If I shut my eyes, I can see it clearly. Cliff faces with rope ladders stretched across, hollowed out caves and chasms that went deep into the ground, black rocks, and smoke. Smoke was everywhere as the very earth seemed to expel a heavy wind.
Blackened figures climbed up and down these ladders in a tired, dull manner. They did not seem to be of any race I knew and Gaal’s Spark, kindled by Klara when time first began, seemed to be non-existent in their cumbersome movements and empty eyes.
I surveyed them closely, the Dancer-soldiers were tense with anticipation, expecting my reaction to be violent.
But I had mastered that impulse at the very beginning, and now felt quite relaxed. I pointed at the head Dancer, and asked him where my Folkin were.
–Here comes one now.—
That is when I noticed him. It was the gigantic frame of Kut, stepping slowly down the ladder at the same slow dull pace as the others. His skin was blackened beyond recognition and his once proud hair hung in loose, soiled curls. It was a terrifying sight, made worse when he turned to look around. Instead of the proud dancing eyes of a Long Northerner, one who had never seen defeat in feats of strength or courage, I saw only the crazened look of a weed-eater.
But it was more than what I had seen of weed-eaters in the past. His eyes held no gaze, betrayed no thought and contained no emotion. It was as if the weed had eaten everything of worth, leaving him a shell.
It was upon belooking Kut that I finally lost control. With a wild warscream that overpowered the clanging of the miners, I swung bare-limbed at my captors. I succeeded in striking the leader in the face, and knocking one of his compatriots off the path and into a boiling chasm below before the third had grasped me from behind. With the help of several Gaalian overseers who came rushing to aid, they had me bound and at their mercy.
–Struggle shadowman, and you will become just like your fellow.—said the leader.—But by the orders of the Itȃm, Sire Aflatan, you are not to have the Gift of Fire forced upon you. Consider it a mercy and a curse. You shall have to endure this place without the Bliss of Atash.—
He then laughed a laugh that still haunts my darknesses and my rest.
I was led bound into the makeshift dwelling that made the end of the path. Here were the troupe of overseers and all their food and comforts. Next to that were the piles of rock later melted and fused to find the metals desired by Aflatan to be worked into all manner of objects.
Beyond that, in the open, chained in a long line, were the captive weed-eaters, who sat swaying, waiting without tiredness or care for their turn to continue the mining.
I was beaten and have but spotty memories of the first few passages in that awful place. They chained me up and cast me out over a ledge, hanging helplessly as the fiery earth moved below. At first I fought back and hoisted myself back to safety to sleep. But every time weariness overcame me, the overseers would cackle and push me off again to swing and hope their rudimentary metalwork did not break.
Hunger was bad, but it was the thirst that proved my worst torment. I lusted for water in that place, dreaming of long swims in the cool, clear crystalline water of the havenlands. Knowing they were but a few lengths away proved irresistible to my mind. I am not ashamed to admit I howled and whined like an animal caught in a snare.
Once my strength and will were stretched to breaking, the overseers brought me up and savagely beat me. Then they made me watch as they ate and drank a feast and only stopped their carousing when I nearly succeeded in cracking my chain in two from anger.
Never underestimate what a mindful being will do when given absolute authority over another. It is a matter of mystery how the real Authorities do not make our lives more miserable for pleasure.
As I said, my memories all run together and are difficult to separate. I know that I killed several overseers who ventured too close, caught in the power of their purple plant. In my desperate thirst, I ripped them open in their soft places and drank their blood. I remember these events like they were dreams. For instance, I do not recall tasting blood, rather it was Jonderail, pouring mysteriously out of my victim’s veins. Similarly, I would wake to find myself floating alone on the open water, heading for a great golden horizon. Longer and longer did I spend in this vision, it being a much more pleasant place than my waking world. To the passage of my final departure, I claim it was a gift of Gaal Himself to keep me from total despair.
I know not how long I held onto life in this way. I think it must have been so many passages that counting is impossible. Perhaps an entire Cycle! The overseers changed hands several times, and new groups of shells came replacing those that passed, led from inexplicable places to work the unpleasant mines.
Eventually the change in overseers benefited me. This was when I began receiving regular allotments of food and drink, and in decent quantities too. With the sustenance I began to re-acquire some of my mind and my memories become clearer. Awaking from my madness I lapsed into the habits of a Hrund—eager for any scrap offered to me and a feeling of overwhelming gratitude to the one that provided it.
Loathe I am to admit this, but my hopes were all broken. The only thing left to me was the dream of the golden horizon, and my struggle to experience it daily. So I curled up in a place overlooking a steaming chasm, to avoid watching the miners at their work. I did this for fear of seeing another of my Folkin, a living shell chipping without knowledge at the rocks, and I left the overseers alone, even when they made fun with me.
The mine overseers had been given orders not to make me into a shell, a kindness they said I should credit to Aflatan. This meant that the overseers, being stupid and used to working with shells, could not predict my behaviour. So they experimented.
Having tried every kind of cruelty imaginable, they eventually handed me an axe to try working like the shells. Then they directed me to work in a place all by myself. Surprised by the joy I felt at activity, I spent the next passage exploring the rocks. Ere the second passage set, I had located more gold than the entire camp of shells had.
This was the beginning of change for me. The new overseers were so astounded at my abilities, they gave me a double portion of food and even a flask of their sweet drink. That absence of Gaal I slept more soundly than long before, Lost the entire evening in my dream of the golden horizon…