Chapter 1: Awakening

“Gray.”

Gray!”

“Gray, wake up!  It’s Eli!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bye, Gray.  Thanks for everything.”

“ELI!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s true!  Pop, here…”

“Dammit, Gray” grumbles Ethan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now…where were we, lass?”

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

“Y, ye’sir!”

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

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

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

“But, sir!  I…”

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

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

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

He steels himself and turns to address us.

“ALL RIGH’, YOU SCUM!  MOVE!!!”

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

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

Damn.  So much for being discreet.

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

Chapter 13: Premonition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I have questions!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

“Krista, is this…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

“Krista!”

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

“Gray, what’s wrong?!”

“Your…knee!” I gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

“You dreamt that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just, OK?  No more arguments?”

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

What?  Who is that?

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

“You’re almost there…just let it go.”

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

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

Matthias!

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

“Krista!”

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

“Hide under my bunk, now!”

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still so much to learn…pity.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gray…please don’t struggle.”

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

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

“GRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sorry, Gray.”

Chapter 12: Children’s Stories

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

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

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

“Gray, it is time.”

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

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

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

Fine, then, get on with it.

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

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

“Krista, it’s time to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gray?”

“What is it, Krista?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We were just talking” I assured.

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

Krista flushed bright red.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…wait a minute!” I protested.

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

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

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

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

“Rations?” I said, mildly disappointed.

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

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

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

“Thanks, Ethan.”

“Yes, thanks very much” Krista echoed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 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.

Chapter 4: Foresight

Whether I really intended to go and listen to Ethan tell faerie tales that night or not, he’d definitely gotten my attention.  I knew so little about myself it was embarrassing – I don’t even know my proper name.  Gray is just what everyone calls me on account of my eyes. “I’ve never seen eyes quite like yours!” they marveled.  Come to think of it, neither had I – until just now, that is.

What the hell was going on here?  I had seen Ethan every day for what I guessed to be about ten years and I could swear his eyes were brown.

My eyes quickly shot back to Ethan’s and they were…they were brown.  Not a trace of the pale gray shimmer I had just witnessed remained.  Am I going crazy?

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

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

“Ahhhh!!!”  I jumped back about a foot, startled by her interruption.

Paranoia, CHECK.

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

Pull it together, Gray.

I steadied myself and looked back over at Ethan.  His expression was mixed, seeming both unsurprised and genuinely amused at my little episode.

Well, I’m glad SOMEONE finds this entertaining!

Whatever was going on, it wasn’t normal, but I shrugged it off as best I could and returned to the present.

I scanned around the cavern anxiously, being, in my present state, even more wary of the strange behavior exhibited by the Guard.  More than once since we’d arrived, I’d seen them hurry back and forth, speaking in hushed voices and glancing in my direction.

The atmosphere seemed to gradually thicken around me, and just then, back at the entrance, I observed two Guardsmen running headlong toward Jonas.  They looked out of breath and rather unnerved as they relayed what I could only assume was very urgent news.

Jonas’ eyes widened as he listened to the report, his face draining of what little color it had left.  His gaze shot hastily over to me, his mouth hanging wide with a look of dawning comprehension, and then turned back toward the cavern entrance, his manner suddenly somber, resigned.  He closed his eyes just as a willowy cloaked figure emerged.

The figure strode across the room with unsettling grace.  His robes, black as the deepest recess of the mines, billowed behind him ominously as he made a line directly for Jonas.   As he swept past, I caught a peculiar emblem emblazoned across his chest – a large black flame outlined in purple.  The shape seemed vaguely familiar to me, but its hue was unmistakable  – Darkstone.

The figure cast a deliberate glance in my direction and I saw his face: cold black eyes set into a chiseled mask of pale stone.  His ashen skin glowed with a dull purple aura.

My body cringed instinctively like a wild animal sensing a nearby predator, and in seconds, I was writhing.  Thoughts of bitter hatred flooded my mind.  My body was rigid, eager to commence with revenge my conscious persona had long since forgotten.  I felt that, at any moment, my restraint would finally fail, plunging me down a path from which there was no return.

I felt the touch of Krista’s hands on my own and in an instant, my anger had passed.  I was amazed at how much peace her simple touch afforded – like she was somehow able to lend a portion of her grace through her exquisite fingertips.

A wave of powerful emotion washed over me.  I took her delicate hands in mine and looked down at them in awe, considering the value of what I now held – how little I deserved her.

I struggled to suppress the tears welling up in my pale gray eyes, but one escaped.  It rolled down my rough cheek, hurrying in its course to betray me until it fell from my chin onto her wrist.

She flushed a brilliant crimson and her head rose gently to meet my unworthy gaze.  Her eyes were emerald fire, glittering with flecks of teal in the lamplight.  Her expression was fathomless.

The edges of the world blurred all around and I saw only her.  Her dark brown hair shone amidst the cavern’s glow, gently cascading down her shoulders.  Her skin was the softest pale pink, accented with deeper red below her elegant cheekbones.    Her brow was wrinkled just slightly, full of concern and adoration.  I followed its line down the curve of her perfect nose to her lips, supple and inviting, full of color – my gaze lingered too long there.  Then, they parted with painful delicacy as if to speak…

“Gray”

The sound of my name was intoxicating in her sweetest whisper.

“He won’t harm you – I’ve seen it.”

My eyes widened in astonishment.  How could she know what the future held for me? I tried to speak, but I was powerless, lost in her eyes.

“Every night for the last week, I’ve dreamt of you.  I see you surrounded in a brilliant white light, rising out of the mines into the world above…Gray, I think you’re going to free us from this place!”

Now I had to speak up.  “Krista!  Do you realize what you’re saying?!  This is crazy!”

“No!  Listen to me!” she pleaded.  “When I first had the dream, I thought it was just because of the way I see you – you’re my protector.  Ever since we first met, you’ve tried to protect me no matter what it cost you, but earlier in the corridor, when Jonas came at me, you actually stopped him – no one has ever been able to stop him!  Gray, he must be twice your size, and you’re bigger than everyone else here!”

“I can’t explain it but, when he reached for me, I saw your eyes flash with light, and then you threw him – it must have been six feet back – to the far wall!  The Guard are running around in a panic, staying as far away from you, and even me, as they can.  Jonas looking like he’s seen a ghost, and now this hooded guy shows up – Jonas is scared of you!  They all are!”

I was stunned speechless.  There were a million things I wanted to say but all I could do was marvel at her.

“I think we should talk to Ethan tonight, Gray.  He knows lots of things, and the way he looked at you a few minutes ago, I think he may know something about you too.”

“Oh, and your eyes are still glowing.  I noticed that it seems to happen when you get really emotional, so you might want to calm down.”  She flashed a playful smirk and set my hands at my sides.

I was frozen, my mouth wide with an incredulous look on my face.  As far-fetched as Krista’s theory sounded, it actually made sense – well, except for the bit about me saving everyone: that was a little hard to swallow, but when did my eyes start glowing anyway?  What did it mean?  I needed answers and I felt confident that, tonight, I would have them.

I tore my gaze from her face just in time to see the hooded figure leading Jonas, shackled and bound, away from the dig site, across the bridge and into the shadows.