Title

Master of Shadows

Summary

The laws of the Gods are strict, but none dare to disobey. However, one man seeks to end their tyranny and bring peace to the lands but the quest is dangerous.

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Chapter One: The Streets of Madari

On a hot summer day Desther and his friends spent their leisure time visiting the markets in the city central. The blistering heat of the sun did not dissuade people from enjoying a rare moment of peace and joy. People from all parts of the city came together exchanging coins with tradesmen, purchasing goods for loved ones and catching up with the latest gossip with friends. These days were rare, but cherished by the people of Madari.

"Desther, any ideas on what to purchase?" Ice cold blue eyes hinting at a mischievous nature stared expectantly at him.

He waved a hand in the air. "Markius, we've been through this already. I'm not purchasing any gifts," he said, turning his head away from the triumphant smirk on his friend's face. It was Felicia's birthday today and he had promised to buy her an expensive amulet with the symbol of a phoenix engraved in it. The amulet was rumoured to possess magical healing abilities, but no one had managed to unlock it.

Markius frowned and laid a strong hand on Desther's shoulder gripping it tightly. "Come on Desther, your love for her is apparent. Besides, you promised to purchase the gift and as the grandson of High Priest Garm I don't think it would be good for your reputation to refuse to make a purchase," he argued.

Desther rolled his eyes. Sometimes he wished he never knew Markius. The mischievous red-head was the orphan child of High Priest Nisar and enjoyed flaunting his status. He had become friends with Markius during a banquet of the Gods one festival night and despite their differences, the two remained good friends. Desther took in a deep breath and sighed. "Markius, Felicia wants that phoenix amulet and I don't have the money to purchase it."

Markius raised an eyebrow and gave his friend a long hard stare. "Then why did you make a promise then?" The corners of his mouth curved into a grin.

"I didn't know what else to say!" Desther blurted out. A nearby make with dirty blond hair and bright blue eyes stared at him. "What are you looking at slave?" Desther demanded, shooting the boy a dirty look. The boy cast his eyes down and grabbed the odd shaped amulet hanging around his neck. Desther spat at the dust before his feet. "I don't understand how my grandfather can allow these slaves to walk around the city freely without supervision," he muttered.

"The High Priests obviously think the slaves have some worth otherwise they'd all be dead," Markius said, darting his eyes at the slave. "I don't think he's being fed well, look at how thin he is," he commented. Desther turned to look at the slave boy again and noticed Markius's observation was true. The boy was thin; his bones clearly showed and his clothes did not fit him well. Golden sand seemed permanently in his hair suggesting to Desther he had been dragged through the sands of the city.

"I wonder what his name is," Desther asked, turning towards Markius.

"You can ask him if you'd like, but I wouldn't stand too close. Who knows what diseases these slaves have?" He wrinkled his nose in disgust.

Desther nodded and walked towards the slave boy with caution. The boy glanced up at him and Desther felt a strange feeling of sadness surface within him. Had he not been related to Garm he was sure he would be in such a position. "What is your name slave?" Desther demanded, keeping his voice steady.

The boy ran his free hand through the sand before answering. "My name is Raegan," he replied.

"Raegan," Desther said aloud. He noticed Raegan's right hand firmly gripped the amulet around his neck. Only foreign slaves belonging to rich slave masters wore an amulet. "What brought you to our kingdom of Madari?"

Raegan cleared his throat and answered Desther's question, looking up at him with an intense stare. "I am from Khakpour and your people invaded my city searching for riches. I was one of the survivors and your military commander Edgar, demanded I become a slave of your city," he explained. His eyes watered and a clear teardrop travelled down his bruised cheek.

"What do you do here?" Markius asked. Despite slaves being common throughout the city streets of Madari, he had never had the chance to speak with one. His eyes travelled down to the amulet Raegan's right hand covered. "You obviously belong to a rich slave master if you are wearing an amulet." The richest slave master in Madari was Spencer, a tall blond brute with an endless amount of wealth obtained from his years serving in the militia.

Raegan's eyes travelled down to the amulet. He gripped it as if afraid he might lose it. "It was given to me by my mother," he said. He wiped an eye using the back palm of his hand. "Before she was slaughtered by your commander," Raegan added anger evident in his voice.

Desther edged closer eager to hear more but Markius held him back. "Careful Desther – do not be swayed by his words. What would your grandfather say if he saw you conversing with a worthless slave?" he asked, looking into Desther's eyes.

Desther took a step back and Markius released his grip. "You are right Markius, these slaves can't be trusted." He cast Raegan another dirty glance and turned his back to him. "I need to find this gift for Felicia." He dug his hands into his pocket and pulled out a tiny brown bag. "I've only got fifty gold coins," he added, giving Markius a dejected look.

"Only fifty gold coins?" he dropped his mouth open in fake shock. He dug a hand into his own pocket and pulled out his money bag made out of pigskin. "I've got about a hundred gold. Here, you can have them," he said, handing the pouch over. "But you have to promise you'll invite me to your wedding when you've decided on a date," he said with a smirk.

Desther grabbed the pouch from Markius and opened it. Currency was important within Madari; it defined the status of the individual. Only family of the High Priests and long serving military men possessed large amounts of gold coins while the remainder of the population settled with silver and bronze coins. Fifty bronze coins were worth twenty silver coins and ten silver coins equalled one gold coin. "Thanks Markius, I promise I'll pay you back."

Markius ignored Desther's comment instead choosing to head towards the expensive jewellery market stall. Desther ran after him eager to keep up; he did not want to lose Markius in the crowd. He pushed his way through the busy crowd and arrived at the jewellery stall. A man with blue hair, the shade of murky sea waters, waited patiently for him to order. "Greetings Desther, how can I serve the grandson of High Priest Garm?" he bowed as a display of mutual respect.

Desther cast his eyes over the jewellery present in the store searching for the phoenix amulet. "I'm searching for the Amulet of Healing," he commented. "Do you have it?"

The man turned around to face the back of the stall. He parted the curtains an inch and poked his head through. "Rakha! Where is the Amulet of Healing?" he shouted. A muffled response came and the jeweller returned to face Desther and Markius. "My little brother has kept the amulet hidden in a chest. It's very expensive and we do not want to risk having it stolen by bandits," he remarked.

A short solid male with tan skin and dark, navy blue hair burst through the curtains holding a large chest in his arms. "Here it is Okaris, safe and sound," he said, handing the chest to his older brother. He turned his dark eyes on the customers and smiled widely. "So you're Desther and Markius, I've heard a lot about you."

Markius crossed his hands over his chest. "Yeah? What have you heard?" he asked smugly, pleased his name was well known.

A bemused smile crossed Rakha's face. "Well, I know both you and Desther never attend the festivals out of love for the Gods," he said. "You attend for the atmosphere and the chance to flirt with the pretty girls," he added with a wink. "Can't say I blame you though, never been much of a supporter of the Gods myself."

Okaris smacked him on the arm. "Rakha! Be careful of what you speak! You don't know who is listening!" he scolded.

A look of fear overcame Rakha's features and he glanced around him. The High Priests allocated members of the militia to patrol the city streets searching for the Faithless. The Faithless were brought to the Temple of the Gods and punished for their lack of faith. What punishment they received was only for the High Priests themselves to witness. "Okaris, you know as well as I do that..." A glare from Okaris silenced him and Rakha returned his attention to the chest before him.

"What do you know?" asked Desther.

Okaris shook his head. "Nothing but gossip from the merchants here; you do not need to be burdened by mere truthless words," Okaris said, still glaring at Rakha.

Markius leaned against the table and stared at the chest. "So, are you going to open it or are we going to spend time looking at the chest for the rest of our lives?" he commented, voice thick with sarcasm.

Rakha looked at Okaris who nodded in reply. He reached down into his pocket and pulled out a silver key. Placing the key inside the keyhole, he turned it clockwise to open the chest. The lock popped open. Okaris reached into the chest and pulled out the amulet and presented it to Desther with caution. "Here it is, the Amulet of Healing."

Desther took the precious amulet from Okaris and examined it. As with most amulets, the amulet Desther held was made of a ceramic composed of crushed quartz with small amounts of lime and plant ash. Other materials used to make the amulet included glass, semi-precious stones and sometimes gold, silver or bronze. To give the amulet colour, a bright blue-green vitreous-alkaline glaze coated the amulet. This amulet had the shape of a phoenix and it was attached to a line of beads to wrap it around the neck. "Felicia will certainly be pleased," Desther said. "I wish to purchase it."

"That will be one hundred and fifty gold coins," Okaris said.

Desther gave him the pouch of coins and gripped the amulet. "Thank you," Desther said. "Come on Markius, better give Felicia the gift now before she comes running through the streets on a camel searching for me." He shuddered at the thought of being chased by a camel. He said his goodbyes to Okaris and Rakha before heading towards Felicia's palace. Felicia looked after the Temple of Healing and was responsible for caring for the sick and dying.

"What do you think Rakha was about to say before Okaris silenced him?" Markius asked as they made their way towards the north eastern part of the city. A camel trainer with long jet black hair in white robes hurried past them cursing about a missing camel. Markius chuckled to himself, amused by the thought of a wild camel. "He's obviously not too fond of the Gods himself, but I don't blame him." He loved the Gods, but he didn't see the point in pointless festivities and laws created to worship them.

Desther nodded in agreement. Festivals and laws were wasted and only served as a way to control the behaviour of the people of Madari. The great banquet was held every full moon and served as thanks to the Gods for providing them with resources to survive on. Every citizen was required to cook a large meal and bring the food to the Temple of the Gods as a sign of thanks. The feast would begin as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon.

The laws, known as the Law of Three, were strict and sometimes cruel. These laws were devised by the High Priests to control the locals. The first law required every citizen to offer a sacrifice twice every month. Members of the military visited every household in the city to ensure the first law was carried out.

The second law required all able men aged between thirteen and twenty nine to join the militia to carry out the wishes of the Gods if healthy and fit. Women were to look after their husbands, carry out household duties and spend the weekend praying before the Gods at sunset until sunrise on Monday. Any woman and child not present at the gathering would be immediately sentenced to death.

The final law required all citizens to select a face of a God and involuntarily undergo a painful process of having the symbol engraved onto a limb on their body. Failure to follow this simple law resulted in a decade behind filthy bars. Desther shook his head reflecting on the ways of his people. The High Priests awarded the Faithful with great rewards such as money and status whilst sentenced the Faithless to a life of misery or even death. Did the High Priests represent the wishes of the Gods? Desther wasn't sure but he wasn't willing to put this question to the test.

"We have to find out what happens to the Faithless, Desther," Markius remarked. "I'm curious to know. Are they killed like the disobedient women are, or simply thrown behind bars to rot?" Despite his connections to the High Priests, he was not allowed to watch Faithless face the consequences of failing to abide by the laws.

Desther cast his friend a dark glance. "We can't risk it Markius, what if we are discovered? My grandfather would not spare me." He would live, but he would be banished from the city.

"Where's your sense of adventure Desther? We can even bring Felicia along if she's willing," he said, his shoulders sagging with mock disappointment.

Desther gripped Markius's arm. "I do not want to risk her life for our stupidity."

Markius pulled free of Desther's grip and pushed his arm away. "We're not going to be caught Desther. Besides, we'll just ask our friend Edgar to keep guard while we enter the temple. He's the commander and he won't let anyone else enter."

Desther wasn't so sure. "And what if the High Priests decide to explore the temple? He will have to agree."

"We'll find a good place to hide Desther, come on don't you want to know what happens?" urged Markius.

Desther remained silent. He wanted to know what happened to the Faithless with his own eyes, but he was afraid of the consequences. Being cast out of the city for life would make it almost impossible to settle in another city as he would be branded with the mark of an outcast. If he were lucky, his grandfather might spare him of the brand. Branded or not, venturing outside in the desert was suicidal.

The world outside Madari's walls were dangerous; rogue bandits roamed the lands preying on hapless merchants, powerful stray priests wandered the lands searching for tomes to harness the magic within them and wild animals were constantly on the prowl looking for fresh meat. Not only that, but Madari had many enemies. The free people of Abuhu would gladly take him and his friends as prisoners.

But Markius had a natural way of convincing people to partake in madness. If Desther refused, Markius would most certainly carry on without him. Desther sighed. "Fine, I'll come with you but you have to promise me we will not be caught and no one will come to harm," he said, staring into Markius's eyes.

Markius nodded and waved his arm around in the air. "You have my word. Now have you had enough time talking, or are you ready to go?" Desther nodded. It was time to act.

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I'm not the best of writers, but I'm working hard to improve. As always, reviews much appreciated!