder?”
“What person would not have heard that Zarquin’s zealous screams?” The Ferryman clucked his tongue. “Half of the Grand Canals must have heard her death throes. But rest assured, my daughter, only the warriors of the Zarquin Guard would care to take notice. Us lowborn must be cunning, we must remain above all things.”
“Save your own skin, then.” Tabia sneered. “Just get me where I’m going, ferryman.”
“We approach the ramparts,” The Ferryman reported, gesturing toward the dockyards that rapidly approached. “Fifty pieces of copper or five pieces of silver is all that I ask in return.”
Tabia stared across the cyan waters and took in the details of the dockyards in the near distance. Where the other end of the Grand Canal held only a scarce amount of ships at best, the actual dockyards of Tu’shik were filled to the brim with hundreds of anchored vessels. The gilded walkways were buried beneath bustling crowds that filtered in and out of the Tu’shik’s maritime district.
Patrols of Zarquin Guard hastened through the crowds, breaking apart the masses to achieve their own enigmatic whims.
“Thank you again,” Tabia repeated genuinely this time. She reached into her purse and produced several pieces of silver. She dropped them into the Ferryman’s eager fingers. “You did not have to risk your neck for me, but you did anyway.”
“A coward like me deserves no apology,” The Ferryman grinned. “I’ve had chances to risk my neck, as you have done tonight. But for tonight, and some nights more, I am content simply to remain. Until one day, I can no longer simply just be. Jumanah guide your path, traveller.”
Tabia considered the strange man for a moment, puzzlement written on her features. An abrupt force seized the raft as it was jarred to a halt on the docks. The Ferryman did not wait for Tabia, he discarded his oar onto the raft and hurried up the ramparts for the safety behind the first wall.
Tabia remembered herself and climbed off of the raft and onto the limestone brickwork of the ramparts.
“Evening, my sister,” The grizzled voice of a Zarquin Guard made Tabia whirl around with an animated jump.
“Evening,” Tabia locked eyes with a puzzled, heavily scarred visage of a veteran warrior. His face was dimly lit by the smoldering torch he held in his hand. “What is his will, brother?”
“A raft with no ferryman.” The Zarquin Guard looked from Tabia to the abandoned raft behind her. He considered her for a long moment. He cursed to himself. “They spend too many hours drinking themselves to rock-bottom with the setting sun. In either case, I won’t bore you to death with the fines I’m about to heap on this poor bastard.
“I bid you safe travels by moonlight.”
Tabia nodded once and proceeded to vanish amidst the throngs of the nightly crowds. Hundreds of men and women, cloaked against the night, ascended the ramparts like a stream that had reversed course. As she neared the battlements of the first wall, urgent shouts began to swell like rumbling thunder in the dockyard below.
Tabia spared a parting glance behind her where the mysterious Ferryman’s raft lay unanchored. Gathered around the raft were Zarquin Guard, nearly a dozen in number, that had rowed in from the other side of the Grand Canal. The scarred veteran that had greeted Tabia earlier was being screamed at by the leader of the pack.
The Scarred One looked toward the rampart near the first wall and pointed in Tabia’s general direction. The dozen Zarquin did not idle long. They quickly scrambled up the ramparts, their warning shouts forging a path through the crowds. They would rapidly close upon Tabia at such a pace.
Tabia lowered her head and plunged further into the throngs of nightlife crowds. She found herself weaving through a labyrinth of battlements and ancient defenses that turned a solitary wall into the bulwark of a mighty bastion. Hushed curses and rebukes followed her increasingly hasty and reckless footsteps as she pressed through groups of Qarthite men and women at a time.
“Tabia,” A familiar voice cut through the shadows that clung to the claustrophobic stairs. They descended down into the dense urban sprawl of Tu’shik. “You were borne of the shadows, girl. Command them to do your bidding, do not let them disown you.”
Menacing, shouted warnings mingled with surprised cries and screams as the Zarquin Guard barreled through the crowds. Tabia rapidly descended the stairways, suddenly realizing that the crowds had thinned out to the point that she was practically alone.
She cut pass shadowy alleyways, and small, dead-end spaces that lurked behind many of the luxury establishments. Small hanging gardens hidden behind massive iron gates barred the way into some areas. Other pathways still lead into the rear entrances of many well-lit establishments.
Everywhere she went, the sounds of mirth and laughter resonated from within many a hearth. However, out here in the desert cold and mist wreathed streets, only the quiet murmurs and lamentations of the ill-content echoed from the hidden crevices of the great city.
“This way, Tabia.” The voice called out to her again from an alley so brightly lit that it momentarily blinded Tabia to glance in its direction.
Tabia second guessed her intuition, as the voices of the Zarquin Guard shouted at passersby from scant feet behind her. She banished her thoughts and suddenly turned to descend the small staircase that spiraled further into the back-alley. Her sandals waded through rainwater that had collected enough to come up to her ankles. She gazed down the brightly lit path of the alleyway and could find nothing but barred door after barred door, until the pathway curved out of sight.
A score of footsteps shuffled down the spiral staircase behind her. The keening cry of swords unsheathed from their scabbards rang out in the midst of the alleway. Tabia did not move as they made to encircle her.
“That’s enough, damnable witch!” Tabia squeezed her eyes shut in resignation as the sharp voice of a woman shouted for her surrender. “Keep your hands off your hip, your arms still and away from your person. No sudden movements, yes?”
Tabia lifted her hands so that they dangled uselessly in the foggy air. She spun around to look her captors in the eye as they moved to surround her. Ten Zarquin Guard circled her with practiced ease, their swords readied to cut through Tabia in the blink of an eye if need be.
An amused smile graced Tabia’s lips as she noticed all of the Zarquin warriors were attempting in vain not to heave and haw for every scrap of air that they could get.
The young woman that seemed to be in charge stepped forward to come face to face with her prey. Her raven hair was pulled back into three separate braids, two dangling in front of her temples, and the other falling behind her neck. Her eyes sparkled like pieces of polished emerald, shining out of a face covered in ritual scarification.
The young woman gestured with a point of her chin. “It’s not every occasion that we get a Disciple burning one of our commanders onto death. You were reckless to think that you could simply walk away from that. Give me one word why I shouldn’t command all nine of my subordinates here to run you through, right here and now?”
“Alone.” Tabia replied.
“Alone?” The Zarquin Senior shrugged, her expression blank as an unwritten page. “I understand I said ‘one word’’, but you may elaborate.”
“We’re not alone.” Tabia insisted. “I am not your enemy, Zarquin. Shoushan threatened my life, I acted in defense of myself.”
The Zarquin Senior cast her gaze about the alleyway and considered Tabia for a long moment.
“If the presence of the Gods frightens you,” The Zarquin smiled grimly. “You should have rethought your most blatant murder.” She made a dismissive, cutting gesture. “Kill her. Make it precisely slow. Give me the head when you’re don-”
The crushing blow of a spiked club against the young woman’s skull made Tabia leap backward with an involuntary scream. The Zarquin Senior crumpled into the rainwater with a dull thud, her blood rapidly pooling around her leaking corpse.
The Zarquin nearest the stranger with the bloodied club masterfully parried the next savage strike. His comrade beside him cut down their assailant with a stroke of his sword.
Suddenly, the dozen barred doors that sealed off as many establishments from the alleyway were cast open in rapid succession. Out from the shadows emerged men and women garbed in the tattered robes of rogue slaves; a wild assortment of blades wielded in their hands.
The Zarquin did not idle, but roared their battle cries as the two factions clashed in the claustrophobic confines of the alleyway.
“A coward I was content to remain,” The Ferryman’s voice cut through the chaos by Tabia’s side.
“But tonight, I am no longer content simply to remain. Inspired by your bravery, one could say.”
Tabia considered the rogue for a long moment of shock. In the eyes of the Ferryman, revelation played out within both his and Tabia’s mind as they considered one another.
“Break the Disciple, brothers!” The Ferryman called out and thrust once for Tabia’s neck.
Tabia scrambled out of the spear’s trajectory as it hurtled past her. The weapon struck one of the Zarquin in the flank and forced him to cry out, but it did not fell him. The Zarquin seized the spear before the ferryman could wrench it free. The Qarthite warrior shattered the Ferryman’s nose with a broad swing of his shield.
Tabia hastily sketched runic patterns in the air and made the earth under a clutch of rogue slaves heave until it burst with torrential flames. The flames quickly caught hold of their flesh and clothes, made them writhe and scream until the Zarquin closed in and hacked them down without mercy.
A javelin flew threw the thick of combat and impaled a Zarquin through the small of her spine. She sagged downward to the earth in such a way that it seemed that she had purposefully fallen on the weapon.
Swords clashed back and forth, several of the rogue slaves limped away from the skirmish with hands on their cut open throats. Here and there, the sheer number of slashing and thrusting weapons saw a Zarquin pinned against the wall and stabbed to death.
Tabia sketched more intricate and bolder symbols until the very air shimmered with the searing heat of darting fire. Zarquin and former slave alike went to ground from the criss-cross of scorching blasts. Those too dull-witted to move were set alight and burned the same way Shoushan had.
“Disciple!” An unfamiliar pair of hands seized Tabia by the shoulders and forced her to crouch down from her own incendiary blasts. “Are you crazy? You’ll set half the city on fire, Tabia!”
“Who are you!?” Tabia demanded, but felt herself pushed through the ensuing combat.
More than once did a sword cleave downward to claim her head. More than once did a spear thrust directly for her heart. The unfamiliar pair of hands occasionally removed themselves from Tabia’s shoulders to strike away each weapon with practiced fluidity. Other enigmatic figures weaved through the combat, hueing through whoever deign strike out at them.
Warriors screamed and rogue slaves toppled into pools of their own split blood. As Tabia was guided through the chaos, so did the chaos itself seem to wane and calm until virtually there stood no member of the Zarquin Guard or rogue slave that had not been outright slain in the confusion.
Tabia glanced around her, and could see that death had claimed this particular back alley. Corpses littered the alley from one end to the next, all of them slackened and still in the strange angles and positions that they had died in.
“Their deaths were unnecessary.” A woman’s voice crept out of the shadows. Tabia only now realized that many of the torches that once lit the alley had been snuffed somehow and left much in darkness. “Slave or Zarquin, let them butcher one another till the end of the final breath of life. It is lamentable that we were forced to step in and decide their fates for them.”
A familiar woman stepped out of the shadows, but Tabia immediately sensed something was off about her. The shade of her braided hair was of rosy red and chestnut entwined. Four scars carved from a foe’s sword were etched upon a face already marked with some ritual scarification.
Where her voice should have been bright and cheery, Tabia could sense nothing of the sort from her morose tone. Eyes that shone like pits of emerald stared through Tabia as if she could see the essence of the cloying soul beneath.
Lastly, she was not dressed as a member of the Zarquin Guard. A quilted armor the color of storm clouds, raven feathers, framed with a gold trim, lent her the aura of a stalwart, immovable object.
“Honored Disciple Tabia,” The enigmatic stranger sketched an elegant bow. “I am Shoushan. Exemplar of the Exalted. You burned my younger sister onto death.”
Tabia remained silent.
“A wise decision.” Shoushan answered, her response surprisingly apathetic and cold. “I should not have burdened you with such revelations… but I felt that you should know.”
“You have my sympathies,” Tabia cautiously replied. “I could not stay your sister’s hand. If you want honesty, Shoushan, she brought her own death upon herself.”
“I agree with you, Tabia.” Shoushan’s nod was nigh-imperceptible. “But youth is reckless and untoward. Her death, too, was ultimately unnecessary.”
“Will you decide if I am an unnecessary casualty also?” Tabia asked, her brow arched slightly. “No one would certainly blame you.”
“Someone would,” Shoushan shook her head. “Someone I’ve sworn oaths of fealty to, that I’d rather not cross. We should not linger here before more of the Zarquin come to investigate. You can walk, can you? Then follow my lead. The Exalted shall see you before Erasyl’s throne.”
Tabia remained rooted where she stood as Shoushan waded through the alley past her.
“Why was your sister spying on me, Shoushan?” Tabia glanced over her shoulder. “No chance that she ambushed me by accident.”
“A dozen Zarquin end up dead on your journey into the caverns,” Shoushan pondered aloud. “Their guide disappears, only to resurface sometime later. Did you not think that Erasyl would want to understand the nature of what you encountered in the reliquaries?
“Enough trivial questions,” She barked. “If you will not walk, one of my sisters would gladly carry you.”
“Fine,” Tabia conceded. “Though this is all really a great misunderstanding.”
“Of course,” Shoushan’s shrinking voice carried down from the height of the spiralling staircase back onto the streets of Tu’shik. “You’d be one of the slain here if that were truly not the case.”