Dustan had been completely unable to sleep. The slab of wood beneath him was rough and the heads of the nails weren't flush, the edges sticking up and raking against his skin. The man behind him breathed so quietly that the incessant whispering of the pair above them drowned it out, which was somehow more distracting than if he'd been a loud breather. Dustan frequently wondered if he was on death's door. It wouldn't have surprised him. But when the other two finally fell asleep, he could hear a very faint, shallow breathing coming from the other man. Once or twice he would whisper in his sleep.
Slowly, dawn came over them, and surprisingly, its presence was evident if not brilliant. Teeny, tiny holes no bigger around than Dustan's own thumb existed in the ceiling above them—ten beds higher than he was now. Tiny beams of light extended through these holes, dappling the floor below, as well as the skin and faces of the individuals in the top tier of beds. Dustan wondered if it was worth the chill of the outside air to be able to see the sky. One night there, and he was already feeling claustrophobic.
The tiny cords of light dimly illuminated the room, and he could see that while many slept, there were others just like him, laying awake, watching the lit circles travel down the walls as the suns ascended. First silver, then white, then gold. Directly across and one bed lower, a woman lay awake, close to the edge, gazing up. Her skin was a warm olive tone, and her eyes a shocking lightness. He couldn't tell from where he was if they were blue or green. They stood out in stark contrast to her hair. She looked even more dirty and travel-worn than he. Her tunic—once white, he guessed—was faded and yellowed, and so thin that it creped against her small breasts, and he could see the protrusions of her nipples, stimulated by cold, through the fabric.
She caught him staring. He smiled, and waved, and she merely stared back at him for a moment, blinking slowly, staring right back at him.
He didn't look like her, nor did he look like the natives of the area. He'd spent the past week in Belae, one of Aur's largest Northern cities. The majority of the people in the beds around him, he could tell, were from there. Pale pink and freckled, they lay together like fawns, camoflauged with their spots. But he didn't know them. The woman, he could tell, was from Kerinth. He had been there before; a beautiful city on the far Western coast, half-afloat off shore, a remarkable accomplishment of ingenius architecture. It was a popular vacation destination for those who could afford to allow themselves such trips. He, however, had been there on business for Her Majesty. Like so many others, he had joined the armed forces at a young age, forfeiting his homeland for the sweeping, brilliant forest city of Gladyn, the capital of Aur.
The journey from his home land on the Southern shore had seemed long at the time, though comparatively traveling from any other corner of Aur to Gladyn was much further. He was young, and afraid. He'd considered turning back many times. Leaving home had been very difficult, but arriving made it so much easier. The moment he'd stepped over the hillside and saw the sea of giant, ship-sized flowering trees surrounding a central one the size of a mountain, extending over that pure, crystalline lake…he'd known he was home.
50 beds below, the ring of the door—small and narrow, located in place of two beds on one wall—shook through the space, and a black-cloaked Terthian guard stepped through, his leather armor quietly shifting as he walked. His hair was surprisingly smooth and nicely-braided, his braid similarly well-kempt and neat. Surprising, because though young, the man was quite wide and with a heavy brow and rounded nose, Dustan thought that the vanity paid to his hair was probably a waste of time, on his part.
When he spoke, it was evident to Dustan that it was the same man as the night previous. "Good morning, swine." Same to you, hog. Dustan thought it, but bit his tongue. "I hope you've taken this morning, as always, to thank Eruv to be alive and here. Now it's time for work! Get down and get outside!"
Dustan did thank Eruv. He'd been thanking Him all night. He'd also been dwelling on the irony that two kingdoms were slaughtering one another under the name of the same God. But just as the two suns were locked in an agonizing eternal battle, so, it seemed, were Terutas and Aur.
The beds shook dangerously as people began to pour out of them. Between the foot and head of each bed was a ladder that stretched from floor to ceiling, and with the exception of those who were close to the floor, and those who were stupidly brave and insisted on climbing down each bed one-by-one to bypass the wait time, everyone clustered at the heads and feet of their beds, to grab onto the ladder. Some were impatient, others seemed content to wait. It was obvious who had been there the longest.
Dustan cautiously grabbed ahold of the ladder, and swung himself out onto it. An older, gray-bearded man above him stepped on his hand, and he cursed aloud. The man was unapologetic, and frowned down at him impatiently, threatening to step on his face if he didn't climb down. Dustan glanced back into his bed, but it was empty. His bunkmate must have already climbed down the ladder on the other side.
Tightly gripping the cold, worn, sweaty rungs, he made his way down, fingers dodging the old man's boots any time he became too sluggish in his descent. Finally, he reached the floor, and quickly backed away from the ladder. The old man jumped down, spry and nimble, and didn't spare Dustan a second glance. Dustan discretely rubbed his hands against his hips, feeling numb and dizzy as he tried to count which bed was his, from the floor. He couldn't. Nor could he pick out his roommate from the crowd. It hadn't struck him until that moment, but he hadn't actually looked at him in the light. Oh well.
They were herded toward the tiny door, and forced through two at a time, sometimes with difficulty. Dustan was squeezed through with the old man, who smelled like pickles and had an unpleasant crusty patch in and around his left ear. It was a little bloody. Dustan got up close and personal with it when they went through the door, and the hallway that followed was not much more comfortable. Turning his face away from the old man, he managed to ease his body away from him, ahead a couple of people and, to his mild satisfaction, right up next to the woman from across-and-down-one.
"Hey," he said to her. She looked at him with that same blank expression. "Hey, I said."
She rolled her eyes.
"No talking!" the guard grunted from behind. Dustan wondered how he could possibly hear them over all of the shuffling and murmuring associated with their footsteps.
"Nice going," she whispered, "you looking to get us in trouble, like last night?"
"Oh, come on. Nothing happened," he mumbled a little more carefully.
"It's not like I knew, okay? I'd just woken up!"
"No. Talking!" The men and women in arm's length of Dustan smacked and pinched him.
"Ow! Okay. Shit." He frowned and rubbed his arms, hunching his shoulders up so they could no longer pinch at his neck, and walked in silence until they reached the end of the hall. The woman had her arms crossed over her chest, and was staring blankly forward as they were led into a room reminiscent of the last one; stone and hexagonal. But it was devoid of any furniture, was wider, and the ceiling was low. There were a few rings of holes for light, and a door identical to the one they'd just exited led from each of the six walls. The sturdy guard with the nice hair locked the door behind them and nodded at another guard, who in turn walked through his own door. Adjacent to them, another door opened, and more people, just like them, were herded through into the large room. This repeated three times, and each time, the large room felt less and less adequate to fit them.
The guards sufficed to let them talk softly. It was impossible to keep them all quiet when there were more than a thousand of them penned in, there; chill, clammy bodies rubbing together. Dustan had never imagined them keeping so many survivors. Somehow, this revelation was more nauseating than death. Pressed unwittingly against his right side was the young woman. And somehow, despite his best efforts, the old man was on his left, and delivered Dustan a firm elbow to the ribs.
"Ow! What was that for?"
"Faern," he said, jabbing him again and holding out a strong but gnarled-looking hand. He must have been at least sixty-five. How had he survived to this point?
"Faern. That's my name." He nodded gruffly and his chin with its short, white puft of hair protruded a little as he looked at Dustan, who only stood an inch taller than him. Somehow, the man had rigorously maintained good posture in his back, though his head stooped forward a little. Dustan took his hand and shook it, a little incredulously. The old man's eyes, shadowed beneath overgrown white eyebrows, were wide and earnest.
"Dustan." The man's weathered bronze skin made it almost impossible to place his origin, which was something Dustan had come to pride himself on due to his many travels. But he knew he must have been from further south.
"Dustan!" he said, "That's a good name. Common to the cove area."
"That's right," Dustan couldn't help but to smile as he spoke, "You've been there?"
"Ha! Been there. Yes, I've been there. I've been all over. I've been all over Aur, all over Terutas, too, before this shitstorm came along." He waved a hand around in a circle to indicate basically everything .
This guy put Dustan to shame. Then again, he had a few years on him yet. "Really? You've been to Terutas? The closest I've ever come is the border."
"Son, I've been even more places than that. Name a place on this planet, I been there."
The continent of Eruv was divided into two kingdoms. Terutas to the north, and Aur to the south. There was nothing else on there. Many didn't even know anything else existed. But Dustan did. Their world was an enormous place, and there were more continents, just like Eruv—or so Dustan pictured—out there to explore.
If given the option, Dustan would have gladly abandoned this war in favor of new lands. Of course, the guilt of abandoning his country would plague him forever, but he was not naive—his presence alive or dead in this army meant little in the grander scheme of things. Particularly now that he'd been captured. When he didn't return, Her Majesty would send—if he hadn't already—someone to do the job he couldn't, and if it was possible, to find him. But he wouldn't expect more from her than that. It wouldn't be wise. And she was always wise.
"Ghellad," Dustan offered gamely. The old man beamed at him in pride, elbowing him roughly in the ribs again, just as unapologetic as he was when he stepped on his hands earlier.
"Well I'll be! A kid like you knows that this toilet isn't the center of the universe!"
"Quiet down!" This message was echoed by the room and by multiple sources as the guards subdued their conversing. The final door was pried open, and this one, much larger than the others, led not to a hall but out into a gray, grassy field. Everyone continued their conversations in whispers.
"Come on, walk." Faern prodded his side and kicked at his heels until Dustan pushed forward. The old man's nails were long and he could feel one cut the skin on his heel. As if he had any other choice than to move forward anyway, with the crush of people on every side of him. He either had to move with the stream, or be trampled to death by thousands of his countrymen. "So how's a kid like you come to know about Ghellad?"
Dustan could swear the olive-skinned woman was intentionally keeping with them.
"Well, I'm in the intelligence division of Her Majesty's forces." This he whispered, more than aware that such information might—if the guards were smart—get him killed. "In peacetime, I collect knowledge, and in war, I'm…"
"You're a spy!"
"Shh! Someone will hear you!" this time, the woman hushed Faern, several others around glancing at Dustan warily, as if he were spying on them, too.
"A royal spy. That's a low job." He quieted, but seemed unbothered by his own outburst. "Very underhanded and sneaky. I like it." Faern hissed as he laughed. "Can't do a very good job holed up in here though, can you?"
"No, not really."
They emerged at last, a tiny semblance of personal space and dignity returning to them as they were able to spread out from one another enough to not be touching constantly. Faern still walked pretty close though. Ahead of them the field was barren, and the grass was clearly malnourished. Dry and crunchy despite the lack of snow, it was rough under his feet. No rougher, however, than the rocky shores of his home town's beaches, though it had been quite some time since he'd run barefoot on those. He felt a tiny hint of shame at the discomfort of the grass. His feet were calloused from great travel, and yet the arches were tender and vulnerable.
The land gently sloped up ahead of them, and then abruptly, they were stopped. He could see a wave of people at the top of the hill descend as if the ground had fallen out beneath them. Incrementally, they were pushed forward then halted, pushed forward then halted, each time drawing closer to the crest of the hill where people were disappearing into something unseen.
"What's up ahead?"
"You have to see it to believe it," said the woman on his right in her soft yet abrupt voice. She seemed to only like talking when she wasn't being spoken to.
Dustan frowned, and as the group in front of them vanished, he saw what they'd gone down into. At the top of the hill was a hexagonal hole. A tunnel leading straight down. Chains unwrapped from wheels in little caves on the sides of the tunnel, where men where standing observing them as they appeared to simply turn on their own volition.
"I still don't understand."
A stone platform rose back up, flush with the hill, and Dustan, Faern and the girl, along with about sixty others, were corralled onto it. Dustan stood on the very edge, his toes still on the grass. Faern grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and pulled him back a few inches.
"Leven three for the lot of you," said the guard in Dustan's face, who became taller and taller as the stone floor shuddered and sunk down into the hill. The walls of the tunnel were smooth but apparently just earthen rather than the stone towers of the fortress above. Dustan could clearly make out the different layers in the soil as they descended, and it smelled like earth. Perversely, it reminded him of Gladyn. Light flooded them at first, extending from the hole above, but the further down they sunk, the less effective it became. Momentarily, they were in darkness.
"So what is it Her Majesty sent you looking for, anyway?"
"Well," he began, but paused when he saw light on the edges of the platform, coming from below them. It was bright, pure white, but occasionally he could see glimmers of green or red or blue. He felt like he was being lowered into a star—though it was too cold for that.
"Hey!" Fearn jabbed him. Did he always have to hit the same place? Dustan groaned and rubbed his ribs.
"Gee, for a soldier, you're sure not thick-skinned, are you Dustan?"
"So what are you looking for, again?"
He answered as the platform dropped down into the light, which blinded him momentarily, causing him to squint. "Her Majesty wants me to find where and how they make their magical weapons." He raised a hand to shield his eyes. Everyone else was doing the same as the platform lowered directly through the center of a gigantic version of the small white orbs that had lit up the sleeping chamber the previous night. It was deceptively cold and textureless, but made an unnatural humming sound that stayed in Dustan's ears even after they'd gone through it. Blinking his eyes open and rubbing his ears, he was able to look around at last. Above them was the star, in the center, shielding the hole they'd come from from sight. All along the walls were a spiraling matrix of rooms carved into the mud and reinforced with stone, and platforms similar to the one they were currently on, but much smaller, moving up and down and side to side through the enormous room. Everyone seemed to be in the midst of doing something, and sometimes there were sparks of various colors coming from whatever it was they were working on. A wave of heat overtook Dustan as they lowered past a man pouring liquid metal into a stone box.
The platform stopped on a specific level, and they were all pulled off into different areas. The odd trio of them, as well as a burly Belaean man and woman (they looked like siblings, and were chattering familiarly with one another), disembarked into a small room with piles of shining, multicolored stones lining the walls, and several stone basins on the floor. There seemed to be a red star under each, and the bottom of each basin was steaming. On the other end of the room were thick, cloudy glass bottles each the size of one of Dustan's own legs.
"You're lookin' for where they make their weapons?" Faern repeated. He wasn't smiling, but he laughed anyway. "Well, today's your lucky day, Dustan."
When the large platform raised back up, Dustan could see that light was coming from below as well. Carefully peering over the edge, he could see it all two levels below them: piles and piles of guns, swords, axes, and boxes upon boxes of glass bottles filled with various colors of liquid. Those down at level one were taking the bottles—the same as the empty ones sitting beside them—and pouring the liquid into hollow crevasses in the blades and barrels of the weapons. The ones doing this were Terthians, who imbued the liquid itself with their magic, causing it to glow and glitter before pouring it into its proper place. Copious amounts of unnaturally-bright-colored steam erupted each time this occurred. It made it slightly warmer, but also damper, and the smell was acrid and burned the inside of Dustan's nose.
Faern smacked him on the back roughly, then pulled him back from the edge of the platform, as if well aware that he could have just pushed him over the edge onto level two into a basin of boiling…something.
Dustan put his hands to his face and rubbed at his eyes, the rough ridges of his fingerprints helping to scrape some sleep sand from the corners of his own eyes. "You have got to be kidding me."
"Life's a funny thing, Dustan," said the woman, who proceeded to load a bunch of blue stones into her shirt like a hammock, carried them over to a basin, and dumped them in. His name sounded so weird when she said it. But not in a bad way. Not like when it was spoken with a Terthian accent. The Western accent just happened to have an odd little upward lilt to it, making almost every statement sound like it might be a question.
The other three had begun to follow suit, filling the basins similarly. He felt a conflict rise within him. Wouldn't he rather die than be even one set of helping hands to this operation? But as he'd figured out by now—they paused to stare at him until they saw him begin to collect stones—his rebellion could spell the end of them as well. And besides… he wasn't so naive as to think that the lack of his help would make or break the Terthian army's equipment supply. Wasn't he more useful alive, on the tiny chance that he might escape to warn Her Highness? That he might fulfill his job, and live up to her expectations?
He knew that it was incredibly unlikely that Aurish armies could ever find this place without guidance. The fortress above, certainly. But this? No. It was impossible.
Dustan would have to survive, and if he had it his way, he would lead his Queen there himself.