Victor still hadn’t taken a look inward to his Core by the time the wagon trundled to a stop at the bottom of the long, hard-packed gravel road. He was afraid of what he’d find; right now, he had a little hope that something good was happening, and he knew that if he looked and still just saw his shattered remnant of a Core, he’d fall into a pit of despair that would be tough to climb out of. Meanwhile, the foreman shouted for them to get out of the wagon and line up in a more literal sort of pit. He wondered just how bad a turn his life had taken by coming here; he didn’t know it would be all that bad, but he figured it would be. The asshole that had destroyed his Core for him sure thought he was sending Victor someplace shitty.
“I said, line up, shoulder to shoulder. No talking!” The foreman’s voice had risen in volume noticeably, and Victor thought he heard some irritation bleeding into his “I’m too cool for this place” demeanor. Victor hopped out of the wagon and hustled over to the hastily forming line. Once again, he stood next to Pel, towering over the little blue man. The foreman consulted a clipboard and spoke quietly to an Ardeni man wearing khaki-colored pants and a long-sleeved shirt. He had Orange hair cut very short under a wide-brimmed hat, obviously designed to provide maximum protection from the sun. Victor looked around; they were at the bottom of the enormous open pit, and as they’d descended, it only grew larger in perspective. Victor saw hundreds of people moving around down there, carrying buckets, pushing carts, and leading animals. Even with so many people working busily, the space seemed enormous. The entrance to the colossal tunnel had to be almost a mile away.
“Alright, listen up. I’m going to call you up here one at a time. We’ll go over your contract, so the imperial auditors don’t give me any headaches, and then I’ll give you your first assignment. Don’t waste my time with questions - there’ll be someone at your worksite to fill you in.” He looked at his line of newly acquired workers for a moment, then continued, “Pel ap’Drom.” Pel hustled forward with a wheezy grunt of excitement. Standing there, not allowed to move, Victor let his attention turn inward and looked at his Core without thinking about it.
At first, he almost opened his eyes with disgust, seeing the same landscape of scattered tiny drops and shimmers of Energy, but he forced himself to really look. A lot of the Energy had that red shimmer of rage, but a lot of it was the pure, rich golden yellow hue of unattuned Energy. While he let his inner eye’s gaze sweep back and forth over the scattered remnants of his Core, a brief flicker caught his eyes, and he saw that one of the tiny little pools of rage-attuned Energy was very slightly spinning. While he studied it, he caught the flicker again and realized it was a tiny pulse. Was this what was left of his Core? Victor used his will to urge the little spark to flare brighter, for the slightly spinning drop of Energy to spin faster. He almost laughed aloud when it responded; it flared brightly for a fraction of a second, and its movement seemed to flicker just a touch more rapidly. To his delight, Victor saw a tiny droplet of rage-attuned Energy nearby slowly start to drift into the pulsing little fragment of his Core and join with it.
“Victor! Victor of Tucson!” the foreman’s voice yanked Victor back into reality. He opened his eyes and stepped toward the foreman quickly, unsure if he’d already been called and missed it.
“Here, sir!” He stumbled up in front of the foreman.
“Not time for dozing yet, Victor. Alright, I have your contract here. What a mess! I’ve never seen so many scribbles and initials. There’s no witness or official notary mark for either the original signatures or any of the alterations. Lucky I have Tyn here. He’ll make sure our portion of the contract with you is up to imperial standards, don’t worry. Now, it looks like you were initially contracted for some sort of fighting sport, hmm? Let’s see; then you were sold to a private party, one ap’Horrin? Right, well, then your contract was bought by the Greatbone Mining Consortium. Now, I’m not sure you’re aware, but all the provisions added to your contract initially were stricken out at the sale to ap’Horrin. Here we have a simple agreement of four years and six months of unspecified labor. That sound right?”
“No, not really. I didn’t get any say in those contract changes, and I had some things promised to me - opportunities for earning awards and stuff like that.”
“Right, but how do I know that? Maybe you breached some terms of service, and that's why it was stricken, hmm?” Victor felt some heat rising in his neck at the man’s words.
“That’s bullshit, man.” He couldn’t keep the frustration and bitterness from dripping some venom into the words. The neatly dressed, perfectly coiffed man narrowed his eyes and looked Victor up and down, resting his right palm on the handle of the coiled whip on his belt.
“Take a breath, Victor. Think about what you say to me, and really consider your tone. Now, I have to work with what I’ve been given, and this contract is a joke, but one thing is clear - the length of commitment. Tyn, do you agree?”
“Agreed, sir. You’re doing your best to stick to fair terms with this inhabitant of the Ridonne Empire. I think your diligence will be admired by any auditors that happen to pull this ill-conceived contract.”
“Excellent.” He flicked his hand up to his ear, pulled a quill from behind it, touched the tip to his tongue, and signed the paper attached to his clipboard. “Put your signature or X here,” he said, holding out the quill to Victor and pointing to a line on the bottom of his old contract. Victor ran his eyes over all the crossed-out lines and little signatures and initials, shook his head, and took the quill. He knew very well that this guy could kill him if he wanted to. He could kill him and make up some bullshit story about how Victor went crazy and tried to escape and kill all the guards. He doubted the “imperial auditors” were very hard to please. He wrote his name next to the spot where the foreman pointed. “Good, you’re a quick learner, Victor. I think you’ll go far in the Greatbone operation. See that tent over there with the big red axe painted on it? That’s where you’re to report. You’ll learn the rules there, but let me give you a quick primer: don’t try to run. We have guards with bows and mages with spells stationed all over. You’ll stand out like a feyris to a redhood hawk.”
“Alright.” Victor didn’t trust himself to say more without getting in trouble, so he just nodded and started walking toward the big tent the foreman had gestured to. It looked almost like what Victor imagined a circus tent would look like. It looked like it was made from gray canvas and had a red flag flapping at its peak in the dusty wind. On the side facing Victor, a big red axe had been painted, and Victor wondered just what that meant. He saw several other tents nearby with different symbols painted on them, a pick, a cart, something that looked like a crudely drawn lizard, and a shovel. He shrugged and scanned ahead and behind him for any sign of where Pel had gone, but he didn’t see the old man, and he briefly mourned the loss of yet another friend; something made him feel like he’d not see him again.
When he got to the tent, he had to walk around the side to find the big open flaps to enter it. A small wooden ramp led up out of the dust onto a deck-like floor. Victor walked up and saw that large open trunks lined the wall on his left. Several men and women clustered around posts with different designs carved into them on the right-hand side. Each cluster seemed to have one of the mine employees wearing khaki standing nearby. Along the back wall, several mine employees sat behind a long table. Victor walked up to the table and looked at the employee sitting nearest the middle, a pale-blue-haired Ardeni woman. She cleared her throat, sat up a bit straighter, and motioned for Victor to come forward.
“I was told to come to this tent,” he said by way of greeting.
“Mmmhmm,” she said, pulling out a flat black slate. “Put your right hand on this slate and say your name.” Victor shrugged and leaned forward to lay his hand on the slate. It was warm and seemed to buzz slightly at his touch.
“Alright, you’re registered with the Deep Delvers. Are you new to the mine or been here before?”
“Uh, I’m new. What’s a fuckin’ deep delver?” Victor tried to cut off his words, but they came out too fast. The woman didn’t seem offended, though, just looked at Victor quizzically for a moment, then answered him.
“Well, you’ve been chosen to be in the group that enters the deeper dig sites ahead of the workers to make sure they’re clear of hazards. That means you must have some fighting experience, hmm? Either that or Foreman Venz-dak decided you’re going to be more trouble than you’re worth and wants you in a hazardous job.” She shrugged like it was a fifty-fifty chance. She glanced over at the little groups of people clustered around the different poles. “Pick a number between one and four.”
“Our reinforcement crews all have four people in them. Pick a number, and that’ll be your new crew.”
“Um, three, I guess.” Victor didn’t think it mattered, and he liked the number three.
“Right, that’s Captain Lam’s group. Okay, before I can get you some equipment, I’ll have to get you collared. Let’s measure your strength.”
“For your collar - we don’t want to waste an expensive amber-ore collar on you if you don’t need it, right?” She produced a smooth, white crystal that reminded Victor of one of his Abuela’s Christmas candles. It glowed with a brilliant, warm radiance. “Hold that.” She held it out to Victor, and he took it in his hand. The glow immediately subsided to the point where Victor thought it was gone completely. When he really looked, though, he saw a very small, almost imperceptible luminescence. “Oh, great, we’ll just need a tier-one for you. I bet I could even use a tier-zero if I had one.”
“Oh, great.” Victor let the crystal roll out of his hand onto the table. The woman looked up at him sharply, eyes squinted in anger, but didn’t say anything. She scooped up the crystal, then stood and walked around to the row of chests, motioning Victor to follow. He was surprised to see a line had formed behind him, and when he turned to follow the Ardeni woman, one of the other employees at the table called the next prisoner forward. Victor didn’t recognize the people in line, and he wondered where they came from. Did they have to pull prisoners from other parts of the operation to fill this duty? The woman was rummaging through a chest, and she stood with a smooth black ring in her hands.
“It’s iron, but the artificer took the time to smooth it out. You should be grateful. I’ve seen some delvers wearing much rougher work.” She handed it to Victor and motioned toward her neck like she wanted him to put it on.
“Uh, how do I put it on?” He couldn’t feel any seams in the metal.
“Oh, just hold it to your neck; I’ll do the rest.” She’d pulled a thin, silvery rod from somewhere and held it, waiting for Victor to comply. Once again, feeling like he should see another option but unable to find it, Victor pressed the cool metal against his neck. The woman reached forward and tapped the ring of iron with her rod, and suddenly it was around his neck. “Now, you seem new to this stuff, so listen: because of your assignment, you’re allowed to carry a baton and to use Energy abilities if you have them, but only for self-defense against the creatures in the depths. That collar will suppress your Energy if you try to leave the mine. It will allow us to track you. It will allow us to kill you remotely if we must, and, finally, it will be impossible for you to remove - it’s designed to resist someone with far more Energy than you possess. Understand all that?”
“Yeah, I get it.”
“Good!” She smiled brightly and moved over to the next chest. She reached in and lifted out a gray metal rod about two and a half feet long, perfectly cylindrical with a worn, sweat-stained leather handle wrapped around one end. She handed it to Victor, and it felt very heavy and sturdy. “This is your weapon for deep delving. You’re allowed to carry it around with you, but it must always be held down next to your side. If you raise it in a threatening manner outside of your duties, any of the Greatbone Consortium employees have permission to summarily execute you. We all carry one of these control rods. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I get it. Can I get a belt or something to hang it on? I don’t want to accidentally fuck up and lift it up where I shouldn’t.”
“There’s a contribution store at the camp Settlement Stone. You’ll see it when you go into the main cavern. Indentured workers are allowed to earn contribution points at a reduced rate. You should visit the stone when you have your free hour each evening to pick up quests. Okay, that’s it from me; have you got any questions? Last chance!” This time, she gave him a genuine smile, and Victor wondered how pissed he should be at her. Was it her fault she had this job? Did she see the wrong they were doing to people like Victor? He decided that he couldn’t let her slide, so he didn’t return her smile, just shrugged.
“I can’t think of anything right now.”
“Alright, go stand next to the post with the pultii carved on it.” She gestured at the other side of the tent.
“What’s a pultii?” Victor glanced at the posts and just saw various strange-looking animals carved on them. She sighed heavily and walked past him, pointing at the pole that was second from the right. He nodded and walked toward it. When he got closer, he saw that the most prominently carved animal looked kind of like a turkey. Was that a pultii? The employee standing next to the group clapped his hands when he walked up.
“Right! That’s our fifth walking up. C’mon then, dogs; I’ll deliver you to Captain Lam.” He started walking out of the tent, and the three Ardeni and one Shadeni that had been clustered around the pole followed him out. Victor brought up the rear, noticing that they all held the same gray metal batons, pointed to the ground. The employee was walking straight for the gaping maw of the enormous tunnel. In the sun's bright glare, he couldn’t see far into it, but he got a sense of depth from the shadows that hung under the high stony ceiling. It took them a good ten minutes to cross the hard-packed dirt of the open pit to the first shadows of the cavern, and when the sun finally was obscured and Victor slipped into the tunnel’s domain, he caught his breath at the scale of what he saw.
The enormous central tunnel of Greatbone Mine stretched into the distance farther than he could see, brightly lit with Energy lamps that hung from the soaring ceiling and stood on wooden posts at regular intervals. All along the sides of the vast tunnel, ramps carved into the stone switchbacked and ran in a dizzying maze, a honeycomb of smaller tunnel openings leading away into God know’s where. Ramshackle huts and tents lined the sides of the great hall, interspersed with larger, more sturdily built buildings. “C’mon, quit gawkin’, you vermin. Captain Lam’s barracks are deep into phase two. We gotta pick up the pace if I’m gonna make my date.” He laughed like he’d just said the funniest thing in the world. They walked past people pulling carts, hauling buckets, and lounging on wooden crates. They walked by large barracks-type buildings, some with smoke coming from chimneys and dozens and dozens of little buildings. Here and there, they passed fires burning with people cooking something on sticks over the flames, and Victor looked up wondering if smoke was a problem, but wherever it went, it was lost to his eyes. After about a mile, they had to circumvent a large crowd forming into multiple queues around a tall, black stone covered in strange writing. “That’s the Settlement Stone, you vagabonds,” the employee called back over his shoulder. “When you get settled, you should ask Captain Lam to let you come pick up quests. I’ll give ya that tip for free, you brigands!”
“He’s a funny guy,” the little red-haired Ardeni man in front of Victor said out of the side of his mouth.
“Yeah. Real comedian.” Victor snorted, and the man laughed.
“I’m Tyge,” the man said, turning slightly and offering his hand. Victor took it and nodded.
“I’m Victor.” They continued for another fifteen minutes, and the number of ramshackle buildings dwindled off to only one here and there. The tunnel was still the same enormous size, though, making the structures seem all the smaller. Their leader stopped outside a building that reminded Victor of a Viking longhouse. It had large metal braziers hung from the overhanging lintel, and they burned with a blue-white, smokeless flame.
“This is Lam’s longhouse,” Their guide announced, then walked up to the big wooden door and pounded. He didn’t wait for an answer, though, depressing the iron latch and pushing the big door inward. It swung smoothly on big metal hinges, and Victor saw the inside from where he stood, looking over the employee’s shoulder. A stone hearth sat in the middle of the big hall, and Victor could see heat waves rising off it and faint smoke rising to the opening in the center of the building’s ceiling. All along both walls were narrow wooden beds, each with an identical gray blanket and single white pillow. On the far side of the open hearth was a long table, and Victor could see a dozen or so people sitting at the table, apparently sharing a meal.
A tall woman stood up at the far end of the table and walked around it, toward the door and the group of new recruits. Victor struggled with his grasp on reality when he saw her; everything about her seemed unreal in one way or another. She was easily seven feet tall but thin as a rail. She had pale skin and huge almond eyes that glittered like cut emeralds, and, sprouting from the center of her back were four enormous dragonfly wings that seemed to be dripping with glittering fairy dust. She wore a dull, copper-colored breastplate and dark leather pants, with similar armor plates on her thighs and shins. When she was just a few paces away, her strident, tenor voice cut through the cobwebs in Victor’s mind, sounding like a trumpet calling him to battle, “Ahh, my new recruits. Wonderful! Thank you, Bilun. I’ve got it from here.”
“You’re quite welcome, Ma’am.” Their escort turned smartly on his heel and, without a parting insult for the prisoners, marched away.
“Well, well. Come forward, recruits! Welcome to Lam’s Furies, the toughest bunch of Deep Delvers in all of Greatbone!” She regarded the five of them with a warm smile, and Victor noticed, now that he was able to jerk his eyes away from her glittering wings, that she was as badass-looking as she was beautiful. She was covered in little scars and had weird, colorful tattoos all over her arms and neck, and probably elsewhere, but she had on too much armor to be sure. With her long, blond hair pulled back in a knotted braid, she regarded each of them coolly for a few moments, and when she looked at Victor, she glanced up and down his frame, a slight frown above her pointed chin.
“I haven’t seen your paperwork yet. Tell me your names, please.” She looked at them one by one, and everyone said their names, but Victor was still too stunned by this woman’s otherworldly appearance to hear them. She seemed to exude some sort of power or energy that was unlike any of the people he’d yet met. She was simply larger than life. Finally, she rested her gaze on Victor and raised a sharp, blond eyebrow.
“Um,” Victor had to swallow several times to moisten his vocal cords, “I’m Victor.”
“Where are you from, Victor?”
“From Earth. Another world. Um,” she kept staring at him, and he felt like he had to fill the silence, “from a town called Tucson. I, uh, I was summoned and fought in some pits in a city called Persi Gables.”
“Now I’m getting the picture. Alright! Enough for now. Our day’s duty is over, so come and sit at the table and get to know the rest of my crew. I’ll assign you each a buddy to tell you how things work, and by tomorrow morning, I’ll expect you to be ready for duty. We start early, recruits, very early.”