Civilizations all over Neopia are formed and defined by the presence of the natural resources available in each land. In Moltara's case, the harsh weather and hostile jungles on the surface caused the earliest inhabitants to search underground for sustenance. As a result, the various Moltaran civilizations dotting the massive cave system often revolved around the rich supply of ores and minerals produced by frequent volcanic activity.
In the present day, many different mining companies exist to extract mineral resources and have contributed to the advanced technology that Moltara is famous for. And as the cornerstone of much of Moltaran society, miners are supported by many rights and benefits so that the industry can continue with efficiency while supporting the livelihoods of many Neopets.
But in the past, miners were often subjected to poverty and oppressive conditions put into place by the greed of those that ran the mining companies. A notable example is Obsidian Quarry until the year 145 B.N.
Obsidian Quarry is presently considered a subdivision of Moltara City – though it lies in a separate cave a short distance away from the metropolis – and is thus subject to its laws and regulations. However, over a century and a half ago, Obsidian Quarry was governed by the local mining company and was not directly affiliated with Moltara City. (Which was at that point called, “Central Cavern.”) Said company, under the control of a Neopet known as Granite, became infamous for its poor and cruel treatment of its employees.
That said, official records of such mistreatment are scarce. Further complicating matters is Granite's sudden disappearance in the year 145 B.N., after which no trace of him was ever discovered. The only reliable sources of information that exists of the subject are memoirs written by former miners that once lived in Obsidian Quarry...
Life for the vast majority of Obsidian Quarry meant keeping their head down and doing the best with the hand they've been dealt. It wasn't much – nothing ever was. But that was all they could expect.
For the most part, Monazite's life was no different. The hours in the mines were long as much as the pay was small. Each day, the camouflage Jetsam would drag herself home and drop herself onto the nearest chair. She was stout, but without much muscle. Yet there were many miners with much stronger builds that had been working as long as she had been alive, and even they always looked ragged at the end of their shifts; Monazite wondered how on Neopia she could keep things up for that long.
Most days blended together. How could they not? The foremen loved to harp on about productivity, but there was an emptiness to the seven years that she had been working. She was twenty-five already, but the rigid shifts and strict routines meant that her memory felt like little more than a grey blur, speckled with the rare – very rare – bright spot to look back on.
Monazite heard the door open and close behind her. She knew who it was, but turned to face her roommate anyways. Agate was taller and more built for physical labour than she was, and rarely came home totally exhausted. But that wasn't to say that the mines didn't take a toll from her. They were the same age, but Agate had been working in the mines for a few years longer than Monazite, and it showed. The marble Bori's eyes were sunk in and surrounded by dull, dark circles that betrayed the vibrant patterns of blue on her pelt.
But as soon as the door was shut, Agate's tired expression gave way to a small burst of pain. With every step, came a wince.
“Aggie, you alright?” Monazite asked.
“Yeah,” Agate grunted. She bent down. “Something caught in my boot is all.”
Standing on one foot, Agate removed her other boot and hit the sole. A small piece of obsidian tumbled out and fell onto the floor.
Monazite had been slouching in her chair but perked up at the sound. As the candlelight shimmered against the glassy rock, her eyes lit up. She gasped, “You didn't!”
Agate glanced at the obsidian, and a tiny smirk came across her lips. “Oh. Whoops. No idea how that got there.”
Agate's smiles, small as they might be, never failed to get Monazite to start smiling herself. She jumped out of her seat and grabbed the obsidian. Monazite brought it close to her eyes and quickly – but closely – looked it all over.
“Small, not much use for manufacturing... but oh! It's the kind with the white splotches! A ring would look really nice, maybe even a necklace...” Monazite muttered to herself, words spilling out so fast she was surprised they were even intelligible. In her giddiness, a thought had briefly slipped her mind. Once it came to her, Monazite straightened her posture and exchanged her grin for a frown. “Granite's going to be furious if he finds out you smuggled this...”
“Then don't let him find out,” Agate gave a short laugh.
At first, Monazite mirrored the laugh in tone and length. But the excitement that piled within her began to spill over and was released into a series of giggles. For the moment, as long as she held the rock and gazed at it, the long hours of labour were forgotten and had given way to eagerness.
Those rare bright spots in Obsidian Quarry were fleeting, elusive things. But Monazite had learned that if she were to keep herself from drowning in misery and dullness, she had to grasp any speck of light she saw and hold onto it tight.
* * *
The best and sharpest blades in Moltara were made from obsidian. Those, of course, were only for the Neopets that could afford them. And though the miners toiled endlessly to acquire the raw materials, the final product was well beyond their means.
Thus Monazite had to make do with a much duller knife to chip away at the piece of obsidian. She concentrated intensely, having to strain her eyesight to make out the fine details of her progress. But little by little the obsidian began to take the form of what somewhat resembled jewellery.
Her concentration slipped, and so did the blade. She hissed and brought the tip of her finger to her mouth. Once the pain subsided enough, she took a look. It was only a small slice that felt much worse than it looked.
“Everything alright over there, Mona?” Agate asked from across the table in the center of the room as she briefly took her focus off of her own task. Both roommates busied themselves with knives, but while Monazite worked on carving the obsidian, Agate's subject was a potato that was barely big enough for a side dish, let alone the main course.
“Yeah...” Monazite replied as she wrapped her finger in a scrap of cloth. “You need any help?”
“What, with one potato? I think I can manage.”
“You're frying it, right? I think we're still good on carrots, how about I peel that and add it in?”
Agate chuckled dryly, “Talk about fancy. Eh, why not. Knock yourself out. Just be careful not to cut your fin off.”
“Oh, shush,” Monazite playfully retorted as she began to stand up.
Once on her feet, she stretched and tightly blinked. Her fins, already tired from a day in the mines, now felt even more cramped and stiff. Monazite didn't know how long she had been working on the obsidian, but by that point, she could certainly use a break.
Monazite opened their food storage. She didn't rummage through it, as that word would imply that there was so much food that she would need to move it all aside just to see what they had. But all Monazite needed was a short glance to discern what there was available to eat. As she thought, they had enough carrots to last another few days. But the potato in Agate's hands was their last one, and there weren't any other root vegetables in sight. Monazite figured that if she and Agate pooled up their pay, they might be able to afford another bag of potatoes from the company store in a couple of days.
“Small carrot it is, then...” Monazite muttered to herself as she grabbed one and went to join Agate.
But Monazite did not get the chance to pull up her chair next to Agate before the Bori lifted her eyes and asked, “So how's that obsidian coming?”
“Oh!” Monazite set the carrot down on the table and swapped it for the piece of obsidian. She held it up and exclaimed, “Ta-da! Starting to look a little more like a gemstone, huh?”
Agate quickly and slightly nodded her head upwards. “Hold it against your neck.” Monazite did so, and Agate began to crack a smile. “If only we had a chain for it. It'd make a really pretty necklace on you.”
Monazite chuckled as her eyesight drifted to her side and her fingers began to play with the obsidian. She ran the tips of her fingers against the uneven facets, then closed her fin around the only-vaguely round shape of the stone. She sighed, “I wish I knew how to cut a gemstone properly, though. And polish them too.”
“It's too bad. Be nice if there were any jewellers around here to teach you. But it is what it is, I guess,” said Agate.
“I know, I know.” Monazite could never help but feel a little dejected at the fact that all the obsidian production was geared towards knives and mirrors, and that Granite didn't see much point in jewellery. Though she suspected that even if he realized how lucrative obsidian jewellery could be, there would still be little opportunity for her to leave the mines and make use of her talents and interests in a manner that wouldn't still keep her under his thumb. There wasn't a single business in Obsidian Quarry that Granite didn't have his hands in, after all.
“But it's nice to think about, you know?” Monazite continued. She closed her eyes and smiled wistfully. “Someday I'll learn how to do it all, and I'll get to have my own jewellery shop without Granite involved. Making the most beautiful rings and necklaces, bracelets and brooches... Rubies, and sapphires, and emeralds, and even diamonds...”
“Mona, that carrot's getting thinner by the second.”
Monazite snapped out of her trance and looked down to see a pile of carrot shavings overflowing in the bowl beneath her. With a wary glance, she saw that the carrot in her fin had shrunk quite a bit from when she last saw it.
Monazite coughed awkwardly and set the slim carrot down. “Sooo... How about you? If you could do anything, what would it be?”
By that point, Agate was already through peeling the potato and began to work on slicing it silently. But her ears began to twitch downwards as she began to think. Eventually, she answered, “I guess Obsidian Quarry could use an actual journal. One person says one thing, another says something completely different... It'd be a lot more convenient to have something to get the facts straight and all in one place.”
As Agate spoke, Monazite watched her fall into a daydream – something that she hadn't done for a long time. But it wasn't long before she awoke from it. “Pipe dream though. Like Granite would ever allow any sort of real press to get off the ground.”
Monazite tightened her lips at first, but ultimately couldn't remain silent. Even if it was through a small voice, she had to say something. “Life's a lot easier when you have dreams to look forward to. I don't know if I'd ever be able to sleep if I didn't have them.”
“Well, I ain't sleeping on an empty stomach, that's for sure,” Agate stated, causing the subject to slam into a brick wall. She grabbed Monazite's carrot and started to chop it up. “You wanna start turning on the heat?”
“Oh, uh, sure,” Monazite mumbled. She immediately rose to grab the nearest pan and bring it to the hearth. On the surface, stopping the conversation now felt like giving up. But deep down, she knew that she was destined to lose in her endeavour.
There was once a time where Agate was more hopeful about the future. Mining wasn't the only thing in the world; it wasn't even the only thing in Obsidian Quarry. She loved to write, even if just in a personal journal that detailed workplace gossip. Both her and Monazite could look forward to a wide array of possibilities and live their happiest lives, even if things weren't going well for the moment. All they needed to do was work hard and save up bit by bit.
But the years chipped away at Agate. The opportunities were always out of reach and their livelihoods always teetered on the edge. Despite Monazite's efforts to keep her from losing heart, Agate had become resigned to a life in the mines. She threw away her diary years ago and hadn't written much since.
There were times when despair tempted Monazite as well. She likened it to a shadowy creature, lurking about on the floor, ready to take its chance to seize her and drag her down to the depths.
Thus, she kept a bounce in her step and walked lightly. If despair tried to stare her in the eyes, she'd look away. If it began to whisper in her ear holes, she'd ignore it. No matter what, she couldn't let it convince her that there was no value in dreaming.
If it did, what else would there be left in life?
To be continued…