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 10: Unexpected

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dammit, Reg!

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

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

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

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

“Any bright ideas?” I asked him darkly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give it back!  That’s mine!”

“I just want to have a quick look!”

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

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

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

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

“You WILL give that back, Matthias!”

Matthias?!

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