The moment he’d had a chance to get away from the mining business and had another way to support his wife Oskar Tanzer had taken it. It was rough work, especially when people didn’t care for your survival. Ironically as a slave Oskar almost felt more valued than he had working as a miner in Graotan. But he also felt more likely to die. It was only through hard work, some luck, and watching the backs of the others that he’d made it so far.
The mines weren’t for iron or coal or anything of the sort. Not exactly gems, either, though the magic rocks they dug up had a certain sparkle to them. Energy stones, they said. The mines were well braced and solid. They even had a decent flow of air down below. Explosive dust didn’t seem to be a problem. But the thing that might kill them was the very thing they were looking for.
Oskar felt it, when he first set foot in the mine. An itching on his skin he couldn’t ignore. When he breathed it into his lungs it burned like tobacco. Unpleasant but somewhat addictive. Deeper into the mine, the feeling was stronger. It started pressing down like a heavy weight of water. Oskar knew it existed, but he didn’t really know what it was until he put his hands on the first stone. It burned with energy, like picking up a hot coal. But it was the same sort of thing that filled the air.
This was something for cultivators. Though it burned in his hand, Oskar immediately coveted the stone. It had value. More than him, almost. Except for one thing. He was part of a new group. Two dozen new workers all at once. In the first week, half of them had broken, including two others from Dungannon. Some of those who were broken died, but the others weren’t necessarily more lucky. They were sick and pale, faces twisted in silent agony. After a day they were taken away by the taskmasters to never return. Oskar wasn’t sure if they survived and were made to do other work, or would just die.
He felt it himself. The crushing weight of the air, the way it burrowed into his skin and his lungs. It was a place with energy stones, and Oskar new cultivators used them. If they were the same, then the air… was full of energy. But what could he do with it?
Oskar had known he was going to break. He was just a bit slower to collapse than the others. He could barely breathe now even when he was out of the mines, eating or sleeping. It was trying to find its way inside. Once it did, he would die.
So he let it. Better to die quickly than slowly, he thought. He was deep in the mines when he let it in. He pulled it in through his lungs and let it pierce through his skin into his body. Somebody would have to carry him out. He hadn’t thought of that, and as pain shot into his limbs he mutely apologized to them.
With each swing of his pick, the energy pierced deeper and deeper into him, like a million needles. His fatigued muscles continued to swing the pick, waiting for him to die. He wanted it to be quick, but when he let it inside it was so slow. It pierced into him like needles, but it was also like molasses flowing through his veins. Goopy, liquidy, and sticky. He pushed it around a little bit. He didn’t really think about how, but it had a way it wanted to flow once he gave it momentum. So he let it.
Oskar barely managed to pull himself out of the mines at the end of the day. He knew he’d messed up. He hadn’t died quickly, so he was going to be bedridden until they took him away to die. The looks of silent agony those who were broken had disturbed him. But even so, he quickly fell into a deep sleep.
When he awoke, it was before the sun. The mines didn’t rely on day and night, so they did their best to eke out as much work as they could from each slave. It was time to wake up… and Oskar knew he wasn’t broken. He felt almost… good. Strong. Like he’d gotten an extra day’s rest, but there was no way that had happened.
Before even entering the mine, Oskar felt the energy inside him. It was there already, but much more comfortable than before. He felt it move around as he took each step and moved his body. He nudged it slightly, encouraging it. He wasn’t sure if it was like poking a snake, but he wasn’t dead yet.
It was the next day when he was certain something was odd. He’d allowed more energy deep in the mines into his body, and yet he wasn’t dead. He also felt something as he passed the guards. He simply hadn’t been able to comprehend it before, but they had much more energy inside of them. They were cultivators. The same type as those who had attacked Dungannon and taken him and his wife away. Oskar wasn’t sure where she was. He couldn’t do anything about it right now except not die, and hope he might see her again.
But… Oskar also understood that he might be a cultivator. And while it seemed to be helping him survive, he couldn’t be found out. He needed to hide it, somehow. It wasn’t really all that much compared to the deep mines, so he buried what he had inside of himself. It sunk into his muscles and bones, and every day when he left the mine he walked out empty.
Some of the others were struggling. Oskar understood. Their bodies weren’t strong enough, and he knew the others didn’t know how to handle the energy. They just withstood it.
The taskmasters and guards didn’t follow them down into the mines. They just wanted to make sure there were a certain number of stones mined, and didn’t care about anything else. One a day, even one the size of his pinky nail, was sufficient to keep them happy. One day, Oskar saw that one of the others hadn’t found anything. Again. He might not survive that.
When the others weren’t looking, Oskar dropped a stone in front of Ebbe. He was another from Dungannon, but they barely knew each other. Even so… he couldn’t just leave him. The man already had whip marks from the day before. How was he even supposed to work?
Oskar had been lucky so far. He’d managed to bring an energy stone of some size regularly. He could feel them, so he knew where to dig and he put in the work. But he didn’t have a second one, and Ebbe had needed it. So he felt the sting of the taskmaster’s whips for the first time. It was painful, and he allowed himself to cry out in pain. They liked that, knowing it hurt. It was better not to let them know how much less it was than he thought it would be. His body resisted each blow, not fully but he could feel how it had changed.
The next day, Oskar worked next to Ebbe. Nobody would hear quiet words among the ringing of picks. “Ebbe. Can you feel the energy? Itching. Burning. Pressing down on you?”
Ebbe nodded. “I can. I don’t know how much longer I can resist.”
“I’m going to tell you something crazy,” Oskar said. “Let it in.”
Ebbe certainly looked at him like he was crazy. Oskar did his best to explain, including how he removed the leftover traces of energy. His back and shoulders burned as he continued to work, going at just the right pace to find what he needed without giving up too much. If he could have just one stone per day, he wouldn’t get more. But if he stopped working at any point, he might get in trouble. Ebbe also worked next to him, though he slowed down as he let the energy in. That night, Ebbe walked out looking almost dead. He handed over a small energy stone and barely managed to eat before collapsing in his bed. But the next day, he felt better. Not quite rejuvenated, but the energy wasn’t quite so oppressive
Oskar looked out for other opportunities. One came quite by accident, when there was a collapse. There hadn’t been any major collapses so far, but Oskar had seen them before. He just happened to be looking over at the right time to fling himself over another worker he didn’t know, pushing them both away from the collapsing rocks as much as he could. It wasn’t a full collapse. They should be able to clear away the rubble, but that time wouldn’t be spent mining. Unless they were lucky and found energy stones, Oskar knew what was coming. But that was okay. It let him talk to the man in secret. Bernhard, he found out. So it was that another joined their little group. Oskar wanted to do more than just make everyone self sufficient. They should work together. They might seem like they were competing for the energy stones, but that wasn’t the case. There were enough for all of them to find… especially if they knew how to look. Oskar wondered why the cultivators weren’t doing it, except for the difficulty. They should be stronger and faster than him. Then again, all they had to do was stand around all day and give them food while they received something of great value in return.