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.