This is a first (alpha) draft. Questions and feedback are welcome!
Drug use and addiction
“HIS fever is high.”
“You’re surprised? His wounds are infected. It caught up to him while we were in the flyer. Give him this, now, before the night wears on much longer.”
“What is it?”
“Regen tab. Nowhere near as good as a pod but better than nothing.”
The murmuring voices brought Tårik out of his dreamless sleep. He rose to wakefulness as if from underwater, struggling to reach the surface. His body felt so heavy.
He cracked his eye open. In the gloom, he saw Kalaanë standing with a larger person. A chunk of lúminí on the table lit his face with a soft glow.
A crinkle, then a sharp pop. Kalaanë knelt beside him, shaking Jälen gently with one hand, while the other carefully held the medicine. “Sir. Jälen. Wake up, sir.”
Beside him, Jälen remained asleep, but his body trembled and perspiration beaded on his face. The sharp, sickly scent of pus had grown strong while they’d been asleep.
“Just slip it under his tongue. He won’t choke on it.”
Kalaanë shot Daríus a sour look and tried waking Jälen again. Finally, he groaned.
“Sir,” she whispered, slipping her hand under his neck to carefully lift his head. “This will help you feel better. Open up. Under your tongue. Just like that, sir. Let it dissolve.”
Jälen groaned again as she let his head down and his eyes fluttered shut.
Kalaanë held her hand out. “Give me the blanket.”
Daríus passed her a dark lump of fabric that had been sitting on the table and she spread it over Jälen, tucking it up under his chin.
Tårik squinted. The lúminí seemed to reveal another mass of fabric there, too, and a few other objects that were hard to recognize in the gloom. This crystal was not very big, nor very bright.
Another sharp pop brought Tårik’s attention back to Daríus.
“For him, too,” the enforcer muttered.
Kalaanë took the tab and shifted her attention to Tårik.
“Hey,” she whispered when she saw him staring at Daríus. “You’re supposed to be asleep.”
“Too much racket,” Tårik mumbled.
“Okay,” she murmured. “Take this, then back to sleep with you.”
He pushed her hand aside and raised his head, struggling to prop his stiff, battered body onto his elbows so he could address Daríus. “Why are you helping us?”
A long silence followed. Finally, Daríus sighed. His gaze lingered on Jälen’s shaking body.
“I owe him.”
“What were you arguing about?”
“None of your damn business.”
“I don’t trust you,” Tårik growled.
“Not now, Tårik,” Kalaanë hissed.
Daríus’s hands balled into fists and his throaty growl filled the container, drowning out Tårik’s. “Better listen to her, youngling,” he warned. “You’re in no condition to challenge me.” Then he gestured at the items on the table and the pill in Kalaanë’s hand. “I brought you what I could. It’s more than what anybody else down here ever gets.”
“Come on, Tårik,” Kalaanë prompted. “Take the tab, then rest. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
Tårik glared at Daríus a moment longer, then relented. A tingling sensation spread from under his tongue through his mouth and up into his face as the tab dissolved.
He gave Kalaanë what he hoped was a meaningful look. He didn’t want her to be alone with the enforcer.
She smiled briefly and trailed her fingers through his hair. “I’ll be fine. Rest. That’s an order.”
His shoulders felt on fire from propping himself up. He sank back against the greasy cushion, succumbing to the pain and the tingling sensation which continued to spread through his body.
Kalaanë fussed with his good wing, making sure it covered him as well as it could, then checked the makeshift splint they’d tied around his tail.
Exhaustion dragged him back into its watery, smothering depths.
Was it morning?
Tårik took a deep breath and opened his eyes, staring at the rusted metal overhead. How could anyone in Exile’s Forge tell when there was no sun and no clock, just the omnipresent light of lúminí? He supposed that was to Slaigår’s advantage. If the slaves couldn’t tell the passage of time, they’d have no way of knowing just how many hours they’d worked in the pit…or how long they’d been here.
Is that why Daríus was surprised when Jälen told him how many years had passed? Did he used to be a slave? But…how?
He let the breath go, suddenly realizing it no longer hurt to breathe. Then he blinked. Both of his eyes were open. Carefully, he probed the pad on the right side of his face. It was still tender, but a scab flaked off at his touch and the swelling was almost gone.
He sighed with relief. His body still ached, but the ache was dull, almost remote, the kind of ache he typically felt after a hard day’s battle, or after being thrashed by Kalaanë during training.
Experimentally, he twitched his tail. Pain raced through the appendage and into his gut. The bones were mending, he supposed, but still had some ways to go. The splint would have to stay on.
His fidgeting woke Kalaanë. Her azure eyes blinked at him and then she sprang up onto her elbow, leaning close with a smile on her lips.
“Look at you,” she breathed, gently touching his cheek. “Now I can see both of those stormy grey eyes of yours.”
“Guess Daríus did do us a favor after all,” Tårik said.
“Shh,” Kalaanë admonished, jerking her head toward his feet. “Don’t wake him, too.”
He lifted his head and looked. At the front of the container, by the tarp, sat Daríus, still kitted out in his armor. His knees were up and a rifle lay across them, but his head was tilted back against the wall and he snored lightly.
At Tårik’s confused look, Kalaanë whispered, “He insisted on staying.”
“Said he wanted to make sure no one tried to slip in here during the night. He said that even if the other people didn’t come back, scavengers might show up. I guess they raid shelters, strip them down and use the bits to try making their own more comfortable.”
Tårik’s gaze drifted from the sleeping enforcer to the items still on the table. “Somehow, I don’t think any of this is in an enforcer’s job description.”
Tårik sighed and let his head drop back. “I still don’t trust him. He brought us here at gunpoint.” He jerked his chin toward Jälen. “In all the years you served with him, he never mentioned Daríus to you?”
“No, never. Actually, now that I think about it, Tårann never spoke of who was së’nåzal before Jälen either.”
“If he left to work for Slaigår, maybe they felt embarrassed.”
“And betrayed. If Jälen had ever just up and disappeared on us, we’d have felt the same way.” Kalaanë cast a glance at Daríus. “Maybe he feels guilty, now that they’ve met up again.”
“What about you?” Tårik whispered, not wanting to talk about the enforcer anymore. In the gloom, with the pale light of the crystal almost behind her, she was nearly silhouetted, but he could still see the dark bruise on her face. “Daríus and that creep Cahlain were rough on you yesterday.”
She took a shaky breath but shrugged. “I’ll get over it.”
Softly, he caressed her cheek. “You know if I could have, I would have tried my best to kill Cahlain for touching you like that.”
Her head ducked as she smiled. “I know.” Then her eyes came back up, gazing into his.
Her magnetism pulled on him. Her hand, resting on his almost bare chest, slid beneath the ripped cloth and gently rubbed the scale covering his sternum.
His heart thundered. Could she feel it?
A horn pierced the air at a painful pitch. They flinched. Tårik heard Daríus’s rifle clatter to the floor. Even Jälen jerked and groaned awake.
Kalaanë pulled away from Tårik, and, reluctantly, he let her go. She got to her knees and leaned over Jälen.
Armored feet clanged on the metal of the container as Daríus approached the nest.
“Did his fever break?” he asked.
Kalaanë felt Jälen’s face and neck while his eyes roamed dully from her to Daríus.
“Yes, but he’s still warm. And—” She sniffed and pulled the blanket up, exposing his left side. “Still infected.”
Darius nudged her aside and knelt in the nest, laying a hand on Jälen’s shoulder. Jälen winced and grunted with pain as his wounds were inspected.
“They’re seeping. They need cleaning and he’ll have to have another tab, though it will only help to regenerate his flesh. I don’t have anything for the infection. He’ll have to fight it off himself.” Daríus replaced the blanket and looked at both Kalaanë and Tårik. “You two have to go. The horn is the call to begin mining for the day. You’re new and the enforcers will be watching for you to show up.”
“What about Jälen?” Tårik asked. “Won’t they be looking for him, too?”
“Cahlain is eager for workers as strong as Jälen will be when he’s recovered, but I noted him as wounded when I brought him in. My colleagues either expect him to show up eventually, or for his body to be dragged out by others and left for cleanup.”
The horn pierced the air again.
“Go on,” Daríus urged. “You don’t have much time to ready yourselves.” He looked back at Jälen. “I’ll stay with him.”
“Isn’t someone going to notice you’re missing?” Kalaanë asked.
The holodisplay on Daríus’s forearm lit up. He entered a few commands. “As far as anyone knows, I’m on pit patrol today.” He frowned and jerked his head at Tårik, then at the table. “You. Put some clothes on first. I brought whatever was left in your flyers. Leave me the tatters. Now get going.”
“I won’t leave Jälen alone with you,” Tårik growled.
Daríus was on him in a flash, shoving him up against the wall of the container with a bang, one hand around his neck. “I’ve had just about enough of you,” he snarled in Tårik’s face. “Don’t you think, if I wanted any of you dead, you’d be dead already?”
“Tårik,” Jälen croaked. “Trust me. I’ll be fine with him. Let him go, Daríus.”
Daríus’s angry, bared teeth and sharp chin horns remained all that Tårik could see, his hand tight around his throat, cutting off his air.
“I said, let him go.”
This time, the words were sharp, as if Jälen had mustered up some reserve of his authority. Daríus stiffened, and then, all at once, the emotion left his face and he released Tårik, who bent over, coughing and rubbing his neck.
“I apologize,” Daríus said as he heaved a deep breath, “but don’t insult my honor like that again.” He turned from Tårik to Kalaanë. “I give you both my word that no harm will come to Jälen while you’re gone.”
Still, despite his oath, Tårik looked to Jälen for confirmation.
Jälen’s lips pressed into a hard line. “He gave his word, Tårik.”
He and Kalaanë set about getting ready. Tårik changed into his last set of clothes; Kalaanë retied her hair; they both quickly ate some of the food and drank some of the water. Outside, their noses led them to a makeshift latrine just large enough to service the shelters under the outcropping.
They followed a crowd of exiles and other dishonoreds making their way through the slum. Beyond the outcropping everything was slick and muddy. Tårik managed well enough with his sandals but felt bad for Kalaanë. Though she still wore his clothes, her feet were bare and quickly became filthy.
But, he mused as he looked around, she wasn’t alone. Other exiles and dishonoreds, some with their robes or clothes torn and thick with dirt, were also barefoot. The rest had no clothes at all.
The people who flew overhead provided brief respite from the dripping water, but they were few and far between. Most of the people walked with hunched backs and lowered heads, and the closer Tårik stared at them, the more he noticed protruding ribs, bruises, lash marks. But most of all, he noticed that more than a few had had their wings cut, either across to sever the membranes like his wing, or slashed vertically to leave the membranes hanging uselessly. Without a life pod to regenerate the missing tissue, they’d never fly again.
Just as he wouldn’t.
Kalaanë’s hand found his. She was upset; he could see it in the frown that pulled down her lips and the way her frill hung limp at the side of her head. She was muttering a prayer but her heart didn’t seem to be in it. Down here, he thought, Årdra couldn’t hear them.
Their journey ended as the crowd of people thinned into a line and enforcers appeared, most of them with glowing whips hanging from their belts and batons in their hands. The shelters petered out, replaced by floating bins of rock picks and chisels. Nearby were old-fashioned carts with wheels. Another line of people entered the space from the opposite side of the steppe.
No one spoke. People picked up the tools or took a cart and moved off, heading back in the direction they’d come. It was then Tårik realized each steppe was being mined along the circumference of its back wall, the denizens following the veins of lúminí and gradually making the pit wider until the topmost steppe vanished against the perimeter and a new steppe could be dug at the bottom. As each steppe’s wall was mined away, the denizens living above would have to move their shelters down to a lower level.
One enforcer spied him and Kalaanë.
“You two must be the new meat,” he said, and sauntered over. “All shiny and clean, unlike the rest of these zôk.” He took a turn around them, looking them over. “You’ve both been pegged as diggers. Get the tools and get to work.” He shoved them toward the bins.
Tårik handed Kalaanë a rock pick and a chisel, then took a set for himself. The tools had seen better days: the grips of the picks were torn, the silicone disintegrating, while the heads of the chisels were rough from being beaten and their edges were dull from use.
“Where should we go?” Kalaanë asked Tårik, her voice low.
“Not sure. Maybe back toward the shelter?”
“Please come with me,” an old, wrinkled man said as he picked up his own tools. “I could use help on my section.”
There were lash marks over the man’s naked shoulder. He only wore pants. His eyes were watery and his hands shook.
Tårik shared a look with Kalaanë.
“Lead on,” she said kindly.
He turned and hobbled away. Ugly scars marred the skin on his back and the backs of his wings, interrupted only by the scales protecting his spine.
“How old do you think he is?” Tårik whispered.
“At least nine centuries, to be wrinkled like that.” Her face was pale. “He’s not branded. How long do you think he’s been in here?”
“Too long,” the elder replied. “All of us, too long here.”
They followed him to a section of the wall where a vein of lúminí passed by at chest level. It was only about as thick as Tårik’s arm.
“Chisel around the vein, like this,” the old man said, demonstrating for them. “Let the crystal split along its natural faults. If you break it yourself, it’ll blacken and be useless, and we’ll all get a beating. But be careful. Don’t try to chisel too much rock at once.”
“Why not?” Tårik asked.
“There are some deposits of senecíní down here.”
Tårik sucked in a breath.
“Chisel into one of those and—BOOM!” someone nearby laughed.
“They’re small crystals,” the old man said. “Small ones, but a small crystal is all it takes. That’s the real treasure Slaigår is after. But it’s very volatile until it’s refined. If you find one and can get it out of the rock without it exploding, there’ll be extra food for all of us.”
Tårik and Kalaanë looked at each other with wide eyes.
“What’s your name, sir?” Tårik asked.
The old man placed his chisel properly after several tries. “Doesn’t matter. Best get to work now.”
“Why are you here?”
The elder hefted his pick, getting a balanced grip before swinging it. It clanged as it struck its target.
“I can’t remember.”
Tårik swallowed the sudden lump in his throat and placed his own chisel against the rock, and began swinging.
The days blurred together. The time between horn blasts felt impossibly long and seemed to get longer the more they worked. At the end of each day, if the enforcers were pleased with the amount of lúminí brought back in the wheeled carts, they would reveal a container filled with nutrient blocks. There was always a mad rush to get at the limited supply of food and fights often broke out that the enforcers watched with amusement.
No one found any senecíní.
When the enforcers weren’t pleased, which was often, the food container stayed shut and the batons came out. Too quickly, Tårik noticed how he and Kalaanë were losing weight. Some nights they felt too weak and exhausted to eat pieces of the ashy, chalky blocks and fell into the nest next to Jälen, clinging to each other and whispering reassurances that increasingly felt hollow.
The addict died. His agonized screams woke them one night, and Tårik ran to the scene only to find the body had split its flesh open from the groin up, leaving the addict dead in a puddle of his own blood and semen. Scavengers tore his shelter apart, leaving the body behind.
Once the water in the bottles was gone, the only liquid they had access to was the muddy water that sluiced into the mine through the crack, or what they could collect from the dripping stalactites high overhead. They also tried not to drink immediately after eating. The water often made them sick to their stomachs.
“When the wall cracked and the water poured out,” the old man explained one day, “the company knew they had a problem. The yield of lúminí and senecíní had dwindled anyway, so they abandoned the mine. Slaigår acquired the land sometime later. He doesn’t care that it’s not very stable in here.”
Jälen improved with Daríus’s help. The enforcer came and went from their shelter at odd intervals, and sometimes wasn’t seen for what they estimated was weeks. But when he was around, he smuggled in fresh water and small morsels of food for them. Tårik and Kalaanë often returned to the shelter to find him deep in conversation with Jälen, conversations that were always cut short when the couple appeared.
Eventually, Jälen was well enough to leave the nest. The enforcers called him a hauler, forcing him to push the carts around the steppe over the uneven ground, load them with mined crystals until they threatened to overflow, then push them back for inspection. If the carts got stuck or overturned, enforcers arrived with whips and batons.
One day, as Tårik chipped away at the wall with Kalaanë at his side, she suddenly threw down her tools and collapsed to her knees.
“I can’t,” she sobbed. “I can’t keep going.”
Before Tårik could react, the tail of a whip flashed by him, striking Kalaanë across the back, splitting her shirt and skin open below her wings and sending a spray of blood through the air. She screamed.
“Get back to work, zôk,” the enforcer growled as the whip lashed out again.
Tårik jumped in front of Kalaanë, prepared to receive the next blow for her.
“Stop it!” a woman yelled, coming to stand between them and the enforcer. “Take it easy. They haven’t been here very long.”
“All the more reason to teach them a lesson now. Get out of my way!”
Tårik watched as the whip came up. The enforcer aimed directly for the woman. The woman thrust her pick up and the whip tangled around it. Then she twisted and yanked the weapon from the enforcer’s hands. Its glowing length winked out of existence.
The enforcer stood stunned for only a moment before summoning another weapon, a baton that he swung at the woman as he leapt forward to her.
Tårik rose, ready to enter the brawl, but the old man’s hands grabbed at him.
“Don’t,” he warned. “She’s made a gravely foolish mistake. Believe me, you don’t want to make it, too.”
Another enforcer arrived, diving down from above to tackle the woman to the ground.
“Isolation!” the first one ordered as he beat the baton against her body.
Immediately, the woman twisted and tried to claw her way away, screaming, “No! No! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it! I won’t do it again!”
The second enforcer grabbed her by the ankle and dragged her backward.
The baton changed into something Tårik had never seen before: a long stick with two sharp prongs on the end. As he watched, the enforcer jabbed it at the back of the woman’s neck. Energy charged down its length and engulfed her head. She screamed again, then fell unconscious.
They took off, holding her limp body between them, as a third enforcer landed.
“Get back to work,” he hissed, uncoiling the whip at his hip.
Shaken, anxious to prevent Kalaanë from being injured further, Tårik quickly hooked his arms under her.
“Come on, up you get.”
The whip had split her shirt in half at the waist, making it hang loose down her front from the neck. He tried to catch at the fabric, averting his eyes when she stumbled and the material flared forward, exposing her bosom.
She collapsed against the rock wall, sobbing. One hand tried to reach back to her split skin.
“No, don’t touch,” he said, batting her hand away. “You’ll get them dirty.” Quickly, he tied the fabric in a fresh knot at the base of her spine to keep her covered, trying to ignore the blood running down her backside, then bent and retrieved her tools, putting them in her trembling hands. “Just try, okay? For me.”
Kalaanë cast a withering glance over her shoulder at the enforcer, then put her chisel against the wall and hammered it.
Before the enforcer could complain again, Tårik grabbed his own tools and went to work. But as he swung his pick at the chisel, he dared to look back, following the path of the two enforcers carrying the woman. They continued to fly upward.
The enforcer was watching him. Tårik put his attention back on his work until he heard the man snort with satisfaction and move off down the lane toward other workers.
Immediately, Tårik turned and looked up. The two enforcers had become near-featureless blobs heading toward the ledge at the top of the mineshaft.
The ledge? Tårik thought. Their wetware would undoubtedly let them pass through the forcefield unharmed, but what about the woman? How will they—?
As they landed, Tårik squinted. One of the men let go of the unconscious woman and raised his arm. In the murky light of the mine, the light from the holodisplay was easy to spot. Then came a faint flash of light from the cave entrance. The enforcer picked up the woman’s arm, and together they dragged her into the cave.
The enforcers can deactivate the forcefield from this side.
“Why are we still here?” Tårik demanded later as he carefully inspected Kalaanë’s wounds. “Why is it that Daríus brought us here as captives, only to help us afterward?”
“You’ll have to ask him,” Jälen replied.
Exasperated, Tårik said, “Enforcers can deactivate the forcefield up at the cave. I’ve seen it. He said before that he owes you. He could get us out of here to repay that debt.”
“Think about what you’re saying,” Jälen said. “He can’t just walk us out of here. There are security checkpoints to pass. What do you propose he should tell them about where he’s taking us?”
“Anything to get us out!” Tårik shouted, throwing down the shred of cloth he’d been using to clean the blood from Kalaanë’s back. “Look at what they did to her! Look what they’re doing to us! What happens next time if nobody else feels brave enough to step in?” His frustration boiled over and he leapt to his feet. “You never should have agreed to bring us here! We’re going to die!”
“Tårik! Tårik, wait!” Kalaanë called as he stormed out of the container, nearly running into Daríus just on the other side of the tarp. Too angry to say anything more, Tårik shoved him aside and kept going, walking fast and not caring where his feet were taking him.
We shouldn’t be here. We shouldn’t be slaves. We shouldn’t be drazík. The thoughts went around and around in his head in an unending refrain. And as much as he wanted to be angry at Daríus, he knew Jälen was right: the enforcer wouldn’t be able to get them out of the mine without a plan.
If he’d even ever feel willing to try.
“Fuck you, Ciradår,” Tårik muttered. “You’re the real culprit. Arrogant, greedy, vile shitbag. It’s your fault we’re here.”
Two steppes above, an explosion ripped through the wall of the mine, filling the air with blinding white light that incinerated everything in its immediate vicinity and turned the rock wall to lava. The shockwave flattened shelters and blew Tårik off his feet, pelting him with rocks and burning debris.
The spill forced him to look up. His ears were ringing and he had to blink away spots in his vision but he felt vibrations through the ground as the rock wall cracked and split open. Dark crevices spidered vertically up the shaft of the mine and down through the steppes. Above, as the cracks reached the ceiling, the wall crumbled and gave way. Stalactites fell, smashing to pieces in random places, obliterating everything and everyone below them.
An avalanche of rock and lava fell toward him as if in slow motion.
“Run!” he screamed and scrambled to his feet. “Everybody run!”
He ran as fast as his legs could carry him over the slick ground, and swore with each breath. If not for his wing, he could just leap into the air and fly out of harm’s way.
The ringing in his ears gave way to a rumbling roar. Rocks crashed down around him, tripping him. He landed hard against the ground, curled into a ball and flung his good wing over himself. One arm wrapped around his head and the other grabbed for his necklace. As more rocks and debris piled onto him and the violent shuddering of the ground grew in intensity, he squeezed his eyes shut and shouted wordlessly.
This is it, Sadízí. This is how I end. Buried alive.
Eventually, everything stopped, save for the skittering of a few stray pebbles. Tårik lay stunned under the rubble. Stones pressed on him, heavy, crushing, suffocating.
Kalaanë… He clenched his teeth. They’d only just started to get closer. But it seemed that Årdra had other plans for him. His chest burned. He couldn’t breathe. He’d be going to Kúlaara to meet Dra a lot sooner than he expected.
Then, slowly, as his mind and the world settled into silence, he heard muffled sounds. The pounding of feet? Shifting of rocks?
“No, no, Årdra, no,” came faintly from somewhere.
The weight crushing him began to ease, and the voice came into focus.
“Kalaanë,” he wanted to say, but couldn’t for the rubble pressing against his face.
Stones banged against one another as she dug him out, and finally, air reached him.
“There you are. Here we go,” she said as her arms slid under him and pulled him free. “Tårik. Come on, look at me.”
His eyes cracked open. Kalaanë’s concerned, tear-streaked face peered into his as he inhaled deeply, coughed, and groaned.
She wiped dust from his face, then hauled him to his feet.
“Thank the goddess. You stupid, stupid man. You could have been killed. If I hadn’t found you—”
“Shh,” he said, slipping his arms around her to hold her tightly. He could feel her body tremble. “I’m okay.” Despite his arms being around her, she didn’t seem to mind the lacerations on her back. Had Daríus given her a tab? How long had he been gone? How long had he been buried?
She pressed her nasal scales against his. “You left. You were gone,” she said shakily. “You promised you’d stay with me.”
“I did promise,” he said quietly, wiping her cheek with his thumb and pulling back just slightly to gaze into the deep blue of her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
She gazed back, still trembling. “Stay with me,” she whispered, then closed the gap between them. Her mouth was soft on his, her tears hot on his skin.
She broke the kiss. Her eyepads flushed. “I’m sor—”
“No,” he whispered, tightening his hold on her as fire ignited in his chest. “You just surprised me.”
In a rush, he walked her backward to an unblemished portion of the wall, his mouth coming to hers as he pressed her against it.
She sighed and parted her lips for him. Her arms and wings went around his shoulders and her fingers strayed into his hair, pulling him close. She kissed him hard even as tears continued to slide down her face.
Tårik thrilled and his heart soared. Her tongue was in his mouth, her body in his arms. He kissed her lips and her cheeks, taking her tears away, then nipped at her jaw as a sudden hungry growl of desire rumbled in his throat. His hand pressed at the base of her spine, just above her tail, pulling her hips against his. She responded in kind, wrapping one arm around his hips and grinding against him. Their tails met, and even though his remained tender at the break, they entwined and rubbed hard against one another, turning their growls to gasps and moans.
He had just reached down to grab her thighs, intending to lift her so he could press even closer between her legs, when the sound of pounding feet and flapping wings interrupted them. Startled, they parted and he let his hands rest at her waist, his thumbs stroking her exposed skin. But then he noticed the thick clouds of glittering dust that hung suspended in the air like fog, engulfing them and keeping them hidden from whomever was nearby.
With a sheepish grin, he turned his attention back to her. They still breathed heavily, coughing lightly, and rested their nasal scales against one another once more.
“Kalaanë,” Tårik whispered. “How did you know where to find me?”
“I don’t know.” She cupped his face in her palms and rubbed the edges of his frill mask and the small horns that grew at the back of his jaw. “I just…knew.” She kissed him again, softly. “I’m glad you’re all right.”
He didn’t let her lips get away. Now that they’d crossed to this point he wanted to take full advantage of the moment…and from the way she eagerly kissed him back, so did she.
Alas, he could hear more people arriving, and the dust was thinning. Tårik gave Kalaanë one last kiss and a look full of promise, and took her hand.
Turning, they looked to the rockslide. Tårik took a shuddering breath and bent over, bracing a hand on his thighs as he realized just how narrowly he’d cheated death.
The stones at his feet were the size of his fists. Within mere steps, the pile swelled to rocks the size of his head and larger, and beyond that… Where the next stretch of the steppe had been, along with the steppes above and below all the way to the bottom of the pit, now only a great wall of boulders remained, silhouetted through the cloud by the pale light of lúminí. Lava dribbled out from between the crevices and sizzled on the ground as it cooled.
Across the mine, wails and shouts echoed. More people arrived. No one spoke. They all stood rooted to the spot, staring at the devastation. Surely, no one buried under the rockslide would still be alive. How many had just died?
At length, Tårik squeezed Kalaanë’s hand. “Let’s go back to the shelter. There’s nothing we can do here.”
Two muscular men emerged from the crowd: Jälen and Daríus, the latter still in his full armor but with his helmet concealing his face. The crowd parted for them, Jälen falling behind when he spotted Tårik and Kalaanë.
Daríus looked over the slide for a moment before addressing the crowd.
“Go back to your shelters. The quota for this week for this steppe is only a third of the way filled. All of you must pick up the slack for those buried in the rockslide. You know the consequences if you don’t.”
Mutters spread through the crowd but the people obeyed, turning to trudge back through the lane.
Though they couldn’t see his face, Daríus seemed to cast a glance at Tårik and his friends, then turned and launched himself off the edge of the steppe, disappearing into the distance.
Jälen placed a hand on Tårik’s dusty shoulder. “I see you survived. You’re lucky.”
The high of Kalaanë’s kisses wore off, leaving Tårik shaking in his gut as the memory of the avalanche washed over him. If he had run just a bit slower, or tripped earlier, he was certain he would be dead.
“Yes, sir,” he gulped. “Very lucky. But so many others weren’t.”
“Let’s go,” Jälen sighed.
As they walked, quiet conversations erupted around them. Snatches of angrily voiced opinions reached their ears.
“Every day, this place gets less and less safe!”
“Was it ever safe to begin with?”
“We should never have come here.”
“They’ll kill us all eventually.”
“We have to do something!”
“There are more of us than there are of them.”
At that, Jälen turned to Tårik and Kalaanë. “Quickly, let’s get inside.”
They hurried to their shelter. Jälen surveyed their immediate surroundings and then made sure to pull the tarp fully across the opening as they went in.
“You heard what they’re saying out there?” he asked, his voice low.
“Sounds like they’re pretty fed up,” Kalaanë said.
“I’d be willing to bet they’re not the only ones. Even if it tends to be ‘every man for himself’ here, seeing that slide will be a daily reminder to everyone that it could just as easily have been them.” Jälen looked at Tårik. “You saw the explosion?”
“Yes, sir. Bright white, followed by a powerful shockwave. It was a couple of steppes above this one.”
“Senecíní, then. Someone probably found a crystal earlier in the day and was still trying to get it out of the rock, knowing that their steppe would be rewarded for finding it. But none of us have the proper tools or know-how to mine it safely.”
“So long as Cahlain brings him the yields he asks for, I doubt Slaigår cares.”
“I bet he’d care if the entire mine is destroyed,” Kalaanë said darkly. “No workers? No mine? No product.”
“He’s a crime boss. He probably has a dozen other mines in the clanhold just like this one.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jälen said. “What matters is what’s happening here. You heard what those people were saying. If they’re not the only ones, if this event has pushed enough people far enough…”
Tårik gasped. “They’ll revolt.”
“Yes, and it will be a bloodbath. Listen to me. I want you both to keep your heads down for the next little while. If things go bad, the enforcers won’t care who started it.”
“And what about the integrity of the mine?” Kalaanë asked. “For all we know, the rest of it could come down on us at any moment.”
“Pray to Årdra that it doesn’t.” Jälen reached for the remnants of the most recent nutrient block they’d been able to acquire and split it into three chunks. “Here. Choke it down and then let’s all get some sleep. We have hard days ahead.”
There were more enforcers in the mine than ever before, and all of them had sour dispositions. They worked the slaves through shifts that stretched long past the time they would normally be allowed to stop. The crack of whips became a constant part of the din. Some of the slaves were tasked with working at the rockslide, ordered to recover whatever bits of lúminí had survived the fall. No survivors were retrieved. Tårik and Kalaanë worked the old man’s section alone.
Within days, the mine wall slid again, burying even more people and drowning numerous more as the bottom steppe flooded. More and more fights broke out between the slaves and the enforcers.
That night, shortly after Tårik and his companions had collapsed into their nest, a clamor rose up from outside. Men and women shouted, metal clanged. Then came a sharp repeating sound, and Tårik sat bolt upright.
“Yes. It’s started.”
A deafening wail split the air, drowning out the voices.
“What should we do, sir?” Kalaanë asked.
“I said, wait. If we go out there right now, we’ll just get killed.”
Tårik got to his feet and crept toward the front of the container, peeking out through a hole in the tarp.
From his vantage point under the outcropping, it was difficult to see most of the mine, but from what he could see, enforcers were pouring into Exile’s Forge through the cave at the top of the shaft. They spread out across the steppes like a swarm of insects. The bursts from their guns lit up the pit like lightning.
“Fight! Fight!” someone outside yelled. Tårik heard running feet, then flapping wings. People streamed out of their shelters, flying into the air to swarm the enforcers, trying to bring them crashing to the ground.
After a while, the mass of enforcers entering the mine ended. One last man came through the cave and paused on the ledge, then leapt off and flew up, skirting between the remaining stalactites, heading toward Tårik’s side of the mine.
Tårik backed away from the tarp when the man landed beyond the lip of the outcropping and ran down the lane toward him.
“What’s happening?” Jälen demanded.
Before Tårik could reply, Daríus swept the tarp aside.
“We gotta go, right now!” he ordered sharply.
Jälen leapt to his feet. “Go!” he shouted, grabbing Tårik and Kalaanë by the shoulders and propelling them down the length of the container.
They ran from the container to the edge of the steppe.
“Fly up, high as you can go, and head for the cave,” Daríus said. “Go, now!”
“What about Tårik?”
“I will take him. Get going!”
Kalaanë cast a worried glance at Tårik but followed Jälen when he yanked on her arm. They took off, flying steeply upward.
Daríus turned to Tårik. “Don’t give me any fuss,” he growled.
Tårik grabbed his arm. “Why are you doing this?”
Daríus looked down at Tårik’s hand and then met his eyes. “Just because I wear these colors, doesn’t mean I want to be here any more than you do.” Then he grabbed Tårik, hoisting him over his shoulder. Daríus leapt into the air and his armor’s flight assist thrusters fired.
The moments it took for Daríus to catch up to Jälen and Kalaanë on the ledge felt like hours. The pit panned by below them. The lanes of the steppes were bathed in blood and bodies but not all of them were slaves. Tårik felt his stomach clench and clutched at the enforcer’s backplate as Daríus wove his way around the stalactites, staying higher than the other enforcers still fighting in the air.
Then they were on the ledge, and Daríus let him down.
“We have only minutes to do this,” Daríus said as he dropped the forcefield. “Run, don’t stop, but stay behind me in case we run into anyone.”
“Chances of that?” Jälen asked as they took off through the cave.
“Slim,” Daríus called back. “Everyone’s been pulled into the mine to fight the riot.”
And so it was. They met no one at the checkpoints, and the landing bay appeared to be empty.
“Get your flyers,” Daríus ordered. “Be quick! Before someone in the offices sees us.”
Tårik cast a worried glance up at the bank of windows. Sure enough, Cahlain’s silhouette was there, but his attention was turned inward to whatever was beyond the windows. He gesticulated wildly.
Probably shouting at whomever is up there with him.
Their flyers were still where they’d been parked. Daríus and Jälen disappeared inside the white one, while Kalaanë headed for hers and Tårik sprinted the distance to his. Once inside, he quickly went through startup.
Jälen’s flyer was the first to leave. Tårik and Kalaanë followed closely behind, bursting out of the bay through the projection and speeding away into the night.