by Max Barry

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Region: CISB

Kuhmo, Illuvitar

It was almost noon when the convoy drove into town, rushing in through the gates like a flooding river. Under normal circumstances, failing to meet the monthly production quota would have been dealt with just whipping or double-shifts, but production had fallen to so unacceptable levels that somebody needed to be made an example out of. In the public square of Kuhmo, two Maesal and their children were lined up for the entire town to see. The majority of Kuhmo’s population was made up of slaves, and each one was silently thankful that they were not about to face the wrath of Kordak (Sergeant) Luaran.

Luaran, commonly called the Talon, was undoubtedly one of the most feared men in Illuvitar. Though a member of the Shaso caste, his reputation was forged of steel, and the most well known piece of the metal he carried was in his claw-shaped dagger. To the gathered crowd, his voice was as sharp and biting as the blade he wielded.

“Our Dominion,” he yelled, “is surrounded on all sides by decadent countries that work tirelessly to undermine their prosperity and wellbeing. What have they achieved with their democracy, save to turn their mighty states into the battleground of demagogues? They fight amongst themselves because the pauper who sleeps in a gutter for warmth is given the same weight as the richest man. Here, we do not believe in such lunacy, and yet,” he said, gesturing to the four Maesals, “here are two slaves, meant to work for the benefit of us all, choosing instead to laze about because they believe they are entitled to a family!”

Without a single hint of humanity, Luaran looked down at the youngest child, a girl of eight. “Tell me, what is your name?” he asked, grasping both her hands with such a grip that he may as well have dislocated her arms. The dagger was not the only reason for his nickname. Around the Dominion, he was noted as a wrestler with an inescapable grip, like that of a hawk, cutting into its prey as it soared the skies unchallenged. When the girl did not answer, Luaran grabbed her by the hair and lifted her off her feet. “What is your name!?” he shouted.

“My name is Thaola,” the girl whimpered. She struggled for a moment, her scalp burning with pain as she slapped away at the Talon’s grip.

“Tell, me, Thaola,” Luaran said, releasing her hair before dragging her into the middle of the square. “Which of the four quarters of Kuhmo do you live in?”

“My family lives in the—” Thaola’s words were cut off with a backhand slap to the face.

“You have no family, stupid girl!” he shouted with unbridled rage. “You belong to the Dominion, not to these wretches to call themselves your parents and brother! Now answer my question, which quarter of Kuhmo do you live in?”

“The Northern Quarter,” she said, holding back tears. “I live with three other Maesals in the Northern Quarter.”

“And do you know which gate from this square leads to the Northern Quarter, Thaola?”

“Yes, the one with the wolf sitting on top of it.”

“Excellent. You are not a fool, merely disobedient,” Luaran muttered, loud enough for her to hear. “Are you quick in running, Thaola?”

“Yes,” she said, puzzled as to why he would ask such a question. “I work in the garments factory as a material runner.”

“Very good!” he shouted, motioning for everyone gathered to clap. “Caelael, draw a line at the gate to the Northern Quarter.” Without hesitation, his subordinate took a shovel and dug out a small trench across the gate.

“Thaola,” Luaran whispered in her ear. “Tasia and Byraer, your ‘mother and father’, will certainly be put to death. Your ‘brother’ Elred, will be sent to a labor camp to die a miserable death. However, I can offer you a choice. You may have thirty minutes to run to that gate, and if you succeed, I will tell my superiors you were sufficiently punished and made an example of. If you fail, however, I will have all four of you put to death here. The other choice is to have Tasia and Byraer die now, and you and Elred spared, left to the mercy of your fellow slaves. So, what will you choose?”

“The first one,” Thaola said, “I’ll run to the gate!”

“Do you hear her, people?” Luaran called out to the square. “If this girl can run the five hundred meters to the Northern Gate in thirty minutes, these other slaves will be spared their punishment.”

The crowd murmured amongst themselves, believing thirty whole minutes to be far too easy for a girl like Thaola.

“I see your whispers, people of Kuhmo, and I assure you I am no fool. This girl will take her punishment before she runs for their lives.” Without another word, Luaran drew his pistol and fired at Thaola’s right knee. In an instant, the girl’s world came crashing down as she doubled over and fell. Her right leg dangled behind her uselessly, as her knee was pulverized by the shot. Her next cries were an anguished yell that no human should have ever had to make, but it still flowed out of her mouth as Luaran stood over her.

“The thirty minutes begin now. Run, crawl, hop, do whatever is needed to save your loved ones, little girl.” He had his men hastily bandage her wound, so that she would, at the very least, not die of blood loss during the time prescribed.

Adrenaline pumping and blood soaking the ground beneath her, Thaola crawled as fast as she could, her stomach scraping over pebbles on the ground, and her elbows skinned raw from the pavement. As she saw the wolf grow larger in the distance, Thaola blocked out the loud footsteps approaching her. As blood began to seep from her arms, the Talon’s vice-like hand grabbed her by the hair once more and lifted her up.

“Thirty minutes have passed, and here you are, a little less than four-hundred meters away from where you started,” he said, almost grinning. “A deal is a deal, little girl.” Luaran’s men kicked out the legs of the two adult slaves, forcing them on their knees as they raised their guns to their heads. “You should not have to see your children die,” the Talon said. “I will grant you this mercy. Lay down your guns, men. I fulfill my own sentences.”

Instead of a gun, Luaren unsheathed his massive dagger, and with two swift motions, cut out the eyes of Thaola’s mother and father. The two of them shouted their children’s names, urging them to be strong. Luaran only laughed at their urgency, grabbing Tasia up by her hair. “Such a pretty face and body. It’s a shame you had to belong to the Maesal. Now, there’s no need to worry, I won’t kill your children, they’re more than capable of doing so themselves.” He walked over to Thaola, whose skin was now almost entirely pale from bleeding through the bandages.

“Just like your caste, you will be close, but never enough to earn your undeserved freedom. Do you understand me, Thaola?”

As if in a final act of defiance, Thaola crawled towards the gate, half of her inspiration was anger, and the other half an act of visceral irrationality, as though reaching the gate would bring her family back together healthy and free. Luaran, for one, was content to see her expedite her own demise. As she finally reached the line, she looked up to the bronze-cast wolf. Its head looked down at her, as it had done for years since she had first left her living quarters to work. When she was little, the wolf had been a frightening thing that she dreaded walking under every night. Now, it looked at her with the unmistakable aura of respect and sympathy. As blood loss drove her senses haywire, Thaola made her first prayer to her first deity.

“If you can’t save me, then avenge me, wolf.”

“Looks like the girl had more spirit than we credited her for,” Luaran chuckled. Her corpse, lying on the ground, meant nothing to him but another successful punishment of slaves. Her parents were blinded, ostracized by everyone they had ever known, and certain to die as blood streamed out of their destroyed eyes like a waterfall, and her brother, only five years old, sat on the ground, staring out into the distance.

Unbeknownst to even the Talon, a lone man had seen the entire spectacle through an obscured window. The speech, shooting, torture, and blinding were in HD footage now transmitting to Alsesia’s Independent Security Division. The tides of global diplomacy were shifting unfavorably for peace, and Luaran, the feared Talon of Illuvitar, had no idea that the die had been cast.