Onward and Upward

Hi friends!

For those who’ve been wondering, I haven’t fallen of the face of the earth or abandoned civilization. I’ve actually been hard at work on a redraft of everything I’ve written for my novel, Darkstone. Thanks to my very talented critique partner and fellow novelist, C.A. Mitchell, I’ve reached a new level of clarity that has inspired a much tighter and more engaging story for you all to read. I’ll be posting some of the newly re-written chapters soon. Make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss any of what is shaping up to be a truly epic story.

While you’re waiting (I know, you can hardly stand it, right?), make sure you check out my CP’s wonderful blog Adventures in My Head. It’s positively bursting at the seams with great writing tips, book reviews, and hilarious banter. You can also pester her about posting some of her own novel for public consumption. Despite being very self-effacing, her story is really something. Her style reminds me very much of J.K. Rowling, and she owes it to the world to share her work.

Anyhow, thanks very much for stopping by. More soon!

Nick

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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.”

Chapter 12: Children’s Stories

We lay in each other’s arms, speechless, but each moment of the fiery gaze that connected us conveyed volumes.  I didn’t dare move for fear I would end what would already be far too short a time together.  It was cruel that fate should finally bring us together on the eve of my departure, but then, how many had perished in the depths of these mines without ever having known joy?  How selfish of me.  I put the thought from my mind and refocused.

Was it possible Krista had grown even more beautiful since this morning?  I followed the curves of her face with my eyes and each was perfect – soft and lovely in every way.  Perhaps simply knowing that she felt as I did magnified my attraction to her, but whatever it was, I was certain there would never be another to surpass her.

Just then, a voice broke through my subconscious, interrupting my reverie.

“Gray, it is time.”

Even in my head, he still had the same wizened rasp – Ethan.

Would it kill you to get off your ass and come down here?  Get out of my head!

“I’m sorry, Gray, but I can’t risk arousing any suspicions.”

Fine, then, get on with it.

“It is time for you to know where you came from.  The Guard have just left to make their rounds, so we won’t be interrupted.  Come to the meeting place outside my barracks, and bring Krista with you – we needn’t risk leaving her alone prematurely.  I have food and water waiting for both of you.”

The day had raced by with hardly a moment to think but now my most basic of needs was resurfacing.  My stomach grumbled loudly at the mention of food.  We’re on our way.

“Krista, it’s time to go.”

“What happened just now?  You got this weird look on your face…”

“Oh, that was just Ethan invading my thoughts again.  He said the Guard have left to make their rounds so we should meet him in the usual spot.”  He said he has food and water for us.”

“Oh, thank God, I’m starving!” she said emphatically.

I knew it!  I shouldn’t have kept her… I said nothing but the look on my face gave me away.

“Gray, stop.  I stayed because I wanted to.”  She flashed a quick smile and caressed my cheek.  “Silly man…when will you ever learn?”

Relief washed over my face, signaling Krista that we were back to normal.

“Gray?”

“What is it, Krista?”

“Can you get up so we can leave now?” she said with a smirk.

“Oh!  Right…sorry.”  I raised myself carefully from the bunk then took Krista by the hand and helped her out.

No sooner had we walked over the threshold of the bunk house than we were greeted by a number of our fellows, whistling and hooting as we stepped out into the corridor.  Much to my surprise – and, I’ll admit, joy – I identified the loudest among them as none other than young Eli.  I was a little embarrassed but I couldn’t help smiling as we walked out to meet them, hand in hand.

Krista leaned in as we walked, “Quite resilient, isn’t he?”

We both choked back the laughter as we came within earshot of the group.

“Soooo…what have you two been doing?”  Eli said with a mischievous grin.

“We were just talking” I assured.

“That’s not what Reg said!” Eli countered.

Krista flushed bright red.

Things to do this evening: one, pack supplies for the journey, two, throw Reg into a bottomless chasm…

“So it’s true then!”  Eli positively burst with glee, instigating another round of cheers from the group.  After they settled down, he pulled himself together and added, “I was gonna make a move on her myself but…it’s ok.  You have my blessing.”

“Why, thank you, Eli.  That means…so much, coming from you.”  I shook my head slightly and chuckled.  This kid was something else, but I had to admire his ability to stay positive.

“Come on, guys.  Let’s leave them to it.”  He smiled even more widely than I would have thought possible for such a small person then winked at Krista and started past us into the barracks.

We walked the short distance up the corridor to the meeting place, our fellows bustling past up and down the hall to their various bunk houses and waving as they past.  Funny that just this morning, I woke, a stranger to most everyone around me and, in just a few hours time, I had built a sort of familial bond with them.  The thought redoubled my determination to the task at hand.

The corridor inclined gradually until it sloped downward at the right, opening into a large alcove.  As we crested the rim of the meeting place, the smell of the fire, crackling gently below, filled my nostrils, stirring memories of my childhood.  Children crowded around an open fire pit at the center of the hollow.  Some sat on boulders of varied sizes, some on the floor, a few adults lined the outskirts mostly standing or propping themselves against the cavern walls, but all fixed intently on the center.  There stood Ethan, stoking the fire, occasionally eliciting tongues of green and blue from the flames as they cast dancing shadows all around.

Ethan spoke as we came into view.  “Gray, Krista!  Glad you could join us tonight!  It’s been awhile…please, sit!  I’ve saved a spot near the fire for you.”  He motioned just in front of him and to his left.

Figures…now, whatever I’m gonna find out about my past is gonna happen in front of all these people?  Why all the secrecy then?

Before I could think about it anymore, Krista was already dragging me down to the place Ethan had reserved for us.

“But…wait a minute!” I protested.

“Relax, Gray.  It’ll be nice.” Krista assured.

“Gray, you needn’t worry.  To everyone else, my words will be only a story.  You alone will understand the truth behind them.”

“OK, old man, let’s have that food and water.  We’re famished!”

“Of course.”  Ethan picked up two small metal trays and handed one to each of us.

“Rations?” I said, mildly disappointed.

“You were expecting maybe steak and lobster?” he replied dryly.

“What?  What’s steak and, and…what did you say?”

“All in good time, Gray!” he chuckled lightly to himself.  “…and something to wash it down.”  He picked up a large metal canteen and handed it over.

“Thanks, Ethan.”

“Yes, thanks very much” Krista echoed.

“Think nothing of it.  Now, please sit.”

Ethan raised his right arm, signaling that he was about to begin, as we took our seats and settled into our rations.  A few stragglers hurried to sit down, and then, all was silent, save only the gentle crackling of the fire.

Ethan cleared his throat and then began without hesitation, projecting his raspy voice to the back of the crowd.  “In the not too distant past, there existed a people forgotten by the world around them.  They had been scattered and forced into hiding long ago, but on the shores of a hidden island in the world above, a small colony of their kind remained.  On this island, our story begins.”

Krista leaned in and put her arm around me.  I looked over at her, astonished to see she’d already finished her food.  “Good lord, woman!  I haven’t even finished half of mine yet!” I whispered fervently.

“I was hungry” she smirked innocently up at me.

I shook my head, laughing silently, and resumed my meal.

Ethan continued.  “Life on the island was simple.  Abundant sunlight and rich soil provided all the colony needed to flourish.  For many years, life thrived there, routine but peaceful and carefree.”

“On a certain day, it happened that a second son was born to the elders of the colony.  Right from his mother’s womb, his eyes had a faint red glow, and his parents were astonished.  Legends existed among their people of ancestors who were able to shift the color of their eyes, but they had never witnessed it firsthand.  All present were silent, unsure of what to say, but as the minutes wore on, the glow slowly subsided from the child’s eyes and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.”

“The elders decided to name their newest son Aidan, which means ‘fiery’.  As the boy grew, he proved with ease just how appropriate his name was.  He became known throughout the colony for his explosive temper and for the strange red light that filled his eyes when he became angry.  Despite this, he also developed an uncommon sense of goodwill and fairness that endeared him to all he knew – all except for one.

“In contrast to his younger brother, Matthias was much more reserved and contemplative than Aidan.  He grew jealous of the ease with which his brother interacted with those around him, and he scorned him for what he viewed as brash behavior.  As the years went on, a bitter rivalry developed between the brothers and they often fought.  Matthias took advantage of his brother’s temper, often provoking him to blows.  Being several years older than Aidan, Matthias was much stronger, and he never hesitated to press this advantage, many times beating his brother into unconsciousness.”

“One day, Aidan was walking along the shoreline when he saw a peculiar purple stone glinting up at him from the sand.  He reached to pick the stone up and was mesmerized by the way its very essence seemed to swirl about inside it.  As he gazed at the stone, his mind was filled with troubling images – visions of darkness and fire.  Disturbed though he was, he found himself unable to put the stone down.  He sat down in the sand and stared in wonder for hours.”

“Later that afternoon, the elders sent Matthias to look for his brother – which only made him resent Aidan the more.  He comforted himself with the thought of aggravating Aidan into another fight he couldn’t win.  To his delight, he found his brother sitting in the sand, still marveling at the stone.  With surprising ease, he crept up behind his brother, watched for an opportunity, and seized the stone from his grasp.”

“Aidan screamed in protest, but Matthias relished his anger, taunting him unrelentingly.  Aidan rushed at him, lunging for the stone, but Matthias deftly stepped aside and threw him to the ground.  Aidan rose, filled with rage and turned to face his brother once more.  His eyes glowed red with fury as he swore to take back the stone.  In the next moment, Aidan struck his brother with such force that he was frightened by it.  Matthias flew back and crumpled in the sand, releasing his grip on the purple stone in defeat.”

“From that day on, Matthias never dared cross his brother again, but he harbored a bitter grudge against him.  Matthias spread lies throughout the colony that Aidan had been possessed by an evil spirit.  Well liked though Aidan was, the people of the colony had always wondered about the strange way his eyes glowed when he became angry, and fueled by Matthias’ constant stream of untruth, they grew suspicious and eventually fearful of him.”

“Though Aidan’s parents saw Matthias’ lies for what they were, they were bound by their duty as elders to keep peace in the colony.  Matthias had spread such mistrust that they were forced to confine Aidan to their home, only allowing him to go outside late at night.”

“For many months, Aidan slept all day every day and barely ate.  He felt utterly abandoned and alone.  When his parents let him go out at night, he took to wandering by the shoreline and gazing up at the stars.  He longed desperately for someone to talk to, but no one ever came and he slid deeper and deeper into despair.”

“On one of his nightly walks, he noticed that the sky had grown pitch black.  Gone were the stars that typically accompanied him in his solitude.  On the horizon, a faint glimmer of amethyst caught his eye and he stopped dead, paralyzed with curiosity.  He identified the color immediately as identical to the peculiar stone he had found on the beach months before.  He reached into his pocket and produced the stone, comparing it in disbelief to the color stretching toward him across the sky.”

“The purple aura seemed to billow like some great clouded beast, clawing its way closer by the second.  As the glow grew nearer, the stone in Aidan’s hand seemed to react.  The faint light within grew brighter and began to swirl violently.  Stricken by fear, Aidan hurled the stone into the ocean and raced back to the village, screaming for everyone to wake up.”

“The people of the colony rose swiftly from their beds and rushed outside, concerned at the commotion, but when they saw Aidan running through the rows of houses, they ignored him and, instead, rallied to complain to the elders.  Aidan reached his home first and roused his parents, warning them urgently of what he had seen on the horizon, but before they could respond, the people of the colony were already pounding at their door, demanding to see them.”

“The elders warned Aidan to stay inside then went to address the furious mob.  Just as they stepped out onto their porch to speak, their eyes widened in horror as they caught sight of a maelstrom of violet flames racing toward the village.  Like a cascade, the people turned to face the menace that was nearly upon them, and they scattered in a panic.  In moments, the flames were upon the village, engulfing everything in an evil wave.”

“Aidan trembled with fear as he watched hideous black figures through his window.  They swept mercilessly through the flames, cutting down men, women, and children as they went.  His parents came into view and screamed for him to run, but in another second, they, too, were slaughtered by the maleficent forms that tore through the village.”

“Aidan was frozen with grief.  The shadowed assailants had murdered everyone he cared about right before his eyes and it would only be a matter of time before they found him.  In a final act of defiance, he rushed out to the porch, burning tears streaming down his face, and screamed for them to take him.  His eyes searched wildly for those who would end all he had endured, but they were nowhere to be seen.”

“Just as Aidan started down the stairs to search for them, something hit him hard from behind and he fell to the ground.  He struggled to turn and face his attacker, but numbness was already overtaking his senses.  His vision began to blur at the edges and move inward.  As the darkness crowded in around him, he saw a lone figure cloaked in the deepest black step forward, towering over him like a predator over his prey.  His last memory was a vision of a wicked smile on a ghost pale face.”

At this, Ethan looked back up at the surrounding crowd, his expression somber.  “And that,” he said pointedly, “is the last that was ever seen or heard from the colony.”

Krista and I looked at each other, astonished and at a loss for words.  I was Aidan!  In a split second, everything my mind had locked away all these years came flooding back in.  I remembered the hate I bore for Matthias for making me an outcast among my own people.  I remembered my parents.  I remembered the pain of seeing their faces, scarred and lifeless, as they lay dead on the ground.  I remembered the shadowed figures that swept through the night, killing as they went – the very same as the one who had taken Jonas to the Overseer just hours ago.  But most of all, I remembered the face that mocked me as I lay helpless, waiting to die.

The nightmare I’d been having for the last several months was of my last night in the colony, the night it was destroyed.  But one question remained: how was I still alive?  The shadows had slaughtered everyone with ruthless efficiency, and yet, here I was, as I have been the last ten years.

My mind turned the face of my attacker over and over, struggling to find some way of fitting the two halves of my life together in a way that made sense.  The face seemed somehow familiar, but I couldn’t place it.  I looked abruptly to Ethan, my face riddled with confusion, but I saw that he was already looking straight at me, as if expecting me to realize something.  In an instant, the final piece of this puzzle crashed into place.  ETHAN!

Ethan was the shadow that attacked me that night!  Ethan, who had taken me under his wing – practically raised me since I came to the mines. Ethan, who I had trusted all these years, who I counted as one of my few friends, had brought me here?!  I couldn’t process the thought.  Rage coursed through my body as I felt the crimson glow tingle to the tips of my fingers.

Krista reached for my hand and met my gaze, alarm in her eyes.  “Gray, what is it?”

But I could say nothing.  I could only stare at Ethan in utter disbelief.  I wanted to wring his neck, but then I didn’t.  I had to know the truth.  All the while, he stared back at me with his characteristic nonchalance, as if he knew resolution was imminent.  We stared at each other for several more minutes, fixed and unwavering, but at last, Ethan gave me a look of concession.

“Fine, Gray, since it’s clear you’re not going to get this on your own, allow me to assist you.  I brought you here ten years ago to save you from being destroyed with the rest of your colony.  Those who attacked the village were once like you and I, long ago, but they were corrupted by great evil.”

“After falling into darkness, they began a conquest to rid the earth of all who remained of our kind, however many of us escaped and banded together.  I, through the abilities I have developed over the years, infiltrated their ranks in an effort to save as many as I could.  I had been watching you for months, and when I saw you exhibit signs of our ancestors, I knew I had to find a way to remove you from their gaze.”

“The shadows had a secondary objective in their raids – to find able bodied people to work as slaves in the mines.  I convinced them that you showed no signs of the gift and did not need to be eliminated.  I captured you and brought you to work here, hoping to allow your gift to mature.  Judging by the events of this past day, I would say I have succeeded.”

Ethan folded his hands neatly in front of him and looked at me with a mixture of expectancy and mirth.  My anger began to subside as the gravity of what I had just been told sank in, but I was still speechless.

“Well, aren’t you going to say ‘thank you’?” Ethan said dryly.

I looked over to Krista, who, having heard none of what Ethan had just told me, simply mirrored the bewildered look I now wore.  I had no clue how to react.  I shook my head slightly, laughed, and turned back to Ethan.  “Somehow, I don’t think ‘thank you’ quite covers it.”

Chapter 11: Confessions

“Gray?”

“Gray?!

“Ethan, what happened to him?!  Can’t you do anything?”  Krista’s urgent voice was fraught with concern.

“He appears to have gone into a sort of trance“, Ethan replied.  “Perhaps his memory has started to…” he trailed off into silence.

“Hey!  What’s everyone fussing about?”  I rubbed my eyes as Krista and Ethan’s faces came into focus.

“Gray!”  Krista knelt hastily and threw her arms around me.  “I was worried sick about you!  What happened?”

“I was actually hoping you could tell me.  All I remember is you saying something about my face then everything went black.”

“Yeah, I was telling you how much you and Matthias look alike.  You looked shocked, and then I realized you’ve probably never even seen your face before.  I’d started to ask you when you fell back and hit your head.  You were unconscious for about an hour…”

What?!  But I was only gone a few minutes… What I’d witnessed on the beach came flooding back in an instant.  Nevermind.  I wanted answers.

“Where’s Matthias?!” I exclaimed abruptly.

“Huh?  What do you want with Matthias?” replied Krista, nonplussed.  “He went off somewhere with Soren and Reg, I think.”

I rose hastily from the floor, looking around for a sign of them.  “Which way did they go?  I need to talk to Matthias right now.”

Krista pointed down the corridor to the left.  “I think they went that way, but I don’t understand…”

I was determined to get some answers and Matthias was going to give them to me whether he liked it or not.  “I’ll be right back, Krista.  Don’t worry.”  I started off down the corridor but no sooner had I stepped around her than I was met by Ethan’s stern gaze – he stood right in my path and didn’t appear intent on moving.

“Gray, now is not the time” Ethan said firmly.

“Ethan, move!” I snarled at him.  I’d lived in the mines all these years without any clue as to who I am and I wasn’t about to let anyone get in my way.

Ethan reached out and touched my shoulder.  I thought I saw his eyes flash and then I was unable to move forward, like I was being repelled by some opposite magnetic force.  “Gray,” he said in a whisper “be patient.  I know you don’t understand, but if you do this now, you will ruin everything.  Come to the cavern just outside my barracks tonight after the Guard leave to make their rounds.  Then, I will tell you about who we are and where we come from.”

“What do you mean, we?” I said, incredulous.

“Gray, we are the same, you and I.  Your home is my home.  That is why I took you under my wing when you came here.”

“What?!”  I could hardly believe what I was hearing.  I eyed him with the utmost caution now.  “If that’s true, why did you wait all this time to tell me?”

“People of our kind experience a sort of ‘awakening’ – a surfacing of our abilities – when we reach adulthood.  Had I told you sooner, you would have grown impatient for this day and perhaps done something rash.”

“So that means…”

“Yes.  Today is your eighteenth birthday, Gray.  It was imperative that I keep your identity secret from the Guard at least until you were strong enough to protect yourself.  They are under strict orders to turn over any of our kind to the Overseer – to be executed.”

“What?!  Why?  After today, they must know what I am – why haven’t they come for me yet?”

“We have taken…steps – to ensure your safety.  You see, Gray, they fear us.  We are the only ones that can truly combat them and expose them to the world above for what they really are.”

“And what are they?”

“Though they know it not, they are part of something much more sinister than mere slavery.  I can say no more here.”

“You’re talking crazy, Ethan.  I’m not saying I don’t trust you, but…it’s just a lot to take in at once.  What about all this ‘we’ business?  Are you saying there are more people like us?”

“Yes, but I dare not say more now.  We have solidified a position of relative power for the moment, but our encounter with the shade wolves today gives us reason to believe our presence here is no longer secret.”

In the span of only a few minutes, everything I thought I knew had been completely overwritten.  And I was to learn more later?  Though I sensed that this was only the tip of something much larger, I’d survived these many years in the mines by learning how to operate within the confines of a world that was now crumbling by the second – I wasn’t sure how much more change I could take.

Ethan’s demeanor changed from matter-of-fact to empathetic.  “Gray, I know this is a great deal to take in.  Go and rest for awhile.  Talk it out with Krista – she can be trusted with what I’ve told you, but make sure no one else hears you.  There may yet be others among us that are more than they appear.  I must go now, but please leave Matthias be for now.  You will have your chance to speak with him in due time.”

I didn’t understand.  Like an impatient child, part of me wanted to wait until Ethan left then march straight over to Matthias and demand an explanation.  The fact that Ethan had let me in on any of this, however, made me think better than to give in to my impulses.  I nodded to him in agreement and watched as he shuffled slowly down the corridor to his barracks.

Krista caught my shoulder and I turned to face her.  “What was all that about?” she asked.

“I’ll tell you, but not here.  Let’s go back to the barracks.”

She nodded, took my hand, and we walked in silence down the corridor.  The journey was a short one, with ours being the first unit on the left in the passage, but while we walked, a growing sense of apprehension began to take hold.  Tomorrow, I would be going on an incredibly dangerous mission, which, with my newfound abilities or not, I wondered if any of us would survive, but this feeling was deeper than that.

For everything Ethan had shared with me, I felt that there was something more to this mission than simply reestablishing contact with the command center and saving my fellows.  If our conversation had shown me anything, it was how painfully little I knew of what was really going on, and that terrified me.

When we arrived at the barracks, the dim purple glow emanating from inside revealed that the normally cramped room was relatively empty – everyone must have gone off to the mess hall further down the corridor to get their daily rations.  I turned to Krista, feeling somewhat relieved.

“Looks like we’ve got the place mostly to ourselves for the moment, but, umm…I imagine you’re hungry after a day like today.” I said, my head sinking slightly at the end.

“Not at all!” she said brightly.  Let’s take advantage while everyone’s away – I want to hear about what Ethan told you.”

“Are you sure?” I said with concern.

“Gray, I’ll be fine!  Come on.”

I knew there was no point in discussing it further – her mind was set.  I half-smiled back at her as we went inside and walked to my bunk.  There were only a few others in the room that I could see, but they all looked sound asleep.

“I think we should be OK to talk in here…not much room to sit up in these bunks – well, you know.  It looks like the one above mine is open; do you want me to take that one?”

“Gray, don’t be silly.  You know I can’t stand talking to people when I can’t see them, and besides, I promise, I won’t bite.”  She smiled coyly and slid across my bunk to the inside closest the wall.

I eyed the remaining space on the bunk with doubt – as it was, I typically occupied every available square inch of my bunk on my own, but I squeezed in gingerly beside her, laying on my left side as straight as I could manage.  We were still unavoidably close, but the look on her face told me she was quite pleased with our arrangement.  She put her free arm around me, and sighed with contentment.  My heart fluttered.

“So what happened with Ethan back there?” her voice was hushed to a whisper now.

At this distance, her brilliant green eyes were completely mesmerizing.  I’d been lost in them for several seconds when I realized she’d spoken.  I composed myself as best I could and replied, “He said he didn’t want me to talk to Matthias.  Said something about me ruining everything if I did.”

“Hmmm…that’s weird.  I wonder what he meant by that.”  She searched my face for a hint but then seemed satisfied that I genuinely didn’t know.  “What’d you want to see Matthias for anyway?”

“You know when I passed out?  I had a dream that I was on this beach in the world above.  There were two brothers there fighting over a piece of Darkstone.”

“Darkstone?  Up there?”

“Weird, I know.  Anyway, they both looked identical to each other except one was older – both had brown hair and gray eyes – and the older one was called Matthias.”

Krista’s eyes widened with comprehension.

“Matthias had taken the Darkstone from his brother, but the younger one persisted in trying to get it back.  At first he couldn’t but then he got really serious.  He hit Matthias harder than I would have thought possible and took back the stone.  When he looked up, his eyes flashed red, and then I passed out again.”

“His eyes flashed red?  You mean like yours?”  I nodded.  “Gray!  If that was you, then that means…”

“That Matthias is my brother.”  I finished her sentence and watched as the questions visibly flew through her mind.  I wondered which one she would ask first.

“So does that mean he can do what you can do?”

I hadn’t considered that one.  Oh God, can he?

“To be honest, I have no idea.  Ethan says he’s going to tell me about who we are and where we come from tonight, so I guess I’ll find out then.”

“Wait…how would Ethan know about you two?”

“Beats me, but he said ‘we’re the same’ and that’s why he’s looked after me since I came here.”

“So he’s like you too?  How could he have been here all this time without anyone knowing?”

“I don’t know, but I get the feeling he’s much better at controlling his abilities than I am.  I think he can change his eye color to disguise what he really is.  When we were waiting in the station earlier today, I looked at him and he had gray eyes.  Then I heard a voice in my head and it was him.  He said that I don’t understand what I am but that I would learn to control it.  When I looked back at him just a moment later, his eyes were brown again.”

“Can you do that?”

“Which thing, change my eye color or project my voice into people’s heads?”  One was clearly more advanced than the other and yet, I was pretty certain I could do neither.

“Changing your eye color, silly!  The other thing’s kinda creepy.  Can you make them turn green?”

“What’s wrong with gray?”  I said, now worried that she didn’t care for my natural eye color.

“You’re so predictable, Gray!  I love your eyes the way they are; just see if you can…please?”  This time she used her eyes to an unfair advantage on purpose.  I simply couldn’t say no.

“Well, at least I have a shade to try for” I said, indicating her eyes “but I doubt I’ll be able to make mine anywhere near as amazing as yours, if I can do it at all.”  She blushed at my compliment.  “Here goes nothing.”

How in the world do I do this?  Maybe if I draw out the light like earlier but try to focus it in my eyes… “How’s this?”

“Gray, you did it!”  My heart jumped with excitement, but then she added, “your eyes are blue!”

“Oh…” I said, crestfallen.

“No, no, it’s OK!  Just keep trying.  Focus hard on the color of my eyes.”

I laughed silently to myself.  How could I not focus on the color of her eyes?  It was like asking me to remember to breathe.  Nonetheless, I focused even more intently on the breathtaking green and tried again.  I pushed the light up through my eyes and willed it to bend, watching her expression for signs of improvement.

“They’re turning yellow, keep trying!” she said encouragingly as she gripped my shoulder.

I redoubled my effort, becoming entranced by the shade of her eyes.  Turn green.  Turn green!  Turn…

“Gray, they’re green!  You did it!”  She leaned in unexpectedly and kissed me, sending my senses over the edge.  “Whoa, now they’re REALLY green…Gray, that’s kinda scary.  Gray, calm down.”

I refocused on the color of her eyes and consciously slowed my heart back to normal.

“There!  Perfect.  I knew you could do it.”  She ran her fingers through my hair and it sent a tingle down my spine.  “Wow, this stuff is really dependent on your emotions, isn’t it?”

I refocused, allowing the light to recede from my eyes, and smiled back at her.  “I guess so.”

Suddenly, her demeanor changed from jovial to somber.  Her smile was replaced by an expression of uncertainty and her eyes were serious.  “Gray, I’m worried about you going on this mission.  Even if Ethan and James are going with you and Matthias is your brother, I don’t trust Soren.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, he’s huge, for starters!”

“You mean, like Jonas?”

She hesitated a moment “Yes, but…I, I don’t like the look of him!”

I could tell she was reaching now, so I decided to have some fun with her.  “He looks like Matthias, who looks like me…what are you saying?  You don’t like the look of me either?”  I knew it was cruel, but I couldn’t help laughing on the inside.

“No, that’s not what I meant!”  Her voice was starting to quiver.  “I mean…and what about the wolves?  What if they hurt you?!  I just…I don’t want you to leave.”  A single tear escaped from the corner of her eye.

Whoa, I had no idea she’d get so upset.  I’m such an ass! “Krista” I whispered softly to her “Everything’s going to be fine.  I have to go…otherwise none of us is getting out of here, but I swear to you.  I will come back.  An army of ten thousand wolves led by the Overseer himself couldn’t keep me away.”

She hesitated a moment, apparently trying to catch her breath.  She gazed intently at me, her eyes glinting in the dull purple glow like the surface of a lake reflecting the light around it.  She gently inhaled and then whispered the words:  “I love you.”

I’d never wanted to hear three words more desperately in all my life.  I cradled her head gently in one arm and ran the fingers of my other hand gently through her silken hair.  I struggled for what seemed like an eternity to find the strength to reply, then, at last, it came.  “I love you, Krista.”

Chapter 10: Unexpected

My heartbeat was like the thumping of a low drum in my head.  The only other sound was the slow draw and exhale of my breath – the noise of the outside world was muffled and indistinguishable.

I looked around in a daze.  The heavy steel security gate was just to my left.  To my right and just ahead, Reg and some of the other Guardsmen were moving the last of my fellows down the corridor.  Reg turned back and motioned for me to follow – his lips moved but I couldn’t hear him.  I waved him on ahead and watched as he nodded and ran out of sight.

Suddenly, I became aware that I was still holding Krista tightly against me.  I looked down and was met by her brilliant green eyes, wide and penetrating.  Her face was close to mine – I could feel the gentle warmth of her breath against my cheek.  The sound of my heart thumped faster in my head.  Her hand reached up and grasped softly at my hair, pulling me closer.  There were no thoughts, no distractions.  There was only her.

My left arm supported her, tracing the contour of her back, while my right gently cradled her head.  I considered her for a moment – every line was perfect and beautiful.  She smiled sweetly at me and moved closer, closing her eyes.  Our lips met and a sense of pure elation shot through to the tips of my nerves.

I pulled her closer but nothing was close enough.  We moved as one, breathing in and out together.  I struggled to master the longing I had for her all these years, but there was too much feeling, too much love to contain in these few stolen moments.  How long we persisted, I don’t know, but at long last, desire could stave off need no longer.  We stopped a moment for a deeper breath, but as we did, something broke through the relative silence.

“Hey!  What the hell are you two still doing back here?!”

Dammit, Reg!

Krista released me abruptly and made a feeble effort to casually smooth out her shirt.  “Umm, hi Reg!” she said a little too high to sound as innocent as intended.

I turned to face Reg, my face hot with embarrassment.  “Hi, Reg!  We were, umm, just going over…what we should…do…next.”  I couldn’t help but grin as a knowing look spread across his face.

“Right” he said, drawing the word out much longer than necessary.  “I’m sure you were.”

Now, the moment was gone and I was fully aware of my surroundings once more.  The violent slamming against the security gate brought the our dire predicament back to the forefront of my mind – on the other side of the gate were innumerable wolf-like creatures bent on our destruction and we had, as of yet, no viable escape plan.  I cast a worried glance at the gate then looked back at Reg.

“Any bright ideas?” I asked him darkly.

“The gate is sturdy – it should hold up against whatever those things do to it.  I’m more worried about them burrowing around it.  We need to get back to the barracks and seal off this wing of the mines.  We’ll plan our next move there.”

“Can’t the wolves just burrow their way in there too?”

“Based on the trouble they’re having with that gate, I’d say no.  The quadrant housing the barracks is surrounded by a secondary steel wall set into the rock to prevent escapes, or, in this case, intrusions.  The only problem with staying there is that, with the other group of wolves coming from the opposite end, we run the risk of being cut off from headquarters.  The supplies we have on hand will only last a week or so.”

“Well, I guess it’s better than staying here.  If nothing else, it will buy us some more time to think.  Come on, Krista, let’s get going.”  I turned and instinctively went to pick her up again.

“Gray,” she said with a hint of sarcasm “you’re very sweet, but…do you think I could just run beside you this time?”  She flashed a playful smile and winked at me.

“Oh…right, sorry, Krista!  Alright, Reg“ I said, turning back to him, “we’re all set.”

“OK.  You two go on ahead this time.  I’ll bring up the rear and make sure the gate to the barracks gets closed.”

I nodded then looked to Krista.  She motioned down the corridor and we set off at a brisk pace.  As we moved up the familiar cavern hall, I noticed the smoothness of Krista’s stride – she was graceful and effortless.

I guessed now that her apparent fragility was more a manifestation of fear than an inherent trait, for along with the expression of peace and confidence she now wore came a natural athleticism I’d never seen in her before – she matched me step for step with ease.  I watched her out of the corner of my eye and smiled to myself as we approached the barracks.

Before long, the dingy gray steel of the first bunkhouse came into view up ahead.  As we drew nearer, the nervous dialog of both Guardsmen and miners echoed above our footfalls and the dull hum of machinery in the distance.  We arrived none too soon as a discussion between the two groups was getting more heated by the second.

“You’re gonna seal us in here to die?!  Where’re you all going in such a hurry?  Back to hide in your fortress?!”  One of my fellows had established himself as spokesman for the group and ardently protested the Guard.  I couldn’t see who it was through the crowd but all of the miners echoed his sentiments loudly.

A tall pale-faced Guardsman answered in a clear baritone, “Our only chance for survival is to reestablish a path to the command center.  If we all stay here, our supplies will run out and we will and starve, but the risk of bringing you all is too great.”

Krista and I moved forward into the crowd to get a better look.  “What’s going on here?” I boomed.

The Guardsman who had been speaking looked up expectantly as I came into his view.  “Gray, come help everyone to see reason.”  He motioned for me to come forward, into the center of the crowd.  I took Krista’s hand then proceeded into the thick of the dispute.

What is it with these Purplecoats thinking I’m their buddy all of a sudden?  Reg seems OK, but who the hell is this guy?!

As I cleared the wall of onlookers, I saw at my right the one who’d taken charge on behalf of the miners.  His name was James, an ebony skinned man of about my height, lean, muscular, with deep brown eyes and short black hair – I guessed him about 10 years my senior but he had arrived in the mines about a year after me.  I knew James to be a hard worker and an honest man, so I immediately felt compelled to back him.

“Gray, will you tell this overgrown Purplecoat there’s NO WAY they’re locking us up in here while they take off to the command center?!” James glared back at the Guardsman as he spoke.

I turned to my left, setting my back to James and the miners.  Krista followed around to stand at my right.  The Guardsman was several inches taller than I so I had to look up slightly to meet his gaze.  I looked hard at him but saw that the characteristic sense of fear I’d come to expect from his comrades did not extend to him.  He looked me squarely in the eyes, drew himself up to full height and spoke again.

“Gray, we were just discussing our options from here.  We believe the best choice is to have a small group of men try to reestablish passage to the command center.  From there, we can bring back supplies and reinforcements to help evacuate everyone.  I understand the risk in leaving people here, but a group of this size would be at a severe disadvantage, should we be attacked on the way.”

He definitely has a point. I glanced aside at Krista, who seemed to be echoing my sentiment.  Who IS this guy, anyway?!  I thought I’d had it out with nearly every Purplecoat around but he doesn’t look familiar…

“I’m sorry, but who are you again?” I addressed the Guardsman in a firm but curious tone.

“My name is Soren.  I joined the Guard for this sector two weeks ago, and presently, I am the ranking officer here.”

I wondered how Fontaine could have possibly reached a higher position than Soren.  The man standing before me exuded such authority, I couldn’t dream of him ever having been trumped by such a miserable excuse for a leader – but then, based on the example Jonas had set all these years, I supposed the traditionally desired traits weren’t necessarily the standards against which Guardsmen were measured.  As I considered him a moment more, something about him struck me as familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

“OK, Soren.  As much as I hate to admit it, you have a point.”

“GRAY!!!” James’ voice burst out from behind me.

I turned slightly to address him, “James, I know what you’re thinking, and I think the same, but don’t let the fact that he’s a Purplecoat cloud your vision.  What he’s saying makes sense.  Maybe you could hold your own in an attack, but too many others couldn’t.  Do you want their lives on your head if something happens?”

“But…”

“James, you know I care about all of us.  Trust me on this one…please.”

“…OK, fine.”  He shifted his gaze to Soren, “but this doesn’t mean I trust THEM!”

“Fair enough” Soren replied calmly.  “Now that we’ve settled on our course from here, we should determine who among us will go.”  He turned to face me, “Gray, given the clear advantage your unique abilities afford you against these creatures, I believe you should go.”

I nodded in agreement, but before Soren could continue, Krista interjected.  “I’m going too!” she said decisively as she grasped my arm.

“I am certain you can take care of yourself, young lady” replied Soren, “but the risk is too great.  I am sorry.”

I turned and eyed her sweetly, “I can’t risk losing you again.  I’ll come back for you – I promise.”

She looked for a moment like she would continue her protest but then conceded in apparent defeat, “OK.”  It was unlike Krista to concede a point so easily, but, for now at least, the discussion was over.

Soren continued, “I will be going to oversee the operation.  Two other Guardsmen will come as well to ensure that the group can gain entry to the command center, should I perish during the journey.  Are there any others among you brave enough to go?”

James spoke up immediately, “You ain’t going anywhere without me!  You gotta have somebody to keep an eye on the damn Purplecoats and make sure they don’t try nothin’.”

Soren glared at him derisively, “Very well, James.  What a loss it will be to your kin should you fall along the way.”

I saw James roll his eyes at Soren and give him the finger when he turned.  Krista and I chuckled under our breath.

“Is there another who will go?” Soren boomed over the crowd.

The miners all turned to one another and became entrenched in discussion.  I watched them size each other up as the sound of their many voices began to echo through the cavern.  After another several minutes, they didn’t look any closer to making a decision.

“I will go!”  Ethan’s familiar rasp broke through the clamor as he strode through the people and took a place at my left side.

“I will go.”  He said again in a somewhat winded tone.

“Ethan!” I exclaimed as I heartily grasped his hands.  “Where in hell have you been?!”

Krista’s face lit up with relief as she saw him.  “Ethan, we’re so glad you’re OK!”  She embraced him tightly as a daughter would her father after his return from a long journey.

“It’s good to see you both too.  So?” he said, turning to Soren, “am I in or what?”

Soren took one look at him and began shaking his head.  Several of the Guardsmen scoffed at Ethan amongst themselves.  “Are you sure, old man?  It is quite a walk” said Soren, the corners of his mouth curling into a slight grin.

Ethan straightened up and furrowed his brow.  I could tell he was preparing for one of his speeches that would leave everyone’s mouth agape and silent – I’d been on the receiving end of many such tongue lashings in my time, but these poor saps had no idea what they were in for.  I smiled slyly in anticipation.

“Ah, so you’ve noticed I’m a bit older than you – I’m sure all present would have missed that detail had you not brought it to light, so thank you for pointing it out.  Yes, I am old, but let me ask you this: can any of your Guardsmen tell you where I have been these past several hours?”  He opened his stance and addressed all of the Guard together.  “Can any of you even hazard a guess at how I was here waiting for you as you all so gallantly stumbled across the threshold of the barracks?”

The Guard looked to each other frantically, their hopes diminishing fast with each clueless stare that met them.  Just then, Reg and the remaining Guardsmen came running in.  “We’re all set on the back end” he announced to the room.

“Reginald” Soren addressed him formally and he stood at attention “this man claims to have been here in the barracks upon our arrival.  Can you confirm this?”

Reg looked over at Ethan and shook his head.  “No sir,” he answered.

Ethan raised his hand politely and interjected, “The young man is correct.  He did not see me.  However, I can recall the exact order in which he and his cohorts entered this room just minutes ago.”  He began pointing them out one by one – first Reg, then another and another.  “I trust young Reginald can confirm that there were no other miners present who could have relayed this information to me when they secured this room.  Reginald?”

Reg looked absolutely dumbfounded.  “It was just as has he says, sir.”

“Now then,” Ethan continued smoothly, “if none of you can tell me where I have been or how I have managed to elude your notice all this time, perhaps it might occur to you that I possess knowledge of this place that you do not.  In light of this, I will allow you to reconsider your judgment in excluding me from the team.”

By the time Ethan finished his speech, a wide grin had stretched across my face.  What more could anyone say?  Ethan was going with us and that was that.  I saw Soren nod slightly to him in defeat then look up again to address the crowd.

“Then it is settled!  Gray, Ethan,” he added unnecessary stress as he said the name then paused a moment, “and James will be going on behalf of the miners.  Reginald…” he motioned to his right at Reg “…and Matthias…” he motioned to a serene looking man at his left ‘…will be accompanying me to represent the Guard.  For the moment, we are safe, so I suggest that everyone take advantage by retiring to your respective sleeping quarters to rest.  It has been a long day and we look to have many more ahead of us before this is over.”

This was as calm a resolution as anyone could have hoped for.  Never in my recollection could I remember any of us having had so much as a civil word in exchange with any of the Guard and now, here we were, banding together with them against a common threat.  I was glad to be saved the added stress of fighting with them amidst present circumstances, but as I stood and watched my fellows file down the corridor, the whole situation seemed more improbable by the minute.

The characteristic mistreatment we’d come to expect from the Guard was all but gone now.  I witnessed many Guardsmen actually helping the wounded among us, supporting them with a shoulder or even carrying them down the hall to their beds.  What the hell was going on here?  And who was this Matthias person?  He and Soren both shared the same expression – sharp, wise, and confident.  Neither of them bore the typical malice of those that had oppressed us all these years.  I turned aside to Ethan, hoping for some answers.

“Ethan,” I said in a low voice.  “What can you tell me about Matthias?  I thought I’d had run-ins with every Purplecoat there was, but neither he nor Soren are familiar to me.”

“They arrived from the command center together two weeks ago, as Soren mentioned earlier.  Aside from that, there’s not much to tell.  What you see is what you get – they’re both ice-cool and sharp as can be.  Not the sort I’d go crossing if I were you.”

I looked at Ethan straight on with a smirk on my face.  “And what about you, mister I go wherever I please for hours at a time and mouth off to the Guard when I get back?!”

He answered dryly, his trademark nonchalance set across his brow, “When you’ve been here as long as I have, you learn that, while the rules don’t bend much, the way you choose to interact with the rules can provide a certain amount of flexibility.”

I continued to watch Soren and Matthias as the crowd walked past.  The more I considered their demeanor, the more they seemed to stick out from their comrades.  It was as if their subconscious personas existed elsewhere, granting them peace I’d never witnessed before.  I caught myself longing for it with strange familiarity – like an old friend that had long since passed into the annals of time.

Just then, Matthias looked up across the room at me, his penetrating stare understanding much more than my face could have expressed.  For a split second, I could swear I saw his eyes flash silver, but then he turned away abruptly and began talking with Soren once more.  I couldn’t help but continue staring.

“Gray?” Krista began with uncertainty in her voice.  “Is everything alright?  You look more pale than usual.”

I swear I know him, but from where?  I’ve been stuck in the mines my whole life and I know I’ve never seen him here before.  It’s impossible, but it can’t be…

Gray?” repeated Krista, her tone now laced with concern.

“What?  Sorry, Krista.  It’s just that…I feel like I know him from somewhere.”

“Who?”

“The Guardsman called Matthias – the one Soren said is coming with him and Reg.  I don’t see how it’s possible but I just can’t shake it.”

“Well, it’s not surprising, Gray.  He looks just like you.”

“What?”

“Well, yeah.  If it wasn’t for that purple armor, I might have done a double-take when I saw him.  His eyes are different though…brown.”  She trailed off for a moment, apparently finishing her comparison in silence, and then continued.  “I guess I should give you more credit, though.  It’s not like we get many chances to consider our reflections before heading off to work, do we?  Come to think of it, have you ever even seen your face…Gray?  GRAY?!!!.”

Her voice trailed off gently into the background as I watched her outline go fuzzy then fade into the encroaching black.  I was unconscious, and, yet, still aware.  I lay motionless in the dark for a few moments, listening intently, but I heard nothing.  All was peaceful and calm around me.

After another few moments, I thought I felt warmth from above upon my skin.  Unfamiliar sounds cycled through my perception, growing louder with each repetition.  Like the sound of crushed ore passing through a sieve followed by the noise of a far-off conveyor but with a definite rise and fall to each, softer, hollow, and rhythmic rather than constant.

I opened my eyes and saw that I was laying face-down on a bed of white sand.  A vast body of clear blue water was before me, ebbing and flowing gently as I looked out to the horizon – everything was blue as far as I could see.  Overhead, a blindingly bright light shone down on me.  I rubbed my eyes then opened them again and refocused.  Was this the sun?  I’d only ever heard about it in Ethan’s stories, but I knew of nothing else that matched the description of what I saw.  I was in the world above.

I got to my feet and turned to find lush greenery all around.  Nothing like the plants that grew in the dim purple glow of the mines, these were brilliant green and sprawling, with massive fronds that swayed in the light breeze.  I greedily inhaled the fresh air as it rushed past – I’d never experienced anything like it.  It was clean and utterly refreshing.  I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply once more, but an abrupt outburst to my left startled me.

Not ten feet away, two pale brown haired boys, identical except one looked a few years older than the other, struggled in the sand.  They appeared to be fighting over something the eldest had clenched in his fist.

“Give it back!  That’s mine!”

“I just want to have a quick look!”

The younger boy fought in vain to wrest the unseen object from the older boy’s hands.  The two of them seemed oddly familiar, but I couldn’t say why.  The younger rushed in again, but no sooner had he unbalanced the older than he found himself flying through the air and landing flat on his back.

“Ha!  So hasty with your temper, little brother!  You’ll never get it back now!”

The older brother held the object aloft and I caught a glimpse of it.  My eyes widened and my mouth dropped open on sight of the unmistakable color – Darkstone!  What the hell was that doing here?!

The younger brother rose from the ground and turned so I could see his face.  His fierce determination was apparent in the way his rigid body poised for his next attempt.

“You WILL give that back, Matthias!”

Matthias?!

Just then, I glimpsed the younger’s eyes – they were pale gray just like mine!  The next thing I knew, he had struck his brother with force I wouldn’t have imagined possible from one so young.  Matthias flew back and the Darkstone fell to the ground.  The younger brother knelt to retrieve the stone, and when he looked up, my heart stopped.  His eyes flashed bright red, and in an instant, everything went black again.

Chapter 9: Flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let us through” I called our firmly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So many surprises from you today.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Agreed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you want me to do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, that’s everyone,” she said.

“Have you seen Ethan anywhere?” I asked.

“Come to think of it, no.  Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?!”

“I won’t risk losing you!  Grab on!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8: Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrogant swine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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