Chapter 1: Awakening

“Gray.”

Gray!”

“Gray, wake up!  It’s Eli!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bye, Gray.  Thanks for everything.”

“ELI!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s true!  Pop, here…”

“Dammit, Gray” grumbles Ethan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now…where were we, lass?”

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

“Y, ye’sir!”

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

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

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

“But, sir!  I…”

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

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

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

He steels himself and turns to address us.

“ALL RIGH’, YOU SCUM!  MOVE!!!”

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

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

Damn.  So much for being discreet.

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

Chapter 9: Flight

Locked in Krista’s gaze, time seemed frozen.  Part of my consciousness remained aware of the tumult still churning all around me but it seemed somehow vague and distant.  All I could think of was how close I’d been to losing her and how I should have never left her alone.  I felt frail and weak beneath the guilt.

The next thing I knew, Krista was standing before me.  She smiled lightly and shook her head, her brow raised in concern.

“You’re actually beating yourself up about this, aren’t you?” she said with a hint of surprise.

How does she know what I’m thinking? “No, of course not!  I’m just glad you’re OK.”

“Gray, you’re a terrible liar.  You think I don’t know you after all these years?  You just saved us all from those things, but all you can think about is how it’s your fault they almost got me – does that sound about right?”

I kept up a fairly constant stream of self-deprecation in my mind, but I couldn’t remember her ever calling me out on it before.  I opened my mouth to reply, but I was at a loss for words.

“That’s what I thought.  Gray, look at me.”  She took my hands in hers and continued, “You did what you had to do.  Don’t you dare think for a minute that you should have done something differently.”

The sincerity in her eyes reassured me.  For a fleeting moment, I felt at peace, but then the gravity of the situation renewed its pull, flooding my mind with questions.  How did the wolves even get to this part of the mines?  Is it safe to stay here?  Is anyone hurt?

Krista caught the sudden shift in my expression and read me like a book “…and now you’ve already moved on to the next thing.  Fine, but we’re gonna talk about this more later!” she said playfully.  “Come on, let’s have a look.”  We both turned to face the rest of the cavern.

Despite the events of the day, I was still caught off guard by the awestricken stares that met me, but there were more pressing matters at hand.  Throughout the room, I saw groups of people huddled around the fallen bodies of their loved ones.  My heart sank, and the guilt began seeping back in.

Krista, still holding my right hand, squeezed it gently and spoke.  “Don’t forget, Gray, this isn’t your fault.  You did everything you could for them.”

I nodded along with her words, willing myself to believe them, and continued scanning the room.  Just two stations down to the left, a particularly large group of my fellows were gathered around something.  I couldn’t see what it was, but then I heard a young boy crying amidst them and knew – Eli.

“Krista, Eli.” I said softly as I motioned to my left.  She nodded and we both ran toward the group.

“Let us through” I called our firmly.

Those closest to us looked up with annoyance on their faces but then swiftly parted, giving us a clear path to Eli.  He was sobbing uncontrollably.  We knelt down beside him, me on his left and Krista on his right.  Krista put a hand on his shoulder to comfort him, but his body still shook as he wept bitterly.

“Eli, Eli, what’s wrong?” Krista said in her sweetest voice.

Eli quieted his sobs and looked up, first to Krista then to me.  His eyes were bloodshot and swollen.  I was struck by the drastic difference in his face.  His features seemed to have become long and drawn – void of the life that was there just hours ago.  With visible effort, he composed himself as best he could and began to speak in a barely audible voice.

“Everything was fine.  My mom and dad were just a few feet away.  We were only working for a few hours when this black smoke started coming through a crack in the wall.”

“People started screaming.  We heard rumbling coming from the crack, and my mom and dad rushed over.  They grabbed me and then we were running as fast as we could.”  His voice was becoming more urgent now.

“I looked back and saw the wolves running at us.  Somehow, we made it back to the cart and started it back up the shaft.  We thought we were safe but then two of them jumped into the cart.  My dad tried to fight them off, but they killed him before we made it back.”  Eli’s voice quivered.

“My mom pushed me out of the cart and told me to run.  I didn’t want to leave her!”  He was almost shouting now with tears streaming down his face.  “I didn’t want to leave, but I ran and now she’s dead!  SHE’S DEAD!”  He slammed his fists to the ground over and over.  “THEY’RE DEAD AND IT’S MY FAULT!!!”

I couldn’t make out anything else Eli said, but I understood, just the same.  His parents were killed right before his eyes.  I had only just met them earlier today.  I promised them I would try to find a way out of here, and instead they had died and their son was left alone.  I placed my hand on his other shoulder and summoned what I hoped to be a calming voice.

“Eli…I’m sorry about your parents.  There’s nothing I can say to make it better, but I want you to know…you’re not alone.”

Eli looked up at me, his brown eyes still full of bitter tears.  Without warning, he cast his arms around my back and clung to me tightly.  I wasn’t really sure what to do, but Krista nodded me on.  I just held him and let him cry.  After a short while, his weeping lessened to sniffles and then stopped. He released his arms, rubbed his eyes, and looked at me.

“You really are trying to find a way out, aren’t you?”

I knew only too well the impossible nature of the proposition – escape from the mines.  Earlier today, I’d dared to believe it was possible, but now?  The addition of the strange wolf-creatures made escape seem like an outright suicide mission.  Even so, I knew that revealing my doubt to Eli now would crush him.

I looked Eli squarely in his wide brown eyes and nodded “yes” to him.  Amidst the pain, a glimmer of hope appeared in his gaze.  He rose from the ground and motioned behind me.

“I’m not the only one who needs you, Gray” he said nobly.  “Thanks for being here for me.”

I nodded to him once more then looked over to Krista, who had apparently not stopped watching him this whole time.  She smiled at me sweetly and shook her head.

“What is it?” I said, genuinely unaware.

“So many surprises from you today.”

Even I couldn’t mistake the look on her face for anything other than adoration.  My stomach fluttered and my face felt hot for a moment, but I knew now wasn’t the time to let myself revel in elation.

“Let’s finish checking on everyone else.  It looks like there are a lot more people hurt.”

Krista looked startled, as if pulled from some pleasant reverie,  but she composed herself, nodded quickly, and took my left hand.

As we made our way around the cavern, the story was much the same from everyone we spoke to: strange cracks opened in the walls of the mine shafts and from them issued the thick black smoke and hordes of wolves.  Many had been trapped in the shafts, unable to reach their mine carts before being overrun and others were overtaken in the same fashion we were – wolves leaping into the already departed carts.  The consensus was that this was how the wolves managed to get back to the main cavern.

Most people we’re still too frightened to speak anything more about the incident, but a few had managed to keep their wits about them.  They remarked on the startling intelligence of the creatures, how they seemed to communicate and work together to hijack the carts and reach this station.  One man even said it was almost like they had planned the attack.

The very idea of the wolves having planned anything seemed preposterous to me, but the timing of the thing was something I couldn’t ignore.  From all the different people we spoke with, my impression was that the attacks had all occurred at around the same time – quite a feat considering there were twenty separate shafts being worked.  I shuddered as my mind began to swim with the implications of it all.

If these creatures really are as intelligent as they seem, how much longer until they find a way to reach the station in larger numbers?  The immediate threat was gone, but we needed to get everyone out of here as soon as possible.

After awhile longer, we had completed our sweep of the room.  In all, twenty-three miners were killed in the attack, many of whom I’d just gotten to know earlier today.  Another sixty-two were wounded and eight were still unaccounted for.  The most notable among them was Ethan, but the missing also included Les and his two cronies – no doubt they’d made a run for it and left everyone else to fend for themselves.

The Guard had not escaped without casualties either.  Eleven were dead, including their newly appointed “leader” Fontaine.  Wrong though it was, I chuckled to myself, “I guess the wolves didn’t like his accent either!” Another eighteen were wounded, leaving their number at only twenty-one able bodied men.

Once again, they were huddled in a panic near the bridge, undoubtedly discussing the fact that they were now dangerously outnumbered.  A growing sense of urgency churned within – we needed to act fast.  I was fairly certain I could handle the remaining Guardsmen on my own.  Their continual nervous glances in my direction told me they, too, were considering this possibility.

Despite their weakened state, though, they were still blocking the only exit, batons firmly in hand.  I wasn’t about to risk losing any more of my fellows in a hastily executed lunge for freedom.   For the time being it appeared the only thing to do was wait.  I turned to Krista to talk out my thoughts.

“I think we need to get everyone back to the barracks as quickly as we can.  Those wolves aren’t going to give up so easily.”

“But the Guard are still blocking the exit.  We can’t just walk by them.” Replied Krista.

“I know…still, having everyone so spread out makes me nervous.  I don’t know how the crack at the back of the shaft opened so quickly, but what if those things can get here the same way?  I think we should at least gather our group together away from the walls.”

“Agreed.”

“OK.  You take the left side, and ask everyone to come to the front center.  Just stay as far from the cart stations and walls as possible without agitating the Guard.  I’ll take the right side, just in case anything does start coming out of the walls.”

Krista nodded in and started off to the left of the cavern.  As soon as she looked up, though, she stopped abruptly in her tracks, grabbed my shoulder and turned me toward the bridge – one of the Guardsmen was approaching…alone.

At first, I was at a complete loss.  Fair fights were definitely not something the Guard typically came looking for and, after my little light show earlier, they were all clearly terrified of me.  Why on earth would only one come straight for me?  As he drew nearer, though, I recognized him as the Guardsman I had saved from the wolf-creature.  He holstered his baton and raised his hands to show he meant no harm.

Gray, isn’t it?” the man shouted across the closing distance between us.

Peaceful or not, I’d learned better than to trust a Guardsman any further than I could throw him – as I’d discovered with Jonas, however, that distance had apparently grown by a fair margin in the last day, so I decided to take my chances.

“What the hell?” I mumbled to myself.  “Yeah, I’m Gray,” I answered back.  “What do you want?”  My eyes watched warily as he advanced.

“To thank you for saving me earlier.”  He was nearly close enough to touch now.  I instinctively positioned myself between him and Krista.  “And to ask a favor of you.”  He stopped just a few feet in front of me, hands still raised.

What?!” I exclaimed.  I was beside myself in disbelief.  “Just because I saved you earlier doesn’t mean I like you!  I suppose you’re going to tell me you never joined in the fun while Jonas hurt Krista or beat any of the rest of us?  I suggest you turn your sorry ass around before I start to regret saving it!”

The sapphire glow was already beginning to flow through my veins again and a stony scowl was upon my face.  I clenched my jaw in anger, tightening my cheek muscles in warning.  I meant business and this moron was going to understand that one way or another.

The man stuttered abruptly back several steps, raising his arms as if ready to cover his face.  “Whoa!  Let’s not get hasty!  I’m sorry for the things Jonas and the others did to your friends, but I swear I never took part in any of it – I thought it was sick.”

I lightened my expression slightly but still bored into him with my cold gray eyes.  “Alright then.  Let’s hear it.”

The man relaxed his stance and began.  “Look, we don’t know what those things are any more than you do – none of us has ever seen anything like them!  All we know is that you’re the only one here who seems to have any chance of warding them off.”

“We received word from another Guard installment past your barracks a short while ago and they were attacked as well.  The worst news is, they’ve been cut off from the rest of the mines.  They’ve blocked the wolves off at the security gate on the far end of the corridor, but they’re not sure how long it will hold.  If they break through, they’ll cut off our only route back to the command center and have us trapped here.”

My heart sank.  The grave seriousness in his expression told me he was telling the truth.  Even a few hours ago, the idea of working together with the Guard was unthinkable, and yet, now, there was no other option.

“What do you want me to do?”

“We need to get everyone moving down the corridor as quickly as possible so we can seal off this cavern in case the wolves try to come through again.  Round up your people and tell them to follow our men across the bridge.  A few others will stay behind with me to bring up the rear and help you as best we can.”

Well, how about that?  The lousy Purplecoat read my mind.

I nodded in the affirmative with a slight smirk and turned to start around the cavern.

“Oh, and Gray…” I turned to face him again.  “I’m Reg, in case you need me.”  He extended his hand tentatively.

I considered his gesture for a moment, but then looked back up at him without extending my hand in return.  “Thanks, Reg,” I said firmly, “but trust isn’t something I give out easily.  I’ll be watching you.”

“Fair enough,” Reg replied calmly as he lowered his hand.  “Thanks for your help, Gray.”  With that, he turned to rejoin the rest of the Guard.

I leaned over to Krista as I watched Reg walk away.  “Do you think we can trust him?”

“I think so.” She replied.  “He was telling the truth, Gray – about not having done anything to me.”  She turned to face me.  “I think he’s OK.”  She glanced around the room at our fellows then looked back at me.  “We should get going, though.  We may not have much time.”

“OK, let’s go…and Krista,” I softened my tone, “please be careful.”

“I will.”  With that she was off, rounding the left side of the cave.

I started down the right side, and as expected, most of my fellows were very skeptical about trusting the Guard.  Now though, at least, I could tell they did trust me.  Group by group, they made their way toward the suspension bridge and out of sight.  I kept a close eye on the Guard all the while, but they stayed true to Reg’s word, leading the miners out – some even helped with the wounded.

As I went, I searched the faces for Ethan, but he was still nowhere to be seen.  I started to worry but pressed on until I met Krista near one of the center stations at the back of the cavern.

“Well, that’s everyone,” she said.

“Have you seen Ethan anywhere?” I asked.

“Come to think of it, no.  Why?”

“I haven’t seen him since we got back from the shaft.  I hope he’s OK.”

Krista’s brow softened.  “I know he’s old, Gray, but he’s also smart.  If I know Ethan he’s probably managed to sneak past the Guard back to the barracks already.”

Her words comforted me.  “You’re probably right”, I said.  “Let’s get across that bridge.  There’s no telling when those damn things will…”

The dull purple light of the lanterns above flickered uneasily.  Dust and debris shook loose from the ceiling and fell to the floor with a light patter.  A low rumbling sound was emanating from behind the wall at the right of the cavern.  It grew steadily louder, and then, to my horror, several cracks opened in the rock, thick black smoke seeping from each.

I turned to Krista in haste.  “Grab on to me!”

“What?!”

“I won’t risk losing you!  Grab on!”

She flung her arms around my neck and back and clung tightly against my chest.  In an instant, the blue light was flowing through me and enveloped us both.  I lifted Krista easily, cradling her in my arms, and then I was sprinting toward the bridge.

The miners and Guardsmen who were still waiting to cross turned to see what was going on, looks of bewilderment written on their faces.

“RUN!!!”  I yelled across the distance.

We were about half-way across the room when I chanced a look at the right wall.  The cracks were growing larger by the second, smoke billowing freely from them now.  I quickened my pace, but my heart remained steady and calm, as though the extra effort cost me nothing.

As we drew nearer the bridge I shouted, “Reg, get everyone out now!  Get to the gate and lock it down!”

I heard some of the miners begin to panic, but Reg and his men kept them moving – he stayed true to his word.  In seconds, they were all out of sight and we were closing in fast on the bridge.  I looked down and saw Krista’s eyes closed tightly and her face pressed hard against me.

I glanced aside again and saw the first set of menacing purple eyes emerge from one of the cracks.  In another second, wolves were pouring out of the walls, hot on our heels.  Fear tried to grip me, but I fought it off.  The ravenous howling at my back grew more frenzied, but the horrific sounds were soon mixed with the clanging and creaking of the bridge beneath my feet – we were almost there.

I could see the security gate just ahead, shifting right and left rhythmically with my stride.  The door was already beginning to close and the wolves were gaining fast.  I heard the muffled shouts of my fellows urging me onward.  My muscles protesting fiercely and my heart pounding against my chest, but I pushed harder still.  Everything in me was focused on getting Krista to safety.

The gate was halfway down and the wolves were nearly on us.  With my last bit of strength, I tucked Krista within me, dove forward, and rolled sideways over the threshold.  The heavy iron door crashed down behind me not a second later, followed by the sounds of massive bodies crumpling against the metal.  Their pained yelps sent a wave of relief over me.  I didn’t know for how long, but for the moment, we were safe.

Chapter 6: Hope Rekindled

If the Guard were in disarray before, it was nothing compared to what they were now.  Their captain was gone – permanently – and it showed.  Jonas had been so completely dominating in his role that I doubt any of them dared to think of who was second in command.  They glanced hastily around the room, concern growing more evident by the second in their fragile expressions.

I decided to use their confusion to my advantage and stood, purposing to make a round of the cavern and check on everyone.  I took Krista’s hands in mine and looked down at her compassionately.

“Can you stand?”

“I, I think so“, she breathed thinly.

“Come with me.  I want to make sure everyone’s OK.”

Her expression shifted away from sorrowful exhaustion and slightly toward pleasant surprise; her eyes narrowed only just as she pulled against my grip to regain her feet.  She paused and considered me for a moment but then digressed and came around to my left.  Her right hand still held mine tightly; her fingers intertwined with my own.

We set off to the right side of the cavern, and approached the first group of miners:  a man and woman with a young boy of perhaps eight years.  As we drew nearer, the boy looked up at me with marked excitement.  He was a wiry youth with matted brown hair and tan skin.  He tugged on the arms of the man and woman – his father and mother, I assumed – and they looked up as well, though their expressions were much more reserved, appraising.

“Mom, dad, look!  It’s Gray!” the boy said in a high cheerful voice.

He was one of the newest among us.  I remembered now that he and his parents had come to the mines with the latest batch of “recruits.”  I felt suddenly guilty that I did not yet know their names.

The boy broke abruptly from the arms of his parents and strode out eagerly to greet us.

“Hi, Gray!  I’m Eli!” He held out his right hand expectantly.

Eli!  Get back here now!” his mother hissed at him.

I looked over to Krista, uncertain.  She nodded reassuringly and nudged me forward.

I took Eli’s hand in mine and shook it once firmly.  “Um…hi, Eli.  Good to meet you.”  My voice sounded gruff, but I tried to soften my expression to make up for it.  I had never been very good at talking to people.

Eli’s brow raised, his eyes eager for me to say something more, but I didn’t know what to say.  My newly found sense of kinship had, unfortunately, done nothing to improve my social skills.  Eli hesitated for a moment, looking slightly crestfallen, but then perked up and continued.

“Is this your girlfriend?”  He said animatedly, looking over to Krista.

“Umm…”

“Yes, I’m Krista.  Nice to meet you, Eli!” she said, assertively.

Was that pride I heard in her voice?  I couldn’t help the slight grin that spread across my face as I cast a furtive glance in her direction.

“Wow!  You’re really pretty!  Gray, you sure are lucky!” said Eli brightly.

Krista blushed sweetly at him.

“Eli, what can I do for you?” I said abruptly.

“Oh, right!”  He shook himself out of the daze and changed his voice to a whisper.  “So, is it true what everyone’s saying?”

I was fairly certain I knew what was coming but I wanted to hear it from someone else before I answered. I shrugged my shoulders with a hint of bewilderment in my expression.

You know,” his whisper strained now, “that you’re planning an escape!”

Krista and I exchanged an amused look – I almost laughed at the speed at which things got distorted when passing through a crowd.  Actually, I was planning an escape, or rather, I had thought about it earlier, but I certainly hadn’t come up with anything worth sharing yet.  For some reason, though, I felt like I owed Eli honesty, so I told him.

“Look, I don’t know what everyone thinks of me, but it has to be nearly impossible to get out of here alive.  Even if I found a way out, the Guard wouldn’t think twice about doing away with any of us.”

Eli’s expression fell at my words.

“But…” I can’t just stamp out his hope like that “…I’m working on it.”

His face brightened again, just as quickly as it had fallen.  He ran back to his parents with something quite near glee in his steps.

Krista’s expression hovered somewhere between surprise and admiration as I looked back to her.

“So you believe me then?”  Krista’s words were laced with skepticism.

“I’m trying.” I forced the words out.  “Krista, I don’t understand why you believe in me.  I don’t understand, and yet, you still do – you deserve more than this so…so there’s nothing for me to do but try.”

The edges of her mouth curved upward, accentuating the perfect form of her cheeks.  I soaked in the warmth of her expression, catching myself several seconds later, still focused on her lips…

Are you kidding?  Not now, Gray…snap out of it! I chided myself for this repeat indiscretion then came to.

“Come on.”  I nodded towards Eli’s family.  Krista’s left hand met her right, both now wrapped around my own.  Her face was angelic, her eyes shimmering in the lamplight as we walked.

Within a minute, we caught up with Eli and I extended my free hand, first to his father then his mother.  “Hi, I’m Gray,” I said firmly.

They shook it, though somewhat reluctantly.  Fragile smiles crept across their faces.

The father spoke in a nervous baritone, “I’m Jonathan; this is my wife, Sarah.  Eli says you think there might be a way out?”  He stole a quick glance over at the still oblivious huddle of the Guard.  “Look, I saw what you did to that Guard captain this morning but…” he hesitated, sizing me up, “what can you really do against all of them?”  He cast a more deliberate glance at the Guard.

He’s right!  I have to stop this before I start getting people’s hopes up.

Krista squeezed my hand gently, encouraging me.

I took a deep slow breath, meeting his eyes in earnest, and pressed on.  “Jonathan, I don’t know what strength is in me; all I can promise is that I will try to find a way.  Keep your head up, and don’t let the weight of this place break your spirit.  This is a hard life, but there is always hope as long as you believe things can change.”

I’d barely finished saying the words, and, already they seemed all wrong – contrived, hopelessly inadequate to this family who’d had their entire lives stolen from them such a short time ago.  My heart sank as I awaited Jonathan’s derision.

To my surprise, his brow softened and his eyes filled with gratitude.   He seemed lighter somehow, as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders.

Sarah took his hand in hers then she spoke, “We’re with you, Gray.”

I was stunned by their unreserved acceptance.  Not knowing how to express my sincere thanks, I humbly bowed my head for a moment then turned to continue our circuit around the cavern.

“Bye, Gray!”  I turned to see Eli waving enthusiastically.

“See you around, Eli.”  I answered.

“Byyye, Krista!”  Eli called hopefully.

Krista blushed and waved kindly back to him then retook my hand and we set off.

With each group of people I met, the words came easier.  Just having Krista there beside me filled me with confidence I would have never thought possible.  As we made our way from huddle to huddle, some were skeptical – and understandably so – but many welcomed me openly.  A small part of me even started to believe I could save them.  In any case, Krista believed I could, and for now, that was enough.

We’d only spoken with about a third of the people in the cavern when I noticed the Guard finally starting to realize what was going on.  They seemed to have organized their ranks now, with one particularly self-assured looking individual taking the lead as they advanced.  My fellows hastily broke off their conversations as the Guard passed until the last whispers trailed off and all eyes focused squarely on the center of the cavern.

“Listen up!”  The new ring leader spoke in a high condescending tone.  The words blended together, sounding like one rather than two beneath his nasal accent.

“I am Fontaine!”  He paused a moment, apparently for effect.  “I am the new captain of this outfit!”  His consonants were oddly soft, sounding like he was slurring.  “If you cross me, I’ll make sure you wished you’d never been born!”

“I sure am glad you all had yerselves a nice break this mornin’, and to celebrate, we’re gonna work an extra two hours tonight!”

Listening to Fontaine speak was almost comical; the way he overemphasized certain syllables and glossed over others as if they weren’t there was absurd.  I sniggered to Krista under my breath.  She grinned slightly and hit my shoulder, fighting the urge to smile outright.

“Now, I want every one of ya to move yer sorry asses toward the mine carts, and I don’t wanna hear a word outta any of ya!

The shuffle of feet gradually came to the foreground as everyone began moving to the back of the cavern.  I found genuine difficulty in taking Fontaine seriously, but Krista was with me.  The Guard were still ruthless and I knew better than to push my luck.  Besides, I bet Fontaine was just itching to make an example of someone in a bid to solidify his power.  I turned, still holding Krista’s hand, and followed suit.

At the back of the cavern was a steep precipice with gated boarding stations sectioned off about every twenty feet along its edge.  I veered toward the far left station, remembering a small opening I’d seen several days earlier at the back of the leftmost shaft – a possible escape route.  As I mulled the idea over in my head, several members of the Guard hurried past to mitigate the flow of miners now crowding at the cavern’s rear.

By the time we reached the back, two Guardsmen stood at the entrance to each station with lines of my fellows trailing away from each.  A number of carts were already well on their way into the mines.  I scanned the crowd for a sign of Les and his cronies, hopeful that the commotion could provide an opening for me to throw them off the ledge, but they were nowhere to be seen.

Just then, I saw Eli and his parents with several others load into a cart just two stations to our right.  He looked over anxiously, his exuberance now replaced with a hint of panic.  I nodded to him reassuringly and watched as his cart rolled smoothly down the shaft.

Finally, Krista and I reached the front of our line and I helped her ahead of me into our cart.  I went to follow her in, but the Guardsmen to the left and right halted my progress abruptly with their batons.

Krista shot a terrified look back at me as our hands parted.

“Not so fast, hero.”  The Guardsman at my right spat mockingly.  “We wanna spend some quality time gettin’ to know the young miss.”

The Guardsman at my left chortled suggestively in reply.

NO!  I WON’T LET THIS HAPPEN AGAIN!!!

Before I knew what I was doing, a low rumble issued from deep within me.  My countenance shifted, now reflecting the fury that was boiling to the surface.  I pierced viciously through their mirthful stares – I could feel my eyes glowing fiercely as I glared at them in warning.

A sensation, like a thousand burning needles piercing my skin, rushed down my shoulders, through my arms and to the tips of my fingers.  I extended my hands in front of me in shock and saw that they glowed as well.  My veins traced a path back toward my heart in brilliant crimson.

I felt strange, like I had a degree of control over the shimmering light that coursed through me.  I had a sudden urge to force the light down through my fingers…and out?

The notion seemed preposterous to me, but my protective instinct had already taken over and cast logic aside.  I willed the light down through my right arm into a concentrated mass beneath the skin of my hand.  Then, before I could think, the light emerged as a swirling globe.  The pain was like burning shards of glass searing their way out from the inside.  I shut my eyes hard, wincing and writhing from the pain, but then I felt my fury begin to steady me.

I opened my eyes reluctantly, expecting a shredded mass in place of my hand, but it was unscathed.  In only seconds, the pain had dulled and I found that I had control of the light.  I feathered the globe with the fingers of my left hand and felt only strangely familiar warmth.

I refocused on the Guardsmen, who now shuddered like fearful children before me.  One sentence was all I needed to make them comply.

“I’m going with Krista.”

They dropped their batons and fled, not daring to look behind them.

All was silent except for the fading footfalls of the two Guardsmen.  The entire room watched in awe, not daring to exhale as I stepped into the cart and started it down the shaft – Krista and I now its sole occupants.  As we slid from view, I glimpsed Fontaine, his mouth hung wide and head shaking in disbelief.