Ra & Cassius

 

"Before the arrival of the Earth Marduk, there was Cassius; personal servant to the Emperor's son, Ra.

This is their story. A story of a bond of that surpassed race, station and title. A bond of brothers.

Not all bonds stand the test of time."

Scene 1 - Cassius

     “Come, Cassius,” he said with his usual smirk; the left side of his lip rising to reveal his fanged eye-teeth. The fighting staff twirled in his hands for effect, faster than I could keep up with until it was nothing more than a blur dancing from one hand to another.

     Ra was deadly with a fighting staff. I had suffered the broken bones to prove it.

     The gold collar at my neck clicked, coming undone as the catch released. I sighed with relief as I did every time he deactivated it. There was no outward change. The collar gave off no noticeable presence, but it didn’t need to. The design was simple. Once locked and activated, it suppressed the wearer’s power. The one thing that made my people—the Marduk—even stronger than even our Annunaki creators was the ability to transform. This metamorphosis was once viewed as an embarrassment. Thousands of years ago, most of my kind were put to death for the soft tender flesh of our outward appearance; ­of the shame it brought to our royal masters. It didn’t matter that we held more strength than the Royal Houses’ within our veins. No. Only our Kingu appearance mattered.

     Then the revolt happened and the lost House of Ninhursag gave my people a chance to disappear from this world. Most took it. Others could not. I was from a long line of the ones who remained. They were given a choice; take an inoculation that would allow them to unlock their true potential or be put to death. All chose the inoculation. With it, they were given the ability make their outsides match their inside, to replicate the appearance of the same royal Annunaki blood that flowed thin them. Once they looked like their masters, they were then expected to serve them.

     One small problem arose. Our Annunaki-looking forms grew to be stronger than those of our masters. After that, collars were made, reverting us back to our weaker Kingu bodies. The collars were as a sign of power for the Royal Houses, the complete and utter control over us. After that, there was no further choice, but life, even in servitude was better than no life at all.

     For five thousand years, my family have been the personal servants to the Royal House of Anu. I, Myself, was the Manzapani or personal attendant of Emperor Tor’s only son, Ra.

     Most lived their whole lives in their collars, never knowing the true power that lay inside them. For those that wanted to, they had only one choice. Join the off-world military campaigns. In the campaigns, Marduk were foot soldiers. Loosed from their collars while they battled the inhabitants of the worlds the Dynasty was so thoroughly determined to conquer.

     “Well?” Ra taunted, breaking through my thoughts. I ignored him, removing the collar and placing it on the bench with my robe. Underneath I wore only my black fighting pants. They were too big, almost falling off my hips. In a moment, that wouldn’t be a problem.

     I smiled back at Ra and let the mephmi – the metamorphosis, take over. Yes, most never got to experience this. I was not most.

     The change swept over me. Ripples danced across my skin like the surface of a disturbed lake. My pink skin grew hard and leathery, taking on a dark green mottled colour as I grew taller as I did wider, my frame bulking up to accommodate the other changes. My mouth tingled as my eye teeth sharpened and my jaw jutted out to form a short blunt snout that matched Ra’s. My eyes itched as my sight changed. It drew dimmer around the edges, the room narrowing with the loss in periphery. In my Anu form, I saw in better detail but lost in scale, not that it mattered—the true power of House Anu was their gift of All-Scent. The gift was so powerful that most Anu could scent disease beneath the skin from across the room or family genealogy through the blood. Some of the strongest could even smell past conversations that lingered in the air, as if they were claw prints left in the dirt to be followed by a tracker. These word remnants would fade from the air in time to be sure, but if an Anu with the gift strong enough was around beforehand; well, nothing was safe. Anything that was captured within the cells of the body, or exposed to the world around us, the Anu could decipher with their gift of All-Scent.

     Anu-Marduk were not graced with the gift that strongly, but we did make excellent hunters and we could tell truth from lie. I felt this awareness open up as my sense of smell kicked in. The air told me the guards outside the training room door were new. They had relieved the previous ones who had stood by the door when we entered. The small window let only a little natural light in, but from it, I could scent the shift in the weather. The sun still lit the citadel outside, leaving the sky clear and crisp, but rain would soon replace it. It had yet to arrive, but the change was not far off. By night fall I expect, given the heaviness of it in the air. Most of all, I could smell the eagerness of Ra. He was impatient to fight. He knew how I relished the change, so he said nothing. It was one of the many small indulgences he allowed me, despite it being frowned upon by his House. Even silent, his impatience betrayed his calm exterior. He needed this training session. Underneath the excitement; stress swirled, contained but still visible to me now in this form. I turned from Ra to watch my fingers harden and thicken. Smell could overwhelm if you were not prepared. Concentrating on other senses helped to balance it out. My little fingers disappeared altogether as claws sprouted on the remaining ones. My balance shifted as a thick short tail sprouted, slipping out from the hole in the back of my fighting pants. What were once baggy, now pulled tight across the ever-growing muscles in my legs. My feet split, thickening into three large clawed toes, which pushed up at the heel to compensate for the balance and shift in my centre of gravity.

     The mephmi completed, leaving me fully Anu and facing Ra. Anu were the smaller evolved versions of our ancient ancestors. The giants who once ruled this planet. Over time, they grew smaller and smarter. As their brain capacity grew in size, so did the changes to their physical bodies. The biggest of those were their forelimbs. What was once short and useless became long, matching the other species that ruled alongside them. Extra fingers sprouted from the simple two that had graced their hands prior. The extra length and digits helped dexterity. Evolution had indeed shaped all Annunaki until it culminated into seven Royal bloodlines and ten minor species of Anki.

     The Anu still ruled above all.

     In this form, we were similar height. Ra was slightly taller, but I was thicker. His skin was the colour of burnt orange that faded to cream on his front. The cream started on his snout and made its way downwards, softening the intensity of his colouring. I was dark. Almost midnight black at my back. Like Ra, my own colouring slowly lightened as it came to my front, but it was an even evolution of colour change. From dark obsidian black, to a pale light green. Facing each other, the symbolism wasn’t lost on me. My darkness to his light. My servitude to his leadership. Not equals by right, but here, in this moment, I had the chance to be his better. At least until the practice ended.

     Two gold lines graced his upper right eye. The first was directly above his brow. It was nothing more than a horizontal slash. The second similar. It started where the first ended but moved in a downward fashion to frame the eye socket. It was the royal crest of his family. Rulers above all else in Abzu-Ma.

I gave Ra my back as I shrugged my shoulders, loosening the muscles and feeling the power of my new body surge. I would never admit it to him, but I lived for this moment. The few heartbeats after the change when the sheer strength of my Anu form sung through every cell. I felt invincible. Stepping forward, I picked my own fighting staff from the wall and swung it a few times, mirroring his movements from before.

     Yes, Ra was deadly with a fighting staff. But so was I.

     We had trained together all our lives, it made us evenly matched.

     Almost.

     I stepped onto the mat, feeling it soften beneath me. It was as familiar to me as the staff in my hands. I curled my toes, getting traction to adjust from the tactile difference of the stone floor. Ra favored leg strikes to throw an opponent off balance. I didn’t plan to make this easy for him.

     Ra stepped forward. Again, I mirrored him. The dance started. Truth be told I was thankful for the practice, too. Even if it meant a little pain, it was worth it. Our sparring was so ingrained that it was calming when you gave yourself over to it. Here, in this room, we could be ourselves. He wasn’t the heir to the Dynasty, ready to inherit the weight of saving every remaining Citadel of Abzu-Ma and the Anki citizens within. Just as I was not his personal servant; the faithful Marduk by his side, silent but powerless. Here it was just us. Two etlutu—young men—on the cusp of becoming me, who had grown up together and shared almost everything. In this room, I did not have to hold back. I did not have to worry about anything more than pushing my body to the limit. In this room, we were both free.

     And we knew it.

     He grinned again, this time there was no smugness, just real joy. I felt the same pull to my face. We were in sync.

     He struck first. Head strike, lightning fast. I danced back, blocking the strike. The thwack of wood against wood vibrated down my arms with the force of the blow.

     He was opening on the offensive today. If I had not of scented his stress earlier, the attack gave it away. He only opened first when he was nervous. Usually, he preferred to wait and lay trap. Ra was nothing if not efficient. He was also a great strategist and a quick study. He could piece together someone’s fighting style with just a few movements.

     He knew mine already. Today was not about strategy, it was about letting off steam. I half expected him to confide his feelings about the day’s upcoming trip. Another indulgence. Ra did not see me as just his servant. I was also his friend and confidant. At least behind closed doors. His family frowned upon it; in fact, all Annuanki did. Marduk were to serve. We were tools to be used and disposed of as our masters saw fit. For Ra, who was groomed to lead, this held truer than all others. But being groomed to lead was both a blessing and a curse for his family. He was taught to think for himself, to stand by his decisions as any good leader would do. So, while we gave the expected showing of master and servant to all watching eyes, when we were alone, he allowed us to drop pretence. When it was just us, I was not a servant, nor a tool. I was more, I was a brother-in-arms, even if my blood was “dirty” in the eyes of Abzu-Ma.

     I blocked a second and third blow, one at the hip and the other at the thigh, before pressing the advantage myself. The blows were easy to read on his body and he knew it. This was still the warm up.

     The off-world colonization was his grandfather’s idea. Once the forests of Abzu-Ma rose up and started taking the world back, it became clear an alternative was needed. The Anki population was continuing to grow, but the land was all but gone. After a few thousand star cycles, most Citadels were already at, or close to, maximum capacity. The result was a lot of civil unrest. The only course of action for his grandfather was to find other worlds suitable to inhabit. With that, the great space exploration began. So far, the Dynasty had found three. They just weren’t empty. For the past two hundred star cycles, war has ravaged these worlds.          

     The Dynasty they will have them no matter the cost.

     I did not agree with it. Most of my kind did not. We knew what it was like to live a life in chains. But brother or not, I could never voice that opinion to Ra. He was too much his father’s son. There was an obligation to the cause, but there was also pride to be the bloodline who would save not just the Annunaki, but all Anki citizens of Abzu-Ma.

     Emperor Tor, Ra’s father and the current head of the House Anu had served in the off-world campaigns when he came of age, just as Ra was now expected to. It would prepare him to lead, to prove his loyalty to his House and show the people he was someone worth following.

     This sun cycle marked our time to join the campaigns. It had been a long time coming. Something we had both known about for years. But today, we left Abzu-Ma for Hirum. The closest planet of the three currently in the Dynasty’s sights. Today we started the journey that would see us leave everything we knew and join the battle front. We would spend a year on Hirum, then move to the next world, En-Sur, a smaller planet that was mostly desert. Finally, we would tour the largest of the worlds, Dada-Mai. The first two were named after members of Ra’s bloodline. Long dead but highly honored ancestors. Dada-Mai was what the planets already established ruling people called it. The Dynasty planned to rename it the “New Abzu-Ma” once they had won the planet for themselves.

     Ra blocked my attack, leaving his left flank open. It was a trick. Ra didn’t make mistakes that clumsy. He might have thought I would take the bait, thinking that he was too preoccupied with the trip to realise. But Ra was single-minded in his focus. Especially when it came to training. I danced backwards, gaining three steps before he abandoned the gambit and let loose his real attack. He came at me in a flurry of kicks that caused me lose more ground or find myself on the flat of it. I swung out hard, knowing he would duck, but just needing space to regain my balance. I fought the urge to go down on one knee. If I did, he would have me. Instead, I whipped my tail, fighting gravity and the tilt of body to stay upright. He recovered faster than expected and started in on me again. I could jump, but an aerial attack was just as stupid as going low. Ra would use my weight against me. No, safer to keep both feet on the floor. I just needed one small opening. I struck upwards, aiming for his left armpit. He leant back as I hoped and I did something I knew he wouldn’t anticipate—an attack I’d never tried before.

     I jumped at him.

     A frontal attack head on, throwing the full weight of my body at him. We were equally matched in weight, but with the temporary shift in his centre, I could use his own weight against him. A manoeuvre he loved to do to me. His eyes widened, but that was all the reaction he managed. We went down in a flurry of arms and legs. My own fighting staff blocked with his, keeping his upper body locked and immobile.

     He hit the ground with the wind knocked out of him. I somersaulted forward, rolling up and onto my feet before he could get the upper hand. Pivoting, I whipped the staff around with all my strength. I didn’t need to look where; I knew he would already be on his knees if not his feet. I went for a mid-body strike. As expect, he was there to meet it. The thwack of wood against wood vibrated down my arms once again, but I ignored the pain and pressed the advantage. He hadn’t made it to his feet yet. If I could keep him down, I’d win this round.

     The sound of the door opening, stopped my attack a moment before impact.

     We both turned to face the doors, Ra coming to his feet. No one ever interrupted our training sessions unless it was important.

     I expected the guards. I was not prepared for his father, Emperor Tor to walk in. It was like watching an older version of Ra. Same colouring, same build, just older. He gave off more presence than Ra, but being the ruler all Abzu-Ma would do that to you. The same gold crest graced his left eye. His green tunic covered the darker under-clothing. I knew firsthand he wore armour everywhere. I thought it was overkill, he had a contingent of six personal guard that followed him everywhere, including his own Marduk servant, Livia. She and I did not see eye-to-eye on a lot of things despite being related. But then, she was from a different generation. She didn’t have the same connection with Tor that I had with Ra. Theirs truly was a master and servant relationship.

     I had once asked Ra why his father wore armor. Ra said it was out of respect for his time in the military. It also helped show he was willing to fight for his people so they would not think him soft-toothed.

     I didn’t think anyone that met Emperor Tor would walk away thinking he was soft-toothed.

     Today, for the first time outside of a dinner procession, the Emperor was alone. Not even Livia was with him. It was strange seeing him on his own.

     “Father,” Ra said with a voice of formality, his head inclining to dip forward in a small bow.

     I kept silent and bowed completely from the upper body showing the respect his father expected from someone of my station.

     “Ra. Cassius,” he replied, acknowledging us both. Marduk were not permitted to speak unless acknowledged or directly spoken to first. That meant whatever the Emperor had come here to say included me or at the very least, I was allowed to be present for it.

     I lowered my staff to the floor. Marduk were not allowed to brandish weapons in front of the Lords and Royal bloodlines.

     Emperor Tor waved the action away.

     “It is fine, Cassius. Where you will be going, etiquette will not follow. From the new sun cycle onwards, never go anywhere unarmed. You must protect each other.”

     I kept my face as neutral as possible and bowed again. Emperor Tor had never treated me so informally before. He had especially never appeared to care about my well-being before. Truth be told, he barely acknowledged me at all, unless looking for his son.

     Ra must have thought the same too. “What is it, Father?” he asked.

     “Plans have changed,” he said. “You now head to En-Sur.”

     Ra sounded as confused as I felt. “En-Sur? I don’t understand.”

     Neither did I. Hirum was closer. It made no sense to lose time going back and forth between the planets.

     “The Karthi have found reinforcements. This new enemy has pushed back our front lines. The new legions will not be ready for at least another eight moon cycles and even then, they were not planned to be dispatched to En-Sur. I have spoken with General Kar. It was agreed your presence may be the fire the current legions need to overcome this new foe.”

     Karthi were the sand people native to En-Sur. They lived underground in vast networks of tunnels and chambers. They had four sharply pointed legs on a flat lower body that helped them scuttle with great ease weightlessly across the sand. Their upper bodies looked almost like my own Kingu form, except they had no hair or noses. They also had an extra pair of eyes and their brown skin was tough and leather-like that deflected the harsh heat of the sun.

     I could feel that Ra wanted to argue, but he kept silent. This was a military decision. A tactic to help them in war efforts. Ra would stand up to his father about a lot of things, but not the war. Too much rode on it. Our entire civilization, in fact.

     “As you wish, Father,” he said.

     “Not I, the Dynasty. General Kar will accompany you. Together, you will show a united front and rally the legions to victory.”

     “What? Father, no. I can do this on my own!”

     I knew that would not be received well. Ra hated General Kar and for good reason, he was a monster. From the Enki Bloodline, even his own pack kept their distance. He was a master strategist, an unparalleled warrior and the most ruthless Annunaki I had ever met.

     He was also one of Emperor Tor’s closest friends.

     The company you keep says a lot about you. If it were me, I would not want others thinking I could be friends with the likes of General Kar.

     “No,” the Emperor said firmly. “This is not up for debate. It will take both of you and there is no one I trust more at your back.” The first trace of command slipped into his voice. Ra was his son. For him, if he chose to ignore it, he could. He was just as strong willed as his father after all. I was not so lucky. Even if I wanted too, I could not disobey a direct command from my bloodline. That meant any Anu could order me to do anything and I would have to do it.

     It was by luck that all knew I was Ra’s personal servant. If any of the lower lords tried to order me to do anything, they would have to answer to him.

     Not that the Emperor was all that concerned by his son’s threat.

     Ra might be willing to argue, but I stood there and accepted that we would be travelling with General Kar for the next star cycle whether we liked it or not.

     A hissed escaped Ra’s snout. He didn’t like it but wasn’t going to argue. I knew that it was his father’s word choice more than the decision was the cause of it. Ra had interpreted his father’s careful words as a pretence for the truth. General Kar was not just coming to help inspire the legions, but to keep his son safe. Since this was Ra’s moment to step out from under his father’s shadow and show the Annunaki Dynasty that he was his own man, fit to lead, his father had undercut that in one unyielding command.

     Life was about to get a whole lot more complicated.

 

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