A glimpse of daylight illuminated the narrow windows, revealing the consequences of the last night’s horror. When the dawn arrived, Mina had finally succumbed to both physical and emotional exhaustion and fell asleep. The sight of her battered and bruised body made me realize the true extent of violence she had suffered at the hands of that soldier. Darkness made it so much easier to sink into the blurred safety of denial. The light, however, didn’t offer any veil of protection against reality.
Almost everyone around me was silent, broken and robbed of any sense of peace. I was no exception. The events of the previous day sank in, and I kept rewinding them in my mind, over and over again. The image of Mama’s dead body appeared before my eyes, and I was overwhelmed with grief and guilt. Deep down, I knew she only wanted to protect me. Regardless, I felt like I had failed her, and couldn’t comprehend how I had managed to stay hidden in that closet like the biggest of all cowards. I knew I would never forgive myself. All I could do was to try to cope with the truth, but it was too soon. In a desperate search of temporary relief, I closed my eyes and sank into blackness. But there was no comfort in my dreams.
At first, they were filled with chaos and an all-consuming feeling of helplessness. I dreamt the soldiers were hurting the people I loved all over again. I was paralyzed, unable to move or help them, but forced to watch. Then, there was another dream—the one in which I was trapped in a labyrinth. Whichever way I ran, I ended up crushing into a tall and forbidding figure of a man dressed in black. His eyes were strange, yet hauntingly familiar. They were like deep black voids, mocking and filled with magnetic power. The more I ran and struggled, the more he seemed to be amused by my useless efforts to evade him. Sometimes he would let me believe he was gone, only to cruelly reappear the moment I was at the grasp of freedom.
“What do you want from me?” I yelled in frustration when I couldn’t run any longer.
He laughed at me then, but his laughter didn’t touch his soulless eyes. In a moment, his lips settled into a malicious smirk and he gestured to his side. I followed the movement with my eyes and suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of an abandoned muddy field, surrounded by hundreds of dead bodies. Everywhere I looked, there was nothing but death. The reek of rotten flesh invaded my nostrils, and I pressed my hand against my mouth as bile rose in my throat. After staring at me for a few moments, the tall man shook his head and leaned closer until I felt his hot breath against the nape of my neck.
“You really haven’t seen anything yet, have you, little Sariyan?”
I woke up with an instant start, and my hand flew to my neck of its own accord. Somehow, I could still feel his breath on my skin and smell the reeking stench of death. Seconds passed by, but I was so shaken by the dream that I couldn’t bring my breathing back to normal.
I didn’t have time to calm myself or reach out to Mina because the angry mob of soldiers strode in again, bringing destruction and chaos that seemed to cling on them like pest. I feared they would repeat what they had done the previous night. But for whatever reason, they remained standing in front of us, as though waiting for something.
At last, one of them stepped forward and looked around, sneering as if he savored the sight of misery that was brought upon us. Unexpectedly, he kicked the girl who lay in front of him. She cried out and twisted in pain, holding onto her stomach. Paralyzed with disbelief, I glanced toward Mina and caught her hand. The vibrations of her shivering spread through my flesh like electricity.
“What are you looking at, you lazy slobs?!” the soldier yelled at the frightened group of defenseless women, then gritted through his teeth, “You have two seconds to get up. This isn’t a fucking vacation!”
Every single one of us swallowed the insult and listened to the command. There was no other choice but to obey. Even the girl who had been kicked slowly rose to her feet and remained standing because staying on that floor meant certain death.
Without any explanation, the entire group was ushered outside. I still held onto Mina as we walked into the dark hallway. The entire time, we were subjected to a torrent of ridicule and countless threats of the soldiers. Nobody dared to utter a sound, let alone show even the smallest sign of protest. All of us stared at the ground, demonstrating we were no better than trained animals, our abused spirit bent and nearly broken.
One of the many soldiers surrounding us demanded we should walk faster, and Mina froze at the sound of his voice. She whimpered and started shaking uncontrollably, fighting for breath and clinging onto my arm as though she was frightened out of her mind. From the corner of my eye, I recognized the soldier who had raped her the previous night. Mina’s distress seemed to have gotten his attention because he looked in our direction and smiled with sardonic contempt. I held Mina as close as I could, doing my best to reassure her and get her to calm down. Everything inside me simmered with rage, and I had the strongest desire to rip that soldier apart. I wanted to dig my nails deep into his skin, wipe away that self-content smirk from his face, and leave a permanent scar that would match the one he had left on my friend’s soul. Mina’s unstoppable terror made me risk a glance his way, and I found myself looking straight into his cold eyes, unable to hide my hatred.
The soldier’s eyes narrowed, and he whispered something to the man next to him, pointing in my direction. Out of the blue, the memory of a deeply refined and commanding voice suddenly rang in my ears like a warning. I will have the pleasure of shooting her myself. As if struck by a lightning, I shivered in sudden apprehension, and quickly lowered my gaze.
Tending to Mina in silence, the intuitive awareness of some great hidden danger possessed me like a torturing demon, and every fiber of my being shrank in the fear of this invisible threat.
The gnawing feeling in my gut made me quicken my step. The path we were made to follow was the same one from the previous day. The familiar sounds and the hopeless images of the prisoners who were forced to work until exhaustion claimed their fragile health, made me recognize the sad truth that was plainly visible on their tired faces. Very few of us would be lucky enough to emerge alive from that place. Instead of fear, the realization filled me with a strange sense of peace. After all, death—in all its grimy mystery—was the ultimate sense of freedom and escape. They could strip us of everything, including our lives, but they couldn’t touch us in death.
We were led further and further away from the construction site until we reached a small secluded area where there was nothing but a muddy field and a large brick wall that separated us from freedom. Our movement was halted, and we were ordered to stand in front of the wall and form four large lines. There was little doubt about what was going to happen to us. Fear flickered on every face that surrounded me. In panic, every single girl fought for a place in the last line, gluing their backs to the wall as though it could protect them from Nyrman bullets. I remained calm, holding Mina’s shivering hand, and observing the chaos that made me reflect on my earlier reasoning about death. If that was what they intended for us, I told myself I had to make peace with it. Soldiers wasted no time in restoring order. They dragged them away from that wall, ignoring their desperate pleas for mercy and help. In the commotion, I was separated from Mina, and forced to stand in the last line that created the false illusion of safety. Within seconds, we stood in the exact formation they had originally demanded, and the insolent speed in which they restored their dominance proved yet again we had not the smallest means to fight back.
Unexpectedly, a thin and fragile looking girl I hadn’t seen before was dragged in front of us. Her white clothes was soiled with mud, her hair a greasy and tangled mess of long, black strands. She didn’t fight them as they forced her to her knees. The bruises on her face were a testimony to what must have been a severe beating that killed any thought of defiance. Beneath the empty surface of her eyes, there was a spark of genuine beauty and innocent sweetness that had been taken away from her and destroyed.
The very air was thick with pressuring anticipation of what would come next. The soldiers gave nothing away. Instead, just like us, they seemed to have waited for something in silence. From the distance, I discerned the sounds of a quick and steady gallop. The vibrations of splitting ground became louder and more violent in their approach. I looked away from the girl, lowering my gaze to the ground and then I heard it.
It was that rich, sophisticated voice giving an order to a soldier who acknowledged it with fearful and utmost respect. I peered up in mortification.
There was that man!
Like a moth to a flame, my gaze was drawn to the tall powerful figure that sat erect on the black horse, and I was instantly taken aback by his face. Perfect, symmetrical features covered with golden skin and scattered strands of dark hair made for an unreal sight. In broad daylight he looked aristocratic, almost inhuman. I didn’t muster the courage to meet his eyes because I knew they were bottomless black pits that made him look like a fallen angel. That someone so cruel should possess such poignant beauty struck me as the biggest paradox in the storm of recent events.
His gaze travelled through the crowd, frightening every soul with his unmoving stance that demanded instant submission. He didn’t have to utter a word to let us know we should fear him. His presence alone was enough.
Seemingly satisfied with his brief inspection, he exhaled, and that deep, refined voice broke the silence.
“I am Commander Damien Crane,” he said with an unmistakable air of superiority. “You will know me as the man who is in charge of Obsidian.” He paused and slowly raised his chin, demanding our undivided attention. “How you ended up here is none of my concern. The only thing I care about is your behavior. I am sure you have already gotten acquainted with the camp and the obligations that are expected of you.”
His ruthless words made me wince, and I closed my eyes in an attempt to chase away the avalanche of brutal images from the previous night. Once again, I was filled with helplessness and boiling anger. To calm myself, I inhaled a deep breath and opened my eyes, only to freeze in complete shock.
Those cold, dark eyes were glaring at me, their attention focused solely on my person. For a brief moment, I wondered how he had managed to notice me in the crowd, but then I remembered I was wearing the forbidden clothes—the clothes he had let me keep. A hint of a contemptuous smirk twitched the corner of his lips.
“There is only one rule to live by,” he said in a commanding voice, still looking straight into my eyes. “Obedience is rewarded and disobedience is punished...harshly.”
A flame filled with hatred burned in his dark stare as he gritted that last word through his teeth, and I felt burnt by the intensity of unspoken intimidation, suddenly remembering the words... No punishment at the moment.
Standing defenseless in front of this man—a Nyrman commander who held all the power—I realized I had been wrong to wonder why he had spared me when his intentions should have been crystal clear. The only thing he had done was prolonging my torture for his own amusement, and I was sure his retaliation would be unannounced and thorough. What happened next convinced me even more my fears were going to come true.
Commander Crane finally looked away from me, and his gaze dropped to the girl who knelt on the muddy ground. A flicker of genuine fear tugged at my heart while her empty eyes filled with sudden awareness. Moving her head in trembling jerks, she brought her eyes to the relentless man who stared at her. She frantically shook her head, as though she knew what he intended; as though she begged him not to hurt her. After the soldiers gripped her shoulders, and the Commander made no move to stop them, she began fighting what everyone knew would be a losing battle. When she screamed, and asked them to let her go, the soldier smacked her across the face. The Commander calmly observed the poor girl’s struggles. When the soldier struck her, a brief scowl seemed to have settled on his face, but he still did nothing to stop the madness. Instead, he turned toward us again.
“Now, you will have a demonstration of what happens to those who try to escape.” His voice sounded like a sharp whiplash. He gestured toward the girl who was once again restrained on the ground, breathing heavily. “I want your eyes glued on her. Anyone who dares to look away will meet my anger and her fate.”
The very tone of his voice made it clear that causing his anger was a thing to be avoided at all costs.
That poor girl glanced up and uncovered her eyes. They were the brightest shade of blue...wide with terror, filled with pain and glistening with unshed tears. With unnecessary violence, they tore her shirt, baring her back. A lump built in my throat when a huge soldier—who looked strong enough to break her in pieces—approached her with a long black whip in his hands.
The giant wasted no time in inflicting the punishment. She didn’t even get a chance to take a deep breath and prepare herself for the harsh pain before he struck her with the whip. Her muffled scream pierced the silence as the weapon tore her flesh open. Immense compassion and sadness enveloped my heart, and my nails dug into the flesh of my palms. The strikes that followed were inflicted with such speed and precision it was impossible to count their number. I winced every time she cried out, and my vision blurred with tears. At first, there was defiance in her sky blue eyes. She took the pain stoically, but with every blow the fire extinguished further in her eyes, and she lowered her stare little by little until she hugged the ground and there was no light left inside.
The torture had finally stopped, and the soldier held the bloody whip in his hands, breathing harshly and wiping away traces of sweat and blood from his face.
I couldn’t look away from the small, fragile body that shook with silent tears and burning agony. There are no words that would do justice to her suffering. Her white uniform was soaked in her own blood, and her wounded back painted a picture of an abandoned battlefield.
For a few moments, nothing happened and we were drowning in tension. Then, at last, the man on the horse spat out an order, and the girl was dragged away from out sight; treated no better than garbage. The worry for her life made me feel heartbroken and—as if it wasn’t enough—my vulnerable stare collided with those cold cruel eyes. He held my gaze with such intensity that made me fear I was to be his next victim. It was as though his eyes mocked and taunted me with their dark unfathomable depths. It was as though he screamed at me. You didn’t think your trespassing would go unpunished, did you, Sariyan?
His threatening words rang in my head. This is what happens to those who try to escape. The thought I might share that girl’s fate, or even worse, suddenly made me afraid. I couldn’t stand his piercing gaze, so I quickly looked down, but I knew his eyes still burned on me. Their fire was almost tangible.
The ground beneath my feet trembled when he set his horse into motion. To my complete horror, I realized he wasn’t leaving, but coming closer, slowly approaching the place where I stood. The girls in the front lines moved away without a word, giving him access to me. With every fiber of my being, I could feel him watching me. My frantic heartbeat rose all the way to my ears, but I stubbornly continued to look at the ground, refusing to lift my head.
The silence stretched into infinity.
I couldn’t shake off the feeling that he intended to make an example out of me right then and there. When he motioned with his hand, a scary idea he was picking up his gun startled me into peering up straight into his eyes. A victorious amused smile twisted his lips, and I felt imprisoned by the power of his unyielding scrutiny. He raised the reins, and his horse made another step toward me. Despite myself, I took an instinctive step back, and shrank away from him.
When I glanced up again, his powerful form blocked the sun, covering me with its thick shadow. The smile had evaporated from his face, and his expression was taut and filled with warning.
“Remember,” he said just above a whisper, then raised his voice so that it rang with harshness meant for everyone to hear. “Obedience!”
With those words, he abruptly turned away, and rode off into the distance.