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.

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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.