Book 3, Chapter 19 - Life of a Wastelander

As darkness took authority over the sky, dots of light sprang up throughout Miner’s Bluff [1]. Soldiers huddled by campfires to dispel the chill. The cold and darkness made them lazy, and they filled their bellies with heated wine. The slaves they were meant to watch over saw it as a fortuitous combination.

Miner’s Bluff was a wasteland slave camp, with a hundred captives working nonstop in the bowels of the mountain. It didn’t serve the master to offer any safety equipment, so hardly a week went by without at least one death from exhaustion, illness or injury. The black-hearted slave driver didn’t want to waste any funds of keeping the slaves fed, so it was common practice to mince up the dead and use them to sustain the living.

Most of the slaves survived because of this forced cannibalism. Despair and hopelessness had drained them of shame. However, those who did not die harbored a secret seed of rebellion.

For a month they prepared. Tonight was the night – they would gamble their lives for a better future.

A grizzled, white-haired slave turned back to look at a younger man, named Sprout. Sprout was nothing like his name implied, being the largest and strongest of the enslaved miners. He’d been down here with the rest of them for two years, but never once in that time resorted to eating his fellows. He wasn’t special, and eventually the ones who refused to eat became fodder for the others who didn’t. But thanks to his strength, the slave-drivers felt he was more use to them alive than on someone’s plate. They kept him fed with proper food, to keep him strong and healthy.

“Everyone, get ready.” The old slave kept his voice to a haggard whisper. “Sprout, we’ll keep the guards busy. I need you to break into the room, gut that pig, and take his gun. Use it to kill the watchtower guards. That’s our only hope.”

Sprout’s simple, earnest face betrayed anxiety. But the memory of his people, the ones he knew were still waiting for him, spurred him on. Filled with resolve, he nodded.

“Alright friends. Live or die, it all gets decided right now. Go!”

The group of slaves sprang up from their crouched positions and clambered over a high fence. The guards, comfortably languishing near their fires, were taken by surprise. As they groped for weapons, a hundred angry men descended on them. Although shackled they fought with fist and feat, and heavy rocks they carried up from the mines. The shrill cries of the guards rang out as they were torn apart.

Men up in the watchtowers heard the commotion. Clearly it was a revolt, so they did not hesitate to level their weapons and start firing into the crowd. Slaves began to fall, helpless as fish in a barrel.

Sprout heard the whistle of an arrow pass centimeters from his ear. Screams came from all around as his fellow slaves died. He ran over the body of his closest friend, Brick. Flea, who’d cared for him many times over the last two years, fell somewhere to his right and didn’t get back up.

Fear gripped him.

The slave-master’s private cabin was down the way, but his courage was fading fast. 

Whoosh!

Another arrow was coming his way.

Before it could find purchase, a wrinkled and emaciated form shoved him aside. The old slave hit the ground, clutching his chest. “Don’t stop, Sprout!” He cried. “You have to live!”

Sprout’s eyes were red from fear and grief. An inner strength he didn’t know he had burst from him, and he jumped back to his feet. With a roar that rattled through the night he charged ahead. Arrows peppered the ground he’d just vacated, and several more buried themselves in his old friend. He died with his gnarled hand outstretched toward Sprout’s fleeing figure.

Many nights in the cold and dark had been spent fantasizing about what the slave-master’s home looked like. When Sprout burst through the door he couldn’t help but stop dead in his tracks. Pots of clean water were piled up in one corner, while the walls were hung with smoked meats and sun-dried grains. A group of five or six young women without a stitch of clothing between them huddled together, like frightened naked sheep. Scarred, wounded, they curled in a shivering ball of clutching limbs.

The slave master had been busy with one when Sprout forced open the door. Bare-assed, he hurriedly climbed off the bed with a pair of trousers in one hand. His member pointed accusingly toward the door, but shrank instantaneously when he saw the large slave who stood there. The slave master’s ugly face was a mask of fury. “What the fuck are you doing?! You’ve got a death wish!”

It was kill or be killed.

Sprout underestimated the fight contained in the slave-master’s pudgy body. It cost him a few broken ribs before he managed to wrap his hands around the fiend’s throat. With a satisfying pop the slave-driver’s spine separated. 

Fumbling through the hut, Sprout grabbed the master’s gun and stuck his head back outside. Crack! Crack! The guards raining arrows from their towers screamed as they tumbled from their posts. The day was won.

By the time the night reached its deepest point, shadows clung to a very different scene.

Those guards unfortunate enough to survive were tied up. Slaves argued over whether to cut them up and eat them raw, or cook them first. Filthy slaves flooded the master’s room and dragged his women out by their hair, kicking and screaming. The men pounced on them, one after the other, like a pack of ravenous wolves.

Sprout stood back and watched it all with a black expression. He was thinking about a woman, too. One from his past, his first, the one he had sworn to protect for all his life. They’d only been together for two when the slavers got him.

Two years. He’d been gone as long as they’d been together. He thought about her every night.

He was only still alive because he so fiercely wanted to see her again. His desperate wish was what gave him the strength to fight, and in the last two years he learned to improve his body’s mutant constitution. When his hands were wrapped around the fat slave-master’s throat, it was her face behind his eyes. It was all her, the reason he clung so desperately to hope, and lived.

He was different from the others. Sprout never touched the poor women, only stealing some of the food and water the master had kept. With what supplies he could muster, he left.

***

Sprout had no idea where his home was, not all the way out here, not after all this time. He relied on scraps of memory as unreliable as the breeze. On his forlorn journey he met others, travelers like himself or murders on the prowl. He fought through sandstorms and other natural disasters, and always emerged stronger.

Hardships would not break his iron will. Whatever fate threw at him, he only became more resolved. An absolute certainty that he would find his home again gave Sprout strength. He would find her again.

But the wastelands gave no concern for a single man’s longings. By the time he came upon familiar tracts, four long years had passed. Nothing remained of the place he once called home.

After all, four years in this barren hellscape was an eternity. The woman of his dreams remained out of reach, and forever would remain just a memory. The truth was that two months after his disappearance, she’d fallen into the arms of another man. Sadly, he eventually grew bored and sold her to a brothel. There she became ill and died. Her corpse was lost to the wastelands.

When reality sank in, something broke deep inside Sprout. He lost his mind, found the brothel, and murdered every living soul he found. He trudged through a sea of blood until he found the man who betrayed her, the one she’d turned to for support when Sprout was gone.

He was going to tear him apart, piece by piece. But Sprout was tricked. In a disastrous loss he was blinded in one eye, captured, and once again found himself thrown in a pit.

***

Life in the arena was one of blood and pain, far crueler than the black bowels of Miner’s Bluff. Every day was a fight for his life, against hideous monsters or others like himself. He drenched himself in blood, and in exchange audiences sang his praises. All just so he could live another torturous day.

There was even less of a future for Sprout here than back at the mines. At least in the pits with his fellows he could plot revolution. In the arena he was small, weak. He couldn’t make a move without his new masters knowing, much less plan an escape. Worst of all was that piece of shit, coming every night to appreciate Sprout’s nightly beatings.

Sprout refused to give up, so he clung to life. But instead of a woman’s memory driving him, now it was vengeance.

 Most fighters didn’t last more than six months in the ring, but this sturdy youth had fought his way through a full year of opponents. Sprout didn’t fit him anymore, so they gave him a different name. A more theatrical name for the audience to cheer.

They called him Cyclops.

Death was the only fate that awaited warriors of the colosseum. It didn’t matter how strong Cyclops was, everyone met their end in the arena’s blood-soaked dirt. Eventually he found himself wounded, staring up at his dominator. The colosseum’s master had earned a great deal from Cyclops’ rage, but that time was done. An invalid, he was cast out like refuse – life or death determined by him alone.

“Do you want to live?”

Cyclops was like a stray dog, living among the trash heaps. Fiends had begun to sharpen their knives, waiting for the moment he was too weak to resist. Before that could happen, though, a man in fine clothing approached him. Cyclops opened his one good eye to have a look at the man, with his onyx black skin and handsome face. The clothes he wore were elaborate and masterfully made, like nothing he’d ever seen in the wastelands. He later learned they were made from elysian materials. 

This well-dressed strange with pitch-black skin called himself Blackfiend.

“The wastelands are cruel, so only the cruel survive. The only way to live better than others is to be more savage, more brutal, more vicious.”

Once Cyclops recovered he pledged himself to Blackfiend. At the time his new master had gathered around twenty other like him, beaten and discarded by the world. Years of harsh living had turned Cyclops into a terrifying force, and he grew even stronger with the backing of this strange elysian defector.

There were no principles to this nightmare they called the wastelands. The only law was strength. Strength to capture a hundred slaves, to murder your master with your own hands, to plunder another’s women.

Cyclops’ favorite color was red, the color of blood. He chose a blood-red eyepatch, covered himself in red tattoos, and dyed his hair. Life’s cruel lessons were burned into him and he was reborn as a bandit, terrorizing the borderlands. Years followed in a haze of violence, plunder, and rape. There was no evil he would not perform. He never knew if it was the pursuit of pleasures that drove men to depravity, or if it was depravity that drove him to seek out these pursuits. The desire to cast off his chains and give in was addictive, and he came to understand the heart of his master from so long ago. He learned the pleasures that had enticed his woman’s murderer, and the pleasure of watching another’s suffering just like the audience that had once drooled over his own.

Heaven and earth were not kind. This was the wastelands, and it served nothing to blame fate for what befell you. Fate didn’t give one rotten shit about anyone. It was best to put away that pathetic excuse and realize that one’s suffering meant nothing in the grand scheme. In the end, it was only someone else’s entertainment.


1. The name is ‘mine mountain’ or ‘ore mountain.’ First instinct was to call it Butte Lode, but the part of me that isn’t stuck at age twelve prevailed.

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RWX's Thoughts

Anyone else vote for 'Butte Lode'? Meanwhile, I'm reminded of the story from that guy who served the Caliph of the Sands... what was his name again?