The clanging of metal implements striking against stone rang in the air, producing a sorrowful ode of injustice and bigotry. It was an orchestra I'd heard every day for the past five months. A song with no end... A song no one sang.
It grew weaker as the day went on, the harsh glare of the sun beating down on us, sapping our strength. Better than the jailer's whip. I much preferred the sting of solar rays on my skin to the sting of leather. Honestly, neither was truly welcomed, and those weren't even the worst things to endure out in this desert prison. That'd be the sandstorms.
I wiped my brow with the back of my blistering hand, my muscles weeping from hours of labor, and straightened to look down at my progress of chiseling the underbelly of the mountain. The burden of defeat was heavy when I saw that my efforts didn't make much of a dent. Mountain: one. Emory: zero.
A pathetic whimper crawled its way up my throat, but I swallowed it before it could escape. There'd be none of that. I'd sworn to myself that if I couldn't be free, then neither could my cries. Not anymore.
I stopped crying when beaten. Abusers didn't deserve my tears. I stopped crying when a fellow prisoner collapsed, for despair was incessant and numbing me. I stopped crying about being robbed of my life- everyone shared that suffering. My tears had been absent for many months, just like the water in the desert. There was no freedom in this life to grieve, so I buried it deep in my heart- fortifying it just like this mountain.
Not wanting to attract a jailer's eye, I went back to work, lifting my pickaxe with flimsy arms and letting gravity do its thing. Piece by piece, rubble scattered, causing a cloud of dust to rise into the air with fury, as if the mountain was incensed at being desecrated for the sake of an avaricious ruler's ambition. What he wanted? No clue. We weren't privy to the details of his grand plans.
I swallowed around the dryness in my throat, tasting dust. I was thirsty. But it'd be another hour before the jailer would pass by to give us our ration of water. One would think after five months of this, I'd be used to it. Not so. There was no acclimating to the hardships of life as a prisoner. Routine after routine. No change. No improvement. No hope. We were doomed to a life of servitude and degradation.
A sharp crack rented the air as the jailer's whip split it. Leather hit skin, producing a sickening ripping sound that was both painful and enraging to the ears. A shrill scream followed, making the hairs on my neck raise. I subtly glanced over at the scene, finding Mary crumpling to the ground in a heap, her trembling hand reaching for her back. She used the pickaxe for support, her face contorted with pain. The jailer was right behind her, his whip in hand, and a white fabric covered half of his face, but I could see the vindictive smile in his eyes.
"No slacking," he barked, his voice carrying over the surrounding din.
Mary spat at her tormentor's feet, defiant and unbowed. Still as strong a reed, but barely resembling the woman I'd once known, withered to a frail wisp. Her sons had been murdered right before her. Too young to work in the mines, and therefore useless to the King. Light left her eyes that day, as if she died with them, leaving behind a shell of her former self. She fought back against our captors every day, receiving punishment in hopes of dying soon so she could join them.
She'd get her wish today.
The jailer snarled, grabbing a fistful of her hair and dragging her away. She didn't even fight him. Relief and acceptance were etched on her face. Our eyes met, and a smile passed from her to me. It was the first smile I'd seen in five months. A smile that said 'free'.
A wave of fury crashed through my veins, spurring my own visitation of vindictive urges. Death wasn't a freedom. It was a sign of defeat. But I didn't blame her for choosing it. Had I not been so stubborn in my fight for survival, I'd have been there with her.
The arrival of night brought no respite from the desert's harshness. Although I was grateful the sun's heat had gone away, it was replaced by a frigid bite.
I sought out warmth by curling up next to another prisoner on the rough ground. Ibraham's bony back pressed painfully against mine, giving me a vivid impression of his deteriorating health. He used to be a butcher with an impressive build. That was before. Before our land was conquered by a power-hungry king.
We didn't speak as we waited for sleep to come. There was nothing to say. Nothing to give voice to. In the first month, we used to reminisce about our peaceful lives, even though it was painful. Those distant memories felt unreal now, making me wonder if they ever existed at all. After some time I realized it didn't matter if they were or not— this was what my life had amassed to. Always exhausted to the point of death from the oppression I'd been forced into.
At least my family was spared this fate. Not that their demise was any consolation. But it gave me some relief knowing they weren't suffering with no end in sight beside me.
I emptied my thoughts, not wanting to dwell on them, and turned my attention to the two other mountains not far from mine. More of my people were prisoners there, mining for Fates knew what. I long stopped caring about what the cruel king desired. He clearly didn't care about our wants, so why waste my precious thoughts on his?
I gazed into the expansive desert, my eyes tracing the line where the indigo sky kissed the shadowy dunes. It seduced me with the promises of freedom. I knew better than to succumb to those temptations. Even if I managed to slip past the jailers, nothing but death awaited me out there. The nearest civilization was almost a week away. I wouldn't survive the trek. At least here I had food, water, and shelter. Out there I'd have none of that, and I'd die for sure. Alone. Swallowed up by the desert. A death I didn't deserve. My terms for that were inflexible.
My thoughts turned to Mary, and I whispered a soft memorial prayer for her soul; Haaran’s rite of the dead. May the Serenity of Death take her tormented soul into his afterlife and bring her peace.
At some point, I must've drifted off to sleep, because I was suddenly awoken by the sound of whimpering- another song, only this one reserved for night. Although empathy was present, I lacked the strength to provide any consoling. It was already an effort to keep myself from falling apart.
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to tune out the lyrics I heard between each sob. A prayer for mercy. A plea for liberation. I knew the words well, for I sang them for an entire month straight when we first arrived. It was in vain. My beseeching went unanswered. The gods never listened to our cries for help before; not when the enemy king raided our land, and not when my family was slaughtered trying to flee. Therefore, I had no faith they'd listen now.
The mountain was an unforgiving beast the following morning, undisturbed by my pickaxe. An unrequited adversary. I respected it.
It was a slow, arduous process, hammering away at the rock. I was tired. So tired. Between the relentless sun and the few hours of sleep, I was spent. We weren't deep enough inside the mountain to avoid the harsh light of the sun, but once noon passed, it'd disappear to the other side, relieving us of its intensity. Such a sad thing to look forward to, but that was all we had.
I dug deeper, hoping I'd find a vein of coal or a layer of gold, anything to give me a few minutes of reprieve. With my next swing, my wishes were answered. I struck hard, and a small chunk of rock flew out, landing at my feet. The mountain began shaking, as if it was angry at being violated. For a second I thought I'd imagined it, but the other prisoners yelped in alarm, afraid of what the tremor meant.
Okay. So I hadn't imagined it. It was real.
The prisoners exchanged questioning looks with each other once it subsided, but no one said anything, and they went back to work as though nothing had happened. Maybe they all thought they were going mad from the heat? And maybe we were.
I quickly scooped up the chunk of rock and held it in my palm. It was warm to the touch- which could be explained by being under the blazing sun. I examined it closely but didn't find any veins of gold or coal. It was just plain rock. Yet something about it felt... different. My skin tingled to the touch. Small vibrations ran through it like a pulse, as if the thing were alive. I held it to my ear, listening for signs of life. I was met with a soft whooshing, like the sound of wind rustling leaves. My brows furrowed, and I brought it to my nose and sniffed, then erupted into a fitful coughing as I inhaled dust.
I gasped and turned over my shoulder.
"Back to work or I'll have you done!" The jailer's threat carried across the sand, striking me with the phantom pains of a whip across my back.
I shoved the rock into my pocket and resumed my digging. I didn't know why I kept the rock. It was just rock. Yet I felt compelled to hold onto it. Even if it was nothing, it brought me the strength to continue. It was a crumb of hope.
I chuckled hysterically at myself. Hope? A rock? I was going mad. About time, I was wondering when it'd come.
For lunch, I sat by Ibraham and another prisoner, Aribella. We ate in compatible silence, slurping our usual cauliflower and onion stew as if it were our last meal. It lacked flavor and protein and never filled our bellies. But it hydrated us, and therefore I never let it go to waste.
As I licked my bowl clean, I felt a weight shift in my pocket, and it took me a second to remember it belonged to the rock shard I'd tucked away earlier. I'd forgotten all about it. Now that it reminded me of its presence, I was curious. I had an intense urge to examine it thoroughly, yet an irrational possessiveness made me hesitate, scared that someone else would notice and try to steal it.
After that, I couldn't take my mind off it. It was a welcomed distraction, and the rest of my day flew by as I thought about what mysteries it held. It kept me entertained, and I nearly laughed myself sick when the likelihood of it being a turd crossed my thoughts.
Ibraham tossed me a few odd looks, as did some others, but that made it even funnier since I was the only one in on the joke. That settled it. I was seriously losing it, and no one could help me. I was a lost cause.
By nightfall, I was jittery with anticipation, eager to discover what I had unearthed. My thoughts sobered when it struck me that it could actually be nothing. Just a meaningless rock. Or old shit. I didn't like that. I denied the possibility, insisting that there was more to it. Part of my brain argued- begged- to hold onto rational sense. It was repressed by the other half who just wanted to give in to the delusions.
I didn't curl up next to Ibraham that night after dinner, though I wasn't sure which of us was avoiding who. Instead, I sat at the mouth of the cave we'd made, shivering as the desert breeze swept over my skin. With one eye on the jailer keeping watch, I reached into my pocket to retrieve the rock. Its warmth instantly filled me, and I stopped shivering.
See? I told that rational voice. See? Magic!
I licked my dry, cracked lips and smiled at the rock, grinning like I held a star. How absurd, the little pestilent, logical voice laughed at me. I snarled at it, enraged that it was trying to demolish the scrap of happiness I'd found.
You'll see, I informed it belligerently. I'll crack it open and you'll see that I'm right.
I slammed the rock on the ground hard, aiming to shatter it. It bounced off the surface and shot outside the cave entrance. I swore and quietly crawled after it, forgetting about the jailers and everyone else in the world. I snatched it back up and inspected it for signs of damage. If there were any, I couldn't find them.
Grabbing another rock, I began to beat it, slamming down on it repeatedly to bust it open. All I managed to do was tear my knuckles open as my fingers grazed against the sharp edges. Break, damn you! I picked it up and hurled it with all my might against the side of the mountain. The whole thing seemed to shudder and shake as if a meteor struck it and not a palm-sized stone.
My heart stuttered to a halt, eyes first searching the mountain, then for my possession. I found it a few feet away, split in two, and...
My eyes widened.
Something inside of it was glowing.
Satisfaction bloomed inside of me at being right, and I dove for it with bloodied fingers. I tried to pry the silvery thing out, but it was to no avail. I decided to chuck it at the mountain again since it'd proven to be the most effective way of breaking it. I was right.
The impact knocked it free and it flew through the air. I watched it in awe as it sailed toward me and landed at my feet. I was about to pick it up when the mountain shook anew and the ground heaved. I screeched, falling on my butt and wrapping my arms around my head to shield myself from the rockfall.
The other prisoners and jailers were now awake and in a panic. They scurried away from the groaning summit as if it was going to erupt.
I looked up at it. Was this mountain not a mountain, but a volcano? Had it been inactive all this time and in a dormant state? I was about to ask the other prisoners when the ground shook again. They all tumbled to the ground like sacks of grain.
My eyes followed their movements as they fell, and from the corner of my vision, noticed a rock rolling toward me. I went to move but paused as I remembered the silver object. It lay at my feet, and I reached for it, snatching it up before throwing myself out of the path of the oncoming boulder.
A blast of heat shot up my arm from the silver object, but I clutched it tighter, not letting go. It was my metal- whatever it may be.
As if hearing my thoughts, the object began to cool, the heat instantly dissipating. My whole body tingled, and I thought I might pass out from the adrenaline crash after my near-death experience.
Whispers of magic filled the air, and I felt the warmth of its source emanating from my palm. I didn't know how I knew it was magic. The best way I could describe the sensation was that it felt like liquid electricity was being fed into my veins and flowing through me. Like I was a conduit for the magic.
I chanced a peek at the silver object, gradually opening my fingers to reveal it, and a gasp left my lips. It was a small, round, silver ring, though it didn't look like any ring I'd ever seen. The metal seemed to be moving as if it were glowing white lava. I was sure I was seeing things, and I blinked several times to clear my eyes. There was no mistaking it, though. It was definitely glowing.
Shouts brought me back to the present, and I quickly snapped my fingers shut, looking around to make sure none had seen my discovery. No one seemed to be minding me any attention, too stunned by the quaking of the mountain, and focusing on their own survival.
I looked up at it, too. It was silent now, though not silent like before. It almost seemed as if it were watching and waiting for something.
Swallowing, I shoved the ring in my pocket, and clumsily got to my feet to join the others. They whispered among themselves about what had happened, wondering if it was some kind of sign from the Serenity Gods. 'Had they been enraged by what was happening here?' and 'Was this a warning to our captors about the wrongs they were doing?'
I turned to where the jailers assembled separately from the rest of us, talking among themselves. They were watching our group, their eyes wide and fearful as if having the exact same questions. A few of them seemed dismissive, pointing at the other mountains and likely saying how none of them had been affected. It made sense. Had the Gods truly been angry, wouldn't they have sent a warning to each of them?
That thought left my faith in the Gods shaken to its core. I felt betrayed.
"What caused the quaking?" Someone asked, bringing me back to the present.
"I don't know, but it felt like something hit it," another replied, and a breath punched out from my lungs.
My attention drifted to the ring in my pocket. Could- Did- Was it somehow responsible for the quaking?
I hadn't realized my hand had moved to my pocket until I felt the cool metal of the ring against my skin, and the rush of power flooded my veins again.
My scream came out as a hiccup by how startled I was at the voice that answered. It seemed to be coming from all around me, a low, rumbling hum that didn't sound human. But no one showed any reaction to it, leaving me to assume it was inside my head.
Oh, Fates. I was going crazy.
I jolted upright, my eyes darting around even though I was beginning to suspect the source of the voice was actually inside my pocket.
My eyes fell shut. Impossible. This was a dream. I was dreaming. When I opened my eyes again, everything would return to normal. I'd be curled next to Ibraham on a hard surface in a dark cave.
Is that what you want?
No, I answered angrily, instantly, not even caring about the strangeness of it.
A soft laugh filled my head. Didn't think so.
"Everyone get back to the tunnel! Now!"
My eyes snapped open at the jailer's command. He was clutching his whip in a white-knuckle grip in a threat, his other hand pointed at the mountain. "You forget yourselves, prisoners. None of us care that a tremor shook your little mountain and robbed you of rest. You'll be expected to rise and get back to work as soon as morn' breaks."
Ire rolled through me, boiling my blood with the desire to throw him against the very mountain he had us desecrating.
As you wish.
I didn't even have the chance to process the words before I watched as the jailer's body went flying through the air. His screams died on his lips as he slammed against the massive rock with a sickening crunch.
At first, no one reacted. Then, all at once, everyone began shouting and scrambling to run away, myself included.
The words 'angered the Gods' and 'revenge for our souls' bandied the air, and I felt my heart beating wildly. Prisoners and jailers alike were running amok, unsure who'd be next in the line of death.
Anyone you want.
Stop talking. I needed to think. I needed to figure out where I was going to go. How I was going to-
Survive? The ring finished my thought.
Yes, I bit at it. I stopped running and spun around, my eyes locking on the prison I'd been enslaved to for so long.
You want freedom.
I snorted bitterly. How did this ring know that?
I am a token of Tiijeta. My purpose is to watch over the land and fulfill her will. I've seen into your heart.
My body turned cold as if I was being plunged into an ice bath. Tiijeta? The Serenity Goddess of Peace and Justice?
I inhaled a shaky breath as doubts began to eat at me. Was this a trick? Dehydrated and starving as I was, I was sure I'd hallucinated all of this.
I can prove you're not hallucinating, the ring said, and then the world went black.
I was sent long ago, at a time when the Gods originally shaped the land. I was constructed to stand as a sentinel, as were my brothers.
As it spoke, a scene of the past flashed before my eyes. It was harsh at first, blinding me as it was so vivid and clear. I had to blink to adjust to the brightness and focus.
A gasp left my lips when I realized I was standing in the same place, just in a different time. The landscape was starkly different, with a river flowing through the valley and white sand instead of red.
I turned and glanced at the two other mountains, understanding dawning as the words of the voice replayed in my mind. The voice wasn't coming from the ring but from the mountain.
But if they were mountains, how did-
I forged myself into a ring, a Sentinel Ring, if you will, choosing the individual who'd serve as my wielder.
Wielder? Suddenly I felt dizzy. I stumbled over to a nearby rock for support and brought my hands up to my head. This was all too much. So far, it hadn't proved I wasn't hallucinating. I'd lost my mind. I was sure of it. How'd one get their sanity back after losing it?
I am sorry. But it must be you.
Must be you, I mocked petulantly. But... Why me?
You possessed the traits I was looking for. Strong, pure, and honorable. You would not abuse Tiijeta's power.
I didn't want her power. I wanted freedom. I wanted my family back.
I am sorry. I cannot reanimate the dead, but I can give you the strength to become free, and free others as well.
With that, I was plunged back into reality, my head spinning as I tried to get my bearings. I was still standing in the same place as before, staring at the dark mountain. It was bewildering, to say the least.
You should probably run, the voice said. That was all the warning it gave before the ground shook violently, and the side of the mountain burst open.
Rocks rained down upon me as the mountain split in two, the top slowly falling forward now that it was no longer balanced. I screamed and booked it, spotting other prisoners doing the same. My feet were still sore from the long day of work, but I beat them against the sand as I ran, struggling to stay upright as the world trembled again.
Despite my blood pumping, my body turned cold, as if I was submerged in an ice bath. I didn't dare look back, fearing that if I did, whatever I saw would be my last. Instead, I stared straight ahead and followed the other people racing away from the mountain, jailer and prisoner alike.
I ran hard and fast. Even as I passed them, I didn't dare slow down. Not as a boulder crashed down next to me, landing on top of a jailer. Not as the sand raged against my legs and the air filled with screams. I sprinted with all I had, ignoring my weeping feet and aching muscles.
Every breath of air burned my lungs as I hurried, but I gulped it down nonetheless, greedy for it.
Do you smell that? The ring asked, and I absentmindedly inhaled the air, drawing it deep into my lungs. The scent of sand and sulfur filled my nose, making me choke and cough. Was the ring trying to kill me? No. That's your first breath of freedom.
Freedom. No word could've ever sounded sweeter. A smile grew on my face as I stared at the horizon, where the sun was beginning to rise. I wasn't sure if I'd ever be able to get enough of it.
An uncanny hush fell over the world, pulling me out of my reverie, and I slowed my sprint to see the destruction behind me.
It was over. The mountain had fallen. Left in its wake was a pile of rocks and a thin cloud of dust, and the jailers were nowhere to be seen. The other two mountains remained erect and ominous.
Waiting for their wielders to release them, the ring informed me.
I nodded, glancing around at the prisoners who were running in all directions, far behind me. Some were standing and staring at the scene as well, disbelieving.
Freedom. We were free.
With a laugh, I turned to face forward. The vast desert that once terrified me to cross now seemed to promise me a new life. I marched forward purposefully, with no destination in mind, but faith that the ring would guide me.
And so I began my journey. Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.
Before anyone becomes impressed at how quickly I wrote this up, I want to say it's been sitting in my drafts for over two months. I wasn't sure why I wrote it, and so I just left it... Now, I understand why.
I hope you enjoyed it.
About the Creator
I never believed the sky is the limit, therefore my passions are expansive. My interest in writing stemmed from poetry but my heart lead me to Sci-Fi Fantasy. Consequently, my stories are plot-driven with splashes of evocative elements.