A/N: Goodness, I didn't mean for this story to be as dark as it's turning out to be... whoops. But, it gets much less intense after this chapter, I promise. At least for a while.

It's rated M for a reason, folks.

- Chapter 2 -

The fuzzy cloud that had shrouded her mind began to recede and Nali noticed her growing consciousness. It was an odd sensation, waking up from this strange slumber, one that left her feeling blank and empty.

'What happened?'

Her eyes opened slowly, but the overwhelming weight of her eyelids cause them to close again. Her mind was spinning and she was aware that something on her body was hurt. Her head... the back of her head ached terribly.

'What happened?'

She kept her eyes closed, but tried to organize the jumbled mess in her mind, though it was much easier said than done. She could barely concentrate, her thoughts sifting helplessly away from her like feathers on a breeze. The throbbing of her head was a constant drumbeat, distracting her from the familiar melody of her own thoughts. She grasped onto a thread of thought and tried to will herself to come to complete consciousness.

She couldn't remember much, for some reason. Everything felt so far away from her. She could recall torches. Yes, the torches had been put out for some reason, she remembered that much. And fire. There was a fire... somewhere.

'Oh goddess, the raid!' And her father. Her eyes snapped open and consciousness rushed back to her on a wave memories: Mauresion, lying dead in a pool of blood in the ruined meeting hall, the man who killed him...

Her throat tightened uncomfortably and she choked down the anger that threatened to overwhelm her. In an effort to escape it, she diverted her mind to other, more immediate thoughts.

Where was she?

Though her eyes were already open, she had yet to process any of the images they were taking in, and shifted her attention to her forgotten sense of vision. There wasn't much light, she noted. A small bit shone through the cracks of the cramped walls - sunlight most likely. And there were people all around her. Perhaps a dozen altogether. Masses of unmoving bodies lying against the walls; the musty scent, enhanced by the close quarters, smothering her senses.

'Wait, were they moving?'

A sharp jolt as they hit a dip in the road answered her question. Nali gritted her teeth as a sharp pain shot through the back of her skull. She reached back to touch the injury gingerly, only to notice that her hands were bound at the wrists.

She looked around again, her eyes finally adjusting to the the dim lighting enough to make out more than just people-like shapes. She was in some sort of carriage, she finally decided - barely wide enough for her to stretch her legs out, even if there had been no one across from her. And it was a rope, she saw, almost as thick as her arm, that wrapped around her wrists. She followed the length and saw it joined her to the person beside her - an older man, perhaps in his late forties, but still in good enough shape. The rope continued on to the next person, where it wrapped around their wrists, and then continued to the next person, and so on. One rope held them all together, it looked like.

One rope. One fate.

The people around her were obviously Renikai. Even without much light she could make out the dark uncut hair, the oval faces, the copper skin and the almond-shaped eyes, despite the fact that most of those eyes were closed or turned away from her. She recognized the simple practical cut of their clothes, the light cotton material that was common to her people during this, the late summer season. But she didn't quite recognize the people themselves. 'They must be from other villages.' From Garinth. From Dente. Maybe even from Kilina. But no one from Raelianta. It gave her some hope, that perhaps no one else had been captured.

No, she was wrong. One familiar face, at the other end of the wagon.

'Teah.' Her heart dropped, her hope vanished. If Teah had been taken, it meant the group at the river had been found. The group of children, of mothers, of those too old or too weak to fight. The raiders might've found some value in Teah, as young and strong as she was, but they certainly wouldn't have given the others a second thought...

"Teah. Teah!" Nali whispered harshly to catch the attention of the girl. Teah looked up, just as the man beside her shot Nali a warning glare.

"Hush girl," he advised coldly. "They hear you, you're as good as dust." He glanced around him, as if frightened one of the other wagon inhabitants would rat him out, before lowering his dark eyes again. Nali looked back to Teah, who was watching her with large innocent eyes. She leaned forward and tried to convey her inquiry as silently as she could.

Teah raised her tied hands, still smeared with the dirt and blood of her struggle, as if to reaffirm the notion that they were, in fact, no more than cattle. Nali communicated her next question by raising her fingers one by one in a counting motion and then shrugging her shoulders.

Teah only shook her head slowly and looked away.

No one else?

Nali's eyes fell down to her lap and she hugged her knees. Had Raelianta been destroyed, like so many of the other villages? Were Teah and herself the only ones left? Most of the fighters had been killed in the battle, she remembered gruesomely, and the rest of the village population weren't strong and useful-looking like the people in this wagon.

Winds and waters, had Raelianta been destroyed by sloggers?

It didn't seem right. The attacks were too organized, too precise, to be done just in the name of slave labor. Besides, the villages like Faredawn and Kilina were too large and well known for any slogger in their right mind to attempt to rob them of their entire population. A slogger would aim for the smaller villages, like Garinth and Raelianta. But then, why were the larger villages attacked?

'Perhaps Ronoin was right,' she thought. 'Maybe the attacks aren't connected.' There was no way that a slogger would attack Faredawn or Kilina, but they had apparently attacked Raelianta, because she was sure it was a slave train she rode in now. 'But I was so sure they were connected...'

She had thought of something, she recalled. Some theory to the reason of the raids, when she had spoken to Ronoin. But she had been interrupted before she'd gotten the chance to say it. And now she couldn't remember. 'It had been important... it had been the key to everything... and now I can't think of what it was.'

With a sudden jolt that caused more than a few people to fall over, their wagon halted. Nali glanced around frantically. What was going on now?

A clicking sound, followed by the rattles of chains, came from outside. In the next moment, the back of the wagon was ripped open, and the bright sunlight washed in, blinding them all.

"A'ight, get out!" A bulky man grabbed the person nearest the door, a young woman, and jerked her out by her shoulder, sending her flying out onto the ground. The rope that bound them all together snapped taut with enough force to pull the next in line toward the opening.

"Up wit' ya already!" The man grabbed the rope and pulled with just as much force as he had previously exhibited, and another girl flew out into the blistering sunlight.

Nali watched wide-eyed as the rest of the inhabitants of the wagon stood up awkwardly and tried to exit as quickly as possible - a difficult feat considering their hands were still bound before them and the rope hung uncomfortably around their hips. She stood with those around her and shuffled her feet toward the bright exit.

The line moved quickly, but not quickly enough, as the slogger man would occasionally yank at the rope and send another person stumbling out. He did this again to a young man only three people in front of Nali, and the force was enough to send the older man just in front of her to his knees.

"Hey, hey!" The slogger noticed the hesitation in the line just as Nali reached down to help him to his feet. "What ya think ya doin'? Get up!" The slogger reached up to the wagon and grabbed the older man by the arm with bruising force. Nali reflexively moved back, but soon realized her mistake as the slogger pulled the man out angrily, pulling her down right along with him.

Nali fell sideways onto the hard-packed sand, and heard an audible snap, followed by the shriek of the older man.

"What the bloody hell is going on over here?!" Nali felt two hands attempt to help her up. Not the slogger though; they felt too small and too kind to belong to that man. She rose to her feet, but was forced to stay bent over slightly due to the short rope that still bound her to the other man. The male Renikai still lay on the ground, was still crying out in pain.

"He fell outta tha damn carriage, sir," came the gruff voice of the slogger. Nali glanced up, and saw that another man had come over to their area. A sickeningly familiar man.

Murderer.

His dark eyes traveled from the slogger, to the older man, to those out of the wagon, then to those few still inside the wagon. "Dammit man, you have to watch them," Mauresion's killer said. "I doubt the people at Warnik will take damaged goods. If we get cut on this pay, it's coming out of yours." His tone was threatening and he unsheathed a thick sword from his hip.

The sword that had cut through Mauresion, Nali recognized, with more than a twinge of anger and hatred.

As he moved toward them, sword drawn threateningly, fear superseded anger and she tried to pull away, jarring the obviously broken arm of the injured man and causing him to cry out even louder than he already was. Her blood froze in her veins as the armed man snarled, the scar across his cheek contorting oddly. The blade rose.

'Oh Goddess-' She turned her head away, squeezing her eyes shut as tightly as she could.

With a quick swoosh, the rope that held her to the injured man loosened. When her eyes opened again, she saw that the rope had been cut, and the killer was pulling the man up by his unbroken arm.

"You." He pointed to the bulky slogger that caused the entire situation. "Take him over to that man, see if he knows whether Warnik will take one with a broken arm. Thar!" Another man came over and the killer pointed to the rest of them who were still standing around in a daze. "Take care of these and watch this hole. We don't need any more losses."

"Yes, Dain." Thar replied. With that, Dain, the murderer, walked away. "All right, let's move!" Thar called, motioning the rest of them out of the wagon.

As their group was reorganized and moved along, Nali's mind drifted back to the previous events. Something didn't fit. These men obviously weren't sloggers. Dain didn't even know if he could get paid for someone with a broken arm, he needed to refer to someone who actually was familiar with the trade. He'd even admitted he wasn't a slogger - she suddenly remembered his words back in Raelianta, when he'd actually spoken to her before knocking her unconscious. Yet, he was taking them to Warnik, the largest city in the Realm that still sold slaves. The desert city known only for their human trade.

Why raid Raelianta if they weren't sloggers? Something just didn't make sense. She was missing something.

'Ok Nali, retrace your thoughts that night. Why were they attacking all of those villages? Something they all shared. Something they all had in common... ' The memory struck her so suddenly that she almost stopped walking.

'Of all the leaders we were ordered to kill...'

Faredawn, Kilina, Dente, and those larger villages before them. Each one was home to an influential Renikai leader. And that's why they'd swept the entire area around Raelianta, destroying the smaller villages even though they had nothing and no one. They were searching for Mauresion, the most influential of them all.

These men were after the leaders.

--------------------

If there was anything one would imagine a slave city to be, Warnik was it. Surrounded by nothing by desert sand and bright blue sky, and built of thick stones and even thicker chains, Warnik was the tawny pearl of a slogger's heart. Massive buildings, the color of burnt copper, rose out of the desert - a signal of wealth for some, a signal of poverty for others. The steel gates were thrown open for the day, and Nali imagined them as wide arms pulling her into a life she'd never imagined for herself, only to close for the night, holding her prisoner until she was bought. The reality of her predicament didn't truly strike her until she was led through those gates.

She was nothing more than a nameless slave now.

The atmosphere of Warnik caused her mind to wrench away from her body, just to escape the hopelessness of it all. Shady characters slithered past them, not giving another thought to the line of people being led through the streets. A great platform stood in the middle of a city, waiting for more people to be herded onto it's surface to be sold; the center of life in Warnik. The big men that took over the group then led them into a less-than-hospitable looking building. The stripping of the clothes, the close inspections, the new garments they were given, and the crowded cells they were forced into. Everything passed through her mind without actually registering. The despair around her was heavy, contagious, and she withdrew even further into herself.

Sometime during the inspections, the group was separated. There didn't appear to be any method to the division, but even if there had been, Nali wouldn't have noticed. She did eventually realize however, when she was sitting in her cell and her mind was finally joined with her body again, that Teah was no longer with her.

The air reeked. That was what she noticed most of all, once her senses became operational again. The smell of blood, sweat, dirt and feces overpowered her. It hung in the air like a thick fog, suffocating her, drowning her. The scent of the wagon they'd ridden in on didn't even compare.

She looked around, trying to keep her mind as whole and focused as she possibly could. There were easily over thirty people in the tiny cell with her, and there were still more cells beside it. Hundreds, if not thousands, of slaves, all crammed into areas no bigger than her own small dwelling had been back in Raelianta. Most of the prisoners leaned back against the thick bars that separated the cells, or the stone wall at the back, but a few were laid out in the middle, scattered across the cold jagged ground. Nali herself was curled up in a corner against the solid wall and one of the barred boundaries, her chin resting on her pulled up knees, trying to keep from bursting into defeated tears.

'Where's Teah?' At least if Teah was with her, she would have someone to talk to, someone to remind her of who she was, someone to keep her grounded and sane. But there was no one. Surrounded by these people, half of them though she knew were Renikai, Nali was completely and utterly alone.

It was difficult to tell time in their prison. Even as short as her time had been so far, Nali could already feel the memory of sunshine slipping from her. There was a thin space that ran all the way across the top of the back wall - probably for "ventilation" though it was barely thicker than the width of her hand - but it let in very little light. It was only possible to know when night came, as she soon found, for they were thrown into almost complete darkness. It made the little light they had precious.

They were fed twice a day, once just as the darkness began to recede from their cells, and once just before night came. A burly man would slip into the cells and throw each of them a bowl of bland gruel (the bowls could really be thrown - the oatmeal substance was so thick it wouldn't slip out of the bowl) and a crust of hard bread that always tasted like it was on the verge of molding. Nali at first hesitated in eating the meals, but once she saw how her cellmates fought fiercely to protect their food - like animals - and after a few days of a growling stomach, she forced the food down as quickly as anyone else.

Food was even more precious than light to the Warnik slaves, she learned, after she witnessed the first real conflict among the slaves since she'd arrived.

Shouts arose from the cell to her right, the one that shared the corner she had been curled up against since her first day. Nali rose her head and stretched her neck in an attempt to see what was going on, but the inhabitants of the neighboring cell had already surrounded those who appeared to be arguing. She, along with everyone else close enough to witness, watched and listened to the fight for a few moments before a group of Warnik men rushed to the offending cell.

"What the hell is going on here?!" The barred door was opened, and the three largest men of the group of six forced their way in, each armed with a thick short sword. Nali watched as they threw aside the bystanders, finally reaching the source of the fight. Two men and a woman. The men were facing each other, and the woman - a Renikai barely older than Nali herself - stood behind the younger of the two men. Before the guards could say another thing, the older man shrieked out a preemptive explanation.

"That girl is taking more than her share of the food! And he's the one givin' it to her!" He pointed accusingly at both of them. The younger man, another Renikai, spun quickly, facing the three angry-looking guards.

"Please, she is my younger sister, and she is ill. It was only some of my bread-"

"Ain't no one gettin' no more food than anyone else," one of the guards said. "That's the rule."

"But it was my bread!" A sharp slap echoed through the prison. The slave's face snapped to the side, which surprised Nali. She'd expected him to be knocked to the ground from the force of such a hit.

"Don't argue with us boy!" the lead guard yelled, pushing the man and grabbing hold of the woman's arm. "You takin' his food? Answer me, you stupid bitch! You takin' his food?!" He shook her so violently than her brother moved forward protectively.

"Stop, I already told you-" A second guard intercepted him and held him back.

"Well, are you?!" The girl said nothing.

"Hey, Oss." The third guard moved behind the girl, and moved the neck of her tunic down over her shoulder. "Look at this. This here's a Renikai priestess! Fresh young one too, the skin's still red."

The words shot straight into her heart, and Nali moved back against the wall, trying to pull herself as far away from the situation as possible. She didn't need to see what the third guard had uncovered, for she already had a good idea of what it was. The mark of the Goddess, etched into the skin on the back of the girl's neck, given to those devoted few who pledged their lives in servitude of the Goddess. Nali herself was supposed to receive the mark when she turned nineteen that winter, a year earlier than tradition. 'Winds and waters, then she's only twenty years old!'

"So, you savages think you can just do whatever you want, huh?" said the first guard after he'd seen the mark for himself. "Think you Renikai are so much better, can just break our rules when you feel like it, huh? Well, I'll show you what we think 'bout that!" The guard threw the girl down on the ground, and moved over her.

Her brother, enraged, escaped the grip of the guard who held him and lunged for the girl's attacker. Both guards caught hold of him, and two more rushed in from outside the cell when it was obvious that two men alone could not hold this prisoner. Nali caught her breath as the girl cried out. Cries that soon changed from shouts for help to sobs of pain.

'Stop.' The thought rose to her mind with the sounds of the beating. 'Why are they just standing there?! Please, Goddess, please make him stop!' She rose again to her knees, gripping the bars tightly. "Stop." Her voice was just above a whisper, barely audible above the sickening torture. She shook the bars, as if to break them. "Stop it! STOP!" This time she yelled, and a few even looked at her. Nali's eyes were locked on the girl, however, and she didn't notice them.

"You wanna end up like her?" came a harsh voice behind her. Nali's head snapped back to look to whoever had spoken. An older woman against the wall stared back at her. "You keep yelling like that, and you will. Leave well enough alone, Renikai." She spoke the last word venomously, as if it left a bad taste in her mouth.

Nali pressed her lips tightly together and turned back to the neighboring cell. She was ready to yell again, when she saw that the guard had stopped, and was standing up. His thick legs blocked the girl from view, but with the splattered stains on his clothing, Nali doubted she really wanted to see the entire thing.

"Let this be... a lesson to you all," he said, catching his breath. Two more men came into the cell and dragged the girl out. Nali felt her heart drop and throat close when she saw the battered body, the crooked red trail it left behind.

'Oh no...'

"Nobody breaks our rules," the guard finally added.

"What about this one?" another guard said. The brother was still fighting against the men who held him - the total now at five - but Nali could see his strength was nearly spent. The brutal guard walked up to him and stood just watching him for a moment - dark eyes gleaming with victory - before punching him twice in the stomach. The brother doubled over, and as the guards who had been holding him let go, he was thrown against the side of the cell. He landed only a few feet from where Nali kneeled, still gripping the bars.

"Leave him," the guard then advised. "We can still get a good bid on a strong one like him."

"... The girl?"

"Too frail. Wasn't worth the clothes on her back. Nobody'd buy a thing like that." Nali glanced over at the brother, who still managed to raise his head in defiance. The guards then left the cell, locking the door behind them.

Nali stayed on her knees, but finally let go of the bars. She wanted nothing more than to run away from this place, unwilling to cope with what she had just seen. A girl beaten before her... beaten to death most likely. How easily could it have been herself, she thought. How easily could an anonymous twenty year old Renikai woman be replaced by an eighteen year old Nali

He was very close, the brother of the girl. If she moved a little to her left, she could touch his shoulder. He had very broad shoulders, she noticed. His jet black hair hung in ragged strands just above them. It looked as though it had been clumsily cut - probably against his will as an insult to Renikai tradition. Knowledge of his situation filled her with a sense of camaraderie and a desire to console him.

She knew very well what he was going through.

"Lekaila... Sequione menothe feilella..."

Nali froze. Had she heard him right? He was mumbling, but... no, she had heard him. She recognized the language. She could understand each of the words that made up his desperate plea. 'My lady, please protect my sister.'

He knew Kinraealli.

She was surprised. Very few really practiced the ancient tongue of the Renikai. It was kept alive mostly among the priests and a few of the older, more devoted people in their prayers, offerings, and ceremonies. She was only fluent in it because her father insisted she be fully educated as a training priestess, himself quite fluent in the dying language.

How did this man - this young man - know it so well? There was no mark upon his neck.

Nali watched the young man curiously for another moment. His lips barely moved, but she could catch fleeting syllables of a slow Kinraealli prayer coming from them.

His skill with the old tongue finally convinced her to approach him.

Nali turned around, so that her back was against the bars and she faced the center of her cell. She moved casually to the side, inching closer to the man leaning back against the opposite side of the bars. Though she couldn't see his face, she knew he was too lost in his own grief to pay her any attention. She kept her head down, but angled it in such a way that her words would carry to his ear.

"Lekai menothar feilelta," she said softly. The Lady will protect your sister.

His head snapped to the side, chocolate brown eyes wide with disbelief. He stared at her a moment before averting his gaze, turning back to face his cell.

"You should be careful, speaking such a hated tongue," he warned quietly. "Someone could use such knowledge against you."

"As they could for you," she reminded him.

"But, you see, I don't care anymore." He paused, the sadness in his voice permeating through the air. "Let them come for me, as they did my Siri. My Sirialiana"

Nali's heart wrenched at his words, but she tried not to let it show. "Is that your plan, then? You fight this far, only to give up now?"

"And look what fighting the system has brought me. Nothing but bondage."

"It was fate that brought us to slavery," she corrected him. "But it is we who must get ourselves out." She looked back at him, her challenging gaze wasted on the back of his head, before moving back to her corner of the cell.

He didn't move for a long time. She watched him without staring, glancing up at him every so often through her lashes. He sat still, his face lowered, his eyes closed. Had he not spoken back to her, she wouldn't have even known he'd really heard her. There was certainly no way to tell now.

She had almost given up on him when he finally rose his head again, looking up toward the entrance to his cell. Nali turned her face away from him, almost ignoring him, but kept him in her peripheral vision as he stood and moved back to the corner of his own cell, right next to her. They made no move to even recognize each other's presence.

"Has the Goddess sent you to chide me?" he mumbled. He leaned his head back against the stone wall and closed his eyes, feigning sleep.

"I don't mean to chide," Nali replied. "But as few of us as there are left... we have to help each other. We must be each other's strength. Isn't that what the Clan was meant to be in the first place? I think, over time... we've forgotten that."

The man sighed. "I see, then... She has sent you to be my teacher." He looked at her through the corner of his eye and she could sense a grateful smile in his gaze. "Sein." He crossed his hands in front of his chest and gave a small nod of the head.

A dangerous motion amid the mass of betrayers.

Nali smiled at him and nodded back.

"Nali."