by Will Harrison
We are Sha'kar
We are the hand of the Gods of the Sky and Circuit
We are the Wrath Most Holy
We feel no pity
We feel no remorse
We know no fear
We know no pain
We are resolute
--Warrior Oath of the Sha'kar
To a thirteen-year-old boy, the cave was a giant maw that sucked everything down into a place of unspeakable terrors. His hand felt lost in his father's grip as he was led deeper and deeper into the darkness. Now and then he stumbled, his father yanking him back into an upright position almost before he realized he'd tripped. He could see nothing. All he heard were his own footsteps and the swish of his father's robe. And his heart beating.
"Silence!" his father hissed in response. The boy knew better than to resist. The two continued their seemingly endless journey down into the cave. The boy's eyes still had not adjusted to the darkness and he had long since abandoned any hope that they would. Escape was out of the question. His father would find him after a few seconds of hopeless thrashing in the blackness. Anyway, it was not fitting. Surely they had to be there by now. They'd been walking for-
The torchlight, far too dim to notice under normal circumstances, stabbed through the boy's dilated eyes and clawed through the back of his skull. He shut his eyes, barely able to squelch a gasp of pain. Blinking away the spots, he realized that his father had dropped his hand. He wasn't beside him anymore. That realization hit the boy like a rush of cold water, and he was about to scream when he heard the voices.
"You are late, Carrin of Norrisan."
"Apologies, Elder. The whelp delayed me slightly."
The boy recognized the second voice as his father's. The first was unknown, but sounded old and brittle. He began to sweat.
"You have not wavered in your course of action, then?" said the Old Voice.
"I have not."
"You realize, the choice having been made cannot be unmade. Very likely leading to destruction. Few ever reach the Time of Enlightenment. Your first son has already made this journey. Why subject your other scion to its dangers?"
"The choice, Elder, has been my birthright. I have decreed that both my sons will follow this path. It is not your place to question."
The boy heard something that sounded like a sigh. "Very well. Call him."
"Boy! Come here!" That tone again. The boy stumbled forward into the light and promptly fell on his face. His father lifted him up and lashed him with his cane. "Curse you, boy!" he whispered. "Do not embarrass me here!" He let go and the boy nearly fell forward again. A thin, black shadow glided in front of him. He felt a hand touch his shoulder.
"Carrinson, is all well with you?"
The son of Carrin could see well enough by that time to see a face in the robe as wrinkled and creased as a scrap of burnt parchment. Two tiny, piercing red lights shone through its eye sockets. The boy felt a sharp rap from his father's walking cane and stammered, "Yes, Elder."
"And you know why your father has brought you to me?"
The Elder straightened up and the twin circles of red vanished behind his cowl. He gestured with his right hand and another robed figure walked into the tiny circle of torchlight. The new arrival carried a small, ornate box. At the Elder's unspoken command he opened it. Inside were three items; two were small metal globes the size of his eyes. The third was a ceremonial dagger.
"Know now, secondson of Norrisan, you embark on a journey that few have proven worthy to undertake. This very hour you will swear your allegiance to the Gods of the Circuit, allowing them to work their magic and infuse you with their very essence. Should you pass this test, in thirteen years you will pledge your fidelity to the Gods of the Sky. Then you will be Sha'kar, the Hand of the Gods. Do you accept this path without hesitation and of your own free will?"
Carrinson heard the tapping sound of his father's cane. "Yes, Elder."
The Elder turned to Carrin. "What have you chosen for his name?"
"Galen," Carrin replied. "Meaning 'steadfast' in the old language."
The Elder took the dagger from his assistant and placed it in Carrinson's trembling hands. The blade was hooked, serrated on one edge. The cool metal of the hilt felt slippery with sweat.
"You know, child," The Elder said, "that having agreed to this task, your father has every right to strike you down should you fail to accomplish it." Carrinson nodded, not trusting his voice. Slowly, hands still trembling, the boy raised the point of the dagger up to his left eyeball.
Hours later, long after the last echoes of the boy's screams had bounced off the walls of the cave, Carrin and Galen trudged back up through the cave. Two points of light burned in Galen's eye sockets. He didn't need his father's help this time; he could see perfectly.
The gritty red light of a dying sun poured through the window and refracted off the sweat-covered muscles of a young man. The man was cross-legged, his legs and backside floating three inches off the stone floor supported by his trembling arms. An electronic timer on his cot buzzed, having counted down twenty minutes. The man flipped around backwards, straightening until he was standing on his hands. With a barely audible grunt, he lowered his head to the floor, then pushed off in a violent flip and landed silently on his feet. Galen of Norrisan opened his blood-red eyes. His cell was spartan, containing a cot, a washbasin, and a small table and chairs he used in his studies. It had been his only home for the last thirteen years and he knew every square centimeter of it by heart. The room caught the setting sun, which he had once enjoyed but now wondered why he'd cared. He knew such an attitude towards anything in the heavens bordered on sacrilege, but he'd long since stopped caring about such matters. The Council couldn't read his mind, and he wasn't stupid enough to openly express his disobedient spirit. He was an initiate, one of the few to survive the training. And in less than an hour, he'd be Sha'kar.
We know no fear.
He wondered if his father would be watching. The bastard. He hadn't seen him in years and didn't care to. The old man could rot in hell for all he cared. He'd wanted to kill him himself for several years, but even that desire had died along with the rest. The training and discipline had shaped him into a perfect machine, as had the nanotech that had permeated his entire body. Sprouting from his cybernetic eyes, the infinitesimal circuitry had spread through his veins, cells, and bone until, despite looking perfectly ordinary to the untrained observer-except for his eyes-he was actually more machine than man. Someone knocked on the wooden door. "Enter," Galen said. The door swung open and a small figure robed in dark blue shuffled in.
"It is time." Galen nodded and followed the page back out the door, clad in nothing but a black loincloth, his dagger tied to an ankle sheath. The page led him down an impossibly complicated series of corridors, lit only by torchlight, until they came to an iron ladder. Angry red light poured down the shaft. Galen didn't hesitate, catching hold of a rung and pulling himself up into the arena.
His eyes adjusted automatically, but Galen still blinked out of habit. He found himself on a raised dais, about fifteen meters long by ten wide. Bleachers encircled the platform, rising up in a theater arrangement until the last rows were about three stories high. Directly below the dais, encircling it, was a moat of blue fire. Designed as an efficient method of corpse disposal, Galen had always found it aesthetically pleasing. The crowd roared as he hauled his body out of the shaft. Galen knew some of them: his fellow initiates. They would be watching, some hoping for his failure, others concerned more with their upcoming Trials. But most of the crowd had no stake in the outcome; they just wanted a good show. A Trial always brought in scores of people, and as Galen quickly scanned the crowd he realized this one had attracted more than most. The arena was filled to capacity. Idly wondering why so many had turned out to see his Trial, Galen's eyes drifted to his opponent.
He stumbled backward in shock as their eyes met. Malachi? It had been quite awhile since he had seen his brother, not since his own Day of Purification. He still had dim memories of fishing with him in the nearby creek. One time he'd even caught something and Malachi had helped him clean it. That must have been that last year.
The idiot. Galen knew why he was on Trial. The fool had succumbed to a moment of weakness and taken up with a local prostitute. He had let his baser urges prod him into sharing his seed with sub-human trash. They would destroy the woman when they found her-a pregnancy would be disastrous-and his brother was disgraced. The only way he could be redeemed, restored to his former status as Sha'kar, would be redemption by blood. The blood of an initiate. Likewise, the only way Galen could be officially baptized Sha'kar would be to kill one so disgraced. The fact that they were brothers was pure coincidence. Or was it? Galen fought to keep his composure.
A low whine attracted their attention, and they turned to watch the Sky Chariot approach the dais. Its three riders were all robed, one in a deep, rich black. The Elder. Gods, he looked even more decrepit than the last time Galen had seen him. How had he stayed alive all these years? It looked as if a stiff breeze would scatter him like ashes. The Chariot landed on the dais. The three robed men stepped onto the platform. The two attendants separated and went to each combatant. The Elder turned and faced the crowd.
"We are here today to witness that most sacred of Trials. Two young men have arrived here to pledge their loyalty to the Gods of the Sky, a loyalty forged in blood." While he was speaking, the attendants were handing each fighter a battle-axe. The axes were longer than either brother was tall. One end boasted a huge, wickedly-sharp blade, the other came to a point. After battering the enemy into exhaustion, death would be administered by the dagger each held strapped to his ankle. Once either party was disarmed, he had lost.
"Galen of Norrisan," The Elder said, turning to him. "Thirteen years ago you began this pilgrimage. The Council assures me you are adequate. Do you wish to be baptized Sha'kar in this man's blood?"
"I do," Galen replied, glancing over at his brother and forcing a smile onto his face.
A smile that his brother did not return. "And you, Malachi of Norrisan, you have behaved in a manner unworthy of your calling. Do you now pledge to rejoin the faithful, purifying your soul with this man's blood?"
"I do." The voice didn't sound the way Galen remembered it. The three figures stepped back onto the Sky Chariot. "You have one minute," said the Elder as it detached and began to float away. It was customary for the two combatants to meet in the middle of the dais and exchange words. The battle couldn't begin until the sun fully set behind the Gandahar Mountains, at which point the floodlights would activate. Galen had the same cocky smile on his face as he walked toward his brother.
"It's been a long time, Malachi," he said, raising his axe.
Malachi raised his and the two blades touched. "It has indeed. Pity we meet again under such conditions."
"Such is the way of the Sha'kar."
"So it is."
Galen's inner fire began to wane in his brother's presence. He didn't want to fight. He wanted to run. "Luck, Malachi." Malachi sighed. "Luck, Galen." The two returned to their respective corners and waited. They didn't need to wait long. The floodlights ignited with an electronic sizzle and the crowd roared. Their screams sent a jolt through Galen's body. A child's fishing trip faded amongst countless duels, brawls, blade wars. Desire for his enemy's blood flooded his vision.
We are Sha'kar!
Galen and Malachi shuffled toward each other and began to circle. Their axes were held at the ready. Galen felt air under the heel of his right foot and realized he'd backed up too far. He feinted toward Malachi's right leg and aimed a slash at his head. Malachi parried it and Galen slipped around him. Malachi jabbed at his midsection. Galen knocked it away and stabbed him in the upper arm with the butt of his axe. Blood began to flow from the gash, then the nanotech in his body clotted in the gap. The scars a Sha'kar received in a Trial were regarded as badges of honor. Galen swore that his enemy would receive more honor than he could possibly bear.
The two circled again; Malachi was holding his blade slightly low. Galen feinted a slash to the face. Malachi brought his axe up to block and Galen reversed his hold on his axe, spinning it around to knock Malachi's aside. Galen braced himself and prepared to drive the spear-point of the axe through his brother's viscera.
A split-second hesitation allowed Malachi to recover his balance and sidestep the killing blow. The force of it carried Galen past his brother, who swatted him on the head with the flat of his blade. Galen stopped, then whirled to face Malachi again as he cursed himself. His br-his enemy could have taken his head from his shoulders. Galen would make him pay for his . . . mercy?
A low slash from Galen's axe nicked Malachi's right thigh. He backed out of range. The crowd began to boo. Malachi took a half-hearted swipe at Galen's knee that was easily parried. His head was vulnerable, but Galen's slash was a second late. Malachi ducked out of the way and slapped the axe aside. He allowed Galen to recover his stance before stabbing at his midsection. The crowd began to boo even louder as Galen parried the blow. Years of combat instincts commanded him to sever Malachi's blade arm. Something else held him back. Shame burned his cheeks as the crowd continued to howl for blood.
Galen roared as he jabbed at Malachi's leg as if the force of his scream would empower him. Yet he felt clumsier than he ever had; any other combatant would have parried the blow and spilled him onto the dais with a flick of the wrist. Malachi simply stepped aside. Galen stabbed at him again and Malachi blocked the blade with the shaft of his axe. The axe stopped; its wielder did not. The spear-point of Galen's axe caught him in the side and carved a wide gash into his torso. He fell forward with a cry of pain, dropping to his knees. Malachi stepped back rather than deal a death blow, much to the crowd's dismay. Galen gripped his side, blood squirting between his fingers. He let out another cry as the familiar cybernetic tickle merged with the pain in his side. The blood slowed to a trickle, then nothing, as the wound crusted over. Through the pain he could practically hear the nanotech in his body swarming through his veins like a hoard of insects. Calling to him. Reminding him who he was. What he was. What he had been made for.
The red light of his eyes flared dangerously.
We know no pain.
He climbed to his feet, staring his enemy in the face. If Malachi would not defend himself Galen would cleave him in twain. Slowly, as if the effort hurt him, Malachi shifted back into a battle stance.
In the space of a single heartbeat Galen was on him, raining blow upon blow upon him in a mindless fury. Driven backwards by the sheer force of Galen's attack, Malachi could do nothing more than defend himself. Galen's face wore a cruel snarl as he cut up and over, splitting open the flesh on Malachi's upper chest. He went for the torso and their blades locked. Malachi parried another blow aimed at his head. Galen caught him on the shin. The blades locked again. This time Galen pushed off, feinted low, and severed Malachi's right hand at the wrist. He fought to keep control of the axe with his left hand. Galen kicked him in the stomach rather than waste time maneuvering the heavy blade. Malachi fell back with a huff and the axe fell from his remaining hand. The crowd began to roar. Galen kicked his brother's axe off the dais. It tumbled into the fiery moat five meters down.
Galen let his own axe drop as he turned to look at the fallen man. Malachi was in obvious pain, and was having trouble trying to regain his feet. Something strange caught Galen's eye and he realized that his brother was crying. Disgusted, he backhanded him across the face, sending him sprawling. As he bent down to unsheathe his dagger he heard a woman in the crowd scream.
He knelt down beside his fallen brother, staring at the dagger for a moment. He could not look at it without remembering how it had felt. The wretched pain, the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, the way his vision faded to red, then nothingness. The same dagger. Now he would put it to use again. One thrust into his brother's heart and he would be Sha'kar. He would have to kill his brother.
Looking down at Malachi, Galen was surprised to see that he was still crying. He forced a derisive laugh. Coward. He wasn't worthy of the death he was about to receive. Galen looked at the dagger again. A lot different from the knife his brother had used to clean that fish. Galen looked at his brother. He was different, too. The first shouts of "kill him!" were coming out of the crowd. More followed. Galen looked up at the spectators, then down again.
We feel no pity.
His brother was staring up at him with his mechanical eyes. Cold, dead eyes. His eyes had been blue once. Galen's had been brown. So long ago The crowd was completely furious now, screaming for blood and throwing whatever they had handy. Galen heard a loud clang and whirled around to find the Sky Chariot had returned. Only this time it was carrying The Elder and the entire Council. They had come to complete the ritual. They had come to make him Sha'kar.
"Finish it, Galen," The Elder said. "You have come too far to turn back now." The crowd roared its approval.
Galen turned back to his brother. "Why did you do it? Why did you sleep with that woman?"
Malachi answered with a whisper. "I love her."
"Kill him, Galen."
"Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!"
We feel no remorse.
"I love her."
"Kill him and take your place with us."
"Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!"
We are resolute.
The dagger came down. A gout of blood erupted from Malachi's chest as the blade struck home, ripping his heart in two. He gasped, and began to convulse slightly, blood trickling through his open mouth. The light in his eyes flickered once, then died. The crowd began to cheer. The Council and The Elder made their way over to where Galen remained kneeling. "It is done," said one of The Council. "Now you are Sha'kar."
Galen had never seen any member of The Council, but somehow the voice sounded familiar. Standing, he stared at the one who had just spoken. The man was his father. "You have done well on the path I chose for you, Galen," his father said. "I am most proud."
His father. The bastard. Galen looked away, staring down at his dead brother. Something dripped into his eyes and he realized he was drenched in blood. Baptism. Murder. He was Sha'kar. He was a murderer. Galen began to pant; he couldn't get enough air in. His brother lay broken on the ground. He had broken him. He felt his father's hand on his shoulder.
The path YOU chose for me?
"Come, Sha'kar," Carrin whispered. He turned to one of the attendants and gestured toward Malachi's corpse. "Dispose of this garbage."
Galen slowly wiped his brother's blood off his face. His breathing slowed. Bloodstained fingers turned white as his grip tightened on the knife. His eyes flared red. He turned to face his father. His father.
Galen swung his dagger up and sunk it into his father's right eye with a sickening crunch. Carrin's hands clutched reflexively at his face as Galen jerked the mechanical eye out with a shower of gore. The rest of The Council reared back in shock as Carrin tumbled to the ground, moaning and bleeding. He would die soon. Very painfully.
Galen walked over to the edge of the dais where his brother lay. He had only a few moments to live. The Council, while startled, were still warriors and would be on him in seconds. Galen had no intention of giving them the satisfaction.
As he looked over the stunned crowd he locked eyes with a woman sitting back in the economy section of the arena. Tears were running down her cheeks, and her face bore the look of a person who had just witnessed the destruction of her entire world. He held her gaze. She nodded slightly. She knew.
With one last defiant cry, Galen leaped from the dais. The fire caught him and dragged him down into the moat, splitting and cankering his flesh. Blood burst from his veins and mingled with his brother's as the nanotech burned away. He did not scream.
I am free.
Story copyright © 1999/2000 by Will Harrison <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Artwork "We Sha'Kar" copyright © 1999/2000 by Sam Crowe <email@example.com>