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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”