When the wagons creaked to a halt that evening and the wooden door at the back rattled with the efforts of someone to remove a heavy lock, Victor sat up, painfully, to get a good look outside. His efforts were largely wasted, though, as a man, broad in girth, stood in the doorway. He set down a basket of hard rolls and a bucket of water with a ladle and said, “If ya don’t share, I’ll beat the snot out of three of you at random.” Then he collected the disgusting bucket full of piss, shit, and vomit the prisoners had been sharing and slammed the door shut. Victor had started to open his mouth to voice a complaint about his stomach wound, but only a croak had escaped his throat.
“That’s no way to get yourself seen to,” the old man said to him with a wink. Victor snorted and waited his turn for a hard roll. When it came his way, it was truly hard. He couldn’t eat it until the water bucket made its way back to him, and he drank a few ladles. After he’d lubricated his mouth a bit, he was able to suck on the roll until he could scrape it off by fractions with his teeth. When he’d finished his meager dinner, he looked at Pel and cleared his throat.
“Hey, how long have we been out of the city? Out of Persi Gables?”
“Oh, that’s a funny one. We were auctioned off in Gelica. We’ve been in the wagon two days since.” This threw Victor for a loop. How long had he been out since that fucking monster destroyed his Core?
“How far is Gelica from Persi Gables?”
“Oh, hmm. Maybe a week with a mount. You really got put through the grinder, eh, Victor?”
“You’re damn right, my man. You’re damn right.”
“Hey! Hey, big Vodkin! Can you knock on the door? This guy has a badly infected wound - we should tell the wagonmaster,” Pel called out to the big, furry guy near the wagon’s door. The Vodkin studied him for a minute. His impassive black eyes blinked twice, then he nodded and thumped on the door three times. After a minute, the lock clattered around, and then the wagon’s door opened.
“This better be good, you mongrels!” The large shadow of the wagonmaster said; Victor couldn’t make out his features in the dim light.
“Sir! Pel, here! Um, this guy you’ve had passed out back here? He has a badly infected wound, but he’s awake. You might want to put something on it if you don't want him to croak before you get paid.”
“Bah, which one is he? Send him out here.” Victor could see his head dipping down so he could peer into the dim interior of the wagon.
“He’s chained, sir,” Pel supplied.
“I am not crawling in there. Come here, old man. I’ll give you the salve.” He motioned, and Pel eagerly scrambled to the door, bowing and scraping obsequiously when he got close to the wagonmaster. “Wait a minute.” The shadow departed for a moment, and Pel crouched in the doorway, then sand crunched under boots, and the wagonmaster was back. Pel came scurrying back into the wagon as the door slammed, and he squatted in front of Victor.
“You want me to put it on?”
“Uh, no. I’ll do it; thank you, Pel.” Victor took the little clay pot in the palm of his hand. He unscrewed the lid, catching a whiff of something pungent, then lifted the hem of his shirt to expose his swollen, bloody, pus-filled wound. He took a generous dab of the cream and rubbed it along one corner of his injury. He’d expected it to sting but hadn’t quite been ready for the lance of fire that shot through to his spine. He squeezed his eyes shut, inhaling through his nose, then took another dab and continued to spread it along the cut. He dabbed some around the puckered holes where the thick thread used to stitch him up stood out from his flesh. If he had a knife, he’d cut those stitches out - they looked disgusting and seemed too loose to be doing any good. By the time he was done, his eyes were red and bloodshot, and sweat was pouring off his brow.
The little clay pot was still half full, so he capped it and stuck it between him and the wagon wall. His stomach had stopped stinging, and the throbbing ache had subsided a lot, so he had a good feeling that the ointment was doing what it needed to. “Better?” Pel asked, leaning forward eagerly.
“Yes, Pel. Thanks again for speaking up.” Victor took a deep breath, and for the first time since waking up, he didn’t feel like he was in excruciating pain. When he lay back and closed his eyes, though, he found he couldn’t sleep, and as the night wore on, he grew more and more uncomfortable, alternating between sweating and shivering. At one point, Pel came over to him and felt his head.
“You’re feverish, Victor. Can I ask you a personal question?” Victor, sort of delirious, just nodded his head, staring glassy-eyed at Pel. “Do you have a Core? Have you cultivated and gained levels? I’m not familiar with your race, but someone with Energy and a few levels should be resistant to sickness.” Victor could only laugh at the statement or try, but it came out more like a croaking cough.
After that, the night became a blur of strange memories, dreams, and sweat-soaked reality. Victor was vaguely aware of the passage of time, with the wagon moving again and the sun shining between the boards in the ceiling and then stopping again. He’d never be sure exactly how many days passed that way, but sometime after the third or thirtieth day, he snapped out of his fever and ravenously drank from the water bucket that had been left beside him. Pel noticed his movement and scurried over. “Victor! You live! I spread that ointment on you twice more! Your wound looks a lot better,” he said and held a finger to his lips, showing Victor a tiny sliver of sharp metal in his other hand, “I cut them nasty stitches out too.” Victor lifted his shirt, noticing that his stomach was sunken and his ribs were protruding, but that the wound was just an angry red, raised scar now.
“Thanks, Pel. I owe ya one.”
“No, you don’t, Victor. I caught a glimpse of some of the threads around you in one of my dreams, and I’d rather you didn’t bind yourself to me. No offense, my friend, but I saw a lot of bloodshed in your path.”
“You can see the future?”
“Not that neatly, no. I see potential, and I can see some of the paths you’ve taken and some of the paths you might take. It’s not easy to explain. My class is Augur, but I’m rather hobbled at the moment.” He shrank back to the wagon wall and pulled his knees to his chest. Victor didn’t know how to react to what he’d said. Was he doomed? He shook his head and decided not to dwell on it; he already knew he had a shitload of problems - it was nothing new.
That evening he ate his roll, drank a lot of water, and then slept like he’d never slept before. When he woke, the wagon was moving, and he felt a lot better. Pel was scraping something into the boards of the wagon with his small, jagged scrap of metal, and Victor watched him for a while. Eventually, he asked, “What are you doing, Pel?”
“Oh!” he jumped, startled by the question. “I’m, well, I’m recording our experiences here. In case we disappear or die, at least some part of our life is written here on this board. I’ve put all our names here and written a little about where we all came from and what we’ve been through. For you, Victor, I mentioned that you came from Persi Gables and that you recovered from a terrible injury.”
“Could you change that? Or add to it? I was summoned, against my will, from a town called Tucson, and I’m a fighter. Can you mention that? I’m a fighter, Pel.” Victor didn’t know why he cared what Pel wrote about him on the floorboards of a wagon in the middle of nowhere, but he did.
“Of course! I’ll be your chronicler, Victor.” He busily went back to scratching into the wood, and Victor smiled. The wagon stopped early that day, and when the door was flung open, Victor realized why - they’d arrived at the mine.
“C’mere, Pel!” the wagonmaster hollered, and Pel hurried to the door. “Take this key, unlock the rowdy ones, and then bring it back to me. Listen, you mutts! Once you get unlocked, you will slowly, one by one, exit the wagon and line up before me.” Pel took the key and started unlocking the manacles from the three or four prisoners that the wagonmaster had deemed risky enough to warrant them. Victor had no idea why he’d been locked in - he was weak as a baby and not ready to fight anyone, let alone break out of a wagon. After Pel unlocked his manacle, he rubbed his raw, itchy wrist for a few minutes before slowly, shakily crawling out of the wagon behind everyone else.
When he dropped down onto his bare feet, Victor noticed that the dusty dirt was hot, hot like it was back in Arizona. He had to squint his eyes against the sun, but as they slowly adjusted, he saw that the wagon had pulled to a stop on the crest of a big dusty hill. There was a dirt road back behind the wagon leading down the hillside, and as Victor followed it with his eyes, he saw a vista, unlike anything he’d ever witnessed. The road led down into a green expanse of tall grass that stretched as far as his eyes could see. When he turned to where the other prisoners were lined up on the other side of the wagon, he suddenly realized that he wasn’t on a “hill” per se - it was a pile of mine tailings. The dirt road continued down the side of the mountain of packed dirt into a deep open-pit mine that was stepped like an inverse pyramid. He saw people walking up and down the different levels of the pit, carrying buckets and other tools; they looked like ants from this vantage. At the bottom of the pit, a massive black archway led into the ground, and Victor could see carts and beasts of burden moving along a wide road that went into the darkness. “Holy shit,” was all he could say as he shuffled over in the hot dirt to line up with the others.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” the wagonmaster asked. Victor looked at him for the first time and wasn’t surprised to see he was a Vodkin. Victor had guessed as much because of his size. That was one thing the asshole that broke his Core didn’t take away - Victor still had his racial advancements and was nearly as tall as the big wagonmaster.
“It’s cool, but I’m not looking forward to working in it,” Victor muttered.
“Hah, I don’t suppose you are. No, I don't suppose you are.” The Vodkin turned and looked down the road that led into the mine. “Alright, here he comes. Stand up straight. Look healthy. If you don’t get bought, I’m going to take you somewhere far worse, believe me!” The seven prisoners straightened and stood in a line. Victor didn’t really do anything to try to look more appealing. He still hadn’t made up his mind that he could do anything about his predicament. He wasn’t sure there was anything that could be done for him. He’d been scared to look at or feel his Core since that first time he woke, and he didn’t know if there was any hope for him when it came to Energy use. All that said, he didn’t really give a fuck if these assholes wanted to buy his contract so he could work in their mine. Fuck them.
A cart gradually made its way up the steep slope from the mine, and when it got close, Victor was intrigued by the animal pulling it - it looked a lot like a giant monitor lizard. It was almost as tall as a pony, but it was a lot wider with big fat legs and strong, clawed feet. A red-skinned Shadeni man was driving the wagon, and when he jumped out, Victor could see that he wore some fancy clothing. He had shiny black boots with silver-tipped toes and a gray suit made of flowing, cool-looking material. He looked very comfortable in the heat. He strutted up to the wagonmaster, and Victor noticed he had a leather cord coiled up and hooked to his black leather belt.
“Well, what’ve you got for me, Glethwid?”
“Foreman, good to see you. Take a look, take a look. I have some strong laborers in this group. None with strong Energy auras - one less thing to worry about, eh?” The Foreman hummed to himself as he pulled out a little lens and held it to his eye. He looked closely at each prisoner through the lens, pausing on Victor for a long time.
“What’s this one’s story?” He gestured at Victor. “Someone did a number on him, eh?”
“Bought him off an auction out of Persi Gables. Non-native, obviously, hardly any Energy aura. He’s got most of a five-year contract left - plenty of muscle on him. I’m sure you’ll get more than your money out of him.”
“Hmm, I’ll be the judge of that.” He moved to the far end of the line and started carefully going over each of the prisoners, asking to see their hands, making little teasing comments, or asking questions about their past. Victor couldn’t figure it out at first but eventually decided the guy was trying to see if anyone would be more trouble than they were worth. A little voice in his head said he should mess with the guy and try to piss him off, but then he thought about how the wagonmaster said the next stop would be worse. So far, people who’d said something was rotten in this world hadn’t lied to Victor; he decided to play it cool. “Well, big lad, aren’t you?” Victor didn’t respond, just stood still under the man’s scrutiny. “Not much of a talker?”
“What should I say?”
“Have you always been so weak with Energy?”
“Most of my life, I didn’t know what Energy was.” Victor wasn’t sure why he was being deceptive, but something told him that the less this guy knew about his Core or his abilities, the better.
“What’s your name?”
“Can you dig, Victor? Let me see your hands.”
“Sure. I’ve dug plenty of holes.” Victor held up his hands, and the man turned them over to see the calluses on his palms.
“These aren’t digging calluses, Victor. Are you scared of the dark?”
“You’re an odd looking man, Victor. Where are you from?”
“Tucson.” Victor shrugged.
“Huh, never heard of it. Do you have people that are looking for you?”
“Uh, probably, but they don’t have a clue where I am.”
“Well, welcome to Greatbone Mine, Victor.” He turned to the wagonmaster. “I’ll take them all.” Turning back to the group of prisoners, he raised his voice and announced, “This is the greatest amber-ore excavation site on this continent. You’re going to see great things in this mine and be part of something even greater. You’ll have to earn your freedom here, but if you work hard, I’ll be fair to you. Now, get into the wagon.”
Victor clambered up into the mine wagon behind Pel and sat on one of the side benches so he could look into the massive excavation while the wagon slowly trundled along behind the giant lizard. The mine truly was incredible in its scope. He was admiring the size of the long, stepped slopes leading down to the bottom, imagining how many trucks could drive down it side by side, when he caught sight of the giant bones sticking out of the side of the excavated hill. “What are those bones from?”
“Nobody knows, new employee. Nobody knows. We’ve dug up a lot of very “great” bones here. That’s where the name comes from!” Victor could hear the smug laughter in the man's voice; clearly, he was his own biggest fan.
“Is it true that there are ancient ruins in the depths?” Pel asked.
“Oh, yes, old one. Yes, indeed. We’ve run across quite a few ancient structures in the vast depths. I doubt you’ll all get that deep. Well, depending on how you perform and where your talents are. We’ll see. Now, I’m going to smoke a pipe before we get down there in the dust and heat, so sit back and enjoy the ride.” He pulled a white pipe that looked like it had been carved from a piece of ivory out of “somewhere” and then proceeded to tamp in some sort of leafy substance and light it up.
Victor inhaled the sweet smoke that wafted his way and looked out over the wagon's side at the huge excavation and the massive black tunnel at the bottom. He might be here to do slave labor, but he couldn’t help feeling a little excitement at the mystery of finding ancient ruins in the depths. He imagined finding an ancient dwarven hall or something like out of a fantasy VR, and a little spark ignited in his heart. He smiled; maybe things weren’t completely hopeless. Then it hit him: that spark had been more than excitement. It had burned and was warming him physically. He could still feel it, and it wasn’t his heart; it was further down, more toward his center. His Core.