Just when the miners’ worries were a little soothed by the amount of progress they made that day, it all came to a grinding halt when they hit a layer of rock that their pickaxes couldn’t break through. A few of the stronger ones tried to give a couple more strikes, but it was no use. Among them, Agate was forced to walk away from the wall with little success.
“Just great. As if we weren’t in enough trouble...” a shadow Kiko commented.
“At the rate we were going, I thought we’d break into another cave before hitting anything,” said a red Zafara.
All Monazite could do was stand in back with the other miners with less muscular power and wonder what could be done about it. It was times like those that a stick of dynamite would come in handy. But only the foremen could authorize their use. That was fine, except that they were so stingy and cheap about it that they’d prefer to save Neopoints by breaking their miners’ backs until there was no other option. Plus, Diorite hadn’t been seen since he left Flicker with the shift.
On the last point, Monazite figured that she’d take it upon herself to find out more. After their lunch break ended, Flicker tried to go back to looking terrifying, but it didn’t last long before he became bored again. So Monazite decided to ask Flicker if he knew anything about Diorite’s whereabouts.
“Uh, I think I heard him talking to another foreman just before he left. Something about cards?” Flicker said while he scratched his scalp.
Monazite slouched while she made a growl mixed with a sigh. “Oh, that figures...”
But while Monazite began to think of other solutions, Cinnabar seemed to have already come up with one. “Hey Flicker, I bet you’re not strong enough to break that wall.”
“I bet I am!” Flicker responded with no lack of zeal. After a moment, however, he restrained himself and said, “But I’m not supposed to be helping you guys.”
“The foremen won’t know! I won’t tell anyone!” Cinnabar promised.
Monazite nodded. “Me neither.”
Flicker thought to himself for a moment. Eventually, he stood up and approached nearby skunk Quiggle. “Hey, if I go smash that wall, will you tell anyone about it?”
The Quiggle’s wide, unblinking eyes locked on Flicker as his head strained to look up at him. Trembling, the Quiggle shook his head.
Flicker then turned to a grey Lenny. “Will you tell anyone?”
The Lenny backed up a few steps before shaking her head.
Then Flicker sought out yet another miner. “How about y-”
“Okay Flicker, I don’t think anyone’s going to say anything,” Monazite interrupted with an exasperated groan.
Monazite led Flicker through the crowd of miners, which immediately parted the instant they saw the Firefly. Once Flicker met the wall, he rolled his neck, adjusted his shoulders, and stretched his hands.
The miners gave Flicker plenty of space and watched him in apprehension. A brown Jubjub mumbled to Monazite, “You sure about this?”
“Flicker doesn’t seem like a bad guy. I think it’ll be alright,” Monazite replied. He was a little odd, maybe, but she didn’t fear much from him anymore.
Soon, Flicker clenched his fists and started to gear up for a strike. Just before he could swing, Agate cleared her throat and handed him her pickax. “How about you use this instead?”
Flicker took the pickax with a bit of reluctance and spent some time getting used to the tool. All the while, the miners waited with bated breath. He gripped the pickax with both hands and readied his posture. A loud grunt escaped through grit teeth, then a burst of energy led to a powerful strike.
The pickax punctured the rock. From that small point, a series of cracks spread across the wall until it resembled a giant Spyder web. The miners watching the spectacle couldn’t help but exclaim in awe. Flicker was also impressed with his effort and grinned at the result.
He began to make his second strike, but stopped once a vibration spread through the tunnel. Flicker’s pride morphed into disbelief. “Whoa…”
But Monazite knew better. She froze in terror, and was only jarred out of it when Agate shouted to everyone, “Earthquake!”
From that point forward, Monazite’s thoughts ceased and she fell back on instinct. Her legs moved on their own, carrying her up the tunnel and keeping up with the rushing stream of miners. All her mind could process after that was the light at the entrance and the sight of the metal roof over where their tools and equipment were stored.
What brought Monazite back to the physical world was the clattering of tiny pieces of debris hitting the roof. She then fully realized that she was packed in with the other miners as they waited the earthquake out. By that point, the tremors had stopped.
But the clarity wasn’t to last. Living in Moltara meant living with earthquakes. Nonetheless, they always threw Monazite into a panic. It was precisely why she hated working in the tunnels. A cave-in was what took her parents, and when she lifted her head to see a pile of rubble in place of the tunnel entrance, she realized that she narrowly avoided being caught in one too. Though she was safe now, her chest felt heavy as she could perceive the walls and ceiling closing in.
Monazite felt a hand against her back. She took a sharp breath, looked behind her, and saw Agate. “Mona, you alright?”
She raggedly inhaled and exhaled to calm herself. “Y-Yes. Th-Thank you...’
Relieved, Agate sighed and looked around. Monazite did likewise. Cinnabar and Flicker were next to her, and she counted the other miners. “I think that’s everyone...”
A thought came over Monazite and she felt a pang of dread. As discreetly as she could manage, she put her fin against her pocket. To her relief, she could still feel the red beryl inside – though she didn’t express it in a way that someone could notice.
Once the other miners saw the ruined tunnel, one of them said, “Well, now what?”
It was hard to say. Now that all their hard work was destroyed, Monazite wasn’t sure if they should start digging the tunnel out or start working in another part of the quarry. Ultimately, it was up to a foreman, but she was too nervous of aftershocks to try to seek one out.
However, it turned out that wouldn’t be necessary, as Gabbro soon arrived at the site. Monazite wouldn’t call that a lucky break, however, since the grey Ixi rarely appeared to the miners unless someone was in trouble. Sure enough, his brisk pace suggested that he was on the warpath. And he found his target as soon as he caught sight of Flicker.
“You have no idea how much of my time you’ve wasted. I did not give you permission to sit around with the miners all day!” Gabbro snarled as he walked closer.
Even though she wasn’t the subject of his ire, Monazite still shrunk back as Gabbro approached. Flicker managed to stay relatively still, but hung his head as he muttered, “Granite said I had to...”
“Don’t you lie to me! He said no such th-” Gabbro began to growl as he grew even angrier, but abruptly stopped himself. He eyed Flicker suspiciously as he watched his body language, particularly the movement of his wings – or there lack of. “Who told you that?”
“A foreman. Dio... Diorama...”
“Diorite,” Monazite whispered to Flicker.
Gabbro stood in stunned silence. He then exhaled, closed his eyes, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You are not to take orders from anyone but me and Granite. Understood?”
Flicker gave a small nod. “Yes sir...”
“Get over here. You and I are going to have a talk with Diorite,” Gabbro said with obvious irritation, but it was surprisingly not aimed at Flicker. He then turned to the miners and shouted, “Enough sitting around! Go make yourselves useful and get to a quarry!”
The miners all stood up in unison. They and Monazite found it a great effort to get up again after such a long day, and most of them dragged their feet over the knowledge that they still had a few more hours to go. Monazite herself trudged along as she began to feel the lack of sleep from the previous day again. Thus it wasn’t long before Gabbro and Flicker were walking along the cliff just above the miners. The closest quarry was below them, so the two groups were headed in opposite directions.
Suddenly, there was an aftershock. It took everyone by surprise. Monazite especially was in such a state of exhaustion that it took her until after the events that followed it happened to process it all.
There was a loud noise coming from above and ahead. It sounded like something was tumbling down from somewhere.
Agate rushed forward.
Slowly, things came into focus when Monazite saw Cinnabar getting up after being shoved aside. Then, she saw Agate lying on the ground with a large boulder on her right leg, and Monazite was suddenly wide awake.
“Aggie!” Monazite shrieked. All heads in the vicinity turned in her direction.
Monazite ran to Agate, her knees scraping against the ground as she hurriedly kneeled beside her. Agate was in shock. She gasped and cried out, but was unable to speak.
Monazite quickly turned to the boulder. It was half her height and must have been three times her weight. Whether she tried to lift or push it off Agate’s leg, it wouldn’t budge. Cinnabar soon came out of his own shock in the moment and rushed to give a hand, but it was still too much for them.
“Mona...” Agate weakly groaned. “I’m... sorry I yelled at you...”
Monazite’s heartbeat and breathing became even quicker. “No... No, no, no. I should be... I’m the one…”
Her speech became too choked, and she could hardly see through a wall of tears. She tried again and again to get the rock off of her friend, but her best efforts just weren’t enough.
“Somebody! Please, help us!” Monazite desperately pleaded. She raised her voice so loud that she knew she was heard. But when the seconds passed with no response, she wondered if anyone listened.
“Come on! Don’t just stand there!” Cinnabar shouted, his voice also starting to break in distress.
The other miners remained in place, spending precious time debating to themselves between helping Agate and getting to the quarry before a foreman got upset. Monazite lifted her head. Flicker saw the whole scene and looked on in horror. But just as he began to step forward, Monazite heard Gabbro say, “Never mind.” While Flicker’s expression didn’t change, he reluctantly obeyed Gabbro and followed him as he continued to look on.
Monazite didn’t have time to feel disgusted. She and Cinnabar gave the rock another push. It still didn’t work. But they couldn’t give up. Even if what she had for muscles withered away to nothing, Monazite would not leave Agate.
She heard a droning sound from above. Flicker then landed beside her with just as loud of an impact as the one he made when he first appeared that day. With no words – but plenty of haste – he ran to the rock and gripped the underside. Monazite and Cinnabar backed up as Flicker dug the claws on his feet into the ground. He began to lift. Soon, there was enough of a gap between the rock and Agate that Monazite was able to pull her away.
Even though the pressure of the boulder was gone, Agate was in no less pain. Monazite couldn’t bear to look at her leg, but she did see that her face was still tight and her fur drenched in sweat.
Once all was clear, Flicker dropped the boulder and went to Monazite. “There’s a company doctor, right?” She nodded and shakily pointed to his office in the distance. “Great, I can get there pretty fast.”
Monazite allowed Flicker to pick up Agate. As soon as he had a good grip on her, Flicker got a running start, spread his wings, and leapt off the cliff. Soon, Flicker appeared as no more than a ball of green light zipping through the open air. There was no time to waste, so Monazite and Cinnabar ran as fast as they could to follow him on foot.
* * *
By the time Monazite and Cinnabar reached the doctor’s office, they only found Flicker standing in the waiting room. Before either of them could ask any questions, Flicker told them, “The doctor just took her. He says we’re gonna have to wait out here till he’s done.”
Monazite slowly exhaled. “He didn’t say anything else?” Flicker shook his head, and Monazite sighed. As much as she wanted to hear that Agate was alright and hear it as soon as possible, she knew that she couldn’t reasonably expect news so soon. “I guess there’s nothing we can do until then...”
Flicker opened his mouth to say something, but was stopped by the front door slamming open. Gabbro stood in the threshold, clearly breathing as heavy as Monazite and Cinnabar were after running that entire distance from the mines to the office. When Flicker saw just how infuriated he was, he couldn’t help but flinch.
“You. Out.” Gabbro ordered Flicker in a low tone.
All Monazite heard from Flicker was a nervous groan. He only glanced at Monazite before leaving. She had to accept that as Flicker’s goodbye, because anything else would only worsen Gabbro’s mood.
The door closed just as loud as it opened. Monazite and Cinnabar were left in silence, but they could hear Gabbro’s voice from outside. Monazite tried from where she stood to listen, but was unable to make out any of the words. Cinnabar decided to be a bit more direct. First, he took a peek out the nearest window. Then he opened the front door and ran outside.
“Cinnabar!” Monazite fearfully whispered to get him to stop, but it was too late. She ran out after him and found the Mynci just barely looking around the corner.
As Monazite thought, Gabbro was there verbally tearing into Flicker. “I told you to leave them! It was none of my concern, and it was none of yours!”
Whenever Gabbro was present, Flicker seemed to divert eye contact and nod at whatever was said to him. But though he kept his sight on the ground, there wasn’t as much of a subservient air about him as he grumbled, “I couldn’t just do nothing.”
That comment only lit a spark at Gabbro’s flammable disposition. He stepped closer to Flicker and hissed into his face, “You are not here to pretend you’re a hero. If I tell you to do nothing, you will do nothing! If I tell you to do something, you will obey me without question, without delay, and without talking back!”
At the start, Flicker listened to his scolding with a neutral expression. But Monazite watched as a frown appeared and slowly grew deeper with each syllable that Gabbro pronounced. By the time he was done, it was as if a switch flipped within Flicker. He stood up as straight as he could and clenched his fists. His voice dropped to an even deeper tone as he growled through bared teeth, “And what if I don’t want to?”
Gabbro’s face fell and his authoritative stance suddenly faltered. Flicker stepped forward and Gabbro stepped back. When the Buzz loomed above, the Ixi shrunk down. As all that happened, Monazite saw Cinnabar’s tail bob in excitement as he watched Flicker fully realize what he told him earlier.
He instantly stopped. Flicker’s face filled with dread as he slightly turned his head towards the voice. Once Monazite recognized it, her heart dropped as well.
It was Granite. As soon as Flicker saw him come into view, he put space between himself and Gabbro, and once again lowered his head. The brown Meerca was big for his species, but on his feet he was still quite a bit shorter than the other two Neopets present. Yet that posed no concern to Granite; he approached Flicker without an ounce of fear.
“What’s going on over here?” Granite demanded to know in a firm tone.
Gabbro cleared his throat and glared at Flicker as if he was trying to pretend that he wasn’t just cowering from him. He explained the incident to Granite, who listened intently.
“So you couldn’t bear to stand by and watch. You felt that you just had to help,” Granite reiterated to Flicker.
“Yes sir,” Flicker said quietly.
Granite put his hands on his hips and kept a short grunt contained in his throat. He was calm as he said, “That must have been a mighty large boulder. I imagine that miner was in plenty of pain.”
“Yeah, she was.”
Granite stood silently, and his expression remained fixed. He glanced at Gabbro, then tilted his head at Flicker.
Gabbro grit his teeth and sent a swift kick at Flicker’s leg.
Flicker shouted out. His knees buckled, and he barely kept his feet planted in place. He looked like he was one second away from collapsing to the ground.
A sharp, loud gasp began to form from behind Cinnabar’s lips, and Monazite had to quickly cover his mouth with her fin to keep it from escaping. He didn’t resist, as he was wide-eyed and frozen in place. Likewise, Monazite was unable to muster up any further movement.
“Something like that?” Granite growled, completely unaffected by Flicker’s pain.
Granite placed his tail flat on the ground and stood on it. By doing so, his height exceeded Flicker’s. He grabbed ahold of Flicker’s short hair and yanked him upwards. The Buzz cried out again as Granite pulled at his head and forced him to stand. Out of instinct, he struggled, but that only caused Granite to tighten his grip.
“Let me make something clear to you, you worthless freak of nature,” Granite said. “Did you forget that everyone you lived with before me threw you away once they got sick of you?”
Granite yanked his hair even harder. “Shut up! I don’t want to hear your stupid voice! Nobody wants you around. I only tolerate you, Flicker. But you best be grateful that I do. Because you know where you’d be if it wasn’t for me?”
Flicker said nothing.
Granite continued, “Nowhere. This is all you get, and all you’ll ever have. So make the best of it and learn to follow orders. You’re not smart enough for anything else, so don’t get it in that thick head of yours that you can do otherwise. Got it?”
Flicker’s eyes were devoid of vitality; all that was present was a sense of resignation. He only gave as much of a nod as he could while still under Granite’s grasp.
Granite roughly released Flicker, sending him stumbling onto his feet. “Get out of my sight. And you wait until tomorrow to eat!”
Flicker continued on his way, trying – but failing – to not limp with every step. He eventually disappeared into Mine Headquarters, never once looking back.
“He’s getting too strong,” Gabbro observed.
“No, you’re getting too soft,” Granite countered. “What do you do when you have a stubborn Marlock that won’t listen? You break its will! Even the biggest, meanest beast in the world will do whatever you say as long as you remind them just how stupid they are. That Firefly’s no different.”
Granite and Gabbro took their leave, never noticing that there were eavesdroppers to their cruelty. Though she had an inkling of it, it was only then that Monazite learned just how terribly Flicker was treated. That could not have been the first time either. To think that she and the miners assumed at first that he was in Granite’s favour, when it turned out that his life was no better than theirs.
Monazite looked to Cinnabar. She had long since released him, but he was quiet of his own volition. He was still possessed by the same feeling of horror that took hold of him when he learned exactly why Flicker didn’t fight back.
“I...” Cinnabar began to speak, but with a stammer. “I-I better go back to work b-before I get in trouble...”
Cinnabar ran off towards the quarries with so much haste that he nearly tripped on himself. He constantly looked around and over his shoulder, as if he feared Granite suddenly returning to the area.
Monazite went back inside the doctor’s office and sat down. If it was any other time, she would have been shocked at herself over the ease it took to distract herself from what happened to Flicker. But Agate’s condition quickly dominated her thoughts again. She held her fins against her forehead. Monazite began to feel ill over the present, and even more uneasy over the future.
To be continued…