Chapter 4: Into The Mines

Before today, I’ve only heard stories of cloaked men like the one that just took Jonas – vague remembrances of older miners telling of those who tried to organize rebellions being dragged off and never heard from again.  Just minutes ago, they were catalogued somewhere between fantasies and other things I didn’t need to worry about, yet here they are, suddenly pummeling their way to the forefront of my thoughts.

By all accounts, I should be happy.  Jonas, the man who’s caused Krista and me so much pain and humiliation, is gone.  If there’s any truth to the stories I’ve heard, he’s gone for good at that.  Still, something just doesn’t seem right about the way things happened.

Why, after months of the same behavior, does the Overseer suddenly care about the way Jonas treats us?  We have no rights – we’re slaves to be used as our captors see fit – so what’s this business about them being an example for some new era?  Just yesterday, Jonas did the same thing he tried to do today.  The only difference is, today I stopped him.  Why is today’s offense so grievous as to warrant his immediate removal?  I replay the events in my head, trying to make sense of them, until I finally give up and grunt in exasperation.

“Gray, what is it?” Krista whispers.

“Nothing.”  I pause for a second, trying to stave off the questions that swirl around my mind, but it’s no use – maybe talking it out will help.  “It’s just…don’t you think what happened just now with Jonas is a little odd?  Every day for months, he’s done the same thing, but today, all of a sudden, the Overseer decides to give a damn?  It doesn’t make sense.”

“Yes, it does seem odd, but…” she hesitates a moment, as if considering whether to continue then resumes “Gray, do you remember how I’ve told you sometimes I remember things from my life before here?”

“Yeah, why?

“I don’t know what this could mean, but I remembered something the other day…about a big corporation.”

“What’s a corporation?”  I say the last word in syllables.  It feels foreign on my tongue.

“Think of a shop where people go to buy things – food, clothes, whatever.  Now imagine that shop being so big that thousands and thousands of people all got what they needed there.  Understand?”

“I guess so.  You know I don’t remember much from before I was brought here, but I don’t think we had anything like a corporation.  I think where I’m from, it’s much smaller, like a village.  At least, that’s the feeling I get from my dreams…anyway, go on.”

“OK, so the other day, I remembered my brother saying something about a big corporation that he thought was up to no good.  I didn’t think anything of it, but when I saw the emblem on the Dimmer’s chest just now, it came back in my mind.  Gray, I remember seeing it before.  I think it’s the insignia of the corporation my brother talked about!”

“Are you sure?”

“As sure as a girl who’s had her memories wiped can be.  What do you think it means?”

I think on this for a moment.  What does it mean, indeed?  If the emblem on the Dimmer’s chest is the same as this corporation Krista remembers, they must be involved with the mines in some way.  This still doesn’t explain the sudden change in behavior, but it feels important, nonetheless.  I open my mouth to share my thoughts with Krista, but Ethan comes up behind me and starts in before I can.

“There’s an old saying where I’m from: curiosity killed the cat.”

“What’s a cat?” I interject.

“They really did a number on you when they brought you in here, didn’t they?”  He leans aside to Krista and adds “it’s a wonder you two can have a conversation.”

Krista rolls her eyes at him and I retort, “At least I haven’t forgotten my manners, Pop.”  Ethan scowls at the reference as Krista chokes back a giggle.  “I’m assuming there’s a reason for your interruption, so let’s have it.”

Ethan puts a hand around each of us, pulls us in slightly, and speaks in a low whisper, “Look, I know what you two are talking about and you’re on the right track.  You can’t discuss it here, though!  The Centurions might be dumb as rocks, but the Dimmers aren’t to be trifled with.”

“But it’s long gone!” I shoot back in a frustrated tone.

“It doesn’t matter!” he rasps back.  “If you think it’s just because Jonas beats the miners that the Dimmer came today, you’re wrong.  They have ways of sensing things.”

“Ethan, what do you mean, sensing things?  What things?” chimes Krista.  I look over and see a few Centurions glance in our direction.

“Keep your voice down!” Ethan strains back at her but then he takes a breath and regains his composure.  “Look, you and Gray are in this together – that much is clear – so you might was well know this now.  Gray and I aren’t like you and the other people here.  We’re from…a different place.”

This is news to me.  “A different place?  Ethan, what’s going on?”

“Shhhh!  Quiet down!  Just look, I’ll try to tell you more later, but suffice it to say that what you did today was no accident.  Our kind have certain abilities…yours appear to be awakening now.”

“The people responsible for putting us down here fear our kind.  They thought they had eliminated us long ago, but a few of us managed to escape, suppressing our gift and blending into normal society.  You and I were eventually captured as part of their ‘recruitment’ to support the mines, but they don’t know what we are.”

“When you came, I knew you were like me – your translucent gray eyes are a common characteristic of our people – so I kept watch over you.  Before today, the gift seemed dormant, but now, I fear the Dimmers may suspect what you are.”

Krista casts a fearful glance in my direction.

“Not to worry” whispers Ethan reassuringly.  “The Dimmer gave me a scare when it came over to Gray.  The fact that it left him alone makes me believe they aren’t yet sure.  Gray didn’t realize what he was doing, but he managed to suppress his power enough to avoid detection.”

“My power?  What power?”

“Well, you didn’t manage to knock Jonas off his feet with just physical strength!  That man is the size of a small elephant!”

“What’s an elephant?

“Oh, for God’s sake, Gray, can we focus here?”

“Sorry!”

“Yes, you have power.  You use it without being in control of it, but you have it, just the same.  There are two sides to all power – light and dark.  If we represent the side of light, the Dimmers are part of the dark.  The power is familiar to them.  They can sense it, even from a great distance, which is why you must control yourself.  Early signs of the gift tend to surface with strong emotions.  Fear, rage, sadness – all of these can trigger your power if you aren’t careful, and now, your life may depend upon it.”

“That must be why your eyes were glowing earlier…” Krista mused to herself.  “Ethan, could Gray’s power make his eyes change color?”

“Well, yes.  How do you think I keep my eyes brown instead of gray?”

“So they were gray earlier!” I interject.

“Yes, they were.  I keep them brown to avoid suspicion, but…”

“Quiet!” Krista hisses suddenly as she points toward the entrance to the hub.

“Looks like the Purplecoats have brought in reinforcements” offers Ethan dryly.

A cascade of silence sweeps over the crowd as a group of eleven purple armor-clad enforcers draw near – one at the head and two lines of five following close behind.  My eyes quickly scan the new arrivals and I realize I’ve never seen any of them before.  The one at the head is very tall and sturdily built.  He isn’t as big as Jonas but imposing just the same.  His jaw is pronounced and rigid, fine silver hair flows over his shoulders, and icy blue eyes are set into his chiseled face.

We move to fall in line at a cart station on the far left of the cavern, while the last few miners hurry through the equipment depot, retreating at the advance of this new threat.  The group of eleven finally comes to a halt just past the depot, the man at the lead standing with perfect posture and a superior look on his face.

He clears his throat, silencing the last murmurs from among our number and begins.  “Attention, colleagues.  I am Soren, your new Captain.  We are all of a single purpose.  Miner and Centurion alike are in the gracious employ of our Overseer.  Though you are here as a result of crimes you have committed in your past, you, too, are allowed to serve a greater good.  In addition to powering this facility, the Revilium we harvest here gives sustainable energy to the world above and, more importantly, hope to mankind.”

“My predecessor, Jonas, has lost sight of your importance to our cause and has, thus, been removed.  On behalf of our Overseer, I apologize for the treatment you have suffered at his hand and make clear now that any Centurion engaging in similar behavior will be dealt with in the same manner as their former leader.  That said, we expect you all to dedicate yourselves to the tasks you are given and obey our orders without question.  Anyone who fails to comply will be met with swift punishment.  Is this understood?”  We all collectively murmur our assent.

Soren pauses for a moment, clearly irritated, then continues in a slightly sterner tone.  “Henceforth, you will address me as ‘Captain’.  When responding to my inquiries, you will follow your response with my proper title. ‘Yes, Captain!’  No, Captain!’  ‘I would very much enjoy working an extra two hours today, Captain!’  Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Captain” we all respond slightly out of sync.

Soren motions to a few of our number who were a little too late in their response and Centurions rush over to jab them with batons.  The strikes are brief but they elicit agonized yelps of pain nonetheless.

“I think we can do better than that.  Again,” Soren commands.

“Yes, Captain!”  A few more are out of sync and are punished swiftly.  Wide eyes dart to their comrades in fear, anticipating the next round.

“Again!” Soren demands.

“Yes, Captain!”  More screams of punishment.

“Again!”

“Yes, Captain!”  Children cry behind me this time.

“Louder!”

“YES, CAPTAIN!”  A raspy wail erupts beside me – Ethan – but I don’t dare look to him.

“Louder!”

“YES, CAPTAIN!”  Our voices strain in unison to be heard and avoid joining the chorus of agony that underpins every wave.

“LOUDER!”

“YES, CAPTAIN!!!”

All is silent but the groans of those who responded too Late to Soren’s calls.  Soren paces back and forth, considering us for a moment, then stops.

“To maintain peak efficiency, we must operate as a finely tuned machine.  As the gears and belts around you now, so we shall be.  But to be this, we must first learn order.  Consider this your first lesson – it will not be the last.”  Soren pauses, letting his words sink in, then looks off in the distance and adds, “You may help your comrades now if you so desire.”

Krista and I each take one of Ethan’s arms over our shoulder and help him up.

“Ethan, are you OK?” I whisper.

He winces and lets out a long pained breath, “I’ve had worse.”

“Now then, if you will all line up, ten per cart station, we will get our work under way.  That is all for now.”  Soren motions again and Centurions rush to organize the lines.

One comes in behind Krista and nudges her forward.  I hear him address her in a sadistic tone, “Don’t think you’re off the hook because Jonas is gone, sweetie!  Old Soren can’t keep his eyes on you forever!”

Krista looks at me, her eyes full of the fear and shame I’ve seen in them too many times before.  My anger begins to flare up inside of me.  I shove myself between her and the Centurion and pierce his gaze with a cold stare.

“Listen to me, Purplecoat.  If you ever touch her again, it will be the last thing you do!”  I growl at him.  I feel a tingling sensation start to come forth from within as my anger rises.  It begins searing through my veins like molten steel, pumping swiftly from my heart and through my extremities.  I watch as the Centurion’s disgusting leer withers into a look of dread.  For a moment, I almost feel that I can focus the sensation into the palms of my hands, but then Ethan touches me gently on the shoulder.

Gray, now is not the time.  Let it go.”  I hear his voice as a gentle rasp in my head.  My anger dulls and the sensation ebbs slowly back from whence it came.  I hold the Centurion’s gaze firmly, but I am in control again and my fury is gone.  He abruptly backs away several paces, nearly stumbling over his feet, and eyes me cautiously.

I assume a sideways stance so I can keep a watchful eye on the Centurion.  The line slowly moves forward as the other miners load into the cart.  I look to my right and silently marvel at the order that has already fallen over the crowd.  After Soren’s definitive display of authority, no one dares to fall out of formation or even speak.

Despite Soren’s apology over Jonas’ behavior, it seems to me the only thing that’s really changed is the interpretation of what qualifies as abuse.  I am relieved that Krista no longer faces such an ongoing and immediate threat, but it’s clear I still have many from the old regime to contend with.  I cast another withering glare in the Centurion’s direction as I step into the cart and sit next to Krista.

In another moment, we’re all secured in the cart and the now-pale faced Centurion is throwing the switch to send us into the tunnel ahead.  We start off slowly down the tracks and I resume my internal dialogue.  There’s something about Soren.  He’s clearly cut from a different cloth than the Centurions we’re used to, but there’s something else.  I’m positive I’ve never seen him before in my life, but there’s something strangely familiar about him.  As the station slides out of view, I look up and see him staring at me intently, his icy blue eyes piercing through the growing distance.

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Chapter 3: Shadow of the Past

Whether I really intend to go and listen to Ethan tell faerie tales tonight or not, he’s definitely gotten my attention.  What the hell is going on here?  I’ve seen Ethan every day since I can remember and I swear his eyes are brown.  My eyes quickly shoot back to Ethan’s, uncertain of what I saw, and they’re…they’re brown.  Not a trace of the pale gray shimmer I just witnessed remains.  Am I going crazy?

Let’s see: hearing voices in my head that no one else can hear, check.  Imagining things that aren’t really there, check.

Krista’s voice suddenly breaks through, “Gray, is everything alright?”

“Ahhhh!!!”  I jump back, startled by her interruption.

Paranoia, CHECK.

“Sorry, Krista!  I just thought I saw something strange, but…” I pause momentarily to convince myself.  “…it’s nothing.”

Pull it together, Gray. 

I steady myself and look back over at Ethan.  His expression is mixed, seeming both unsurprised and genuinely amused at my little episode.

Well, I’m glad SOMEONE finds this entertaining!  I glare at him with the most irritated look I can muster, but this proves to only amuse him further.  I grunt to myself and begin a mental tirade of my frustration, forgetting that he can probably hear everything I’m thinking.  I abruptly turn away, choosing to ignore him, but I swear I hear restrained laughter in my head.

Whatever’s going on, it isn’t normal, but I shrug it off as best I can and return to the present.  I scan the cavern anxiously, wary of the strange behavior exhibited by the Centurions.  More than once since we’ve arrived at the Hub, I’ve seen them hurry back and forth, speaking in hushed voices and glancing in my direction.

The atmosphere seems to gradually thicken around me and then I observe two Centurions running headlong toward Jonas back at the Hub entrance.  They look out of breath and nervous as they relay what I can only assume is very urgent news.

Jonas’ eyes widen as he listens to their report, his face draining of what little color it has left.  His head turns slowly to face me, eyes filled with a look of dawning comprehension.  “Krista, check out Jonas”, I whisper as I turn aside to face her.  “He looks like he’s just seen a ghost.”

Krista looks over to the mouth of the cavern then grabs my hand so hard it hurts.  I follow the line of her arm all the way up to her face – her body is rigid and there is genuine fear in her eyes.  I hear a low chorus of gasps rush through the crowd as heads turn one by one to face the Hub entrance. I turn my head to follow suit and Krista barely chokes out, “looks like you may not be far off…”

A willowy cloaked figure emerges at the mouth of the cavern.  On sight, my pulse quickens and I draw Krista in close.  The figure glides across the room with unsettling ease, his robes, black as the deepest recess of the mines, billowing behind him ominously.  I glimpse a peculiar emblem emblazoned across his chest – a large black flame outlined in purple.  The shape seems vaguely familiar to me, but its hue is unmistakable – Darkstone.

The figure casts a deliberate glance in my direction and I see his face: cold black eyes set into a mask of pale stone.  He glows with a dull purple aura, slightly blurring the edges around him.

My muscles tense instinctively like a wild animal sensing a nearby predator, and before I can even process the change, I’m writhing.  Thoughts of bitter hatred flood my mind, but I have no idea why.  I focus all my energy on resisting the growing urge to lunge at the figure and tear him to pieces.

As he draws nearer, everything around me seems to fade.  The rustling of feet against the dirt floor, the clicking of the machinery, the urgent murmurs of the crowd, all becomes silent but the low rushing of wind that seems to accompany the shadow as it sweeps past.  My gaze fixes on his dead eyes, demanding explanation for the impulses surging through my veins, but none comes.

“What is that thing?” Krista whispers cautiously.

I just stare in silence, rooting myself to the spot, as he moves across the cavern.

That is a Dimmer, an agent of the Overseer.”  Ethan’s voice once again disturbs my thoughts.

“Dammit, Ethan, can’t you knock or something?”  I think back at him.

Honestly, Gray, what do you suggest I do?  Come over and bang on your head?  There’s no time for this.”

“Fine.  Sorry.  Why did I tense up the second I saw it?  When it passed by, it was all I could do not to reach out and strangle it.”

“Yes, they can wipe the mind, but the body always remembers.  In time, your mind will remember again, but you are not ready.”

“What?  You mean I’ve seen one before?”

“More than one.  I dare not say more now.”

“Why?  Can it hear us?”

“Not yet, but it can sense when people near it are communicating in this manner.  We all share certain…traits.”

“Wait.  What?!  How is that even possible?  Ethan, you’d better start explaining!”

“Gray, you must calm yourself now or it will know for certain what, for now, it only suspects.”

“Ethan!  What the hell are you talking about?!  I want answers NOW!”

In that moment, I hear a violent whoosh of air as the Dimmer suddenly turns about to stare straight at me.  Where, before, black eyes lay dead in their sockets were now piercing globes of intense purple.  A chill shot up my spine that froze me in place.

“Gray, remain absolutely still and do not speak to me again until the Dimmer leaves.  Our lives depend upon it.”

All at once, fear washes over me like a black wave.  The Dimmer begins slowly gliding back to me and my heart begins to race, pounding harder and harder as the gap between us shrinks.  The sound of my heart echoes so loudly in my eardrums, I swear the Dimmer can hear it, can feel my quickening pulse resounding through the cavern.

“Gray, stay calm.  Take control of your breath and slow it down.  Relax your eyes and clear the emotion from your mind.  You can do this.”

I visualize my breath as a speeding ball of light and catch it, halting its erratic movements, bending it to my will.  Gradually, my heart slows and I envision my breath expanding until everything is covered in brilliant white.  I refocus my eyes on the Dimmer and allow calm to flow over my countenance.  My muscles relax, my brows soften, and, by the time the Dimmer stands no more than a foot away, my body and face are void of expression.

The closeness of the Dimmer chills me to the bone, as if cold emanates from it the way warmth does from normal men.  It moves all about me, leaning in close as if searching for evidence of the conversation Ethan and I had.  My body shivers involuntarily, but I hold on to the vision of the white light in my mind.  I transform the light to a shield around me and change its color from white to pale blue.

I don’t know how long the Dimmer persists.  I just hold on to the vision of the pale blue shield with all my strength until, eventually, it pauses a moment, turns and begins its previous course anew.  At last, I release the image of the shield and audibly exhale.

Something is tugging on my arm.  I ignore it, still fixated on the Dimmer as it moves eerily along, but it starts tugging harder.  I look down to my right and see a small hand joined in mine and pulling downward.  I follow the line of the arm up and see Krista’s face.  Her lips are moving but I still hear nothing but the ominous sound of the Dimmer moving through the thick cavern air.  I narrow my eyes at her, showing my lack of comprehension, until finally she reaches her other hand up and caresses my cheek.

Warmth spreads from her fingertips through my face and out to my whole body, coaxing me from my catatonic state.  I look down at the hand against my cheek and take it in my own, joining it to the other.  I study Krista’s hands – pale and scarred like mine, but somehow still delicate and gentle.  I look back up at her face and am stricken by her beauty as if seeing her for the first time again.  My heart flutters, snapping me to my senses.  What am I doing?  I abruptly let go of her hands, allowing my own to fall limply at my sides.

“Gray, are you alright?” says Krista quietly.

I consider her question a moment.  No, I am not alright.  I’m stuck as a slave in these mines for crimes I can’t remember.  According to Ethan, I just narrowly escaped death because I was overcome with anger at the mere sight of something called a Dimmer.  I have no hope of ever escaping and yet here I am allowing myself to feel things for Krista that can only bring me pain.  I am a fool.

“Yeah, I’m OK”, I lie back to her.

“I was so scared that thing was going to take you.  When it passed by, you got really tense.  I looked over and your eyes were almost red…what happened?”

“My eyes were what?”

“They looked like they were glowing red…come to think of it, they did that earlier when you attacked Jonas too.”

Great.  So now I’m a freak.

“Maybe it has something to do with when you feel really strong emotions”, Krista muses.  Her candor pulls me up short.

“You say that like it’s no big deal.  Doesn’t it scare you?”

“Gray, we’re in a subterranean prison with weird purple rocks that make you go crazy and scary ghostlike things that move without walking.  Glowing eyes are the least of my worries,” she says with a slight smile.

“Hmmm…?”  Krista never ceases to amaze me.  I start to question but then just let it go.  “Well, OK then,” I smile back.

“So what do you think that thing is?” Krista turns around and follows the figure with her eyes.

“It’s called a Dimmer.”  The words come out before I even realize what I’m saying.  I see Ethan shoot a pained look in my direction out of the corner of my eye.

“It’s a what?” she replies, incredulous.

Crap.  I guess I might as well go along with it.  I’ll already be getting an earful from Ethan later.  “A Dimmer,” I repeat.  “One of the Overseer’s agents.”

“How do you know that?”

“Ethan told me about them before…so I would know to watch out if I ever saw one.”  Nice save.

“I would have thought you’d tell me so I can watch out for them too.”

Almost a nice save.

“Sorry Krista.  I just figured I would watch out for you and didn’t want to worry you about them.”

She looks down at the floor, considering this a moment.  “Yeah, I guess that does sound like you.”

And the recovery!

“Just…no more secrets, OK?” she says, piercing into me with her brilliant green eyes.

Crap.  This isn’t going to be easy.

“OK.  No more secrets.”

Thoughts of everything I know already and so much more I’ve yet to find out race through my mind.  What is OK to tell her and what isn’t?  Knowing too much could put her at risk.  Knowing too little could have the same effect.  I resolve to discuss it with Ethan later when guttural yelling from across the Hub grabs my attention – Jonas.

“GET YOUR BONY ‘ANDS OFF ME!  I AIN’T DONE NUFFIN’ WRONG!” bellows Jonas as the Dimmer pulls him along with surprising strength.

“What’s he doing?!” says Krista as she turns urgently to me.

Can this really be happening?  The Overseer threatened Jonas with punishment earlier, but I never thought he’d make good on it…especially this quickly.

The Dimmer was dragging Jonas by the arm across the ground now, leaving a trail of gravel and cracked earth behind them.  I hardly believe it possible to pull a man as large as Jonas so effortlessly and yet it’s happening before my eyes.  A grim smile widens across my face.

“The Overseer has grown weary of your disobedience.”  The sinister voice of the Dimmer hisses, echoing frighteningly through the cavern.

“IT’S NO’ ME, IT’S THAT FREAK!” Jonas spits the words in my direction, contempt written plainly on his face.

I lean over to Krista’s ear so she can hear me above the clamor.  “Remember when the Overseer came on the intercom this morning and stopped Jonas after I took him down?  He said he’d be punished later…I think he’s making good on his promise.”

“FREAK!  FREAK!!!  I’LL GE’ YOU FOR THIS, I SWEAR!!!”  Jonas screams at the top of his lungs in fury.  Both Centurions and miners alike watch, awestruck, as the beast of a man we all fear is dragged off as if he were a misbehaving child.  Before long, Jonas’ massive purple boots are clanking on the landing, across the bridge and out of sight, his increasingly desperate cries fading away into the darkness.

Chapter 2: Friends

The walk to the mining site is long and tedious. No matter how much Darkstone we unearth, we just keep delving deeper and deeper underground – almost like we’re looking for something else. I puzzle over this a few moments but it only serves to frustrate me. Just one more thing I don’t know. I cast the thought aside and trudge on.

The uneventful twists of the corridor provide little distraction from the journey. I’ve come to know the path so well by now, though, that it’s easy to let my mind wander. My thoughts drift back to the day I met Krista.

It was about three years ago. Every morning, the Centurions came down the corridor to the left of our barracks, collecting miners on their way to the latest dig site. Occasionally, they would bring with them a group of “new recruits” to replace those of us that had died or become too old to work and been cast into the chasm, and this was one of those days. There were ten in this group, clad in the same drab gray garb the rest of us wore and all looking scared and bewildered.

Of course, I felt awful that anyone else should have to share this life in the mines, but a sense of excitement always came over me when new people came. Everyone’s memories were wiped somehow on arrival – the Centurions said we were all convicted criminals and this “deprogramming” as they called it was necessary to maintain order – but some of us would retain more than others. In my case, I remembered nothing of my former life. I couldn’t even remember my name. Everyone just called me Gray on account of my peculiar translucent gray eyes. I hoped that, one day, someone would come who remembered who I was or at least remembered more of the world above.

This time, though, one of the new recruits sparked more than the normal amount of interest in me. A young girl, who looked to be around my age, stood out from the group. Even in the plain miner’s clothes, her beauty was undeniable. She had porcelain skin, brilliant green eyes, and deep brown hair that cascaded in waves across her shoulders and down her back. Frightened though she was, a gentle sense of peace seemed to radiate from within her. My gaze followed her from left to right as she walked past, as though my eyes were fixed to some invisible string she unknowingly held in her hand.

“Easy, Gray!” I heard Ethan’s familiar rasp beside me as he firmly patted my shoulder, but my eyes still followed her. “Gray. Gray, your mouth is hanging wide open…something’s gonna fly in there and die,” he offered with a chuckle.

“Hmmm?” I replied mechanically.

“Oh, you’ve got it bad…let’s just hope the Purplecoats don’t pay her as much attention as you.”

This comment grabbed my attention. “What do you mean?”

“Well, Gray, it’s not often we get someone that looks like her down here. Those damn Purplecoats might get it in their heads to…take advantage.”

“What?! I can’t let that happen. I won’t! Ethan, you have to help me!” I had become frantic with the notion of protecting this girl I’d yet to even meet, and I had no idea why. She was beautiful, yes, but there was something more I couldn’t put my finger on. She was magnetic to me.

“Ok, ok, Gray, calm down before they stop marching and hear us! Protect her if you want. I’ll do what I can to help you, but don’t forget to protect yourself too. I didn’t wrestle you away from the edge of that chasm years ago so you could get yourself thrown in now.”

“Ok,” I stammered back at him, “you’re right. I’ll pull it together.” If I was to be any help to this girl, I had to be smart about it. They always pair off new recruits with experienced miners to help show them the ropes…maybe I can work it out so we’re paired together.

Back then, Jonas wasn’t around to hold up the line with his harassing, so we all filed in behind the new group as they passed and began the walk down to the dig site. The whole way down, I kept an eye on the girl, waiting for a chance to slide in beside her.

Finally, we came to the large cavern the Centurions called The Hub, from which all the other mine shafts stemmed, and I saw an opening. Ethan, being one step ahead of me as usual, pushed me in from behind. “Go get her, kid,” he said under his breath.

Before I could even look back to reply, I bumped into her from behind. Thanks a ton, Pop. I gently grasped her shoulders, steadying her from the impact. “I’m so sorry,” I offer. “Some of us can be a bit pushy.” I shot a scowl back at Ethan as I said this and the girl looked back as well. Ethan simply shrugged his shoulders and looked unconvincingly behind him.

I looked back to her and my heart jumped. She leaned in close to my face and started whispering quickly. “It’s OK. Where are we? They said we’re criminals and have been sentenced to a life of hard labor, but…I can’t remember anything.”

“Where we are exactly, I don’t know, but the Centurions – those men who brought you down here – call it the Revilium mines. They have us digging for the glowing purple rocks you see everywhere.” I point to the various piles of the stuff around the cavern. “As for what you did to get here, I wish I could say. They wipe everyone’s memories on arrival. Say it’s for our safety.”

“I just don’t understand.” her voice started to quiver as she continued. “I was just waiting at home for my brother. He was supposed to take me to lunch…”

“Wait, you remember your brother? Barely anyone here remembers their family…what else do you remember?” She was about to answer when I held up my hand for her to stop. The Centurions were making their way back through the line, grouping us together for shaft assignments. “Hang on. Tell me once we’re in our shaft” I whispered.

I nodded for her to face forward just as two Centurions walked up. One of them stopped beside her for a moment, considering something as he took in her appearance, but then shook his head and sent us to the loading station on the far left. After a short cart ride, we arrived at our shaft. The girl and I stood apart from the rest of the group and, after a short while, were paired off and sent down a tunnel to the right.

Thankfully, once in our respective tunnels, the Centurions usually left us alone. At last, I extended my gloved hand to the girl for a proper introduction. “I’m Gray. Actually, I can’t remember my name…everyone just calls me that because…”

“Because of your eyes,” she finished the sentence for me. “I’ve never seen anything like them…” she trailed off as she stared straight at me. Another few moments passed before she realized my hand was still out. “Oh, sorry,” she reached out her bare hand and softly shook mine. “I’m Krista.”

After about a minute more hand shaking than was necessary, Krista finally spoke up. “Ummm, Gray? Can I have my hand back now?”

“Oh…right.” I let go abruptly, embarrassed, and launched into a mining lesson to avoid further awkwardness. “Lesson one: always wear your gloves.”

She looked down at the gear she had set at her feet, spotted the gloves, and began pulling them on. “Why are they purple?” she said in earnest.

“Notice how they’re the same purple as the stuff we’re mining for? They help protect you from the negative effects of it. We call the stuff Darkstone, because it puts evil thoughts in your head. You get them bad enough just by being around it, but NEVER touch it with your bare hands!” I was surprised to see her shrink back at my words until I realized I was shouting. I composed myself and continued, “It’ll drive you mad.”

“OK, I promise I’ll remember“, said Krista sheepishly.

“Make sure you do“, I said firmly. “Now then, lesson two: this is your mining probe.“ I held up a slender metal rod with a purple crystalline tip. “We use it to break the rock and unearth the Darkstone. It’s very dangerous…stand back.”

Krista backed away until I gave her a nod of approval then I thrust the probe at the cavern wall near a partially exposed vein of Darkstone. The surrounding rock exploded away from the vein with a high pitched sound, falling in a pile of rubble at my feet. I looked behind me and saw she had jumped back another several feet. “Krista, it’s OK. When you use it right, it’s perfectly safe. Come here and I’ll show you.” I motioned for her to come beside me.

She began to slowly tip-toe over, eyeing her probe like a venomous snake. “Well, come on. It’s not going to bite“, I laughed. “Now pick it up and come next to me.”

“OK…” After a few more moments of uncertainty, and appearing pleased she didn’t incinerate on contact, finally came over.

“Now take the probe with both hands and just push it into the wall on the other side of this vein and we should have a big chunk of it free.” I pointed to the spot with my free hand.

“OK, here I go“, she cautiously moved the probe toward the wall and the surrounding rock crumbled away on contact. “Hey, I did it!” she exclaimed.

“Well, what’d you expect, for the rocks to mock you in disdain?”

“Of course not, silly“, she laughed. “I just expected to have to try harder, because you’re so strong,” she said, gesturing to my arms, “and I’m so…not.”

Her comment made me blush a little, but I needed to boost her confidence, not mine. “Nah, there’s really not much to it. Honestly, the probe does most of the work. The trick is more in using it wisely so you don’t end up buried under a pile of rocks. The best rule for taking down a wall is to start high and work side to side on down…like this.” I demonstrated on another section of wall to the left.

“That sounds easy enough”, she said in earnest.

“Yeah, that is the easy part. The hard part is what we do with rock after we’ve dug it out. You see those conveyors that run next to the cart we rode up here in? We carry the rocks over to them and they carry them out of the tunnel for processing.”

“Oh…” Krista said in dismay, surveying the large fragments left behind by the probe, “that could be a problem.” She bent down and set herself to lifting one of the largest rocks.

“Krista…”

She struggled with the rock, breathing hard.

“Krista…”

Still she persisted, determined.

“Krista!”

“What’s up?” she said with an exasperated exhale.

“I was about to say that, since we’re a team, I can do the lifting and you can stick to probing if you like.” I walked over, easily lifting the rock in front of her and carried it over to the belt. “See? No problem”, I said with a smile.

“Thanks, but that doesn’t seem very fair – you doing all the hard work and me just poking this stick around in walls while they explode before me.” She looked very disappointed in herself. “What if I use the probe to break them into smaller pieces then carry them over?”

I considered her carefully for a moment. Here was a girl so outwardly beautiful and, yet, on her first day of being thrust into a life of slavery, she was more concerned with doing her fair share than anything else. This was usually an attitude people developed over time and out of necessity, but Krista was just naturally this way.

I walked over to her, taking her hands in mine. “Krista, what isn’t fair is that someone like you should have her life stolen away and replaced with this. I’m happy to carry the rocks for you. You go ahead and probe.” I bent down and lifted another large rock. “Besides, we’ll get more done this way.” I carried the rock over to the belt and glanced back at her.

“OK, deal!” she said brightly.

We settled into a steady rhythm of probing and carrying. She got the hang of it quite quickly, and once she did, she resumed our conversation from The Hub. “So you wanted to know what else I remember?”

“Oh, that’s right! I don’t mean to pry. I’m just hoping that, someday, someone will say something that will spark my memory, you know?”

“Oh, you aren’t prying. I completely understand. Well, let’s see. I remember that I’m from a city called New York. It was full of magnificent glass buildings that rose high in the air.”

“That sounds amazing!”

“It really was…but not all of it was so great. Lots of people were struggling to survive. My family was going to lose our house and my mom was so worried.”

“So you can remember your parents?”

“Only bits and pieces. I can see her face if I concentrate hard, but I can’t remember her name or anything else specific – not about anyone. It’s all so fuzzy. The last thing I remember is my brother saying he could help and he was coming to take me to lunch…then everything went black and I woke up here.”

“I’m so sorry, Krista.”

“What about you, Gray? Can you remember anything?

“Not at thing…but I keep having this nightmare. The same one almost every night of a village burning and people running away. I think it might mean something, but it never lasts very long enough to make any sense of. Whatever it is, I’m stuck here now, so I just try to accept it and move on.” I look up and notice Krista staring at something on the ground. “What is it?”

She bent down and picked up a small fragment of Darkstone, watching the dull purple light swirl around inside it for a moment.

“Krista, you shouldn’t hold that stuff any longer than you have to. It’ll make you see things…”

“Gray, this stuff looks familiar. What did you say it was called again?”

“Darkstone.”

“No, the proper name. You said it when I asked you where we were earlier.”

“Oh, Revilium?”

“Yes, Revilium! I’ve heard that name before, but I can’t remember where. I think my brother had something to do with it, though.”

“You don’t think your brother’s responsible for you being brought here, do you?”

“I can’t remember everything, but that doesn’t sound like him to me. I think he was trying to warn me.”

“Hmmm. Maybe it’ll come back to you with time. It might very well help us get out of here.”

“I really hope it does, Gray. I hope it does.”

From that day on, we were inseparable. A few years passed in much the same way, each day having, for the most part, a predictable rise and fall. Quite often, I thought it didn’t even matter if I never left the mines as long as Krista was there. But then, about four weeks ago, Jonas came.

Young though Krista was, the newly appointed captain of the Centurions was taken by her beauty. She rejected his advances a precious few times before he lost his patience and abused her in front of us all. I tried desperately to ward him off, but I was powerless beneath his sickening strength.

Each day thereafter, Jonas humiliated Krista, marking another failed attempt on my part to stop him. Several times, I was beaten within an inch of my life, but even this couldn’t dissuade me from trying again – if I couldn’t save her, I could at least share her pain.

My muscles tense involuntarily at the thought, bringing an abrupt halt to my reverie. I try to beat back the wave of emotion, but I can’t. This isn’t working.

Desperate for something to cover the threat of my failing restraint, I take to imagining pictures in the uneven surfaces of the corridor. Oh, look! A boulder that looks like Jonas’ head: enormous, filthy, probably just as dense… I grin slightly, amused at the thought, but after a few seconds, my anger returns.

I’m getting desperate now. I scan the corridor rhythmically from side to side, searching for a distraction, but nothing presents itself. Left, rocks. Right, more rocks. Left again, different colored rocks, but still rocks and…hang on.

Is Krista smiling?

I spy the edges of her mouth curved upward ever so slightly.

What’s she smiling about? I puzzle over this a few moments until the dull aching of my abused body reminds me. I stopped Jonas! Sure, I took a huge beating for it, but that was nothing new. I’ve gotten the same every day for the last three weeks trying to protect Krista, but every day I failed. Today, though, whether by luck or fate, I stopped him.

Krista turns her head for just a moment, meeting my eyes with a look I’ve only seen a precious few times – never directed at me though. Romance doesn’t exactly thrive under the conditions we endure here in the mines, but, against all odds, a handful of us have found a strange sort of happiness in the company of another.

As for me, though, my experience with this sort of thing is nonexistent. So, of course, I handle it with all the grace and decorum I can muster…by flushing red as crimson then tripping over my own feet. Krista, still smiling, turns her head to face forward, but I she giggles under her breath.

Awesome. That could have gone a little better. I divert my gaze earthward to ensure I don’t trip over myself again. Just as embarrassment starts to sweep over me, Krista reaches back, grabs my hand, and entwines her fingers in my own. A tingling sensation shoots up my arm and spreads through my whole body, replacing the aching with gentle warmth. We walk happily, hand in hand, for the rest of the journey.

Before long, I hear the familiar clinking of machinery and see the amethyst glow flickering in the corridor up ahead. We form a narrow single file as we come to a cold steel suspension bridge – the singular entrance and exit to the dig site. Instinctively, Krista and I release each other’s hand, knowing there will be sentries up ahead.

Below us, the darkness is thick and impenetrable, seeming to swell menacingly like some sinister cloud. The bridge creaks and shifts under our collective weight, frightening some of the newer recruits, but I’ve crossed too many times to be concerned by it. Just before I reach the other side, a chill wind shoots out from the depths, sending a shiver up my spine. I look over the side and, for a split second, I think I see something glint through the black.

“Keep it moving!” bellows one of the Centurions as I’m prodded from behind. I steal one more glance over the rail, but whatever I saw is gone and in another moment, I’m across.

A vast cavern opens around us, illuminated by the dull purple of the lanterns and piles of Darkstone, strewn about on conveyors, in carts, some seemingly cast aside with indifference, but all glowing strangely. Near the back of the cavern is the gated equipment depot where miners are already being funneled through. Past that are mechanized cart stations, each at the edge of an endless chasm with tracks leading away from each, swallowed by the darkness of myriad shafts beyond.

As we push further in, the stench of metallic sulphur irritates my nostrils slightly. The sensation barely even registers anymore – a mere annoyance in the shadow of greater threats. Krista, however, has never been able to build much of a tolerance to the fumes.

“Are you OK?” I whisper.

She nods a little too hastily, losing her balance then steadying herself against my shoulder. “I’ll be fine,” she breathes with a weak smile.

Now, we’re being herded forward to the equipment depot. My fellows are treated with the usual abuse as they move through the line. Jonas, however, remains strangely silent and detached through the procession. As I moved forward, I notice he looks pale, his normally ruddy skin appearing sallow in the lamplight. His eyes meet mine for only a fraction of a second, but it’s enough for me to recognize his expression. Is he afraid of me?

After the incident earlier this morning, I thought for certain Jonas would use this opportunity to exact his revenge, but to my surprise, I reach the depot unhindered. My mining probe and gloves are thrust at me across the counter with barely a glance.

I linger a moment to see that Krista isn’t mistreated, but she, too, is allowed through unscathed. I almost understand the Centurions leaving me alone – maybe now they think better of fighting with me and are moving on to less combative prey. Krista, however, has never escaped them without, at the least, a flurry of degrading comments.

I meet Krista’s tired eyes, sharing a mutual look of confusion and concern. “Stay close,” I whisper.

She nods once in agreement and comes to my side. We move forward into the queue of miners, taking note of the unusually wide berth being afforded us by the Centurions. It’s odd – almost like they’re being repelled by some opposing magnetic force.

To my chagrin, I notice that many of our cohorts are following suit. I catch a few of them gazing intently at my eyes, as if expecting to see something extraordinary there. When they realize I’ve seen them, they feign a casual demeanor and pretend to focus on something else nearby.

Out of the whole crowd, only one person seems to be acting normal. My surrogate father, Ethan, stands about twenty feet away, hunched over from the years of hard labor but wearing an uncharacteristically serious expression. He’s staring straight at me, his wizened face full of understanding.

“The time has come.”

Ethan? I hear his voice in my mind, as clear as if he stood right beside me, but his lips aren’t moving.

“You do not understand what you are, but in time, you will learn control.”

Control? Over what? This makes no sense. I will my thoughts to reach him, but then shake my head, feeling foolish.

“Gray…” I look up again and it’s clear he has heard me. “Tonight, come and listen with the children. Much of what you’ve forgotten will be revealed.”

I strain at his eyes, searching for something more, a hint at what he’s leaving unsaid. Then, it hits me: his eyes are translucent gray, just like mine.

Chapter 1: Awakening

“Gray.”

Gray!”

“Gray, wake up!  It’s Eli!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bye, Gray.  Thanks for everything.”

“ELI!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s true!  Pop, here…”

“Dammit, Gray” grumbles Ethan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now…where were we, lass?”

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

“Y, ye’sir!”

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

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

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

“But, sir!  I…”

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

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

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

He steels himself and turns to address us.

“ALL RIGH’, YOU SCUM!  MOVE!!!”

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

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

Damn.  So much for being discreet.

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

A Long Time Coming…

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

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

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

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

Nick

Prologue: Revilium

“Mel, come take a look at this.”

“Not now, Asher, I’m busy.”

“But, Mel…”

“Asher, not now.”

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

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

“But Mel…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But how can you afford that?”

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

“RED facilities?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What guy?” Mel replies mechanically.

“You know what guy!  The guy!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OK, fine.  Just do it.”

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

Melanie rolls her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

“Asher!  Would you quit screwing around!”

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

“Are you sure?”

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

“Could you do it?” asks Melanie pointedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He hung up,” I say nervously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So when did Elias come into the picture?”

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

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

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

“Well, as long as you trust him…”

“I do,” she says confidently.

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

Chapter 13: Premonition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I have questions!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

“Krista, is this…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

“Krista!”

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

“Gray, what’s wrong?!”

“Your…knee!” I gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

“You dreamt that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just, OK?  No more arguments?”

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

What?  Who is that?

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

“You’re almost there…just let it go.”

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

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

Matthias!

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

“Krista!”

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

“Hide under my bunk, now!”

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still so much to learn…pity.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gray…please don’t struggle.”

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

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

“GRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sorry, Gray.”