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.”

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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.

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 8: Hero

The outraged cries of the pack echoed against the shaft’s walls, giving a sense that they were still behind us in pursuit.  Krista remained huddled against the front of the cart, her head buried in her arms.  Her skin was so pale it seemed almost translucent in the dull purple glow.  I knelt down beside her and put my arm around her shoulders, but I knew it would take awhile for the shock to wear off.

In all honesty, I was a little shocked myself.  What the hell were those things?  For as long as I’d been in these mines, I’d never seen or even heard of anything like them before.  Their murderous angular faces were burned into my memory like a recurring nightmare.

As our journey back wore on, I could hardly believe this same stretch of track had seemed peaceful – even pleasant – just hours ago.  I went into a sort of trance, replaying the struggle with the wolves and our narrow escape over and over.  My muscles tensed instinctively as they remembered each motion in sequence.

We were lucky.  What if one of them would have gotten past me?  What if we hadn’t made it to the cart in time? The thoughts made me shiver.

Exhaustion washed over me.  The cart clinked away against the track steadily for several more minutes, setting a tempo for the stream of images in my mind.  I nearly fell asleep despite the lingering stress that permeated my body, but then something broke through the cycle.

The howling from down the shaft had nearly passed beyond recognition just moments ago, but now, it seemed to be growing closer again.  I looked up over the side of the cart, making sure we were still heading the same direction.  Sure enough, the cart was still progressing at a deliberate pace back to the station, but the howling continued to intensify, becoming intermingled with the distinct sound of human screams as we drew nearer to our destination.

The shaft opened around us to a scene of utter chaos.  Both Guardsmen and miners were scattering in every direction, terror and abandon plain in their voices.  Amidst the commotion, I spotted the reason for the panic – several of the wolf-creatures had found their way into the station and were now ripping through the crowd, mercilessly slaughtering everyone within reach.

Everything was happening so quickly that I was at a loss for where to start.  I didn’t want to leave Krista alone but I couldn’t leave my fellows to fall in the onslaught either.

“Krista”, I said in a calm but hurried voice, “lay flat and be as quiet as you can!  I’ll come back for you.”

The terror was plain in her ghost-white face, but I could see she understood.  She bit her lip, nodded quickly back to me, and sunk to the floor of the cart.

The second the cart stopped at the station, I was flying across the room, both arms shimmering with brilliant sapphire light, toward the nearest of the wolves.

“LOOK OUT!!!” I shouted at the miners closest to me.

They glanced up quickly, turning to run, but then looked back at me as if they could hardly believe their eyes.  As soon as they were clear, I let fly a bolt from my right arm, sending the wolf into a tangled heap several feet back.

The light was flowing through me now with almost second nature.  I pummeled through the room, feeling more like a finely tuned machine than a mere man.  Most of the beasts were too preoccupied with their intended prey to even see me coming, and so, one by one, I dispatched them with ease.

At the front of the cavern, near the suspension bridge, I saw two Guardsmen struggling to fend off one of the beasts with their batons.  They landed blow after blow, but the charge that was unbearable to humans seemed to have no effect on it.  I struggled within myself for a moment, torn as to whether I should help them.

Once it finishes them, it’ll just move on to someone else.

That settled it.  I made a line for the creature, yelling at the Guardsmen to get out of the way.  The man on the right heeded my warning and dove aside, but the other looked on me with derision.

“Stay outta this, you freak!  I don’t want your help!” he shouted back.

Arrogant swine.

The beast was completely focused on him now, allowing the other Guardsman to crawl away to relative safety.

”Come on, move!!!” I shouted.  I knew that a bolt sent at the creature at the wrong angle would rip right through it and kill him as well, but every time I had a clear shot, he moved back in my way.

Behind me, a woman’s shrill scream pierced through the clamor.  The Guardsman lost focus for a split-second, looking toward the station, but the brief lapse in his defenses was all the creature needed.  In another moment, the wolf tore him apart as he screamed in agony.  I fired off a perfectly aimed bolt and sent the beast flying off the ledge.

The woman screamed again and fear gripped me like a vice – Krista!  I set off in that instant, running with blinding speed across the cavern to the station.  Two wolves were closing in on the cart at the far left end.  I uttered a high growl as I raced toward them, casting bolts rhythmically as I went.  Right, left, right again, but they fell maddeningly short.

The beasts were nearly on Krista now and the distance between us was still too great.  I dug into the ground with every stride, demanding my legs to carry me faster, but they protested, threatening to give way under the tremendous stress.

“NO!”  I shouted.  Fire was burning through my veins now.  My arms streaked back and forth at my sides, filled with blazing red embers.  The sensation spread through my entire body and then something happened.  Suddenly, all was quiet around me. I felt light as a feather as I overtook the creatures in one effortless burst of speed, piercing straight through them and setting them ablaze.  I glided back around to face them and I watched, incredulous, as they dissipated to mere piles of ash in seconds.

Krista’s stunned gaze caught me and then the fire was gone.  The burning strands of red that coursed through my veins recoiled abruptly back into my chest and, like the shattering of a glass in a silent room, the commotion of the scene abruptly pierced the quiet.  Krista stood at the edge of the cart, her mouth hanging wide, paralyzed with awe.

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.

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.

Chapter 5: Wake of the Shadow

I’d only heard stories of cloaked men like the one that had just taken Jonas, and though all accounts were unclear as to exactly who they were, everyone was certain of two things:  one, they worked for the Overseer, and two, no one who was taken by them was ever seen again.  Jonas was gone.  I almost couldn’t process the thought.  Every day since he arrived, I had wished for him to be gone, but now that he finally was, I was amazed at the complete absence of everything I expected to feel.  There was no elation, no vindication, no relief – they were all overshadowed by confusion.

Why, now, after years of turning a blind eye to Jonas’ constant abuse did the Overseer decide to intervene?  Even more, what about his most recent offense had been different than all the others before it, let alone so severe as to necessitate Jonas’ abrupt removal without so much as an additional body to balance the Guard?

Krista and I just stared at each other, dumbfounded.

An eerie sort of silence had settled on the cavern.  Even the din of the nearby conveyors seemed fainter, diminished somehow by the gravity of the scene.  Everyone of the near two-hundred and fifty people present was silent, their eyes fixed just beyond the bridge, where Jonas and the shadowy figure had vanished into the darkness.

The Guard were huddled together at the cavern’s entrance, entrenched in discussion.  Their faces were varied: some frightened, some angry, some even appeared to be gloating to the others over Jonas’ arrest.  I couldn’t make out anything they were saying, but it was clear they were planning how to proceed in the absence of their captain.

All eyes watched them closely.  After their apparent inattention continued awhile longer, the general state of alert seemed to relax somewhat, and numerous conversations broke out among the crowd.  Finding ourselves able to speak freely outside of the barracks was a rare occurrence – why not take advantage?

I, however, was still wading through thoughts of what had just transpired.  I strained to hear the words of those around me, scanning for something that might suggest an answer.

“Did you see that guy in the cloak?!  He was seriously creepy…”

“…he’ll be back, though, just wait.  We’d never be that lucky…”

“…I think she always had it coming, I mean, just look at her!”

Grrrrr. I clenched my teeth in fury and tightened my fists.  How DARE he say that about Krista?!  I’m gonna find…

But my righteous indignation was cut short at the mention of my name.

“…pity, what happened to Gray this morning…” said a kind female voice.

“Ha!  And every other morning!  He’s a nice kid, but not much upstairs if you ask me,” a high male voice countered.

“Yes, but did you see what he did to Jonas?!  I wouldn’t have thought it possible to move that man!  Maybe the Overseer figures he can’t hold his own down here anymore now that…”

Now here was something! I craned my neck above the crowd, trying to see who was speaking.

“Gray?”  Krista’s gentle whisper distracted me.  I turned to meet her eyes, but I was still listening elsewhere.

“Gray, about earlier, I…” her voice trailed off, noticing my inattention.

Gray? What is it?”  There was a hint of disappointment in her tone.

“I heard someone talking about this morning.” I said intently

“Gray!” she sounded reassured now.  “Who wouldn’t be talking about this morning?  You were incredible!”  Her cheeks flushed as she uttered the words.

“No!  They were talking about why they think Jonas got arrested!  Something about him appearing weak and the Overseer thinking he can’t handle us anymore.”  I added in a low contemplative voice, “That could be it, couldn’t it?

My attention had already gone back to the man and woman I’d just heard – I hoped I hadn’t missed the end of their conversation.

Gray.”  Krista’s voice was suddenly serious and even.

Good God, woman!  Can I not THINK for a moment?!

I edited myself, trying not to sound harsh, “Krista, can you hang on…”

Her hand reached up to my chin and gently turned my head to the right.  I was momentarily paralyzed, my skin tingling beneath her touch.

I’m sorry, Krista.  I’m a stupid, stupid man. “Huh?”

I shook myself from the daze and looked up to see the majority of our number now staring straight at me.

“Why is everyone staring at me?”

“Apparently, the topic of this morning is more popular than you thought.”

As I watched, an increasing number of my fellows turned to look at me, but their stares seemed to hold different meaning now than they had earlier.  They were deliberate, questioning – some of them looked almost hopeful.

Do they think I’m the reason Jonas is gone?

I considered the thought for a moment.  Maybe this was the conclusion the man and woman had come to just minutes ago, but could it have swept the room so quickly?

Then it hit me.  When everyone had been staring at me earlier, they weren’t just gawking indiscriminately – they were staring at my eyes!

“Krista!  Did you say my eyes were glowing when the cloaked man came for Jonas?”

“Yeah, they were.  You were pretty upset.”  She looked aside, deep in thought for a moment, then her eyes widened as they met me once more.

“You don’t think they all…”

“…saw my eyes glow?”  I finished her thought as we both arrived at the same conclusion.  “Yeah, I do.”

Again, I took to scanning the conversations around me, trying to make some sense of what was going on.  The general murmur of the crowd seemed lower now, intent on secrecy.  I glanced back to Krista with an uncertain look on my face.

“I can’t make out anything they’re saying.  What do you think?” I asked her.

“Maybe we should just go ask someone.  Look.”  She nodded over her shoulder to the left.  “Those guys are smiling at us.  Let’s go ask them.”

Her naivety was endearing – and dangerous.  Even under the constant oppression of the Guard, she still tried to see good in everyone.  It was clear to me that the men were smiling – leering was probably more accurate – at her.  I had nothing to do with it.  We’d traveled down this path too many times before for me to not see where this was leading, but when Krista got it in her head to do something, stopping her became no small task.

She started away without another word, but I caught her hand.  The three men she’d nodded towards were smaller than me – I could have easily taken them – but something about them told me they were out for trouble.  The one at the center of the group, in particular, had an ill-favored look in his eye.

“Krista, be careful.  Do you know those guys?”  I didn’t recognize any of them.

“Gray, really, you need to pay more attention.  They’ve been here a little over a month now.  I haven’t met them yet, but they seem OK.  Come on, let’s go.”  She pulled me along with her as she continued toward them.

As we got closer to them, the men hushed each other and a broad grin spread across the face of the one in the middle.  Their eyes shifted abruptly from Krista to me and the two at the sides backed away slightly.  The apparent ring leader of the group, however, drew himself up to full height, completing the effect with a smug expression on his face.

“What a pleasant surprise!  Krista, isn’t it?”  The ring leader spoke and instantly, I recognized his voice.  He was the one I’d overheard earlier saying that Krista “had it coming.”  His tone was much smoother now, more refined.

Krista hesitated.  “How do you know my name?”

“You and your friend have been quite the topic of choice after what happened with Jonas this morning.  It was kind of hard to miss.”  He flashed a sly smile at her.

I clenched my jaw and glared in disapproval, but he continued, unfazed.

“I’m Les, and these are my friends, Robert and Jerrall.”  Each nodded in turn as his name was said.  “How may we be of service?”

“My friend Gray and I noticed a lot of people staring and we’re curious what they’re saying about us.”

“Ah, yes.  The illustrious Gray!”  His words were practically dripping with derision as he spoke my name.  “Well, you see, we were actually just discussing this ourselves.  It seems many among us view your friend as something of a hero. Some even speak of rallying around him in an attempt to free themselves from this place.  Such nonsense…”  He trailed off and seemed lost in thought for a moment.  “Forgive me.” He continued, “then, there are others, such as myself, who see him for what he is – a freak and a menace, who will only make things worse for us all.”

Krista’s mouth hung wide, her look incredulous, as she registered the words.  Her expression became like ice and her green eyes flashed at Les in warning.  “How DARE you talk about Gray like that!”  Her voice took on a cutting rasp as she said the words.  “He saved me from that monster, Jonas, which is more than can be said for you or anyone else down here!  Come on, Gray!”  She wheeled around quickly and started away from them.

I cared little what he and his friends thought of me, so I turned with Krista to go.  Les called after us, “You see?!  It’s just like I said before – the little harlot deserved every minute!!!”

He had to die – immediately.  There was no other course to take.  In less than a second’s time, I rehearsed the steps in my mind: One, two, three strides and I’m in striking distance then a thunderous right to his head.  Spin around and shatter the second one’s jaw with my left hand.  A final thrust of my right to crack the third’s rib cage and they’re all down – then I’ll go to work on Les…

To my extreme disappointment, once again, I was cut short.  Before I could take one step, the clear high voice of the Overseer rang out, echoing through the cavern.  The eager faces of my peers were overwritten with sudden despair.  Les and his band of cowards took advantage of the distraction and fled into the crowd.

“Be advised that all those who fail to fulfill their obligations while in my service will not be tolerated.”

I thought I could hear muffled cries and the jangle of chains against a stone floor in the background of the Overseer’s broadcast.

“Our dearest captain of the Guard has failed to keep me informed in the smallest of matters, proving himself of no further use to me.  You shall bear witness to his punishment.”

Now I could definitely hear a struggle in the background – the sound of swift blows followed by a thunderous crash filled the air.  Then the voice of Jonas as I had never heard it before rang out – begging, pleading, weeping for mercy.  A chorus of gasps swept the room.

“AAAAAARRRRRRRRRRHHHHHHHHHHH!!!  Jonas’ tortured screams shook the cavern, resounding off the walls and redoubling like a mine shaft crashing in on itself.  The sickening sound of batons falling and the cracking of bones turned my stomach.

Krista buried her head in my chest, hands pressed, white-knuckled against her ears.  I held her tight to me, hunching over her in an attempt to shield her from the sadistic broadcast.  The screaming went on for what seemed like an eternity, growing higher and more agonized and, in due course, becoming interspersed with the sounds of gasping, choking, and vomiting.

The room was spinning around me now.  A boulder-sized lump was building in my throat, making me strain for breath.  Blurred visions of my fellows writhing on the floor in disgust flew by.  I could feel the blood draining from my face and my knees beginning to falter, but just when I could bear no more, the screaming stopped.

Krista’s delicate frame shook hard against me.  She sobbed uncontrollably in my arms and, though I could barely stand, I pulled her closer still, trying to assuage her anguish.

She looked up into my eyes, the brilliant green of her own now mingled with bitter red.  Her legs buckled beneath her and we crumpled to the ground together.  She was utterly spent and broken – was this what she had endured each time the Guard had punished me?

The prostrate figures of miners in every corner of the cavern filled me with sorrow.  Everyone huddled in groups, longing for comfort strong enough to erase the memory of what we’d just heard – comfort I knew would never come.  For the first time, I surveyed my fellows and felt truly a part of them.  They were no longer just the prisoners with whom I shared my fate; they were my family, and I vowed in that moment that not one of them would ever endure this again.