Wind whipped through his thick red hair as the sound of the train grew closer. He tapped his feet impatiently, his stare darting from the people around him to the distant, fading tracks. Just before the horizon, a thick puff of grey smoke broke the outline of the valley floor, followed slowly by a large black locomotive.
His ankles were killing him, along with the tops and bottoms of his feet, his calves, his thighs, his biceps, his triceps, and everything within a half-foot of bone. He was sure the other cadets around him felt the same way, but he couldn't say anything, nor would he, anyways.
His fists tensed as something approached him from behind. He felt the soft shuffling of footsteps about three feet behind him to his right. It seemed they were trying to muffle their movements with the roaring of the engine.
He pretended to shift his weight from one leg to the other, and, with feigned casualty, glanced over his right shoulder.
The blow came precisely when he thought it would. His arm stiffened and shot up reflexively in time to catch the club in mid-swing. At the same time, he took note of his opponent. It was Barock, as he thought; no doubt trying to exact the revenge he had promised him on countless occasions that fall.
He smirked to himself. Noting the shocked expression on his would-be assailant's face, he twisted his body suddenly to the left and brought his right knee just under Barock's left rib.
As he expected, he leaned to the left, dropping the club and holding his side. Before Barock could recuperate, an unexpected blow to his right knee sent him reeling to the floor. He fumed, rage and pain spewing forth from his clenched teeth in the form of blood and spit. Between these two, the words, "Sakeya!" erupted.
Sakeya grinned maliciously and waited for the expected crowd to gather before delivering his next line- "I guess we'll leave it at that, Barock. It's a little late to get sent home in a stretcher, don't ya' think?"
The cadets around him burst into laughter. Barock lay on the ground, his great body shaking with rage and embarrassment. A brave onlooker kicked the club he had wielded. With a thud, it bounced off his head.
Sakeya stared at Barock, who was now just holding his knee with his eyes closed. He almost felt sorry for him, but a voice rose from amidst his worries, telling him that it wasn't his fault Barock insisted on making an ass out of himself in front of everyone. Plus, their rivalry, and Sakeya's consistent winning, served as a means to boost his reputation with the group. Although most would still steer clear of either of them, they were both at least never talked about, and kept out of the typical camp drama.
As a result, Sakeya had progressed extremely well that fall. It was only his first time at training, but their Drill Sergeant had already claimed him as his prized cadet. He was, in this man's opinion, the "most ruthless, efficient machine he had seen", capable of becoming "an elite in any division". Sakeya had merely shrugged off the sergeant's compliments, as he knew that he was merely covering over the fact that over a third of his trainees still couldn't finish the six-minute mile run at the end of that season.
The steam whistle blew louder now, and Sakeya snapped out of his gaze. He looked over his shoulder to see it just pulling in to the station. Before joining the line with the other cadets- or, rather, the swarm- he chanced a glance at his rival.
Barock's cold, blue eyes were staring right into his own, with strange detachment. Sakeya chuckled, for reasons unknown to himself, and turned quickly to hide the nervous ripple that overtook his body. Well, that was creepy, he heard himself think through the uproarious cheering of the men as the doors to the locomotion slid open. He watched the men clamber in, voices singing drunkenly from the intoxicating liquor of winter leave.
A whole three months…The notion suddenly dawned on him. I can't get out of shape though, lest Barock come at me with a real weapon. He would have begun worrying about it, but a friendly knock on the shoulder captured his attention.
Smiling, he turned to meet Roy McKinney's bright young face. He was probably the third best trainee, after himself and Barock, but he was also his only friend. He was a stark contrast from the rest of the group, too. The rest of the men seemed only to trudge along. Sakeya could almost hear their train of thought, as they constantly told themselves to make it just a little more, just one more day. Roy, however, was different. Sakeya could tell that he was clear, and of a gentle intelligence. He had no encumbering thoughts or worries. It wasn't as if he was just acting cool, either. Sakeya could feel the energy exuding from him, like a kindling flame. Often, they were placed together on squads, and without his unending energy, he would have fallen countless times.
Roy nodded to him, beaming. "Heya, Sakeya."
Sakeya nodded back. "Hey, Roy." They boarded the train and walked down a few carts. Roy followed behind, pardoning himself profusely as they broke through the last large groups of people.
They entered the last car and sat in the back on a very low wooden seat that served more as a bench than a chair. It wasn't a very accommodating train, Sakeya thought. The walls were drab, with fading flowered designs, and the carpeting was riddles with stains. Most of the windows were smeared, and a hole in the window next to him allowed fresh air to enter.
"So," Roy started, sighing and leaning back in his chair, "where're you getting off at?" He looked pleasantly out the window to his left, twiddling his thumbs in his lap.
"Well, where's the first stop, Neckbridge? Then I guess I'll be transferring and heading towards La Nihm, get off and walk from there. Gonna suck though, this time of year- all the wolves are out." He shrugged and fixed his gaze out the window. The train horn then blew twice in succession before it slowly lurched forward.
"That sucks- long walk?"
Sakeya cleared his throat. "Nah, like twenty miles or so if I cut through the mountains. It just sucks, gets real cold ya' know."
Roy grinned and nodded slowly, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Well, if it's a while before you can get a train to La Nihm, we can get something to eat, my treat."
"Nah, it's cool-"
"Come on, what else are you gonna do if you're waiting? Besides, you've got no food, water, or anyone to pick a fight with."
"Heh, I can manage all those; you know me."
Roy chuckled. "Yeah, all at once, no doubt."
They shared a laugh. He was right though, and Sakeya knew it. He had come to camp with nothing, and left only with his uniform. Maybe he was reckless by nature, or maybe he tried, but it was how he was comfortable.
"Seriously, though," Roy continued, looking him in the eyes, "my treat man, wherever you want to eat."
A grin spread across Sakeya's face. "Wherever…?"
It was eight o'clock at night as Sakeya burst through the barroom door and out in to the street. "What are you gonna do about it?!" He screamed at the four burly men who had thrown him out. They glared at him and laughed, walking back in the bar and shaking their heads. A second later, Roy emerged. "Man, what a bunch o' punks right there, man!" Sakeya continued.
Roy hiccupped audibly, opening and closing his eyes as if in a state of profound disbelief. "Sakeya…" he started, pausing to swallow and gasp for air, "I… I think I'm drunk! I feel-" he stood staring at his hands, waving them in concentric circles before him, an awe-some look on his face.
"And, and- and I think I love you man!" Sakeya tackled into him, sending them both sprawling. They laughed as they rose to their feet. "Seriously, seriously man… you've, you've been there for me, man, on the battlefield," he accentuated his voice to one of immense bravado and camaraderie, "in training. I mean, no one else knows what the hell's going on, really, ya' know? Like, no one else wants to live man! They just don't fuckin care!"
Roy was still laughing, apparently ashamed. He looked at Sakeya in furtive glances, holding a hand up to his mouth and blushing.
"Wha'? What's going on man?" Sakeya demanded, eyes open wide in curiosity. "Come on, you can tell me bro!" But Roy just shook his head, giggling. "Come ON!" Sakeya shook him and stomped his feet on the sidewalk. Finally, Roy erupted into uproarious laughter, turning his head from Sakeya, who had a huge smile on his face, now, too. "What is it?"
"I, I, I…" he stammered, hiccupping again. "I, t-think… I think I'm DRUNK!" And they both exploded into laughter.
"Sakeya, wake up!"
This seemed like a bad idea to him. He didn't feel he could muster even opening his eyes. But someone was furiously shaking his body, so he managed to mumble "What, WHAT?"
He opened his eyes to a strange scene. He was still on the train! "Oh thank god…" he finished, closing his eyes again. A moment later, he shot up. It wasn't the same train.
"Yeah," Roy, who was kneeling in front of him, said. "You know where this train is going?"
Sakeya rubbed his eyes and moaned. "How the hell should I know, Roy?"
"Well, you SHOULD!" Roy screamed, jumping to his feet. "Because YOU'RE the one who convinced us to GET ON IT!"
Sakeya stared at him, dumbfounded. "Oh shit, seriously?" He looked around absently, straining to remember. He had forgotten everything, save throwing a shot glass at the bartender and swearing he'd never drink again. "Oh, man…"
"Yeah… dang, man." Roy collapsed in the seat across from him, his head in his hands. "Man, my parents are gonna kill me."
Sakeya was filled with a mix of feelings. He was confused, hungry, thirsty, tired, and shameful. But above all, he was angry at himself. How could he let down Roy so much? The poor guy. He thought, watching him mope. What a shitty first drinking experience.
"Damn, sorry man…"
"Nah, it's alright… neither of us knew what we were doing. Just…" he chuckled. Sakeya recognized it as a chuckle of submission. He hoped his friend didn't break down on him. "…heh, well, now what?"
His look made Sakeya shift nervously. He cleared his throat, and, looking at the floor, said "We'll just take the train back, I guess."
Roy glared at him fiercely. "And how do you plan on living long enough to do that? We'll be killed the moment we leave this thing! Don't you know what happens to soldiers down there?!"
Sakeya stared blankly for a second, then, after a moment of apparent realization, his face turned genuinely sour. "Oh, god… don't tell me…!" He bolted from his seat and slammed his face against the window behind him. All he could see was blackness- they appeared to be in a tunnel.
A light vaporous mist spread across the window by his face as he sighed. "There's no way I could have been drunk enough to do this… are you sure I convinced us? We didn't get arrested or something?"
Roy shook his head. "Of all that I remember last night, I remember that the most. You were so determined to get on this train…" They both sat in silence. Sakeya now knew how Roy must've felt. He didn't doubt that he was bluffing- most likely, he was unable to stop him, so in his inebriated state, he decided to go with him out of compassion. That was how Roy was- loyal, dependable, sometimes timid, but always overly kind. That was his weakness in training, and that was his weakness in the outside world.
"Hey, let's ditch these GUI, anyways." Sakeya suggested, unzipping his jacket. Roy nodded and followed suit.
Sakeya was lightly built but with a more visible musculature, while Roy was slightly thinner but with just as much strength. Sakeya was also about a head higher than Roy, with fierce green eyes, whereas Roy had kind, clear blue eyes. Sakeya's features were also colder, giving him the appearance of always being in deep thought. His nose was crooked and mouth tight, with small white teeth. A shadow always seemed to hang over him, accentuating the lines of anger stuck in his brow and cheeks.
Roy, on the other hand, exuded a much more youthful aura, with gentle features. His cheeks were rosy and uplifted and curved widely into a jutting chin. He had wide, almost goofy ears that erupted abruptly from his loose brown hair, and an open smile that spread slowly and seemed to contain itself before it could extend completely.
"I think we'd better do something about these pants."
Sakeya grabbed his below the knee, took a small steel knife from a sheath on the back of his waistline, and cut the pants, making rugged shorts. Roy nodded and cut his own. They both had athletic, although pale legs.
Both were silent and jittery. A nervous anticipation had overtaken the train. Sakeya felt strangely ashamed- he wasn't sure whether to appear angry at himself or to not worry about it, like Roy. A part of him felt angry at getting so intoxicated and jeopardizing them both, while another part truly didn't care.
"Don't worry about it, Sakeya." Roy assented, seemingly reading his mind. They were both staring out opposite windows on opposite sides of the car, although both shared the same view. Sakeya chuckled, unbelieving of Roy's ability to read people. As if it were an act of volition, he continued, saying "It's just so obvious by the hardened look on your face."
Sakeya could only grin. There he goes again, shouldering both our worries. I'd rather him get mad at me than just soak it all up like this.
Suddenly, the train shook. Sakeya grabbed a pole but Roy was sent sprawling. There was a loud, inhumane shriek, and the train lights flickered. Still hanging on, Sakeya felt the train disconnect, sending their car sliding into a wall of the tunnel.
After a momentary pause, Sakeya began to rise to his feet. "Hey Roy, are-shit!" the train lurched again, sliding farther down the tunnel. Roy huffed from down the car as he apparently struggled to stand.
"What the hell's-" Sakeya cursed under his breath as the train lurched again, "-going on!?"
Just then, a red light, accompanied by a typical wailing siren, filled the car. The doors shot open, and Sakeya and Roy exchanged a panicked look. Roy was waiting, Sakeya knew, for his orders; the scenarios they played out in training apparently left their mark on them. Sakeya scrambled down to the door in the middle of the train with Roy approaching from the other end. Then, the train began to slide slowly without stopping, slamming Sakeya into a set of chairs and adjacent the door. He reached over and grabbed Roy, throwing him outside. He screamed something, but it was muffled by the deafening siren. The train was quickly gathering speed, and Sakeya knew he had to jump soon.
Biting his lip, he launched himself out the door, rolling on the hard stone ground as the car disappeared from his immediate view.
He as about to breathe a sigh of relief, but Roy's scream from up the tunnel paused him. "Sakeya, look out!"
He glanced upward to see Roy jumping out of the way of another train car, its doors also open. Red light and siren flooded the passageway as the car spun in a half- circle towards him. He barely managed to tumble sideways as it flew by him, but before he could get up again, another whizzed by, missing his jutting knees by mere inches.
Sparks sheeted him as he jittered frantically, covering his face. He instinctively began running down the tunnel. He knew Roy was following him, so embedded was their training.
"Sakeya-!" Roy managed to holler as his breath was cut short. Sakeya glanced back to see Roy right behind him.
Sakeya barely had time to register what he was saying before he realized that the sound of sirens was closing in. With another glance back, he stared into the mouth of a car. Roy pulled him to the other side of the passage, barely avoiding the collapse of rocks from the ceiling.
Behind them, the tumbling of rocks was apparent, as they rolled closer, silhouetted with the red light of another train car. Beside them, boulders rolled precariously close, as others seemingly jumped over their heads.
Again acting on pure instinct, Sakeya grunted and tumbled forward. Flicking his shoulder blades, a giant wheel careened in front of him, smashing into a wall and dislodging several rocks.
A stupendous uproar then overtook them. It was deafening, greater than that of the siren. They both glanced back to see a train car rolling lengthwise down the passage. Sakeya instantly realized there was no room on either side to dodge it. They ran closer together at an even pace.
He became aware of their panting, as if it were the only sound around them. He saw Roy's face, tight with exertion and soaked in perspiration. His eyes were so utterly attentive; he didn't even notice Sakeya's examinations.
It was getting close now, Sakeya realized. He had to think of something- anything. His mind raced with the frantic beatings of his heart, his every muscle tensing. The colossal, rolling, thunderous monster had nearly overtaken them. Roy screamed.
Sakeya grabbed him and rolled.
With a booming thud, the ground around them shook. A moment later, the car rolled on, leaving them huddled, shaking.
He looked up. He was alive.
Roy laughed in eccentric spurts. "How-? Hahah!" He was hysterical, but Sakeya merely sighed.
"That was pretty weird."
"Weird?! Sakeya, we should be dead! It landed right on us!"
Sakeya rose to his feet, dusting himself off. "Maybe it jumped us."
"Jumped us? Even then… heh…"
He cleared his throat. "Come on, Roy."
"Are we goin' back?"
He sighed again and pointed behind them with his chin. Although its siren was off, the red light of a train car lying lengthwise across the tunnel spilled into the chamber. But all around it, giant rocks had filled the passage completely.
"Well, I guess that settles that." Roy beamed, his face looking tired and old in the red light.
"Just like that?" Sakeya grinned as they began fumbling onwards in the semidarkness.
"Well it looks like we've got no choice. Hopefully there's another way out once we get down there, ya know?"
"There's supposed to be all kinds of secret passages that lead up, used by smugglers and stuff." Sakeya began, hands in his back pockets. "And there used to be an elevator system, but no doubt that's probably shut down. Our best or safest bet would be to wait for the train to get back in order."
"But that'll probably take at least a month… man, my parents are gonna kill me, no doubt…"
"Heh, if we're lucky, someone won't beat them to it." He grinned.
They continued walking, guided by the rails and the occasional flashing train car. After thirty minutes, they passed by the car they rode in earlier, and a few more, one of which was on fire.
In another train they found the body of a man, apparently in his mid-twenties. He wore khaki pants stained in blood (his legs were crushed between the car and an adjoining rock wall) and an unbuttoned checkered over shirt. They searched him to find a large, slightly curved knife and twenty Sol.
"You take em," Roy suggested, "I've got about fifty on me."
Sakeya shrugged and emptied the rest of the wallet, keeping a Charge Card and putting the money in there with it.
They continued walking for another two hours. Neither had any idea what time it was, but they agreed to rest for a while. They had lost sight of any bit of red light from fallen train cars, and were now immersed in pitch black.
Resting against the wall, Sakeya had a strange dream. He was running down the passage, and bits of rocks on the ground spoke to him with every step he took, guiding him. Then Roy himself turned into a rock, but he wouldn't speak no matter how many times Sakeya ran around him. Finally, he gave up and continued walking, but Roy rolled over and eventually crushed him.
Sakeya awoke gasping. "Geeze," he exclaimed, "Roy."
"Huh?" His voice came from across the tunnel.
Sakeya breathed a sigh of relief. "Damn, bad dream…" He yawned and got up, stretching. His clothes were sticking to his skin, and he felt dirty. "Man has it always been this hot down here?"
Roy rose to his feet. "I don't know what you're talking about, I'm kind of chilly."
Sakeya snorted, fanning his shirt. They stretched for another minute and silently began walking again. He became aware of the silence and utter stillness of the air. Their footsteps seemed alien to him. He definitely wasn't used to the sheer darkness, he realized. He had no practice in living in a world of only sounds, and so it was unbelievable to him how accustomed to it he was already becoming. Although his eyes were open, they were darting in strange directions without any will of his own. His ears were pricked, his arms were tensed, and he had no doubt he had an embarrassing look of concentration on his face.
"Strange, huh." Roy's voice boomed from behind him.
"Dammit Roy." Sakeya coughed, catching his breath.
Roy laughed. "Sorry, just getting bored with all this strenuous walking."
"Well, who knows how much farther it is, anyways."
They were silent for another few moments. Roy began again though, saying "So, is Sermin your hometown? Or did you like just move there, or what?"
Sakeya thought for a moment. "Uhh," he was never asked a question like that before, at least, not in such a casual manner. Roy was probably one of the few real friends he had, a fact he had only just started to realize. "I guess… to start with, my uh, old man… he was an officer in the military, but, even though he was an officer, we still moved around a lot. But Sermin was always, well…" He paused to think.
"Hahah, it's not that big of a deal, I was just asking ya know? Geeze, getting all serious…"
Sakeya was puzzled. "Hey, you asked." Another uneasy silence overtook them as they both walked tensely onward.
Roy giggled under his breath. "…not gonna ask me where I'm from?"
Sakeya sighed. I hate talking like this. What the hell's the point of getting in my each other's business? As they were in the pitch black, he let an angry expression spill forth.
"Well," Roy started, taking a deep breath, "my own father was a merchant, but he struck it rich when I was just a kid, so I've had a pretty decent upbringing. I lived in a few cities, but recently we've been staying in Arba."
"Arba? Isn't that-"
"Yeah, it's a Garven city-state. But my dad's work brings him all over the place."
Arba was a large city near the Garven-Nirnith border. Sakeya found it strange that although the two were at the brink of war, his friend had no qualms joining the Nirnithian Military while living in one of its enemy states. Even stranger to him was that he was actually planning on going over the border at such a time.
"What would you have done if war'd broken out while you were over there?" He asked, purely out of curiosity.
He could feel Roy's grin even in the dark. "I probably would've just acted like a civilian."
Sakeya could only grunt in interest. So this is how a noble really thinks… So shamelessly cowardly; he didn't act like that before. How could he be such a coward but such a good soldier?
"It's not cowardly, Sakeya."
He said nothing.
"If I were caught, my parents would probably be killed. Besides, I'm only getting my three years in, ya know?"
"Yeah, I get you. It's just weird I guess, since I'm going in for career, never really considered something like that." Sakeya was silent again. He didn't know what to think, but he was stuck with Roy either way, he knew.
"Hey!" His eyes shot up. "It's getting brighter!" They both breath a sigh of relief. "Heh, why are we sighing? It's been easy up till now." They rounded another corner. The sounds of the darkness were being slowly replaced by the sounds of machinery and human voices. The tunnel leveled out and opened up into a bright open chamber. Their eyes adjusted as they walked forward, shielding their eyes from the light with a hand.
They couldn't believe what they saw. They stood atop a railroad bridge about half a mile above the floor of an enormous cavern that extended onwards almost as far as they could see. Enormous natural pillars, miles high, dwarfed the colossal city embedded in them. Winding paths scaling to near the top of these housed small, lit, inhabited holes, and rope bridges connecting them.
On the floor of the caver, a huge city circled a large underwater pool, about a mile and a half in diameter. The city consisted of innumerable tall buildings and houses embedded into the rocky floor of the cavern, and the streets were flooded with hundreds of thousands of people walking, driving cars, laying down, and talking.
"Wow." Roy muttered, gaping.
"This is… Matzfir? The city where…"
"…the devil walks free?"
They stood for another minute. Sakeya walked forward, looking around him in awe. He couldn't help but feel infinitely smaller, worthless even, in this gigantic cavern. The darkness was supreme, he realized. It was as if the city was at war with it- thousands of torches were placed all along the outer reaches of the cave, but they still could not illuminate it anywhere near completely. It felt as though darkness was about to swallow the city any moment. It made him feel excited.
"I love this place."