Just as he had expected, Dan didn’t have a chance to speak to Vydar next morning. He was woken by one of Vydar’s soldiers shaking him, and telling him that he needed to report to a ‘Captain Antyr’.
Groggy with sleep and hunger – “Food will be provided there, keep moving!” – Dan left his room and joined a group of other equally groggy and hungry-looking new recruits in the hall. The soldier led them all through a maze of hallways, going down stairs and through doors.
Dan woke up the instant he saw the other recruits. A good number were humans, mostly men, some women. Four were soulborgs, their dark metal plates gleaming in the early morning light streaming in from the windows. A few looked like men, but were a good foot taller than anyone else, and had faint blue lines running down their bare arms. Bringing up the rear was a single figure, hidden completely in a cloak and hood. Dan could see nothing but shadows where a face should have been, and although the cloak went all the way to the floor, Dan saw no evidence of legs beneath it. The figure just… glided. Dan tried to keep his distance.
Eventually, the soldier led them down a final flight of steps and into a truly massive room. It resembled something Dan had seen in SR once. A ‘hangar’ he thought it had been called.
It seemed long enough to fit several hundred of Dan’s old cell into, and the side walls were so far apart Dan was sure he could run flat out for a full minute before he reached the far one. The hangar was full of people – mostly humans – running from place to place, calling out to each other, or carrying crates. A few machines were spaced against the far wall, about the size of the machine Dan and Darren had flown in, though they looked nothing like it. Forming a line going down the middle of the hangar were at least a hundred strange-looking animals. They were four-footed, as high at the shoulder as Dan’s head, and covered in gray leathery skin. Most were tied to carts of some sort, and the rest were loaded with packs. Humans and kyrie milled about them, tightening straps and getting into the carts.
“Load up,” the soldier said, motioning Dan’s group to the nearest cart.
Shuffling uncertainly, the group made its way towards the line. Some of the animals snorted nervously as they approached.
“Don’t worry,” the soldier said. “Ghidan are perfectly docile. They won’t harm you unless you scare them.”
One by one, the members of Dan’s group climbed into three of the carts. They were open, with no roof, allowing Dan to take in the hangar from his seat. A different soldier landed on the cart, opened a pouch, and handed out what looked like a small rectangle of… dirt.
“It’s food,” he explained, as other recruits shared Dan’s look. “Not the best tasting, but it keeps you full for the day. Get used to it; it’s all you’ll have on the front.”
Some of the humans blanched at the word ‘front’, but most began tasting the food. Dan nibbled a small corner, and found that it tasted better than the food he had eaten all his life. He might have to eat this for days? A grin slipped onto Dan’s face as he took a bite.
A few more groups of recruits arrived, escorted by more soldiers. Soon all of the remaining carts were full, and as Dan finished chewing the last of his meal, the line started to move. The Ghidan snorted and stamped, and then settled into a plodding pace, obediently following the back of the cart in front of them. Kyrie soldiers walked alongside the carts, accompanied by several soulborgs. Slowly, they made their way out of the hangar.
Dan looked around eagerly as the hangar slid past, drinking in everything. Much of it was familiar to him from SR, but the knowledge that it was all real made it seem like he was seeing everything for the first time. In a way, he was. Soon the edge of the hangar arrived, and then they were outside.
They were in the city Dan had seen from above, on one of the streets. Kyrie and humans walked up and down the street, parting to let the long line of carts pass. A young blue sky stretched overhead, vast and unbroken, and Dan had to look away, overpowered by the feeling that there was nothing, no walls or barriers, keeping him on the ground. Never in his wildest dreams had he thought he would be this free.
Birds – another familiar creature from SR – flew through the air overhead, their joyous songs echoing out over the houses the line of carts moved past. A light breeze brought fresh air to Dan, and he wrinkled his nose, smelling tilled earth and new wood.
After a few minutes of plodding along the streets, the line came to a thick gate set in the exterior wall Dan had seen. The gate opened, and the line went through, heading straight for the low green hills Dan had seen. His excitement grew with every step.
As Dan’s cart rumbled through the gate, he saw that the towers of the wall looked old. The stone was broken and crumbling in places. But everywhere, he saw scaffolding, and men and kyrie were hard at work, replacing the old stone with freshly cut blocks. They weren’t grim-faced as they worked, as if preparing for an invasion. Rather, Dan saw many of them smiling, and a few even joked and laughed as they lifted the stones.
Then they were outside of the gate, and there were truly no walls. Dan clutched the sides of cart – the only solid thing in an ocean of waving grass – as he stared into the unbroken blueness of the sky, allowing the feeling that he would fall into it to envelop him. All about the line of carts, birds sang, soldiers talked, and the smell of new grass permeated the air.
Surely this, this was true freedom. Dan could stay like this forever.
Large portions of the line of carts broke off every now and then, going in different directions and taking some of the soldiers and soulborgs with them. Soon Dan’s cart was one of these groups. His and five other carts split off from the long line, along with three soldiers. No soulborgs accompanied them. They took a well-worn path between two green hills, and soon the main line of carts was lost from sight.
Dan hopped down and followed the carts on foot. He wanted to talk to one of the soldiers.
“Where are we going?” he asked, coming up beside one.
“Llynar,” the kyrie replied. “One of Vydar’s training camps. You’re all going there, and you’ll all come out soldiers, ready to join the war.”
Dan ignored the soldier’s last words. He didn’t want anything to dampen his mood. “Can I explore a bit?” he asked. He had no intention of leaving just yet. Chances were, if he was to do whatever it took to get Heleer here, he could use all the training he could get. He merely wanted to see the hills they were passing by up close.
The soldier shrugged. “If you stay well within sight,” he said. “Keep close though. Don’t lag too far behind, and never lose sight of the carts, even for a moment.”
Dan nodded his understanding, and half-ran half-climbed up the nearest hill. It was nothing like the time he had tried to climb up the mountain in SR. He looked down, and the ground was the right distance away. He looked up, and saw that he was making progress. He couldn’t keep from smiling. It was only when he reached the top of the hill, and stood up to see the view, that he finally saw something which he didn’t like.
Nearby, just on the other side of the hill opposite the carts, was another, much larger, group of soldiers.
And they weren’t Vydar’s soldiers.