Working on a new song

Hi friends,

I’m still working on the next chapter of Darkstone, but I thought it might be fun to start posting lyrics from my alter ego, Nick Ryan, as I work on new songs. I literally just penned this, but I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂

Not sure what happened last night
Somehow wound up in a fight
In the moment what felt so important
Seems foolish in the daylight

Here we are again, best friends, partners, strangers
So familiar, near and yet so far
Can we remember who we are

Can you feel this all around
If you wonder what I feel for you then feel this right now
Body screaming and head in the clouds
All those things I said, I never meant them

Do you remember that summer night
Hidden by trees and guided by the moonlight
We moved as one to the rhythm of a heartbeat

How could I turn away
From the girl I met that day
After all we’ve said, is there really nothing left to say

How can one moment undo what took so long to find
How can one moment fast forward to the end of time
Please stay mine

Can you feel this all around
If you wonder what I feel for you then feel this right now
Body screaming and head in the clouds
All those things I said, I never meant them

After the revisions I made today, I think I’m pretty much done with it. It’ll be awhile before I have a recording of it to share, but if you’re interested, you can hear some of my other songs here 🙂

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A Long Time Coming…

Hi all!
I’ve been on hiatus from actively working on my novel for some time.  As a writer, I reached a point where I started to question some major things about my story.  Was it engaging right from the start?  Was it accessible to the broader audience I wanted to target?  Could it be told more effectively from a different perspective?  After much internal debate, I’ve finally resolved these questions and decided on a few course corrections.

First off, I’ve decided to change the tense to first person present.  Over the last year, I’ve become a huge fan of The Hunger Games trilogy, and one of the things I like most about it is the immediacy of the way the story unfolds.  I feel like first person present tense allows an author to both more deeply connect with the personality of the main character and surprise the reader by not having the omniscient point of view of a narrator, as many books do.

The other major change is the inclusion of a prologue, which I’ve just published.  In the context of the story, the prologue serves to provide a sense of reality and relevance to the modern world by tying the sci-fi plot into a real-world, near-future scenario.  This introduces some new characters, who I plan on connecting with Gray, Krista, and the others in the main plot later on, but it also provides some interest for people who maybe aren’t as ready to immerse themselves in a purely fictional world.  One of the cues I’ve taken from recent mega-successes Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga is that they both offer fantasy that is at least somewhat grounded in the world we all know and understand in daily life.  The addition of the prologue and the secondary storyline it introduces helps to add a degree of feasibility to the more fantastic elements that follow that will hopefully allow readers to more readily immerse themselves into the world of Darkstone the way they have with other popular sci-fi/fantasy series.
All that said, I’m beginning a re-write of all the material I’ve posted before now, shifting them into the first person present perspective and clarifying some details in light of the new information I’ve provided in the prologue.  It might take some time, but at the end, I’ll be on track to (hopefully) proceed without any more lengthy internal arguments 🙂

I hope you enjoy the prologue – please let me know what you think.  Thank you so much for reading!

Nick

Prologue: Revilium

“Mel, come take a look at this.”

“Not now, Asher, I’m busy.”

“But, Mel…”

“Asher, not now.”

“Mel!  You really need to look at th…”

“Dammit, Asher!  I said I can’t!  I have to finish this report for Elias.”

“But Mel…”

She lets out a sigh of exasperation then adopts her sarcastic “I know you won’t let me be until I do what you want” tone and gives in.  “Ok, Asher, what is it?”

“It’s just that special news segment on Brotherhood Corp you said you wanted to see.”

“Oh…” Her expression softens slightly as she strides across the cluttered apartment, stopping right in front of me, and turning to face the television. “Hey, can you turn it up?” she says without a glance.

I grab the remote and turn the volume up a few clicks, not minding that Mel’s in the way.  She’s still wearing her tight pants and sports bra from her workout earlier and I’m only too happy to admire the change in scenery.

“…having risen out of complete obscurity to financial powerhouse status in just 10 years, Brotherhood Corporation is leading the way in the race for alternative energy amidst what has become a global economic crisis.  I’m here in New York City with Brotherhood CEO and founder Doran Jacobs at the former home of the World Trade Center.  Just a few decades ago, this was the site of a devastating tragedy, but now, it promises to become a beacon of hope, not just for America, but the world.”

“Behind me, a gigantic white enclosure conceals the top-secret construction of what is to become the new headquarters for Brotherhood Corp’s global operations – and the single tallest building ever constructed.  Doran, what can you tell us about this massive undertaking?”

“Thank you, Julie.  This site was once a burgeoning center of world commerce, but violence and hatred turned it into a scar upon our nation.  Brotherhood Corporation is erasing that scar and, in its place, erecting a monument to the unfailing endurance of the human spirit – a reminder to all that we refuse to simply lie down and be overrun by adversity but, instead, meet it head on and emerge victorious!  Targeted for completion on New Year’s Day 2027, this structure will serve, not only as the global headquarters of Brotherhood Corporation but also as the single largest generator of clean sustainable energy in the world.”

“When I founded Brotherhood Corp, I had but one goal in mind.   I foresaw the coming energy crisis and set about finding a way to overcome it – to protect our society, yes, but more than that, to protect an idea.  The idea that every person has the ability to rise above his or her circumstances and achieve their dreams.  All of our innovations to date were created to fund research for this greater purpose, and now, I am pleased to tell you and all those watching that we have succeeded!”

“Brotherhood Corp scientists have identified an abundant mineral deep in the earth’s crust known as Revilium.  This mineral, when refined, provides completely clean energy that is exponentially more powerful than both fossil fuels and electricity.  By our estimates, even the relatively modest deposits we have tapped thus far have the potential to supply the world’s energy needs for the next thousand years, and we have barely scratched the surface.  Brotherhood Corp’s motto since our beginning has been ‘For all mankind.’  To that end, I announce publicly today that we will provide this energy to all…free of charge.”

A chorus of gasps and exclamations sweeps through the crowd.  I can’t see Melanie’s expression but the way her hind-quarters sinks as she settles back onto her heels tells me all I need to know – she’s just as dumbfounded as I am.  In my case, however, the gravity of what I’ve just heard is diminished somewhat as I sit, still mesmerized by the wonderfully round shape of Melanie’s behind.

“Free?  How can they do that?” says Melanie in earnest.

“Asher?”  She turns slightly and catches my eyes still trained on her rear.  “Asher!” she says reproachfully as she slaps the side of my head.

“Ouch!  What’s that for?!”  Of course I know, but I still try to play it off despite my obvious guilt.

“Can you just focus for a second?  Something isn’t right about this,” she says.  “Shhh!  Listen!”  Melanie takes a few steps to the left, allowing an unobstructed view of the TV, and turns back to watch the broadcast.

“I’m sorry.  Did you just say ‘free of charge’?” says the reporter, characteristically overemphasizing the last three words.

“That’s correct, Julie.  Free of charge to all.”

“But how can you afford that?”

“As I mentioned earlier, Brotherhood Corp’s previous innovations were created for the singular purpose of funding research on alternative energy, however, the amount of revenue generated by those innovations has grown to far exceed the requirements of that research.  Now that the research has concluded, we’ve found ourselves with a huge surplus of capital and have been able to divert funds to the building of RED facilities in major cities across the world.”

“RED facilities?”

“Yes, Revilium Energy Delivery facilities.  Practically emissions free refineries that both generate and distribute energy to surrounding communities.  The first and largest RED facility will be on-site here – actually under the very ground we’re standing on – but construction of 50 more RED facilities worldwide is already under way.  We’ve partnered with governing bodies across the globe to ensure that everyone will have access to Revilium power by the year 2028.”

“That’s just six years away!  How are you able to complete construction on that scale in such a short time?”

“Well, Julie, to put it simply, Brotherhood Corp’s abundant resources have allowed us to put substantial funds into the development of the advanced construction techniques and equipment needed for the eventual roll-out of Revilium power to the world.”

“Truly amazing!  Now, as I understand it, the US government signed the charter for you to begin construction here just 3 months ago – is that right?”

“That’s correct, Julie.  Shortly after the founding of Brotherhood Corporation, the government issued a challenge to find a sustainable solution to address the coming energy crisis.  The promised reward for the chosen solution was exclusive power and fuel distribution rights in the US.  Naturally, a vast number of companies rallied to the cause, but as alternative energy was the goal of my company from its inception, I simply continued in my research…and was fortunate enough to arrive at a viable solution ahead of my competitors.”

“So you put everything you had into the development of Revilium power without any kind of contract?  That’s quite a bold gamble!”

“Well, Julie, I guess you could say I’m a bold kind of guy.”  Doran and Julie chuckle together.

“Give me a break!” blurts Melanie.  “What an ass this guy is!”

“OK then!” Julie continues.  “I’ve been told you have a small demonstration prepared for our viewers today.”

“Ah, yes!  I suppose it is that time…”  Doran motions to someone off camera and, in seconds, a brand new black BMW 535i pulls in just behind Doran and Julie.

“Julie, my friends at BMW have been kind enough to supply this wonderful car for our demonstration.  Now, take note that this car is completely new, fresh off the assembly line, and it has not been altered in any way.  It is powered with a standard internal combustion engine, just like most automobiles.  The difference, Julie, lies in this.”  Doran produces what appears to be a large syringe-like device containing a curious purple fluid and holds it aloft.  The crowd audibly marvels at the way the liquid swirls, casting an eerie glow all around.

Julie’s mouth hangs open a few seconds as she stares at the fluid before being prompted, apparently by her camera man, to resume the interview.  “Ummm, right!  So… what exactly is that?” she says, clearly at a loss for words.

“‘What is that’ is right!” exclaims Melanie.

“It sort of looks like that Rockstar drink that makes my pee glow in the dark” I offer with a grin.

“A potentially life-altering event is occurring before your eyes, and you’re thinking about glow-in-the-dark pee?!”

“Actually, I was thinking what an amazing rack that reporter has…the pee thing was more of a side note” I say with a smirk.

Melanie jerks her head back toward me with a look of thorough disgust.  I focus my attention several inches below her face for added effect.  She catches the line of my eyes, looks down at her chest then quickly back up at me, her face red with dawning comprehension.  She abruptly crosses her arms more tightly than necessary, lets out the most indignant “hmmmph!” she can muster, and faces the TV once more.

“This, Julie, is liquefied Revilium.  As I’m about to demonstrate, it can be used in any gasoline burning car, as well as planes, ocean freighters, lawn mowers, and anything else that would normally use fuel refined from oil.  The best part of the deal, though, is that Revilium is 99.8% efficient, meaning it produces almost no emissions.  Consequently, it also increases the mileage achieved by your average car by roughly one-thousand percent.”  More shock and amazement sweeps through the crowd.

“Now, if you’ll please stand back so the camera has an unobstructed view, I’m going to simply insert this RDD, Revilium Delivery Device, into the fuel tank, press the inject button like so, and voila!  A Revilium powered driving experience ready for you to enjoy!”

“Excuse me?” says Julie, looking suddenly fearful.

“My apologies for springing this on you, Julie.  Would you do me the honor of being the first member of the public to give liquid Revilium a try?  I’ve arranged for traffic to be closed off for several blocks, a mobile camera feed from the passenger side, and of course, I will ride along as well to prove my absolute faith in the safety of Revilium.”  Doran politely opens the driver’s side door and motions for Julie to get in.

“Wow…” Julie is visibly impressed.  “Well, what the heck, how can I refuse?”  She sits down in the driver’s seat and looks over the controls excitedly.

“They are SO, gettin’ it on later!” I blurt adolescently.  Melanie turns her head back just far enough to roll her eyes at me then turns back.

Doran shuts Julie’s door and opens the passenger door behind her but then looks up toward the camera.  “Jim, aren’t you coming along?  We’ve got a mobile camera feed all set for you in the front passenger seat.”

The shot bobs up and down – the camera changing hands, I assume – and then Jim, the camera man, comes into view, jogging happily over to the passenger side of the shiny BMW.  Just seconds after Jim gets in the video feed switches seamlessly to the view from inside the car.

“OK, Julie,” says Doran enthusiastically “whenever you’re ready.”

Julie puts her hand at the ignition switch, gives an uncertain smile, and turns the key.  In a split second, a bright purple flash shoots out from the car in all directions, sending the crowd of onlookers into a panic.

“What the hell was that?” Melanie utters each word with measured weight.

“What’s going on?!  WHAT HAPPENED?!”  Julie looks expectantly back at Doran.

“Julie, everyone, please remain calm.  The flash you just witnessed is a harmless expulsion of light that occurs at the moment liquid Revilium combusts – hence the .2% inefficiency.  As the engine temperature approaches normal operating range, the effect will diminish to a faint glow surrounding the vehicle.”

“Huh, that was weird…” I say flatly.  “I did a quick search from my laptop: REVILIUM COMBUSTION PHENOMENA.  Hey Mel, listen to this, ‘Revilium, being, in essence, light energy in solid or liquid form, causes a reaction in light particles in the surrounding atmosphere when combusted.  This energy echo, as it’s called by Brotherhood Corp scientists, is actually the refraction of light at wavelengths between 350 and 400 nanometers on the electromagnetic spectrum – the same spectrum in which Revilium exists.  In much the same way as white light passing through a prism is separated into its colored components, the violet component of white light passing through trace amounts of Revilium that is diffused into the air during combustion is made momentarily visible to the human eye, creating a wavelike effect that emanates from the point of combustion.  As a greater amount of Revilium is diffused into the air at the initial moment of combustion, the effect expands widely at first and then contracts to faintly surround the combustion source.  This effect, though visually spectacular to witness, has been tested extensively in Brotherhood Corp labs and found to be harmless.’”

“Did you say that Revilium stuff is solid light energy?” Mel turns to me, looking deep in thought.

“Well, in this case, liquid, but yeah.”

“But I thought this guy said they found it in the earth’s crust…what the hell is solidified light energy doing deep underground?”

She definitely has a point, I think to myself.  “Hey, check it out!  They’re driving!”

“Huh?” Melanie turns abruptly to the TV again.  “Why is she shouting?  Bimbo…” she mutters the last part under her breath.

“If you’re just joining us, this is Julie Tanaka broadcasting live from the inside of a brand new BMW 535i powered by liquid Revilium, the revolutionary alternative energy source discovered by Brotherhood Corporation.  With me is Doran Jacobs, founder and CEO of Brotherhood.  I have to tell you, I can’t believe how smooth the acceleration is with the Revilium fuel!  I push down on the pedal and the car goes faster, but there’s no discernible change in the sound of the engine and I can’t even feel the gear shifts!  Mr. Jacobs, why is that?” she shouts as if speaking over the noise of a helicopter propeller.

Doran winces as she utters the final syllables.  “The enhanced ride, Julie, is due to the extreme efficiency of the Revilium fuel.  Once burning, the diffused Revilium is not simply consumed like regular gasoline.  Instead, it loses density slowly, releasing energy over a prolonged period of time.  In this diffused state, the fuel fills the entire combustion chamber but leaves tiny air pockets, allowing combustion to continue.  This makes for a more steady energy supply to the engine and more even shifting of gears.  The light energy expelled by the Revilium also provides a gentle boost to system electronics without overwhelming them.  Notice, for example, how the lights on the instrument panel are brighter than normal.”

“Folks, this is nothing short of incredible!” shouts Julie as she speeds along the closed-off city streets.  “Mr. Jacobs, when can the public expect Revilium fuel to be available?”

“Plans are to begin opening filling stations in 3 months time, beginning here in Downtown New York.  And, remember, Brotherhood Corp will be providing this fuel to all free of charge,” Doran says enthusiastically.

Just then, the video feed switches back outside to capture the Revilium powered BMW coming around the corner and back into the spot it left from.  Julie exits the car with a look of sheer exhilaration, followed by Doran Jacobs, who stands at her left.  Jim, the camera man, comes around the front and stands on her right.

“Well, there you have it!  Look for FREE Revilium fuel at a filling station near you in just three months time!”  Julie extends her hand and Doran shakes it firmly.  “Thank you so much, Mr. Jacobs, for your time and your uncommon generosity!”  She turns instinctively to face the camera.  “It turns out Brotherhood Corporation really is…for all mankind.  This is Julie Tanaka.  Back to you in the studio.”

Can it really be over this easily?  In walks Doran Jacobs with this Revilium stuff and, boom, no more energy crisis?  My parents – my little sister – and so many others on the verge of losing their homes, things have gotten so bad.  I want to believe it with everything in me, but something doesn’t seem right about it all.

I start to speak, but before I can, Mel grabs the remote from my hand, mutes the TV, and turns to me with a look of uncharacteristic distress on her face.

“Asher, I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

“I know.  It seems too good to be true, right?”

“Yes, that too, but didn’t you see the people in the crowd when that purple flash happened?”

“No.  That’s when I was looking up what happened online.  Why?”

“Some of them looked like they were going to pass out…”

“What?!” I say skeptically.  “Rewind it.”

“Here, look.”  Mel rewinds the broadcast to the moment just before the flash.  “Keep an eye on that older lady several rows back on the far left.  See!  Right there!”

“Yeah, I saw, but she’s an old lady, Mel.  It looks like she was just surprised by the light and stumbled a little when she covered her eyes.  See?” I point to a tall man in dark sunglasses just to her left, “her son put his arm around her shoulder and now she’s fine.”

“Who?  That guy?  Where’d he come from?  He wasn’t standing there a few seconds ago…and look at the lady’s face.  She looks odd, like she just forgot where she was or something.”

“Mel, I know we’re conspiracy theorists and all, and I know Elias wants us to keep tabs on Brotherhood Corp, but don’t you think you’re reaching just a little with this one?”

“Just look!” Mel says persistently.  “I’ll rewind it a little further.  Play it in slow motion, and zoom in.”

To my surprise, as the footage crawls along, I see the flash then the man I assumed was the old woman’s son come quickly from out of the frame and put his arm around her.  Immediately after, her expression goes blank for a moment then returns to normal.

“OK, I’ll admit that’s a little weird, but maybe he was just coming back from the bathroom.”

“Yeah, but what about the look on her face?”

“I don’t know…maybe she just got really freaked out by the flash, but the rest of the people around her look OK.”

“Hmmm…I guess so.”  Mel concedes, clearly frustrated.

The broadcast is still playing in slow motion.  I watch it absent-mindedly for a few seconds, but then something strikes me.  “Hey!  What happened to that guy?”

“What guy?” Mel replies mechanically.

“You know what guy!  The guy!!!”

Mel looks up from her thoughts.  “You mean the guy you thought was the old lady’s son?”  She quickly scours the screen with her eyes.  “Where’d he go?  Did you see him leave?”

“No, I just looked down for a second and then he was gone.  Rewind it again.”

Mel clicks the remote to rewind again, but this time, the screen displays an error message: WE’RE SORRY.  THIS FOOTAGE IS CURRENTLY UNAVAILABLE.  PLEASE TRY AGAIN LATER.  “What the hell?  It’s gone…”

Technical difficulties aren’t anything out of the ordinary, but this doesn’t make sense.  The footage should be stored locally on the DVR, regardless of whatever may have happened with the TV network or reception, but it’s not.  It’s almost like it’s been accidentally wiped something.  “Hang on.  Let me hook up my laptop and see if I can recover the footage.”

“Asher, you’re not supposed to mess with that thing!  What if you break it?!” Melanie protests.

“Do you want to see the footage again or not?”

“OK, fine.  Just do it.”

I disconnect the DVR from the TV and turn it around.  “Service only, my ass” I scoff as I take the small Phillips screwdriver I always carry in my right pocket and deftly remove the back panel.  “USB?  It’s like they’re begging me to mess with this thing!”

Melanie rolls her eyes.

I pull the short USB cable I always keep in my left back pocket and connect the DVR to my laptop.

“OK, the screwdriver I understand, but you carry a USB cable in your back pocket?”

“Hey!” I look up at her and pause for effect, “They don’t call it universal for nothing.”

“Oh, my God…” Melanie shakes her head.

I laugh loudly as I begin accessing the DVR’s files.  “Oh, look – security protocols!  How cute!”  I have to give the TV company credit for trying, but I’ve yet to encounter the computer I couldn’t hack.  I type happily, adding commentary as the feeble security measures crumble before me.  “Do you like that, baby?  How about this?!  Just…right…in……there!”  I unnecessarily hit the ENTER key with my left index finger, looking up at Melanie and winking as I do.

“Asher!  Would you quit screwing around!”

“There!  I’m in.  Now, let’s just scroll through the most recent files and…hey, it’s not here!”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, look!  Everything else before and after the time of that broadcast is here but that entire 15 minute segment is gone!  I don’t even understand how that’s possible…someone would have had to hack the provider’s customer database and deploy a script to remove that footage from every single box it had downloaded to in a matter of minutes!”

“Could you do it?” asks Melanie pointedly.

“Well, yes, of course, but there are very few people that could.”  I type feverishly as I speak, looking for signs of intrusion, but after a few minutes, it’s clear there’s nothing to find.  “Whoever did this knew exactly what they were looking for how to cover their tracks.  I think we should call…”

Just then, my cell phone rings.  “…Elias.  How DOES he do that?!”

Melanie grabs the phone from my hand before I can put it up to my ear.  “Hey, Elias, it’s Melanie.  Yes, we were just watching it.  Did you see that old woman almost faint?  Yeah, we tried that too, but the footage has been wiped from the DVR.  This is really weird…OK, hang on a sec.  There, you’re on speaker.”

“Asher, Melanie, can you both hear me?  What’s going on here is no accident.  That footage was wiped by someone attached to Brotherhood Corp.  We believe that the ‘energy echo’ we witnessed during the Revilium demo today may have harmful effects with prolonged exposure.”

“So why did it only effect that old woman?” interjects Melanie.

“Did you notice how all the people around her were much younger than she was?  We’re not sure why, exactly, but we think the echo may have more of an effect on the elderly – as our bodies age, they naturally deteriorate, thus, the older someone is, the less physical strength and resilience they generally possess.”

“Asher, by now the footage has been wiped completely from the network and provider databases, but we need you to double-check.”

“I’m already on it, Elias,” I say as I pound away on my laptop, “but whoever did this is really good.  They didn’t leave a trace on the DVR…”

“Yes, well, you’d better make sure you do the same.  We have a feeling this goes deeper than any of us had previously guessed.  Brotherhood Corp is up to no good and if either of you are found to have knowledge of it, your lives will be in danger.  Keep the doors locked, close the blinds, use as little light as you can manage with and stay out of sight!  I’m sending some people to see if they can get their hands on the news cameras before they can be tampered with.  You two just see what you can find out and wait for me to call you back.”

“Elias, what’s going on?  You’re kinda freaking me out.”  Suddenly, the cluttered apartment seems much smaller than it did a minute ago.  My hands start sweating profusely.

“I’m sorry, Asher.  I can’t explain right now.  Just lay low and wait for my call.”  The unmistakable beeping sound follows.

“He hung up,” I say nervously.

“Ash, don’t worry about this,” Melanie says reassuringly as she sits beside me on the couch.  “Whatever happens, I’ve got your back, and you’ve got mine, right?”

“Yeah, Mel.  Of course.”  Melanie’s not usually the comforting type, but, in the moment, I just accept the change.  I take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and start typing again.

“OK, then.  So we have nothing to worry about!” she slaps my leg like an older sibling might.  “Besides, Elias and his people will look out for us.”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.  Hey, how did you meet Elias anyway?”

“Same way you and I met: through that online ad I posted.  Remember?  ‘Ever notice that certain things just don’t add up?  The truth is out there; you just have to know where to look.’”

“Ha!  That ad was pretty cheesy!” I chuckle.

“So then why’d you answer it?” Melanie says, suddenly reserved.

“Because you’re right – the truth is out there.  But what use is finding it if nobody else will believe you?”

“Good point…that’s the same reason I placed the ad” she smiles.

“So when did Elias come into the picture?”

“He answered my ad a few months before you did…said he was with an organization called the Seekers.  He said they had resources and connections – he somehow managed to get my rent and utilities paid indefinitely – but that they needed more ‘agents on the ground’ to help them investigate.”

“Huh, that’s kind of weird.  So, have you ever actually met him?”

“We’ve video-chatted a few times, but he says it better to not be seen together in case anything ever happens…I’m starting to see what he meant by that.”

“Well, as long as you trust him…”

“I do,” she says confidently.

“Then, we’re all good.  Now, let’s see if we can find that video…”

Chapter 13: Premonition

By now, the crackling fire had died to a pile of smoldering embers.  The crowd gradually began to disperse around us, the shuffle of feet against the dirt floor intermixed with faint grumblings of children disappointed at the unresolved ending to Ethan’s fantastic story.   “Uncle Ethan, do you think Aidan is ok?” said a young girl as she passed.

“Oh, I think Aidan is just fine, little one.”  Ethan knelt down beside her, gently patting her head.  “Now run along…you don’t want your parents to worry.”

The girl scampered up the incline to her waiting mother and father.  Her mother made a friendly wave toward Ethan, who bowed his head slightly in response.  Her eyes came to rest on me for a moment, uncertainty plain in her expression, and then she put her arm around her daughter and turned to go.

My heart sank.  “They think I’m a freak, don’t they?”

“Gray, don’t let it bother you”, said Krista, reassuringly.  So much has happened today.  People probably aren’t sure what to think.  Give them time.”

“I’m not sure how much time I have to give” I replied, darkly.

“Speaking of time” Ethan interjected, “you need to make ready for the journey tomorrow, Gray.  And you need some rest…the road ahead will not be easy.”

“But I have questions!”

“All will be answered soon enough, Gray.  Why don’t you and Krista spend some time together?  The journey may take longer than we expect.”

“I suppose you’re right.  I’ll see you in the morning.”

I took Krista’s hand and we set off back toward the barracks.  So much was swirling around in my head that I could hardly make sense of it all.  I longed to talk to her, to savor every moment of the time we had left, but all I could do was plod along in silence.

She glanced up at me and open her mouth to speak but then refocused on the ground and said nothing.  I knew what she was thinking, because I was thinking the same thing – what if we never saw each other again?  Of course, the mission would be dangerous, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more behind Ethan’s admonition than a desire to nurture our budding relationship.  The mere thought of losing her nearly paralyzed me.

My face grew hot and my vision started to blur.  I grasped her hand more tightly as a tear rolled down my cheek.  I looked over to see if she’d noticed and saw that her eyes were full of tears as well.  I wished I knew what to say to comfort her, but words seemed so inadequate.  We walked the rest of the path back without a word.

When we arrived, at last, she broke the silence.  “Can I help you get ready for tomorrow?” she said sheepishly.

“Oh…of course.”  Straight on to business then, I guess.

I went inside and knelt next to my bunk.  Krista followed close behind.  If it was possible, the barracks looked even more dreary than usual.  Though nearly full with my fellows, sleeping soundly in every corner, the room felt cold and lifeless.  I felt odd that, just hours ago, we had both professed our love for each other in this same space.

“Krista, can you hand me my bag, please?” I whispered.

“Here you go, Gray”, she replied softer still.  Her voice was muffled from crying.

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to pack.  I didn’t really have much, but I began stuffing random things from under my bunk into the gray canvas bag – a worn wool coat, gloves, my mining tools, an extra blanket.  I hoped the Guard would provide some rations and water for the journey, but I put in some of what I’d stolen from their stores just in case.

“Krista, there are more rations and water hidden under my bunk if you need them.  Don’t worry…I can always steal more when I get back.”  I winked at her and she giggled softly.

“I don’t expect you’ll be doing much work while we’re gone, seeing as how the mines are infested with those wolf things.  Please give me some peace of mind and promise you’ll stay away from the Guard as best you can.  I don’t want them getting any ideas while I’m away.”

She nodded hastily with a sniffle, trying to choke back tears, but her eyes started to glaze over again.

“I guess that’s it” I said as I started to tie off my bag.

“Wait…I have something I want you to take with you.”  She hurried off quietly to her bunk and came back a few moments later, cupping something in her hands.

“What is it?”

She opened her hands, revealing an ornate gold locket, inset with tiny emeralds around the edge, and attached to a fine gold chain.  She opened the locket, and inside was a picture of the most beautiful little girl I’d ever seen.

“I can’t say for sure, but I think this belonged to my mother before I was brought here.  I had it tucked in a tiny pouch at my waist the day I woke up in the mines – the Guard must have missed it.”

“Krista, is this…”

“Yes, it’s me.  I want you to have it…to remember me by.”  She dropped the locket into my palm and clasped my hand over it.  “Please don’t forget me, Gray.”

Tears began welling up in my eyes as I looked on her perfect face.  “If I searched through all the people in all the world above and below, and on my dying day, I found you, I would not count it a wasted life.  How could I ever forget you?”  I put the chain around my neck and hid the locket inside my shirt.  “There.  Now I carry you near my heart no matter where I go.”

Adoration filled her eyes and it penetrated straight to my soul.  I wanted so badly to embrace her, to hold her and never let go, but I was afraid it would only cause us both more pain when I had to leave.

“Well, you should get some rest…it’s been a very long day.”  I climbed into my bunk and lay on my back.

In another second, Krista climbed in on top of me and nestled her head against my chest.  “You’re not getting rid of me that easily” she sniffed.  “If this is our last night together, whether for a few days or forever, we’re spending it together.”

I wrapped my arms tightly around her.  I’d never felt so at peace, as if, in this moment, I was finally whole.  We drew each breath together, gently inhaling and exhaling in time until the natural rhythm lulled me to sleep.  That night, for the first time since I could remember, the nightmare didn’t come.

* * * * *

Amidst my dreamless slumber, I felt something stirring against my chest.  I opened my eyes as narrowly as I could manage, and saw Krista still asleep in my arms, but tossing her head slightly back and forth.  I dismissed the disturbance and closed my eyes, but a moment later, her shifting intensified, unsettling me again.  Unaccustomed to a full night’s sleep though I was, I refused to give up so easily.  I shut my eyes more tightly and covered my ears, trying to ignore the movement and sound, but the disturbance was mounting – her breathing grew labored and her whole body struggled fitfully against me.  Her knee was looming dangerously close to an area of vital importance.  Finally, I gave in and opened my eyes completely.

“Krista, what’s wrong?” I whispered, gently resting my hands on her shoulders.

“Gray…” she breathed plaintively, still struggling back and forth.

“Krista, wake up.” I said more loudly.

“Krista!”

In an instant, she woke, startled, and jammed her knee firmly between my legs.  My mouth hung wide open, miming the groan of agony that would normally follow such an injury.

“Gray, what’s wrong?!”

“Your…knee!” I gasped.

She looked down and realized what she’d done.  “Oh, God!  Gray, are you alright?!”

In a few seconds, the shock of pain dulled somewhat and my breath began to return.  “It’s OK.  I’m fine.” I forced out the words with a laborious exhale.  “What’s wrong?  Were you having a bad dream?”

She paused for a moment while the vision of what she had dreamt returned.  “Gray, you can’t go on this mission.  Something’s going to go wrong!  I saw you being dragged away unconscious by one of those shadow things!”  She gripped my arms tightly and looked me square in the eyes.  “You can’t go!  Please tell me you won’t go!”

“Krista, calm down” I said reassuringly.  “It was just a dream.”

“Do you remember how I told you I dreamt of you freeing us all from the mines?  Things I dream come true, Gray!  For months before now, I’ve been having dreams of you surrounded in red and blue light.  I didn’t know what they meant, so I never said anything, but look what happened yesterday!”

“You dreamt that?”

“And the shadow taking Jonas away…I always thought that one was just wishful thinking but, Gray, it happened!  What if this one happens too?”

“But what about the one where I save everybody?  I can’t do that if I get dragged away to the Overseer, can I?”

“I know.  I don’t understand it either.”  Her words became more pleading as she spoke.  “I just don’t want anything to happen to you…I love you.”

Even though we’d confessed our feelings just yesterday, my heart still jumped at the words.  For a moment, I wanted to believe that I could stay and everything would be fine, but I knew better.

“I love you too, Krista – more than I could ever say – but I have to go.  I’m the only one who can protect the others from the wolves.  They’d never reach the command center without me, and unless we can get there and try to get some help, all of us are dead.”

“But what if Soren’s lying?  What if he just wants you to help them so they can capture you when you get there?  Don’t forget, the Guard still work for the Overseer and he’s the one who’s had us enslaved here all these years.”

She definitely had a point.  On the other hand, Ethan seemed to know much more of what was really going on here than he was sharing and he wasn’t worried in the slightest.  Though I was upset with him for keeping the truth from me for so long, he had still saved me and watched over me all these years.  If I could trust anyone, it was Ethan, and besides, no matter what the Guard had in mind, staying here would accomplish nothing.

“Look, I know it’s a risk, but Ethan’s proven himself.  I have to believe he knows what he’s doing.  I will come back for you.  I promise.”

Her mouth was already open, ready to continue her plea, but she stopped herself and took a deep breath.  “OK.”

“Just, OK?  No more arguments?”

“No more arguments.  You’re right.  Ethan knows what he’s doing, and it would be selfish of me to keep you here.”

“I don’t want to leave you any more than you want me to go, but I have to try.”

“I know.”

She laid her head back on my chest, put her arms around me, and gradually drifted back to sleep.

I stared up at the bunk above me, listening to the peaceful rhythm of Krista’s breathing.  Her chest gently ebbed and flowed against me like the evening tide of the beach I knew as a child.  My eyelids grew heavier and began to close and open intermittently, each time falling farther and for longer than the last.

Just then, I thought I saw the dull purple glow of the barracks intensify from the corner of my right eye.

“Never mind it, Gray.  It’s just your imagination.”

What?  Who is that?

I was so exhausted.  Was this just my inner voice calling me to sleep?  It sounded like me, but I couldn’t be sure.

“You’re almost there…just let it go.”

My vision sharpened for a moment and I was positive now – the purple glow of the Darkstone was growing brighter, like something was approaching.  I struggled to rouse myself, but I felt some supernatural force pulling me towards unconsciousness.

Let it go, Gray.  This will be over soon.”

Matthias!

I fought against the throes of sleep with all my might, willing the light forth to aid me.  Within seconds, my body was enveloped in an azure glow and my senses had returned.

“Krista!”

She woke instantly, startled and confused.  “Gray, what is it?”

“Hide under my bunk, now!”

She opened her mouth to protest but then her head turned toward the barracks’ entrance as if slowly forced by an unseen hand.  Her face went pale with fear.  “Gray, what’s going on?!”

“Just get under my bunk!  I won’t let them hurt you.”

“But…”

Before she could protest any further, I lifted her in my arms and put her under my bunk as gently as I could manage without sacrificing speed.  “There’s a recess in the wall under there.  Crawl into it, lay as still as possible and don’t make a sound.”

I got to my feet and shouted to everyone in the barracks, “Wake up!  Wake up!  Get to the back of the barracks, now!!!”

Confused and angry faces greeted me as they woke, but as they turned to see the approaching light from the corridor, they turned and ran to the back, huddling against one another in the relative darkness.  I gave a hurried glance around the room to make sure no one was still sleeping then ran to the doorway.

I peered around the door frame and saw three figures slowly advancing up the corridor from the left, glowing ominously as they drew closer.  Shadows!!! Maybe I could take them, maybe I couldn’t, but either way, it would be foolish to rush them headlong.  My heart began racing as I desperately tried to think of a plan.

It’s no use, Gray.  Just come along quietly and no one else will be hurt.”

“Matthias, get out of my head!  What are you doing?!”

“Gray, you’d best do as he says.  We don’t want any trouble.”

The familiar rasp caught me off guard. Ethan?!  What the hell are you doing?!”

“I’m very sorry Gray, but you’re coming with us.  The Overseer demands it.”

“The Overseer?!  You’ve been lying to me all along!!!” I filled with rage and felt the burning crimson overtake me.  I ran out into the corridor, focusing the energy into my hands.

The three shadowy figures glided up the corridor, heading straight for me with startling speed.  “I won’t be taken without a fight!!!”  I raised both arms and swung them in mirrored arcs, releasing two fiery bolts at my foes.  The bolts sped toward their marks, but just before impact, they dissipated as if absorbed into some invisible barrier.

Still so much to learn…pity.”

I recognized the smug condescending tone of Soren instantly.  “So you’re all three in on this?!  This whole show about a rescue mission and helping the miners escape the wolves just to put me off guard?!  Damn you all!!!”  I swung again and again, hurling more bolts of red at them, but each dissipated just before impact like the others.

The rage within me was still growing, soaring to levels I never thought possible.  The light burned through my veins, threatening to overtake me.  “DAAAAMMMMNNNNN YOOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!”

The energy welled up in my palms, forming a massive sphere of searing light.

“What!  How is he doing that?!” I detected a hint of jealousy in Matthias’, now audible, voice.

I held the sphere aloft for a moment then heaved it at my would-be captors with all my might.

”Look out!!!” Matthias screeched as he dove out of the way, but Ethan and Soren didn’t move.

“Very good…but not good enough.”  Soren rose his hands as if to catch the sphere hurtling toward him then muttered something in a language I didn’t understand.   The sphere halted in mid-air, though he never touched it.  He motioned with his hands, as if to grasp the sphere at the top center then moved them outward and down in an arc.  As he did, the outside of the sphere peeled back like a skin.  He began moving his hands more quickly, and the light of the sphere separated into long strands, which he then began weaving into what looked like a net with incredible dexterity.  “Ethan, would you like to do the honors or shall I?”

Gray…please don’t struggle.”

I dropped my arms to my sides as the man I kept as close as a father raised his hands and took control of the net.  He considered me for a moment, his eyes rife with sadness I couldn’t comprehend, then he thrust his arms forward with a grunt and the net came speeding at me.

In less than a second, the net had entangled me and unimaginable pain shot through every nerve in my body.  I could do nothing to control my screaming.  Everything within me was demanding an end that wouldn’t come.  I fell to the ground, unable to fight the pain, and my vision started to go dark.

“GRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!”

With the small amount of strength I had left, I turned to see Krista rushing to me from the barracks.

NO!!! I willed the word to come forth, but my body was utterly spent.  I watched in horror as Krista caught hold of the net.  Instantly, she shot backwards and crumpled to the ground a few feet from me.

Shivering with pain, she rose up on her hands and knees, and began inching toward me.  “Don’t worry, Gray!  I’m coming!” Her words were so weak, I never heard them.  I only saw them form on her beautiful lips just as she collapsed to the ground once more.

“Soren, enough…”  Ethan muttered in disgust as he turned his head away.

“Very well.”  He turned first to Krista.  “That net is not meant for you, young lady.”  He snapped his fingers and she instantly slumped to the ground and closed her eyes.

The darkness had nearly covered me now.  I saw Soren lift his hand toward me and the energy of the net changed from red to blue.  My head fell to the ground and my eyes closed.  Everything was black now.  In my final waking moment, Ethan’s voice broke the silence.

I’m sorry, Gray.”

Chapter 12: Children’s Stories

We lay in each other’s arms, speechless, but each moment of the fiery gaze that connected us conveyed volumes.  I didn’t dare move for fear I would end what would already be far too short a time together.  It was cruel that fate should finally bring us together on the eve of my departure, but then, how many had perished in the depths of these mines without ever having known joy?  How selfish of me.  I put the thought from my mind and refocused.

Was it possible Krista had grown even more beautiful since this morning?  I followed the curves of her face with my eyes and each was perfect – soft and lovely in every way.  Perhaps simply knowing that she felt as I did magnified my attraction to her, but whatever it was, I was certain there would never be another to surpass her.

Just then, a voice broke through my subconscious, interrupting my reverie.

“Gray, it is time.”

Even in my head, he still had the same wizened rasp – Ethan.

Would it kill you to get off your ass and come down here?  Get out of my head!

“I’m sorry, Gray, but I can’t risk arousing any suspicions.”

Fine, then, get on with it.

“It is time for you to know where you came from.  The Guard have just left to make their rounds, so we won’t be interrupted.  Come to the meeting place outside my barracks, and bring Krista with you – we needn’t risk leaving her alone prematurely.  I have food and water waiting for both of you.”

The day had raced by with hardly a moment to think but now my most basic of needs was resurfacing.  My stomach grumbled loudly at the mention of food.  We’re on our way.

“Krista, it’s time to go.”

“What happened just now?  You got this weird look on your face…”

“Oh, that was just Ethan invading my thoughts again.  He said the Guard have left to make their rounds so we should meet him in the usual spot.”  He said he has food and water for us.”

“Oh, thank God, I’m starving!” she said emphatically.

I knew it!  I shouldn’t have kept her… I said nothing but the look on my face gave me away.

“Gray, stop.  I stayed because I wanted to.”  She flashed a quick smile and caressed my cheek.  “Silly man…when will you ever learn?”

Relief washed over my face, signaling Krista that we were back to normal.

“Gray?”

“What is it, Krista?”

“Can you get up so we can leave now?” she said with a smirk.

“Oh!  Right…sorry.”  I raised myself carefully from the bunk then took Krista by the hand and helped her out.

No sooner had we walked over the threshold of the bunk house than we were greeted by a number of our fellows, whistling and hooting as we stepped out into the corridor.  Much to my surprise – and, I’ll admit, joy – I identified the loudest among them as none other than young Eli.  I was a little embarrassed but I couldn’t help smiling as we walked out to meet them, hand in hand.

Krista leaned in as we walked, “Quite resilient, isn’t he?”

We both choked back the laughter as we came within earshot of the group.

“Soooo…what have you two been doing?”  Eli said with a mischievous grin.

“We were just talking” I assured.

“That’s not what Reg said!” Eli countered.

Krista flushed bright red.

Things to do this evening: one, pack supplies for the journey, two, throw Reg into a bottomless chasm…

“So it’s true then!”  Eli positively burst with glee, instigating another round of cheers from the group.  After they settled down, he pulled himself together and added, “I was gonna make a move on her myself but…it’s ok.  You have my blessing.”

“Why, thank you, Eli.  That means…so much, coming from you.”  I shook my head slightly and chuckled.  This kid was something else, but I had to admire his ability to stay positive.

“Come on, guys.  Let’s leave them to it.”  He smiled even more widely than I would have thought possible for such a small person then winked at Krista and started past us into the barracks.

We walked the short distance up the corridor to the meeting place, our fellows bustling past up and down the hall to their various bunk houses and waving as they past.  Funny that just this morning, I woke, a stranger to most everyone around me and, in just a few hours time, I had built a sort of familial bond with them.  The thought redoubled my determination to the task at hand.

The corridor inclined gradually until it sloped downward at the right, opening into a large alcove.  As we crested the rim of the meeting place, the smell of the fire, crackling gently below, filled my nostrils, stirring memories of my childhood.  Children crowded around an open fire pit at the center of the hollow.  Some sat on boulders of varied sizes, some on the floor, a few adults lined the outskirts mostly standing or propping themselves against the cavern walls, but all fixed intently on the center.  There stood Ethan, stoking the fire, occasionally eliciting tongues of green and blue from the flames as they cast dancing shadows all around.

Ethan spoke as we came into view.  “Gray, Krista!  Glad you could join us tonight!  It’s been awhile…please, sit!  I’ve saved a spot near the fire for you.”  He motioned just in front of him and to his left.

Figures…now, whatever I’m gonna find out about my past is gonna happen in front of all these people?  Why all the secrecy then?

Before I could think about it anymore, Krista was already dragging me down to the place Ethan had reserved for us.

“But…wait a minute!” I protested.

“Relax, Gray.  It’ll be nice.” Krista assured.

“Gray, you needn’t worry.  To everyone else, my words will be only a story.  You alone will understand the truth behind them.”

“OK, old man, let’s have that food and water.  We’re famished!”

“Of course.”  Ethan picked up two small metal trays and handed one to each of us.

“Rations?” I said, mildly disappointed.

“You were expecting maybe steak and lobster?” he replied dryly.

“What?  What’s steak and, and…what did you say?”

“All in good time, Gray!” he chuckled lightly to himself.  “…and something to wash it down.”  He picked up a large metal canteen and handed it over.

“Thanks, Ethan.”

“Yes, thanks very much” Krista echoed.

“Think nothing of it.  Now, please sit.”

Ethan raised his right arm, signaling that he was about to begin, as we took our seats and settled into our rations.  A few stragglers hurried to sit down, and then, all was silent, save only the gentle crackling of the fire.

Ethan cleared his throat and then began without hesitation, projecting his raspy voice to the back of the crowd.  “In the not too distant past, there existed a people forgotten by the world around them.  They had been scattered and forced into hiding long ago, but on the shores of a hidden island in the world above, a small colony of their kind remained.  On this island, our story begins.”

Krista leaned in and put her arm around me.  I looked over at her, astonished to see she’d already finished her food.  “Good lord, woman!  I haven’t even finished half of mine yet!” I whispered fervently.

“I was hungry” she smirked innocently up at me.

I shook my head, laughing silently, and resumed my meal.

Ethan continued.  “Life on the island was simple.  Abundant sunlight and rich soil provided all the colony needed to flourish.  For many years, life thrived there, routine but peaceful and carefree.”

“On a certain day, it happened that a second son was born to the elders of the colony.  Right from his mother’s womb, his eyes had a faint red glow, and his parents were astonished.  Legends existed among their people of ancestors who were able to shift the color of their eyes, but they had never witnessed it firsthand.  All present were silent, unsure of what to say, but as the minutes wore on, the glow slowly subsided from the child’s eyes and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.”

“The elders decided to name their newest son Aidan, which means ‘fiery’.  As the boy grew, he proved with ease just how appropriate his name was.  He became known throughout the colony for his explosive temper and for the strange red light that filled his eyes when he became angry.  Despite this, he also developed an uncommon sense of goodwill and fairness that endeared him to all he knew – all except for one.

“In contrast to his younger brother, Matthias was much more reserved and contemplative than Aidan.  He grew jealous of the ease with which his brother interacted with those around him, and he scorned him for what he viewed as brash behavior.  As the years went on, a bitter rivalry developed between the brothers and they often fought.  Matthias took advantage of his brother’s temper, often provoking him to blows.  Being several years older than Aidan, Matthias was much stronger, and he never hesitated to press this advantage, many times beating his brother into unconsciousness.”

“One day, Aidan was walking along the shoreline when he saw a peculiar purple stone glinting up at him from the sand.  He reached to pick the stone up and was mesmerized by the way its very essence seemed to swirl about inside it.  As he gazed at the stone, his mind was filled with troubling images – visions of darkness and fire.  Disturbed though he was, he found himself unable to put the stone down.  He sat down in the sand and stared in wonder for hours.”

“Later that afternoon, the elders sent Matthias to look for his brother – which only made him resent Aidan the more.  He comforted himself with the thought of aggravating Aidan into another fight he couldn’t win.  To his delight, he found his brother sitting in the sand, still marveling at the stone.  With surprising ease, he crept up behind his brother, watched for an opportunity, and seized the stone from his grasp.”

“Aidan screamed in protest, but Matthias relished his anger, taunting him unrelentingly.  Aidan rushed at him, lunging for the stone, but Matthias deftly stepped aside and threw him to the ground.  Aidan rose, filled with rage and turned to face his brother once more.  His eyes glowed red with fury as he swore to take back the stone.  In the next moment, Aidan struck his brother with such force that he was frightened by it.  Matthias flew back and crumpled in the sand, releasing his grip on the purple stone in defeat.”

“From that day on, Matthias never dared cross his brother again, but he harbored a bitter grudge against him.  Matthias spread lies throughout the colony that Aidan had been possessed by an evil spirit.  Well liked though Aidan was, the people of the colony had always wondered about the strange way his eyes glowed when he became angry, and fueled by Matthias’ constant stream of untruth, they grew suspicious and eventually fearful of him.”

“Though Aidan’s parents saw Matthias’ lies for what they were, they were bound by their duty as elders to keep peace in the colony.  Matthias had spread such mistrust that they were forced to confine Aidan to their home, only allowing him to go outside late at night.”

“For many months, Aidan slept all day every day and barely ate.  He felt utterly abandoned and alone.  When his parents let him go out at night, he took to wandering by the shoreline and gazing up at the stars.  He longed desperately for someone to talk to, but no one ever came and he slid deeper and deeper into despair.”

“On one of his nightly walks, he noticed that the sky had grown pitch black.  Gone were the stars that typically accompanied him in his solitude.  On the horizon, a faint glimmer of amethyst caught his eye and he stopped dead, paralyzed with curiosity.  He identified the color immediately as identical to the peculiar stone he had found on the beach months before.  He reached into his pocket and produced the stone, comparing it in disbelief to the color stretching toward him across the sky.”

“The purple aura seemed to billow like some great clouded beast, clawing its way closer by the second.  As the glow grew nearer, the stone in Aidan’s hand seemed to react.  The faint light within grew brighter and began to swirl violently.  Stricken by fear, Aidan hurled the stone into the ocean and raced back to the village, screaming for everyone to wake up.”

“The people of the colony rose swiftly from their beds and rushed outside, concerned at the commotion, but when they saw Aidan running through the rows of houses, they ignored him and, instead, rallied to complain to the elders.  Aidan reached his home first and roused his parents, warning them urgently of what he had seen on the horizon, but before they could respond, the people of the colony were already pounding at their door, demanding to see them.”

“The elders warned Aidan to stay inside then went to address the furious mob.  Just as they stepped out onto their porch to speak, their eyes widened in horror as they caught sight of a maelstrom of violet flames racing toward the village.  Like a cascade, the people turned to face the menace that was nearly upon them, and they scattered in a panic.  In moments, the flames were upon the village, engulfing everything in an evil wave.”

“Aidan trembled with fear as he watched hideous black figures through his window.  They swept mercilessly through the flames, cutting down men, women, and children as they went.  His parents came into view and screamed for him to run, but in another second, they, too, were slaughtered by the maleficent forms that tore through the village.”

“Aidan was frozen with grief.  The shadowed assailants had murdered everyone he cared about right before his eyes and it would only be a matter of time before they found him.  In a final act of defiance, he rushed out to the porch, burning tears streaming down his face, and screamed for them to take him.  His eyes searched wildly for those who would end all he had endured, but they were nowhere to be seen.”

“Just as Aidan started down the stairs to search for them, something hit him hard from behind and he fell to the ground.  He struggled to turn and face his attacker, but numbness was already overtaking his senses.  His vision began to blur at the edges and move inward.  As the darkness crowded in around him, he saw a lone figure cloaked in the deepest black step forward, towering over him like a predator over his prey.  His last memory was a vision of a wicked smile on a ghost pale face.”

At this, Ethan looked back up at the surrounding crowd, his expression somber.  “And that,” he said pointedly, “is the last that was ever seen or heard from the colony.”

Krista and I looked at each other, astonished and at a loss for words.  I was Aidan!  In a split second, everything my mind had locked away all these years came flooding back in.  I remembered the hate I bore for Matthias for making me an outcast among my own people.  I remembered my parents.  I remembered the pain of seeing their faces, scarred and lifeless, as they lay dead on the ground.  I remembered the shadowed figures that swept through the night, killing as they went – the very same as the one who had taken Jonas to the Overseer just hours ago.  But most of all, I remembered the face that mocked me as I lay helpless, waiting to die.

The nightmare I’d been having for the last several months was of my last night in the colony, the night it was destroyed.  But one question remained: how was I still alive?  The shadows had slaughtered everyone with ruthless efficiency, and yet, here I was, as I have been the last ten years.

My mind turned the face of my attacker over and over, struggling to find some way of fitting the two halves of my life together in a way that made sense.  The face seemed somehow familiar, but I couldn’t place it.  I looked abruptly to Ethan, my face riddled with confusion, but I saw that he was already looking straight at me, as if expecting me to realize something.  In an instant, the final piece of this puzzle crashed into place.  ETHAN!

Ethan was the shadow that attacked me that night!  Ethan, who had taken me under his wing – practically raised me since I came to the mines. Ethan, who I had trusted all these years, who I counted as one of my few friends, had brought me here?!  I couldn’t process the thought.  Rage coursed through my body as I felt the crimson glow tingle to the tips of my fingers.

Krista reached for my hand and met my gaze, alarm in her eyes.  “Gray, what is it?”

But I could say nothing.  I could only stare at Ethan in utter disbelief.  I wanted to wring his neck, but then I didn’t.  I had to know the truth.  All the while, he stared back at me with his characteristic nonchalance, as if he knew resolution was imminent.  We stared at each other for several more minutes, fixed and unwavering, but at last, Ethan gave me a look of concession.

“Fine, Gray, since it’s clear you’re not going to get this on your own, allow me to assist you.  I brought you here ten years ago to save you from being destroyed with the rest of your colony.  Those who attacked the village were once like you and I, long ago, but they were corrupted by great evil.”

“After falling into darkness, they began a conquest to rid the earth of all who remained of our kind, however many of us escaped and banded together.  I, through the abilities I have developed over the years, infiltrated their ranks in an effort to save as many as I could.  I had been watching you for months, and when I saw you exhibit signs of our ancestors, I knew I had to find a way to remove you from their gaze.”

“The shadows had a secondary objective in their raids – to find able bodied people to work as slaves in the mines.  I convinced them that you showed no signs of the gift and did not need to be eliminated.  I captured you and brought you to work here, hoping to allow your gift to mature.  Judging by the events of this past day, I would say I have succeeded.”

Ethan folded his hands neatly in front of him and looked at me with a mixture of expectancy and mirth.  My anger began to subside as the gravity of what I had just been told sank in, but I was still speechless.

“Well, aren’t you going to say ‘thank you’?” Ethan said dryly.

I looked over to Krista, who, having heard none of what Ethan had just told me, simply mirrored the bewildered look I now wore.  I had no clue how to react.  I shook my head slightly, laughed, and turned back to Ethan.  “Somehow, I don’t think ‘thank you’ quite covers it.”

Chapter 11: Confessions

“Gray?”

“Gray?!

“Ethan, what happened to him?!  Can’t you do anything?”  Krista’s urgent voice was fraught with concern.

“He appears to have gone into a sort of trance“, Ethan replied.  “Perhaps his memory has started to…” he trailed off into silence.

“Hey!  What’s everyone fussing about?”  I rubbed my eyes as Krista and Ethan’s faces came into focus.

“Gray!”  Krista knelt hastily and threw her arms around me.  “I was worried sick about you!  What happened?”

“I was actually hoping you could tell me.  All I remember is you saying something about my face then everything went black.”

“Yeah, I was telling you how much you and Matthias look alike.  You looked shocked, and then I realized you’ve probably never even seen your face before.  I’d started to ask you when you fell back and hit your head.  You were unconscious for about an hour…”

What?!  But I was only gone a few minutes… What I’d witnessed on the beach came flooding back in an instant.  Nevermind.  I wanted answers.

“Where’s Matthias?!” I exclaimed abruptly.

“Huh?  What do you want with Matthias?” replied Krista, nonplussed.  “He went off somewhere with Soren and Reg, I think.”

I rose hastily from the floor, looking around for a sign of them.  “Which way did they go?  I need to talk to Matthias right now.”

Krista pointed down the corridor to the left.  “I think they went that way, but I don’t understand…”

I was determined to get some answers and Matthias was going to give them to me whether he liked it or not.  “I’ll be right back, Krista.  Don’t worry.”  I started off down the corridor but no sooner had I stepped around her than I was met by Ethan’s stern gaze – he stood right in my path and didn’t appear intent on moving.

“Gray, now is not the time” Ethan said firmly.

“Ethan, move!” I snarled at him.  I’d lived in the mines all these years without any clue as to who I am and I wasn’t about to let anyone get in my way.

Ethan reached out and touched my shoulder.  I thought I saw his eyes flash and then I was unable to move forward, like I was being repelled by some opposite magnetic force.  “Gray,” he said in a whisper “be patient.  I know you don’t understand, but if you do this now, you will ruin everything.  Come to the cavern just outside my barracks tonight after the Guard leave to make their rounds.  Then, I will tell you about who we are and where we come from.”

“What do you mean, we?” I said, incredulous.

“Gray, we are the same, you and I.  Your home is my home.  That is why I took you under my wing when you came here.”

“What?!”  I could hardly believe what I was hearing.  I eyed him with the utmost caution now.  “If that’s true, why did you wait all this time to tell me?”

“People of our kind experience a sort of ‘awakening’ – a surfacing of our abilities – when we reach adulthood.  Had I told you sooner, you would have grown impatient for this day and perhaps done something rash.”

“So that means…”

“Yes.  Today is your eighteenth birthday, Gray.  It was imperative that I keep your identity secret from the Guard at least until you were strong enough to protect yourself.  They are under strict orders to turn over any of our kind to the Overseer – to be executed.”

“What?!  Why?  After today, they must know what I am – why haven’t they come for me yet?”

“We have taken…steps – to ensure your safety.  You see, Gray, they fear us.  We are the only ones that can truly combat them and expose them to the world above for what they really are.”

“And what are they?”

“Though they know it not, they are part of something much more sinister than mere slavery.  I can say no more here.”

“You’re talking crazy, Ethan.  I’m not saying I don’t trust you, but…it’s just a lot to take in at once.  What about all this ‘we’ business?  Are you saying there are more people like us?”

“Yes, but I dare not say more now.  We have solidified a position of relative power for the moment, but our encounter with the shade wolves today gives us reason to believe our presence here is no longer secret.”

In the span of only a few minutes, everything I thought I knew had been completely overwritten.  And I was to learn more later?  Though I sensed that this was only the tip of something much larger, I’d survived these many years in the mines by learning how to operate within the confines of a world that was now crumbling by the second – I wasn’t sure how much more change I could take.

Ethan’s demeanor changed from matter-of-fact to empathetic.  “Gray, I know this is a great deal to take in.  Go and rest for awhile.  Talk it out with Krista – she can be trusted with what I’ve told you, but make sure no one else hears you.  There may yet be others among us that are more than they appear.  I must go now, but please leave Matthias be for now.  You will have your chance to speak with him in due time.”

I didn’t understand.  Like an impatient child, part of me wanted to wait until Ethan left then march straight over to Matthias and demand an explanation.  The fact that Ethan had let me in on any of this, however, made me think better than to give in to my impulses.  I nodded to him in agreement and watched as he shuffled slowly down the corridor to his barracks.

Krista caught my shoulder and I turned to face her.  “What was all that about?” she asked.

“I’ll tell you, but not here.  Let’s go back to the barracks.”

She nodded, took my hand, and we walked in silence down the corridor.  The journey was a short one, with ours being the first unit on the left in the passage, but while we walked, a growing sense of apprehension began to take hold.  Tomorrow, I would be going on an incredibly dangerous mission, which, with my newfound abilities or not, I wondered if any of us would survive, but this feeling was deeper than that.

For everything Ethan had shared with me, I felt that there was something more to this mission than simply reestablishing contact with the command center and saving my fellows.  If our conversation had shown me anything, it was how painfully little I knew of what was really going on, and that terrified me.

When we arrived at the barracks, the dim purple glow emanating from inside revealed that the normally cramped room was relatively empty – everyone must have gone off to the mess hall further down the corridor to get their daily rations.  I turned to Krista, feeling somewhat relieved.

“Looks like we’ve got the place mostly to ourselves for the moment, but, umm…I imagine you’re hungry after a day like today.” I said, my head sinking slightly at the end.

“Not at all!” she said brightly.  Let’s take advantage while everyone’s away – I want to hear about what Ethan told you.”

“Are you sure?” I said with concern.

“Gray, I’ll be fine!  Come on.”

I knew there was no point in discussing it further – her mind was set.  I half-smiled back at her as we went inside and walked to my bunk.  There were only a few others in the room that I could see, but they all looked sound asleep.

“I think we should be OK to talk in here…not much room to sit up in these bunks – well, you know.  It looks like the one above mine is open; do you want me to take that one?”

“Gray, don’t be silly.  You know I can’t stand talking to people when I can’t see them, and besides, I promise, I won’t bite.”  She smiled coyly and slid across my bunk to the inside closest the wall.

I eyed the remaining space on the bunk with doubt – as it was, I typically occupied every available square inch of my bunk on my own, but I squeezed in gingerly beside her, laying on my left side as straight as I could manage.  We were still unavoidably close, but the look on her face told me she was quite pleased with our arrangement.  She put her free arm around me, and sighed with contentment.  My heart fluttered.

“So what happened with Ethan back there?” her voice was hushed to a whisper now.

At this distance, her brilliant green eyes were completely mesmerizing.  I’d been lost in them for several seconds when I realized she’d spoken.  I composed myself as best I could and replied, “He said he didn’t want me to talk to Matthias.  Said something about me ruining everything if I did.”

“Hmmm…that’s weird.  I wonder what he meant by that.”  She searched my face for a hint but then seemed satisfied that I genuinely didn’t know.  “What’d you want to see Matthias for anyway?”

“You know when I passed out?  I had a dream that I was on this beach in the world above.  There were two brothers there fighting over a piece of Darkstone.”

“Darkstone?  Up there?”

“Weird, I know.  Anyway, they both looked identical to each other except one was older – both had brown hair and gray eyes – and the older one was called Matthias.”

Krista’s eyes widened with comprehension.

“Matthias had taken the Darkstone from his brother, but the younger one persisted in trying to get it back.  At first he couldn’t but then he got really serious.  He hit Matthias harder than I would have thought possible and took back the stone.  When he looked up, his eyes flashed red, and then I passed out again.”

“His eyes flashed red?  You mean like yours?”  I nodded.  “Gray!  If that was you, then that means…”

“That Matthias is my brother.”  I finished her sentence and watched as the questions visibly flew through her mind.  I wondered which one she would ask first.

“So does that mean he can do what you can do?”

I hadn’t considered that one.  Oh God, can he?

“To be honest, I have no idea.  Ethan says he’s going to tell me about who we are and where we come from tonight, so I guess I’ll find out then.”

“Wait…how would Ethan know about you two?”

“Beats me, but he said ‘we’re the same’ and that’s why he’s looked after me since I came here.”

“So he’s like you too?  How could he have been here all this time without anyone knowing?”

“I don’t know, but I get the feeling he’s much better at controlling his abilities than I am.  I think he can change his eye color to disguise what he really is.  When we were waiting in the station earlier today, I looked at him and he had gray eyes.  Then I heard a voice in my head and it was him.  He said that I don’t understand what I am but that I would learn to control it.  When I looked back at him just a moment later, his eyes were brown again.”

“Can you do that?”

“Which thing, change my eye color or project my voice into people’s heads?”  One was clearly more advanced than the other and yet, I was pretty certain I could do neither.

“Changing your eye color, silly!  The other thing’s kinda creepy.  Can you make them turn green?”

“What’s wrong with gray?”  I said, now worried that she didn’t care for my natural eye color.

“You’re so predictable, Gray!  I love your eyes the way they are; just see if you can…please?”  This time she used her eyes to an unfair advantage on purpose.  I simply couldn’t say no.

“Well, at least I have a shade to try for” I said, indicating her eyes “but I doubt I’ll be able to make mine anywhere near as amazing as yours, if I can do it at all.”  She blushed at my compliment.  “Here goes nothing.”

How in the world do I do this?  Maybe if I draw out the light like earlier but try to focus it in my eyes… “How’s this?”

“Gray, you did it!”  My heart jumped with excitement, but then she added, “your eyes are blue!”

“Oh…” I said, crestfallen.

“No, no, it’s OK!  Just keep trying.  Focus hard on the color of my eyes.”

I laughed silently to myself.  How could I not focus on the color of her eyes?  It was like asking me to remember to breathe.  Nonetheless, I focused even more intently on the breathtaking green and tried again.  I pushed the light up through my eyes and willed it to bend, watching her expression for signs of improvement.

“They’re turning yellow, keep trying!” she said encouragingly as she gripped my shoulder.

I redoubled my effort, becoming entranced by the shade of her eyes.  Turn green.  Turn green!  Turn…

“Gray, they’re green!  You did it!”  She leaned in unexpectedly and kissed me, sending my senses over the edge.  “Whoa, now they’re REALLY green…Gray, that’s kinda scary.  Gray, calm down.”

I refocused on the color of her eyes and consciously slowed my heart back to normal.

“There!  Perfect.  I knew you could do it.”  She ran her fingers through my hair and it sent a tingle down my spine.  “Wow, this stuff is really dependent on your emotions, isn’t it?”

I refocused, allowing the light to recede from my eyes, and smiled back at her.  “I guess so.”

Suddenly, her demeanor changed from jovial to somber.  Her smile was replaced by an expression of uncertainty and her eyes were serious.  “Gray, I’m worried about you going on this mission.  Even if Ethan and James are going with you and Matthias is your brother, I don’t trust Soren.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, he’s huge, for starters!”

“You mean, like Jonas?”

She hesitated a moment “Yes, but…I, I don’t like the look of him!”

I could tell she was reaching now, so I decided to have some fun with her.  “He looks like Matthias, who looks like me…what are you saying?  You don’t like the look of me either?”  I knew it was cruel, but I couldn’t help laughing on the inside.

“No, that’s not what I meant!”  Her voice was starting to quiver.  “I mean…and what about the wolves?  What if they hurt you?!  I just…I don’t want you to leave.”  A single tear escaped from the corner of her eye.

Whoa, I had no idea she’d get so upset.  I’m such an ass! “Krista” I whispered softly to her “Everything’s going to be fine.  I have to go…otherwise none of us is getting out of here, but I swear to you.  I will come back.  An army of ten thousand wolves led by the Overseer himself couldn’t keep me away.”

She hesitated a moment, apparently trying to catch her breath.  She gazed intently at me, her eyes glinting in the dull purple glow like the surface of a lake reflecting the light around it.  She gently inhaled and then whispered the words:  “I love you.”

I’d never wanted to hear three words more desperately in all my life.  I cradled her head gently in one arm and ran the fingers of my other hand gently through her silken hair.  I struggled for what seemed like an eternity to find the strength to reply, then, at last, it came.  “I love you, Krista.”

Chapter 10: Unexpected

My heartbeat was like the thumping of a low drum in my head.  The only other sound was the slow draw and exhale of my breath – the noise of the outside world was muffled and indistinguishable.

I looked around in a daze.  The heavy steel security gate was just to my left.  To my right and just ahead, Reg and some of the other Guardsmen were moving the last of my fellows down the corridor.  Reg turned back and motioned for me to follow – his lips moved but I couldn’t hear him.  I waved him on ahead and watched as he nodded and ran out of sight.

Suddenly, I became aware that I was still holding Krista tightly against me.  I looked down and was met by her brilliant green eyes, wide and penetrating.  Her face was close to mine – I could feel the gentle warmth of her breath against my cheek.  The sound of my heart thumped faster in my head.  Her hand reached up and grasped softly at my hair, pulling me closer.  There were no thoughts, no distractions.  There was only her.

My left arm supported her, tracing the contour of her back, while my right gently cradled her head.  I considered her for a moment – every line was perfect and beautiful.  She smiled sweetly at me and moved closer, closing her eyes.  Our lips met and a sense of pure elation shot through to the tips of my nerves.

I pulled her closer but nothing was close enough.  We moved as one, breathing in and out together.  I struggled to master the longing I had for her all these years, but there was too much feeling, too much love to contain in these few stolen moments.  How long we persisted, I don’t know, but at long last, desire could stave off need no longer.  We stopped a moment for a deeper breath, but as we did, something broke through the relative silence.

“Hey!  What the hell are you two still doing back here?!”

Dammit, Reg!

Krista released me abruptly and made a feeble effort to casually smooth out her shirt.  “Umm, hi Reg!” she said a little too high to sound as innocent as intended.

I turned to face Reg, my face hot with embarrassment.  “Hi, Reg!  We were, umm, just going over…what we should…do…next.”  I couldn’t help but grin as a knowing look spread across his face.

“Right” he said, drawing the word out much longer than necessary.  “I’m sure you were.”

Now, the moment was gone and I was fully aware of my surroundings once more.  The violent slamming against the security gate brought the our dire predicament back to the forefront of my mind – on the other side of the gate were innumerable wolf-like creatures bent on our destruction and we had, as of yet, no viable escape plan.  I cast a worried glance at the gate then looked back at Reg.

“Any bright ideas?” I asked him darkly.

“The gate is sturdy – it should hold up against whatever those things do to it.  I’m more worried about them burrowing around it.  We need to get back to the barracks and seal off this wing of the mines.  We’ll plan our next move there.”

“Can’t the wolves just burrow their way in there too?”

“Based on the trouble they’re having with that gate, I’d say no.  The quadrant housing the barracks is surrounded by a secondary steel wall set into the rock to prevent escapes, or, in this case, intrusions.  The only problem with staying there is that, with the other group of wolves coming from the opposite end, we run the risk of being cut off from headquarters.  The supplies we have on hand will only last a week or so.”

“Well, I guess it’s better than staying here.  If nothing else, it will buy us some more time to think.  Come on, Krista, let’s get going.”  I turned and instinctively went to pick her up again.

“Gray,” she said with a hint of sarcasm “you’re very sweet, but…do you think I could just run beside you this time?”  She flashed a playful smile and winked at me.

“Oh…right, sorry, Krista!  Alright, Reg“ I said, turning back to him, “we’re all set.”

“OK.  You two go on ahead this time.  I’ll bring up the rear and make sure the gate to the barracks gets closed.”

I nodded then looked to Krista.  She motioned down the corridor and we set off at a brisk pace.  As we moved up the familiar cavern hall, I noticed the smoothness of Krista’s stride – she was graceful and effortless.

I guessed now that her apparent fragility was more a manifestation of fear than an inherent trait, for along with the expression of peace and confidence she now wore came a natural athleticism I’d never seen in her before – she matched me step for step with ease.  I watched her out of the corner of my eye and smiled to myself as we approached the barracks.

Before long, the dingy gray steel of the first bunkhouse came into view up ahead.  As we drew nearer, the nervous dialog of both Guardsmen and miners echoed above our footfalls and the dull hum of machinery in the distance.  We arrived none too soon as a discussion between the two groups was getting more heated by the second.

“You’re gonna seal us in here to die?!  Where’re you all going in such a hurry?  Back to hide in your fortress?!”  One of my fellows had established himself as spokesman for the group and ardently protested the Guard.  I couldn’t see who it was through the crowd but all of the miners echoed his sentiments loudly.

A tall pale-faced Guardsman answered in a clear baritone, “Our only chance for survival is to reestablish a path to the command center.  If we all stay here, our supplies will run out and we will and starve, but the risk of bringing you all is too great.”

Krista and I moved forward into the crowd to get a better look.  “What’s going on here?” I boomed.

The Guardsman who had been speaking looked up expectantly as I came into his view.  “Gray, come help everyone to see reason.”  He motioned for me to come forward, into the center of the crowd.  I took Krista’s hand then proceeded into the thick of the dispute.

What is it with these Purplecoats thinking I’m their buddy all of a sudden?  Reg seems OK, but who the hell is this guy?!

As I cleared the wall of onlookers, I saw at my right the one who’d taken charge on behalf of the miners.  His name was James, an ebony skinned man of about my height, lean, muscular, with deep brown eyes and short black hair – I guessed him about 10 years my senior but he had arrived in the mines about a year after me.  I knew James to be a hard worker and an honest man, so I immediately felt compelled to back him.

“Gray, will you tell this overgrown Purplecoat there’s NO WAY they’re locking us up in here while they take off to the command center?!” James glared back at the Guardsman as he spoke.

I turned to my left, setting my back to James and the miners.  Krista followed around to stand at my right.  The Guardsman was several inches taller than I so I had to look up slightly to meet his gaze.  I looked hard at him but saw that the characteristic sense of fear I’d come to expect from his comrades did not extend to him.  He looked me squarely in the eyes, drew himself up to full height and spoke again.

“Gray, we were just discussing our options from here.  We believe the best choice is to have a small group of men try to reestablish passage to the command center.  From there, we can bring back supplies and reinforcements to help evacuate everyone.  I understand the risk in leaving people here, but a group of this size would be at a severe disadvantage, should we be attacked on the way.”

He definitely has a point. I glanced aside at Krista, who seemed to be echoing my sentiment.  Who IS this guy, anyway?!  I thought I’d had it out with nearly every Purplecoat around but he doesn’t look familiar…

“I’m sorry, but who are you again?” I addressed the Guardsman in a firm but curious tone.

“My name is Soren.  I joined the Guard for this sector two weeks ago, and presently, I am the ranking officer here.”

I wondered how Fontaine could have possibly reached a higher position than Soren.  The man standing before me exuded such authority, I couldn’t dream of him ever having been trumped by such a miserable excuse for a leader – but then, based on the example Jonas had set all these years, I supposed the traditionally desired traits weren’t necessarily the standards against which Guardsmen were measured.  As I considered him a moment more, something about him struck me as familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

“OK, Soren.  As much as I hate to admit it, you have a point.”

“GRAY!!!” James’ voice burst out from behind me.

I turned slightly to address him, “James, I know what you’re thinking, and I think the same, but don’t let the fact that he’s a Purplecoat cloud your vision.  What he’s saying makes sense.  Maybe you could hold your own in an attack, but too many others couldn’t.  Do you want their lives on your head if something happens?”

“But…”

“James, you know I care about all of us.  Trust me on this one…please.”

“…OK, fine.”  He shifted his gaze to Soren, “but this doesn’t mean I trust THEM!”

“Fair enough” Soren replied calmly.  “Now that we’ve settled on our course from here, we should determine who among us will go.”  He turned to face me, “Gray, given the clear advantage your unique abilities afford you against these creatures, I believe you should go.”

I nodded in agreement, but before Soren could continue, Krista interjected.  “I’m going too!” she said decisively as she grasped my arm.

“I am certain you can take care of yourself, young lady” replied Soren, “but the risk is too great.  I am sorry.”

I turned and eyed her sweetly, “I can’t risk losing you again.  I’ll come back for you – I promise.”

She looked for a moment like she would continue her protest but then conceded in apparent defeat, “OK.”  It was unlike Krista to concede a point so easily, but, for now at least, the discussion was over.

Soren continued, “I will be going to oversee the operation.  Two other Guardsmen will come as well to ensure that the group can gain entry to the command center, should I perish during the journey.  Are there any others among you brave enough to go?”

James spoke up immediately, “You ain’t going anywhere without me!  You gotta have somebody to keep an eye on the damn Purplecoats and make sure they don’t try nothin’.”

Soren glared at him derisively, “Very well, James.  What a loss it will be to your kin should you fall along the way.”

I saw James roll his eyes at Soren and give him the finger when he turned.  Krista and I chuckled under our breath.

“Is there another who will go?” Soren boomed over the crowd.

The miners all turned to one another and became entrenched in discussion.  I watched them size each other up as the sound of their many voices began to echo through the cavern.  After another several minutes, they didn’t look any closer to making a decision.

“I will go!”  Ethan’s familiar rasp broke through the clamor as he strode through the people and took a place at my left side.

“I will go.”  He said again in a somewhat winded tone.

“Ethan!” I exclaimed as I heartily grasped his hands.  “Where in hell have you been?!”

Krista’s face lit up with relief as she saw him.  “Ethan, we’re so glad you’re OK!”  She embraced him tightly as a daughter would her father after his return from a long journey.

“It’s good to see you both too.  So?” he said, turning to Soren, “am I in or what?”

Soren took one look at him and began shaking his head.  Several of the Guardsmen scoffed at Ethan amongst themselves.  “Are you sure, old man?  It is quite a walk” said Soren, the corners of his mouth curling into a slight grin.

Ethan straightened up and furrowed his brow.  I could tell he was preparing for one of his speeches that would leave everyone’s mouth agape and silent – I’d been on the receiving end of many such tongue lashings in my time, but these poor saps had no idea what they were in for.  I smiled slyly in anticipation.

“Ah, so you’ve noticed I’m a bit older than you – I’m sure all present would have missed that detail had you not brought it to light, so thank you for pointing it out.  Yes, I am old, but let me ask you this: can any of your Guardsmen tell you where I have been these past several hours?”  He opened his stance and addressed all of the Guard together.  “Can any of you even hazard a guess at how I was here waiting for you as you all so gallantly stumbled across the threshold of the barracks?”

The Guard looked to each other frantically, their hopes diminishing fast with each clueless stare that met them.  Just then, Reg and the remaining Guardsmen came running in.  “We’re all set on the back end” he announced to the room.

“Reginald” Soren addressed him formally and he stood at attention “this man claims to have been here in the barracks upon our arrival.  Can you confirm this?”

Reg looked over at Ethan and shook his head.  “No sir,” he answered.

Ethan raised his hand politely and interjected, “The young man is correct.  He did not see me.  However, I can recall the exact order in which he and his cohorts entered this room just minutes ago.”  He began pointing them out one by one – first Reg, then another and another.  “I trust young Reginald can confirm that there were no other miners present who could have relayed this information to me when they secured this room.  Reginald?”

Reg looked absolutely dumbfounded.  “It was just as has he says, sir.”

“Now then,” Ethan continued smoothly, “if none of you can tell me where I have been or how I have managed to elude your notice all this time, perhaps it might occur to you that I possess knowledge of this place that you do not.  In light of this, I will allow you to reconsider your judgment in excluding me from the team.”

By the time Ethan finished his speech, a wide grin had stretched across my face.  What more could anyone say?  Ethan was going with us and that was that.  I saw Soren nod slightly to him in defeat then look up again to address the crowd.

“Then it is settled!  Gray, Ethan,” he added unnecessary stress as he said the name then paused a moment, “and James will be going on behalf of the miners.  Reginald…” he motioned to his right at Reg “…and Matthias…” he motioned to a serene looking man at his left ‘…will be accompanying me to represent the Guard.  For the moment, we are safe, so I suggest that everyone take advantage by retiring to your respective sleeping quarters to rest.  It has been a long day and we look to have many more ahead of us before this is over.”

This was as calm a resolution as anyone could have hoped for.  Never in my recollection could I remember any of us having had so much as a civil word in exchange with any of the Guard and now, here we were, banding together with them against a common threat.  I was glad to be saved the added stress of fighting with them amidst present circumstances, but as I stood and watched my fellows file down the corridor, the whole situation seemed more improbable by the minute.

The characteristic mistreatment we’d come to expect from the Guard was all but gone now.  I witnessed many Guardsmen actually helping the wounded among us, supporting them with a shoulder or even carrying them down the hall to their beds.  What the hell was going on here?  And who was this Matthias person?  He and Soren both shared the same expression – sharp, wise, and confident.  Neither of them bore the typical malice of those that had oppressed us all these years.  I turned aside to Ethan, hoping for some answers.

“Ethan,” I said in a low voice.  “What can you tell me about Matthias?  I thought I’d had run-ins with every Purplecoat there was, but neither he nor Soren are familiar to me.”

“They arrived from the command center together two weeks ago, as Soren mentioned earlier.  Aside from that, there’s not much to tell.  What you see is what you get – they’re both ice-cool and sharp as can be.  Not the sort I’d go crossing if I were you.”

I looked at Ethan straight on with a smirk on my face.  “And what about you, mister I go wherever I please for hours at a time and mouth off to the Guard when I get back?!”

He answered dryly, his trademark nonchalance set across his brow, “When you’ve been here as long as I have, you learn that, while the rules don’t bend much, the way you choose to interact with the rules can provide a certain amount of flexibility.”

I continued to watch Soren and Matthias as the crowd walked past.  The more I considered their demeanor, the more they seemed to stick out from their comrades.  It was as if their subconscious personas existed elsewhere, granting them peace I’d never witnessed before.  I caught myself longing for it with strange familiarity – like an old friend that had long since passed into the annals of time.

Just then, Matthias looked up across the room at me, his penetrating stare understanding much more than my face could have expressed.  For a split second, I could swear I saw his eyes flash silver, but then he turned away abruptly and began talking with Soren once more.  I couldn’t help but continue staring.

“Gray?” Krista began with uncertainty in her voice.  “Is everything alright?  You look more pale than usual.”

I swear I know him, but from where?  I’ve been stuck in the mines my whole life and I know I’ve never seen him here before.  It’s impossible, but it can’t be…

Gray?” repeated Krista, her tone now laced with concern.

“What?  Sorry, Krista.  It’s just that…I feel like I know him from somewhere.”

“Who?”

“The Guardsman called Matthias – the one Soren said is coming with him and Reg.  I don’t see how it’s possible but I just can’t shake it.”

“Well, it’s not surprising, Gray.  He looks just like you.”

“What?”

“Well, yeah.  If it wasn’t for that purple armor, I might have done a double-take when I saw him.  His eyes are different though…brown.”  She trailed off for a moment, apparently finishing her comparison in silence, and then continued.  “I guess I should give you more credit, though.  It’s not like we get many chances to consider our reflections before heading off to work, do we?  Come to think of it, have you ever even seen your face…Gray?  GRAY?!!!.”

Her voice trailed off gently into the background as I watched her outline go fuzzy then fade into the encroaching black.  I was unconscious, and, yet, still aware.  I lay motionless in the dark for a few moments, listening intently, but I heard nothing.  All was peaceful and calm around me.

After another few moments, I thought I felt warmth from above upon my skin.  Unfamiliar sounds cycled through my perception, growing louder with each repetition.  Like the sound of crushed ore passing through a sieve followed by the noise of a far-off conveyor but with a definite rise and fall to each, softer, hollow, and rhythmic rather than constant.

I opened my eyes and saw that I was laying face-down on a bed of white sand.  A vast body of clear blue water was before me, ebbing and flowing gently as I looked out to the horizon – everything was blue as far as I could see.  Overhead, a blindingly bright light shone down on me.  I rubbed my eyes then opened them again and refocused.  Was this the sun?  I’d only ever heard about it in Ethan’s stories, but I knew of nothing else that matched the description of what I saw.  I was in the world above.

I got to my feet and turned to find lush greenery all around.  Nothing like the plants that grew in the dim purple glow of the mines, these were brilliant green and sprawling, with massive fronds that swayed in the light breeze.  I greedily inhaled the fresh air as it rushed past – I’d never experienced anything like it.  It was clean and utterly refreshing.  I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply once more, but an abrupt outburst to my left startled me.

Not ten feet away, two pale brown haired boys, identical except one looked a few years older than the other, struggled in the sand.  They appeared to be fighting over something the eldest had clenched in his fist.

“Give it back!  That’s mine!”

“I just want to have a quick look!”

The younger boy fought in vain to wrest the unseen object from the older boy’s hands.  The two of them seemed oddly familiar, but I couldn’t say why.  The younger rushed in again, but no sooner had he unbalanced the older than he found himself flying through the air and landing flat on his back.

“Ha!  So hasty with your temper, little brother!  You’ll never get it back now!”

The older brother held the object aloft and I caught a glimpse of it.  My eyes widened and my mouth dropped open on sight of the unmistakable color – Darkstone!  What the hell was that doing here?!

The younger brother rose from the ground and turned so I could see his face.  His fierce determination was apparent in the way his rigid body poised for his next attempt.

“You WILL give that back, Matthias!”

Matthias?!

Just then, I glimpsed the younger’s eyes – they were pale gray just like mine!  The next thing I knew, he had struck his brother with force I wouldn’t have imagined possible from one so young.  Matthias flew back and the Darkstone fell to the ground.  The younger brother knelt to retrieve the stone, and when he looked up, my heart stopped.  His eyes flashed bright red, and in an instant, everything went black again.