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.
“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.
“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.”