Utgar and Runa sat on the rough stone ground, eating their breakfast. Breakfast was indistinguishable from any other meal, all of which consisted of three strips of dried meat, a bowl of something mashed which had once been hot, and a single ladle-full of water, which was slightly warm and gritty with sand.
Overhead, the sun shone weakly through the clouds which constantly covered the Volcarren. The pale yellow undersides of the clouds hung motionless, like something dead. Stretching out on all sides was the Volcarren Wasteland: barren blackened rock, devoid of trees or bushes, and completely flat, save for the numerous scattered boulders. Utgar had heard that there were volcanoes far to the east, but he had never seen one. Out here, everything was flat.
“They’re back,” Runa noted quietly.
Utgar looked up. Three kyrie, their faded and scratched armor gleaming dully in the watery light, had alighted nearby, and were now surveying the prisoners eating breakfast. Utgar watched them warily, but kept eating. To stop eating was to invite the lash for laziness.
“What do you think they want?” Runa asked, chewing slowly as she watched them.
“Could be anything,” Utgar replied, his voice low. “Whatever it is, it won’t be good.”
The guards spoke amongst themselves for a moment. Then they began pushing their way through the seated prisoners, shoving and kicking to make a path. They stopped before a male kyrie, somewhat younger than Utgar.
“You there,” one of the guards said harshly. “On your feet.”
The prisoner got up. He stood toe to toe with the guard, and looked him in the eye. Utgar sighed. That never ended well.
“You’ve been giving our taskmasters some trouble,” the guard said. “It’s become obvious that you need to be reminded who is in charge here.”
The prisoner gave a bark of laughter. “By you?” he spat. “I could break your neck with my bare hands.” Judging by his size, Utgar didn’t doubt him.
The guard didn’t look the least bit troubled by this threat. “On your knees,” he commanded. He nodded to one of the other guards, who unhooked a coiled whip from his belt.
“You first,” the prisoner growled. Then, before anyone could react, he clenched his fist and drove it into the guard’s armored stomach.
The partial plate stopped the blow, but the guard still staggered back, winded. The prisoner took the opportunity to grab a rock from the ground as big as Runa’s head. He swung at the guard’s helmet with it, and a moment later the metal rang out as it was struck, the sound echoing across the Volcarren.
The guard toppled to the ground instantly, just as the other two guards jumped on the prisoner.
Far from helping, the other prisoners scrambled away from the fight. Utgar stood and backed up as well, keeping Runa behind him. He wanted desperately to join in, but he knew there was only one way the fight would end.
Meanwhile, it was obvious the guard the prisoner had struck was dead. Helmet or no helmet, the rock had carried enough force to kill him instantly. Utgar knew the guard was dead, because as he watched, his body vanished. Complete with armor and partially drawn sword, the dead guard simply blinked out of existence. Even the trail of blood which had stained the ground vanished, leaving the stone as dry as before.
The guards were getting the upper hand. “You fool,” one of them spat, wrestling with one of the prisoner’s massive arms. “You know we can’t die.”
“What did you hope to accomplish?” the other guard growled, finally pinning the prisoner to the ground. “You know once the wellspring spits him out, good as new, our friend will be back for you.”
“We’ll save you for him,” the first guard said. “He’ll want to kill you himself.”
“We’ll make the wait painful though,” the second guard added. And he punched the prisoner in the face, as he was held down.
As the beating continued, the soldiers using their armored fists, Utgar kept Runa behind him. He could feel her shaking against his outstretched arm though, and glancing back at her, he saw angry tears welling up in her eyes.
The guards soon broke the prisoner. “I’m sorry!” he screamed between their blows. “Please! I’m sorry! Please stop!”
The whole time, none of the prisoners dared to move. Utgar felt pain in his hand, and forced himself to unclench his fist. There would be a time. But it wasn’t now.
Finally, when the beating was over, and the prisoner lay senseless on the blood-spattered stones, the guards started herding the other prisoners away.
“To the mines!” they shouted. “Come on, make it quick!”
Utgar kept Runa close as they stumbled over the rough terrain.
“Why?” she said, her voice trembling with anger and frustration. “Why are they like that?”
Utgar watched the guards, who walked alongside the group, hands on their whips. “Because they are weak,” he said, “and must find a way to convince themselves otherwise.”
Most of the guards were not brutal, but Utgar felt no sympathy towards them. They were immortal, granted unending life by the wellspring. The prisoners were not. There could only be one result from such an imbalance, and it was a result Utgar had seen nearly every day of his life.