“I didn’t do anything!” I yell as they drag me to the square.
Throngs of people line the narrow aisle to the pulpit, every one throwing jeers and coarse words in my direction. Some manage to get their hands on me, beat me, the only permissible time they would be allowed to hit another person. If this wasn’t a sentencing, they would be in my situation.
“Please,” I beg my captors. “Please, don’t do this to me!”
They pull me up to the centre ring where the pulpit stands, nought but a caged box. A high rise towers overhead where the mayor and his officials sit, every one of their faces glowering down at me.
Voices raise, shouts soar. I shake, trembling, wishing this wasn’t happening to me. Me, the only child left of my household.
“Morgan Verrison,” the mayor’s voice rings above the crowd.
The crowd dies down to listen to my inevitable sentence.
“You have been brought here to be condemned for your crimes.”
“I didn’t do anything!” I say, sounding the words out loud and clear. Tears stream down my face, a clear indicator of my distress.
The mayor ignores me. He’s heard protests before.
“You are found guilty for the use of black magic. I hereby sentence you to life in the Outlands.”
“It was an accident!”
He slams his wooden mallet on the table. My captors lead me away for the Preparation.
“No!” I scream. “I’m innocent!”
The people grow into a tumultuous roar, and by the time I disappear from them, I have cuts and bruises from their sticks and fists. My captors don’t seem to care about what they do to me. This is my fate for using black magic.
But it was an accident! Can’t they see that?
They take me to the Preparation room. No one knows anything about the Preparation. Even the Sending is private. But no one cares except for those in charge and the ones that go through it. I won’t be seeing those throngs of people anymore. I’m already dead to them.
Next thing I know, I’m stripped naked and my captors leave. The humanoids replace them, modified people, half machine half human, and they carry rods and cables and batons. I don’t know what to make of them at first, but then the reality dawns on me. The humanoids can’t feel like people, though our drugs dull human emotion. They’re permanently unfeeling objects, rid of passions and desires. They make for a pristine utopia here in Dystrandis, but that also means they’re capable of doing things without feeling the results from their actions.
First one strikes, then another. I scream, but the sounds don’t penetrate the room. No one can hear me. Soon, I’m on the floor in pain, blood staining the cold cement. Then I’m hoisted to my feet. I stumble alongside them as they lead me to a vault.
The Sending, I figure.
They put me inside the hollow tube, naked, bruised and beaten. The glass door shuts. Then up I go, the humanoids disappearing.
Up, up, up. My head gets dizzy from the pain of my body and the whirlwind of a ride to the surface.
The Outlands. It’s a place talked about in history books at school. They say we burrowed into the earth when the sun grew too hot. Those were the richest men in the world, the ones with the money to fund projects of preservation. Yet only the purest could remain in Dystrandis. Then came the rules to govern a shining utopia. Rules like the forbidding of magic. If you don’t follow those rules, you’re sent to the Outlands.
The upwards motion stops and the door opens. The heat is stifling and I can barely breathe. A metal rod pokes me in the back, just a tap, but it feels like a sharp needle. I stumble forward, landing weak on a dusty ground. The door behind me shuts and the portal disappears, a metal door preventing me from diving back into the haven of Dystrandis.
I quiver, curling up into a ball. What do I do?
Just then, a call echoes into the shaft. “Offering!”
I look up to see a group of people coming toward me. They’re clad in dull tones, dirty rags compared to the solid, undeterred colours of the people I’m used to seeing. Bottles dance at their sides, fastened to their belts. Some carry metal rods, others nothing at all. They gaze down at me with unconcerned eyes. Most prominent are the scars on their faces. Not a face is unmarred.
A man steps forward, their leader. “A live one, and a beauty,” he says, squatting to my level.
A woman joins him, her skin as dark as her clothing. She’s a stark contrast to the white world I grew up in. “She’s weak.”
“A worker then,” says the man.
“She’ll burn,” says the woman.
“Too bad for her.”
“But we’ve lost so many this year.”
“Guess that means more water for us.”
He snaps his fingers and two of his band come forward with a blanket. Through weary eyes, I can’t make out whether they’re male or female because of the cloths wrapped around their heads and their billowing, ratted robes.
“Take her,” the man says, starting off.
I’m hoisted up and taken out of the shaft. Blinding, burning light stings my eyes and my skin burns after a measly fifteen minutes. I try to speak, to beg for water and shade, but the words won’t form, barely a croak breaking my already cracked, parched lips. Soon, my head grows light. I feel unconsciousness threaten to pull me under, drag me into its welcoming arms away from the heat, the pain, and the sorrow. But a part of me refuses. No, I reason. I cannot give in. Not yet. The Outlands will not take me.
So I stay alive enough to notice shade. Then down, down, down we go into the earth. The stifling air gradually cools, a welcome relief for my sweltering body. Eventually, we reach a large cave swarming with people. Hard-working people. They toil, sifting and scraping at dirty pools, each one’s eyes glazed over as if in a trance.
I look beside me and see the woman from before. She retrieves a bottle from her side and pours some water down my throat. It’s not much, but enough so I can speak.
“Where are we?”
“The salt mines.”
“What’s wrong with them?” I ask, staring with disgust at the workers. “They look possessed.”
“It’s magic. Let me guess, that’s why you were thrown out? Accused of black magic?”
“Magic thrives here. Some of it can be used for good, but…” She motioned to the workers, bent and crooked from a life of servitude.
“I don’t want to become that.”
“You don’t, do you? Well, too bad. The boss says’ you’ll be suited as a worker.”
I’m too tired to answer. Instead, I slump my head down, feeling as tranced and bent as the workers we pass by.
“So…what kind of magic did you wield?”
“Your magic. Was it fire? Water? Lightning? Magic is born out of emotion.”
“It was fire.”
“So you were angry at someone,” the woman mused. “Not going to do you much good here. Like I said to the boss, we need water wielders, but it’s a hard one to conjure. Water doesn’t come from sadness. It’d be a whole lot easier to make if it did.”
“Where does it come from?”
She looks at me, a thin smile spread across her lips, but her eyes melancholic. “Joy and laughter.”
“But that’s not so hard.”
“How do you feel?”
I lower my head. “Terrible.”
“But what if I found something to be joyful about?”
“This is Utrondis, girl. You’ll find pretty soon there’s nothing to be happy about here.”
“I don’t believe you. I’ll find a way to be happy.”
She laughs at me, a mocking guffaw. “You will, will you? Good luck with that! Even if you recover properly, you’ll still be deformed like the rest of us. And if you’re fitted to be a worker, you won’t be able to feel anything, just like those Dystrandians.”
I go to say something, then clamp my mouth shut.
No, I reason. I’m not about to let this woman be right. Even though I was in despair when I was exiled, I won’t let that defeat me. If fire was built from my rage in Dystrandis, then water will burst from my joy in Utrondis.
Utrondis. A fitting name for the city of the Outlands. I will make it a utopia.