When the vehicles stopped and the doors were opened up, the men inside stopped to stare out in wonder. Being mountain folk meant nothing when the mountains in front of them were so much different than the home. The mountains were filled with winter grasses and barren trees. Frost clung to the branches, reflecting the sunlight like a perfect mirror. The mountains were rounded and endless, rising up only slightly into the sky. Mule deer grazed lazily amongst the slopes before sprinting off. The trees swayed their bony limbs to the tune of a winter mix breeze. The clouds hung low over the mountains, threatening snow or rain, it was difficult to guess at how far south they were.
Located in front of the tribe men was a tent city. Huge tents rose up high with huge sloped white sheets. The men that milled around outside were less like warriors and more like huge burly grunt men. They brandished heavy whips against the backs of those who were slow. The valley that the tent city sat in slowly merged into a large hollowed mountain. Cranes and carts were constantly being pulled out from below the ground by large dirty looking men. Their faces were pale and soot covered while they struggled to breathe. More men came up to the sides of the carts to start unloading rocks and precious jewels from the inside, a whip being slashed across their backs occasionally. The men with the whips laughed amusedly before letting the weapons lay to rest by their sides once more.
Other men that weren’t built as large loitered around the sides of the tents or near the entrance to the mountain with huge caliber guns. Rings of ammo lay heavily across their chests for quick and easy reload. Huge machine guns set outside the camps, aimed towards the hills with men at the constant ready to man them.
“They’re afraid,” Jackson whispered close to Axel and Andrew’s ears. “Afraid of something that will come out of the mines.”
“They’re aimed towards the hills, there’s no way they can turn those guns fast enough to shoot the mine,” Axel commented dryly. Andrew shook his head irritably.
“You forget there’s more mountains, more mines throughout here. They’re prepared for an attack. I’ve heard there’s at least 8 different mines situated in these cursed mountains.”
“Of what?” Ariah whispered, cocking his head to the side. “Mountain wolves? Bears?”
“With the caliber of those guns? They’ll rip through the wolves with ease, no, something bigger and much tougher to kill. If they wanted to shred animals, then those guns would be perfect.”
Jackson chuckled to himself. “Kukouk huh? I heard that they were tough to kill. It took some of their biggest bullets to pierce them enough to kill. Guess Tian wasn’t the only one out there.”
“You think the Kukouk are still alive?”
Jackson shrugged. “Who knows? I mean, Tian exists and even though he’s almost a hundred years old, he still exists. I wouldn’t put it past the universe to have stored Kukouk people the same way.”
“Shut up and start walking!” A warrior snapped, pushing them ahead of him. Before Axel could think, though, a commotion erupted in front of them near the mouth of the mine entrance.
Men started to shout as a thinner, older man shot out with a small child in tow. The child was a mess of tears and dirt, with a frail, sickly body. He could barely stand on his own. The older man gripped the boy’s hand tightly, dragging him along as they shot out of the mountains.
“RUN DIMITRI!” The old man shouted right as the men leveled their guns on the pair.
“We have to help them!” Axel shouted, trying to break free from his own chains. They were too tight, dragging him down with more weight than Axel could break.
“You idiot!” Andrew spat, punching the younger square in the face. Axel fell back with a howl, clutching his bleeding nose right as a gunshot rang out. A heel ground down against his weakening stomach as his older brother stood above him with a nasty look. “You help them, you kill us! Reign your ass in so that we can live.”
The child behind the old man, Dimitri, fell with a gaping bullet wound in the center of his forehead. The old man stumbled, giving enough time for the warriors to catch up and slit his throat. The man’s body fell limply beside the child’s.
“Clean this up,” A much larger man shouted and warriors scrambled to clean the body from the scene. The man pointed at Axel’s group. “Bring two of those down to the bottom of the mine. Hurry up!”
Warriors surged towards Axel and the others, before grabbing his arm. The chains dropped around his wrists. Ariah cried out, latching onto the elder’s arm. Panic surged through his chest as the men reached for his youngest brother as well.
“GET BACK!” Axel snapped, pushing the younger to the ground. “Stay away from me!”
The men grabbed a smaller man from a different tribe to drag alongside Axel. Ariah burst into tears as his other siblings held onto his shoulders, keeping the boy from latching onto Axel’s arm once more. “Axel, don’t leave us.”
“It’s ok,” Axel replied quietly, choking back the tears that threatened to slip down his cheeks. He couldn’t bear the thought of working deep inside the mountains with his youngest brother and it kept the tears at bay long enough for Axel to turn away. Eris met his eye with a nod of thanks, pulling the youngest close to his own chest. Take care of him. A look of understandment passed between the two.
It’d been awhile since Axel saw eye to eye with Eris on any agreement. They’d been fighting ever since Tian showed up. Eris had been one of the ones who’d seen the boy only as trouble and a bad omen. And Axel, who’d been totally smitten with the boy, had purposely fought him since then. Whether it was physical, or verbal, they’d been at each other’s throats constantly.
“Don’t forget to brand them,” one of the higher ups spat as they went by.
It wasn’t the cattle prod that Axel had been expecting. They’d marched them over to one of the busiest tents before slamming the two down against the table. A dark skinned woman looked down at them with her ruby lips upturned in disgust. She tapped the table irritably with the end of her pencil.
“What’s this?” She sighed, reaching up to push some of the curls from her face.
“Going to the bottom level of the mine, where the iron is. Need to give them a brand.”
The woman sighed irritably, picking up a small square object. She tapped on her electronic pad and a number flashed up at her. 9045. Then the box was pressed to Axel’s skin. It wasn’t burning, but the agony it caused was much worse. It dug down deep into his nerves and seared the number deep. Axel’s eyes welled up with tears involuntarily. He spat at the woman as she removed the box and clutched his burning, raw wound now imprinted with that horrifying number. Blood started to ooze from the wound rapidly, coating Axel’s hand within seconds. It streamed down his arm and dripped to the ground where other, dryer blood stains still sat.
“Good luck getting that off you piece of shit. Our brands are burned through all 3 layers of your skin and then onto your muscle and bone. Even if you’re shredded, we can still find the number no matter what.”
The woman reset the box and did it to his partner as well, but the boy screamed louder than humanly possible. He collapsed to his knees, but the Warrior was strong enough to drag him back to his feet. They punched the boy in the gut as punishment.
“The least you could have done was hose the cattle off Abir,” the dark-skinned woman stated before going back around the table to sit. “They stink like they rolled in their feces.”
The warrior laughed. “They did. You know how these things work.”
The woman shook her head. “Absolutely disgusting, get them out of my sight please, I’m going to retch from the smell.”
Axel flipped the woman off before being roughly turned around and forced to the mouth of the cave. Around him, men worked tirelessly, carrying and pulling huge carts filled with rock or getting hosed down by bruising water. Those men, though, looked sick with yellowing skin and dark eyes. They coughed and blood dribbled down their chins. Their backs were hunched over, even the younger men and boys looked like they were already 100 years old and worn to shreds. Their very muscles shook with each step, and they used each other’s shoulders to keep themselves standing.
“They work in the radiation zones of the mountain. When the tectonic plates shifted, it opened up radiation, and precious gems. Phosphoric gas runs amok down there, and the longer they’re exposed to it, the sicker they get. Those men give their lives to mine,” the warrior stated quietly, steering clear of the corpse like men. “Stay away from them, though, you’ll get sick. We’d have to shoot you, can’t have you passing that sickness on to our prized possession down below. God knows he’s sick enough already.”
“Is that where we’re going?” Axel spoke up but the man dragging them along shook his head.
“You’re going deep below these mountains. You’ll die there, to. Hope you can swim.”
“I’m not going to die there. I’ll come for you some day, and I’ll kill you. I’ll kill everyone here.”
The Warrior chuckled as he shoved them onto a wooden platform going down. “I’d like to see you try. Say goodbye to the sun.”
He signaled the man at the side who then pulled a large handle. The wooden platform shuddered before descending past the rocks and the sunlight faded fast.
“So yer new here,” a grungy old man stated once the wooden platform hit the bottom. His beard was white as snow, and his hair wasn’t much different from the color, although thinning. He was heavily wrinkled and walked with a hunched over back. “I received word from above that yer goin below? It’s a pleasure meetin’ yah, names Randall with two L’s.”
“Purian,” Axel’s partner stated quietly, his face abnormally pale.
“Welp, come along. I’ll take yah down ter where ya need to be,” Randall stated happily. “Hope ya’ll like water, yer gonna be working near the great river.”
The man led them through small rocky tunnels illuminated only by the torches that were roughly shoved into holes amongst the walls. The further they got, the more they had to hunch down and squeeze through. At his feet, Axel tried to stop from getting sick. There was at least two inches of feces and muck caked in, soiling his leather shoes. Rats scampered in between their legs, unafraid of humans existing nearby. Men hunched over at the walls, drilling and breaking up rock endlessly with small, withered pix-axes. They coughed only when the dust closed up their airways and threatened to choke them. They all had long ratty beards and hair that reached their shoulders, caked with mud and other substances that Axel didn’t dare think about. Sweat dripped down their bare backs, and it only got hotter the further they went down. Axel’s ears felt stuffy, attempting to pop from the altitude changes.
For once, though, Axel felt insignificant. The walls seemed to only get closer and lower. They had to squeeze past small passageways blindly. Where there weren’t torches, they couldn’t see anything at all. He’d heard noises the further they went that sent chills down his back, and he couldn’t see what had made the noise.
“From the south, ye know?” The old man rambled, suddenly, as they passed a rather large looking torch. It cast a horrifying glow across the old man’s face. “Good ‘ole state once called Louisiana. Lived on the beaches ma whole life. Where ya from?”
“Rocky mountains,” Axel stated, wiggling through another tight passageway. It pressed against his chest and back, almost like it was slowly sandwiching him in. The rock was wet from something Axel hoped was water. However, it smelled horrendously sulfuric. “Lived a few miles away from them though, but we hunted in the mountains all the time and explored the caves.”
“The Snow plains,” Purian said quietly, hyperventilating and shaking. The closer Axel looked, he could see the evidence of the harsh environment he’d come from. The tips of the man’s ears were frostbitten along with his fingers, and his skin was darker and thicker. He’d heard stories of the tribes from the Snow Plains.
The Snow Plains were hundreds of miles away from where Axel had grown up, but still located on the North American continent. Before the disasters, it had once been beautiful land with regular seasons. But when the Ozone ripped open above it, it froze everything miles deep. It became a land for a mutated Caribou species with no natural predators. They were tusked along with their massive horns. Temperatures regularly dropped into the negatives on the nicest days. It was once a place no human could ever live in, like Antarctica. However one day, a famous explorer born in the Capital had ventured out to the Snow Plains, only to come face to face with a tribe. Not only did they survive in the cold, but they thrived. Their skin was genetically thicker, and their body temperatures were higher than any other human in existence. 105 degrees Fahrenheit was what Axel had once heard, which allowed them to survive -50 degree weather. They were hairy people with growing seasonal hair. It grew quite a few inches longer than the normal person during the season change and then they shed when the temperatures rose in the summers. They used tundra malamutes for travel, which had been a breed of dog that mutated when the ozone thinned. They built massive igloos on top of what once were massive lakes and ate the fish from down below. It explained why the boy in front of him was perceivably burning up. One of the things that while their bodies were mutating for the cold, it left out one key thing.
The Snow Plains people didn’t have the ability to sweat.
Coupled with having lived on vast snowy horizons, being crushed to death in the mountains must’ve been insufferable.
“Mountain folk and snow folk all in one place. Well, I’ll be. Yer gonna have to breath, boy, or yer gonna pass out. You’re in a hot part in the mountains, but trust me, yer gonna be somewhere much cooler. So breathe.”
“I’m not used to enclosed areas like this.”
“Am sorry for that,” The old man stated quietly, patting Purian on the shoulder. “You’ll get used to it.”
It took a full hour to descend to a place where their only option was to crawl through the tunnels, squeezing past low hanging rock. There was even less light the more they descended, and the men started to space out, disappearing into other tunnels that were much more dark and colder. The further they descended, the more Purian started to cool. The sound of a fast flowing river became more evident as they got closer and that’s when they started to see dead bodies lying against the rock.
The cavern opened up to a small room filled to the brim with bodies, all in various states of decomposing. Rats feasted on the flesh while maggots crawled in through open bones and sockets. The stench was horrendous and all three of the men gagged before they covered their mouths and noses. There wasn’t any lighting, but Axel’s eyes had already started to switch over.
A trait most mountain folk had, passed down from generation to generation. They could easily see without light as long as they had time for their eyes to adjust. A part of Axel, though, wished he didn’t have it as he stared at the gaping skulls and bodies.
“What kind of fucking place is this?” Axel shouted fearfully.
“Call this the dyin’ room. It’s where all the bodies end up when we die. It keeps tunnels cleaner for all the folk down ‘er. Keeps diseases down. Everybody ends up here in their sweet ole’ time, but not from diseases from dead bodies.”
They continued along a small path, ringed with more fresh bodies than the outskirts. Axel had the chance to glimpse one of the numbers of a heavily tattooed man. 2349. It was reassuring to see fewer children, and more older men in the piles. However dark that thought was. At least his brothers had a chance.
“Come along now, we’re almost there.”
Back into low, crawling tunnels they went and Axel couldn’t imagine having to drag a body through those tunnels. However, eventually, the low tunnels opened up to a somewhat lit room filled with many men milling about. The ceiling was a little higher, leaving only their shoulders hunched down. Many squatted down and worked while some sat by the edge of a beautiful flowing river. It disappeared past a rock wall where many men disappeared into tunnels heading in the same direction.
“Randall!” An older man exclaimed with a thick, black ratty beard and hazel eyes. His hair was about as long as his beard, reaching clear to his shoulders with knots throughout. He stank horrendously, like he hadn’t taken a bath in years. The grime and soot was pasted onto his cocoa colored skin, creating a disturbing, uneven coating. This man had broader shoulders, but the starvation was only a hundred times more evident against his ribs and gaunt face.
“Mirik!” Randall grinned, embracing the man before stepping back.
“Good to see you still kicking old man. Brought us two new recruits I see?”
“Still haven’t died! Youngen’s. Redhead's name is Axel, and the other’s is Purian from them Snow Plains.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you boys, I’ll give you the rundown on what we do in a bit. But Randall, I got one of the boys who needs help taking a cart through the tunnel. Would you be willing to help him push it through?”
“Heck!” He scratched the back of his scalp. “Should be able to.”
“How can you fit a cart through those tunnels?”
“Boy, there’s two types of tunnels down here. One saved just for carts to go back and forth, and then the ones we have to travel by. I’ll show you those in a bit, but you can’t use them for anything other than a cart. They’ve got warriors in every inch of those tunnels, ready to shoot anyone who dares to escape in the carts.”
“I’ll get goin’, eh?” Randall stated, patting Purian and Axel on the backs. “Take care of yer selves.”
He trekked across the room to the beginning of what looked like a track. In front of him sat a pretty hefty cart leading straight into a much taller tunnel. They still had to hunch over, but it was better than the ones they had had to crawl through. There was no light, however, except for the small torch in the front of the cart.
Randall and a very much younger boy, possibly 14, pushed off into the darkness with a cart full of gems and an oddly colored Iron, already pressed into a refined state. Once they were gone, the younger man turned towards them.
“Well, this is our meeting area if that’s what you prefer. We take our breaks here so we can stretch our spines and wash up. We work in some pretty muddy and dusty areas, there’s no in between. River leaks through all these caverns here, soaking everything. If you can swim, I’ll pair you up with others that work near the river or what not. How much we eat depends on how much we send up. And at the end of the week, we’re sent rations down and those are split amongst us evenly. Not every group does that down here, but I think it’s the fairest and I’ve been down by the river longest. We don’t have much of a death toll from starvation here that way. Plus, we’re the furthest down in these mountains, so we’re tighter knit as a group.”
“Do you drink water from the river down here?”
“Hell no, that’s sulfuric salt water, flows in from the ocean and mixes with the natural river. It’s a rare occurrence, so don’t worry, not all underground rivers are like that. There’s only one of us who can drink that and he’s still working. He lost his partner when they tried escaping on the cart to the surface today. So if either of you wants to work in the water let me know.”
“I can’t swim,” Purian stated blatantly, sending Axel an apologetic glance. “Most of the water we had back home was frozen solid. We were nomadic so the need to swim never arose.”
“I grew up in the lakes near the great rocky mountains. I can swim.”
“Then you’ll be his new partner. But please… don’t stare, he’s self-conscious.”
Suddenly something burst up from the water and drug itself onto the rocky ledge. A huge net filled with iron was thrown up beside the person. Men were immediately at his side, dragging the metal away from the water’s edge but shying away from the boy. Eyes glanced up at the group, as a filmy material retracted from the sockets of the boy’s eyes. Water poured out from his nose and streamed down his small chest. His tanned skin was littered in black tattoos, each a brilliant, incomprehensible picture. There were two ovals on both sides of the neck; slit like fish gills and his hands and bare toes had thick skin grown in between them. A massive scar stretched across his left gill ominously. His eyes were a blazing beautiful blue and green like the kelp Axel’s mother had once bought from a merchant to make ceremonial robes. He had long raven colored hair that clung down his back, dripping water against his bare heel, loosely braided. Huge blue and fiery orange fins stretched out from the backs of his ankles, up the sides of his arms, and the center of his back. They looked pale, and sickly, though, the fins peeling back and splitting.
“There he is. Meet our fish boy, Ne’igalomeatiga. He does most of the swimming for us.”