Nahata: Wasted Efforts
Magic had a rancid scent. It was sour and rusty on the tongue. She could taste it in the back of her throat with each labored breath. The desert sun blazed overhead. And through the dark tinted lens of her goggles, she could make out the shimmering suit of armor that loudly trudged by.
She turned sharply away and lowered her head. She focused her attention back to the machine she was attempting to fix.
The gears were jammed again. Sand did that to rusty, broken down machines. And in the desert there was a shit ton of sand and a shit ton of old machinery to maintain.
When the loud stomping faded, she crept her gaze back to the glinting armor of the Dev as it moved along its patrol. She’d only been at the work camp a month but she had the guards’ patrols memorized. It wasn’t like she planned on doing anything with that knowledge. She’d seen enough failed revolts in her lifetime. But it was always nice to know when the enemy would be looking over her shoulder.
She slammed the dented metal lid shut, gave the machine a good solid kick, then flipped the switch. There was an awful squeal before the gears started spinning and the lights in the mine flickered back to life. The workers would be pleased to finally see what they were mining. Plus, they might even make their month’s quota.
But more importantly, she could receive her rations for the week.
She tugged her goggles down around her neck. The red and white stone quarry nearly blinded her as the sun blazed overhead. It was too late in the day to keep working. Especially, since she spent all night doing odd tasks around the camp.
Everything was worn, old and breaking. She didn’t really know much about Devian technology save the few things she’d learned along the way. There was little time to study the magic behind them. All she knew was that it stunk. The fumes burned the insides of her nose and throat, worse than the desert heat.
But oddly enough, she preferred mechanical magic over the Devian elemental magic. Their spells always made her stomach churn until she was heaving her guts out. It had to be an allergic reaction, she was sure of it.
Between the stone cliffs and amid the various mining shafts were the bunkers. They were long buildings with curved rooftops. Inside were rows of beds, three stacked atop each other to fit in as many workers as possible. And soon, in the evening hours, the building would be crowded with surface workers.
The miners had it the worst. They almost never saw daylight. Oftentimes their rations were carted down once a month and they were forced to make the food last. She knew because it wasn’t too long ago when she was one of them. She would have worked and died down there. But her mechanical expertise became of value on the surface.
She shuffled towards her bunk, the barracks nearly empty of people. But something sour hit her nose. It was subtle at first but it was growing stronger as she reached her designated bed.
She looked at the person lying in the top bunk across from her. He was lying on his side, leg propped up and lips smacking as he sucked on his ration. The dried, hard substance always needed to be savoured despite its lack of taste.
Her attention lowered to the bottom bunk. Someone was laying there but she couldn’t see them. A threadbare blanket was covering them. She leaned closer and the smell sharpened. She knew this smell. It was the earliest stages of decay. She reached out to peel back the blanket just in case.
“Yeah, he’s done,” the man on the top bunk stated flatly. “Night before, was it? Maybe last night.” His expression hadn’t changed. He only kept gnawing at the dried ration.
She carefully peeled back the blanket anyway. He hadn’t died long ago but the desert heat during the day and freezing temps at night were making his skin look otherworldly. She tossed the blanket to the nearest bed. “Help me get him out of here.”
When he made no reply she stood taller. His lips curled into a grin. He was older than her. But then again, the desert heat and hard labor always made people look years older and ragged.
“We can’t leave a dead body here,” she reasoned. “It’ll cause a plague.”
“The guards’ll come through. Remove it eventually.”
“Yeah, weeks from now.” Her jaw clenched in annoyance. “By then he’ll be melting on the floor.”
“Well, if I do their job I should get something for it.” He rolled a shoulder and smacked his dry lips together. “I want your rations. A week.”
She scoffed. “I’m doing you a favor by getting a corpse out of your bunk.” She rolled her inner cheek between her teeth in resignation. “Two days worth. You’re only doing half the work anyway.”
He sat up and drew his knees in. “Three days.”
She nodded her head and waved a disinterested hand at him. “Yeah, fine.”
She turned her efforts towards prying off the dead man’s boots. Someone else would need them down the line. There was no point in tossing perfectly good stuff in the pit.
He snagged one of the boots from the floor as soon as he climbed down from his bunk. He gave them a good long look before tossing them aside. “Too small,” he grouched. Then he quickly tugged at the man’s shirt.
“No.” She snatched his arm and pushed him away. “Let the man keep his shirt until we reach the pits.”
He clicked his tongue but he didn’t argue further. He grabbed the dead man under his armpits and hauled him out of bed. She hoisted his legs onto her shoulders and heaved him awkwardly towards the bunker door. She took painfully shallow breaths to keep the smell from hitting her throat. At least until they stepped outside into the clean desert air.
She shoved the door open with her back and waltzed backwards for a bit. She nudged her chin at him as she tried to turn their awkward dance sideways. “Lead the way.”
He chuckled, a dusty sort of sound. “You don’t know the way?”
She walked towards him, shoving the dead man’s weight against his chest. “Just move.”
He stepped to the side while nodding his head. “What was your last prison like? Digging rocks there too?”
Her gaze caught sight of a small group gathered, teenagers and kids. They were surrounding a young boy, the front of his shirt clenched by an older, far bigger boy. She focused her attention back to hauling the corpse, ignoring the group as they demanded the kid’s rations. She remembered those years. They were the hardest years but if he could survive them then he would survive most of his adult life.
When they finally reached the pit, she dropped the dead weight onto the hard dirt and swept the back of her hands across her forehead. Dust and grime gritted between her touch.
“Sparker,” he stated as he leaned over and peeled off the ratty gray shirt from the corpse.
“What?” Her nose wrinkled.
“You’re one of those.” After he got the dead man’s clothes off, he looked up at her. “You’re trying to spark some compassion. Help us to get along.”
She stood a little taller and pressed her boot into the dead man’s thigh. “I just don’t like getting sick.”
He tilted his head with a slight grin as if he didn’t quite believe her. He used his boot to help her shove the corpse over the edge of the pit and held up the dusty clothes. “Bet I’ll need these later...” He looked her over then raised his head. “I’ll also be needing your rations.”
“When I get them, you’ll get them.” She raised her brows in challenge then followed the path uphill towards the center of camp.
She didn’t have to look up at the metal towers to know the Dev had been watching them carry the dead body. They were always watching. Behind their metal helmets, animal heads carved into their surface, their eyes weighed a hundred tons. The patrolling guards barely gave her a glance as she slunk by them towards the bunkers.
Crouched beside one of the long buildings was the boy from earlier. He was gnawing on a small piece of his ration when he caught sight of her. He quickly swallowed the tough, grainy thing. His face crumpled in pain as his dry throat swallowed again and again.
She shook her head as she approached. “Idiot.” She reached down, grabbed his shirt, and jerked him up onto his feet. “You wanna choke and die?”
He furiously shook his head and tried to swallow again but the food was caught painfully in his throat.
She glanced at the other workers as they moved by and the Devian guards as they lumbered along their patrols. “This way. I didn’t show you this.” She tugged his shirt, the weightlessness of his small frame lifted him off the ground as she did. A skeleton might have weighed more than him.
It was easy to slip between the cliffs towards the massive machines along the northern wall of the camp. She was tasked with repairing them a few times since her arrival. And she knew just how to tap the pipes to get a decent mouthful of water.
She motioned him towards the pipes as she twisted one of the bolts ever so slightly loose. Water began to tremble to the surface like a crystal gem. Without even having to be asked, the boy raced forward and wrapped his mouth over the bolt. He probably would have kept drinking for hours if she hadn’t pried him away.
“Don’t get greedy,” she warned. “Greed gets us killed.”
The boy licked his cracked lips and nodded his head.
She went on her way back towards the barracks but the boy’s footsteps hushed behind her. She spun sharply and faced him. “No. Go on. We’re not friends and I’m not your mom.”
He rolled his large eyes away and nodded meekly. “I know,” he rasped in horse whisper. “I don’t care. I can be quiet and just watch.”
She huffed and tossed her attention out to the dusty desert. “Kid,” she snapped but then all her anger fell away. Maybe it was the exhaustion of working into the night or carrying the dead body to the pit but she had no energy to do anything. She shuffled away from him and his quiet steps followed behind.
But as they moved between the cliff something sharp hit her nose. It was a familiar scent. She knew the tartness of the powder just as the explosion went off and the ground jumped beneath their feet. She was tossed sideways into the cliff, her skull snapping against a blunt rock. Pain bloomed along her crown and down the side of her face.
She looked out of the cavern to the quarry where someone stood among a small crowd. She couldn’t hear anything but she saw the look in their eyes. It was the desperation to escape, to fight the Dev and leave the workcamp. He fired off one of the Devian weapons and yelled. His face wrinkled beneath his rage.
A revolt, she considered. It wasn’t her first time being thrown into the thralls of one.
Another explosion thundered. This one was laced with the rancid scent of magic. Her head rolled forward as she turned to look at the boy. He was alive thankfully. He was just rolling up on his knees when the shouting started turning into screaming.
She pressed him back firmly against the jagged wall of the quarry. He didn’t need to see their death. She remembered all too vividly being trapped in her first revolt as a child. Neither slave nor Dev cared about the lives of the innocent caught between their feuds.
Another crack of thunder resonated and a flash of green lightning shot somewhere in the distance. Dust and magic thickened the air and somewhere a high pitched scream echoed. They stayed there in silence as the shouting and screaming in the quarry merged into nearly unrecognizable sounds.
She rolled her eyes up towards the dimming sun, the harsh light of day barely making it past the thickening dust storm. She supposed one good thing about revolts were the clouds. At least now, the desert light wasn’t as searing. She pulled her goggles up onto her forehead and wiped the sweat from her eyes.
The smell of Devian magic was growing volatile. Her mouth began to sour and her throat tightened. Hot bile jolted up her throat and before she could stop it, she was lurching sideways and coughing up what little food she had in her stomach. If she could even consider it food. She heaved out a breath then gasped sharply, the disgusting taste of magic filling her mouth.
A tug against her sleeve drew her attention. She swept her gaze back over to the wide-eyed boy cowering beside her. She glanced out of the narrow crevice they were but she couldn’t see anything past the smoke. Everything was an indiscernible smear of tan and red.
She roughly wiped the back of her hand across her lips, the words harshly rasped, “We should move.”
He shook his head.
She gave him a hard stare, really looked over the old scars and fresh scratches along his sunken face. “Have you ever seen a revolt before?”
“No...” He whispered, almost ashamed to ask, “Can’t we stay here?”
“No.” She leaned back into the cliff wall and tried to slow her breathing but she couldn’t shake the nausea swimming around in her stomach. Magic unnerved her. It wasn’t just dangerous and painful but it reeked of death.
She swallowed the acid burning the back of her mouth. “We have to keep moving or we’ll end up dead.”
“But... we didn’t do anything. If we tell them that and turn ourselves in—”
“Doesn’t matter. They won’t see it that way. We keep out of their way until the revolts over with.” She swept the heat of her gaze down at him, brows pinched so he knew she was serious. “Got it?”
He was slow to nod in agreement.
A crack of thunder bellowed somewhere close by, a lot closer than earlier.
She snapped hold of his hand and lurched to her feet. She dragged him forward, hauling his staggering weight across the dry desert landscape. Their boots drummed against the dry earth. She searched the smog drifting around them and the vermillion rockforms for a safe place to run to. Anywhere they could go to escape the danger.
The further they raced away, the less she could sense the magic bristling around them. Her skin didn’t feel as clammy as it did before. But she couldn’t slow down, not when her eyes caught sight of one of the bunkers up ahead.
She tightened her grip on the boy’s hand every time he stumbled to keep up with her. He leapt forward a few times then finally fell forward but she wasn’t stopping. She jerked him back up onto his feet. They didn’t have time to waste as another crack of thunder shattered the stone plateau far in the distance behind them.
She pushed the bunker door open and slammed the door shut behind them. Her attention swept over the cowering souls inside. But then her eyes caught sight of his familiar features, the one who had been standing proud among his small crowd of followers.
She let go of the boy’s hand and marched forward, the muscles in her shoulders stiffening. She snapped hold of his shirt, her teeth clenched as she considered her next move. “This is your fault! You started this revolt and now the rest of us are having to pay for it.” She jerked him around, the anger swelling inside of her chest.
His eyes remained averted and he didn’t bother saying anything. He didn’t look apologetic in the least.
She growled and shoved him backwards, his legs staggering out from under him until he fell into the floor. “If you had just kept your head down and your mouth shut, we could have continued living in safety.”
“Living? This isn’t living... We’re slaves. We’re animals.” He finally rolled his head up at her, lips parting as he huffed in exasperation. “This is oppression.”
“And what? Running for our survival is somehow better?” She stepped forward and shoved her shoe down into his chest, forcing all of her weight onto his ribs. “People are dying now because of you.”
“Only because those of us who fight are in low numbers! If more of you would rise, we could take them down.”
Her nose wrinkled and her lips quivered in a bitter smile. “You moron.” She glanced around at the small crowd, their expressions darkening. “You think these people stand a chance against the power outside? The elderly and the children too? The Dev will always be stronger than us.”
“I’d rather die fighting for my freedom than die another day in captivity.” His eyes narrowed, brows pinching in his confidence as he tried to sit up. “I’d fight a lot harder if it meant being free.”
“Free...” A breath slipped past her lips as she pressed her boot harder. “We dig rocks in exchange for food and water. For our lives. And you had to get greedy.”
He clenched his teeth, lips thinning as he slightly shook his head. “How many more generations have to suffer under the Dev?”
Her vision swept over to the young boy. Before she could argue, Devian magic bristled across her skin. Her throat tightened and her mouth soured. The Dev were getting closer. They could reach the bunker any minute.
She jolted over to the boy and snapped hold of his arm. She raced to the far side of the room and threw open one of the wooden shutters. “We have to leave.” She grabbed him by the waist and raised him up until he was sitting on the ledge. “Hurry.”
He scurried out the window and awkwardly fell to the dusty ground below. She followed right behind him, crawling out the window and landing on her feet. He was looking down at his scuffed hands then peering up at her for comfort but she didn’t have the capacity. Comforting wasn’t something she had ever learned to do.
She snatched his hand and rushed away from the confines of the bunker. She should have warned the others but she convinced herself there was no time. She couldn’t risk another second there. Not while the Dev were hunting them down like animals.
The ground beneath their feet jolted, making their next steps staggered and drunken. The boy fell to his knees, a cry of pain jilting from his throat. She just barely glanced over her shoulder as the bunker’s silhouette brightened in an explosion of violet hues. She jerked the boy back to his feet and hurried down the jagged hillside.
Her fear was strangling her now. She couldn’t see past the thickening smog and the sun was starting to set. Soon it would be too dark to see. She caught sight of one of the quarry doors, a tunnel leading into one of the various mines.
She threw open the door in reckless desperation. She saw the glint of armor too late. The air snapped tight, a bolt of blue light firing across the small space so quickly she didn’t see where it landed at first. She could only think about the magic swarming inside of the dark entrance.
His weight dropped, her attention sweeping down at his small hand still tight in her grasp. She couldn’t let go even after the strength of his fingers disappeared. She squeezed his hand tighter as if he would somehow squeeze her hand in return.
She glared back at the armored guard just as the blue spark of energy shot from his gauntlet. It speared into her flesh, jerking her body sideways, her legs stumbling under her weight. She tightened her grasp around the boy’s hand, refusing to let go, refusing to admit that this was somehow the end.
It wasn’t fair... They hadn’t done anything except try to escape the battle. All of it had been for nothing. She had tried so damn hard to keep the boy alive and it was all for nothing. In the end, it still didn’t matter to the Dev who was innocent and who was not.
Her jaw tightened, anger thickening in the back of her throat. She felt a growl roll past her clenched teeth and before she processed what was happening, she was running forward. She snagged one of the shovels from the ground and swung it around until metal clattered into metal. He staggered a few steps but she hadn’t done any damage.
She felt the heat of magic rooting itself into her wound, the thickness of blood pooling along her skin but she couldn’t stop just yet. She grabbed hold of his helmet, the carved features of a canine that had once brought fear to her racing heart. She had no room left for fear. Not anymore.
His gauntlet wrapped around her throat right before she wrenched the helmet from his skull. Once the armor was gone, she threw the bone of her knuckles into the bone of his cheek. But he barely even flinched. His grip on her throat tightened. He threw her off as easily as he would throw a small child.
She just barely landed on her feet. The blood pooling on her tongue reminded her to be desperate. But the Dev raised his weapon again. The next bolt of magic sent her flying backwards into the hard wall, her spine sliding painfully down the stone. The last of her breath flew from her lungs, leaving her frozen and wide-eyed.
This couldn’t be it, she reasoned. Heat burned behind her eyes as she stared at the darkness of the tunnel. Even after fighting so hard to stay alive, she too was going to die. She peered over at the boy’s lifeless body, remembering how badly she wanted to keep him safe. He had been innocent, too young to die for such a senseless reason.
She swallowed the blood that coated her mouth, the stark taste of magic making her throat convulse in disgust. She could see the knight move closer, his shadow a vague outline until he stood looming over her.
His eyes narrowed, lips tugging down into a hard frown. She thought he would finish the job but he turned and walked back to where his helmet laid on the dusty earth. He snagged it from the ground and slid it back over his features. When he returned he leaned closer to her, his words distorted and metallic, “Devian ailin, neresah.”
She sucked down a shuddering breath, fingers clawing at the dirt as the magic burned hotter across her chest. She glanced down in fear at the bleeding wounds. They were pulsing with violet hues, magic glowing brightly beneath her skin as it grew like a wild beast.
His tone was dark with bitter resentment, “You are Dev... sister.” His gauntlet snatched the front of her shirt before dragging her languid figure across the desert sand and rocks. He pulled her towards the exit, her eyes taking one final look at the boy before being hauled out into the darkened smog. Rocks and jagged stones rolled sharply beneath her lower back the further he hauled her down the faded pathways.
She tried to reach up at the metal gauntlet but her arms were weak and her vision was spiraling. Finally they rolled shut and her head dropped backwards.