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.”

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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 9: Flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let us through” I called our firmly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So many surprises from you today.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Agreed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you want me to do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, that’s everyone,” she said.

“Have you seen Ethan anywhere?” I asked.

“Come to think of it, no.  Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?!”

“I won’t risk losing you!  Grab on!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8: Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrogant swine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 7: Encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idiot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m OK, Krista.  It’s dead.”

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

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

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

Later, Gray.  Krista needs you.

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

Great, now I’ve really freaked her out.

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

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

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

Gray?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gray, what is it?!”

“There’s no time!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krista obeyed quickly, her eyes wide with fear.

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

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

Chapter 6: Hope Rekindled

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

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

“Can you stand?”

“I, I think so“, she breathed thinly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Umm…”

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

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

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

Krista blushed sweetly at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eli’s expression fell at my words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krista squeezed my hand gently, encouraging me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See you around, Eli.”  I answered.

“Byyye, Krista!”  Eli called hopefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guardsman at my left chortled suggestively in reply.

NO!  I WON’T LET THIS HAPPEN AGAIN!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m going with Krista.”

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

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

Chapter 5: Wake of the Shadow

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

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

Krista and I just stared at each other, dumbfounded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is everyone staring at me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t think they all…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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