The City of Zirdai

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THE CITY OF ZIRDAI


WARNING!! Spoiler Alert for The Eyes of Tamburah!!


Chapter One

Sand.

It was everywhere, in everything, and unending. Shyla moved yet another heavy shovelful of the reddish-orange stuff and glared at the pile as if her censure would keep the annoying grains from returning. Of course, they would blow right on back, invariably blocking one of the many critical air vents of their new headquarters. No wonder the underground cities of Koraha had entire crews of people whose sole job was sand removal. Yet another aspect of life that Shyla had taken for granted when she lived in the city of Zirdai.

She paused to wipe the sweat from her brow. The sun was a few angles above the horizon. Its jump had just started, casting long shadows across the desert. The light breeze cooled her body. This was her favorite time of a sun jump.

Taking in the scenery, Shyla noted the distant clumps of vegetation, the rolling red dunes, the pink sky, and Rendor's muscular arms flexing as he worked. Streaks of sweat ran down the sides of his dark face and stained his sleeveless tunic. He'd taken off his sun cloak, its protective fibers not needed at this time. During the early angles, the sun warmed the land, but as it continued its jump over the sky, the heat would increase until anyone trapped on the surface would be cooked alive.

Rendor caught her looking at him. He smiled. A strange flutter brushed her heart. She ducked her head before she could grin back at him like some lovestruck ninny. After all, she was the leader of the Invisible Sword, a magical organization determined to save Zirdai from the corrupt and power-hungry Water Prince and Heliacal Priestess. Both of whom had no qualms torturing and killing innocent people.

"That sand's not going to move itself, Your Highness," Gurice called. She paused with a full bucket of it in her hands. Her job was to spread out the sand that arrived via a pulley from the deeper levels.

"It will once you teach me how," Shyla countered, ignoring the good-natured jab. She'd been called worse. With her blond hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes, she was sun-kissed and therefore an oddity among the people of Koraha.

"That would be a waste of your energy."

And exhausting herself each sun jump clearing sand was not a waste? Shyla swallowed that comment.

Everyone had been working hard to make the Temple of Arinna--their new headquarters--livable. Like all the ancient surface buildings on Koraha, the sand had eventually buried it.

And while they were happy for it to remain underground--the location was a secret after all--they still needed an entrance, escape tunnels in case of a cave-in, and vents for air shafts. Plus many of the twelve levels were filled with sand, which needed to be dug out and evenly distributed on the surface. The good news had been the inner core of the temple remained sand-free and they were able to occupy it and stay safe during the killing heat and freezing darkness.

Shyla still couldn't help being frustrated. She had so much to learn about magic, The Eyes, and the Invisible Sword. But their survival came first. They had to leave the monastery before the prince and priestess forced the monks to hand over the surviving Invisible Swords.

Instead of acquiring knowledge on her powerful new eyes, she was learning how much food and water thirty people needed each sun jump, how many collection stations were required, and how often they should be cleaned out. Not that she was complaining; it was better than being hung upside down in one of the prince's special rooms or being forced to confess her sins by the priestess's deacons. She shuddered.

The Monks of Parzival had given them some supplies along with a few more recruits...well, the acolytes had decided to join them instead of the monks. But the pro-visions were dwindling. A point made clear when Shyla and her team of nine retreated underground ten angles before the sun reached the danger zone at angle eighty. The temperature cooled significantly as they descended to level eight, which was deep enough to be safe from the heat. The yellow light from the druk lanterns was weak in comparison to the sun and they slowed, allowing their eyes to adjust to the dimness.

Jayden and Ximen waited for her in the common room. It was a large open area with a handful of benches, low stone tables, and cushions scattered around. A few of their members had gathered in small clumps, eating rolls of velbloud jerky. Unfortunately, jerky was the only food they were able to acquire at this time. Some groups conversed in low tones, while others played dice or other games. The entire organization had divided into three teams of ten to distribute the workload. One team slept while another rested and the third worked. Then they'd rotate.

The two men pulled Shyla aside as the others in her team filled their empty water skins and joined those not on duty for second meal. Rendor frowned, but didn't follow them. Probably due to Jayden's glare.

"We're running out of water," Jayden said to her. He was one of her seconds-in-command for three reasons: his magic was the second most powerful, he knew the city of Zirdai better than anyone, and he had a network of vagrants who provided information and resources.

"How long do we have?" she asked.

"Three, maybe five sun jumps at most."

Alarmed, she asked, "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

Jayden tilted his head at the glass jugs lined along the wall. "Two of the new jugs are poisoned."

Back before getting involved with the Invisible Sword, she would have been shocked, but, after witnessing the Water Prince's cruelty, she wasn't surprised. If a citizen didn't pay taxes to the prince, then they didn't get clean water. Vagrants who couldn't afford the price or those who chose not to support the prince found other sources of water and took the chance it might be poisoned by the prince's guards. The vagrants had learned to give a sample of the water to sand rats before drinking it.

"Can we get more?" she asked.

"The vagrants are stretched thin," Jayden said. He exchanged a glance with Ximen, her other second-in-command, who'd remained quiet until now.

"We know where there's plenty," Ximen said.

And she wasn't going to like it. Otherwise, Jayden would have told her. He probably didn't want to spark yet another argument between them. Despite waking the power of The Eyes, Shyla hadn't earned Jayden's trust. He also hated Rendor and was used to making all the decisions. The Vagrant Prince she called him. His loyalty was split between the vagrants and the Invisible Sword. But she needed him.

"Don't keep me in suspense, Ximen."

"At our old headquarters. We have heaps of supplies that we left behind, including water."

"Left behind for a very good reason." The Arch Deacons had ambushed them, killing a number of Invisible Swords and capturing over a dozen. Only eleven escaped. And her friend Banqui was still missing. "It's probably all been confiscated by now."

"The supplies were well hidden," Ximen said.

"Doesn't matter. I'm sure someone is watching for us to return."

"We're the Invisible Sword, Shyla. We can bypass a few watchers long enough to confirm the supplies are there." Jayden ran a hand through his golden-brown hair--a sign he was losing his patience. "You need to remember that."

"I'm well aware," she snapped. "And you need to remember that the Heliacal Priestess has a dozen platinum torques that block our magic, Jayden."

They glared at each other. At one hundred and eighty-two centimeters, he was about twelve centimeters taller than Shyla. He had a thin wiry build and light sienna-colored skin.

"We can send a couple scouts to locate any watchers and check if they're protected by those torques first," Ximen said. "It's worth the risk. We're running out of food, too."

"I need to talk to Rendor first," she said.

"What for?" Jayden demanded. "He's not in charge. We are."

"No. I am. And I don't have to explain my reasons to you." She strode away.

Jayden was infuriating. He claimed he wasn't in the upper echelons of the Invisible Sword's leadership, but he certainly acted like he'd been in charge and was used to getting his own way. Good-looking and charming when he wished to be, Jayden just had to flutter those long eyelashes that framed his amber eyes and supposedly women melted.

Shyla filled her water skin halfway and grabbed a roll of jerky. She scanned the room. Rendor sat alone in a far corner. No surprise there. The others still avoided him and it would take a long time for them to forgive him. He'd earned his ruthless reputation when he was the captain of the Water Prince's guards. During those circuits, the vagrants and Invisible Swords all feared him with good reason. But he was no longer that man. Shyla had read his soul with The Eyes and had assured them he was trustworthy. Her word was the only reason they tolerated Rendor's presence among them.

She joined him, plopping on the cushion next to him. Gnawing on the end of the jerky, Shyla missed the hot savory gamelu stew and fresh vegetables served in the dining caverns. The Heliacal Priestess's deacons tended about half the flocks of velbloud and herds of gamelu on the surface and they worked in the growing caverns on level six. She could sneak in during one of the meals, but, for those who didn't pay their tithe, it would be stealing. And she decided the Invisible Swords would not steal from the priestess or the prince. Right now, they used Rendor's savings to purchase supplies. He'd been well paid as a captain and had donated them. However, he wouldn't let her tell anyone. Everyone believed the monks had given the osmiums to them. Just what she didn't need--another infuriating man.

"What's wrong?" Rendor asked.

She glanced at him.

"And don't say nothing because you're attacking that jerky like a sand demon ripping apart a fresh kill."

Shyla stopped eating. The roll did appear to be rather mangled.

"Another argument with Jayden?" he asked.

"Not really." She turned her attention to Rendor. Concern filled his dark brown eyes, the golden flecks barely visible in the dull light. "Do you remember when you said you were close to discovering the Invisible Sword's hideout?"

He stilled. Rendor didn't like talking about his time as the captain. "Yes."

"How close?"

"We determined there had to be entrances to it on levels twenty-three to twenty-five. Suspected members were spotted most frequently on those levels. But we didn't know the exact location of their headquarters."

Yet the priestess had. Someone had betrayed the Invisible Swords. Jayden suspected Banqui, her friend who disappeared after the ambush. He'd said everyone else was trustworthy. "Would the priestess tell the prince where it was?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"They hate each other and she wouldn't want the prince to have a chance to recover The Eyes, even if it's a small one."

At least they only had to worry about the Arch Deacons ambushing them.

Rendor scowled. "You're not thinking of going back there, are you? Her deacons will no doubt be watching the place."

Normally she admired Rendor's sharp intellect. This time, she braced for his arguments as she told him what she'd discussed with Jayden.

"It's not worth the risk," he said.

"We're running out of food and water."

"Still not worth it. But if you're determined, pay a couple vagrants to check it out."

She wasn't sure she could trust them. Plus the deacons would be suspicious. No, they'd have to send someone who knew the location, someone who was good at staying hidden, and someone who had powerful magic. Jayden, Mojag, and her.

Rendor clasped her hand. "It's suicide, Shyla. The Heliacal Priestess and Water Prince don't care about any of the Invisible Swords. Except you. You're the prize they both want."

"I can't hide here when my people are in danger. That's not how this is going to work."

"I know. But you can't blame me for trying."

She squeezed his fingers. Her golden-brown skin was a few shades lighter than his. He blended in well with the shadows. But with his powerful frame and oversized shoulders, he stood out among the citizens of Zirdai. About eight centimeters taller than Jayden, he loomed over all the Invisible Swords, unintentionally intimidating them. At one point in time, he intimidated her. But she'd grown immune to his scowls, glares, and imposing body language. Well, mostly.

Rendor tilted his head in Jayden's direction. "I'm guessing you'll take him."

"Yes, but we're just going to do a little reconnaissance."

"I can help."

"I know."

"Are you sure you do? I can do more than shovel sand," he grumped.

"I'm sure. But let's face it, you look mighty fine when you shovel sand."

He leaned closer. "Sunbeam, I'd be happy to give you a private show anytime." His voice rasped low and husky.

She swallowed. Was the room always this warm?

He laughed at her expression. Annoyed, she swatted his arm with her free hand. It was like slapping marble. Rendor laughed harder.

***


Before they left for their mission, Jayden insisted on teaching her how to cover their tracks in the sand. Jayden, Ximen, and Shyla stood in the desert near the temple at angle one-sixty. Waves of heat rose from the dunes as the sun neared the end of its jump. They'd planned to enter the city at angle one-eighty when all the other citizens were returning home before darkness.

"The monks taught me--"

"How to walk without leaving footprints behind," Jayden finished for her. "This is different and doesn't require special wide-soled boots. It requires magic."

In that case, Shyla was more motivated to learn.

"Remember when the Invisible Sword ambushed you and Rendor?"

Hard to forget. Twelve of them had sprung from the dune, grabbed her and skewered Rendor with two swords. "Are you going to teach me how to travel through sand?" Finally!

"No."

"But--"

"Baby steps, Shyla," Ximen said. "Moving grains of sand is like rolling marbles. If you try to roll too many at once, you'll lose control. Only with practice can you roll large quantities."

"Magic is the real reason we're called the Invisible Sword," Jayden said.

"Really? I thought it was because we can use it to make people think we're invisible, and because we stay out of sight."

"That's a part of it as well, but magic is invisible and it's a weapon that we wield like a sword. Hence, an invisible sword. We call people who can use the magic wielders. When the organization first formed, only wielders were members of the Invisible Sword. However, in the five hundred thousand sun jumps since, there have been fewer and fewer people born with the potential to wield magic." Jayden swept a hand out. "Sand responds to our magic like people do. We push our will at someone and suggest a person falls asleep. You start with one person but eventually you can work up to putting many people to sleep." Jayden turned around, gazing at their three sets of boot prints that trailed back to the temple. "I'm going to concentrate on a patch of sand and suggest it cover one of the prints."

Shyla stared at their tracks. The movement was subtle, as if a slight breeze blew over just that narrow patch. The boot print slowly filled in and disappeared, leaving behind smooth, untouched sand. Impressive.

"Why does the sand respond?" she asked. "It's not alive. It doesn't have a consciousness like a person."

Jayden bent over, scooped up a handful, and held it close to her. Piled in his palm, the mound of individual grains reflected various hues of pink, red, orange, tan, and purple.

"Our ancestors are part of this sand," Jayden said. "As it slowly and inexorably buried their cities and forests, as it filled their lakes and oceans, the sand consumed them as well. Over many circuits the sand is blown away, exposing the skeletons to the abrasive wind. Over time, the bones are reduced to the size of sand grains. This sand remembers who it used to be."

Not sure she believed that was the real reason, Shyla had to admit the sand followed orders. "What command did you use to move it?" she asked him.

"Cover."

"I use smooth," Ximen said. He swept his hand out with his palm facing down. Two boot prints faded away.

"It doesn't really matter what word you use. It's your intention behind the command," Jayden said. "Now you try it."

Shyla considered. When she stepped in the sand, the grains compressed under her boots and were pushed out to the sides. She focused on one of her prints, gathered her will and thought, Return.

The print started to lose its sharp edges, then it stopped.

"You need more force," Jayden said. "Try again."

It took her multiple tries to erase one print. Each time the print softened, but she couldn't get it to disappear with one command like Jayden had. It took her three or four times.

"Try harder," Jayden snapped, losing patience.

She added her annoyance at him to her magical suggestion. Return! Six prints vanished at once.

"Look at that," Ximen said. "You should have made her mad sooner, Jay."

Jayden gave him a sour look.

Ximen ignored him. "It'll get easier with practice and eventually, as you walk through the sand, you'll be able to erase your tracks as you go almost without thinking about it." He demonstrated by striding away. As each of his feet lifted, the sand flowed right back to erase his print. Turning, he grinned at her. "Creepy, isn't it? Another reason we're called the Invisible Sword."


ISBN 13: 9781489252821
Release date: June 16, 2020 HQ Young Adult Australia
Price: $19.99 AU Print, $9.99 AU eBook


You can pre-order THE CITY OF ZIRDAI online at these Australian retailers:

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