It was a scene that could have been taken from the pages of any East End guard’s logbook, something Kierah could have passed by any day, on any street where she’d grown up. Guards attacked Enders, Enders fought each other, blood spilled as freely as the alcohol in Sirvan’s tavern.
She was no stranger to witnessing one-sided fights.
But even as she tried, she couldn’t remember ever seeing someone take up the weaker end of a such a fight for someone else. Not willingly.
She was riveted as the attack played out below her. She almost couldn’t believe what she was seeing — almost.
With some effort, she pulled her eyes away from the flashing of the blaster and toward the little boy in the background. It was definitely Rothan. There was no doubt in her mind. He looked even smaller than before, shrinking away from the scene he was being forced to watch.
So that was the guard’s game: punish both of them at once — one with the blaster, the other with guilt.
With every pull of the trigger, a pang shot through her, too. It was her fault, all of it.
If she was the reason Rothan had been brought there, then everything he went through there, anything he suffered, she was the reason behind that, too.
And that young man, a stranger, was taking the punishment for him — making that also, technically, her fault.
She squeezed her eyes shut, wishing she could stop her mind from drawing the connections without even trying.
He was down on his hand and knees now, unable to hold himself up. The onslaught was taking its toll, and he didn’t even have the use of both arms to support himself. He was already injured. There was no way he could last long like this, and the guard knew it.
But he must’ve known it too, when he brought himself into the fight.
And she just stood there, as if a trance froze her in place. She was part of what was happening, but too far away to be of any use. She wanted to scream, to reach out to Rothan, to help the stranger back up —
Then why was she still standing there?
Dragging herself together, she started for the stairs again, going down, not knowing why.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the flashes of blasterfire disappear, and looked down.
The guard’s blaster had fallen silent — but the damage was done. The young man had collapsed, and he wasn’t moving.
Kierah pulled to a stop in the middle of a set of stairs, grabbing for the railing.
The guard strode up to him, harshly delivering a sharp kick to his broken arm and half rolling him over.
She stood still too, barely breathing, fearing the worst.
Rothan looked as terrified as she felt, and she wondered if he was thinking what she was thinking. The guard turned his attention to the kid, redirecting him back to the pile of parodesium. He was going to make him clean up now. Now? How he was supposed to clean up, knowing the young man behind him was … was … unconscious at best …
She didn’t finish the thought. She started down the stairs again, hoping she’d be able to — to what? Run out there and make things worse? Demand to take Rothan away from there because it was her fault not his? Pick a fight because of what the guard had already done?
Yes, of course, because any of that would go over so well.
Really, she had no idea what she was going to do. But she kept running down the stairs. What hope did she have to even begin to help him? Hadn’t she already caused the poor kid enough trouble?
And not only him, but now the young man. When he woke up — if he woke up — she didn’t want to think about what kind of lingering pain waited for him after an attack like that. She didn’t know much about that kind of patrol blaster, but if it was anything like the kind used by Ends guards, it wasn’t designed for continued exposure like that.
Keeping her eye on the kid as she descended, she saw the guard begin to walk away. That was a bit unexpected, but she figured he’d probably made sure to lay out enough orders, and threats, to keep the kid working and away from what was left of the young man who’d saved his life. And he’d be watching him. From somewhere, he’d be watching him.
Which of course meant he’d be watching her, too, if she ventured out to try to help the one-armed kid pick up the pile. And he wouldn’t be the only one to see her. So would the dozens of other cons pushing shifters across the chasm floor. They were avoiding Rothan’s area for the most part, but what would they do if they saw her?
She again reminded herself she was crazy, and continued going down the stairs. She was almost at the bottom now. Wherever the guard had gotten to, at least he wasn’t out in the open. Maybe he wouldn’t notice her. Maybe he really wasn’t paying that much attention. Maybe —
He whirled around toward her, and as he did, a realization hit her as hard as she’d hit him. He had dark skin beneath his helmet, his mouth agape in surprise.
This was the same guard. So this was where he was going to keep an eye on Rothan from.
“Who the hell are you?” he barked at her, immediately suspicious. Eying her up and down, he took a step back.
She returned his stare, sure that hers carried considerably more menace than his since the top half of her face wasn’t shielded behind a helmet. She had no intention of answering his question.
Without a word, she pushed past him.
That went over about as well as could be expected.
“Hold on there,” he reached out and grabbed her arm roughly. “Where do you think you’re going? I asked you a question.”
Kierah’s eyes were ice. “Yeah you did. And I kept walking. Anything else you’d like to narrate?”
She wasn’t making friends quickly. She knew that.
He stared at her. “Watch your tongue, girl,” he warned, his grip tight on her arm. “You’re in a highly restricted area. Now I’m going to ask you one more time, and I expect an answer: Who. The hell. Are you.”
She didn’t want to tell him. She didn’t want to tell him anything. He had no ground to stand on that could make her give him the courtesy of conversation — but what he did have was an iron hold on her arm.
Considering her options, she wondered if it would be better to tell him who she was: The sooner he knew she was there as part of the prince’s plan, the sooner he’d be put in his place, and the sooner she could get away. Maybe.
“I’m with the Enders,” she answered at last, wishing she could spit nails into his helmeted face. Or even not nails; regular spit would do just fine.
He didn’t know about the group?
“I got lost,” she half explained.
“You got that right. Nobody’s allowed down here. Now who’d you say you’re with?”
So he really didn’t know about the group.
“The Enders, the group from the palace that was coming through for a tour…”
He actually laughed. “A tour? Of Kelmar?”
“You must have missed the memo,” she clipped tersely.
“Right. Kelmar, the tourist attraction. And you got lost.”
“So you go toward the bottom of the mines. Clearly.”
Kierah kept fighting the urge to smack him. “I thought being lost implied I didn’t know where I was going.”
“Maybe. But it doesn’t explain why, if you’re who you say you are, you would push past someone who could help you. If you weren’t so rude, maybe I’d be nice enough to find out where you’re supposed to be.”
“You sure being ‘nice’ is really what you’re best at?”
That seemed to amuse him. “It can be. When I’m shown the proper respect.” He finally released his grip on her arm and took a step back.
Her eyes narrowed. “Respect? Right. And this is how you get it?” Her face burning, she glanced out over the railing angrily. “That’s how you get it?”
He followed her gaze.
Kierah looked at Rothan struggling to refill the cart, still not giving in to tears even though it looked like he wanted to. And just a few yards from him lay the still form of the young man.
“Do you know him?” the guard asked.
“No.” She left out the part about Rothan. “But I don’t need to. I saw what you did.”
“You mean what he did.”
“You mean standing up for a little kid?”
“Is that what it looked like to you? I think you were a little too far away to see clearly,” he suggested, with more than a hint of condescension.
“I saw just fine. He didn’t deserve what you did to him.”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Is that wise?”
She almost snorted. Wise. Maybe it wasn’t; her hold on wisdom was almost as weak as the guard’s on being “nice.” But the guilt over Rothan’s plight overrode any reservations she might have had. “Maybe not, but it’s the side I’m on.”
“He’s here because he committed a crime,” the guard pointed out.
“And he’s there because he was protecting a little kid. From you,” she spat back, vaguely realizing the guard had used the present tense. The young man was still alive. “Did you even look at the kid? Did you miss the broken arm and the blood? Did you see why he spilled that cart? It was an accident, and you were going to do what to him?”
“Not to him. I wouldn’t have done to him what I did to –”
“To the guy who stood up for him?”
“He interfered.” The guard’s voice was cold, and Kierah knew she was treading on thin ice. “I was going to teach the kid a lesson, that was all. Demarc was the one who made it worse.”
Demarc. So that was the young man’s name.
She clipped out the words like a fist pounding into the other hand, puncturing the air and leaving their dying echo hanging in the silence. It was difficult to keep her composure.
He wasn’t actually dead, and Rothan hadn’t been punished. That counted for something.
But he had been brought within an inch of his life, and Rothan had been forced to watch. And for what?
Kierah’s blood boiled, anger and frustration rising. And guilt. The guilt she couldn’t ignore. This was her fault. The guard’s fault. Anybody’s fault but the two who’d paid the price for it.
The last time she’d felt this much emotion was when Zera had disappeared, when she’d left everything, ran away in the rain, wanted to hide from the world because of how wrong it was.
Now, it was wrong again. But this time, she was the reason for it. The pain wasn’t something sleep could take away from her — it was burning inside her, violently tearing her up. After the weeks of indifference at the palace, she almost felt like she was going into shock, and she wasn’t sure how to handle it.
She cared about something.
There was nothing holding her there anymore, physically or otherwise, so she turned on her heel and headed toward the stairs. She almost wanted to run — but she didn’t. Step by step, she walked. She wasn’t going to play cat-and-mouse with the guard. If he was going to try to stop her, she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of chasing her.
“Where are you going?” he called from behind her.
“Where do you think.”
Let him try to stop her. Just let him. What was he going to do? Restrain her? Call in reinforcements?
“Stop,” he ordered.
“I said stop,” he repeated, with considerably more menace. His command was accompanied by the unmistakable metallic rattling of weaponry.
So that was his plan. She had to admit it was a little more brazen than she’d expected. She was, after all, still a civilian; whatever he might do to the prisoners, she’d thought he’d think twice before doing the same to her. Even though she was an Ender, she was there under the authority of the prince.
This time, she did stop. She even turned around to face him.
“I told you to stop,” he said, again.
“And I didn’t listen,” she shrugged. “So go ahead. Shoot me. Then what? You gonna leave me lying unconscious in the middle of a pit surrounded by the same murdering bastards that break arms of little kids and those who try to stand up for them? Huh? Is that what you’re gonna do?” she spat. “Or maybe they’re not the ones who broke his arm. Maybe you did that, too. And you have the nerve to talk about respect –“
“Watch your tone,” he growled, adjusting the aim of his patrol blaster.
The tension was so thick she could almost choke on it.
Just then, footsteps above them broke the silence. They both heard it, but neither moved. Kierah wondered if the group had finally realized she was missing and had sent someone to find her.
The footsteps stopped at the top of the stairway leading down to their level, almost too abruptly.
“Dannan?” a man’s voice said, sounding simultaneously surprised and concerned.
He must have seen the guard at the base of the stairs, aiming the blaster. But he couldn’t see the target from where he stood.
The footsteps sprang back to life, pounding down the stairs with urgency. Their owner swung around at the base to land next to the guard, hand poised on his own blaster.
Kierah didn’t move, but couldn’t repress a sigh. This wasn’t getting any prettier.
But as soon as he saw Kierah, the grim determination on his face — or, at least on the visible pale lower half of it — turned to confusion. His blaster hand wavered. Apparently a well-dressed girl wasn’t quite the kind of target he’d been expecting.
“What’s going on here?” he asked, aiming the question at his partner though keeping his attention on Kierah.
“She’s disobeying an order,” came the gruff reply.
Completely removing his hand from his own holster, he reached over and knocked down Dannan’s weapon hand, taking Kierah out of the line of fire. “What are you thinking?”
Dannan clearly didn’t appreciate the gesture or the question. “She’s trying to –“
“You weren’t thinking, were you?” the other cut him off. “Just like you didn’t when you got us into this mess.” Kierah wasn’t sure which “mess” he was referring to, but it didn’t matter at the moment. “She’s an Ender, you idiot! You wanna get us demoted again?” Turning to Kierah, his tone was apologetic. “I’m so sorry for this, miss. He — he’s an idiot.”
Kierah liked this guy. Or at least, remotely better than the idiot to whom he was referring.
“Are you lost?” he asked.
“She’s trying to go down to the Pit,” Dannan hissed, and this time, his partner heard him.
“Down?” He shook his head. “No, the rest of your group is up. I can take you to them, come on. You’re not allowed down here.”
He gestured toward the stairs he’d run down a moment earlier, inviting her to follow him.
Kierah stood still for a second. This guard might not have been pointing a blaster at her, but that didn’t mean she was any more persuaded to go with him anywhere. Particularly up.
“No, actually,” she didn’t move. “I’m not going that way.”
He looked at her curiously, while behind him Dannan smirked with satisfaction.
“I don’t get it,” the second guard shook his head. “They’ll be leaving pretty soon, you have to get back to them. Besides, you don’t belong down here.”
She set her jaw, preparing for another faceoff. “Neither does he,” she muttered between clenched teeth.
“She’s mad because of what she thinks happened out there, Tate,” Dannan informed his partner, assuming Kierah was referring to the young man, apparently completely forgetting about Rothan.
He gestured over the railing, and Tate looked. It only took him a second to digest the view.
“Demarc?” he asked.
“I take it you did this.”
Dannan shrugged. “He asked for it.”
That didn’t seem to surprise Tate. “Right, of course he did.” Was that a hint of sarcasm? He turned to Kierah. “You know him?”
“She says she doesn’t,” Dannan stepped in again. “I don’t buy it for a second.”
“Ya think she can answer for herself?” Tate asked, irritated.
Dannan held up his hands. “I was here first, I’m just telling what I know.”
“Yeah, you’ve been real helpful.” He tried addressing Kierah again. “So you don’t know him.”
She’d watched the exchange involuntarily, at first considering making a run for it while the two of them bickered. But the second guard’s attitude made her think twice and wait it out.
He seemed at least a little more reasonable — or maybe just slightly less impulsive — than the first. He didn’t even sound impressed or satisfied when he saw the scene over the railing. It had been enough to keep her from running off.
But now his attention was back on her, and she wished she hadn’t passed up the chance. Not that she would have gotten far, but at least they wouldn’t have been staring right at her.
“I don’t know him,” she answered. “But I saw what happened.”
He almost sighed. “Look, I know what it must have looked like from up here, but I’m sure —”
“I know what I saw.”
“Yes, I’m sure you do,” he replied calmly, trying to placate her. “I know it doesn’t look good, but this kind of thing — it happens here. These are the mines. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.” He was slowly inching toward her, his hands up in front of him as if he was approaching a cornered animal.
But Kierah wasn’t cornered. And she knew it. The way down was only a few steps behind her.
“These people — a lot of these people cause trouble. Even if it doesn’t always look that obvious to an outside observer,” he added hastily. “Demarc — if you don’t know him, then you don’t know that he’s built quite a reputation for himself around here.”
“A reputation for what, getting in your way? And you can put your hands down,” she suggested scornfully. “I’m not the one with the gun.”
He almost winced. “Dannan shouldn’t have pointed it at you —”
“But at them, it’s okay.”
“That’s the side of the wall they’re on,” he said defensively. “The blasters don’t cause permanent damage. When he wakes up, he’ll have a royally massive headache, but otherwise he’ll be fine. Aside from his arm and his other problems. After unconsciousness hits, the effects of the blaster fade quickly.”
“Which gives you a perfect excuse to shoot whoever you want.”
“Dannan might be a little trigger-happy, I’ll give you that. He hasn’t been here that long — he used to be on patrol near the Ends, and being around those people all the time, he had to take measures to keep them in line.”
He must not have realized just what he was saying, but Kierah did. Her eyes narrowed. If she had been looking for an opening to storm off, this was it.
He’d forgotten she was one of them.
Spinning around, she ran.
“Oh no, wait!” he yelled after her.
“Oh great, great. Now you’ve gone and insulted her,” she heard Dannan say.
“Yeah, I should’ve been more civil and held a gun to her head instead,” Tate threw back as he pounded down the stairs in pursuit.
She didn’t expect to outrun them for long. Even though she’d had a lifetime of practice evading guards, this was their turf. Besides, the scaffolding was a one way street at this point; there was really nowhere else to go but where they already knew she was going.
But she ran anyway, gripping her hat into a ball as she careened down the stairs.
“Wait!” Tate yelled from above her. “Come on, think about it. When you get out there, what the heck are you gonna do?”
He could just as easily save his breath and just catch up to her — or at least get close enough to get a clear shot. But instead, he was trying to talk her out of it. That was a decidedly different tactic than his friend had used, she thought. But it wasn’t going to work.
Even though he was right. She had no idea what she was going to do.
“Look, I didn’t mean to offend you,” he tried again. To her relief, his voice didn’t sound much closer than it had been. She was keeping her distance ahead of him.
“But if you’re mad because of what you saw, going out there yourself isn’t going to make it better.”
She knew he was right. As soon as she stepped off that scaffolding, she’d stick out like a raindrop in a desert. She was a girl. The Noble-caliber dress didn’t help. And she’d be running, which may as well have been screaming for how much it clashed with the pace of everyone else there.
By the time she reached the spill, how many more guards would notice? And not just them; Rothan and Demarc hadn’t been the only prisoners transporting ore. Someone would get to her. She didn’t stand a chance.
She clutched the hat tighter.
And even if she did make it out there, if she somehow managed to not get caught, not get shot, and not get stopped — would Rothan even recognize her?
The soft hem of the dress swished like a feather around her knees. The heels of her mid-calf boots clattered against stairs. The hat was warm and stifling in her fist.
She wasn’t that girl anymore. She was cleaned up, dressed like the Noble he’d thought she was even when she’d looked like she’d spent the night under a mud-splattered staircase because she had. If he’d thought she was beautiful then, what would she look like to him now?
She’d told him she was just like him. That was a little difficult to picture, now.
She glanced over the railing to where he fought against the heavy stones, lifting them back into their cart while his broken arm hung useless and his other dripped red.
A world away, her own meticulously arranged hair fell into her eyes, more than a little unkempt by now but still more glossy and groomed than it had ever been in her previous life. The neck of the dress chafed against smooth, soft skin, which had all but replaced her rugged exterior.
His blood stained the rocks he stood on. Was hers even still pulsing through her heart?
The guard was right. What did she think she was doing?
She should stop. She knew that. She should stop and end it right there, give up and turn herself in and be taken back to the group.
But how could she? She was just going to quit? Surrendering had never been something she’d had a high opinion of. The thought of the word made her grimace.
“All right, all right,” Tate’s voice broke above the clatter of footsteps and the clamor of her fears. Somehow, he sounded like he was the one surrendering. “I’ll get them help.”
It sounded like a last ditch effort to get her to stop, probably because it was. She’d reached the last level before the ground. He didn’t do a noteworthy job of keeping a pleading note out of his voice, and Kierah wondered why.
Whether he was just one wimp of a guard, or honestly hoping to solve this without coming to blows or blasterbolts, his words brought Kierah up short.
Help? He’d get them help?
Almost reluctantly, she stopped running. Just in time, too; the last set of stairs were only a few feet away. He must have heard her stop, because his footsteps petered to a halt, too, on the level above her.
“Friends?” she repeated, going to the railing and looking up. “You’re gonna get their friends to help them.”
He was also at the railing and faced her. “If that will make you be reasonable, yes.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.”
She moved to take another step towards the last set of stairs.
“No no, wait!” He pulled out his radio and held it out as if to prove it to her. “Look, I’m calling it in now.”
She waited. This was strangely the most agreeable she’d ever seen a guard behave, and it made her suspicious.
But as she listened, he did call it in. And he wasn’t just using it as a cover to sneak up on her; he was staying right where he was.
“Carter to T-529-08. Come in,” he said into the device.
There was static, then a reply scratched through. “Go ahead.”
Tate took a deep breath. “Demarc’s boys — they’re in 529?”
“Demarc’s — yeah.” There was a pause, the guard on the receiving end trying to draw a conclusion from the request. “He’s getting in the way, huh?”
“That’s…what he does best,” Tate hedged. “I’ll need two of the boys.”
“Heh. Sure thing. You learn fast, rookie — they make good leverage.”
Kierah frowned. Tate glanced down at her, but didn’t try to correct the other guard.
“Send up two of them,” Tate said again. “Demarc’s second in command, what’s-his-name — Morellin. And another teenager.”
“You sure you want teens? I say go with the little brats, there are plenty of them down here, they might be more effective,” the other suggested. “Ya know, Demarc’s got a real soft spot for them.”
Kierah’s stomach turned.
“No. I know what I need.”
“Suit yourself. Chain ’em?”
“No, no cuffs. Just send them up.”
“Well, that’s no fun,” the other guard replied.
“This is work,” Tate said matter-of-factly. “It’s not supposed to be fun.”
He signed off, and Tate lowered the comm.
Dannan had caught up to them during the conversation.
“What was that about?” he asked suspiciously as Tate replaced the comm.
“You probably don’t want to know,” Tate advised, turning his attention over the railing to Kierah.
Dannan grabbed his arm to pull him back. “What’s your angle, Tate? You’re calling up Morellin?”
Tate looked down at his partner’s hand on his sleeve. “You’re not going to like it. But you did things your way. Now we do them mine.”
Despite Dannan’s cutting glare, Tate addressed Kierah. “If I come down there, you have to promise you won’t run off.”
She looked up at him, unspeaking and unmoving.
He sighed. “They’re going to be coming up soon. I have to explain to them what they need to do, and to do that, I need to go down there to meet them. I’m coming down, but you need to stay there. All right?”
She looked next to him, where Dannan was likely sending daggers through Tate with his eyes. “And him?”
Tate almost sighed again. “Dannan will stay here with you.”
“To what, guard me at gunpoint again?”
“Would you rather him go out to meet the boys?” Tate countered.
She hated that he was right. Taking a step back, away from the last set of stairs, she conceded.
Tate and Dannan were down their stairs almost immediately. Up close, their opinions of the situation were even more apparent on the visible halves of their faces. The thin line of Tate’s lips highlighted the color drained from his pale face as he braced for an encounter he wasn’t exactly looking forward to. Dannan’s dark skin, on the other hand, was flushed with exertion and anger and disapproval — but he kept his dissent to himself, at least for now.
“I’ll try to make it quick out there,” Tate said, addressing Dannan but loud enough to include Kierah.
Tate fixed an even stare on him. “Her tour group won’t be here for much longer. I’d kind of like to get her back to them before we have to explain to the palace why a visitor under our supervision was detained, after being threatened by one of our new recruits who also happened to be recently demoted. Right?”
Dannan didn’t answer, and Kierah could almost see him sulking behind the visor.
Tate turned to her. “Please, wait here. We’ll get this straightened out.”
She watched him jog off toward one of the dozens of tunnel openings ringing the base of the chasm like a necklace. Dannan stood near her, but not too close. Maybe it was finally sinking in just how much trouble he could find himself in for the little stunt he’d pulled a few levels higher.
Just as Tate reached the tunnel, about a quarter of the way around the chasm from where the scaffolding rose up, a trio of figures emerged to meet him. One was the guard escort, the other two the teenagers he sent for. They were a good distance away, but Kierah could see enough to make out what was going on.
The pair must have been close in age, but one appeared substantially more mature than the other. He was strongly built, with short, dark hair and a torn sleeveless shirt revealing arms that had spent more than their fair share of time swinging a pick at the rock walls in those tunnels. His face wore a hard look, doing a notable job of disguising his nerves.
He must have been nervous, though. They both must have been. Tate hadn’t given much explanation to his peer on the other end of that comm line, leaving the other guard unable to tell them why they were being summoned to the surface.
The second boy was a bit slighter, though still muscular, with shaggy brown hair falling into his anxious face. If Kierah had to guess, he was the younger of the two.
What had Tate said? One was supposed to be Demarc’s second in command. Morellin, he’d said his name was. Last name, probably. If looks were anything to go by, he must be the stockier, darker one.
Tate dismissed the escort and said something to the boys, probably giving them the reason they were called up. Both appeared to take the news in stride, but there was no mistaking the suspicion on their faces. Particularly the older one.
Rothan looked up as he heard them approaching, almost losing his grip on a large rock in his good hand. It was obvious he knew who they were, and he should have looked relieved to see familiar faces — so why didn’t he? From what Kierah could see, he actually looked scared. And she could guess why.
He thought it was his fault. Even if he didn’t know why they were there, he did know he was the only one left holding the blame for what had happened.
Again, Kierah shared in his guilt. It was her fault he was there at all.
The teenagers reached him, Tate not far behind. The older one, Morellin, went straight to Demarc, kneeling down and putting a hand on his shoulder. His friend approached Rothan, who almost shrank back. He looked like he wanted to run, but he had nowhere to go. The teen tried to talk to him, but he didn’t respond. Instead, he was staring toward the older teen and the limp form next to him.
Morellin must have felt his eyes on him, because he looked up at him and said something. Kierah guessed that it must have been something reassuring, or at least instructional, because Rothan nodded faintly and returned to refilling the cart.
Tate stood to the side, arms crossed tensely over his chest, glancing around every once in a while to make sure they were still left alone. They were. Other inmates passed by, but all kept their distance.
Rothan and the other teenager continued cleaning up the mess. They were more than halfway through by now.
Morellin, on the other hand, stayed next to Demarc. He must have been trying to wake him up, he looked like he was speaking to him.
“What’s he doing?” Dannan scoffed from next to Kierah. “He should be cleaning up, that’s what he was brought up for. It’s not like Demarc’s gonna get up anytime soon.”
But even if Demarc couldn’t hear him, Morellin stayed by his side. Apparently, that’s where he belonged.
Ethan was drifting. He didn’t know where he was, and he didn’t care.
He just floated, oblivious, disconnected from his body. Everything was dark, aimless. He didn’t really think about it; he didn’t think about anything. If there was pain, he didn’t feel it; he didn’t feel anything.
But he did hear something.
Through the fog, a sound filtered through, faint, then growing ever so slightly clearer as it repeated. It sounded like a voice, a word.
He tried to concentrate.
It was like pulling an object out of mud, indistinct and unrecognizable. But as he listened, what was underneath began to take shape, shedding the layers clogging it.
It was a word. It sounded like his name.
There was an urgency to it. That tone was almost as familiar as the voice that spoke it.
Then he knew. His chest tightened. That, he could feel even if the rest of him felt disconnected.
Something was wrong. He sounded so far away. Ethan wanted to reach out, to call back, but he couldn’t. There was too much distance between them.
Something was keeping him away.
Then a fragmented thought flickered in the darkness, a fear that he’d been trying to pretend didn’t exist. It was always there in the back of his mind, but he never let it surface. With all the other daily problems, this one didn’t merit attention. It was an abstract fear, a hypothetical, and Ethan didn’t deal in hypotheticals; there was too much reality fighting for his time.
But this — this was a fear that could easily become a reality, without warning.
Children were taken to the mines for one reason: To work off a debt. Almost never was the debt their own. Instead, it was a “sins of their fathers” kind of thing, sons serving time until their work, combined with that of their parents in the outside world, earned enough to compensate for what was owed.
For some, the debt was fairly small, and the boy freed within a matter of weeks. But for most, it didn’t end so quickly. It usually took several months, or even years, to pay back the price.
But whether it was a few dozen days or several hundred, eventually it was all over. The guards would come, collect the boy, bring him to the surface, and release him into the custody of whoever was there to claim him: father, brother, master — whoever was the reason he’d been sent there in the first place.
Those days were never easy for those left behind. Saying goodbye carried such an inescapable finality, because Ethan knew, in his world, he would never see them again.
But he could deal with it. Over time, he’d come to terms with the process. He knew that the life the boys were going to was almost always better than the one they were leaving behind, and he could be happy for their sakes. He tried not to make it about himself.
He didn’t know when it would happen; honestly he didn’t even know if it would happen. But he knew that the day Terrell was taken away, a piece of him would never be the same again.
Terrell was younger than him, by a long shot. He was about nineteen, and Ethan was pushing twenty-six, as far as he’d been able to keep track. But they’d been through a lot together, and they understood each other. Terrell was the one Ethan always knew he could lean on, the only one.
He was his partner, his second in command. But more than that, he was his friend.
Of course Ethan looked out for him, felt responsible for him as much as for any of the other boys. But he also trusted him.
Neither of them knew how long Terrell’s sentence was for. It had been so many years already, that they didn’t even speak of it as if it was a possibility that he’d ever be released. But in their silence, Ethan never really forgot about it.
He heard Terrell call his name again, heard the strain in his voice, the distance between them. It was the kind of thing that reawakened that fear, a subconscious image of Terrell being dragged away, fighting, but ultimately helpless.
Terrell would be free. And Ethan … Ethan would be alone.
Even in the fog of his existence right now, the picture was crystal clear, stark against the haze. Not knowing if it was real or imagined just made the fear harder to put down.
He tried to open his mouth, but nothing came out. Desperately, wordlessly, he gasped for air.
He felt something on his shoulder, a hand against his shirt. Someone was trying to pull him away from Terrell —
The voice came again, suddenly closer. The hand — it wasn’t pulling, just holding. It was also too close to the voice.
“…Terrell?” Ethan struggled to form the word, the muscles in his face fighting him.
He tried forcing his eyes open, but the light that met them was blinding. Instantly his head throbbed with a dull, intense pain and he closed them again, half raising a shaky hand to shield his face.
“Ethan!” Terrell’s voice exclaimed. The hand, Terrell’s hand, gripped Ethan’s shoulder tighter. “You’re awake!”
“He is?” another voice came from somewhere.
Other sounds began to filter in, a shuffling, a sound of rocks being dropped. He could feel the uneven ground under him; he was lying down. One arm was wrapped loosely in a fabric, and he remembered as soon as he moved it that it was broken.
And Terrell’s hand was on his shoulder. He focused on that for the moment. Terrell was still there; he wasn’t being taken away. Whatever nightmare Ethan was waking up to, at least he wouldn’t be facing it alone. Terrell was still there.
“You should get him back to the tunnels as soon as possible,” the second voice was saying.
Ethan tried to figure out if he knew who it was, but he couldn’t recognize it. And he couldn’t bear to open his eyes to look and find out.
“Go help the other two,” the voice continued. “He probably has a massive headache, and he won’t be able to move on his own yet. The sooner the cleanup gets taken care of, the sooner you can get him out of here.”
The hand on Ethan’s shoulder tensed, and Ethan vaguely wondered if Terrell would protest the order. But he didn’t.
“I’ll be back, I’m not going far,” Terrell told him, then stood and walked away, toward the sound of rocks.
There, Ethan could hear him talking to someone else. The relieved voices that replied sounded like they belonged to Jonah and Rothan.
Rothan. The sound of rocks, the headache, the disorientation.
It was coming back to him: The spill, a blaster shot. Actually, more blaster shots than he cared to count. And poor Rothan; the guard had set the whole thing up as a guilt trip for the kid. What must he —
The guard. The unidentified voice now. Could they both be the same?
But no, he thought. Whoever this was seemed too civil.
And that was all he said. Ethan wasn’t going to put in any effort to speak, so the two waited in silence while the clinking and rumble of rocks and pebbles rained on in the background.
Every once in a while, there was a shuffling from where the stranger stood behind Ethan, as if he was shifting his stance, looking around, maybe glancing over his shoulder. Was he nervous about something? Did he have somewhere better to be?
There were many reasons even a guard would be nervous down there. But Ethan didn’t want to press his already aching brain into figuring it out.
Eventually, the rocky noise settled down. They were done, and Terrell came back to Ethan’s side.
“Jonah and the kid are bringing the shifters to the Pit,” he told him. “You think you can stand?”
Ethan subconsciously winced at the thought of having to move, but he couldn’t very well stay out there.
“Yeah,” he said hoarsely.
The stranger protested. “You can’t carry him alone.”
He stooped down and lifted Ethan’s good arm over his own shoulders, supporting his back with one hand. Ethan did his best to blindly contribute, dragging his feet under him as Terrell raised him, and ignoring the immediate pounding in his head and the shooting pain everywhere else.
As they slowly began making their way toward the tunnel, Ethan decided the stranger had to be a guard, in some capacity. He couldn’t be a high ranking one, because Ethan couldn’t picture a guard of any notable status lowering himself enough to supervise a scene like this. For anything concerning Ethan, most would be content to watch it play out from a distance, enjoying his weakness.
But he wouldn’t let himself actually help Terrell carry him, which meant he wasn’t just a new con with a conscience.
Wait. Terrell. For the first time, it occurred to him that Terrell shouldn’t even be out there in the first place. And Jonah? The two of them were supposed to be in the mines, filling the shifters Ethan and Rothan would bring outside. They couldn’t have known what had gone wrong, much less have been able to sneak to the chasm in plain view to do anything about it.
If this stranger actually was a guard, had he authorized them to come up? And if he did — why?
Eventually, the light on the other side of his eyelids grew dimmer. The arrhythmic hammering against his skull slowed a little, and the air felt cooler. Jonah and Rothan had rejoined them, accompanied by the whirring of the shifters.
They were inside the tunnel, several yards from the entrance. Rothan and Jonah were behind them, by the sound of the shifters. Terrell was still supporting him. And where was —
“All right, this is as far as I go,” the stranger’s voice came from behind them.
Ethan pulled himself to a stop. He tried to turn around, and Terrell helped him. They weren’t in far enough to completely be clear of the light from the entrance, which backlit the man and still hurt Ethan’s eyes. But his silhouette was unmistakable. He was definitely a guard.
“Who are you,” Ethan asked, getting his voice under him.
The guard shrugged. “You can see me for yourself now. What’s it look like.”
That wasn’t what Ethan meant, and the guard must have known it. Ethan wanted a name, wanted to know why the guard had brought in Terrell and Jonah, why he’d waited to escort them — guard them? — back to the tunnel.
But the guard was shifting, looking anxious, like he wanted to get out of there. Just as he’d been all but pacing outside while waiting for the mess to be cleaned up.
So it didn’t matter what Ethan wanted to know. All he needed to know was that the man was still a guard. Whatever his motivation had been for stepping in, it was likely to his own benefit somehow.
Even still, what he’d done had helped Rothan, and him. If the guard hadn’t brought in the teenagers, who knew how long they’d have been left out there, sitting ducks for Garn or any other con who was bored enough to take advantage of the situation.
Whoever this guard was, he’d protected them, involuntarily or otherwise.
Terrell shifted under his arm, but said nothing.
Neither did the guard. He didn’t move for a moment, almost as if he was digesting that Ethan had actually just thanked him.
Then he turned around and walked away. As soon as he got outside the tunnel, he started jogging toward the scaffolding.
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Chapter 7 coming Friday night! I’d love to hear your thoughts — please leave a comment OR shoot me an email!