Chapter 7: Encounter

The dense cavern air beat against my face as the cart moved briskly down the shaft.  The cart was sturdy.  Like most things in the mines, it was constructed of the same dingy steel that formed the walls of the barracks.   It even had smaller versions of the glowing purple light strips, both inside and out.  There was room enough for at least ten normal sized men, but Krista and I sat closely, side by side at the right of the cart.

We were silent for several minutes, content to be alone and away from the cavern full of stunned faces.  The gentle rhythm of the cart’s wheels echoed softly against the earthen walls of the shaft. I leaned back and exhaled, relieved that the burning light had finally receded from my arms.

In the absence of the Guard, I found the ride to the mining site to be surprisingly pleasant.  Periodic breaks in the shaft walls revealed magnificent rock formations, jutting out abruptly from the darkness below and hanging precariously from above.  All of them glimmered faintly, encrusted with deposits of Darkstone.

An enormous grotto opened before me.  In the distance, I saw a vast lake; its surface was jet black and calm but for the few ripples from a nearby inlet.  Extraordinary luminous plants glowing fluorescent blue, green, and crimson sketched the vague impression of a shoreline and trailed out of sight.  A peculiar subterranean bird swooped in and out of view, calling strangely into the endless night.  How did I miss all this before...

To my right, Krista was motionless.  She was bent over at the waist, resting her head in her hands and breathing softly.  Another several minutes passed, but she didn’t look up or speak.

Until now, I hadn’t given any thought to how the scene she’d just witnessed had affected her.  Had I scared her?  Was she worried about the  Guard?  Each second spent in silence seemed to last a lifetime.

What if she thinks I’m some kind of freak?  What if she doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore? The weight of these possibilities was too great to ignore any longer.

“Krista,” I said tentatively, “are you OK?  I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Still, she remained silent.  I hesitated for a moment, battling within myself over what to do.  Finally, I staved off my uncertainty and rested my right hand gently on her back.

She shivered briefly at my touch but then resumed the steady rise and fall of her breathing.

Well, at least she didn’t shy away – that’s a good thing, isn’t it?  Unless she’s just preparing herself to let me down easy…or maybe she’s so scared of me that she doesn’t want to make any sudden moves.  Oh, God, I don’t think I could handle it if she…

I was abruptly broken from my downward spiral as Krista leaned in against me and took my left hand in hers.  The tension in my muscles relaxed as my fears vanished in that instant.  We passed the rest of the ride through the shaft in contented quiet.

After a short while, I looked ahead and saw the end of the railway.  The shaft opened around us into a wide cavern, glowing with the characteristic dull purple of the numerous Darkstone deposits that had already been exposed.  The cart ground to a halt and I disembarked first, helping Krista out after I’d gotten my footing.

The blatant uniqueness of the situation in which I now found myself caught me off guard as I looked at her: we were completely alone.  Her eyes were still pink and swollen from the tears she’d shed earlier but the prevailing brilliant green still captivated me, pulling me in.  I realized we were still holding hands but I couldn’t break from her gaze.  My heart started racing as she moved closer – too close.  She leaned in closer still, her lips parting expectantly.

Gray, you’ve waited for this a long time.  Don’t screw it up!

I broke the silence.  “So I guess we should get to work then.”

Idiot.

Her hands left mine and she turned abruptly to the side, looking thoroughly embarrassed.  She grabbed her mining gear from the cart and flitted off to the left side of the cavern.  I hastily followed suit, but by the time I caught up with her, she’d already set to work, clearly intent on ignoring me.

I took out my mining probe and began boring through a section of rock about ten feet away from her.   I watched her from the corner of my eye, looking for a sign that it was OK to talk to her again, but her determination didn’t falter.  We worked steadily for several hours, burrowing deeper into the wall and not speaking a word.  All the while, I tortured myself with thoughts of what could have been.

“We should get to work then?!”  What the hell is wrong with me?  I’ll be lucky if I haven’t ruined whatever affection she had for me for good.  Why did I stop?  I guess it just didn’t seem right.  After everything she’s already been through today, she’s probably really confused – it would have been wrong to disrespect her by taking advantage.  She doesn’t feel that way about me, anyway.  But then, why did she tell Eli she was my girlfriend earlier?  God, I really am an idiot!  I should apologize to her, but what can I say?

I continued my internal monologue for some time, playing different versions of the conversation in my head, but they all ended badly.  At long last, I decided on what to say, but just as I opened my mouth to say it, the cavern shook with a thunderous jolt and the lanterns above went out – we were in complete darkness.

Even though Krista was only feet away, the black was so thick I couldn’t see her.  I tried to use my probe to cast a little light, but it had stopped working.  Even the glow of the Darkstone all around us was gone – like it had been snuffed out like a candle.

“Krista!  Are you OK?”  I called out through the darkness.

“Gray, I’m scared.  Where are you?”  Her voice was filled with trepidation.

“I’m over here!  Try to follow the sound of my voice.”

“I, I can’t!  There’s too much rock everywhere – I’ll fall!”  Her voice was becoming more panicked by the second.  “Gray, help!”

I couldn’t see any more than she could.  I tried to make my way over to her, but she was right – there was so much debris in the way that I could scarcely take two steps without stumbling and completely losing all sense of direction.

I racked my brain frantically for a solution then a strange thought presented itself.  I concentrated hard, trying to draw out the light I’d produced earlier when I was angry at the Guardsmen, but nothing happened.

“Gray, where are you?!  I think I hear something moving around in here!”

I paused a second, listening closely to every nuance of sound in the room.  I could hear shouting from back up the shaft – I imagined my fellows had found themselves in a similar predicament – but there was something else.  I thought I heard a low breathing from the opposite end of the room and scraping against the dust on the stone floor.  I turned toward the sound and strained at the darkness.

At first glance, I saw nothing, but as I looked harder, I discerned two dull purple slits contrasting slightly against the black.  I’d heard Ethan tell stories of occasional meetings with creatures that lived in the mines, but none of them were supposed to be dangerous.  As I watched the creature prowl through the night, I got the distinct impression that he was wrong.

Fear took hold of me – not for myself but for Krista.  I had no idea what was staring back at me through the darkness, but I was terrified at the thought of not being able to protect her from yet another predator.

I felt the tingling sensation coursing through me now, rushing from my chest to my extremities in mere seconds.  This time, the light carried a district sapphire tint.  It felt different too – more like cool steel hardening inside me than fire burning through my veins.  I turned to where I’d last heard Krista and was surprised to find I could see her as if the darkness had gone completely.

“Krista, stay quiet.  I’m coming for you!”  I said in a strained whisper.

She turned to face me, but she hadn’t heard what I said.  “Gray!  I can see you now…and you’re glowing blue!  How are you doing that?”

A rumbling growl issued from across the room behind me and I knew it was too late.  I heard an unearthly snarl and then the rush of four large clawed feet flying toward me.

“GRAY!  LOOK OUT!!!”  Krista screamed.

I turned just in time to see the creature leap through the air and land against my chest, knocking me to the ground.  Its face was that of an enormous wolf but its features were much sharper, contorted and evil.  Its dull purple eyes glowed menacingly as I struggled to keep its cruel fangs at bay.  Its foul breath was hot against my cheeks as it snapped murderously at me.

I wrapped my arms around the beast in a crushing hold and rolled it over onto the ground beside me.  The rocks on the ground jutted into my back and sides as we rolled several more times, desperately warring for control.  I saw an opening and risked a blow to its head.  I connected with a crushing thud.  The creature howled in pain but it countered, closing my arm in its jaws.

Instinctively, I tensed in anticipation, but to my surprise, I didn’t feel the bite at all – just a slight pressure on my skin.  The beast shook my arm violently back and forth but its fangs couldn’t do anything more than scratch the surface.  Emboldened at this sight, I began to feel control over the light once more.  I forced it down through my arm and a flash of blue shot from my hand through the creature’s throat.  Thick black fluid sprayed everywhere – the creature convulsed rapidly, choking on its own blood until, finally, it stopped moving.

As I pried open the beast’s still clenched jaw from around my arm, I watched the light slowly fade from its eyes.  A wave of exhaustion came over me and I crumpled to the ground beside its lifeless form.  The sapphire glow that emanated from within me had dulled somewhat, but I found that I was able to maintain it with concentration.  I looked up to see Krista, ghost white and paralyzed with fear.

“Gray?”  Her voiced was weak and trembling as she spoke.

“I’m OK, Krista.  It’s dead.”

“Gray, where are you?  I can’t see you.”

How can she not see me?  I see her just fine. “Hang, on.  I’m coming to you.”

With some effort, I pushed myself up off the stone floor and stood to walk.  I stepped carefully around the stones that riddled the distance between us.  The ones closest to where the beast and I had fought were oddly without the rough edges that characterized newly mined rock, like they’d been pressed flat by some tremendous pressure.  I realized these were the same stones I’d rolled over during the struggle – what was going on here?

Later, Gray.  Krista needs you.

I staved off my curiosity and refocused on Krista, covering the remaining distance swiftly.  I wanted to embrace her, to do something to bring her reassurance, but I hesitated just in front of her.  Strangely, though, she didn’t even seem to notice I was there.

Great, now I’ve really freaked her out.

She called out tentatively, “Gray?  Are you there?”

OK.  This is weird.  How did she see me just minutes ago when the creature jumped on me?  Now, I’m standing right in front of her, still glowing blue, and she can’t see me?  What gives?

“I’m right here.”  I reached out and touched her hand.  The dull sapphire glow instantly extended from my hand to hers and followed the line up her arm.  Her eyes widened in sheer amazement and she saw me – it was like a thick veil had just been lifted from her eyes.

Gray?!”

I grinned at her slightly, still uncertain of what she was thinking.

A brilliant smile spread across her face and she threw her arms around my neck.  “Gray!  Thank God you’re safe!  I thought that thing had gotten you!”

Baffled though I was, I couldn’t resist reveling in the moment.  I pulled her closer to me – I couldn’t get close enough.  I ran my hands gently through her silken hair, listening contentedly as her heart slowed into a peaceful rhythm.

I couldn’t say how long we stood there; each moment was a thousand and, still, not long enough.  Everything else seemed to matter so little in the bliss of her embrace.  All I knew was I might never get to hold her like this again, so I savored every stolen minute.

Suddenly, the lanterns overhead relit, rudely waking me from what seemed like the first peaceful dream I’d had in forever.  The change startled me, but I glanced down and was relieved to find Krista still resting in my arms.  I noticed also that the glowing light had subsided from my body once more.

Despite the apparent calm, I felt oddly vulnerable here.  I shot a quick glance backward and saw the body of the wolf-like creature still crumpled on the floor.  As my eyes rose slowly from its form, I glimpsed the reason I’d wanted to come down this shaft in the first place – a large crack opened from the floor and upward about five feet in the wall at the back right of the cavern.

“Krista“, I whispered to her softly.   “Come with me.  I want to look at something.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“Look.”  I turned to face the opening in the wall and pointed to it with my right hand.

She looked hard at the gap, confused.  “Is that the same hole you said you found in here before?  The way you talked about it, I thought it was much smaller.”

“It was.  Come on; let’s go check it out.”

After a short jaunt across the cavern, we reached the hole in the wall.  I considered the edges of the opening carefully – they looked much too smooth to have been made with standard mining tools.  There was also a conspicuous lack of debris in the surrounding area.

“This definitely wasn’t made by miners.” I thought aloud.

“Agreed”, Krista said in reply.  “Gray, look through the opening.  How far back can you see?”  Her tone was more serious now.

I looked through the hole and, to my surprise, my vision was cut off abruptly no more than a few feet back.  There was no tangible wall that I could see, no form I could identify.   There was only black.  I strained at the emptiness and was suddenly reminded of just after the lights had gone out – a power failure likely killed the lights, but the glow of the Darkstone had vanished too, like a veil of smoke had covered everything.  The void before me seemed just the same, swirling ominously and penetrated by nothing.

“Hang on.  I have an idea.” I said assuredly.

I concentrated hard and found that the sapphire glow came easier this time.  I felt much more in control.  I looked up through the opening once more and realized I could see through the black.  I gasped and my heart jumped into my throat.  A narrow path wound through the darkness deep into the rock, and along it, innumerable eyes, dull purple and menacing were moving closer.

I wheeled around as quickly as I could and took Krista’s hand.  “Run!”

We hurtled across the length of the cavern toward the cart in a third of the time it had taken us to get to the back.  All the way, I cast urgent glances back at the crack in the wall.  None of the eyes had emerged from the opening yet, but I knew we didn’t have long.

“Gray, what is it?!”

“There’s no time!”

I lifted her up over the side of the cart and sat her down then jumped in beside her and released the cart brake.  The cart started to grind slowly down the track.

I could see hundreds of beasts like the one that still lay dead at the center of the cavern flooding in behind us, and the ominous black smoke came with them, snuffing out the lights as it loomed closer.  The creatures raced across the room, snarling viciously as they went

“Come on!” I shouted in vain at the cart.  The beasts were almost to the ledge and we were still too close.

Krista saw the first of them and screamed in terror.  They reached the ledge and hesitated for a moment.  They howled strangely at one another with terrifying intelligence in their eyes – like they were discussing a plan of attack.  The pack parted, gathering to either side of the ledge and a lean sinewy wolf emerged.  It considered the growing distance between us, nodded and began backing up.

The cart was still moving too slowly.  My heart was pounding against my chest.  Krista was screaming frantically, grasping at my arm.  Everything went into slow motion: the wolf was racing forward, one foot then the other, bound by bound.  The ledge grew further away, but not fast enough.  The wolf was at the ledge now, pushing hard off its muscular hind legs.  It sailed through the air, claws extending, jaws open wide, and murder in its eyes.

“Get to the front of the cart, now!” I shouted.

Krista obeyed quickly, her eyes wide with fear.

I gathered the light up in me, concentrating hard on the creature.  Its leap was true and it was almost on us.  Each second was a freeze-frame before me.  The wolf’s fore-paws touched the cart’s floor.  The cart rocked violently on the rails – right, left, right again.  The blue light moved down my arms, through my hands, to my fingertips.  The wolf’s hind paws landed.  Its body lowered, preparing to spring.  It was in the air now, lunging toward me.  The light emerged from my fingers: talons of sapphire intertwining, swirling around each other and speeding toward their target.

Everything that happened next was a blur.  The stream of blue collided with the wolf just as I ducked beneath a vicious swipe of its claws. The creature let out a yelp of pain.  I looked up to see its body fly backward, glance off the back of the cart, and plummet into the darkness below.  In the distance, the pack crowded the ledge, howling in fury as we rolled slowly out of view.

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