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Crest of Thorns

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Prologue

I swing the pickaxe. Coal. Dirt. Harsh work.

           It falls. Gold. Mud. Let it be done.

           The pickaxe rises. Daggers. Thorns. Needles. Torn.

           It falls again.

           And again.

           Never ending.

           I wipe the sweat that beads my forehead, while my breath is raspy and coarse in the dusty air. The caverns we have dug in the Cursed Mountains are just as unkind as the people who brought us here. The Silver Knights. The king’s warriors.

           From beside me, a little girl drops her pickaxe, and fear crosses her face as the sound of metal on rock echoes through the cavern. I look away, and so do the other twenty villagers. We know what’s going to happen. They will come and punish her.

           A shout of an unfamiliar voice bursts behind me, and the girl’s whimpers of protest reverberate too. That’s when it happens.

           The sounds of the little girl’s screams ring in my ears. The whip whistles past my head, and I can’t help but selfishly think that I’m glad it’s not me. Ever since I was taken from my village and brought here to mine for silver, I have been a step ahead of everyone else. I know not to make friends. I know to not use my real name, Orinkin. I know not to remember my past life; where I was a husband to a kind wife, and a father to three young children. I know to work until my muscles ache and my head throbs. Until my back is bent and my knees wobble beneath me.

           I have been here for so long, and I have counted down the weeks. It has been a month now, and nothing has changed.

           Well, that is not exactly true.

           Today there has been a shift in the mountains. Something has been watching us enslaved villagers work, and now it is moving to strike.

           I heard it’s voice this morning. The utterance of an unnatural creature, born of pain and hurt.

           I had been getting my daily meal of mushed beans when I heard it’s cry.

           “Take it back.”

           I didn’t know what to do, so I went along with my work. It would have been no use alerting the guards about the voice. I might have earned more whippings if I did.     

           The little girl scratches at rock feebly, her eyes cloudy with pain in the torchlight. I try not to retch.

           The twenty other villagers around me look for silver in the torchlight. Silver Knights stand at the ready beside us, whips hanging at their sides. Their silver armour looks like fire in the torchlight. We find gold. We find coal. But we all know the most powerful element of all, silver, is no longer on the eastern side of the mountains.

           That is why we are forced to mine on the cursed side of the mountains, where no one ever returns.

           I grit my teeth as sparks fly from the axe. The sound of metal scraping against rock is unnerving, but what I hear next is worst than all the sounds.

           “Take it back.”

           One by one, the torch flames flicker out. The beaten girl next to me curls up in a ball, blood pouring from her back wounds, before I lose sight of her too. Soon enough, the whole cavern is encased in darkness.

           There’s the clanging of metal, and a Silver Knight’s growl breaks through the darkness. “What’s going on? Is this another peasant trick?”

           I stifle a snort but fear still courses through me. I can feel my heartbeat racing, the pulse in my wrist. The cave has gone silent. But then there’s the shriek.

           And another. And another.

           Then there’s mine.

           Something wraps it’s claws around me, pulling me further into the darkness.

           I can’t fight it. My breath stops short, and my screams are strangled by something that’s taking me over. Something evil and cursed takes over my body.

           I send a prayer to the sun god Elio. I pray that my family stays safe, that they stay in hiding for as long as the Silver Knights stay in power.

           It doesn’t take long before I surrender to the darkness.

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