We left the master magis behind as we moved forward towards the darkness.
Torch light flickered over our footsteps as we descended into the bowels of a rocky mountain, so it seemed. Fleeting knowledge to my mind told me the rock was unrefined obsidian that absorbed light, so our shadows would disappear into the blackness where light failed to shine. The path before us was bleak with a harsh coldness numbing our exhausted limbs we dragged down the steep decline.
The stairs eventually opened into a round chamber surrounded by walls of orange-flamed torches. They glorified red and black banners of a roaring lion's head with fine silver-gold writing moving around the material's border as twinkling lights.
"Our Emperor Marcus. 167th Reign of Leinard. God save our almighty Emperor! Glorious favourite son of Our Lord Dan, Majestic God of War." I read the words in my head.
I gasped when the banners moved a formation around the cavern to ensure every eye-catching space on its black walls was occupied with one of them.
"Leinard." I involuntarily whispered and yelped at the firm pinch to my arm.
"Ssh." The ash blond boy carefully warned me with a deep smooth voice and bold wink.
Seriously, a wink? He was certainly cocky in the head considering our dire situation.
I nervously gulped at the glaring bull helmet looking straight me as a curt reminder. The bull helmet soldier held my gaze for a few seconds before moving to the end of our group. We were moved into two lines. One soldier gave us hand gestures from his black-gloved hands to indicated we were not to move or utter a word unless we wanted our throats slit. They showed us their shiny short swords for an emphasis.
Another approached our lines and handed out slices of crusty bread for us to eat. It was stiff as wood, bland and the furry green spots was bitter on my tongue. We scoffed the bread like it was a right to our last meal, not leaving a trace of a crumb behind.
My eyes widen with interest when a number of bull helmet soldiers stood a formation around the walls to fill up the cavern space like those imperial banners.
We held our silence and stillness when solitary footsteps entered from behind us. It belonged to a man wearing the same uniform as the soldiers minus the helmet and with red belts across his chest and around his muscly biceps. Affixed to the belts were pocket sections that showed the tops of fine needles and small daggers. A sword was sheathed to his black belt against his left leg.
I felt unsettled by the sight of tiny scars along his square jaw and one long silver scar making a jagged pattern down the left side of his face and neck. His black hair was cropped in a short spiky cut. Dark green eyes peered at our lines with obvious disdain at the sight of us. His expression was especially maniacal towards the blond girl and myself.
I braved a glance at our lines when I saw his attention was elsewhere and noticed we were the only girls in the group. Where did the others go? There were others right? My heart raced with dread that some of us had already been left behind and I didn't even realise it.
"Guess this will do." He groaned with disappointment when he took a commanding position before us.
"Don't ask where you are. Your voice has no privilege here. You do not belong to society. It threw you to us, like the son of a bitch spawned out of loathing. Your only purpose is for The Zone."
He pointed to the soldiers.
"These black monsters are henchmen who'll make sure you slave brats behave. You better or they'll slit your throats." His green eyes narrowed and mouth curled up with lopsided smirk when he made a sign of a throat being cut.
"The rule of a slave is silence and absolute obedience without question," he yelled over us.
He stepped up to the ash blond boy who kept his eyes on a banner as the man eyeballed him. I noticed the boy's Adam's apple twitched with an unmistakable nervousness. His face was tense and void of his earlier cockiness.
"You got something to say boy?" The man goaded the boy with his hands twitching around the hilt of his sword.
The ash blond boy carefully shook his head.
The man stood over him for a while before he returned to his commanding position before us.
"Heed these rules. Obey orders. Don't..." He paused and made his way to a small boy in the second row.
The boy was too busy fidgeting with his shirt to notice the man's eyes on him. A pang of worry struck my heart at how young the poor boy was. Lord Dan, surely he wasn't guilty of any crime. He was of an age as innocent as a lamb!
"You!" The man pointed a finger at the trembling kid, who met the man's eyes.
My hands clenched my dress tight, further worried at what I was forced to watch and do nothing.
The man's smirk stretched wide. "You think because you're stupid you'll be forgiven."
The boy shook his head. His hands twisted the hem of his shirt.
"You must to dare interrupt my authority."
The boy's eyes widen with fear and realisation. He bowed low with an clumsy apology.
"To interrupt a chief is punishable by death, boy," the man whispered with vehemence and leaned in closer to the boy's ear, whispering loud enough for all of us to hear. "I'm one chief who does not tolerate interruptions."
He snapped his fingers. Two henchmen broke through our lines and dragged the sobbing boy away through a steel door that was previously hidden behind a banner.
My heart jolted at the curt bang the door made upon closing. This was the brutal reality I was in for.
"We're not your parents. I don't care if you bleed or die. Your misery is not my concern," Chief said with obvious loathing.
No one else dared show an expression when the Chief left the room through the same door. The master magis from before entered with his indigo robes sailing about his ankles and coming to rest when he assumed the commanding position before us. He stared over us with a gentler expression and a warm smile.
"Yes, you are slaves, but that does not mean you are not worthy for honour. Obey your masters without question, live with respect of each other and learn fast. The Zone is harsh to the weak and mild. You must harden yourselves to survive. This is your life now." The master magis's eyes lingered on mine before he broke contact to leave the cavern through the door he entered.
Shortly, we left the cavern through the same door.