The beginning of the day's shift was marked by a smothering silence. The miners dug through the tunnel as fast as their bodies would allow, for each of them could feel Flicker's harsh gaze against their backs. Just by standing there with his arms crossed and his green glow illuminating the tight space, the miners were all constantly reminded of his quiet threat.
Much as Monazite tried to keep her eyesight pointed straight ahead and remain focused on her task, she still couldn't help taking a glance over her shoulder every now and then. Though Flicker's presence was the fear that currently dominated her mind at that moment, she couldn't help but jump at any sound that resembled a foreman approaching. Though the red beryl in her pocket was tiny, the knowledge of what might happen should a foreman have any suspicions of her smuggling it out of the mines made it feel like the heaviest thing Monazite had ever carried.
But as she periodically looked behind her, she noticed something peculiar happening over time. At one point she saw Flicker still standing in place as he did since the beginning of the shift, but the next time she looked he was sitting cross-legged on the floor. Later, his scowl had shown signs of weakening. Even more time after that, the Buzz wasn't even looking at the miners anymore and instead held the side of his head in one hand as the other absent-mindedly scratched the ground.
Monazite wasn't the only one that noticed Flicker's lack of commitment to his orders. Eventually, the miners' anxiousness faded enough to allow them to discreetly discuss their situation with one another. Monazite chose to simply listen in as she worked.
“What's Granite doing with a Firefly, anyways?” a red Uni asked.
“I heard he's being trained to be Granite's new muscleman. Apparently, Granite's looking to use him to chase down anyone that tries to escape the city,” a brown Bruce answered.
“No-ones ever going to so much as think about going outside Obsidian Quarry again, if that's true. Fireflies are all a bunch of brutes, and I can't imagine how mean this one must be if he's working directly for Granite.”
Typically, Cinnabar worked at his station a fair distance from the miners. Unnerved by Flicker's presence, however, that day he took it upon himself to gather the rocks the miners dug out himself to evaluate. He ran up to them just in time to hear their conversation and added, “I hear that he's way younger than he looks. Like he's only a few years old or something.”
The miners that heard Cinnabar turned around to face him incredulously.
“I swear, it's true! Did you guys see that mark on his back? The one that looks like an eight, but sideways? I heard that there's this witch that goes around Moltara placing curses on people. I bet he's one of her victims!” Cinnabar continued.
Agate raised her eyebrow and said tonelessly, “Uh-huh. Is that the story your parents tell you to get you to behave?”
“No!” Cinnabar replied sharply. “All my friends are talking about it!”
Agate's face remained unchanged.
After a moment, the Bruce dropped the volume of her voice and said, “But it'd make sense, now that I think about it. I seem to remember that a little Firefly boy was living in Obsidian Quarry a few years ago, and I think his name was Flicker.”
“And how many Fireflies does anyone see nowadays? Just about none, that's how many. I heard they all vanished, or something,” the Uni pointed out as he quickly glanced at Flicker – whom at that point looked about ready to fall asleep.
Monazite still didn't have any desire to participate in the conversation, but she did think about what was said. The idea of a little Firefly kid from two years ago and the enormous Buzz behind them being one and the same was just too bizarre to believe. To think that anyone could possibly grow that much in such a short time... Monazite could hardly wrap her head around it.
* * *
The long and gruelling shifts in the mines were interrupted by only a single break reserved for eating. Even then, the miners were responsible for making their own food, so they barely had enough time to actually eat. In most cases, the most extravagant thing anyone would eat on the job was an under-cooked baked potato with no available toppings. But in Monazite's current situation, fires weren't allowed inside the tunnels and the foremen didn't let anyone exit until the shift was over. So a strip of jerky would have to do. At the very least, the lack of preparation made the break feel much more like an actual rest.
Then again, she typically spent her breaks with Agate, talking about whatever subjects they could think up to distract them from the tedium. But there was still a chill air in the wide space between the two. And if anything, the time afforded to Monazite to just sit and think made her all the more aware of the tension.
It wasn't long before Monazite needed something else to occupy her mind. When she saw Cinnabar trying fruitlessly to pull at the sorting table at his station, she decided that was good enough and got up to see what was going on.
“I wanna move the table a bit farther ahead. You guys are moving so fast, and it's a pain to have to run so far all the time,” Cinnabar explained.
Monazite nodded and moved to the opposite end of the table. “Okay. Try to pick up that side and I'll lift this one.”
At the same time, the two Neopets lifted the table just barely off the ground. With tiny steps, they slowly brought it closer to where Cinnabar wanted it. But Monazite, with her hunger still not satiated and running on such little sleep, quickly drained of strength. Her fins shook as they gripped the edge, and her feet began to stumble.
She released the table, the legs hitting the ground with a thud. Cinnabar couldn't keep his grip either, and he too dropped his end.
“Sorry...” Monazite said through a series of pants.
Monazite propped herself against the table as she tried to catch her breath. In between a pair of gasps, she heard something clatter as it rolled across the ground. She looked, and what was left of the air in her lungs vanished as she saw the red beryl had slipped out of her pocket and bumped against Flicker's foot.
Flicker gave a tiny jump at the touch. He looked down, and his eyes lit up curiously at the sight of the gem. First, he reached down and picked it up. Next, he brought the red beryl closer to his eyes. Then, his head turned in Monazite's direction once he noticed her presence.
Monazite could only stare blankly. She felt her whole body become as stone-cold and unmoving. Seeing Flicker look back at her and put two and two together was the same as watching her own demise.
“You give that back,” a voice brought Monazite out of her shock. It was Agate. She stood directly in front of Flicker with a look as firm as her voice.
“Aggie, no!” Monazite said in a choked whisper.
But Agate continued, “That's not yours. Give that back to her.”
Flicker brought his eyes to Agate and matched the hardness of her stare. The seconds seemed to lengthen. Neither one of them moved. But while Flicker was entirely still, there was a small shiver that made its way through Agate the longer she kept her glare on him. Monazite could only watch in dread.
Flicker took another look at the red beryl, then back to Monazite. “Oh. Okay. Sorry.”
Without argument, Flicker handed the red beryl back to Monazite. She was too stunned to say anything as she took it, but her fins continued to shake so violently that she thought she might drop it again.
Agate also appeared shocked at the ease it took to get Flicker to give back a precious jewel. Not just that, but Monazite suspected that she was also dumbfounded that somebody that earlier threatened to crush their skulls if they didn’t perform to standards would be so willing to listen to a demand from an ordinary miner.
Cinnabar also watched the scene in shock and confusion, but his curiosity was aimed elsewhere. “What was that?”
“O-Oh, just a good luck charm...” Monazite stammered.
“No it wasn’t! That was a gem!”
Agate quickly stepped in. She stood right in front of him now, blocking his view of anything or anyone else. “It’s a good luck charm. And you’re not going to say a word about this to anyone, do you understand me?”
Cinnabar tilted himself back and held up his palms. “I wasn’t gonna say anything, geez...”
With the red beryl back in her pocket, Monazite felt slightly more secure. But she still couldn’t help but wrap her fins around herself in anxiety. That episode could have very easily taken a wrong turn. By each passing minute, Monazite could feel the risks she took just by possessing the red beryl pile up more and more.
But before Monazite could get too deep in thought, Flicker asked suddenly, “Hey, is that gem magic?”
The volume and deepness of Flicker’s voice startled Monazite, and she worried that its echo would carry to the other miners. But, thankfully, they weren’t paying attention. Thus, Monazite was able to answer with a dose of bitterness instead of fear, “No, it isn’t.”
There was a slight wrinkle of Agate’s nose as her nostrils let out a short puff of air.
“Oh. I was just wondering, ‘cause my Big Brother uses magic gems,” Flicker said as an unmistakably eager and curious smile spread across his face.
Monazite was at a loss of what to think of Flicker at that point. If she didn’t know better, she would have thought that the excitable Firefly sitting before her now was an entirely different person from the menacing one she met at the mouth of the tunnel.
“You, uh... sure didn’t look too thrilled to be watching us today...” Agate, still somewhat leery of Flicker, took a chance and pointed out.
“Not that we’re complaining...” Cinnabar quickly muttered.
If it were possible for a Firefly to turn off their glow, Flicker would have dimmed it at that very moment. His grin vanished, to be replaced with a surly sense of apathy. “Yeah, I was supposed to stand here and look mean all day. But my face started to hurt and this is all really boring. So I don’t care anymore.”
Flicker’s answer puzzled Monazite, as well as the other two Neopets with her. But Flicker himself didn’t seem too concerned, as he got up, stretched, then reclined himself against the wall and sat back down. Sense told Monazite that she should have been satisfied with that and not try to convince Flicker otherwise, but she asked anyway, “Aren’t you worried about Granite getting mad at you?”
Flicker scoffed, “Granite gets mad at everything.” He adjusted his position and crossed his arms as he got more comfortable. “Besides, not like he can see me right now.”
He seemed… not so much content with sitting there all day, but he was set on it anyway. It was just as well for the peace of mind of Monazite and the other miners. Flicker deciding to slack off certainly beat him looming over them.
Monazite heard a rumble from Flicker’s direction, who then winced and tightened his arms. Having a feeling what the issue was, Monazite asked, “Aren’t you going to eat anything?”
“Nah, I don’t have any food with me. I don’t get to eat till later anyway,” Flicker replied.
Monazite’s fin hovered over her pocket for a moment. But she suddenly decided to act on her thoughts before she could change her mind. “I’ve got a piece of jerky left if you want something to ease your stomach for now.”
Flicker perked up in surprise. “Huh? Really?”
Monazite handed the jerky to Flicker. He took it and bit off a piece. His jaws had to put in a noticeable effort into chewing it, and his eyelids reflexively squeezed shut. “Wow, that’s dry. Pretty salty, too.”
Agate couldn’t help but chuckle. “That’s kind of the whole point.”
Nonetheless, Flicker finished the piece. He looked at Monazite again, and his face brightened up once more. “Thanks! You’re alright. I guess today’s not gonna stink so bad after all.”
Monazite returned a small smile and nodded. There was still time left in their break and she was mostly put at ease, so she sat down against a nearby wall. Agate and Cinnabar also saw their apprehension melt away and were able to relax.
They decided to see what else they could learn about Flicker, as rumours and first impressions clearly weren’t always the most accurate things to go by. The first thing they managed to prod out of him was his “Big Brother.” Judging from Flicker’s description of him as a magician, Monazite assumed he was referring to Wingen: a fire Wocky kid that also worked for Granite. From what Monazite understood, Granite used Wingen to spy on competitors. Not only that, but he apparently had grown very little since he arrived in Obsidian Quarry almost nine years ago. It certainly made the opposite rumour about Flicker all the more curious, but Monazite had to wonder how Granite managed to wind up with such mysterious Neopets.
After that, Agate decided to press elsewhere, “How about you? What does Granite have you do?”
“I usually train with Gabbro,” Flicker answered. Gabbro was the head foreman and Granite’s right-hand man. It was never pleasant to be around him for even a couple minutes; Monazite couldn’t imagine what spending all day with him must have been like. “Oh, and he has me do a ton of fighting too.”
Monazite had no trouble believing him. Though she couldn’t say she was pleased to hear that the rumours about the fighting ring were true.
“Other than that?” Agate questioned further.
“Whatever Granite says, really,” Flicker said as he scratched the stubble between the spikes on his chin. “I dunno. I just do what I’m told.”
Monazite and Agate fell silent. But after a while, Cinnabar spoke up, “...Why?”
The other three Neopets turned to the Mynci. Flicker appeared to be the most puzzled. “Huh?”
“Why do you listen to them?”
“‘Cause I have to?”
Frustrated, Cinnabar continued in a more piercing manner, “But why?! You’re huge! You’re bigger than Gabbro! Way bigger than Granite! Why do you let them push you around?! You gotta know that they can’t really do anything to you! Tell them to go pound sand!”
“Cinnabar, things... things just aren’t that simple...” Monazite struggled to say, just as much as she struggled to think of it.
Flicker’s head dropped a bit, and he took on an uncomfortable look. “Yeah... I just can’t. I’d get in a load of trouble...”
Cinnabar frowned, only growing more vexed. But Agate was somewhat pensive. Soon, she revealed a hint of her thoughts when she asked Flicker, “How old are you?”
In less than a second, Flicker’s face fell. He appeared rather nervous, to a far greater extent than that of anybody who was intimidated by his presence.
Cinnabar followed along with Agate’s line of questioning. “Is it really true? That you’re only four years old, or something?”
Monazite saw Flicker take a sharp breath just before turning his head away. Though he didn’t speak a word, he nonetheless provided his answer.
It was beyond belief. Him? Only four? He looked like he should have been at least four times that age. At first, Monazite thought it must have been some elaborate prank she was privy to. But once it sunk in, the only words that ran through her mind was, “How?” and “Why?”
But it was quickly clear that no-one would be getting any further answers on the subject, nor anything else they wanted to ask Flicker. His expression became sour and his voice equally so as he grumbled, “Don’t you guys have work to do?”
Monazite, Agate, and Cinnabar all looked at each other. Even if Flicker didn’t proverbially push them away, their break was about to end. They returned to work in silence, though not without plenty of thought over the conversation.
To be continued…