Whatever happened next, Haldron was certain of one thing: it was all his fault. They wouldn’t be there if not for him. He dragged them out there on some revenge quest and look where it led. As much as he wanted to blame Searyuhb for what was about to happen, Haldron was confident that soon his hands would be just as soaked in the blood of his friends.
He was at the head of the group, hands shackled behind his back and two pairs of arms holding him steady as they were escorted deeper into the facility. Finally, they seemed to come out the other side. The cavern was bigger than Haldron could have imagined. There was a whole other world beneath the mountains of Muldaenuia that most people never knew existed. They were led down an incline and then it seemed they’d arrived at their final destination. The dark brown of the floor that was light everywhere else told Haldron this was where Searyuhb liked to hold his macabre spectacles. From the looks of it, this was also the place Searyuhb and his people called home. Behind the mining station sprawled a veritable shanty town with tents packed so densely it was a wonder anyone was able to move between them. An impenetrable forest of animal hide and filth. The tents weren’t the only thing that caught Haldron’s eye, but also the impressive stockpile of stolen weapons that seemed to compose one whole corner of the camp. There was even a rover toward the back. The brazenness of Searyuhb and his people seemed to know no bounds.
A line of posts greeted them where the ground was at its darkest. There were a dozen, twice Haldron’s height with shackles hanging from the tops. The sight sent a flutter through Haldron but he didn’t resist. He didn’t see the point. Even if he could get free he wouldn’t get far, especially with his hands stuck behind his back. He heard some scuffles behind. Their bearers were anything but gentle. Every once in a while he received a hard slap to the back of the head to keep him on the path.
All he could think about was the words of his wife in the tunnel. He’d happily endure all the pains and tortures Searyuhb had planned for them if it meant seeing her face or hearing her voice again. He’d heard nothing since the tunnel. That only helped convince him of what he already thought. It wasn’t her speaking to him, just a product of his broken, grief-stricken mind. Surely he couldn’t have been stupid enough to think it was truly her. Impossible; nothing awaited beyond the veil of death. Any who believed otherwise were just those afraid of the dark, or dying a meaningless death.
They were divided between the posts. Haldron was led to the one at the centre. The escorts held him still as another attended to the shackles. The pressure at his wrists melted away and the feeling of his hands flooded, painfully, back. He was spun around and forced back first to the post, hands held above his head before he felt the kiss of cold metal again. Benellen was bound to the post at Haldron’s right, Erdam to his left. Rowtenat was making his escorts’ job as difficult as possible. A butt of a rifle to the jaw brought him under control long enough to see him fastened in place.
A crowd was assembling before them. There was easily over a hundred. Not just men, but woman and children too. They all looked just as unkempt and savage. One particular group caught his eye. They appeared to be dragging something (or someone) along with them, and having a difficult time of it. When they got nearer Haldron saw what was giving them so much hassle. Torben was putting up a surprising amount of resistance, requiring half a dozen raiders to keep him under control. They didn’t bring him to the posts. Instead, they threw him to the ground a few metres away. Torben’s eyes met Haldron’s and they shared a long stare. It was difficult to tell what was going through the young guardian’s mind. The look in his eye seemed to be one of shock though whether it was at the fact they’d diverted from their mission to find him, or allowed themselves to be captured so easily, Haldron couldn’t be sure.
“I’m sorry, Haldron”! he called though Haldron wasn’t sure what to say in response. Should he tell him it wasn’t his fault? Maybe, for what it was worth. Should he tell him everything was going to be OK? What’s the point in giving him false hope? Haldron said nothing. He just hoped Torben’s death wouldn’t be too long and agonizing. He guessed the fact he hadn’t been chained up meant he was first in line for whatever Searyuhb had planned.
The man himself emerged from the crowd. He threw up his arms and called to his followers in their primitive tongue, apparently riling them up ready for the show to begin. He came striding up to Haldron with the same swagger. Haldron tried and failed to avoid his wild eye.
“Garjan”. Searyuhb tapped the symbol on Haldron’s chest, then spat. He repeated the word, now with contempt, as if to say, “That’s what I think of your order”. Haldron guessed it was meant to get a rise out of him but he was passed caring. He just wished they would get on with it. Searyuhb’s grin vanished, apparently having not received the reaction he was looking for. He left Haldron and headed to the spot where Torben knelt. His hands returned to the air as he addressed the crowd who began cheering and stamping their feet in anticipation. Their leader seemed to be enjoying the spotlight, his followers likewise very much entertained by his antics. He pointed to another cut in the cave wall where even more hideous sounds came from. Haldron couldn’t see much of what was happening. The howls were getting louder and more frenzied. They definitely came from an animal. The louder they got the more unbearable they became. It was increasingly apparent they were made by an animal in pain. Haldron discerned a commotion not far off. Multiple Trassani were wrestling with a large creature, battling to lead it to the centre of the screaming crowd. The horde parted and Haldron saw what drew their attention and excited them so.
The Keiglak was putting up a fierce struggle, led on heavy chains attached to the metal collar around its thick neck. It had been years since Haldron last saw a Keiglak. Their numbers were dwindling thanks to the Trassani’s overhunting of them for their meat and hides. They were huge but not majestic-looking creatures, their rough skin a dull grey and pudgy bodies dotted with horns and spikes. The beast towered over its handlers on four strong legs with razor-clawed feet. More Trassani followed, long whips with hooks at the ends in hand for whenever the hulking creature decided it didn’t want to go any further. Once the first had arrived, a second Keiglak was brought from the cut, then a third, and a fourth, and Haldron began to see what Searyuhb had in store for them.
Searyuhb started shouting again as his people fought hard to keep the terrified animals under control. Keiglaks weren’t vicious but they were more than capable of doing plenty damage when provoked. The four creatures were moved into position around Torben who was looking more nervous by the second. The crowd split so they were left with a clear path in front. More Trassani came forward, dragging long chains. Haldron didn’t want to watch, now certain of what was happening, but he couldn’t bring himself to look away as the ends of the chains were attached to the collars around the Keiglaks’ stumpy tails. Torben started panicking as his shackles were removed, probably having realized himself what was about to happen. It took half a dozen raiders to wrestle him to the ground and hold him there. He screamed bloody murder as the other ends of the chains were fastened around his wrists and ankles. Haldron wished for nothing more than to be able to bring his hands to ears.
With another shout from their leader, the crowd fell silent. Haldron found himself locked in terrified eye contact with Torben. To his surprise, it was no longer panic he saw in his young comrade’s expression, but what looked like (begrudging) acceptance. He looked away, rested his head on the rock, and waited.
Searyuhb let out a scream and the Keiglak’s were released. A whip crack to their behinds sent them galloping in opposite directions, chains racing after them. Torben closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. Time slowed to a crawl. Every second was like an eon. Storms raged within Haldron’s stomach but he never closed his eyes. The chains were pulled rigid and Torben left the ground for a split-second while his arms and legs continued on their way. The crowd erupted as they watched the young guardian convulse, red torrents gushing from his four stumps. It took all of Haldron’s strength to hold his stomach. He’d seen all manner of brutality in his life as a guardian but this was a new height. Even by the Trassani’s standards, this was vicious. Erdam screamed obscenities and threats. Everyone else just averted their eyes. Haldron saw everything. His eyes remained on Torben from start to finish. He finally fell still, and it looked like he’d breathed his last breath. Searyuhb swaggered to where he lay. He eyed Haldron, likely hoping to see rage or pain. Haldron wouldn’t give him the satisfaction, the last drop of defiance he had left. The savage didn’t seem bothered this time. He extended his arm and one of his followers placed the hilt of a sword into his waiting hand. His eyes remained fixed on Haldron, even as he plunged the blade into Torben’s chest, drawing even more cheers. He then went back to jumping around like a lunatic, parading the freshly-bloodied blade for all to see. Torben’s body was dragged away. Haldron didn’t want to think about it but he knew what was to become of him. With food often in short supply, the body of a freshly-killed guardian was not something to be tossed away. While their leader enjoyed the limelight, the others were hard at work returning the Keiglaks to the clearing. It would be a few long and torturous minutes before all four were back at the centre of the crowd that was becoming impatient. Searyuhb began riling them up again, ready for the next execution. Haldron guessed he’d be here a while. Once the electricity was sufficiently heightened, Searyuhb raised his sword in the direction of the remaining guardians, waving it back and forth, keeping the audience in suspense. It finally came to a stop, the point aimed at Cravvik.
Haldron couldn’t tell which was louder, the cheers or Cravvik’s screams as he struggled. He put up more of a fight than Torben, almost getting free a couple times although his efforts were in vain. He continued struggling even after he was chained in place. He screamed to Haldron, begging him to save him somehow. Then he screamed for his mother, then for anything to come and save him from his predicament. Haldron wished he could close his ears the same way he could his eyes.
Searyuhb gave his signal and the Kieglaks were sent running. Haldron watched as Cravvik was hoisted into the air and returned to the earth, blood spouting from the stumps where his arms and legs used to be. His screams only got louder as he slipped and flopped around in the red pool. The crowd was ecstatic. Haldron felt tears flow. He led them to this. Cravvik held on a lot longer than Torben had, squirming like a maggot, and still begging for mercy. The gushing abated as his body emptied and he went still and quiet. He wasn’t dead yet, still sucking in air. Searyuhb looked him in the eye, savouring every moment before driving the point of his blade through his chest. Haldron managed to find some solace in the moment. At least his friend’s suffering was at an end.
Searyuhb brandished the sword for his audience before making a show of choosing his next victim. He waved the weapon from left to right, then right to left, building the suspense. After a few painful moments, the sword stopped at Rohbalt.
The squad’s sharpshooter was remarkably composed as he was led from his post, resisting a little but neither screaming nor panicking. He even managed to get a headbutt in on one of his escorts before being thrown into the sea of red where he lay still as the chains were applied. Haldron saw not a hint of fear. Searyuhb loomed over him, apparently annoyed by his calmness. He shouted in his face and flashed the sword soaked in the blood of his friend but Rohbalt remained unshaken. With a bitter snarl, Searyuhb gave his signal and the Keiglaks were released. Even after he’d lost his limbs, Rohbalt lay still. He didn’t seem bothered in the slightest. The crowd didn’t cheer this time. Most only stared, confused and amazed that he was able to withstand so much pain. Haldron was amazed himself. He knew he wouldn’t be able to remain so stoic after being relieved of his limbs. Searyuhb wasn’t prancing around like the showman he thought he was anymore. Now he looked like a child whose parents had refused to buy him the toy he wanted. He loomed over Rohbalt again, teeth bared and snarling like an animal. Rohbalt seemed to say something to him. Haldron couldn’t tell what though Searyuhb didn’t seem to like it for it sent him into a blind rage. He screamed and roared and brought the sword down with all his might. The blade cut into Rohbalt like a knife through butter, only for its wielder to rip it out and deliver another blow, then another, and another. The wound at Rohbalt’s middle grew deeper with every slash. The onslaught only ended when the blade impacted upon stone instead of flesh. Searyuhb was still shrieking like a maniac, as if Rohbalt’s not screaming and writhing like his comrades had caused genuine offence. He gave a command and what was left of Rohablt was dragged away, presumably to be butchered further.
Searyuhb suddenly seemed a lot less interested in putting on a show for his people and more in just getting the whole thing over with. Rather than waste time with showboating and suspense mongering, he aimed the sword at Rowtenat and his minions set to unchaining him from his post.
Haldron got a surprise when one of the escorts slipped on the blood and went crashing to the red stone. Then he saw the look on his comrade’s face, the look that said he had one chance and he had to take it. Rowtenat lunged at the other escort and sunk his teeth into his throat. No one could believe their eyes, watching, stunned, as Rowtenat wrenched his head back, a big chunk of flesh held between his teeth. The savage’s neck was a red fountain. He fell, though not before Rowtenat was able to rip the stolen pistol from his belt. The other escort had gotten back to his feet but didn’t get far before his head was blown apart. Panic swept through the crowd as Rowtenat turned and took aim at their leader who could only stand and stare, wide-eyed and defenceless. One of his followers tackled Rowtenat to the rock, the subsequent shot missing Searyuhb by a heartbeat. Haldron could only watch as his comrade wrestled in the red mire, several raiders fighting to get the weapon out of his hand. The pistol went off. Shots were screeching in all directions. Rowtenat managed to get free again, and then Haldron found himself in the line of fire. The guardian took aim at his commander, his final act to take revenge on the one who brought him there. Haldron braced himself for the shot but was surprised to see his comrade raise the pistol higher before pulling the trigger.
A deafening clang sent Haldron’s head spinning and he felt his arms fall to his front, still shackled but now free of the post. He heard a screech and turned to find a savage raising a captured rifle in his direction. He didn’t think, just swung his arms and sent the chain toward the raider’s face. The end connected with his eye and he fell. Then Haldron spied the pistol in the holster at his hip. Barely a thought crossed his mind as he grabbed it, pressed the barrel to the back of the savage’s skull, and pulled the trigger. Benellen and Erdam were the next priority. A shot to each chain set them free. Haldron then looked to Rowtenat just in time to see the knife be dragged across his throat, reigniting the fires inside him like a match thrown onto a fuel-drenched bonfire. His friend’s final act wasn’t to take revenge, but give them a chance to escape their heinous fate, and he didn’t intend to waste it. Haldron took aim at the crowd and fired. Men, women and children ran and dove in every direction, falling over one another and keeping the band’s fighters from getting near. Erdam was atop a raider, beating his head in with the shackles at his wrists while Benellen opened fire with a pistol he’d wrested from another. Haldron searched for Searyuhb, ready to blow his head from his shoulders, but he was gone, the crowd having swept him up in their confusion. He kept firing nonetheless, not stopping until he was left with no choice, the magazine empty.
Haldron wasn’t done yet. He wanted to slaughter every last Trassani there, and saw the means to do so. He looked to the weapon cache; everything from pistols, to rifles and carbines, to the heavy machine gun sitting on its tripod, and aimed in the direction of the panicked mass. Then he looked to the body of the first savage he killed. The key to the shackles hung at his belt. Haldron’s fingers tingled like electrodes had been applied to them as the shackles lost their strength. It felt good to be able to move his hands away from each other again. He made a break for the cache as bullets whizzed by his head. They weren’t missing on purpose now. He leapt over the crates, climbed the platform where the gun waited, and hit the button on the side to bring it to life. The lights came on and he wrapped his hands around the grips, fingers quivering against the triggers.
Haldron had to stop for a moment and consider what he was about to do. So much pain and death he was about to unleash. It wasn’t right, not this. But then he remembered Kallem, and Torben, Cravvik, Rohablt, and Rowtenat, and any notion of mercy was snuffed out like a flame in a vacuum. He pulled the triggers and the barrels ignited.
Bullets spewed and went screaming into the crowd with merciless velocity. Nothing could halt their deadly paths. Haldron couldn’t see much of anything; the yellow muzzle flashes were like miniature suns before his eyes. The popping of the gun took his heart in its hands and squeezed. He kept the triggers depressed even after it had ceased and there was just the whirring of the weapon’s inner parts, its load spent.
Haldron released the triggers and the weapon fell silent. He then opened eyes and saw the result of his slaughter. The crowd was now a heap, moaning with the dull hum of a nest of hornets. Many survived but were either wounded or crushed under the weight of their friends and family. A few stragglers retreated toward the facility but Haldron paid them no mind. They weren’t who he wanted. Searyuhb lay within the field of the dead or dying. He would have waded through all of them to find out if he still lived.
“Haldron”! He looked to see Benellen and Erdam standing at the posts with rifles in hand. “We need to go”.
“Searyuhb”! Haldron couldn’t leave without knowing,
Benellen shook his head. “There’s no time”!
He was right. What was left of Searyuhb’s band would be regrouping to take their revenge, and his desire had already gotten too many of his friends killed. After a reluctant nod, Haldron jumped from the platform and vaulted the crates, grabbing a discarded rifle as he went. They took off toward the cut where the Keiglaks were brought from. That seemed as good a way as any. They had no idea where it led (if anywhere) but that didn’t matter. Just as long as it was nowhere near there.