Writing With Character(s)

It seems like a simple enough task. You’ve got a brilliant premise, a poignant setting, and enough intriguing ideas to start a discussion group. All you need are some engaging characters to bring your world to life. But, therein, lies the problem. In the same way that poor casting can ruin what could have otherwise been an epic film (Oz the Great and Powerful comes to mind), bland, generic, or unbelievable characters can seriously undermine even the best of stories.

Oz-the-Great-and-Powerful_510x297.jpg

Source: http://img2-1.timeinc.net/ew/i/2013/02/07/Oz-the-Great-and-Powerful_510x297.jpg

You’ve likely read one before. The cover art catches your eye amidst the sea of novels on the shelf. You read an enticing synopsis on the inside cover and decide to give it a shot. To your dismay, the summary turns out to be nothing more than a cleverly worded ploy to swindle you of your hard earned cash. You trudge through line upon line of vanilla dialogue, hoping the premise that piqued your interest will resurface in a significant enough way to compensate for the characters you’ve become callous and indifferent towards, but in the end, all you’re left with is a profound wish that you could go back in time and take back the hours you’ve wasted.

This is the last impression any writer wants to leave with his/her readers, so how does one avoid it? While there is a certain amount of innate ability involved, there are also a few tips that can help you avoid running your story aground on the shores of mediocrity. I like to remember these tips with 3 “D’s”:

Definition

Distance

Dialogue

Definition simply means planning out the the identity of your characters. What do they look an sound like. Are they soft-spoken, outgoing, obnoxious, gruff? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How about personality quirks? And, probably most important, what is their motivation or stake in the plot? Take Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, for example. Here is a character who, while rising from obscurity to become a true heroine, maintains a real sense of humanity. Through the course of the trilogy, she hurts, she cries, she uses people, and she displays serious trust issues – all things you would expect from someone who goes through everything she does – but she remains true to her core motivation throughout.

Katniss - katniss-everdeen Photo

Source: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/katniss-everdeen/images/28914701/title/katniss-photo

Try making a grid that lists these traits for all the significant characters in your story. Once you have it, you can also note how your characters respond to one another. From there, you have a quick reference guide against which to compare the things your characters do to make sure they, well, stay in character. Creating characters that feel real and believable is sure to help you connect with your readers and leave them with a lasting impression they’ll want to share.

Second is distance. The meaning of this is twofold: it means creating uniqueness between all your characters, but it also means differentiating your characters from yourself.

The first half is relatively simple if you, like most people , have been around a variety of personalities in your life. Visualize a color spectrum and try placing your characters along it based on the core emotions they act upon or elicit from others. Do you notice any clumps? It’s important to do this objectively and maybe even have someone help you. Just like a painting done with only primary colors, a story without enough variety in its characters can feel simplistic, predictable, and boring.

A really wonderful example of a story with a full spectrum of characters is, of course, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. If you haven’t read this yet, come out from under your rock and give it a whirl. Seriously, though, whether you like YA Fantasy or not, you can’t deny Rowling’s skill for creating memorable characters. Love them or hate them, you’ll be hard pressed to forget Sybill Trelawney, Mad Eye Moody, and Dolores Umbridge.

Top 10 Most Memorable Teachers from the Harry Potter series Alastor Mad eye Moody

Top 10 Most Memorable Teachers from the Harry Potter series  Dolores Umbridge

Source: http://molempire.com/2011/08/02/top-10-most-memorable-harry-potter-professors/

The second half of distance is distance from yourself. As the author, you naturally tend to write some of yourself into your characters, but the real trick is learning how to “turn yourself off” when needed. I tend to have a very lawful good (any D & D nerds out there?) view of life, but what about when I have to write for a villain? Writing any of my persona into that character will likely render it ineffective for its intended purpose – villainy. Why? Because I’m not a villain.

When writing for characters dissimilar to ourselves, it’s often best to silence your inner moral compass and, instead, draw from others you’ve known. Have a character who’s supposed to be annoying? Use an obnoxious colleague as inspiration and build from there. Writing too much of yourself into your characters is a surefire way to make them seem like you mass-produced them out on an assembly line, so remember to seek that neutral place within and keep arms-length from your characters.

The Office

Source: http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2013/0515/office_g_mp_576.jpg

The final “D” is dialogue. Now, you may be thinking “Nick, this is just a natural extension of the other two D’s. You’re just trying to make it an even three by adding fluff.” While you are partly correct, I’m calling out dialogue separately because it’s so important maintaining consistency and believability in your characters.

To write effective dialogue, you really need to have a solid understanding of not only who the speaker is but who he/she is speaking to and how they feel about one another. If your protagonist is driven by a need to find his lost sister, for example, he probably isn’t going to invite someone he expects to be involved to tea. This is an obvious example, but how might his drive effect the way he interacts with everyone else? If someone you care for is missing, you believe foul play is at hand, but every lead you follow leaves you with more questions, you’re likely to become very suspicious and maybe even paranoid of others. Depending how far you want to take things, this character might even begin to experience a degree of psychosis – hallucinations and such – as he becomes more consumed by his quest. Compare everything your characters say – and think – to the core personality traits and motivations you define for them, and ask “Is this really something this person would say?” It also really helps to read your dialog aloud to make sure it sounds like something that anyone would say. 🙂

While the three “D’s” – definition, distance, and dialogue – I’ve laid out above don’t capture everything you might want to consider while writing for your characters, they do provide a good foundation to get you thinking in the right direction. Follow these tips and your characters will be springing to life from your pages before you know it. Happy writing, my friends!

Discovering Your Unique Voice

A thought to ponder:

If you become too focused on becoming the next (author of your choice), you risk never becoming the first you.

I’m sure someone of greater import than myself has said something similar before, but, ironically, the origin of the thought is, in this case, not as important as the thought itself.  As aspiring authors, it’s only natural to take cues from those who have inspired us to take up the craft.  We pour over the published works of those enjoying the sort of success we all hope to attain: to, one day, be counted among the favored few whose stories are read and loved by devoted patrons around the globe.  While the emulation of our forebears can certainly help illuminate the path ahead, it can also lead us astray if not tempered with the proper perspective.

The first of two potential issues arising from emulation is the deification of those you are emulating.  Let’s say that you, like myself, are currently reading Dan Brown’s latest novel Inferno (or perhaps one of its predecessors that were, admittedly, a little more gripping), and as you read, you find yourself marveling at how well-versed Mr. Brown is in his subject matter.  Then, you take note of the way he adroitly weaves the plot lines of this numerous primary, secondary, and even tertiary characters together, surprising you with the pattern that emerges where, at first, there were only disparate threads.  Like the skillful author he is, Mr. Brown has drawn you into his world, his paradigm, and in light of his considerable commercial success, you arrive at the belief that every word he has written is perfect and he can do no wrong.

Mind you, I mean no disrespect to Dan Brown in choosing him to help illustrate this issue.  In my mind, he is a writer’s writer.  His meticulous attention to detail and accuracy in the settings of his novels is remarkable and he can twist an intellectually stimulating tale as well as anyone I’ve ever read.  That said, he is not perfect.  He is human just like you and I, and we are all prone to error.

Simply because Dan Brown fancies the occasional use of an unqualified “it” now and again does not make it correct.  Conversely, the fact that other authors avoid said usage of “it” like the plague doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.  While it’s true that there are generally accepted rules of grammar that college professors would all love if the literary community at large mechanically adhered to without question, if the proliferation of The Twilight Saga has taught me anything, it’s that accepted conventions fall victim to the perception of the masses.

Stephanie Meyer is arguably a much less polished author than Dan Brown, yet her books sparked a genuine cultural phenomenon the world over despite her lack of grammatical prowess.  She connected with her audience through the humanity of her characters (shockingly self-centered though some of them may be), whereas some would describe Dan Brown’s characters as thimble-deep.

The point here is that we shouldn’t do things just because authors we admire did them.  Some of us can thrive in a world of slightly altered reality and careful research.  Others prefer free-flowing imagination and sparkly vampires.  Ultimately, it’s your story.  If something feels right in the context of your world, do it, and if it doesn’t, don’t, no matter what you’ve seen others do before you.

The second and more serious issue that can arise from emulation is the loss of your unique voice as an author.  To help illustrate this problem, let’s consider, for a moment, the incomparable J.K. Rowling.  This woman is everything a fiction writer aspires to be: astonishingly creative, possessed of keen understanding of human nature, remarkably easy to read, and, of course, wildly successful.  With all this going for her, who wouldn’t think of borrowing at least a page or two from Rowling’s playbook? 

Suppose you’ve been held captive in a subterranean mine since before the turn of the century and recently emerged to discover the wonder that is Harry Potter.  You feverishly devour the entire series in an extended sitting (you’re very hungry from enduring your malnourished captivity after all).  Later, someone informs you that the books were not meant for eating but reading, so you buy another set and dive in.  After the last exquisite line of book seven, you vow to pen your own series of seven novels in which the protagonist, an eleven year old girl who lives in the attic over the stairs, receives a curious letter from a school called Pigzits stating that she is not as ordinary as everyone previously supposed.

Hang on.  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but if you’re writing a novel with the intent of seeing any return on your investment of countless hours, you should probably consider offering your intended audience something original.  While there does seem to be an emerging market for copycat novels – books aimed at those who just can’t get enough of, for example, teen vampire romance – like so many bands that rode the coattails of their predecessors to instant fame in the 1980’s, their success is likely to be short-lived.

While there are certainly many things we can learn from the works of J.K. Rowling and others like her, we mustn’t lose sight of what made their works great in the first place – original ideas.  Before Harry Potter grew to mass popularity, no one had ever heard of Muggles, Quidditch, or house elves.  Why?  Because they were all original creations from the mind of the author.  J. K. Rowling created an entirely fictional, and yet believable, extension of our own reality and now we have movies and conventions and even a theme park dedicated to it all.  Unique ideas, no matter how absurd, tend to stick out in people’s minds, and are, thus, instantly memorable.

So, be inspired by the works of others.  Employ their literary devices, add new words to your vocabulary, and glean what you can from their techniques.  Then, plumb the depths of your imagination for freshness – the bold, the illogical, and the preposterous –  and don’t be afraid to question the reasons of those you admire.  In so doing, you will discover your own unique voice, and, maybe, go on to create something truly spectacular.

Happy writing everyone!

Nick

 

Onward and Upward

Hi friends!

For those who’ve been wondering, I haven’t fallen of the face of the earth or abandoned civilization. I’ve actually been hard at work on a redraft of everything I’ve written for my novel, Darkstone. Thanks to my very talented critique partner and fellow novelist, C.A. Mitchell, I’ve reached a new level of clarity that has inspired a much tighter and more engaging story for you all to read. I’ll be posting some of the newly re-written chapters soon. Make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss any of what is shaping up to be a truly epic story.

While you’re waiting (I know, you can hardly stand it, right?), make sure you check out my CP’s wonderful blog Adventures in My Head. It’s positively bursting at the seams with great writing tips, book reviews, and hilarious banter. You can also pester her about posting some of her own novel for public consumption. Despite being very self-effacing, her story is really something. Her style reminds me very much of J.K. Rowling, and she owes it to the world to share her work.

Anyhow, thanks very much for stopping by. More soon!

Nick

Chapter 4: Into The Mines

Before today, I’ve only heard stories of cloaked men like the one that just took Jonas – vague remembrances of older miners telling of those who tried to organize rebellions being dragged off and never heard from again.  Just minutes ago, they were catalogued somewhere between fantasies and other things I didn’t need to worry about, yet here they are, suddenly pummeling their way to the forefront of my thoughts.

By all accounts, I should be happy.  Jonas, the man who’s caused Krista and me so much pain and humiliation, is gone.  If there’s any truth to the stories I’ve heard, he’s gone for good at that.  Still, something just doesn’t seem right about the way things happened.

Why, after months of the same behavior, does the Overseer suddenly care about the way Jonas treats us?  We have no rights – we’re slaves to be used as our captors see fit – so what’s this business about them being an example for some new era?  Just yesterday, Jonas did the same thing he tried to do today.  The only difference is, today I stopped him.  Why is today’s offense so grievous as to warrant his immediate removal?  I replay the events in my head, trying to make sense of them, until I finally give up and grunt in exasperation.

“Gray, what is it?” Krista whispers.

“Nothing.”  I pause for a second, trying to stave off the questions that swirl around my mind, but it’s no use – maybe talking it out will help.  “It’s just…don’t you think what happened just now with Jonas is a little odd?  Every day for months, he’s done the same thing, but today, all of a sudden, the Overseer decides to give a damn?  It doesn’t make sense.”

“Yes, it does seem odd, but…” she hesitates a moment, as if considering whether to continue then resumes “Gray, do you remember how I’ve told you sometimes I remember things from my life before here?”

“Yeah, why?

“I don’t know what this could mean, but I remembered something the other day…about a big corporation.”

“What’s a corporation?”  I say the last word in syllables.  It feels foreign on my tongue.

“Think of a shop where people go to buy things – food, clothes, whatever.  Now imagine that shop being so big that thousands and thousands of people all got what they needed there.  Understand?”

“I guess so.  You know I don’t remember much from before I was brought here, but I don’t think we had anything like a corporation.  I think where I’m from, it’s much smaller, like a village.  At least, that’s the feeling I get from my dreams…anyway, go on.”

“OK, so the other day, I remembered my brother saying something about a big corporation that he thought was up to no good.  I didn’t think anything of it, but when I saw the emblem on the Dimmer’s chest just now, it came back in my mind.  Gray, I remember seeing it before.  I think it’s the insignia of the corporation my brother talked about!”

“Are you sure?”

“As sure as a girl who’s had her memories wiped can be.  What do you think it means?”

I think on this for a moment.  What does it mean, indeed?  If the emblem on the Dimmer’s chest is the same as this corporation Krista remembers, they must be involved with the mines in some way.  This still doesn’t explain the sudden change in behavior, but it feels important, nonetheless.  I open my mouth to share my thoughts with Krista, but Ethan comes up behind me and starts in before I can.

“There’s an old saying where I’m from: curiosity killed the cat.”

“What’s a cat?” I interject.

“They really did a number on you when they brought you in here, didn’t they?”  He leans aside to Krista and adds “it’s a wonder you two can have a conversation.”

Krista rolls her eyes at him and I retort, “At least I haven’t forgotten my manners, Pop.”  Ethan scowls at the reference as Krista chokes back a giggle.  “I’m assuming there’s a reason for your interruption, so let’s have it.”

Ethan puts a hand around each of us, pulls us in slightly, and speaks in a low whisper, “Look, I know what you two are talking about and you’re on the right track.  You can’t discuss it here, though!  The Centurions might be dumb as rocks, but the Dimmers aren’t to be trifled with.”

“But it’s long gone!” I shoot back in a frustrated tone.

“It doesn’t matter!” he rasps back.  “If you think it’s just because Jonas beats the miners that the Dimmer came today, you’re wrong.  They have ways of sensing things.”

“Ethan, what do you mean, sensing things?  What things?” chimes Krista.  I look over and see a few Centurions glance in our direction.

“Keep your voice down!” Ethan strains back at her but then he takes a breath and regains his composure.  “Look, you and Gray are in this together – that much is clear – so you might was well know this now.  Gray and I aren’t like you and the other people here.  We’re from…a different place.”

This is news to me.  “A different place?  Ethan, what’s going on?”

“Shhhh!  Quiet down!  Just look, I’ll try to tell you more later, but suffice it to say that what you did today was no accident.  Our kind have certain abilities…yours appear to be awakening now.”

“The people responsible for putting us down here fear our kind.  They thought they had eliminated us long ago, but a few of us managed to escape, suppressing our gift and blending into normal society.  You and I were eventually captured as part of their ‘recruitment’ to support the mines, but they don’t know what we are.”

“When you came, I knew you were like me – your translucent gray eyes are a common characteristic of our people – so I kept watch over you.  Before today, the gift seemed dormant, but now, I fear the Dimmers may suspect what you are.”

Krista casts a fearful glance in my direction.

“Not to worry” whispers Ethan reassuringly.  “The Dimmer gave me a scare when it came over to Gray.  The fact that it left him alone makes me believe they aren’t yet sure.  Gray didn’t realize what he was doing, but he managed to suppress his power enough to avoid detection.”

“My power?  What power?”

“Well, you didn’t manage to knock Jonas off his feet with just physical strength!  That man is the size of a small elephant!”

“What’s an elephant?

“Oh, for God’s sake, Gray, can we focus here?”

“Sorry!”

“Yes, you have power.  You use it without being in control of it, but you have it, just the same.  There are two sides to all power – light and dark.  If we represent the side of light, the Dimmers are part of the dark.  The power is familiar to them.  They can sense it, even from a great distance, which is why you must control yourself.  Early signs of the gift tend to surface with strong emotions.  Fear, rage, sadness – all of these can trigger your power if you aren’t careful, and now, your life may depend upon it.”

“That must be why your eyes were glowing earlier…” Krista mused to herself.  “Ethan, could Gray’s power make his eyes change color?”

“Well, yes.  How do you think I keep my eyes brown instead of gray?”

“So they were gray earlier!” I interject.

“Yes, they were.  I keep them brown to avoid suspicion, but…”

“Quiet!” Krista hisses suddenly as she points toward the entrance to the hub.

“Looks like the Purplecoats have brought in reinforcements” offers Ethan dryly.

A cascade of silence sweeps over the crowd as a group of eleven purple armor-clad enforcers draw near – one at the head and two lines of five following close behind.  My eyes quickly scan the new arrivals and I realize I’ve never seen any of them before.  The one at the head is very tall and sturdily built.  He isn’t as big as Jonas but imposing just the same.  His jaw is pronounced and rigid, fine silver hair flows over his shoulders, and icy blue eyes are set into his chiseled face.

We move to fall in line at a cart station on the far left of the cavern, while the last few miners hurry through the equipment depot, retreating at the advance of this new threat.  The group of eleven finally comes to a halt just past the depot, the man at the lead standing with perfect posture and a superior look on his face.

He clears his throat, silencing the last murmurs from among our number and begins.  “Attention, colleagues.  I am Soren, your new Captain.  We are all of a single purpose.  Miner and Centurion alike are in the gracious employ of our Overseer.  Though you are here as a result of crimes you have committed in your past, you, too, are allowed to serve a greater good.  In addition to powering this facility, the Revilium we harvest here gives sustainable energy to the world above and, more importantly, hope to mankind.”

“My predecessor, Jonas, has lost sight of your importance to our cause and has, thus, been removed.  On behalf of our Overseer, I apologize for the treatment you have suffered at his hand and make clear now that any Centurion engaging in similar behavior will be dealt with in the same manner as their former leader.  That said, we expect you all to dedicate yourselves to the tasks you are given and obey our orders without question.  Anyone who fails to comply will be met with swift punishment.  Is this understood?”  We all collectively murmur our assent.

Soren pauses for a moment, clearly irritated, then continues in a slightly sterner tone.  “Henceforth, you will address me as ‘Captain’.  When responding to my inquiries, you will follow your response with my proper title. ‘Yes, Captain!’  No, Captain!’  ‘I would very much enjoy working an extra two hours today, Captain!’  Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Captain” we all respond slightly out of sync.

Soren motions to a few of our number who were a little too late in their response and Centurions rush over to jab them with batons.  The strikes are brief but they elicit agonized yelps of pain nonetheless.

“I think we can do better than that.  Again,” Soren commands.

“Yes, Captain!”  A few more are out of sync and are punished swiftly.  Wide eyes dart to their comrades in fear, anticipating the next round.

“Again!” Soren demands.

“Yes, Captain!”  More screams of punishment.

“Again!”

“Yes, Captain!”  Children cry behind me this time.

“Louder!”

“YES, CAPTAIN!”  A raspy wail erupts beside me – Ethan – but I don’t dare look to him.

“Louder!”

“YES, CAPTAIN!”  Our voices strain in unison to be heard and avoid joining the chorus of agony that underpins every wave.

“LOUDER!”

“YES, CAPTAIN!!!”

All is silent but the groans of those who responded too Late to Soren’s calls.  Soren paces back and forth, considering us for a moment, then stops.

“To maintain peak efficiency, we must operate as a finely tuned machine.  As the gears and belts around you now, so we shall be.  But to be this, we must first learn order.  Consider this your first lesson – it will not be the last.”  Soren pauses, letting his words sink in, then looks off in the distance and adds, “You may help your comrades now if you so desire.”

Krista and I each take one of Ethan’s arms over our shoulder and help him up.

“Ethan, are you OK?” I whisper.

He winces and lets out a long pained breath, “I’ve had worse.”

“Now then, if you will all line up, ten per cart station, we will get our work under way.  That is all for now.”  Soren motions again and Centurions rush to organize the lines.

One comes in behind Krista and nudges her forward.  I hear him address her in a sadistic tone, “Don’t think you’re off the hook because Jonas is gone, sweetie!  Old Soren can’t keep his eyes on you forever!”

Krista looks at me, her eyes full of the fear and shame I’ve seen in them too many times before.  My anger begins to flare up inside of me.  I shove myself between her and the Centurion and pierce his gaze with a cold stare.

“Listen to me, Purplecoat.  If you ever touch her again, it will be the last thing you do!”  I growl at him.  I feel a tingling sensation start to come forth from within as my anger rises.  It begins searing through my veins like molten steel, pumping swiftly from my heart and through my extremities.  I watch as the Centurion’s disgusting leer withers into a look of dread.  For a moment, I almost feel that I can focus the sensation into the palms of my hands, but then Ethan touches me gently on the shoulder.

Gray, now is not the time.  Let it go.”  I hear his voice as a gentle rasp in my head.  My anger dulls and the sensation ebbs slowly back from whence it came.  I hold the Centurion’s gaze firmly, but I am in control again and my fury is gone.  He abruptly backs away several paces, nearly stumbling over his feet, and eyes me cautiously.

I assume a sideways stance so I can keep a watchful eye on the Centurion.  The line slowly moves forward as the other miners load into the cart.  I look to my right and silently marvel at the order that has already fallen over the crowd.  After Soren’s definitive display of authority, no one dares to fall out of formation or even speak.

Despite Soren’s apology over Jonas’ behavior, it seems to me the only thing that’s really changed is the interpretation of what qualifies as abuse.  I am relieved that Krista no longer faces such an ongoing and immediate threat, but it’s clear I still have many from the old regime to contend with.  I cast another withering glare in the Centurion’s direction as I step into the cart and sit next to Krista.

In another moment, we’re all secured in the cart and the now-pale faced Centurion is throwing the switch to send us into the tunnel ahead.  We start off slowly down the tracks and I resume my internal dialogue.  There’s something about Soren.  He’s clearly cut from a different cloth than the Centurions we’re used to, but there’s something else.  I’m positive I’ve never seen him before in my life, but there’s something strangely familiar about him.  As the station slides out of view, I look up and see him staring at me intently, his icy blue eyes piercing through the growing distance.

Chapter 3: Shadow of the Past

Whether I really intend to go and listen to Ethan tell faerie tales tonight or not, he’s definitely gotten my attention.  What the hell is going on here?  I’ve seen Ethan every day since I can remember and I swear his eyes are brown.  My eyes quickly shoot back to Ethan’s, uncertain of what I saw, and they’re…they’re brown.  Not a trace of the pale gray shimmer I just witnessed remains.  Am I going crazy?

Let’s see: hearing voices in my head that no one else can hear, check.  Imagining things that aren’t really there, check.

Krista’s voice suddenly breaks through, “Gray, is everything alright?”

“Ahhhh!!!”  I jump back, startled by her interruption.

Paranoia, CHECK.

“Sorry, Krista!  I just thought I saw something strange, but…” I pause momentarily to convince myself.  “…it’s nothing.”

Pull it together, Gray. 

I steady myself and look back over at Ethan.  His expression is mixed, seeming both unsurprised and genuinely amused at my little episode.

Well, I’m glad SOMEONE finds this entertaining!  I glare at him with the most irritated look I can muster, but this proves to only amuse him further.  I grunt to myself and begin a mental tirade of my frustration, forgetting that he can probably hear everything I’m thinking.  I abruptly turn away, choosing to ignore him, but I swear I hear restrained laughter in my head.

Whatever’s going on, it isn’t normal, but I shrug it off as best I can and return to the present.  I scan the cavern anxiously, wary of the strange behavior exhibited by the Centurions.  More than once since we’ve arrived at the Hub, I’ve seen them hurry back and forth, speaking in hushed voices and glancing in my direction.

The atmosphere seems to gradually thicken around me and then I observe two Centurions running headlong toward Jonas back at the Hub entrance.  They look out of breath and nervous as they relay what I can only assume is very urgent news.

Jonas’ eyes widen as he listens to their report, his face draining of what little color it has left.  His head turns slowly to face me, eyes filled with a look of dawning comprehension.  “Krista, check out Jonas”, I whisper as I turn aside to face her.  “He looks like he’s just seen a ghost.”

Krista looks over to the mouth of the cavern then grabs my hand so hard it hurts.  I follow the line of her arm all the way up to her face – her body is rigid and there is genuine fear in her eyes.  I hear a low chorus of gasps rush through the crowd as heads turn one by one to face the Hub entrance. I turn my head to follow suit and Krista barely chokes out, “looks like you may not be far off…”

A willowy cloaked figure emerges at the mouth of the cavern.  On sight, my pulse quickens and I draw Krista in close.  The figure glides across the room with unsettling ease, his robes, black as the deepest recess of the mines, billowing behind him ominously.  I glimpse a peculiar emblem emblazoned across his chest – a large black flame outlined in purple.  The shape seems vaguely familiar to me, but its hue is unmistakable – Darkstone.

The figure casts a deliberate glance in my direction and I see his face: cold black eyes set into a mask of pale stone.  He glows with a dull purple aura, slightly blurring the edges around him.

My muscles tense instinctively like a wild animal sensing a nearby predator, and before I can even process the change, I’m writhing.  Thoughts of bitter hatred flood my mind, but I have no idea why.  I focus all my energy on resisting the growing urge to lunge at the figure and tear him to pieces.

As he draws nearer, everything around me seems to fade.  The rustling of feet against the dirt floor, the clicking of the machinery, the urgent murmurs of the crowd, all becomes silent but the low rushing of wind that seems to accompany the shadow as it sweeps past.  My gaze fixes on his dead eyes, demanding explanation for the impulses surging through my veins, but none comes.

“What is that thing?” Krista whispers cautiously.

I just stare in silence, rooting myself to the spot, as he moves across the cavern.

That is a Dimmer, an agent of the Overseer.”  Ethan’s voice once again disturbs my thoughts.

“Dammit, Ethan, can’t you knock or something?”  I think back at him.

Honestly, Gray, what do you suggest I do?  Come over and bang on your head?  There’s no time for this.”

“Fine.  Sorry.  Why did I tense up the second I saw it?  When it passed by, it was all I could do not to reach out and strangle it.”

“Yes, they can wipe the mind, but the body always remembers.  In time, your mind will remember again, but you are not ready.”

“What?  You mean I’ve seen one before?”

“More than one.  I dare not say more now.”

“Why?  Can it hear us?”

“Not yet, but it can sense when people near it are communicating in this manner.  We all share certain…traits.”

“Wait.  What?!  How is that even possible?  Ethan, you’d better start explaining!”

“Gray, you must calm yourself now or it will know for certain what, for now, it only suspects.”

“Ethan!  What the hell are you talking about?!  I want answers NOW!”

In that moment, I hear a violent whoosh of air as the Dimmer suddenly turns about to stare straight at me.  Where, before, black eyes lay dead in their sockets were now piercing globes of intense purple.  A chill shot up my spine that froze me in place.

“Gray, remain absolutely still and do not speak to me again until the Dimmer leaves.  Our lives depend upon it.”

All at once, fear washes over me like a black wave.  The Dimmer begins slowly gliding back to me and my heart begins to race, pounding harder and harder as the gap between us shrinks.  The sound of my heart echoes so loudly in my eardrums, I swear the Dimmer can hear it, can feel my quickening pulse resounding through the cavern.

“Gray, stay calm.  Take control of your breath and slow it down.  Relax your eyes and clear the emotion from your mind.  You can do this.”

I visualize my breath as a speeding ball of light and catch it, halting its erratic movements, bending it to my will.  Gradually, my heart slows and I envision my breath expanding until everything is covered in brilliant white.  I refocus my eyes on the Dimmer and allow calm to flow over my countenance.  My muscles relax, my brows soften, and, by the time the Dimmer stands no more than a foot away, my body and face are void of expression.

The closeness of the Dimmer chills me to the bone, as if cold emanates from it the way warmth does from normal men.  It moves all about me, leaning in close as if searching for evidence of the conversation Ethan and I had.  My body shivers involuntarily, but I hold on to the vision of the white light in my mind.  I transform the light to a shield around me and change its color from white to pale blue.

I don’t know how long the Dimmer persists.  I just hold on to the vision of the pale blue shield with all my strength until, eventually, it pauses a moment, turns and begins its previous course anew.  At last, I release the image of the shield and audibly exhale.

Something is tugging on my arm.  I ignore it, still fixated on the Dimmer as it moves eerily along, but it starts tugging harder.  I look down to my right and see a small hand joined in mine and pulling downward.  I follow the line of the arm up and see Krista’s face.  Her lips are moving but I still hear nothing but the ominous sound of the Dimmer moving through the thick cavern air.  I narrow my eyes at her, showing my lack of comprehension, until finally she reaches her other hand up and caresses my cheek.

Warmth spreads from her fingertips through my face and out to my whole body, coaxing me from my catatonic state.  I look down at the hand against my cheek and take it in my own, joining it to the other.  I study Krista’s hands – pale and scarred like mine, but somehow still delicate and gentle.  I look back up at her face and am stricken by her beauty as if seeing her for the first time again.  My heart flutters, snapping me to my senses.  What am I doing?  I abruptly let go of her hands, allowing my own to fall limply at my sides.

“Gray, are you alright?” says Krista quietly.

I consider her question a moment.  No, I am not alright.  I’m stuck as a slave in these mines for crimes I can’t remember.  According to Ethan, I just narrowly escaped death because I was overcome with anger at the mere sight of something called a Dimmer.  I have no hope of ever escaping and yet here I am allowing myself to feel things for Krista that can only bring me pain.  I am a fool.

“Yeah, I’m OK”, I lie back to her.

“I was so scared that thing was going to take you.  When it passed by, you got really tense.  I looked over and your eyes were almost red…what happened?”

“My eyes were what?”

“They looked like they were glowing red…come to think of it, they did that earlier when you attacked Jonas too.”

Great.  So now I’m a freak.

“Maybe it has something to do with when you feel really strong emotions”, Krista muses.  Her candor pulls me up short.

“You say that like it’s no big deal.  Doesn’t it scare you?”

“Gray, we’re in a subterranean prison with weird purple rocks that make you go crazy and scary ghostlike things that move without walking.  Glowing eyes are the least of my worries,” she says with a slight smile.

“Hmmm…?”  Krista never ceases to amaze me.  I start to question but then just let it go.  “Well, OK then,” I smile back.

“So what do you think that thing is?” Krista turns around and follows the figure with her eyes.

“It’s called a Dimmer.”  The words come out before I even realize what I’m saying.  I see Ethan shoot a pained look in my direction out of the corner of my eye.

“It’s a what?” she replies, incredulous.

Crap.  I guess I might as well go along with it.  I’ll already be getting an earful from Ethan later.  “A Dimmer,” I repeat.  “One of the Overseer’s agents.”

“How do you know that?”

“Ethan told me about them before…so I would know to watch out if I ever saw one.”  Nice save.

“I would have thought you’d tell me so I can watch out for them too.”

Almost a nice save.

“Sorry Krista.  I just figured I would watch out for you and didn’t want to worry you about them.”

She looks down at the floor, considering this a moment.  “Yeah, I guess that does sound like you.”

And the recovery!

“Just…no more secrets, OK?” she says, piercing into me with her brilliant green eyes.

Crap.  This isn’t going to be easy.

“OK.  No more secrets.”

Thoughts of everything I know already and so much more I’ve yet to find out race through my mind.  What is OK to tell her and what isn’t?  Knowing too much could put her at risk.  Knowing too little could have the same effect.  I resolve to discuss it with Ethan later when guttural yelling from across the Hub grabs my attention – Jonas.

“GET YOUR BONY ‘ANDS OFF ME!  I AIN’T DONE NUFFIN’ WRONG!” bellows Jonas as the Dimmer pulls him along with surprising strength.

“What’s he doing?!” says Krista as she turns urgently to me.

Can this really be happening?  The Overseer threatened Jonas with punishment earlier, but I never thought he’d make good on it…especially this quickly.

The Dimmer was dragging Jonas by the arm across the ground now, leaving a trail of gravel and cracked earth behind them.  I hardly believe it possible to pull a man as large as Jonas so effortlessly and yet it’s happening before my eyes.  A grim smile widens across my face.

“The Overseer has grown weary of your disobedience.”  The sinister voice of the Dimmer hisses, echoing frighteningly through the cavern.

“IT’S NO’ ME, IT’S THAT FREAK!” Jonas spits the words in my direction, contempt written plainly on his face.

I lean over to Krista’s ear so she can hear me above the clamor.  “Remember when the Overseer came on the intercom this morning and stopped Jonas after I took him down?  He said he’d be punished later…I think he’s making good on his promise.”

“FREAK!  FREAK!!!  I’LL GE’ YOU FOR THIS, I SWEAR!!!”  Jonas screams at the top of his lungs in fury.  Both Centurions and miners alike watch, awestruck, as the beast of a man we all fear is dragged off as if he were a misbehaving child.  Before long, Jonas’ massive purple boots are clanking on the landing, across the bridge and out of sight, his increasingly desperate cries fading away into the darkness.

Chapter 2: Friends

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.

“Krista…”

She struggled with the rock, breathing hard.

“Krista…”

Still she persisted, determined.

“Krista!”

“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?”

“Darkstone.”

“No, the proper name. You said it when I asked you where we were earlier.”

“Oh, Revilium?”

“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.

Chapter 1: Awakening

“Gray.”

Gray!”

“Gray, wake up!  It’s Eli!”

“Wh, what!?” I gasp.  Krista’s familiar voice pulls me from my nightmare.  Cold sweat stings my eyes as I rub them frantically.  At last, her face comes into focus, and I see her emerald green eyes are wide and pleading.

“Krista?  Sorry…I was having that dream again.  What’s going on?”

“Gray, you have to come now!  Eli’s on the ledge of the chasm and won’t let anyone near him.  He’ll listen to you though.  Come on!”

“Eli?”  It takes a second, but then the name registers.  “Oh God, Eli!”

In a flash, I rush out the dingy steel door of the barracks and down the corridor to the chasm.  The scene pulls me up short – a crowd of my fellows watches nervously as Eli, a brown-haired boy of about 12 years teeters on the edge of the expanse.

“Eli!” I call out.  “Eli, everything’s gonna be OK.  Just don’t move.  I’ll come get you.”

“Gray?” Eli’s voice indicates some recognition on hearing me but he’s entranced in a catatonic state we all know only too well.

“Eli, listen to me,” I continue as begin inching closer to him.  “Eli, it’s the Darkstone.  You have to fight those thoughts!  They aren’t real.  Everything’s gonna be OK.”

“It’s no use, Gray.  There’s no point.  No hope.  I just want to sleep.”  Pebbles careen down the chasm wall as Eli leans a little more of his weight forward.   A tearful cry escapes his mother’s lips, underpinned by gasps from the crowd.

“Eli, we’ve all gone through this!  The Darkstone makes you think bad thoughts.  Just hang on.  I’m coming to get you.”  I’m almost there but he’s about to fall whether he jumps or not.  “Eli, wait.”

He’s raising his arms from his sides as my shuffle widens to a stride.  “Eli…”  He’s leaning forward.  There’s no more time!  I break into an all-out run.  “Eli!”

“Bye, Gray.  Thanks for everything.”

“ELI!!!”

He jumps off the ledge just in a dive just as I catch the back of his shirt.  I dig my feet into the last bit of gravel before the drop, but I’m unbalanced and starting to topple forward.  I give a desperate glance back at the stunned crowd.  People are rushing to my aid, but they’re too far away.  I strengthen my grip on Eli as best I can, reach my other arm behind me, and pray I can grasp something sturdy as I go over the edge.

My hand finds purchase on a large rock just as I feel Eli’s weight come to an abrupt halt below me.  The jolt nearly undoes my grip on the rock, but I hold tight.  I look down at Eli – the stop seems to have shaken him to his senses and he’s starting to panic.  “Don’t worry, Eli!  I’ve got you!”  I look back up at the ledge, relieved to see Krista and my bunkmate James reaching for my arm.

“It’s OK, Gray, we’ll pull you up!” shouts Krista with confidence.  I can’t help but crack the slightest smile at this.  Krista is beautiful, spirited, and kind but she can no more pull me out of this chasm than I can fly out.  James, on the other hand, is a sturdy dark skinned man, strong from years in the mines, so I know I’m in good hands.

“’K, Gray, here we go!” calls James as they begin to pull me up.  I tighten my grip on Eli and try to be as light as possible until my feet finally find something to push off of.  In a few seconds, I’m back on solid ground.  A few more and we’ve hoisted a shaken but sound Eli up as well

His parents rush over, sandwiching him between them as they thank me profusely.  I offer some self-effacing reply I don’t remember, because in the same moment, Krista takes my hand, squeezes it tightly and pierces me with a look I can’t quite place.  Her eyes glaze over like she’s going to cry and she opens her lips to speak, but then over comes Ethan to ruin the moment.

“Gray!  I see you’re following in your ‘old man’s’ footsteps!” offers Ethan light-heartedly.  This is something of an inside joke among the miners who know me best.  The memory that started it isn’t exactly funny, but the reference still makes me chuckle.

I have no idea who my parents are, or were, rather.  I don’t really remember from my past, but Ethan was the one who saved me from jumping off this very same chasm years ago.  The Darkstone – this dull purple gemstone they have us down here mining for – puts bad thoughts in your head.  Evil, unspeakable things.  Most people start to go mad after a few weeks of handling the stuff.  The lucky ones try to off themselves when people are awake to help them, and eventually, they figure out how to block out the thoughts.

The same happened to me a few weeks in – here I was about to leap off the ledge when Ethan saved me.  After that, I followed him around every chance I got.  Before long, people started joking that he was my dad, and seeing that he was the closest thing I had, I eventually followed suit.

“Hey, Pop!” I answer back with a smirk.

“Gray, I wish you’d quit calling me that.”

“Sure thing, Pop.  No big deal, really.  I was just…”  Ethan nods behind me so I turn to see Eli looking ashamed.

“Gray,” he begins softly, “I’m so sorry for what I did.”

I kneel down and put my hand on his shoulder.  “Eli, it’s OK.  Did you know I did the same thing a few years back?”  Eli’s eyebrows rise as he seems to internally debate whether this can really be true.

“It’s true!  Pop, here…”

“Dammit, Gray” grumbles Ethan.

“…grabbed me when I tried to dive off the ledge.”

Eli looks up at Ethan questioningly and Ethan replies with a good-natured bob of his head.

“Look, Eli,” I continue, “it’s hard for everybody down here.  We all know how it is.  We just have to stick together.  We…”

“Gray, you’d better pick this up later,” says Ethan forebodingly as he motions down the corridor.  I hear the telltale tromping of heavy boots echo across the stone walls and know what’s coming.

“Eli, go get in line with your parents.  Quickly now!”  I look up to see that most of my fellows have already fallen in.  Eli and his parents rush to their designated spots in the lineup.  “Krista, get behind me!” I say in a rushed whisper.  Ethan runs off to his spot and Krista files in quietly behind me not a moment too soon – the Centurions are just clanking into view, clad as always in that ridiculous purple armor.

In another minute, the Centurions are lined up in front of us all for “inspection.”  This usually means their caveman of a captain, Jonas, finds someone to harass while the rest of them cheer him on.

Clank, clank, clank.  The weighty measured stride of Jonas is unmistakable.  No matter how much a fool he may be, he’s a horrific beast of a man, and the mere sound of his footfalls is enough to make most of us quiver.  My pulse quickens as he draws nearer.  I silently beg and pray that today will not repeat so many other days in the recent past, but he slows just to my left and I cringe at what I know is coming.

“G’day there, love!” Jonas, leans in toward Krista, taking care to look her up and down.  My body shakes with fury, but Krista gently touches my hand and inexplicably calms me somewhat.

“I SAID, G’DAY, LASS!!!  Ain’t you gonna greet me back!?”  His thick gravelly voice drips with anticipation.

“Good day, sir.”  Krista murmurs softly, careful to keep her eyes from meeting his.

“SHE STILL AIN’T GOT THIS DOWN, GENTS!”  Jonas bellows to the nameless Centurions beside him.  Some guffaw loudly beside him, but others appeared to only force a nervous chuckle to avoid becoming the objects of Jonas’ violent temper.  By now, my anger is, once again, burning to the tips of my fingers, my hands shaking in anticipation.

Jonas turns to Krista again, “Guess you’re gonna make me do this the ‘ard way, love.”

In a second, all of my previous failures at stopping Jonas’ advances flash through my mind, but I don’t care – I can’t bear to watch him hurt her again.

His massive hand shoots forth to grab her, but I am faster.  I lunge at Jonas with all my strength, slamming him to the opposite wall of the corridor.  My hands press hard at his throat, intent upon his destruction, and, for a brief moment, I see a hint of fear in his eyes.  In another, he leers past me, a broad grin spreading across his face, just before I feel the first baton strike my back.

Pain sears every inch of me, burning like hot irons against my skin.  I convulse violently as the Centurions strike me again and again.  Fire scorches through my arteries, my blood scalding me from within.   My heart is ablaze, stuttering once, twice, and again in its struggle to beat faster.  The pent up pressure of each moment feels like a sledge colliding with my rib cage as my blood forces its way through the chambers.  The pain is beyond reason – I think I must surely die, but history has taught me better.  I’m choking up blood and gasping for breath when the burning finally dies to a smoldering ache that wraps itself around me.

“You never learn, do you freak?” Jonas mutters.

He nurses the cut lip I gave him as he resumes his usual arrogant stance and turns back to Krista.

“Now…where were we, lass?”

“JONAS!”  The voice of the Overseer echoes threateningly through the hall.

“Y, ye’sir!”

“We are not to injure the workers – there is, after all, work to be done.” Each syllable is enunciated perfectly, the tone, deadly smooth.

“Ye’sir.”  Jonas is standing at attention now.

“You will receive punishment this evening for your continued lack of judgment.”

“But, sir!  I…”

“SILENCE!  Certain standards of civility must be maintained.  After all, we are the future and our example must precede us into the new era.”

I’m appalled at the hypocrisy in every word, but my indignity begins to subside as I relish the idea of Jonas getting a taste of his own medicine.

“Ye’sir,” replies Jonas, a slight tremble in his voice.

He steels himself and turns to address us.

“ALL RIGH’, YOU SCUM!  MOVE!!!”

We all turn reluctantly to face the darkening corridor at the right and begin the tiresome journey into the mines below.  Each step comes with a measured cost, my muscles still protesting under the pain of my encounter with the Centurions, but I do my best to hide it – the last thing I want is for Krista to feel guilty.

“If you keep trying to protect me, they’re going to kill you!”  Krista hisses from behind me.

Damn.  So much for being discreet.

I smirk unconvincingly at her and turn to continue down the tunnel.  I know the aching will only worsen as the day wears on, but I don’t care.  Today is a good day.  Today, I stopped him.