"Ardentissimus Cordis"

PROLOUGE

Our story begins, just like many of them do, with an invention or rather a find. And, like many finds this one was completely accidental. It happened in a salt mine in 1885 and the person responsible was one Thomas Fisher, a middle aged miner who worked for the Derren's & Son's Mining Company for five years by then. While excavating a new leg of the shaft Thomas's pickaxe struck a wall of a different substance then the surrounding rock. After a bit of excavating he found a whole vein of white, crystal substance. Being fairly sure he found salt he chipped of a piece and tasted it. To his utter amazement he found it sweet rather than salty. He ran back up to his collages to tell them of his unbelievable find. But what he did not know was that he found something that would change the course of our world forever. For what he found was naturally crystallized sugar, a previously unknown substance. Amongst its many properties one was particularly important. It was the fact that it could provide energy many times that of its mass. This, when finally understood, changed the energy evolution drastically. Machines were constructed that used the sugars energy to power themselves. Almost overnight the world became totally dependent on this mineral, with huge generators running on it powering whole cities and villages. And it is in one such village, far, far up north that our story begins.

###

1948, somewhere on the coast of Alaska

The town, for you could call it that, of Surrogate was nestled in the valley between Mount Fisher and Mount McGiff. It was a small and peaceful place of not much importance, where time moved slowly and lazily. It was once a lively and booming outpost, with many citizens, most of them miners and their families, for just beneath it lay a vast expanse of crystallized sugar. But ever since the entire mineral was excavated the town slowly emptied. The reminders of its past glory could be seen in the quality of the buildings, the engravings and statues and the sheer size of its generator that rumbled lowly deep beneath the surface. The depletion of the crystal also meant that it quickly became dependant on outside supply of the mineral. The massive locomotive powered its way through the mountain terrain every two weeks bringing a fresh supply to the dependant city. If ever the train could not make it through there were still the sea and the air supply routes. And so the citizens of the small town lived in peace of mind going unhurriedly about their own lives and jobs. Some jobs in town were more important, others less but there probably wasn't a single one as useless and yet as interesting as that of one Jonathan McArthur.

And as lonely, thought Jonathan grimly as the old mine elevator shuddered to a stop and he stepped out onto the platform. The so called elevator was a dinosaur of her kind with resistant metal gates that had to be manhandled every single time. Jonathan was quite sure that the bloody thing would be the death of him one day, but still he kept using it as it saved him an hour's trip on foot by the old tunnels.

With a sigh he turned from it and switch on his head torch. A strong shaft of light hit the nearest wall, exposing numerous gauges and leavers. They were once used to check the enholdment tank that kept a steady supply to the town's generator. Ever since the sugar had its source outside the mine the needle was always at the same point on the bottom of the gage, only twitching due to the minimal pressure in the mammoth of a tank. It was in such a position now as Jonathan came up and tapped the thick glass with his gloved finger. No movement. Good. With another sigh he went onto checking the rest of the gages.

It wasn't that Jonathan didn't like his job. It was his responsibility to check that nothing bad happened in the forgotten mines. It was an important job, even if forever uneventful, that was passed down to him after his father's demise. If ever the pressure were to rise in any part of the tunnels or tanks it could have catastrophic results. The only catch was that there was no way the pressure could raise for there was nothing there to raise it. This meant that Jonathan spent his days underground staring at the unmoving needles of the gages. Of course he gave up that idea a long time ago and now spent most of his time exploring the deserted caves and shafts.

That was where he was heading now, sulking in silence. Jonathan didn't mind being alone. He was used to it and welcomed the quiet and peace that came along with it. Today was a bit different though and the cause of that lay in the events of the previous day. Or rather their lack, he thought angrily as turned the next corner.

It was a custom that every year on the 26th of January all the people celebrated the Crystal's Day. It was an event to commemorate the founding of the crystallized sugar and everyone was invited to the Town Hall for a great feast and celebrations. It so happened that the town of Surrogate had a Towns Hall and even a Mayor. And the Mayor, going by the gracious name of Sullivan Pinky, happened to have two daughters, Nathalie and Gale. Now whilst the second sister was unimportant, almost always absent, not to be found, the first was the dream of every boy and most men in the town and John was no exception. Nathalie was an almost surreal beauty with her alabaster white skin, a cascade of raven black hair and eyes like two crystal clear mountain springs. She was always smiling and laughing, eager to dance and play the harp, an instrument she handled divinely. She charmed every person who stood on her path, worming her way into their hearts easily. And every celebration was a chance to snatch a dance with her, a thing that was on John's mind day and night. He woke with the thought of her and slipped into a restless sleep with her laughing face in his mind. So he was very excited at the thought of the Crystal's Day celebration. He dressed in his best suit and made an effort to tame his rebellious hair. Standing at 6'2 feet, with his lean figure, a mop of short cut, dark hair and steel grey eyes looking at you from a strong featured face, John was quite the striking young fellow. At the age of seventeen had the strong body and mind of his father with the calm character of his mother. Overall he was a worthy adversary to any other boy willing to take a chance with the Mayors daughter. His only setback was that most of them had worthy jobs that kept them in the eye of Nathalie's father and, through him, hers. He, in opposition, spent most of his days in the forgotten mines, doing a forgotten job. Though luck, he thought sourly as he prepared to climb a steep slope that led to the next shaft. On the eve of the celebration he stood nervously in the crowded Main Hall. His heart skipped a few beats as Nathalie descended the Grand Staircase on the arm of her father. He was too focused on her to notice the resigned figure stepping behind the pair. He felt his palms sweating and his face flush. Trying to take control of himself he moved to the edge of the crowd. After a short speech the dances begun. John gathered the leftover shreds of his courage and headed for the raven haired beauty. Before he could get anywhere close, the tall figure of Alex Mitten blocked his view. He could see the 19 year old boy smile politely at the Mayor and laugh at some joke. He was John's biggest nightmare, a well brought up boy, from famous parents, with a great job as assistant to the generators main mechanic and the looks of a movie star. His nemesis flashed Nathalie a dazzling smile and led her to the dance floor. Soon they were swirling around laughing happily at each other. John's hopes plummeted down to Earth and started digging. He felt as though his stomach was packed full of the frosty snow lying outside. Pulling himself together he waited for the dance to end and tried again. And again. And again. And every time Alex was there, smiling, laughing or just listening, blocking him off completely. Finally after two hours of trying John gave up and headed to his empty home his spirits already haven dug past the lithosphere.

He woke up the next day his mood ever sourer and headed to the mines hopping to get away from the world and all its troubles. So, there he was, scrambling up a pile of loose rocks, ignoring the pain in his fingers as they snagged on sharp edges. Once on and in the next corridor he stopped to catch his breath, looking around curiously. Two thick pipes cut through the ceiling, silent and rusty. He checked the valves on both and satisfied with their state moved on. Something on the edge of his hearing caught his attention. He calmed his breath and stood absolutely still. There it was again. A faint whisper of a sound, to the left and above. Listening intently he headed deeper into the corridor and took the first turn left. He knew this part of the mines fairly well so it took him just moments to get to the upper ledge. He stopped again and heard it clear this time. It wasn't a clanging sound he expected to hear. He slowly made out notes and his eye brows rose in surprise. Music! He closed in on the source listening intently. Perhaps he was going crazy? Or perhaps the ghosts of the lost miners finally had enough of him snooping around their resting place and decided to scare him out. Either way John gathered his courage and called out faintly.

"Hello! Anyone there!?"

The sound stopped abruptly and the sound of furious scrambling was heard before silence settled over everything like a blanket. John shook his head puzzled and backtracked to the lift. Perhaps someone found the old entrance through the tunnels. But he could not imagine why pick this spot for a musical performance.

He looked over all the gages again and satisfied that everything was normal he hefted the lift's metal gates and stepped in, shutting them and pulling the lever with the sign "up". The whole structure shuddered and then with a groan started up. John leaned on the railing, tapping his finger, still pondering on the mysterious musician. His thoughts strayed to his father. He remembered clearly the day the Mayor and the towns ministers appeared on his doorstep, their faces grim. They told him his father was lost in the mines in an unexplained accident. He was a boy of ten, leaving with his father after his mother passed away due to an illness that took the lives of thirty other people in Surrogate, the Mayors wife amongst them. The Mayor spoke seriously to him, telling him that his father was a brave man and that it was his job now to look over the mines, young as he was. He gave him his father's working cloths and the badge he treasured so much and said that he would receive any help he needed and that he needn't worry about rent and with that retreated, his ministers in tow, leaving a broken and numb child standing on the doorstep of the house that was from that day on his and his alone. He remembered closing the doors and padding over to sit on his bed, not understanding what had just taken place. He sat like that for two days and two nights, clutching onto his father's clothes as though his life depended on it, still as a stone. On the third day something changed. Looking back on it John decided that it must've been either that the knowledge that his father truly wouldn't return settled in or the fact that no one came to help him or say a word of advice or encouragement. Whatever it was the small boy got off the bed went and brushed his teeth, ate breakfast, changed into his father's clothes that sagged heavily on his small body and trailed to the mines. For the first few weeks he was accompanied by a sour, old miner named Sullivan. He grunted his responses and ignored him, clearly unhappy about his current job. One day he just wasn't there and John went down alone. He smiled as recalled the box he used to carry around. Being only ten John wasn't particularly tall and needed something to get up to the level of the gages and leavers. So he used to carry around a small box he would stand on. As time went by he began to leave the box at home. Slowly, but surely, he grew into his father's clothes and, he hoped, his shoes. By the age of 14 he knew six of the fifteen levels of the mines like the back of his hand. He then started exploring. He found retreat from the loneliness of his home in the rough, stone walls of the mines. And so he grew more and more apart from his fellow town folk. After a while no one said hello on the streets, no one bid him good day or happy birthday.

John was shaken out of his daydream by a sudden jolt. The lift shuddered and groaned and came to an abrupt stop, its single lamp flickering out, leaving complete and velvety darkness in its wake. John fumbled with his torch and soon a thick shaft of light streamed at the cage-wall in front of him. He checked the levers and gages on the lifts panel and frowned seeing all the needles flat on the bottom. No power. Strange. He then leaned out and checked the cables running alongside the lift, supplying power to the mechanism up top. As far as he could see all were intact. He sighed and swiftly scrambled on top of the lift cage, crouching to check the electricity gage on the cables and his frown deepened. The needle lay flat and unmoving. This meant that the power shortage wasn't the problem of the connecting cables but the generator. A cold shiver run down his spine. Without the generator the town was as good as lost.

Shaking off the overcoming feeling of dread, he pulled all his straps and tools in close, rolled up his sleeves and, taking his gloves off, started to climb the vertical slope of the elevator shaft. There weren't many handholds and with his tools weighing him down he soon felt the strain in his muscles. He steeled his resolve and moved on. After twenty minutes of climbing John was reaching his limit even though he was strong and used to the strain. Glancing up he noticed, to his relief, the 2nd platform's edge. He quickened his pace. Just as his hands caught the ledge he felt a pull at his waist. Looking down he felt the trickle of fear return. One of the numerous belt loops snagged and twisted on metal hook. John searched for a foothold but found none. He remembered clearly one of the first laws of climbing. Always have three points of contact. He tried lowering himself but even on fully outstretched arms it wasn't enough. He then tried pulling himself loose, his muscles burning and trembling with the effort. Gasping he lowered himself back down again and made a quick decision. He strengthened his hold on the ledge and checked his single foothold and then slowly moved his hand down to the snagged loop. His arm and leg trembled with strain as he tried to undo the loop. Grinding his teeth he pulled firmly and felt the belt go free. His relief soon turned to horror as he felt his grip on the ledge loosen, the sand trickling out, his fingers slipping. He scrambled to get a grip with his other hand but missed by a hair. He felt his body pitching backwards, his arms waving frantically. Suddenly something clamped down hard on his wrist, yanking him to a stop. He heard a grunt above him and a moan.

"Geez, how heavy are you?"

Stunned silent he hung squinting up.

"Will you stop shining that bloody light into my eyes and get a grip!? I won't hold on forever!"

Snapping back into his senses John gripped the ledge and hoisted himself up. He felt hands on his belt tugging him up and over the edge. He lay gasping till the trembling in his joints subsided. Swallowing he sat up and looked over at his savior and was stunned silent yet again.

Beside him a girl around his own age sat rubbing her wrist. In the light of his torch she was pale skinned with sapphire, blue eyes and a mane of fiery red hair, now tied back with a string. She was wearing old and clearly used boys' clothes and a tool belt.

John blurted out the first thing that came to his mind.

"Who the hell are you and what the hell are you doing down here?"

Her eyes flashed angrily and her chin rose in defiance.

"I save your life and that is what I get? I knew I should've left you hanging there." She stood up and brushed off her trousers furiously. Only then did John notice the flute that stuck out from one of the belt loops. His jaw hit the ground.

"It was you!?" He stared at her. "You played on level eight?"

She blushed furiously.

"I know I'm not as good as my sister but I get by fairly well." She harrumphed and crossed her arms.

John gapped at her for a few moments before bursting out laughing. The withdrawing adrenalin left him giddy and he rolled on the ground howling with laughter. It was the girls turn to stare at him strangely. Finally managing to get in control John pushed himself into a sitting position and grinned at his savior.

"I guess I owe you thanks, my lady."

She flushed and started down the corridor.

"You owe me a lot more than that." She huffed as he hurried after her.

"So I renew my question. What's your name and why are you down here?" He asked catching up to her and striding leisurely beside her, smiling at her apparent attempts to get away from him.

She shot him a look of pure hatred.

"You don't recognize me? Well, of course you wouldn't. All you men ever see is my sister." She muttered under her breath picking up her pace.

John's eyebrows rose.

"Your sister? Who's she?"

The girl stopped so suddenly that he almost ran into her. She whipped around her eyes flashing angrily again.

"Are you blind?" She screeched. "Look closely. Do I remind you of someone?"

John squinted and then his eyes suddenly widened.

"Lady Gale! What in the world…? What are you doing down here!" He took two steps back.

She harrumphed again and swiftly walked away. After getting over the initial shock John run to catch up to her.

"Whoa, wait! You didn't answer my question!" He caught up and walked at her side, looking down into her face curiously. Her features were mildly similar to that of Nathalie but nowhere near as refined. Her jaw was more pronounced, her nose sharper and her lips thinner.

"Stop looking at me as tough you'll find my sister there, 'cause you won't. We're different."

"Obviously." John let slip and regretted it immediately. Her eyes flashed and sparkled and she speeded up turning into an abandoned corridor.

"Hey, wait!" John sighed and stalked after her. "I'm sorry, okay? But it's true. Wait, where are you going?"

"The exit, obviously." She mimicked his voice. "It's not like I want to spend one more minute in the company of a low life like you!"

"Hey, that's not nice! And you won't find an exit there! It's a dead end."

"And who the hell are you to think that you know it better than me?"

"I'm the mines guardian."

She glanced over her shoulder and shot him a wolfish grin.

"So you're the forgotten worker, huh?"

"The what?" John was confused but it soon turned to anger. "Is that what they call me now? The forgotten?"

"Yup. It's the only thing they ever say about you on the annual council meet. 'The forgotten one?' 'Still there.' And that's it; you're forgotten for the next year."

John caught her arm and turned her forcefully around. Her big eyes flashed at him in a mix of anger and fear. But John was past the point of caring.

"The hell!? What do you think I am! A thing to use and then throw away?! Is that what you want to do with me?! Just like you did with my father." He glowered at the girl before him. Subconsciously he noticed that she was about a head shorter than him. "It's all your father's fault you know. That I'm here. That I'm forgotten."

Her eyes narrowed dangerously.

"And why is that? Just because you're too much of a coward to show your face above these stinking mines dun have a pox to do with my dad!" She shouted at him.

"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be down here!" Their faces were inches apart but neither noticed, both to intent on their shouting match.

"Oh, yeah?! And why is that?!"

"'Cause it's his fault my pa's dead! If he didn't invent this stupid job my father would be just fine and I'd be doing other things! Like going after your sister! Because she's much more worthy of my time then you!"

The shift in her bearing was drastic. Her eyes glazed over and her lower lip trembled as she stepped away from him.

"You filth." She spat at him. "You're no one. You don't have the right to say anything to me. Go, go find my precious sister. Let's see how much she likes her new home under the ground." With that she turned on her heel and ran.

John's anger deflated as soon as he saw the tears in her eyes. He now sighed resigned and rubbed his neck. This was not good. Suddenly his eyes snapped open as he remembered something.

"Wait!" He screamed as he sprinted after Gale. "It's not a dead end! STOP!" He rounded the corner only to see her two steps from the edge of the drop, looking back at him.

"Look out! Behind you!" He shouted as he speeded to her side. Just as she took an unknowing step into the empty abyss and lost her balance his arm shot out and caught her wrist, snapping her back towards him. She crashed into him and it took all he had not to fall on his rump. Letting out a long sigh of relief he looked down at the girl in his arms.

She stood trembling against him, her arms in a vice like embrace around his chest. Her rugged breath slipped over the bare skin of his neck causing a shiver to make its way down his spine. Sisters or not John was still a guy and this was not a comfortable situation. He cleared his throat uneasily and patted her on the back.

"There, there, it's okay." When this had no effect he gingerly gathered her closer steeling his will and squishing his instincts that told him to run. He didn't know how long they stood there, her trembling, him standing motionless as a statue, before she finally drew away slowly, her cheeks ablaze with a blush, her eyes lowered.

"Thank you." She sniffed, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her shirt.

He smiled gently down at her.

"We're even now, eh?"

She nodded without looking at him and begun walking back the same way they came. John sighed again and followed her. Taking her gently by the elbow he turned left at the crossroads.

"Come on. I'll lead you out."

She followed him, her eyes permanently glued to the ground. Their trip was a silent one.

Finally after nearly an hour of uncomfortable silence they emerged on the surface a good 200 meters from the main entrance. They blinked in confusion and looked around them, the icy wind screeching in the skies above. The landscape had been white in the morning. It was nothing now. Not a single scrape of rock stood out and both teens were blinded by the snow beating in their faces.

John came back to his senses and made a dash for the main entrance, Gale in tow. The doors were half buried under the snow and it took a while of heaving and shuffling before they managed to slip into the darkness of the grand hall that was once the pride of the mining company. John turned on his torch and looked around. The ceiling stretched up into the darkness above them, the floor gleaming where his torch hit it. It was an amazing sight, with thousands of veins of crystal running to the center of the hall. There in the middle, gleaming in the dim light stood the Ardentissimus Cordis, the 'burning heart'. It was a crystal, two grown man tall and wide enough for five men to clasp their arms about it. In its center burned brightly the 'pigeon's blood', a ruby the size of a two clenched fists. It was said that the first miners found the crystal in the deepest part of the mines, just below floor fifteen, in a great cave that gleamed bright like the sun in the light of their torches, full of crystals, with the Ardentissimus Cordis in the center. The legend was that while lifting the giant from its resting place and up onto the surface 24 miners died in various accidents. When finally settled into the floor a blood gem appeared in it center. From that day on every miner going down touched its surface as a good luck charm.

Even now, though he hadn't the slightest intention on going down, John's fingers brushed over the crystal. He touched it every single time he went down. It was said that when the mines were still open and the miners worked day and night shifts, the stone was always warm, with finger skimming it every few minutes. Now it was ice cold and John shivered as he moved past it.

He went straight to the single occupied locker and took out his heavy jacket. Shrugging it on he turned to look at Gale. She stood a few feet away, shivers visibly wrecking her body.

"Where's your coat?" He asked digging around in his locker.

"Left it down on level eight in my desperate attempts to escape the ghosts of the lost miners." She huffed behind him, breathing into her cooped hands. Seeing his raised eyebrow she sighed dramatically.

"Your bellows. I thought you were a dead miner. Scared the living day lights out of me, by the way."

Chuckling under his breath John pulled out an old and battered summer jacket. He took off his winter garment and tossed it to Gale shivering as the cold and thin material of his summer coat settled on his shoulders.

"Put it on." He turned to Gale seeing her baffled stare. "You don't have anything to put on yourself and I'd prefer not to explain to the Mayor why I brought his daughter home stiff as a board and looking like an icicle. No." He raised his hand seeing the protest on her face. "Put it on. I'll be fine."

Her face flushed bright red but she put the coat on, zipping it up as far as it went. John couldn't help but snort at the sight of her, the sleeves bunched up just over her hands, the whole thing ending just over the knee with the collar covering half of her face. Whatever was left of it flushed and even angrier red as she glared at him.

"What?"

"Nothing." He choked back another laugh. He stopped, passing her, and looked down, mischief gleaming in his eyes. "You do look kinda cute though." He flashed her a grin and laughed out loud as she swatted him on the arm and headed back for the entrance, but not before John noticed the way the skin around her eyes wrinkled as she smiled into the coat. Shaking his head he followed her and together they begun the long descend into the valley.

They arrived an hour later, having just covered ground that usually took about 20 minutes, flushed from the cold and exertion, John shivering in his summer jacket. In silent agreement they headed for the Town Hall, treading heavily through the tall snow. They darted into the warmth of the big building, closing the doors behind them and sliding down onto the carpet heavily. John shivered violently and immediately took to rubbing his chest furiously, hopping to warm himself up. When her breathing calmed down Gale noticed his futile attempts of getting warm and quickly peeled off the thick jacket, putting it on his shoulders and tugging him up from the floor. As he tripped clumsily and almost went tumbling down to the floor she slipped silently to his side, putting his arm around her shoulders and bringing hers in a vice like grip around his waist.

"Here, lean on me. There's a fireplace in the guest room. I'm sure it's alight. Let's get you there and warmed up. You're shivering like a leaf." Her voice changed from cold and sharp to soft and calm but John only cared about the little source of warmth tucked into his side. Leaning heavier into her they made their way up the stairs and into the large room. Gale steered him to a stool by the hearth and sat him gently down.

"Here, let's take off these wet clothes." She bustled around him like a mother hen, taking off both his jackets. She took a chair and sat by him rubbing his back gently as the shivers subsided.

If not for the fact that Johns perception of the world narrowed to the warmth in front of him and on his back he would have been very embarrassed by the situation. He would have also reacted differently when Nathalie burst into the room, her cheeks flushed, her eyes bright. If not for the fact that he almost didn't notice her at all he probably would have jumped out of his skin. As he was, though, he only spared her a glance before turning back to the fire in front of him, his mind trying very hard to work through the fog that surrounded it and decide how he knew the person. He shivered again and spared Gale a weak smile as her hand speeded up spreading warmth on his back.

"Gale! Where in the world have you been!? Are you all right!? I was worried sick!" Only now did she notice the huddled figure shaking on the stool. "And who, in the world's name is this!?"

"Oh, hush." Gale silenced her sharply. "He's a friend and for the past hour we've been trying to dig our way, through the snow, from the mines."

"You've been in that god forsaken place again!? When will you learn it's not a place for you?" Nathalie looked closer at the shivering figure and a sly smile spread on her face. "And since when do you have male friends?"

Gale felt her cheeks warm up and anger flood her system.

"I've just met him today plus he's way more interested in you than in me. And the mines are the ideal place for me. At least I can get peace and quiet down there." Seeing Nathalie's foxy grin she hurled the first thing that was under her hand, which happened to be a cup, at her sister who ducked gracefully. "Stop grinning like the idiot you are and go find dad. I've got news."

"Oh, I'm sure you do." Nathalie closed the door quickly, a wooden spoon crashing into the exact same spot where her head had been just moments ago. Her laugh could be heard from the corridor. Gale sighed angrily and turned back to her patient only to find two pools of melted silver gazing back at her in shock.

"I don't think you should've done that." John gaped at her, his shivers haven subsided. He stood up but swayed instantly, still dizzy. Gale was by his side in a matter of seconds, holding him upright.

"You need to sit down. You're still weak." She said in a worried tone.

John smiled down at her.

"No… really? I didn't notice."

"Well that's because you wouldn't have noticed if a mountain troll run you over, mister." She huffed, trying to look angry but her eyes matched his in their sparkling.

"I think one has. And now she's trying to help me!" He laughed.

"Oh, you ungrateful mongrel!" Gale feigned anger as she smacked him on the back of his head, but a smile split her face.

They were still laughing when the door burst open and Mayor Sullivan Pinky stormed in, his tall and thick frame clad in official robes, Nathalie tugging behind him.

"Gale! Where have you been! Whatever possessed… What in the… Who the hell is this!?" The Mayor turned red in the face as he noticed the position his youngest daughter was in. John and Gale glanced at each other and only now noticed that they still stood in the same pose they took when Gale helped him stand up, which through all the laughing turned to, what looked, a lot like an intimate embrace.

They jumped back as if burned and immediately Johns head was swimming, his balance pitching dangerously to his left. Ignoring the looks of her father and sister Gale helped him down into the chair and asked him if he was fine. John nodded his head yes and put it into his hands taking deep breaths.

The Mayor looked closer at the boy who just moments ago was holding his beloved daughter but the reprimand he was about to give died down in his throat as he recognized the figure.

"Jonathan McArthur. Well I'll be damned." He breathed quietly.

John lifted his head wearily up and looked unblinkingly at the man who gave him the worst news of his life.

"Hello Mr. Mayor. It's been a long time hasn't it. Seven years if my memory serves me well."

The older man straightened up.

"We hadn't been seeing much of you around." He stated calmly, but there was a barely noticeable quiver to his voice.

"There hasn't been much of me around to see." John shrugged and his voice turned cold and hard. "I tend to keep to the one place I know. The one place you put me in. I was here on the Crystal's Day celebration though. Trying…" He suddenly stopped, turning crimson red. "I was trying…" He gulped nervously his eyes darting around, much like that of a trapped animal.

Gale could see her father's expression slowly darken as he drew conclusions of his own.

"We've got news." She stepped in trying to steer the conversation away from the touchy subject. She caught her sister looking curiously at the blushing man beside her and felt a wave of anger and envy wash over her. She almost reeled back in surprise. It wasn't the first time her sister stole the attention of a man from her, especially that this particular case was more interested in her from the beginning, but never was the sting of disappointment this painful. Perhaps, she reasoned, it was because none of the other suitors had saved her from the brink of death and vice versa. Yes, that must have been it. Gale shook her head trying to concentrate on the matter at hand.

"The mine's power system is down. No light or power anywhere. We also noticed on the way back that some of the outer possessions were dark. Do you know what's happening?" Gale reported looking expectantly at her father.

The Mayors face darkened instantly, a frown creasing his brow. His gaze hardened, his mouth set into a thin line. Gale new this look and it always spelled trouble.

"Dad?" A cold feeling crept up on her. Something was horribly wrong.

"We're stopping the power flow to the most outward posts of the town and cutting the supply for the rest." Sullivan Pinky's voice was hard and monotonous.

John's head snapped up. He glanced frantically out the window, looking hard at the train station that was barely visible in the blizzard outside. No people were out; no one was carrying the fresh supply of crystallized sugar and that meant only one thing. His eyes snapped back to those of the Mayor and he could see that his suspicions were right.

"Where's the train with the supplies?" Guilt flashed in the older men's eyes.

"It couldn't get through." His voice was quiet now.

"The sea?" John felt panic rise in his throat.

"Too high and too much ice." The Mayor was looking at the carpet now, avoiding eye contact with the young man before him.

"The skies?" John's voice came out as a pathetic squeal.

Their gazes met and John felt week. He sat down heavily staring in horror.

"So what now? Do we know when the weather will clear up?"

The Mayor shook his head. "According to the last telegraph message it's expected to blow for another week or more."

"How much crystallized sugar do we have left."

A hard set of the jaw.

"For half a week maybe, if we cut the output to a quarter."

"And the wood?"

"Gone. We hadn't had a fresh supply in four years."

The air left John's lungs in a rush as the reality settled in. He glanced at Gale. She had sat down beside him and was shivering in shock. On instinct he reached out and clasped her hand gently, smiling weakly as she turned her eyes upon him. She managed a weak lift of the lips in return, the true evidence of her gratitude in the tightness of her grip.

A clearing of the throat made them both look up. The Mayor, red in the face, was openly glaring at John, with Nathalie giggling in the background. With a last squeeze John let go of Gales hand and, summoning his strength, stood up.

"So what are you planning to do?"

"Cut down the power supply, for one." With a set jaw the Mayor looked at him. "Then tell the citizens. After that there's nothing more for us to do except to wait for a miracle."

Gale was suddenly on her feet, her face flaming red with rage.

"So you're going to leave your own people to their death!? What kind of a leader are you!?" Her shout was almost a shrill, her voice breaking, tears in her eyes. "You're supposed to give them hope! They'll look at you to find an answer to this!"

"That's enough!" His voice sharp, his eyes blazing much like those of his daughter, the Mayor stepped up to her, towering over her. Despite this Gales head was raised high, her chin sticking slightly out in an act of defiance. "You will not talk to me in that manner, young lady. You have no idea what kind of responsibility this is."

"Well apparently neither do you!" She spat back at him.

The smack resonated loudly in the room. Gale's head snapped back sharply, the red mark already blooming on her cheek. There was shock in her eyes, as though she didn't believe what just took place. Very quickly it turned to a look of rage and hurt as she spun on her heal and marched angrily out of the room. Nathalie's face hardened as she brushed past her father.

"That was too much dad." She said quietly, slipping out of the room leaving the two men standing silently in her wake.

Sullivan Pinky glanced up at the young man standing before him and noting the cold look on his face, sighed in defeat, turning back and walking to the doors on the other side of the room.

"You can stay for as long as you need. Get some warm clothes on the way out and ask for some food and wood. We've got a little bit left, but there's not much so don't get your hopes up." Stopping at the door the Mayor looked back at him. "I am truly sorry about your father Jonathan. He was an exceptional man and so are you. I hope you'll get through this in one piece. May God have mercy on us all." With that he walked out of the room leaving behind a confused and torn John.

Shaking his head John sat down in front of the fire place, looking absently into the flames his mind racing. Wherever he turned the future was black. There was no way the town would survive without the life supporting mineral. The mines were empty, the wood gone and the outside world cut off. The wood supply in the area was close to none, most of it used up during the constructions of the mines. John sighed, rubbing his face. There was no time to wallow in self pity. He had to get back home and start preparing.

He left the room, taking his coats with him, backtracking through the same corridor he took only half an hour earlier with Gale. As he strode along, deep in his thoughts of preparations a hand suddenly grabbed his wrist and hauled him into an empty corridor, pushing him up against the wall. He was about to protest when a slender hand came over his mouth and a soft body pressed into his.

"Shush. Keep quiet for a moment." Gale's familiar voice ordered.

John looked at her with wide eyes, his mind numb in surprise. Still, he listened and stood frozen. The only thought bouncing around in his head was what Gale's father would do to him if he found them in a dark corridor, pressed up against each other. Trying not to think about it John concentrated on the person in front of him. He could feel her body was wound up tight as a string, almost quivering against him. Her head was turned towards the corridor, her eyes scanning and alert. The red mark on her face was in full bloom. He stopped himself from touching her face gingerly.

As steps echoed in the main corridor she pressed up harder against him, eyes' narrowing into slits. Two people passed, deep in conversation, not sparing a glance towards the two silhouettes. When their voices moved away Gale breathed out a sigh of relief, her body relaxing. She looked up at him, not moving back, her eyes ablaze with purpose.

"I need your help." She stated simply, not offering any explanation.

"In what, may I ask?" John squirmed back into the wall. Suddenly noticing their position, Gale moved away quickly, a blush creeping up her cheeks. John absentmindedly decided he liked that about her. Shaking his head to clear it from strange thoughts he looked expectantly at her.

"Come to my room. We won't have to worry about people overhearing us there." She turned around and grabbed his hand, hauling him behind her through a series of corridors, stopping from time to time, checking if no one was around. John followed her without a word.

Finally reaching their destination Gale shoved him unceremoniously into her room, shutting the doors firmly behind her. John only had a moment to take a look around, taking in the commonness of it, the book case filled to the point of bursting with books and parchments and the row of stones on the window sill, before Gale burst into a rapid monologue.

"I think I know how to save the town." She blurted out excitedly. Without allowing him to question her she moved to the bookcase talking as she did. "I didn't understand it until now. How silly of me! It was in front of my nose all this time."

"What are you talking about?" John finally managed to cut in.

"The map of course." She answered as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. "The map leading to the chamber where they found the Ardentissimus Cordis."

John gaped at her.

"You have what?!"

"Shush! Don't be so loud and shut your mouth, it looks like it's going to fall off its hinges. That's better. Now, look here." She took out a folded piece of paper and proceeded to open it gently on her desk. John leaned in over her shoulder looking expectantly at it. Slowly a map unfolded before him and he quickly recognized particular levels of the mines. Three, four, seven. They seemed random and somewhat different than the originals. His eyes traveled lower and stopped in surprise.

"Where's the last part?"

Gale huffed in annoyance.

"That's the problem, it's missing. See here?" She pointed at a small inscription, just above the torn piece. "It reads 'My heart beats here, I live on forever, Death shall not defy me, for my rule is infinite.' I found the same inscription in an old record book about the mines, written at the very beginning of their existence. It depicted the mining of the Ardentissimus Cordis. It also said something about a secret never to be reviled. I didn't understand what it meant until now. The beating heart refers to the crystal and the missing part is the map of the 16th level. The level where it was found."

John shook his head.

"I traversed the whole mines there and back again countless times and I was very picky about the 15th level. There is no entrance, no shaft, no nothing that could lead anywhere else."

"Did you honestly think that the makers of the mines would leave it open and put a sign 'Level 16 here' if they wanted no one to find it? Are you even listening? Hey! What are you doing?"

John ignored her and squinted at the map, leaning in closer, not noticing that Gale was trapped between his body and the desk, her back curving against his chest. His frown deepened as he snatched the piece of paper from the desk.

"What are these signs, right here?" He pointed out to Gale who looked over his shoulder.

"Ah, these. I believe they are a tree." She pointed. "A hammer and a pickaxe."

Something clicked in Johns head and his eyes widened. He dropped the map and fumbled with the chain around his neck, pulling out his father's badge. He took it off and held it in his palm for Gale to see.

"Look. The symbols." He pointed at the badge and sure enough there they were. On the surface of the slightly rounded, shield shaped, plate, just below the engrave circle to the right sat the pickaxe and to the left the hammer. On the very bottom bloomed a tree. Top left a crescent moon and to the right a full one. Around the engraved circle, that had a hollow groove in the center, decorative letters spelled out 'Ardentissimus Cordis'.

Gale inhaled sharply. She turned away and drew out a small envelope from a secret drawer in her desk. She shook its content out onto her palm and moved to stand beside John again, who looked curiously at her. Very gently she picked the shiny object in her fingers using her now free hand to cradle John's palm and drew it closer to herself. John obliged without asking, following her movements like a hawk. Her fingers hovered over the badge before gently dropping and placing something in the empty groove. When she withdrew her hand, it was Johns turn to suck in a breath. For there in the very center gleamed menacingly a red gem. It was tiny but its origin was unmistakable. It was a piece of the 'pigeon's blood'. It fit perfectly as though it was there from the very beginning. John brushed his finger over it and felt something give way. The plate with the crescent moon clicked and as soon as he took his finger away snapped back into place. Curious he pushed it again with the same result. Quickly he checked all the others. They all snapped back into place but it had no effect on the overall structure.

"There has to be a combination to it." Gale spoke, leaning into him to get a better look.

John closed his. All this time he had it with him and his father before him. His father. One scene appeared vividly in his memory. His dad sat with him on his lap, one sunny day, on the porch of their house. Ma was in the kitchen preparing lunch. Wonderful smells drifted through the open doors. His stomach rumbled and his father laughed. He looked young and cheerful, not the tired, hurt man John remembered. His father rocked him on his knee and recited his favorite poem, a big smile on his face. The poem…

"John." Gale's quiet voice beside him snapped him out of his memories. He looked down at her and she looked back at him, sympathy and warmth in her blue eyes. She slowly reached up and wiped something off his cheek. Only now did John notice his face was wet with tears. He quickly turned away, scrubbing it vigorously with his sleeve, angry at himself for crying in front of a girl. Gale's warm hand settled on his back, rubbing comfortingly. He took a few moments to compose himself before turning around to face her, his cheeks red with a blush. Before she could ask him whether he was all right John blurted out.

"I know how to open it." He pointed at the badge.

Gale's mouth snapped shut and she looked at him, excitement shining in her eyes. John smiled lightly at the sight before clearing his throat and reciting.

"Whether I'm full or crescent

Whether I'm sharp or blunt,

I bloom in the depths of the ground

My heart shining as the world turns round."

As he spoke John pushed at the plates in turn: the full moon, the crescent, the pickaxe, the hammer, the tree. Finally he pushed at the engraved circle, which gave way, and turned it counterclockwise. With a snap and a hiss the small circle separated and slid under the plate, revealing a small, rugged piece of parchment. Gale and John looked at each other, silent for a moment. Then Gale snatched the piece gently and put it together with the map on her table. They fit perfectly and so before them lay a complete map of the mines and level 16 was right there, on the very bottom. John quickly assessed it was roughly five times smaller than the other levels, apparently mined out only fractionally outside the main cave.

"What do you think we'll find there?" He asked Gale.

"If the accounts are correct there should be a whole fresh field of crystallized sugar there." They looked at each other. "It's worth checking out. It was the main reason I asked you here. I need your help navigating the mines. I may have spent half my life there but you know them better. Plus I never descended below level eight."

John nodded and without further ado put on his thick jacket and headed for the door.

"Wait for me." Gale stopped him, quickly getting a few things. Only now did John notice she was dressed for a trip outside. She carefully folded the map and put it in the pocket of the thick coat she now shrugged on.

"Where do you think you're going?" John, who watched her movements silently up till now, asked suddenly.

"What does it look like, Mr. Brilliant?" She huffed. "I'm going with you. Or rather you are going with me." She decided pushing past him, out, onto the corridor. She was quickly pulled back as John shut the doors and trapped her between them and himself, catching her eyes.

"You are not stepping an inch outside those doors. It's way too dangerous for you down there."

Gale flushed, a sight John was getting used to.

"And who are you to tell me that, huh? I found the map, I made the connection. Ergo I go." She tried pushing past him but he just leaned in closer.

"You don't know the lower levels. They're not as easy to move around as the upper ones. Something could happen to you."

"You think I'm incapable, is that it?" She accused him. When he didn't answer she tried a different approach.

"This is as much my town as it is yours. And I want to help its citizens. I need to help them. Do you understand John?" She caught his eye. "I need to do this. And I need you to help me. Will you?"

John looked down at her and she could see he was fighting an inner battle. After some time he sighed in defeat and moved away.

"Okay, but stay close and do exactly what I say and no buts."

Gale smiled, nodded and with that they were out.

###

The way back took 20 more minutes. The snow drifts were now higher and plowing through them proved to be extremely difficult. Finally they arrived huffing and puffing and John headed for the side entrance. He shoved the snow away and heaved it open. Gale slipped inside and waited for him to squeeze through. When he did he switched on his headlight, which he equipped in a fresh accumulator on the way, and looked around. He quickly picked his way down, moving methodically through the narrow pathways, stopping only to help Gale through. Time passed and they moved on, going lower and lower. At one point they left the jackets because they weren't able to squeeze through in them. Thankfully the lower they went the warmer it got. Finally John stopped and Gale, who was walking as though on autopilot, bumped into him.

"This is the entrance to level 15." He informed. "Still sure you'd not rather wait for me here?"

"Do you want to go through this again?"

He sighed defeated.

"All right. But stay close."

John navigated through the half collapsed level making his way steadily to the point that was marked as the entrance. As he rounded the corner his hopes plummeted to the ground. The corridor was completely collapsed. He looked back at Gale helplessly.

"Isn't there any other way?" He could see despair shining in her eyes. He thought for a moment and then nodded, backtracking to the last crossroads and picking another turn. Moving further a couple of hundred feet he started checking the wall. When he found what he was looking for, he crouched and started moving away small boulders. A few minutes later a very tight tunnel came into view. He looked back at Gale and in the light of his torch she looked pale and perhaps a bit sick.

"Gale." He said gently, catching her attention. "You don't have to do this."

She shook her head.

"I'll be fine, but how will you squeeze through there?"

John cringed.

"I'll manage somehow. The last time I tried this I was a bit smaller, though." He gave her a wan smile and gestured. "You go first. If I get stuck at least you'll be on the other side." He joked feebly.

She clasped his hands and looked into his eyes with a burning certainty.

"You'll manage." She turned to the small opening and took a big breath. "Wish me luck." And with that she was gone the sound of her scrambling loud in Johns ears. He waited, not breathing. Finally after what felt like an eternity Gale's voice drifted through the hole.

"I'm through. There's a turn around the middle so be careful."

John took a deep breath. Here goes nothing. With that he pushed his way through.

He wriggled and tugged and pushed, the sharp and unyielding rock digging into his body. The one detail he left out in his report to Gale was that the last time he tried to pass through this particular tunnel had been five years ago when he was still a scrawny, little thing, and even then he had serious trouble getting through. He pushed the memories back and scrambled on. When he reached the bend, he twisted and turned and to his utter horror felt himself stuck. He tried backing out and then powering his way through but a particularly bothersome piece of rock dug painfully into his hip, not letting go. His breathing speeded up as panic begun to settle in. He gulped hard trying to calm down but it didn't really help. Just as he was about to give into blind panic a voice reached his ears.

"John? Are you okay? C'mon John you can get through. I still need you to lead me. I need you John. C'mon. You know you need to get through. Think what a walloping you'll get from my father if you leave me now." Gale's voice was breaking just as Johns heart was warming. Still listening to her mumbling he slowly tensed his muscles and then relaxed them completely, his breath leaving him in a rush. He twisted and turned and with a finally tug he felt himself get lose. He drew in a shuddering breath as pain cursed through his body, pulsing hardest at his hip. He didn't want to think what he'd look like next day. If he made it that far. Gale was still muttering, tears evident in her voice, and John crawled on, the rocks biting into him with his every move. Finally he saw the end and then he was through and in Gale's arms. She was crying, tears of relief soaking up his shirt. John leaned against the wall and gathered her closer, taking in deep shuddering breaths, his body screaming in pain. He let out a shaky laugh burying his face in the fiery main of red hair before him, tightening his hold on her. When they finally drew apart there was no blushing, just thankfulness. John asserted Gale's state and quickly decided that he wouldn't be the only one with bruises. They got up shakily.

"Are you okay?"

Gale gave him a weak smile, brushing away the rest of her tears.

"Look who's asking." Her laugh was broken but she was alive and so was he and that was all that mattered at the moment.

John squared his shoulders and looked down the corridor.

"We need to move on." He said quietly and Gale nodded, slipping her hand in his as she followed him. John maneuvered around for a few minutes before coming to a stop before a solid wall.

"This is the place." He announced looking at Gale in surprise.

She frowned and pulled the map out of her pocket, looking at it with a scowl.

"Right here." John tapped his finger on the paper. "Were on this very spot. And no" he added quickly seeing the look on her face "I didn't take a wrong turn."

Nodding Gale turned back to the wall looking at it thoughtfully as though it was some kind of a puzzle. John in the meantime moved closer inspecting the obstacle. His heartbeat quickened as he looked closely. The scrapings on the stone were unmistakable.

"This is man made." He breathed and Gale was by his side in an instant.

"What do you mean? This was put in our way on purpose?" He heard a note of irritation in her voice and chuckled.

"It was supposed to be a 'secret never to be revealed' if I remember correctly." At the same time he was inspecting the walls around closely.

"John! Over here." Gale waved him over. As he moved to stand by her side something flashed into his eyes. He shielded them and took a step back. The glare died away. He looked again and noticed what Gale was so excited about. Squished between two rocks sat a small, brass mechanism. How he could have missed it on his earlier trips down, John could not understand, but as he squatted next to Gale he noticed there was a part of the construction missing. And the hollow left in its wake strikingly resembled his father's badge. With his heart beating wildly, he slipped the chain of his neck and pushed the badge into the grove. It slipped in cleanly and the small, red gem flashed brightly. For a moment nothing happened.

Then a horrible groan split the air, making John and Gale cover their ears in an attempt to keep the piercing noise out. The great slab that they initially mistook for a wall shuddered and with an air splitting moan of rock scraping against rock, begun to move up. Gale and John looked in awe as the massive block rolled not so smoothly into a gap at the top. Then just as suddenly as it begun it stopped and everything was quiet again.

Looking at each other, they slowly moved closer to the new opening. John put his hand through and quickly snatched it back. Nothing happened. He gestured for Gale to stay back and with a final glance at her stepped through. The slab didn't drop, the cave didn't collapse. All was quiet. With a shrug Gale stepped through. John was half expecting the great, rock doors to slam down but they didn't move. They looked at each other with a smile and turned to the awaiting new level. And were blinded.

The glare was sharp and died down only a bit when John covered his torch with his hand, the light seeping through his fingers. Both he and Gale stood in awe at the sight before them.

The cave they entered was huge, bigger than the grand hall, bigger than anything John ever saw in his life. It stretched out and up and everywhere you looked there were crystals. They gleamed and glared and there was no end to them. And in the center a huge crater gaped accusingly at them. The crater after the Ardentissimus Cordis. John absentmindedly noticed that there were many gapes and holes and groves in this whole enterprise. Perhaps it was the point.

Gale tugged at John's hand and pointed to the right. There, squeezed tight into the wall stood a familiar machine. John moved closer. It couldn't be. But it was. A digger stood silently, shining dully in the shaft of light, its plates blacked out by time. It was an old model, one John only knew from his father's stories. A ramp led from it to big tank with numerous gages. The incinerator. The collected sugar was burned, creating gas that was then transported by the pipes, which run faithfully alongside the wall and disappeared above the doors.

"John." Gale's whisper was urgent. "If we manage to start this up, the town will be saved. Can you do it?" She eyed the old machinery doubtfully. "It does look awfully old."

"I'll try." As he got to work John asked her the question that bothered him from the beginning. "Why do you think they closed this place down? There's plenty of crystallized sugar down here. Why not exploit it?"

"I think I found the answer." Gale's voice was quiet as it drifted from the nearby corner. John stopped working for a moment and went to join her.

In the wall a brass plate was drilled in, the crystal growing on its edges.

"For all those who lost their lives while moving the burning heart from its resting place. You have showed the utmost loyalty and we salute you. For you this chamber stands closed till the end of time. Let the great crystals burn for you, let them guide you. We salute you." Gale read quietly. There was a list of names below. There were 25 of them. As John scanned the list he felt his hear stop. At the very end, a name, engraved later than the rest, gleamed back at him. Thomas McArthur.

John felt as though someone just punched him in the stomach. This wasn't possible. No. His dad died… John sucked in a sharp breath. An unexplained accident. That's what they told him. Suddenly the Mayors guilt, his hastiness, everything that took place since that memorable day seven years ago made perfect sense. It was the Mayor who sent his father down into the mines. That was the real reason for this post. Not keeping an eye on the gages and pipes but to explore in hope of finding further veins of the much needed mineral. And his father found so much more than that. And he paid for it with his life.

John backed away from the plate, angry tears in his eyes. He marched back to the machines picking up where he left off. Very soon the world swam in front of his eyes, his throat painfully tight. He whimpered as he slid to the floor, all the pain, kept locked away for seven years, flooding through him now. He felt Gale's hands slip onto his shoulders and then her smaller frame pressed against his back and he couldn't keep it back any more.

He howled like a wounded animal, tears streaming down his face. He howled till his throat was raw, his knuckles bloody from all the pounding into the floor. Gale's hold on him tightened and he felt her face press into his back, her hands stroking soothingly his sides. His screams turned into whimpers and he cried till he had no more tears to shed.

Gale moved so that she was now in front of him, her gentle hands brushing away the stray tears, her lips caressing his forehead, his cheeks, his temples. As his sobs died down, she took him into his arms and cradled him till he stilled. They sat like that for a long time before John finally picked himself back together.

"Thank you." He mumbled into the crook of her neck where his face was currently pressed.

She smiled gently at him, her hands stroking his hair as she sat quietly. A few moments later he pulled back and looked at her searchingly. He took her hands, which still rested on his shoulders, in his and kissed them gently, looking back up, his eyes expressing his endless gratitude. Gale smiled sweetly at him, a smile that brought his heart to a stop and brushed a few stray strands of hair from his forehead.

"C'mon. Let's get this puppy up and running and then get out of here." She said softly, pulling him to his feet. John nodded but instead of moving to the digger he hugged her tightly. Quickly letting go he headed to the forgotten machines not noticing the soft look in Gale's eyes.

Fifteen minutes later a low rumble echoed through the cave and the digger shuddered to life. John pulled a few levers, programming it and watched it dig into the crystal. Seconds later white chunks appeared on the conveyer belt and clattered to the already burning incinerator. Checking the pressure in the tank and pipes John let out a satisfied huff. Everything was working like a dream. Miners would have to be sent down later but for now it was all fine.

He turned to Gale and she gave him a proud smile, reaching for his hand. Almost as if they always did it, their fingers entwined and they headed for the exit. John gave one more glance at his father's name and then at the beautiful cave, before stepping out. After a moment's thought he bent down and removed the badge. The doors slid in place with a groan, again shutting the resting place of 25 brave souls.

###

The way back was quicker, powered by a sense of hope and fulfillment. John wiggled out of the narrow tunnel with less trouble this time, emerging to an awaiting Gale. They moved up heading for the fifth level control room. As soon as they stepped on the platform John's smile flattered and then turned into terror. He strode up quickly to the pressure gage and tapped the glass, the hair on the back of his neck standing in horror. The needle was swinging wildly in the red zone.

"What's wrong?" Gale came up behind him looking at the gages.

He met her horrified glance.

"The pressure's building up in the tank." John was already on the move, strapping on an extra tool belt. "It's almost at breaking point. One of the pipes must be clogged or closed off. I need to see what's wrong. No." He said firmly seeing she was trying to go with him. "Head back to the surface as quick as you can. I'll be right behind you." He hesitated for a second before striding back to her and bending down, pressing his lips to hers. He didn't give her a chance to react. He pulled away and then he was already running down the corridor.

###

Left, right, left again and down. John huffed as he finally slid into the room holding the enholdment tank. The huge structure was groaning, its metal plates bulging out under the strain exerted on them from within. John glanced at the gages. He gritted his teeth as he could not read which pipe was the problem. He swiftly climbed to the upper platform and into the first of a number of tunnels which held piping going from the tank to the generator. He grabbed a spanner from his belt and rammed it into the nearest pipe. The resonating sound was clear, an indicator that the pipe was clear of obstructions and that gas flowed through it. He did it with the rest and then climbed out and into the next tunnel. As he moved from one to the next the tank behind him gave a high whine and a sound much like that of a discharged weapon rang out through the big room. John felt cold sweat run down his back. He knew that one of the huge metal bolts just gave way and that next were soon to follow. Within seconds the whole tank would blow up, creating a crater that would swallow the whole town. Gale. He gritted his teeth and slipped into the next tunnel. Clear. The whining behind him was getting louder. His heart was beating like a great drum.

As his spanner rammed into the next pipe the sound that came back was dull. Bingo. He slid the spanner over the rest of the pipes and got the same result. So the problem was in the valve. He moved swiftly back to the beginning and looked above him. There was a point where all six pipes came into one station. John made a grab for the valve only to snatch his hand back. The metal was scorching hot. Setting his jaw harder he quickly took off his shirt making an improvised glove out of it. He grabbed the valve and felt pain sear in his hand. He gritted his teeth and turned. It didn't bulge. Gasping with pain he rammed his spanner into the valve. And again. And suddenly it gave way and turned and the pipes whined and then gas was flowing through them and the tank quieted.

###

Gale was waiting on the surface, her heart filled with dread. She was shivering in the cold, north wind. Her jacket still lay forgotten somewhere in the passages and John wasn't back. She fought back sobs fearing the worst. Her imagination showed her John broken on a bottom of some shaft or trapped under a rock.

She was about to ignore his warning and head back down when a figure appeared through the side exit, carrying something in his hands. Jackets.

A sob escaped Gale's throat as she run towards the hobbling figure. It raised its head and let the jackets drop to the ground and opened his arms. And then they were pressed up against each other, laughing and crying at the same time, safe in the others embrace. And the wind whistled above them as the rest of the world faded away.

###

EPILOUGE

John squirmed and tugged at his collar. He was in his best suit, waiting in the Town Halls corridor for Gale. When they finally trudged into the town they were greeted like heroes. The Mayor came rushing out, catching his daughter in a bear grip, mumbling apologies into her shoulder. Gale cried with him and then moved to hug her sister. In a surge of happiness the Mayor announced a great celebration in the Town Hall.

And so there he was, all dressed up again but for a different girl this time. When Gale finally came down John was sure his heart skipped a few beats. She was dressed in a beautiful deep sapphire gown. It hugged her body closely and then widened at mid thigh. Her hair was pinned up, a few loose strands curling around her neck. It was a week and a half after their adventure and most of the bruises were gone, those that still stayed hissed under the cloth. Her skin was alabaster white and looked very invitingly.

John swallowed and smiled broadly up at her. He was rewarded with a smile in return. When she finally descended the stairs he moved up to her, offering his arm. She took it gratefully their hands entwining. Not able to stop himself John leaned in and placed a chaste kiss on the soft curve of her neck extracting a soft gasp from Gale.

"I must say, you do look very beautiful tonight." He murmured in her ear, earning another shiver.

Blushing to the roots of her hair Gale smiled shyly back.

"You do look quite strapping yourself, if I might observe."

Johns face broke out into a wide grin, hers soon following.

"That you might, that you might." He chuckled and patted her hand.

They descended the Grand Staircase into the brightly lighted room. The applause was deafening. The whole town was gathered there, the old and, the young, the poor and the wealthy. They stood united under the glow of the chandeliers. They stood as one.

###

Gale and John had the feeling that they've just met the whole town, which was probably very true. They were greeted and thanked and hugged by one person and then instantly snatched by the next, the ritual repeated again. They were then drawn into conversations, not one but many and both felt dizzy with all that was happening around them. How did they find the 16th level? How did the cave look like? How did they manage to get through?

Finally John snatched Gale away, excusing them, and dragged her to the dance floor.

"I swear, if one more person thanks me today, I'll personally go and clog up all the pipes." John sighed, twirling Gale around, her hand in his bandaged one, his other on the waist, hers on his shoulder. His palms were still healing from the burns and his knuckles were tender. The doctor ordered him to keep them protected and both John and Gale decided it looked better, more mysterious and way more strapping with his hands bandaged in fresh straps of linen.

"I completely understand you. I cannot stand one more moment of all those talks." She smiled up at him. "What have we gotten ourselves into?"

"Ah well" John put on a thoughtful face, pulling her closer. "I can think of one advantage of our small trip." He looked around innocently.

"Oh, yeah?" Gale picked up quickly. "And what may that be, hmm? The attention of all the ladies?"

He glanced down at her in surprise.

"The what?"

"Honestly, didn't you notice? All the girls tonight are eating you up with their eyes, my sister included."

John looked around and noticed Nathalie dancing with Alex. The couple looked at them and John sent them a friendly smile. Alex grinned back and Nathalie sent him one of her foxy grins. Shaking his head he brought Gale in for another turn.

"I guess my attention is solely on one person today."

Gale blushed.

"Is that so? And who might that be?"

"See that lovely, plump lady in the corner? I think I am smitten." John said trying to pull a serious face.

Gale swatted him on the arm but leaned in closer.

"You're an evil person, you know that? Teasing innocent girls like that." She murmured into his chest.

"Ah well, if you put it that way." He gathered her closer and they swayed to the music, silent in their own world. A world that turned round and round as the music played on.

Word count: 12 961

Author: Karolina Jacobsson

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