The cool winter gust slapped him like a rush of ice water and had finally succeeded in awakening him. A few seconds for gathering his thoughts and piecing together his blurred vision, clarity once again returned. The destination that the Wardens had been dragging him towards suddenly became reality. A labyrinth of Pagoda like structures that made up Castle Kazan rose out of the snow storm. The ancient fortress looked nothing short of a long lost mythical kingdom. He had seen the Castle from the outside once, built upon multiple layers that resembled terraces. Each of them held a swathe of buildings and their own open spaces, making it feel much less condensed and open. The entire structure was built on top of its own high wall foundation and stood as a defiant feat of Irothis’ architecture and engineering.
The half crescent moon waned in the cloud light and the skies were visibly dark. It seemed as quiet as one would expect on a pleasant night with only the whispers of the wind and falling snow to keep to you company. The moon seemed far closer than it would naturally appear from the Earth itself and Jasairis wondered how far they were above ground.
The way his limbs ached told him they had been dragging him for a long time and groaned a mild curse at the aching in his temple. He felt torn between being relieved that he had not been thrown into another cell or being brought before waiting riflemen and what they were actually going to do to him whenever they arrived at their desired location.
“Ow, shit! Where are we?” He croaked finally, looking around the open courtyard that was now filled with fresh snow.
One of the guards carrying him spat, automatically reaching for his baton rather urgently. “Hold on, I’ll hit him over the head again.”
“Uh, uh, uh!” The same guard looked back over his shoulder to see Michelle wagging her finger. “We’re almost there; he doesn’t need to be unconscious when Selyene arrives!”
“Of course, Warden Michelle.” The guard sounded somewhat chastised and let the thought perish, still dragging Jasairis one handed across the snow. For a moment the convict was convinced the son of a bitch would eventually drop him onto the concrete that surely laid beneath.
“It always amazes me that we have our recreation areas for convicts so far up in the castle. Oh well, at least they know there is no way to escape this high up in the air.” Michelle was blabbering to herself, and then decided to address their new found inmate. “Ah, you know Jasairis, I am glad you’re awake. So now I can be honest with you. I’ve seen your record and you’re not half as bad as I made you out to be. You must understand- most of those criminals in those cells with you are some of the worst. I gladly have them herded out each day to face the consequences of the actions that had led them astray and ultimately, into my cells. I admit, simply being in with that lesser rabble, I had initially overlooked you, guilt by association or so they say.
But tonight, your luck finally changes.” Michelle began to set a pace for a large structure they were beginning to near, passing Jasairis and her lackeys carrying him. “Take him in with the others, then,” She knelt down, brushing back some of the inmate’s hair to examine his temple. “Jasairis, she will be waiting for you. But you will not see her as you are now; you need a little sprucing up.”
The third Warden that had been trailing them the entire time with a rifle in hand moved out in front of them to open the doors leading inside. She pressed a series of digits on a keypad and a wave of light swept over her face, confirming her identity in the system. The doors slid open like they were actually light of weight, beyond them an abyssal black that made Jasairis want to stop in his tracks.
A blood curdling scream came through the darkness and a man, dressed in a familiar grey jumpsuit leapt out from the sudden opening. Angry shouts and whizzing bullets traced his tracks, none able to deter his abrupt escape. His sudden appearance took the woman warden completely off guard, the freed prisoner immediately pounced on her when he saw his escape route suddenly cut off.
A rattle of automatic fire rang out in the haunting silence and three bloody holes suddenly appeared in the man’s head, arm, and the side of his ribcage. He toppled without another sound. Two guards immediately rushed out of the building to secure the prisoner, but stopped short when they came across his still form with the Warden lying underneath. She kicked the dead inmate off of him and a Warden helped her to her feet.
“Damn all of these imbeciles, take the cuffs off these scum for one second…” Michelle uttered darkly, no sympathy or remorse in her tone. “Can’t even get a haircut and shower?”
“Haircut and shower?” Jasairis reiterated her words, confusion setting in his tone.
“You are not like the rest are you, Sil? Don’t worry, soon you will find others like you.” The Commander Warden smiled and gestured for him to walk inside. “I think he can stand on his own now, boys, just follow him closely.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The pair of guards slowly lowered Jasairis onto his feet, the numbing feeling of snow on his bare skin sent needles prickling through his feet. He had to ignore the sting of his wounds and swallow his ill sense of reluctance when one of his captors nudged him onward. Feeling the blood rush through his limbs, Jasairis strode through the unwelcoming doors of the large, temple like structure.
Very dim lights painted a bleak, ominous interior. The little Jasairis could discern from them was that it was a maze of paths to maneuver through. This was not a place that was visited regularly by normal people, that much was certain. He could tell by the dank, concrete walls and hard tile floors that it was meant for someone who was use to a more Spartan existence.
One of the guards corrected his sudden movement with a tap of his baton, pointing him down the straightest path. “This way. Go.”
There was a strange buzzing noise that could be heard over the extremely loud air conditioning and also the sound of rushing water. The closer he approached one of the doors; he could hear quiet murmurings behind them. The guards that walked with him appeared to be listening as well, but unfazed, only when they finally approached a door with no sound emitting from it did they tell him to stop and guide him in.
The soldier waiting in the room was a massive six and a half foot wall of muscle and was leaning against the wall when they had barged in. His camouflage combat suit was a very dark tint, made up of the most obscured colors that barely made the pattern visible. An ammunition belt was strapped over his fatigues, but he didn’t seem to be wearing any bullet resistant armor – not that he needed any. The unnamed soldier held something strange and metal in his hands and the closer Jasairis inspected it, he could see it was a pair of clippers.
The barber immediately gestured for him to sit in the sturdy black chair bolted down in the middle of the room. Jasairis did so without having to be told again, awkwardly taking the seat for himself and taking in the rest of the room at a glance. It was surprisingly sterile and clean, yet somehow dirty looking to him, he wondered if he had been the first to come here or if anyone else would come after him.
The two Wardens that had escorted him in suddenly began to file out of the room, closing the door behind them. The soldier began with finding a cape from one of his boxes in the corner of the room and wrapped it around Jasairis’ neck. Next he took a look at the convict’s hair and even Jasairis could feel him snarl and grunt with disapproval. He grabbed the right size of guard, a comb, and a towel, but proceeded to utter something that Jasairis inwardly cringed at.
“Inmates should only have one cut.”
And so Jasairis suddenly found himself in that room for the next fifteen minutes, feeling every ounce of skill the Barber had being poured into his work of art. Entire clumps of his hair fell from his head, following by combing, and then a repeat until most of it was lying in his lap or on the floor. He actually felt little when the Barber showed him the end result through a mirror that had been mounted onto one of the walls.
Jasairis stared back at himself with curious eyes and somewhat smirked when he realized the unnamed soldier had given him a very low buzz cut similar to his own. The violet of his eyes seemed somewhat determined and still partially fearful, but soon he realized that they were the centerpiece of his face now that the hair wasn’t hiding his sight anymore. His milk chocolate skin spoke of a deep Rynithian descent, but the color was so pale -like it was mixed with a brilliant white- that his origins appeared clearly steeped in an Irothan bloodline as well.
“I swore to you that I’d never be ashamed, Sarahni.” He uttered with a degree more resolve, even in the face of erratic changes in the winds of fate.
“Make her proud, son.” The Barber slapped him on the shoulder as the doors once again opened and two familiar faces again appeared to guide him out.
Another step into the ghastly halls of this place made him tense, a plague of nerves on his spine. The Wardens this time guided him even further down the path, this time coming closer and closer toward the sound of running water he had heard earlier. This time they were traversing through the narrow corridors as if it were a maze, one that they knew the inner workings of. He was still amazed how there seemed to be people present in this building, yet they had not come across a single soul.
Jasairis’ previous thoughts were interrupted when his escorts told him to take a sudden left into an old designed shower room. It was surprisingly empty and barren of anything save for towels and a few rows of lockers. Yet the tile was wet and slippery to the touch, telling him that others had indeed been in here.
“Here.” One of Michelle’s lackeys kicked open a locker, revealing a fresh combat suit lying inside complemented with a suit of armor. “Put that on when you’re done.”
“And I’m supposed to know how to put that on by myself, do I?” Jasairis responded skeptically, looking a bit apprehensive.
“What? You want me to show you?” The same guard spat mockingly and the other one broke out in a fit of laughter. “Put the “fatigues” on, not the armor, got it?”
“Yeah I guess I’ll figure that out myself, easy enough anyway.” Jasairis sneered in his whisper like voice and waved them out.
They happily obliged, walking away to no doubt take up guard just outside the door.
Jasairis took off his clothes and took a random shower head, turning it on and allowing the barely warm water to wash the muck and dirt off of his skin. He ran a hand through his barely existent hair on his head and let out a relieved sigh. He couldn’t help but think of what was happening just half an hour beforehand, watching all those people go to their deaths. It was sickening to him, to be honest.
There was a loud squeak, followed by a sudden burst of falling water beside him and he turned to see someone stepping into the adjacent shower. Both of their heads were visible and the two of them exchanged curious glances for a moment, eyeing each other cautiously.
“Everyone’s getting the same cuts today, huh? Barber’s special I guess. Glad I’m not one of you guys!” The man was somewhat built, way more than Jasairis and he spoke in a voice that belied his appearance. His bright red eyes glanced in his direction as he spared himself a small laugh. He was of a descent that had obviously originated nowhere around Irothis, he could tell that by his chestnut colored skin. His hair was a reddish hue of brown and came down to around his eyes and Jasairis wondered where he hailed from.
Jasairis opted to play his game for a while, it would have been awkward otherwise. “Yeah, it was definitely needed. Soldiers definitely seem different than the Wardens or the guards, those bastards keep cracking down no matter what.”
“I don’t really come from where you do then, my friend, must’ve come up from the Executioner’s row.”
“Guess everyone hears about that place at some point in their lives here, huh?” Jasairis attempted to shake the memories, but they kept plaguing him. He was never really one for prayer, but he found himself silently thanking Ni’halia that he had been finally brought out of there. He didn’t know whether that was premature or not, he didn’t even know if they were going to throw him back in.
“So what are you in for? The name’s Anathis by the way, Anathis Anlith.”
“Jasairis Sil and I’m in for something foolish that I did a long time ago.”
“Aren’t we all?” Anathis grinned widely. “I’m guessing you’re here for the conscription then?”
“Conscription?” Jasairis huffed in disbelief, allowing himself a somber laugh at Anathis’ words. “What is this you speak of? I remember something similar happening when I was a child, my mother actually was a volunteer. They say they happen once in a generation, but it must’ve been at least twenty three years ago.”
“Well, why do you think they want you to put that uniform on?”
“I thought it was so I could look well for my coffin and burial, maybe masked how they shot me to the public.”
“You’re a grim thinker, Sil. I guess you’ll need that. We’ll find out soon, right?”
Jasairis switched the shower head off and peered at Anathis, then shrugged before walking out with a towel wrapped around his waist. He opened up the locker the Warden had kicked in earlier, and took out the combat suit. It was a very dark tint of camouflage that he had seen the barber where and began putting on everything required to wear it before putting it on. Anathis quickly showed him some pointers on how to make it look proper and the two of them emerged from that dirty room new men.
The pair of Wardens that had been showing Jasairis around turned from the other group of prison guards that were likewise looking after Anathis to examine them as they both emerged from the showers. All of them grunted in approval and began to take up the task of shepherding the convict and acquaintance toward another destination. They came close to the entrance that they had originally came through, but were instead thrown into another poorly lit space before having the door shut on them again.
“Wait here.” One of the guard’s had spoken before shutting the way behind them.
“So this is where everyone is?” Anathis breathed as he looked over the four dozen strangers all sitting down on a couple of benches that occupied the room. They were all dressed similar to Jasairis and himself and looked at them with blank faces. There were both men and women, and all of them seemed beat up in a way, Jasairis was certain that there were plenty of backgrounds to be shared by them.
“I hope to the Goddess that our luck changes soon.” Jasairis whispered to himself and moved to take a seat amongst the others.