The doorknob turned and Monazite was brought to attention. She was on her feet as soon as the door was ajar and the doctor slipped out shortly afterwards.
“How is she?” Monazite quickly asked.
The grey Lupe doctor gave a deep sigh as he folded his glasses. Monazite knew better than to expect any sort of cheeriness at a doctor’s office. But the solemnness on the other side of the spectrum did not keep her heart rate steady either.
“Agate’s right leg was crushed. I can treat her for the pain, but I don’t have the expertise or the equipment to fix the broken bones. It’s just too severe for my abilities,” the doctor told Monazite.
There was a total lack of humour in the situation, yet Monazite found herself laughing, “Then who does?”
“I don’t know. Certainly no-one in Obsidian Quarry.”
Monazite’s nervous laughs subsided, and she was left feeling like all of Neopia’s crust was pressed on her lungs. “There must be someone out there in Moltara that can help her.”
“I’m sure there is, but I strongly doubt Granite will give permission for her to seek them out,” the doctor said.
“W-Well then try to convince him! Or bring someone here! Please! You need to help us! She can’t just remain like that forever!” Monazite pleaded.
“You know how he is. There’s nothing I could possibly say to Granite that would persuade him. And I’m on shaky ground as it is. I’m in no position to ask him for favours,” said the doctor as gently as he could. He looked at Monazite sympathetically. “I’m sorry. But there’s nothing I can do.”
* * *
At the beginning of the previous day, Monazite believed that was the worst mood she would ever arrive to work in. But that was too quick of an assumption to make, as she carried an even worse feeling with her to her next shift. She was so distracted by all the dread and uncertainty that it took her a while to notice the crowd of miners idling, and had to remind herself that the tunnel collapsed.
Monazite placed herself among her co-workers and waited for whatever was to come next. As she did, Cinnabar weaved through the crowd until he reached her.
“How’s Agate?” Cinnabar breathlessly asked.
Monazite put on as much of a smile as she could manage. “Good, good! She’ll be alright. She just needs to rest today.”
Cinnabar was unconvinced, and Monazite’s smile faded. She should have known that he was too old to believe white lies.
There was a bit of a heavy silence, which Cinnabar broke through when he muttered, “Um... I dunno if I want to take out another loan after I’m done with the one I already got.”
Monazite perked her head up. Whether it was witnessing Flicker’s confrontation with Granite or seeing Agate get injured saving him from that boulder, she was glad to hear that Cinnabar was finally steering himself away from the mines. Even in such a terrible time, there was at least that little bit of hope.
Yet Cinnabar maintained a morose expression, which made sure that Monazite’s happiness for him wasn’t to last. “But... I don’t know what my family would do without those extra Neopoints. Things were pretty bad before I started working; I don’t want to make them go back to that...”
She saw it in Cinnabar’s eyes: a sense of defeat. One way or another, everyone in Obsidian Quarry that wasn’t Granite or the foremen all carried the same feeling of being trapped. If there was a mirror nearby, Monazite felt that she would probably see that it started to show in her face as well.
A pair of Neopets began to approach the miners. Monazite soon recognized them as Gabbro and Diorite. Gabbro looked as severe as he usually did, but Diorite seemed rather shaken and flinched at any sudden movement the former made.
“There’s going to be a change of plans today,” Gabbro announced to the miners. “Because someone cannot read a chart properly, you’ve all been digging in the wrong direction!”
Diorite’s grimace stiffened and his tail began to sit at his feet. Monazite had to restrain herself from scowling at him as Gabbro did.
“Another shift will be taking over tunnel duty. You’ll be returning to the quarries, starting now,” Gabbro continued.
Gabbro then roughly slapped Diorite’s shoulder with his palm and grasped it. The Kougra jumped a bit.
“As for you, you will do what I expect a foreman to do: monitor and manage the miners. And I want you to watch them very carefully. Take a good, hard look at how painful their work is. And remember that if you hate your job so much, I can very easily have you join them instead,” Gabbro said slowly through grit teeth.
If Monazite looked carefully, she could see beads of sweat form where the fur was thinnest on Diorite’s muzzle.
Gabbro suddenly seized Diorite’s collar and yanked him so close that the Kougra’s eyes became irritated from the Ixi’s breath. “You’re standing at the edge of the cliff. One more misstep, and down you go. Am I making myself clear?”
Gabbro let go of Diorite and left the site. Diorite quickly composed himself, though he was unable to fully shake that fear off so soon. Monazite had little pity for him, and might have found that episode somewhat cathartic if Gabbro wasn’t detestable in his own way.
Diorite ordered the miners to the quarry with the most seriousness Monazite ever heard him put into the job. She couldn’t imagine that day would be much better than the previous one. But it wasn’t what Diorite might be like now that he was going to put an actual effort into his role that worried her. No, it was what she planned to do after work that kept a pit in her stomach for the hours to come.
* * *
Monazite nervously turned the doorknob and walked into Granite’s office.
Finely furnished and neatly organized, it was by far the nicest room she had ever been in. But the atmosphere was thick and crushingly heavy. There was no comfort to be found anywhere where she was near Granite and surrounded by four walls.
“Name,” Granite demanded from behind his desk, not even bothering to look up from his documents.
Granite said nothing at first. Monazite clasped her fins and also remained silent. She wasn’t sure whether speaking further would anger him or not. Though she heard plenty of talk about Granite from the foremen and miners, this was the first time she ever met him face-to-face, one-on-one.
He eventually found a piece of parchment and skimmed it. Unimpressed, he glanced at Monazite. “You left work early yesterday.”
Monazite gulped. “Yes, sir.”
“And I suppose you wish to beg for forgiveness so I don’t dock your pay?”
“W-Well, no. I mean, not exactly...” Monazite began to ramble, so she quickly gathered herself. “My friend was injured in an accident yesterday. She’s badly hurt, but the company doctor isn’t able to give her the treatment she needs.”
Granite set down the parchment. He fully looked at Monazite, but still with little investment. “And what do you want me to do about it?”
Monazite took a deep breath. “W-Well, I was hoping that another doctor somewhere in Moltara could help her. So I wanted to ask for your permission to leave Obsidian Quarry to find one. O-Or, if that’s not possible, me and her could stay here and just bring somebody in.”
It was at that point that Granite went from being distant to suspicious. As soon as the word “leave” was uttered, his beady eyes narrowed.
Monazite could tell that the conversation was rapidly burrowing towards Neopia’s core, so she immediately tried to rescue it. “I’ll take on any debt you want, however long it takes to pay it off. Please... My friend is in so much pain. And she can’t go back to the quarries as long as her leg is like that. But she can return if it’s fixed before it’s too late...”
Granite lifted his hand. “Enough.”
Monazite forced herself to stop. She ceased her words but struggled to contain them.
“Listen,” Granite began. “Your friend is done. She knew the risks for the job when she took it, and it’s not my concern if it came to be. The best thing for her to do now is step aside and let someone else take her place.”
“You’ve made your case, and I’ve made my decision! Now leave!” Granite said harshly.
Monazite abandoned any further arguments that she wanted to present. She intended to give a small nod to Granite before she backed out of the room. But she couldn’t prevent a grimace, and she could feel her eyebrow twitch in an attempt to tilt towards the center of her face. It did not escape Granite’s notice, as he kept a sharp eye on her as she left.
She closed the door behind her, and it took all she had to keep herself from sliding down it and crumbling to the floor. What now? That was the last option available to her, and it was still no good. Heat and moisture began to build up around her eyes. She had already done so much crying over the past couple of days, and that day was about to be no different.
Monazite was interrupted from her melancholy when she someone in her peripheral vision. She jumped at the sight of the fire Wocky in a tattered suit as he waited beside the door. But the kid only slightly lifted his flattened ears when he saw Monazite.
“Excuse me,” the Wocky mumbled to her before he entered the office, paying her no further heed.
Monazite thought about the Wocky for a moment, and then realized he must have been Wingen. She remembered that Flicker brought him up the previous day. As she thought, he didn’t at all look like was older than Flicker, nor did he appear to be even remotely related to him – at least not by blood. When she further thought about Flicker’s description of him, she was also reminded of how he talked at length about his use of magic candy that looked like gemstones...
She paused her own thoughts. Suddenly, at the mental image of a gemstone, Monazite remembered the red beryl in her pocket and wrapped her fin around it. In her brief excitement, she was a second away from pulling the red beryl out and bursting back into the office. But it never left her pocket, and she only sighed bitterly. Agate was right; Granite was exactly the type of person to take the gem for himself and never let Monazite or Agate see any benefit from it.
A thought began to worm its way into her mind. But her imagination heading in the direction it was aiming for made Mine Headquarters seem even more of a perilous place for Monazite to linger in. So she quickly left the building, and decided to mull over her idea in a safer place.
* * *
Monazite quietly cracked the front door of her house open and slid inside. She wasn’t sure if Agate was asleep, and thought it best to be as quiet as possible anyways. Tiptoeing closer to Agate’s bed, she saw that the Bori’s eyes were closed. But after a moment, they opened with a sort of clarity that wouldn’t be there if she had just woken up.
Knowing that she didn’t need to be so careful over her movements, Monazite walked a bit more briskly and pulled a chair up to Agate’s bed. “Hey... How’s the leg?”
Agate took a long breath through her nostrils. “It’s there.”
Monazite gave a small chuckle. That was the sassiest she could expect Agate to be under the circumstances. The bandages looked so thick that she could stick a knife through them and still not touch the actual leg. And the medicine was only strong enough to keep Agate out of a perpetual state of shock. Still, Monazite was glad to hear Agate just well enough for even that small bit of levity.
“Can I get you anything?” Monazite offered.
“Not right now. Thanks.”
Monazite nodded. She made an attempt to put on a brave face, but Agate only needed to read it for a few seconds to get a grasp on the situation. She sighed, “It didn’t go well, did it?”
Monazite told her about the meeting with Granite. Her drained expression held for Monazite’s recounting, and it wasn’t until the Jetsam was finished that Agate shifted it. But her demeanour only became more defeated. There was something on her mind that fueled that feeling, which Agate revealed by saying, “Mona... I’m not going to get any better. It’d... probably be better for you to find a different roommate.”
Monazite was taken aback and unable to believe what she just heard. “No... No! Absolutely not!”
“I’m dead weight like this. I’ll just be a burden-”
“I won’t hear it! I’m not just going to cast you aside!”
Agate’s eyes moved from Monazite to her own lap. She stared at her folded hands for a while, then admitted, “I don’t even know where I’d go, to tell you the truth.”
Much as Monazite was relieved that Agate wasn’t going to argue the matter anymore, she couldn’t help but wonder, “Where’d you stay... the other day?”
“Bah, I didn’t go far, Mona,” Agate said. She then coughed awkwardly and looked aside. “I kinda just slept right outside by the door and went to work early.”
Monazite chuckled, but soon became solemn once the memory of that day returned to her. “I’m sorry I was mean to you.”
Agate shook her head. “It’s alright. Don’t worry about it. I... wasn't being very nice, either.”
Regardless, Monazite doubted she would feel anything but guilt over her part in the fight for at least a little while longer. But she was still more than glad to put it behind her if Agate was willing to.
The thing was, of course, that there was little point in worrying about the past when the present was so dire and the future equally as bleak. Agate laid her head back deeper into her pillow and commented, “But I really don’t know what we’re going to do. We were barely getting by as it was. There’s no way your income alone will support the both of us. And it’s not like we could fit anyone else in here.”
As things were, there was no future for them. But Monazite’s earlier thought resurfaced, and she decided the time was right to turn it into a plan.
Monazite got up, reached under her bed, and pulled out a small bag of Neopoints – the sum of what she and Agate saved up over the years. It was meant for merely a bad day, such as if food prices went up or if there was suddenly a gaping hole in the roof. But wouldn’t make much of a dent on a terrible day; that was to say, one that saw the matter of expenses for a major injury.
Nevertheless, Monazite began to count. When she was done, she stated, “One-thousand Neopoints. That should be enough.”
Agate arched an eyebrow. “For?”
“‘A bribe?!’” Agate exclaimed. “A thousand is pocket change to Granite!
“It’s not for him,” Monazite said. She walked close to the edge of Agate’s bed and whispered, “It’s for whoever will take us out of Obsidian Quarry.”
Agate shot upwards. In her surprise, her body forgot about her leg injury as it attempted to stand. She shouted in pain and slammed back into the bed. Her claws resisted the urge to grasp her leg, and instead dug into the mattress.
Once Agate could muster speech again, she gasped in disbelief, “You want to escape?! Do you know what happens to people that try to leave?!”
Monazite was well aware that if leaving Obsidian Quarry was a simple matter, nobody would live there at all. On top of everything else, Granite was especially strict over the movement of the citizens. Some said it was because Granite was afraid of miners running to competitors, stopping their debt payments, or even seeking out people to enact their revenge on him. But if Monazite had to take a guess, she believed that Granite just couldn’t bear the thought of people slipping out of his control.
“I do. But the only way your leg is going to get fixed is by going somewhere else. Central Cavern should have plenty of doctors that can help you,” Monazite calmly argued. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the red beryl. While she gazed at the gem as she turned it in her hand, she said, “I know that this isn’t any good to us here. But I think there must be someone in Central Cavern that’ll appraise and buy it. And whatever we get from it should help us get off the ground, at least.”
Agate was quiet but sceptical. Yet if there was anything she wanted to rebuttal, the words were escaping her.
“And besides…” Monazite started, but stopped when she began to choke on her tears. The events of not just the past few days, but her whole life, hit her all at once. “At this point, Aggie… What do we have to lose?”
Agate closed her eyes and sighed. Eventually, she was forced to admit, “Not a heck of a lot.”
Monazite fully realized the reality of Obsidian Quarry at that moment. Hard work saw little reward and luck only went so far. And dreams only existed in slumber and were unreachable during the waking hours. In order for those concepts to truly mean anything for her and Agate, they needed to go someplace where they were allowed to thrive at all.
The longer Agate took to think it over, the more Monazite began to notice something – something she had not seen in her in a very long time. Maybe it was too optimistic to call it hope. But the presence of resignation, the feeling that the future was nothing to look forward to, had started to fade. Even if it took sinking to absolute rock bottom first, Monazite saw resolve in Agate’s eyes again.
“You realize the kind of trouble we’re in if we don’t pull this off, right?” Agate asked again. When Monazite responded affirmatively, Agate said in a firm voice, “Alright... Alright. Let’s do this.”
* * *
The next day, Monazite arrived home from work in a hurry. Despite what her body desperately tried to tell her, she couldn't afford to rest. She wouldn’t slow down her pace in the slightest, especially not once she saw Agate sitting up in bed.
“Everything all set?” Agate questioned.
“I paid a wagon driver heading to Central Cavern, and he said we can hide out in the cargo.”
“Oh, that sounds comfy,” Agate dryly remarked.
Monazite made quick strides to Agate. “We’ve got thirty minutes.”
As carefully as she could while still needing to make haste, Monazite guided Agate onto her back. With some pained grunts coming from the both of them, Monazite stumbled forward while Agate held on tight to the former’s dorsal fin. The Jetsam doubted she could carry her like that for any prolonged lengths of time, but she believed she’d at least manage until they reached the wagon, which was all that mattered.
Monazite took one look around her that only lasted for a second, but felt like an hour. She was born in that house and grew up in it. Then it was left to her when her parents died, along with every debt they owed. That was seven years ago. And it was that same year that she desperately looked for a roommate to help with expenses. She soon met Agate, who was just as eager to leave her home as Monazite was to have company.
As she thought back on it all, Monazite knew that it should have been a bittersweet moment. But the nature of Obsidian Quarry meant that the bitter far overshadowed the sweet.
Knowing that she couldn’t waste any more time, Monazite turned to face the door. She and Agate nodded at one another, and then left the house.
It took exactly one step outside for all of Monazite's hope to disappear into the ether. She found Flicker sitting directly across from the door. His arms were crossed in all seriousness, but his face still contained the same amount of despair as when Monazite saw him last.
Possessing no eagerness in his voice, Flicker said, “Granite says that he thinks you guys are gonna try to escape. So I’m supposed to keep you from doing that.”
To be continued…