The march was becoming unbearable. The further west that they were led, the more the sky was hidden behind a brooding black storm cloud that consumed the heavens. The air tasted acidic and was thick and heavy, each breath like a lungful of stale broth. Very little light managed to evade the dust and what did seemed somehow duller. Everything appeared as a faint grey.
Several of the Pastrinians that had been taken had now died. The gruelling march, lack of food, water, sleep, and the constant fear of the Forukks had gotten to the people. Their leader had been killed and they had lost all hope.
Sarah helped those she could but it made little difference. She was still hopeful that somehow they would return home, she had to be, but her forced enthusiasm did nothing to alter the minds of the others. She was attending to Mrs Daine, the baker, who had sprained her ankle on the uneven ground, when suddenly a strange dizziness overcame her.
Her vision became wavy, then in the next second she could no longer see what was in front of her, but rather behind her. She felt as though she was moving at great speed back the way they had come. She saw Pastrino zip past, then the fields and woods beyond. Then, when she reached the desert, she abruptly halted.
Two ships stood before her locked in combat. Her perspective zoomed further in to focus on a figure on the larger of the two. Though blurry, she could tell it was Trey. She tried to shout but found she had no voice or body. In the distance the sand began to come together to form a giant shark. It sped towards the ships, exploded and engulfed the vessels, Trey and Sarah included.
After a period of darkness, colour flashed back into existence. Blurred images fought for dominance. Sarah managed to fully awaken herself. Mrs Daine was standing over her with a worried look on her aging face.
“Sarah, what happened? Are you okay?” she asked in a concerned voice.
“I’m fine. I just had a dizzy spell,” she replied as she rose to her feet, supported by Mrs Daine.
“Are you sure you’re okay? Your body became rigid and your eyes went all funny, then you started to mumble ‘Trey’ and fell to the ground. His loss must be a huge burden on your mind.”
After Sarah had finished persuading Mrs Daine that she was fine, she moved onto the other ill or injured people. Her mind was off task the whole time but she kept up a brave, hopeful front for all the lost souls thrust into a seemingly hopeless situation. It seemed appreciated and slightly lifted the moral in the makeshift camp.
“Form a line, maggots,” roared one of the Forukks. Mr Xion stood at his side, as he had been since his betrayal. “We march in two minutes. If you’re not ready, you’re the next meal. This is the last march to the outskirts of Lanstiro.”
There was a hustle of activity as the captives gathered what few possessions they owned and formed a line two people wide. The line shuffled forward with mixed emotion. Some were dreading their arrival, others were just relieved the march was coming to an end.
They walked through the night and the early hours of the morning until the Forukks halted the march. A few feet ahead of the front pair was an imposing cliff that appeared to drop away into thick darkness. The bottom couldn’t be seen by human eyes.
“This cliff marks the edge of Lanstiro territory. As soon as there is enough light for you gut bags to see by, we head down,” growled the lead beast.
The humans waited anxiously as the sun slowly rose through the sky, like a ghost when seen through the thickening cloud. Only faint light made it through but that was all that was needed to see the desolation around them. No sign of nature remained..
“Make your way down,” instructed the Forukk snappily.
Carefully the slaves began their descent. The rocks were easy enough to grip and there were plenty of foot holes but the sheer effort was taking its toll on the weary humans. To make matters worse, many of the gaps were inhabited by a wealth of distorted insects that were easily the stuff of nightmares. Many a hand had groped for a hold and quickly withdrew after feeling something move or hiss.
Sarah was making good progress. She almost lost her footing and fell when she heard a horrific scream. She whipped her head around just in time to see to see the priest, James Homme, fall from the rock wall, trying to regain a grip. When he realised it was useless he brought his arms in from their frantic flailing and positioned them in prayer. No Sprites came to his aid. He hit the floor with a bone chilling crack. Sarah actually wished she couldn’t see the ground now.
The rest of the climb went by without another incident. Sarah worried about how the lieutenant would manage in his condition but the man arrived at the bottom without trouble. Once everyone was back on the ground they were about to bury James’ body like the religious man would have wanted, but the Forukks took the body and threw it on the food cart.
Just visible on the horizon was a black tower. As they walked closer a gigantic wall also came into view, blocking sight of the main castle. It was a massive construct of stone and metal that looked capable of withstanding any siege weaponry imaginable. Warped roots covered the ground where grass should be, their blood red hue the only sign of colour in sight. They spread out from the fortress like a cancer.
The captives carried on until the wall towered over them, casting an imposing shadow across the already darkened land. Spikes jutted out at random angles, many with odd decapitated heads from various creatures, most of which nobody had never seen before. They were led around the fortress’s outer wall until they reached a colossal door.
After a brief moment the door silently eased open. It was surreal watching such a large, heavy door open without a single creak or groan. As it opened, hot air gushed out, hitting the captives like a hammer after they had been in icy cold since entering Lanstiro territory.
If the human’s breath hadn’t been taken by the hot air, it was by the now visible fortress. It was a monstrous pentagon taking up a vast amount of the room inside the outer wall. Buildings surrounded the castle in a ring, huddled up to the main fortress like flies to a corpse. They ranged between rundown shacks and solid stone constructs. There was nothing to provide colour anywhere. The only movement came from the Forukks that skulked around the buildings. Other humans could be seen too, some dejected slaves on errands while others glared at the newcomers from grimy windows, quality black robes cloaking their well-fed frames.
Stood just within the door was the strangest human Sarah had ever seen. He was unnaturally tall at almost eight foot high, but was not well proportioned. It was as though his body had been stretched out, making him thinner than should have been possible. His eyes were entirely black and his skin was the purest of white. Needles adorned his mouth rather than teeth and his nails were like a great bird’s talons. No hair covered his head. He wore fine, jet black robes with a blood red inner lining. An intricate design of white spirals were carved into his skin, blending perfectly together and looking somehow natural.
“Welcome to Lanstiro. My name is Maklar and I shall by your guide, adviser and general information dispenser,” the curious man droned in a strange, indescribable tone that sounded like several bugs rapidly flapping and scraping their wings together. The sound seemed to get inside the very bones, grating against the mind with enough force to feel almost physical.
“It is your given task as slaves to do as your masters request, be they human or Forukk. Jobs you will be attending to include construction, personal service, cleaning, pleasure, entertainment, and any other tasks that your masters can imagine. You will be housed with the other slaves in the slave barracks, unless you are chosen to serve a specific master, then you will be accommodated accordingly.”
“Other slaves?” asked Dennis Riley, a young teacher.
The strange man, Maklar, smiled. “Yes. Other raids were carried out on minor towns and villages within the local vicinity, and we also have a few scouts and travellers that were foolish enough to have wandered too close for the Lord’s liking. Now if there are no more questions I will show you to the building that will become your home.”
Maklar led them without speaking again. Little groups started quiet conversations as Maklar didn’t seem to care, unlike the Forukks who had punished talking. He led them to the opposite side of the city from where they had entered, then motioned to a large, three story building built from half rotted wood.
Opening the flimsy door, Maklar broke his silence. “This is where you will be staying while not working or attending to other activities. As well as the three visible stories there is also a basement. Housing within the building works on a class system. You will start on the ground floor which is simple and cramped. If you do good work or are recommended by a Master you will move onto the second level and so on. If you displease the Masters you will be moved down to the basement. That is not advisable,” he added.
The Pastrinians made their way inside and took their places next to any unoccupied beds. They were simple beds with thin grey covers and an uncomfortable looking thin mattress. There were no windows. The slaves already there wore plain grey robes. Some had slight variations or accessories. In a corner near the door was a staircase, leading to the upper levels, whereas in a back corner was a trap door, which led to the basement.
The trap door was suddenly thrown open and a man’s head popped out. “Oi! What the hell going on? I’m trying to sleep, you inconsiderate pigs.”
Sarah looked to where the man making all the commotion was and froze. Anger rose within her. “Y-you. I-it’s you. You!” she screamed.