“Follow me!”

Cinis led the group through the tunnels, occasionally glancing at the shimmering wall for guidance as they traveled deeper under the city. Behind him fifty men trudged forward, each clad in dark garments that stood out against the glowing surroundings. After surfacing they would mesh with the night, becoming only shadows in the darkness.

Libus’ men walked in single file, keeping their distance from the sides of the aged corridor. A lifetime of hearing the haunting stories of men who never returned from the mystical tunnels kept the group packed tight, the first in line nearly stepping on Cinis’ heels. They fidgeted as he paused at a fork, his hand listening against the wall while he puzzled over the most direct route. Rarely had he been this deep before, and he now relied entirely on the coursing energy flow in the walls to lead him to his destination.

He often caught a glimpse of the men’s wide eyes when he reached out to the light, faces that now associated him with the underground world itself. They fear me, he realized. He had heard hushed whispers of Shadowseeker, the name that they had christened for him when Libus revealed his plan. Many of the men had balked at the mere mention of traveling through the depths, swearing in agitated voices that they would sooner chance the palace gates. Libus had reasoned with them, explaining that the archers stationed on the palace gates would strike them down before they could scratch the mighty doors. Eventually the assembly succumbed to Libus’ words, and each man warily climbed down into the depths, taking a full breath of the aboveground air before sinking below.

Their descent had begun over an hour ago, and now the tunnels steadily leveled off and continued to tilt until they formed a sloping ascent. Cinis had deliberately avoided the deeper tunnels where the underworld grew more strange as the walls’ dancing light became more invigorated and more of the ancient corridors were preserved. Already he had to coax the reluctant group through a room of monstrous marble statues. Winged men soared across the cracked, arched ceiling while an assortment of creatures covered in scales, fins, and spines traversed the floor. At the center were two thrones, whose previous inhabitants had fallen to the ground below. Only marble and obsidian shards remained of the once whole pair.

Soon the air quality changed, with gusts breaking the stale atmosphere with breaths of cool breeze.

“We’re close to the top,” Cinis said to Libus, who held up his hand to halt the group. Several audible groans of relief arose from the crowd. He withdrew a folded paper from his pocket, placing it on the ground as a packed circle formed around his kneeled figure. Libus had given Cinis the map previously with orders to mark all the other tunnel entrances he could find within the palace grounds. The task had taken Cinis all day as he traversed the labyrinth, searching for new avenues to the surface and marking each with a distinct, purple cross. He had been able to discover four entrances spread out across the grounds, but there could be countless more sprinkled throughout the palace and gardens.

“Here is where we will exit onto the grounds,” Libus said, tapping the map, where a small building lay just outside the palace. “The tunnel’s exit is just inside the door, and we can assemble inside. If anything goes amiss, it is where we will regroup.”

He swept his index finger across to point at a larger square connected to the wall. “Now over here is the guards’ supply shack. We need everything you can find, especially uniforms. Once we have them, they won’t be able to tell us apart until it is too late. Inside the grounds, we must go silently. If we are seen, the whole plan could fail, and we’ll be slaughtered like pigs, our bodies left to rot. Where the wall connects to the shack, there’s a small door that leads through the inside of the wall to the main gate, about a hundred feet away. Once the last of us has picked the storehouse clean, we’ll torch it, and the blaze will create the diversion we need. The guards at the main gate will be distracted and leave their post, which is when we make our escape. Provided our arsonist finishes the job correctly, they’ll never know we stole anything from the premises.”

A small man with wispy, graying hair and a collection of four and a half teeth jumped up, waving two large green bottles. “Oh, I’ll get the job done correctly,” he giggled. “One of these is enough to do the trick, but two will make the blaze visible to the entire city. Don’t even need matches!” He clacked the bottles together and the men around him edged away, eyeing the drops of liquid that had fallen to the floor.

“Alright Gorrun, you have me convinced. Just be careful not to set anything alight until we’ve finished. Our position would be given away faster than if you were to start singing.” The men around him laughed, a momentary improvement of their mood, as the cats were known to join their yowling with Gorrun’s nightly singing, their voices far fairer than his own. He had claimed to have been talented in his youth before age claimed the majority of his teeth, but the tale seemed tall. Cinis spoke up, and the men instantly quieted.

“As Libus said, do not confront the guards. Trust me in this as I have led you this far and seen within the palace. We are vastly outnumbered, and their swords will slice through your skin like butter. If you are not careful, you may find yourself attending the next feast; on the table, not a chair.” He neglected to mention the monstrous nature of the guards, knowing the men were already anxious with the nature of the mission.

“To Shadowseeker!” called a member in the back.

“To Shadowseeker!” echoed the other men, bowing their heads. Libus may have been their leader, and they held their eyes suspiciously to Cinis, but they still followed him.

After another fifty feet of walking, they came upon a petrified, wooden trap door guarded by the statues of two torch bearers. Cinis held a finger to his lips at the entrance and climbed up before ushering the men one by one into the deserted room above.

Chapter 31

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