The walk to the mining site is long and tedious. No matter how much Darkstone we unearth, we just keep delving deeper and deeper underground – almost like we’re looking for something else. I puzzle over this a few moments but it only serves to frustrate me. Just one more thing I don’t know. I cast the thought aside and trudge on.
The uneventful twists of the corridor provide little distraction from the journey. I’ve come to know the path so well by now, though, that it’s easy to let my mind wander. My thoughts drift back to the day I met Krista.
It was about three years ago. Every morning, the Centurions came down the corridor to the left of our barracks, collecting miners on their way to the latest dig site. Occasionally, they would bring with them a group of “new recruits” to replace those of us that had died or become too old to work and been cast into the chasm, and this was one of those days. There were ten in this group, clad in the same drab gray garb the rest of us wore and all looking scared and bewildered.
Of course, I felt awful that anyone else should have to share this life in the mines, but a sense of excitement always came over me when new people came. Everyone’s memories were wiped somehow on arrival – the Centurions said we were all convicted criminals and this “deprogramming” as they called it was necessary to maintain order – but some of us would retain more than others. In my case, I remembered nothing of my former life. I couldn’t even remember my name. Everyone just called me Gray on account of my peculiar translucent gray eyes. I hoped that, one day, someone would come who remembered who I was or at least remembered more of the world above.
This time, though, one of the new recruits sparked more than the normal amount of interest in me. A young girl, who looked to be around my age, stood out from the group. Even in the plain miner’s clothes, her beauty was undeniable. She had porcelain skin, brilliant green eyes, and deep brown hair that cascaded in waves across her shoulders and down her back. Frightened though she was, a gentle sense of peace seemed to radiate from within her. My gaze followed her from left to right as she walked past, as though my eyes were fixed to some invisible string she unknowingly held in her hand.
“Easy, Gray!” I heard Ethan’s familiar rasp beside me as he firmly patted my shoulder, but my eyes still followed her. “Gray. Gray, your mouth is hanging wide open…something’s gonna fly in there and die,” he offered with a chuckle.
“Hmmm?” I replied mechanically.
“Oh, you’ve got it bad…let’s just hope the Purplecoats don’t pay her as much attention as you.”
This comment grabbed my attention. “What do you mean?”
“Well, Gray, it’s not often we get someone that looks like her down here. Those damn Purplecoats might get it in their heads to…take advantage.”
“What?! I can’t let that happen. I won’t! Ethan, you have to help me!” I had become frantic with the notion of protecting this girl I’d yet to even meet, and I had no idea why. She was beautiful, yes, but there was something more I couldn’t put my finger on. She was magnetic to me.
“Ok, ok, Gray, calm down before they stop marching and hear us! Protect her if you want. I’ll do what I can to help you, but don’t forget to protect yourself too. I didn’t wrestle you away from the edge of that chasm years ago so you could get yourself thrown in now.”
“Ok,” I stammered back at him, “you’re right. I’ll pull it together.” If I was to be any help to this girl, I had to be smart about it. They always pair off new recruits with experienced miners to help show them the ropes…maybe I can work it out so we’re paired together.
Back then, Jonas wasn’t around to hold up the line with his harassing, so we all filed in behind the new group as they passed and began the walk down to the dig site. The whole way down, I kept an eye on the girl, waiting for a chance to slide in beside her.
Finally, we came to the large cavern the Centurions called The Hub, from which all the other mine shafts stemmed, and I saw an opening. Ethan, being one step ahead of me as usual, pushed me in from behind. “Go get her, kid,” he said under his breath.
Before I could even look back to reply, I bumped into her from behind. Thanks a ton, Pop. I gently grasped her shoulders, steadying her from the impact. “I’m so sorry,” I offer. “Some of us can be a bit pushy.” I shot a scowl back at Ethan as I said this and the girl looked back as well. Ethan simply shrugged his shoulders and looked unconvincingly behind him.
I looked back to her and my heart jumped. She leaned in close to my face and started whispering quickly. “It’s OK. Where are we? They said we’re criminals and have been sentenced to a life of hard labor, but…I can’t remember anything.”
“Where we are exactly, I don’t know, but the Centurions – those men who brought you down here – call it the Revilium mines. They have us digging for the glowing purple rocks you see everywhere.” I point to the various piles of the stuff around the cavern. “As for what you did to get here, I wish I could say. They wipe everyone’s memories on arrival. Say it’s for our safety.”
“I just don’t understand.” her voice started to quiver as she continued. “I was just waiting at home for my brother. He was supposed to take me to lunch…”
“Wait, you remember your brother? Barely anyone here remembers their family…what else do you remember?” She was about to answer when I held up my hand for her to stop. The Centurions were making their way back through the line, grouping us together for shaft assignments. “Hang on. Tell me once we’re in our shaft” I whispered.
I nodded for her to face forward just as two Centurions walked up. One of them stopped beside her for a moment, considering something as he took in her appearance, but then shook his head and sent us to the loading station on the far left. After a short cart ride, we arrived at our shaft. The girl and I stood apart from the rest of the group and, after a short while, were paired off and sent down a tunnel to the right.
Thankfully, once in our respective tunnels, the Centurions usually left us alone. At last, I extended my gloved hand to the girl for a proper introduction. “I’m Gray. Actually, I can’t remember my name…everyone just calls me that because…”
“Because of your eyes,” she finished the sentence for me. “I’ve never seen anything like them…” she trailed off as she stared straight at me. Another few moments passed before she realized my hand was still out. “Oh, sorry,” she reached out her bare hand and softly shook mine. “I’m Krista.”
After about a minute more hand shaking than was necessary, Krista finally spoke up. “Ummm, Gray? Can I have my hand back now?”
“Oh…right.” I let go abruptly, embarrassed, and launched into a mining lesson to avoid further awkwardness. “Lesson one: always wear your gloves.”
She looked down at the gear she had set at her feet, spotted the gloves, and began pulling them on. “Why are they purple?” she said in earnest.
“Notice how they’re the same purple as the stuff we’re mining for? They help protect you from the negative effects of it. We call the stuff Darkstone, because it puts evil thoughts in your head. You get them bad enough just by being around it, but NEVER touch it with your bare hands!” I was surprised to see her shrink back at my words until I realized I was shouting. I composed myself and continued, “It’ll drive you mad.”
“OK, I promise I’ll remember“, said Krista sheepishly.
“Make sure you do“, I said firmly. “Now then, lesson two: this is your mining probe.“ I held up a slender metal rod with a purple crystalline tip. “We use it to break the rock and unearth the Darkstone. It’s very dangerous…stand back.”
Krista backed away until I gave her a nod of approval then I thrust the probe at the cavern wall near a partially exposed vein of Darkstone. The surrounding rock exploded away from the vein with a high pitched sound, falling in a pile of rubble at my feet. I looked behind me and saw she had jumped back another several feet. “Krista, it’s OK. When you use it right, it’s perfectly safe. Come here and I’ll show you.” I motioned for her to come beside me.
She began to slowly tip-toe over, eyeing her probe like a venomous snake. “Well, come on. It’s not going to bite“, I laughed. “Now pick it up and come next to me.”
“OK…” After a few more moments of uncertainty, and appearing pleased she didn’t incinerate on contact, finally came over.
“Now take the probe with both hands and just push it into the wall on the other side of this vein and we should have a big chunk of it free.” I pointed to the spot with my free hand.
“OK, here I go“, she cautiously moved the probe toward the wall and the surrounding rock crumbled away on contact. “Hey, I did it!” she exclaimed.
“Well, what’d you expect, for the rocks to mock you in disdain?”
“Of course not, silly“, she laughed. “I just expected to have to try harder, because you’re so strong,” she said, gesturing to my arms, “and I’m so…not.”
Her comment made me blush a little, but I needed to boost her confidence, not mine. “Nah, there’s really not much to it. Honestly, the probe does most of the work. The trick is more in using it wisely so you don’t end up buried under a pile of rocks. The best rule for taking down a wall is to start high and work side to side on down…like this.” I demonstrated on another section of wall to the left.
“That sounds easy enough”, she said in earnest.
“Yeah, that is the easy part. The hard part is what we do with rock after we’ve dug it out. You see those conveyors that run next to the cart we rode up here in? We carry the rocks over to them and they carry them out of the tunnel for processing.”
“Oh…” Krista said in dismay, surveying the large fragments left behind by the probe, “that could be a problem.” She bent down and set herself to lifting one of the largest rocks.
She struggled with the rock, breathing hard.
Still she persisted, determined.
“What’s up?” she said with an exasperated exhale.
“I was about to say that, since we’re a team, I can do the lifting and you can stick to probing if you like.” I walked over, easily lifting the rock in front of her and carried it over to the belt. “See? No problem”, I said with a smile.
“Thanks, but that doesn’t seem very fair – you doing all the hard work and me just poking this stick around in walls while they explode before me.” She looked very disappointed in herself. “What if I use the probe to break them into smaller pieces then carry them over?”
I considered her carefully for a moment. Here was a girl so outwardly beautiful and, yet, on her first day of being thrust into a life of slavery, she was more concerned with doing her fair share than anything else. This was usually an attitude people developed over time and out of necessity, but Krista was just naturally this way.
I walked over to her, taking her hands in mine. “Krista, what isn’t fair is that someone like you should have her life stolen away and replaced with this. I’m happy to carry the rocks for you. You go ahead and probe.” I bent down and lifted another large rock. “Besides, we’ll get more done this way.” I carried the rock over to the belt and glanced back at her.
“OK, deal!” she said brightly.
We settled into a steady rhythm of probing and carrying. She got the hang of it quite quickly, and once she did, she resumed our conversation from The Hub. “So you wanted to know what else I remember?”
“Oh, that’s right! I don’t mean to pry. I’m just hoping that, someday, someone will say something that will spark my memory, you know?”
“Oh, you aren’t prying. I completely understand. Well, let’s see. I remember that I’m from a city called New York. It was full of magnificent glass buildings that rose high in the air.”
“That sounds amazing!”
“It really was…but not all of it was so great. Lots of people were struggling to survive. My family was going to lose our house and my mom was so worried.”
“So you can remember your parents?”
“Only bits and pieces. I can see her face if I concentrate hard, but I can’t remember her name or anything else specific – not about anyone. It’s all so fuzzy. The last thing I remember is my brother saying he could help and he was coming to take me to lunch…then everything went black and I woke up here.”
“I’m so sorry, Krista.”
“What about you, Gray? Can you remember anything?
“Not at thing…but I keep having this nightmare. The same one almost every night of a village burning and people running away. I think it might mean something, but it never lasts very long enough to make any sense of. Whatever it is, I’m stuck here now, so I just try to accept it and move on.” I look up and notice Krista staring at something on the ground. “What is it?”
She bent down and picked up a small fragment of Darkstone, watching the dull purple light swirl around inside it for a moment.
“Krista, you shouldn’t hold that stuff any longer than you have to. It’ll make you see things…”
“Gray, this stuff looks familiar. What did you say it was called again?”
“No, the proper name. You said it when I asked you where we were earlier.”
“Yes, Revilium! I’ve heard that name before, but I can’t remember where. I think my brother had something to do with it, though.”
“You don’t think your brother’s responsible for you being brought here, do you?”
“I can’t remember everything, but that doesn’t sound like him to me. I think he was trying to warn me.”
“Hmmm. Maybe it’ll come back to you with time. It might very well help us get out of here.”
“I really hope it does, Gray. I hope it does.”
From that day on, we were inseparable. A few years passed in much the same way, each day having, for the most part, a predictable rise and fall. Quite often, I thought it didn’t even matter if I never left the mines as long as Krista was there. But then, about four weeks ago, Jonas came.
Young though Krista was, the newly appointed captain of the Centurions was taken by her beauty. She rejected his advances a precious few times before he lost his patience and abused her in front of us all. I tried desperately to ward him off, but I was powerless beneath his sickening strength.
Each day thereafter, Jonas humiliated Krista, marking another failed attempt on my part to stop him. Several times, I was beaten within an inch of my life, but even this couldn’t dissuade me from trying again – if I couldn’t save her, I could at least share her pain.
My muscles tense involuntarily at the thought, bringing an abrupt halt to my reverie. I try to beat back the wave of emotion, but I can’t. This isn’t working.
Desperate for something to cover the threat of my failing restraint, I take to imagining pictures in the uneven surfaces of the corridor. Oh, look! A boulder that looks like Jonas’ head: enormous, filthy, probably just as dense… I grin slightly, amused at the thought, but after a few seconds, my anger returns.
I’m getting desperate now. I scan the corridor rhythmically from side to side, searching for a distraction, but nothing presents itself. Left, rocks. Right, more rocks. Left again, different colored rocks, but still rocks and…hang on.
Is Krista smiling?
I spy the edges of her mouth curved upward ever so slightly.
What’s she smiling about? I puzzle over this a few moments until the dull aching of my abused body reminds me. I stopped Jonas! Sure, I took a huge beating for it, but that was nothing new. I’ve gotten the same every day for the last three weeks trying to protect Krista, but every day I failed. Today, though, whether by luck or fate, I stopped him.
Krista turns her head for just a moment, meeting my eyes with a look I’ve only seen a precious few times – never directed at me though. Romance doesn’t exactly thrive under the conditions we endure here in the mines, but, against all odds, a handful of us have found a strange sort of happiness in the company of another.
As for me, though, my experience with this sort of thing is nonexistent. So, of course, I handle it with all the grace and decorum I can muster…by flushing red as crimson then tripping over my own feet. Krista, still smiling, turns her head to face forward, but I she giggles under her breath.
Awesome. That could have gone a little better. I divert my gaze earthward to ensure I don’t trip over myself again. Just as embarrassment starts to sweep over me, Krista reaches back, grabs my hand, and entwines her fingers in my own. A tingling sensation shoots up my arm and spreads through my whole body, replacing the aching with gentle warmth. We walk happily, hand in hand, for the rest of the journey.
Before long, I hear the familiar clinking of machinery and see the amethyst glow flickering in the corridor up ahead. We form a narrow single file as we come to a cold steel suspension bridge – the singular entrance and exit to the dig site. Instinctively, Krista and I release each other’s hand, knowing there will be sentries up ahead.
Below us, the darkness is thick and impenetrable, seeming to swell menacingly like some sinister cloud. The bridge creaks and shifts under our collective weight, frightening some of the newer recruits, but I’ve crossed too many times to be concerned by it. Just before I reach the other side, a chill wind shoots out from the depths, sending a shiver up my spine. I look over the side and, for a split second, I think I see something glint through the black.
“Keep it moving!” bellows one of the Centurions as I’m prodded from behind. I steal one more glance over the rail, but whatever I saw is gone and in another moment, I’m across.
A vast cavern opens around us, illuminated by the dull purple of the lanterns and piles of Darkstone, strewn about on conveyors, in carts, some seemingly cast aside with indifference, but all glowing strangely. Near the back of the cavern is the gated equipment depot where miners are already being funneled through. Past that are mechanized cart stations, each at the edge of an endless chasm with tracks leading away from each, swallowed by the darkness of myriad shafts beyond.
As we push further in, the stench of metallic sulphur irritates my nostrils slightly. The sensation barely even registers anymore – a mere annoyance in the shadow of greater threats. Krista, however, has never been able to build much of a tolerance to the fumes.
“Are you OK?” I whisper.
She nods a little too hastily, losing her balance then steadying herself against my shoulder. “I’ll be fine,” she breathes with a weak smile.
Now, we’re being herded forward to the equipment depot. My fellows are treated with the usual abuse as they move through the line. Jonas, however, remains strangely silent and detached through the procession. As I moved forward, I notice he looks pale, his normally ruddy skin appearing sallow in the lamplight. His eyes meet mine for only a fraction of a second, but it’s enough for me to recognize his expression. Is he afraid of me?
After the incident earlier this morning, I thought for certain Jonas would use this opportunity to exact his revenge, but to my surprise, I reach the depot unhindered. My mining probe and gloves are thrust at me across the counter with barely a glance.
I linger a moment to see that Krista isn’t mistreated, but she, too, is allowed through unscathed. I almost understand the Centurions leaving me alone – maybe now they think better of fighting with me and are moving on to less combative prey. Krista, however, has never escaped them without, at the least, a flurry of degrading comments.
I meet Krista’s tired eyes, sharing a mutual look of confusion and concern. “Stay close,” I whisper.
She nods once in agreement and comes to my side. We move forward into the queue of miners, taking note of the unusually wide berth being afforded us by the Centurions. It’s odd – almost like they’re being repelled by some opposing magnetic force.
To my chagrin, I notice that many of our cohorts are following suit. I catch a few of them gazing intently at my eyes, as if expecting to see something extraordinary there. When they realize I’ve seen them, they feign a casual demeanor and pretend to focus on something else nearby.
Out of the whole crowd, only one person seems to be acting normal. My surrogate father, Ethan, stands about twenty feet away, hunched over from the years of hard labor but wearing an uncharacteristically serious expression. He’s staring straight at me, his wizened face full of understanding.
“The time has come.”
Ethan? I hear his voice in my mind, as clear as if he stood right beside me, but his lips aren’t moving.
“You do not understand what you are, but in time, you will learn control.”
Control? Over what? This makes no sense. I will my thoughts to reach him, but then shake my head, feeling foolish.
“Gray…” I look up again and it’s clear he has heard me. “Tonight, come and listen with the children. Much of what you’ve forgotten will be revealed.”
I strain at his eyes, searching for something more, a hint at what he’s leaving unsaid. Then, it hits me: his eyes are translucent gray, just like mine.