Chapter 2:



For five years, Sulla’s world was the battlefield, risking his life time after time. He had pretended to believe in ideals of conquest and glory, so the great country of Minos could stand tall as the continental hegemon. For five straight years, he had watched familiar faces ripped into shreds by artillery and bullets while he did the same to men fighting under a different banner. Yet the result was always the same; in the aftermath of each battle, Sulla would gaze with vacant eyes over the barren landscape, littered with the carcasses of friend and foe alike. The remnants of comrades and enemies would blend together with scattered dirt, scrapped tanks, and spent bullet casings, a cacophony of flesh and metal. The lifeless eyes of corpses full of contempt and fear. Contempt for mindless soldiers like himself, following orders to wipe out life as their commanders saw fit. Contempt for the commanders, cutting short dreams of the future in the name of the Dynatoi. Perhaps contempt against the whole world for letting things come to this. Left with the haunting image of nothing but a pair of deep brown eyes, ablaze with defiance he fell unconscious. Sulla looked back into the abyss of his psyche, desperately reaching out for a warm memory to cling on. And so a faint warm glow permeated his chest, as the memories of combat melted away. Sulla found himself falling into a nostalgic dream.

He felt the soft touch of her hand running through his unkempt black hair and gently tapping his cheek. Jolted awake, he flew out of the bed and flopped onto the familiar hard floor. Part of a larger housing project for destitute and transient folk, this modest dwelling contained barely enough space for one person to live. Black mold grew in the dank corners of the housing unit and two incandescent bulbs were their only sources of light as the sun did not penetrate the city levels this far down. As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, Sulla met a hauntingly familiar pair of compassionate, intense brown eyes.

“This is the third night in a row you’ve overslept!” Kore complained. She wore an unimpressed expression on her face, but having known her for so long, Sulla knew that this would pass soon. Upon seeing the face of the woman he had loved for over two years, he found himself unable to contain a mischievous smile. Rolling her eyes, Kore motioned over to the dining area, where his younger sister Ennoia was already devouring this morning’s breakfast.

“Up late again, huh bro? Something you don’t want us to see?” taunted Ennoia. Looking over the table, Sulla met Kore’s uncomfortable gaze. Shrugging, he turned his attention to the stockpile of food they had managed to save over several months as a result of his nightly trade. Grabbing two slices of stale bread and some fruit preserves, he hastily made himself a sandwich. After three exhausting nights, today was a rare occasion where Sulla would allow himself to rest. Lately, he had been using what little leftover money he had to purchase new dyes and oils.  His meticulous paintings of rolling hills, vibrant sunsets, and long-extinct wildlife were his best approximations of pictures from the historical archives of a bygone era. Right underneath a small bulb that meagerly illuminated the far side of the room, Sulla sat down on a rusted folding chair and propped up his makeshift easel. Bringing out a brush and some canvas, Kore gently set them in his hands.

“While I’d love to sit here and watch you mix your favorite shades of green together, I need to make sure Ennoia keeps learning how to read today. It was your idea, after all,” she remarked.

“She’ll need to make a life for herself once we finally get out of here. And I mean all of us.” emphasized Sulla.

Smiling, Kore turned back to the dining room and sat herself beside a very unenthusiastic Ennoia.

“Our little princess sure looks excited today!” joked Kore.

“You know that we already did this yesterday? And the day before that! It’s the same book every time, and in all the eleven years I’ve been alive I’ve never seen another one down here.” complained Ennoia.

And to a certain degree, she was right. There was no reason for proles like them who dwelt in the low levels of the city to be able to read, and there were almost no books to go around anyway. The vast majority of literature was reserved for the holy men of the Church and nobles of the Dynatoi, as it was only a valuable skill in the higher classes of society. But both Kore and Sulla knew that Ennoia had an inimitable capacity to learn beyond any person they’ve seen, regardless of class. If anyone had the capability to reach beyond the squalor of Veii’s lowest level and make a life for themselves in the high towers among the gentle clouds, shining sun, and deep blue sky, it would be Ennoia.

With this in mind, Kore readjusted herself in her chair and gave Ennoia a nudge, looking on insistently. Ennoia stubbornly turned her head the opposite direction. Kore’s gaze drifted to the book in her hand, the light above the dining table flickering on and off; she felt like the room itself was waiting for her to start. Ennoia reluctantly turned her attention back to the book. About 300 pages thick, a weathered leather cover overlaid the wrinkled pages. Decades of wear and tear had made the bindings extremely delicate as the book found its way down society’s ladder along the generations of Kore’s family. Kore was taught to read at an early age from her mother, who came from a displaced minor noble house stripped of their power and privilege during one of the myriad political conflicts that periodically gripped the Dynatoi.  Mirroring Sulla’s situation, her mother did not live to see the age of thirty-five; it was common for malnutrition and various degenerative diseases to run unchecked in this part of Veii.  With Ennoia not having a book until the age of eight, it proved much more difficult for her to learn despite her aptitude.

Leaning back in her chair and stretching her arms wide, Ennoia started her routine as she stumbled her way through the fourth story in the book as Kore watched on.  Titled “Tales of Idra'', the book was a loose collection of historical legends and fables often reserved for noble youth during church activities. Ennoia was careful not to rip the pages out of their bindings, and would instinctively turn to Kore any time she needed help.  At the end of every chapter she would let out a sigh of relief, satisfied and proud of her progress. With Ennoia being the closest thing she had to a little sister, Kore was always delighted to lend a hand whenever she needed help and glowed with pride to see Ennoia overcome her trials, no matter how small.

In the meantime Sulla sat toward the back of the room, just barely illuminated by the only other light source in the dwelling. Meticulously looking over his crude palette, it was not the usual day of painting old pictures with peaceful nature vistas.  Looking back towards the center of the room, he saw Kore and Ennoia huddled around the book, poking fun at the stiff, formal words used by nobles the book was written for.  Today was the happiest and most relaxed everyone had been in years. For now, the usual concerns of finding food for the next week or worrying about the next bombing had evacuated their minds. And this was the scene that Sulla wanted to celebrate on his canvas.

Having prepared the wide range of colors to be blended, Sulla quickly got to work.  He framed the dimensions of the room, carefully outlining all right the angles from his perspective.  Sulla had previously experimented with self portraits here and there, meaning that Ennoia would be the easier of the two to paint.  For siblings with different fathers, Ennoia and Sulla's appearances bore striking similarities.  Due to an unreliable supply of food in the lower levels of Veii the two appeared to have thin frames, but years of being chased by authorities and brawling with fellow starving orphans made them much stronger than they appeared. From their mother, they inherited the same black, silky hair and piercing green eyes that seemed to see right through whoever caught their gaze.  A birthmark resembling two interwoven snakes ran up and down the side of her neck.  Much like everyone else on the floor of Veii, her complexion was pale. As he finished painting Ennoia, Sulla smiled as tears welled up in his eyes.  His sister was steadily growing into the splitting image of their late mother, and her stubborn attitude was starting to catch up as well.  He collected himself and began to paint Kore.  Her hair was wavy and uncommonly a light shade of blonde. Her fetching brown eyes always seemed to light up any room she was in, and he had yet to encounter anybody in the city that possessed such beauty. In contrast to her delicate, frail figure, Kore possessed a vivacious personality and was typically the life of any conversation.  With his painting nearly finished, he relaxed his tired hands and slumped back in the chair.  Looking back over to the dining table, he quickly noticed that Kore was once again having trouble breathing.

Kore found herself collapsed, gripping her chest tightly as a long fit of coughs ripped through her lungs. Sulla quickly ran to her side and held her as she weakly tried to find her ground. This was not the first time this has happened. He signaled Ennoia to run to the kitchen to prepare some preserved herbs.  Kore was always of a frail constitution but her physical state seemed to be worsening.  Her coughing fits were growing more frequent and her face had become even more pale.  Ennoia returned with the herbs and gently fed them to Kore which seemed to settle her down a bit.  Ennoia was young but very perceptive, she knew that something was deeply wrong with Kore.  The siblings lifted Kore onto one of the beds to let her rest.  Fatigued, she drifted asleep before being able to witness a deeply distressed expression from Ennoia. As if desperately asking for help, Ennoia looked up to Sulla but was driven back frightened. Beneath his seemingly stoic expression she could see the bitter rage and desperation in his eyes.  Once he calmed himself down, he briefly shared a mutual gaze with Ennoia. Instinctively, they both knew what they had to do. To find some more medicinal herbs, Sulla ran out the entrance of the dwelling and into the city. Ennoia spent the rest of the day keeping a sleeping Kore company, trying her best to read the book out loud.  By the time night fell, Ennoia was fast asleep in a chair by Kore's bedside and Sulla had yet to return.  Waking up, Kore let out a weak smile and patted Ennoia's head.

"You'll catch a cold if you fall asleep for too long without a blanket you know," remarked Kore. 

"As if I can care about that right now! How are we gonna get you better?" mumbled Ennoia, still half asleep.

"Don't you know why your brother has been going out so late?"

"Well when is he going to let me help? We've always done these things together..." Barely awake, Ennoia's body language betrayed her words as she climbed into bed.

"With how sleepy you are right now, I don't think he'd appreciate it."  Grabbing a refreshing sip of water from her nightstand, she watched over a sleeping Ennoia until she too drifted into dreams.

Unlike Kore, Ennoia remained unaware of the exact nature of Sulla's nightly escapades into the dark heart of Veii. Raised in the unforgiving lowest level of the city, Kore and the siblings were familiar with the drastic measures needed to survive on The Floor. As children they were able to live off of scant wages through backbreaking labor as illegal house servants and couriers, swindling and stealing the difference from rich travelers from the middle-upper levels. These visitors came down to The Floor for special services deemed undesirable by most; gambling, pleasure, substances, and occasionally purchasing bond slaves with promises of erased debt and supplying meager income to their families.

But what Sulla was doing right now was far more dangerous. Serving as an information courier, Sulla was an unsanctioned traveler of The Interface: the enormous brain-machine network encompassing Minos. With most of the economy automated, the most scarce resource was data and the means to process it. Sulla’s mind served as an underground conduit for illicit information spanning the depths of The Interface. Clients rented his brainpower to pass discrete information from point A to point B without attracting the attention of the authorities.

Checking back in, Sulla found Kore and Ennoia asleep.  At ease knowing they were asleep and safe, he went back to navigating the unforgiving streets of Veii.  Heading to a former uranium processing plant, he looked over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t followed before entering. He made his way through long winding hallways that seemed to lead nowhere, and the musty smell of decay filled his lungs. Finally, Sulla found the underground hub full of reclining pods. This was one of many backdoor entrances to The Interface. Inside each of them lay a pair of connecting rods designed to penetrate into the neck of any citizen desperate enough to do this. Kore was ailing quickly, and the best chance he had to extend her lifespan were medicines no man of his status could afford. Knowing each trip may well be his end, his last thoughts before plugging in always drifted back to Ennoia and Kore’s smiling faces. Sulla sat himself down in the machine. To his left, was a man whose brain was so battered he could barely breathe. To his right, a smell so foul he dare not look inside. He took a deep breath, and drifted off into The Interface. The dream was over.

Sulla opened his eyes, still disoriented from the shock-staff, his head was pounding and his eyes felt as if they would burst out of their sockets. He glanced around the small cell, it was clean and well lit with sterile gray walls and floor. He could not be sure how long he had been unconscious. Before he had time to collect himself, Sulla heard footsteps approaching. He turned towards the cell door and saw Lieutenant Vanir, wearing a concerned expression on his face.

“Do you understand what you have done?” Vanir asked.

“Yes sir, and I am prepared to face the consequences.” Sulla replied.

“I am sure you realize that this court martial will not be a fair trial, Syphax has seen to it that you will be executed.”

“I will figure something out sir.”

“They will be coming for you soon Sulla, good luck.”

“Thank you sir.”

On cue two military police officers appeared to escort him to the courtroom. Sulla went with them without resistance.

The military courtroom was a cavernous building; a giant vaulted ceiling topped the room. Beautiful stained glass windows depicting historical scenes covered the walls. There were panels showing the triumph of the original Dynatoi in the War of the Six Beneficent Lashes which had been fought between Minos and the neighboring country of Alabarch over three hundred years ago. It had lasted a generation and almost led to the utter destruction of Minos. In desperation the previous Minoan government created a super soldier program which won them the war. These original super soldiers were the first Dynatoi; after they destroyed Alabarch they realized that there was nothing stopping them from seizing power in Minos, which they promptly did. There were panels depicting their conquest of Alabarch, the climactic Battle of Rossenbacher where a force of a hundred thousand supersoldiers crushed an Alabarch army five times their number. There were panels depicting the Dynatoi coup against the civilian government of Minos. Panels depicting the establishment of the Eternal Diet. Panels depicting the union between the Dynatoi and the Holy Church. And panels depicting the various wars and conquests that Minos had waged in the past three centuries. This was not some makeshift battlefield court, this was the Reichskammergericht in the capital of Veii: the highest court in Minos.

At one end of the room was a raised dais of polished, stygian stone. In the middle of the dais was an ornate oak chair on which the judge sat. The nameplate on the dais read Mirax of Amal. Sulla knew of the House of Amal: they were the wealthiest and most powerful of the Dynatoi. They controlled the most seats in the Eternal Diet out of all the Dynatoi houses; the leadership of the military, bureaucracy, and Church were stacked with their scions. Mirax of Amal was a niece of the current head of the House and held the rank of major general in the military and High Adjudicator in the court system. In Minos there was no distinction between military and civilian courts; cases were handled by the same set of judges who were almost always drawn from Dynatoi families. Sulla knew Mirax by reputation; she had made her military career hunting down and crushing anti-government revolutionaries before transitioning to the judicial system. She had a special intolerance of deserters and traitors and seemed to enjoy handing out death sentences to them. Sulla had no doubt that this particular choice of judge was Colonel Syphax’s doing. The House of Ilus was very close to the House of Amal, they frequently intermarried and had been steadfast allies to each other in the internecine political skulddugery that periodically seized the Dynatoi houses. Minoan military tribunals were already heavily stacked in the prosecution’s favor. Defendants were provided an attorney whose goal was to convince them to admit their guilt rather than to get them acquitted. With Mirax of Amal as his judge, he was almost certain to receive a death sentence.

The trial commenced with the standard Iurandum Veritatis: the Oath of Truth. Then Mirax started proceedings, witnesses from Valkyrie Regiment were called who testified that he had disobeyed direct orders, Syphax, Vanir, and Jax among others. And none of it was a lie, Sulla had disobeyed direct orders from his commanding officer. The execution of the Thulean prisoners had been justified under Minoan military law. Sulla knew he had done the right thing, but that scarcely mattered in this environment. He was already a traitor in the eyes of the court, all that was left was to go through the motions of justice.

The trial concluded after just a couple hours.

“After reviewing the evidence and the testimony of the witnesses, and taking into account your service record and commendations, I find you guilty and sentence you to death by firing squad, you will be executed tomorrow morning.” Judge Mirax casually declared.

Although Sulla had expected this outcome, it still filled him with anguish. Not for himself, but for those he had left behind, he had lived for twenty-seven years and it would all come to an end here. But he could not afford to die now, he still needed to find Ennoia; he knew in his heart that she was still alive. He had made it his mission to find her ever since she disappeared six years ago. He had fruitlessly searched for a year after her disappearance before deciding to join the army. His entire motivation for joining the army was to find Ennoia, he needed access to combat-grade augmentations and he needed the political connections.

After the trial, the guards marched him to a small cell, not the same one that they took him from. There were three other people in the cell; two men and one woman. As Sulla sat down the nearest man turned to him.

“Hey there, name's Ezekiel! Ezekiel the deserter.” The man said cheerfully. “What’s yours?”

“Sulla, former Staff Sergeant Sulla.”

“Well what brings you to death row, Staff Sergeant Sulla?”

“I disobeyed orders from my commander to massacre some Thulean prisoners, so here I am. What about you?”

“I was with the XII Guards Divisions stationed here in Veii, our mission was to hunt down and annihilate anti-government and anti-Church groups.”

Sulla knew the XII Guards by reputation; they were an elite division whose sole mission was to suppress anti-government activity; they frequently worked with agents of the Holy Church to destroy cults.

“My platoon got into a skirmish with some cultists. We had dealt with these types before; they tend to be unorganized rabble who melt away at the first sign of a battle. These guys were something different though, they all fought like animals with a rabid fanaticism that shocked even us. They were organized and disciplined and seemed to know our exact locations and tactics. They fell on us in a city square between two large buildings. Our Lieutenant was killed instantly, decapitated by a cultist, so the Archon who was our liaison from the Church took command. We killed dozens but more kept coming, they were chanting a name over and over again: Sophia, Sophia, Sophia. The name seemed to give them power, to numb their bodies to pain. I deserted soon after.”

“Who is Sophia?” Sulla asked.

“I don’t know, but they were carrying small icons of her. She was depicted as a young woman with dark hair and a mark on the side of her neck.”

This detail piqued Sulla’s curiosity.

“What did the mark look like?” He asked.

“Like two snakes entwined.” Ezekiel replied.

Sulla recoiled from surprise; this was the clue he had been searching for. It could not be a coincidence that Ennoia had a birthmark on her neck in the shape of twin serpents. Somehow Ennoia had come into contact with an anti-Church cult and was going under the name Sophia. He would have to get to the bottom of this if he was to find her. Six years without any information about Ennoia had driven him close to the breaking point. He had consoled himself with the knowledge that the political connections obtained from an officer’s commission would help him search for her; but there was no hope of that now.

“What do you know about this cult?” Sulla asked.

“Not much, but they were cut above the average riffraff that we deal with. We don’t know much about their beliefs beyond just opposing the Church, and we don’t even know their name or who their leaders are. They’re based here in Veii and operate on all levels, but they’re stronger the closer you get to The Floor.”

“Alright thanks, I need to get out of here.” Sulla replied.

“Well you’re in luck, we’ve been working on an escape plan.” Ezekiel declared. “One of the guards here is a friend, we managed to convince him to help us. He has no more love for the commanders than you do. He’ll come by in the middle of the night to let us out.”

“Are you sure you can trust him?” Sulla asked.

“Yeah he was an old buddy of mine from before we joined the army, the higher-ups don’t know about us.”

Around midnight Sulla heard footsteps. A guard he had never seen before approached the cell and exchanged a few words with his colleague guarding the cell. It was time for the changing of the guard. After the first guard had left the new guard turned to Ezekiel.

“I disabled the surveillance system on this cell, but you’ll have to steal my gun and shoot me with it to make it believable.” The guard said while unlocking the cell.

“If you insist.” Ezekiel replied and without hesitation grabbed the guard’s sidearm and shot him twice, in the leg and the side. The guard went down writhing in pain but managed to not scream.

“What now?” Sulla asked.

“Those two will create a diversion.” Ezekiel replied, pointing to the two other prisoners in. “We’ll make our way to the warden’s office.”

“Why the hell are we going to the warden’s office?”

“The warden has a secret passage that leads outside the prison.”

“Won’t they be guarding that?”

“For sure, but it’s a better option than trying to storm one of the main exits.”

Sulla and Ezekiel moved swiftly while the other two prisoners went off in the other direction to start a riot and draw attention away. Sulla and Ezekiel would head towards the warden’s office staying out of sight.

The warden’s office was empty when Sulla and Ezekiel arrived. Ezekiel removed a floor panel exposing a tunnel entrance. But before they could enter a squad of military police arrived at the office. They had not been noticed yet so they would have to do this quickly before the MPs could raise the alarm. On Ezekiel’s cue they attacked together; Sulla rushed the nearest MP knocking him out with a swift right hook. He picked up the MP’s gun and shot another one twice in the chest, then another. Ezekiel was strangling the sergeant when another MP moved behind him, Sulla shot her in the back of the neck. They finished off the rest of the squad before they could raise the alarm. Ezekiel was unharmed but Sulla had taken a grazing shot on his right shoulder.

“Let’s go.” Ezekiel said.

They stepped into the tunnel, it led out directly into the city. The Veii night was cold and crisp, they were on one of the upper levels in the government district. He could see the Eternal Diet building in the distance: a gargantuan ziggurat built from massive slabs of black stone. Across from it was the Cathedral of Light, the headquarters of the Holy Church: an equally impressive domed building.

“What are you going to do now?” Sulla asked.

“I’m going to get out of Veii for a while, they'll be searching for us. Best if you come with me.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I have something that I need to do.”