A fantasy-western serial
Episode 14: "Breakthrough"
Reed observed the guards posted at each of the exits out of the crystal mine, noting their rounds. Unlike the others around them that were forced to mine the crystals, Reed, Anna and her aging father, Sam, were responsible for pushing along the heavy mine carts across the open expanse of the bottom of the cavern. The wheels almost made it more difficult because they were old, rusted and bent in all the wrong places. If pushed too hard from one angle they would get stuck on the rails and pushed from another they would nearly tip off the rails. Reed tried to take on the brunt of the work, but he was surprised by how fiercely Anna and Sam fought to keep Reed’s pace.
“Let me handle it,” he insisted.
“Like hell I will,” Sam said, spitting to the side. Anna simply glared at him. That settled the matter.
They worked in silence until a bell pealed across the cavern, amplified by the crystals. It was a beautiful sound, so out of place down here. Everything in the cavern was too beautiful for such a miserable situation. Reed watched as the workers leaned their pick axes against the crystals and sank down beside them, some immediately passing out from exhaustion. He could not see the children carrying baskets near the exits anymore. They must be keeping them in the Iron Windmills, he mused.
“Last bell,” Sam said as they let go of the last cart and returned to the center of the cavern, their leg chains weighing them down. “I’m assuming it’s night out there, but I haven’t seen daylight in a long time.”
“It is,” Reed replied.
Sam sat down carefully, dropping his pick axe crutch aside. Although he looked like he was relaxing, Reed knew better. He could tell the man was on high alert, his old eyes sharpened, watching the exits and the guards milling about them.
Anna sat beside him and Reed sat across from them. Their leg chains draped over each other, clanging a and rattling as they all leaned in close together, their heads nearly touching.
“I can’t promise you anything,” Sam said to Reed, “Soon as they think something’s up, they’ll be down on us. Maybe five minutes if they’re all up there. Let’s wait a bit to make sure they are.”
“We’re so far down. What if there isn’t soil under here?” Anna asked, pressing her palm against the cold stone that made up the cavern floor.
Reed placed his there next to hers, his green fingertips spread wide. He closed his eyes as he picked up the pick axe and tapped in a few places, feeling the gentle vibrations returning. The soil was there, just beyond the layer of hard stone, pressed down. It was the deep kind, the kind that he hoped would have precious nutrients.
He simply smirked at her. She placed her hand on top of his. “I’m so glad you’re alright.”
He felt a heat rise on his cheeks as they darkened a deeper shade of green. He wanted to return the sentiment but didn't know what to say. He tipped down his hat, looking away and she let go, looking away as well. He quickly set to work, chipping through the stone with the pick axe. He kept the movements small at first, testing the integrity of the stone. It was already weakened by the mine cart railing; the ground had cracked open due to the iron spikes driven deeply into it.
“They’re not looking,” Sam said, his eyes on the exits.
Reed took a deep breath and drove the pick axe against the ground near the rails. In the silence the sound was like a gunshot. The stone split, bits spraying to the sides. He hid the pick axe on the ground between them as the guards swarmed to the edges, searching for the source of the sound. Reed’s companions feigned interest by looking around the cavern while Reed held still, afraid to move. His heart beat too loudly and for a moment he thought they would hear it and it would give him away, but he swallowed his fear. Soon enough they settled.
“Keep it quiet down there!” The gruff voice echoed through the cavern.
“Good job,” Sam said.
Reed kept his movements small again, chipping away at the broken stone. Within a few minutes he had created a fissure wide enough for his leg. Slipping off his boots, he swung his legs into the crevice. He stretched deeply into it, flexing and stretching his roots as they spread and grew, reaching for the soil that he could sense just beyond. He applied pressure against the stone, roots curling and squeezing through small passages that widened as he pushed, allowing him access. Droplets formed on his forehead. If he didn’t get to the soil, he would be stuck in the fissure and would have to cut off his legs. Normally that wouldn't be a dire problem, but now he would lose too much energy in the process. At this point, without water or sun or soil, he would shrivel up in another day or two at the most. Within an hour if he tried a stunt like that. If the soil wasn't down there, he was as good as dead.
He hit another dead end and leaned back, trying not to show how upset he was. Anna placed her hand on his shoulder. He stared into her eyes. She didn’t need to say anything. He could see it all there. She believed in him. It was the same look she had given him the day she had found him dying in the desert. Was he any better off now? Had he made a difference? He looked to her father and saw the same kindness in his eyes as well.
“Don’t stop now,” he said.
Reed concentrated, extending his roots even further. He was so close. All he needed was one more crack through the final inch and he would have it. He could sense the soil. His body cried out for it. Together all of his roots grew deeper, building pressure. The snap rippled through his body as he thrust through, sinking his roots deep into the soft soil, branching off and growing in whip-like motions, soaking up the nutrients like a man cliff-diving, sinking deep into the earth. He coughed and seized up, overwhelmed by the rush that filled him. The strange soil under this place wasn’t good, it was perfect.
Like being struck by lightning the pure nutrients overwhelmed his senses. The tiredness from his body still plagued him but he could feel its pain ebbing, even fading away as he absorbed greedily from the richest soil he had ever tasted in his life. He had been deprived for so long it wasn't surprising he went too far so quickly, like a thirsty man nearly drowning in a pool of water. Far too much after having lived on nothing, practically starving all through the desert.
He hadn’t realized he had fallen back against the ground. He opened his eyes. Anna and Sam leaned over him, their heads bobbing and lips moving, but he couldn't understand them. Their words blurred together in soft sounds, his ears ringing. He reached up to them. Anna caught his hand appeared to squeeze it, but he could not feel her hand. They were worried. He wanted to let them know. He was better than okay. He was going to live and live well. With soil like this, there was hope.
“Fine,” Reed managed to say before his vision blurred as well and he passed out completely, giving into the darkness, his tired, beaten body truly healing at last.
Continue to Part 15?