Marcus wiped the blood from his hammer, cleaning his face of sweat and splatter with his forearm.
“I don’t mind being sprayed with blood normally, but this damn lizard blood has a stench to it.”
Marcus sniffed at his forearm and recoiled, trying his best to shake it off.
“Sticks too, great.”
“Oh, quit your complaining; at least you did not get soaked by the big one.” Mesca said as he struggled to remove the blood from his face.
“That is just what you get when you use a sword to cut the throat of your enemy. I stayed clean.”
Jester teased as she spun, showing off her clean uniform.
Heas walked past, flicking his wrist at Mesca and Marcus. The blood covering them lifted and fell to the sands, congealing in the heat.
“Now your all pretty; let’s make sure everyone is ok. We have a job to do.”
Heas started to tend to others, cleaning them off and healing minor wounds with his magic. He was joined by others who wielded similar spell books. The rest of his group wandered around, seeing those who had not moved from their prone positions in the sand. They grimaced as they turned over corpse after corpse.
“This was a damn blood bath, must be at least ten of us dead.” Marcus covered his mouth as he pushed the fresh corpse away from him.
“Hey, gather them up. I need to pray to Moglo Cruor. Might gain some favor.”
Jester started to drag the lizard corpses to a pile; Mesca and Marcus rolled their eyes and helped.
“Do you think the gods get mad if you worship all of them? I understand learning multiple weapons, but why play with the gods?” Mesca said as he staked another corpse.
“So which one is this? You always worship the obscure gods.”
Jester looked up from the symbol she was painting in the sand with blood.
“The god of blood. He is near the top of the Pantheon you heathens. Now leave me to my work; I got praying to do.”
Jester pushed Mesca and Marcus towards Heas. They laughed as they left Jester to her worship.
“This a game to you?” Fain said as he watched the two laugh.
They quickly corrected themselves and stood to attention. Before either of them could speak, Jester’s pile of corpses started to illuminate. Fain looked past the two, squinting as he watched on.
“What on Dolor is that?” Fain said as he walked towards the corpses.
The light faded, and Jester was left crouching over corpses drained of all their blood. She turned and walked past Fain.
“What, am I not allowed to worship my god of choice out here?”
Fain looked at the corpses with disgust.
“I will allow this, once. I don’t want to see this ever again.”
A look of concern fell across Fain’s face. A look that he was unable to hide. He muttered under his breath as he turned away from the scene. “That is more than a little unnerving.”
“Clean up; once the wounded are tended to, we leave the dead and move out.” Fain kicked over one of the initiate corpses. “Nothing but dead weight now. But for the love of respect, please do not drain their blood.”
Fain cleaned his blade in the sand before making his way to the carts, counting his men as he went. Letting out a sigh of relief as he reached a full count. Looking at the new initiates, he counted several below full, even more that were wounded. He turned to his right-hand man.
“This is the sorriest bunch of initiates that I have ever seen.”
“Agreed, they seem to be getting worse with every new group.” His right-hand man took a drink from the canteen. “Well, all of them except those four.” He said as he gestured to the dead men.
“Them? They are a bunch of idiots who have gotten lucky. The only reason they were not cut down was because they were the last ones to enter that fight.”
“But they also killed more than any group. Additionally, they did it in unison. They work well together. Could be a good match for the long term.”
“Saulson, that is too bold. I decide who gets the offer to stay on after training. Not you.”
Saulson laughed, closing his notepad. “A little bitter, are we? Why is it that the few competent souls we have you hate?”
Fain looked at Heas as he tended to the wounded one after another, draining his energy with every spell. Selflessly he moved with haste to the next one as he healed the last. Fain climbed back onto his cart and grabbed the reins. Saulson followed and sat beside him.
“No one, I mean no one works that hard without a motive. These kids are up to something.”
He watched as Heas nearly collapsed from exhaustion, but after shaking his head, he carried on.
Saulson watched with intrigue. “I hate to admit this, but I do agree with you. He is constantly looking this way; maybe there is something to this recruit. We need to find out before we offer him permanent residence here. Or even offer him residence and keep an eye on him, wait for him to slip up.”
Fain grinned; he waited till Heas looked up and locked eyes with him.
“Come here, Heas.” He looked at the rest of the Deadmen as they worked to help those around them. “In fact, bring your whole squad.”
Heas gathered the rest of his friends; they made their way over to Fain and Saulson and stood to attention.
“Yes, sir?” Heas said as he stood, knees wavering under the exhaustion.
“We don’t usually do this, but we would like to offer you all a place in the guard.”
“No thanks.” Jester slipped out.
“Now, we don’t offer just anyone this. We can only afford to… Did you just say no?”
Mesca spoke up. “We all took this job for several reasons, but after joining up, we will leave for one.”
Fain looked to Saulson with confusion.
“So, none of you want to join the guard?” Fain asked.
All four shook their heads in unison before heading back to help others.
“Now I am very curious as to what they want.” Saulson said as he made further notes next to the Deadmen’s name. Fain seemed to lose interest as his eyes locked onto the swirling sands that surrounded them.
“We leave now. Any who can’t walk, we shall lift onto the carts. The sands are getting restless; we need to leave.”
Fain yelled as he flicked his wrists, waking his camels and setting them forward.
“Anyone who stays behind gets left behind; now move.”
The Deadmen rushed to get the wounded onto the carts. But Fain and his men were certain to shift forward. Marcus tossed one onto the top of the last cart, but there was still two left behind.
“Heas, they are moving the carts much faster. Something must be up.” Marcus yelled as he ran back to grab another wounded man. Heas looked around the sands; he could see them starting to lift from the masses. Fine sand lifted from the ground, swirling into the air.
“Sands are shifting, lifting into the air. Forget the rest; we need to be on those carts.” Heas yelled as he turned to his friends. Marcus and Mesca both had a wounded individual under their arms.
“What do we do with these two then?” Mesca grunted out as he struggled to keep his balance with the weight of another leaning on him. Heas looked at the carts as they started to pick up speed, then back to the two who could barely stand.
“Sorry, but I am not dying out here.”
Heas grabbed Mesca’s silver dagger, killing both of the wounded men.
“A quick death is better than one in a sandstorm; it had to be done.”
After speaking, Heas realized that the others had already picked up their things and were running toward the carts.
“We have your bag; now run, Heas.” Mesca yelled as he continued to sprint towards the carts.
Heas picked up foot and ran after the carts as the sand behind him started to pick up speed. As each footfall lifted, the sand lifted with it. Raising higher than it should, twisting up into the air till it spiraled into small twisters that faded shortly after birth.
“I will be disappointed in my fate if we are to die by a damned sandstorm.” Heas yelled as he caught up to the others. His duffel bag was tossed to him as he made rank behind the carts. Those on the carts yelled for them to catch up. Cheering them on as they watched the sands begin to stand tall. The four clasped hands with others on the carts and were hoisted onto the carts. Everyone stared back as the drivers lashed at the camels to move with haste. The sands behind them started to form large cylinders that lifted the corpses left behind. Tossed meters into the air, the corpses fell to the ground, the sand cylinders faded, and the sands settled. A sigh of relief sounded from all on and in the carts. The drivers slowed the camels once again and continued their journey calmly.
“We are not far away now; make sure you are presentable for the warden when we arrive; she does not appreciate a lapse in uniform.”
For the remainder of the journey, everyone ensured they were in top shape for when they arrived. The sun started to fall from the sky, painting the clouds with oranges and reds. Below the vibrant sky, just over the next dune, the prison started to crest into sight.
“Bit smaller than I thought. Can this place really fit everyone here?” Mesca said as lent towards Heas.
“It is almost completely underground, you dunce, the surface area is pretty much just for guards. Then down below is where the prisoners are kept to mine.” Heas turned to the others. “Did no one read up on the place we were going?”
The other three awkwardly shook their heads with a little shame.
“Damn idiots, this is why you all look so lost when we shift camps.”
“Not our fault you are a nerd; we are too busy to deal with such things.” Jester said, pointing her nose skyward.
“Like being a snob.” Heas laughed. “But in all seriousness, if our plan is to come to fruition, we need to read up. All of us, not just me.”
They all agreed reluctantly, knowing that they would be reading far more than they would hope on their journey.
“Since none of us have, have you read anything on the warden here? I’ve heard she has insane standards for people.” Marcus added.
“Sadly not, there is not much written about her; she is a bit of a mystery. Even how she climbed the ranks is not written. It is like one day she just appeared as this jail warden, and no one has questioned it.” Heas said, cautious to keep his voice lower than the commander could hear.
“We need to keep it down low for a while, though; commander would not have offered us a position unless he was suspicious of us. I know for a fact he hates me.”
“Alright, ladies, the prison is in full view. You better have yourselves sorted because we will be in her walls before long. And remember, once we stop you all stand to attention, moving only once she lets you.”
The initiates seemed to stir as the rumors of who the prison warden was drifted from person to person. The sudden realization that they were nearly there made her seem all the scarier. Entering the wall, they could see the above encampment was nothing spectacular, a couple of sturdy wooden walls with equally strong-looking buildings inside. But remarkably bland and confined, even for a prison. To either side of the carts, there were large stones with chained manacles lying nearby that anchored into the walls. Before them, the central building with a high-standing tower on one side and a forge on the other, the middle seems to be one large open room. As the carts stopped, everyone dismounted but was unsure of where to stand until the Deadmen lined up beneath a catwalk attached to the wall. On top of the catwalk was a fierce-looking woman standing to attention, glaring down at her new recruits. A few moments passed as everyone arranged themselves into their groups and stood to attention. Silence. Not even the desert dare make a noise.
“I recently got rid of the last initiates; they were mindless idiots. I can see that this camp shall be afflicted with the same mindless idiots once again.”
The warden continued to stand at attention, inspecting everyone as she looked through the crowds of tired-looking recruits.
“I am Morag, and I am the warden of this prison. For the next few months, I shall also be your Shepard, as I attempt to hear you all away from the dangers of the desert. This is the last step of your training, but do not expect to learn anything other than life is hard, harder than you would ever expect.” Morag started her descent down some stairs to where the initiates stood.
“This is a benign desert compared to some that are out there, so consider yourself lucky that this is the most isolated one. I expect you all to be better than the last, so my standards are set very low, but I know you will all manage to fall below them.”
Morag pointed to the large central building as she made contact with the sand.
“That will be your sleeping quarters; it is one large room you will all share. Once you have achieved some level of competency, we can see you to your own private quarters. Well, at least, not as shared as that one.”
Standing to full attention in front of everyone, she yelled.
“You are to pick a bed, place your belongings upon it. You shall do this first, do you understand.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Everyone yelled in return.
“You shall then return outside, where you will chain the convicts to these chains. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” They again all yelled.
“Finally, you shall wait in this courtyard till your group is issued tomorrow’s tasks. Now move initiates.”
Everyone sprinted away from Morag as she watched them with disappointment plastered across her face. Everyone fought as the first tried to run out the same door as those still trying to claim a bed for themselves. A cacophony of yelling started as arguments started to stir. Narrowly avoiding conflict, the doorway emptied of those entering, and everyone started to pour out of the lodgings and back into the courtyard. The prisoners were too exhausted to fight back; the lack of water had rendered them weak. With little effort, they were ushered to their holdings; even the Skelegeist went without complaint. As the carts emptied, the older guards took the carts behind the main building, away from the courtyard. Clearing an open space for the initiates to form ranks before Morag.
All four groups ordered themselves before Morag; standing to full attention, they locked their eyes forward. Dry swallows could be heard as the exhausted initiates tried desperately to swallow what little saliva they had left in their mouth.
“I want one person from each group to step forward as that group’s leader. They will be responsible for that group from here on in. If the group does well, the leader will receive extra praise and reward; if the group misbehaves, the leader will suffer twice the lashings. You have one minute.”
The groups all muttered to one another as Mesca stood forward for the Deadmen. Morag looked across to them for an instant before her eyes went back to the remaining three groups.
“Ten seconds; I want to see someone step forward for every group.”
In a mad rush, one individual was pushed forward against his will; too scared to turn back, he stood his ground. Another stepped forward with only a second to go, all while the last group still bickered.
Morag moved across to stand in line with the final group. Her presence silenced the group immediately.
“Judging by your constant chatter, I assume you must be the Banshee’s. Am I correct?”
“yes, Ma’am.” The group yelled.
“You.” Morag said pointing her finger at the closest individual. Panicked, he stepped forward.
“There, now everyone has a leader. As I walk down the line, the leader shall state their group and their name. You shall all remember them as they will be your go-to individuals for the remainder of your stay. Starting here, let’s go.”
Morag continued her slow march; once she reached the next leader, they sounded off.
Morag stopped and stared down Mesca; he struggled to keep focus as he felt his body shake with fear.
“From what I heard from the commander during your dismounts, he should be a leader.” Morag gestured to Heas, then looked back to Mecca.
“Respectfully, Ma’am, he is smart, but not a good leader. He is too self-centered and struggles to put others before him.”
Mesca held his composure as he felt beads of sweat enter his eyes.
“Interesting, well we shall see if you fair any better then. Shall we?”
“Four groups with four leaders, this is a start. Now I wanted to give you tasks for tonight, but Fain has mentioned that you had quite the encounter before arriving here. Apparently, a large number of you could not handle the bite of the desert. Instead, I shall allow you all to sleep tonight; fortunately for you, those before you left this prison in fairly good shape.”
Morag started to head towards the tower that was attached to the side of the main hall.
“Banshee’s guard duty in the morning, Pig’s Guard duty in the evening, Sheep, cleaning duty. Finally, Deadmen, training, Intensive. All day. Now do as you will; you have been let off light, don’t think it will happen again.”
Morag disappeared into the tower, leaving everyone standing confused in the courtyard.
“You heard her; get to bed, you ingrates. Take this chance to rest because starting tomorrow, the real struggle begins.” Fain yelled as he dismissed everyone to the main hall.
Mesca stood still as he watched everyone else leave in one large group.
“Is it just me, or does it seem like we are the only ones who got given a difficult task. They each have at least half a day off. While we have training all day tomorrow.”
“Intensive training; now let’s go to bed.” Marcus corrected as he followed the group to the bed hall.
“I think she thinks she can break us.” Mesca said before following the others inside.
Jester let out a laugh. “Good luck with that; we never break.”
Everyone filled into the bed hall. Meanwhile, Morag resided above. She stared out an open window listening to everyone below.
“Never break, hmm, we will see about that. Come tomorrow, we’ll see what you have, Deadmen.”