My heartbeat was like the thumping of a low drum in my head. The only other sound was the slow draw and exhale of my breath – the noise of the outside world was muffled and indistinguishable.
I looked around in a daze. The heavy steel security gate was just to my left. To my right and just ahead, Reg and some of the other Guardsmen were moving the last of my fellows down the corridor. Reg turned back and motioned for me to follow – his lips moved but I couldn’t hear him. I waved him on ahead and watched as he nodded and ran out of sight.
Suddenly, I became aware that I was still holding Krista tightly against me. I looked down and was met by her brilliant green eyes, wide and penetrating. Her face was close to mine – I could feel the gentle warmth of her breath against my cheek. The sound of my heart thumped faster in my head. Her hand reached up and grasped softly at my hair, pulling me closer. There were no thoughts, no distractions. There was only her.
My left arm supported her, tracing the contour of her back, while my right gently cradled her head. I considered her for a moment – every line was perfect and beautiful. She smiled sweetly at me and moved closer, closing her eyes. Our lips met and a sense of pure elation shot through to the tips of my nerves.
I pulled her closer but nothing was close enough. We moved as one, breathing in and out together. I struggled to master the longing I had for her all these years, but there was too much feeling, too much love to contain in these few stolen moments. How long we persisted, I don’t know, but at long last, desire could stave off need no longer. We stopped a moment for a deeper breath, but as we did, something broke through the relative silence.
“Hey! What the hell are you two still doing back here?!”
Krista released me abruptly and made a feeble effort to casually smooth out her shirt. “Umm, hi Reg!” she said a little too high to sound as innocent as intended.
I turned to face Reg, my face hot with embarrassment. “Hi, Reg! We were, umm, just going over…what we should…do…next.” I couldn’t help but grin as a knowing look spread across his face.
“Right” he said, drawing the word out much longer than necessary. “I’m sure you were.”
Now, the moment was gone and I was fully aware of my surroundings once more. The violent slamming against the security gate brought the our dire predicament back to the forefront of my mind – on the other side of the gate were innumerable wolf-like creatures bent on our destruction and we had, as of yet, no viable escape plan. I cast a worried glance at the gate then looked back at Reg.
“Any bright ideas?” I asked him darkly.
“The gate is sturdy – it should hold up against whatever those things do to it. I’m more worried about them burrowing around it. We need to get back to the barracks and seal off this wing of the mines. We’ll plan our next move there.”
“Can’t the wolves just burrow their way in there too?”
“Based on the trouble they’re having with that gate, I’d say no. The quadrant housing the barracks is surrounded by a secondary steel wall set into the rock to prevent escapes, or, in this case, intrusions. The only problem with staying there is that, with the other group of wolves coming from the opposite end, we run the risk of being cut off from headquarters. The supplies we have on hand will only last a week or so.”
“Well, I guess it’s better than staying here. If nothing else, it will buy us some more time to think. Come on, Krista, let’s get going.” I turned and instinctively went to pick her up again.
“Gray,” she said with a hint of sarcasm “you’re very sweet, but…do you think I could just run beside you this time?” She flashed a playful smile and winked at me.
“Oh…right, sorry, Krista! Alright, Reg“ I said, turning back to him, “we’re all set.”
“OK. You two go on ahead this time. I’ll bring up the rear and make sure the gate to the barracks gets closed.”
I nodded then looked to Krista. She motioned down the corridor and we set off at a brisk pace. As we moved up the familiar cavern hall, I noticed the smoothness of Krista’s stride – she was graceful and effortless.
I guessed now that her apparent fragility was more a manifestation of fear than an inherent trait, for along with the expression of peace and confidence she now wore came a natural athleticism I’d never seen in her before – she matched me step for step with ease. I watched her out of the corner of my eye and smiled to myself as we approached the barracks.
Before long, the dingy gray steel of the first bunkhouse came into view up ahead. As we drew nearer, the nervous dialog of both Guardsmen and miners echoed above our footfalls and the dull hum of machinery in the distance. We arrived none too soon as a discussion between the two groups was getting more heated by the second.
“You’re gonna seal us in here to die?! Where’re you all going in such a hurry? Back to hide in your fortress?!” One of my fellows had established himself as spokesman for the group and ardently protested the Guard. I couldn’t see who it was through the crowd but all of the miners echoed his sentiments loudly.
A tall pale-faced Guardsman answered in a clear baritone, “Our only chance for survival is to reestablish a path to the command center. If we all stay here, our supplies will run out and we will and starve, but the risk of bringing you all is too great.”
Krista and I moved forward into the crowd to get a better look. “What’s going on here?” I boomed.
The Guardsman who had been speaking looked up expectantly as I came into his view. “Gray, come help everyone to see reason.” He motioned for me to come forward, into the center of the crowd. I took Krista’s hand then proceeded into the thick of the dispute.
What is it with these Purplecoats thinking I’m their buddy all of a sudden? Reg seems OK, but who the hell is this guy?!
As I cleared the wall of onlookers, I saw at my right the one who’d taken charge on behalf of the miners. His name was James, an ebony skinned man of about my height, lean, muscular, with deep brown eyes and short black hair – I guessed him about 10 years my senior but he had arrived in the mines about a year after me. I knew James to be a hard worker and an honest man, so I immediately felt compelled to back him.
“Gray, will you tell this overgrown Purplecoat there’s NO WAY they’re locking us up in here while they take off to the command center?!” James glared back at the Guardsman as he spoke.
I turned to my left, setting my back to James and the miners. Krista followed around to stand at my right. The Guardsman was several inches taller than I so I had to look up slightly to meet his gaze. I looked hard at him but saw that the characteristic sense of fear I’d come to expect from his comrades did not extend to him. He looked me squarely in the eyes, drew himself up to full height and spoke again.
“Gray, we were just discussing our options from here. We believe the best choice is to have a small group of men try to reestablish passage to the command center. From there, we can bring back supplies and reinforcements to help evacuate everyone. I understand the risk in leaving people here, but a group of this size would be at a severe disadvantage, should we be attacked on the way.”
He definitely has a point. I glanced aside at Krista, who seemed to be echoing my sentiment. Who IS this guy, anyway?! I thought I’d had it out with nearly every Purplecoat around but he doesn’t look familiar…
“I’m sorry, but who are you again?” I addressed the Guardsman in a firm but curious tone.
“My name is Soren. I joined the Guard for this sector two weeks ago, and presently, I am the ranking officer here.”
I wondered how Fontaine could have possibly reached a higher position than Soren. The man standing before me exuded such authority, I couldn’t dream of him ever having been trumped by such a miserable excuse for a leader – but then, based on the example Jonas had set all these years, I supposed the traditionally desired traits weren’t necessarily the standards against which Guardsmen were measured. As I considered him a moment more, something about him struck me as familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
“OK, Soren. As much as I hate to admit it, you have a point.”
“GRAY!!!” James’ voice burst out from behind me.
I turned slightly to address him, “James, I know what you’re thinking, and I think the same, but don’t let the fact that he’s a Purplecoat cloud your vision. What he’s saying makes sense. Maybe you could hold your own in an attack, but too many others couldn’t. Do you want their lives on your head if something happens?”
“James, you know I care about all of us. Trust me on this one…please.”
“…OK, fine.” He shifted his gaze to Soren, “but this doesn’t mean I trust THEM!”
“Fair enough” Soren replied calmly. “Now that we’ve settled on our course from here, we should determine who among us will go.” He turned to face me, “Gray, given the clear advantage your unique abilities afford you against these creatures, I believe you should go.”
I nodded in agreement, but before Soren could continue, Krista interjected. “I’m going too!” she said decisively as she grasped my arm.
“I am certain you can take care of yourself, young lady” replied Soren, “but the risk is too great. I am sorry.”
I turned and eyed her sweetly, “I can’t risk losing you again. I’ll come back for you – I promise.”
She looked for a moment like she would continue her protest but then conceded in apparent defeat, “OK.” It was unlike Krista to concede a point so easily, but, for now at least, the discussion was over.
Soren continued, “I will be going to oversee the operation. Two other Guardsmen will come as well to ensure that the group can gain entry to the command center, should I perish during the journey. Are there any others among you brave enough to go?”
James spoke up immediately, “You ain’t going anywhere without me! You gotta have somebody to keep an eye on the damn Purplecoats and make sure they don’t try nothin’.”
Soren glared at him derisively, “Very well, James. What a loss it will be to your kin should you fall along the way.”
I saw James roll his eyes at Soren and give him the finger when he turned. Krista and I chuckled under our breath.
“Is there another who will go?” Soren boomed over the crowd.
The miners all turned to one another and became entrenched in discussion. I watched them size each other up as the sound of their many voices began to echo through the cavern. After another several minutes, they didn’t look any closer to making a decision.
“I will go!” Ethan’s familiar rasp broke through the clamor as he strode through the people and took a place at my left side.
“I will go.” He said again in a somewhat winded tone.
“Ethan!” I exclaimed as I heartily grasped his hands. “Where in hell have you been?!”
Krista’s face lit up with relief as she saw him. “Ethan, we’re so glad you’re OK!” She embraced him tightly as a daughter would her father after his return from a long journey.
“It’s good to see you both too. So?” he said, turning to Soren, “am I in or what?”
Soren took one look at him and began shaking his head. Several of the Guardsmen scoffed at Ethan amongst themselves. “Are you sure, old man? It is quite a walk” said Soren, the corners of his mouth curling into a slight grin.
Ethan straightened up and furrowed his brow. I could tell he was preparing for one of his speeches that would leave everyone’s mouth agape and silent – I’d been on the receiving end of many such tongue lashings in my time, but these poor saps had no idea what they were in for. I smiled slyly in anticipation.
“Ah, so you’ve noticed I’m a bit older than you – I’m sure all present would have missed that detail had you not brought it to light, so thank you for pointing it out. Yes, I am old, but let me ask you this: can any of your Guardsmen tell you where I have been these past several hours?” He opened his stance and addressed all of the Guard together. “Can any of you even hazard a guess at how I was here waiting for you as you all so gallantly stumbled across the threshold of the barracks?”
The Guard looked to each other frantically, their hopes diminishing fast with each clueless stare that met them. Just then, Reg and the remaining Guardsmen came running in. “We’re all set on the back end” he announced to the room.
“Reginald” Soren addressed him formally and he stood at attention “this man claims to have been here in the barracks upon our arrival. Can you confirm this?”
Reg looked over at Ethan and shook his head. “No sir,” he answered.
Ethan raised his hand politely and interjected, “The young man is correct. He did not see me. However, I can recall the exact order in which he and his cohorts entered this room just minutes ago.” He began pointing them out one by one – first Reg, then another and another. “I trust young Reginald can confirm that there were no other miners present who could have relayed this information to me when they secured this room. Reginald?”
Reg looked absolutely dumbfounded. “It was just as has he says, sir.”
“Now then,” Ethan continued smoothly, “if none of you can tell me where I have been or how I have managed to elude your notice all this time, perhaps it might occur to you that I possess knowledge of this place that you do not. In light of this, I will allow you to reconsider your judgment in excluding me from the team.”
By the time Ethan finished his speech, a wide grin had stretched across my face. What more could anyone say? Ethan was going with us and that was that. I saw Soren nod slightly to him in defeat then look up again to address the crowd.
“Then it is settled! Gray, Ethan,” he added unnecessary stress as he said the name then paused a moment, “and James will be going on behalf of the miners. Reginald…” he motioned to his right at Reg “…and Matthias…” he motioned to a serene looking man at his left ‘…will be accompanying me to represent the Guard. For the moment, we are safe, so I suggest that everyone take advantage by retiring to your respective sleeping quarters to rest. It has been a long day and we look to have many more ahead of us before this is over.”
This was as calm a resolution as anyone could have hoped for. Never in my recollection could I remember any of us having had so much as a civil word in exchange with any of the Guard and now, here we were, banding together with them against a common threat. I was glad to be saved the added stress of fighting with them amidst present circumstances, but as I stood and watched my fellows file down the corridor, the whole situation seemed more improbable by the minute.
The characteristic mistreatment we’d come to expect from the Guard was all but gone now. I witnessed many Guardsmen actually helping the wounded among us, supporting them with a shoulder or even carrying them down the hall to their beds. What the hell was going on here? And who was this Matthias person? He and Soren both shared the same expression – sharp, wise, and confident. Neither of them bore the typical malice of those that had oppressed us all these years. I turned aside to Ethan, hoping for some answers.
“Ethan,” I said in a low voice. “What can you tell me about Matthias? I thought I’d had run-ins with every Purplecoat there was, but neither he nor Soren are familiar to me.”
“They arrived from the command center together two weeks ago, as Soren mentioned earlier. Aside from that, there’s not much to tell. What you see is what you get – they’re both ice-cool and sharp as can be. Not the sort I’d go crossing if I were you.”
I looked at Ethan straight on with a smirk on my face. “And what about you, mister I go wherever I please for hours at a time and mouth off to the Guard when I get back?!”
He answered dryly, his trademark nonchalance set across his brow, “When you’ve been here as long as I have, you learn that, while the rules don’t bend much, the way you choose to interact with the rules can provide a certain amount of flexibility.”
I continued to watch Soren and Matthias as the crowd walked past. The more I considered their demeanor, the more they seemed to stick out from their comrades. It was as if their subconscious personas existed elsewhere, granting them peace I’d never witnessed before. I caught myself longing for it with strange familiarity – like an old friend that had long since passed into the annals of time.
Just then, Matthias looked up across the room at me, his penetrating stare understanding much more than my face could have expressed. For a split second, I could swear I saw his eyes flash silver, but then he turned away abruptly and began talking with Soren once more. I couldn’t help but continue staring.
“Gray?” Krista began with uncertainty in her voice. “Is everything alright? You look more pale than usual.”
I swear I know him, but from where? I’ve been stuck in the mines my whole life and I know I’ve never seen him here before. It’s impossible, but it can’t be…
“Gray?” repeated Krista, her tone now laced with concern.
“What? Sorry, Krista. It’s just that…I feel like I know him from somewhere.”
“The Guardsman called Matthias – the one Soren said is coming with him and Reg. I don’t see how it’s possible but I just can’t shake it.”
“Well, it’s not surprising, Gray. He looks just like you.”
“Well, yeah. If it wasn’t for that purple armor, I might have done a double-take when I saw him. His eyes are different though…brown.” She trailed off for a moment, apparently finishing her comparison in silence, and then continued. “I guess I should give you more credit, though. It’s not like we get many chances to consider our reflections before heading off to work, do we? Come to think of it, have you ever even seen your face…Gray? GRAY?!!!.”
Her voice trailed off gently into the background as I watched her outline go fuzzy then fade into the encroaching black. I was unconscious, and, yet, still aware. I lay motionless in the dark for a few moments, listening intently, but I heard nothing. All was peaceful and calm around me.
After another few moments, I thought I felt warmth from above upon my skin. Unfamiliar sounds cycled through my perception, growing louder with each repetition. Like the sound of crushed ore passing through a sieve followed by the noise of a far-off conveyor but with a definite rise and fall to each, softer, hollow, and rhythmic rather than constant.
I opened my eyes and saw that I was laying face-down on a bed of white sand. A vast body of clear blue water was before me, ebbing and flowing gently as I looked out to the horizon – everything was blue as far as I could see. Overhead, a blindingly bright light shone down on me. I rubbed my eyes then opened them again and refocused. Was this the sun? I’d only ever heard about it in Ethan’s stories, but I knew of nothing else that matched the description of what I saw. I was in the world above.
I got to my feet and turned to find lush greenery all around. Nothing like the plants that grew in the dim purple glow of the mines, these were brilliant green and sprawling, with massive fronds that swayed in the light breeze. I greedily inhaled the fresh air as it rushed past – I’d never experienced anything like it. It was clean and utterly refreshing. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply once more, but an abrupt outburst to my left startled me.
Not ten feet away, two pale brown haired boys, identical except one looked a few years older than the other, struggled in the sand. They appeared to be fighting over something the eldest had clenched in his fist.
“Give it back! That’s mine!”
“I just want to have a quick look!”
The younger boy fought in vain to wrest the unseen object from the older boy’s hands. The two of them seemed oddly familiar, but I couldn’t say why. The younger rushed in again, but no sooner had he unbalanced the older than he found himself flying through the air and landing flat on his back.
“Ha! So hasty with your temper, little brother! You’ll never get it back now!”
The older brother held the object aloft and I caught a glimpse of it. My eyes widened and my mouth dropped open on sight of the unmistakable color – Darkstone! What the hell was that doing here?!
The younger brother rose from the ground and turned so I could see his face. His fierce determination was apparent in the way his rigid body poised for his next attempt.
“You WILL give that back, Matthias!”
Just then, I glimpsed the younger’s eyes – they were pale gray just like mine! The next thing I knew, he had struck his brother with force I wouldn’t have imagined possible from one so young. Matthias flew back and the Darkstone fell to the ground. The younger brother knelt to retrieve the stone, and when he looked up, my heart stopped. His eyes flashed bright red, and in an instant, everything went black again.