On Faruk’s third swing, the wall gave way. As it collapsed, it exhaled a cloud of dust, debris, and fetid air that sent him to his knees, and into a fit of coughing. His eyes, mouth, and nose burned. A thick layer of dust settled on top of him as he struggled to catch his breath.
Way off, he thought.
Years of digging had given him a sensitive feel with a pickaxe in almost any terrain. The tool had become like a third arm to him.
But Faruk’s estimation of this wall’s durability was poor. Its bricks and the mortar were still firmly intact, and the construction felt solid. His first two swings had been little more than pilot strikes. It was only in the third swing that he applied any real force. And as soon as he did, the wall crumbled, as if it were hollow.
Coughing and spitting, he cleared the detritus from his eyes, nose, and mouth as best as he could. He didn’t bother trying to dust himself off.
Beyond the new opening in the wall, it was dark. He removed the small oil lamp from his crate of tools, and lit its wick from the larger work lamp on the floor behind him. The flames flared brightly when they were together. But when he pulled the smaller lamp away, the light faded, and the shadows dominated once again.
Just a peek, that’s all I want. Then I’ll report it, get my bonus.
For all his experience digging, shafts and tunnels were still new to him. Faruk had spent most of his life laboring at the quarry, digging up granite, sandstone, and lime for building projects in Qamatra. But King Andares himself had hired nearly ever digging crew around the city to take on a special project. And no one refused the king. Not even if it meant being stuck digging shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of half-ghouls, as Faruk had pointed out to his crew.
In their camps, after digging each night, the workers gathered like moths, swapping stories about what they were supposed to find in the. But Faruk ignored the stories. All he wanted to do was finish the job, get paid, and get back home to Qamatra with his wife.
But now that he faced the dark tunnel, he wanted to know more.
He thought about calling for the site foreman. Every digging crew had agreed to report anything of note immediately. If something exceptional were found, the crew responsible would be rewarded. And after days of digging through heavy stone and ruins, the wall was certainly exceptional.
Yet he couldn’t bring himself to leave it.
Suppose this bonus isn’t anywhere near what they say it’ll be.
Faruk stood in front of the open wall, staring beyond the cascade of rubble in the light of his small lamp. The ground on the other side of the broken wall was paved stone, unlike the hard-packed gravel and dirt on which he now stood.
In for a taph, in for a dram, Faruk told himself, stepping through over the rubble, onto the hard stone pathway beyond it.
There was an excitement in this project that Faruk had never felt. The quarry was an open-air mine. All of his life he worked from sun up until sun down, pausing for a midday break, when the burning sun was directly overhead. There was no mystery about what they would find. It was just a matter of seeing the quality of the stone and shaping what they pulled out of the pit.
It was the artistic vision in shaping stones that made it labor not fit for the half-ghouls. As much as Faruk hated to admit it, they were stronger than a regular man. Two or three, in some cases. But they had no feel for the art of quarrying. They lacked the sight for removing a piece of stone that might one day become a plinth for a statue, or even the statue itself.
It was his ability to see the shape of stone that led to Faruk’s fortune to have his own crew.
But now those eyes stared into an unknown darkness. It was different being underground, away from the fiery rays of the sun. Faruk was out of his element, but he was excited.
The chamber beyond the broken wall was tall. The light from his lamp danced faintly on the ceiling high above his head. If he wanted to, Faruk could reach across to both walls on either side. It was a tunnel of excellent construction. As he walked along it, he could see that the ground was covered in small mosaic tiles, laid in imperfect lines and patterns.
Though his nose was still thick with dust and debris, the smell of the tunnel was strong and vile.
Whenever he had found natural pockets of open earth while digging in the quarry there had been distinct smells: mildew, lime, perhaps the acrid smell of metal. But there was something unsettling about the smell of this new tunnel. It smelled of death and decay.
Part of him wanted to turn back. There was something about being alone in a dark tunnel that seemed like a horrible idea. In all the stories that the poets told, it was always when a man or woman was traveling alone that the worst things happened.
But life isn’t a poet’s story. If it were, I wouldn’t be just a back for hire. I’d be the lost heir of the king, destined to find my fortune in here. Perhaps a magic carpet, or a magic ring, or a jinn’s limp.
He kept moving his feet forward, following the patterns on the ground. Far behind him, Faruk could almost make out the flickering of his work lamp. Ahead of him, there was something in the darkness.
A tickle of wind on the back of Faruk’s neck stopped him dead in his tracks.
He wheeled around, the small flame of his lamp growling as he did. A bit of hot oil splashed on his wrist, and he yelped in pain. The lamp dropped, and ceramic shards cracked in different directions. Faruk’s heart beat hard and heavy in his chest, in his ears. He ignored the burn on his hand, and called out to whatever touched him.
The sound of his voice was consumed by the old bricks on the walls and the tiles of floor. He repeated himself, but the very darkness itself seemed to steal his words. After a few moments passed, he wasn’t sure that he had spoken at all.
Without his lamp to light the way, Faruk turned to leave. He tried to make out the faint twinkling of his work lamp. But he couldn’t seem to see it behind him. He turned around in the darkness and reached out, and found the wall. He twisted left, right.
Yet there was no light in either direction.
Without his lamp it felt cold in the shaft. Sweat dripped and clung to his gooseflesh skin. It matted his dusty shirt to his torso, his stringy hair to his face. His breath was shallow. The tips of his fingers tingled. The burn on his wrist began to throb.
Somewhere in the darkness of the tunnel, footsteps clicked across the tile floor, in sync with his hammering heartbeat.
Well, fool, perhaps you’ll get a poet’s story after all. Perhaps you’ll be one.
“There’s nothing there,” he called out. “There’s nothing out there. I’m just a silly old man.”
Faruk squatted to the ground and felt around with his fingertips. He found a broken shard of his lamp. He dragged it along one of the walls, delighting in its scraping, rushing sound. He drew an arrow on the wall as best as he could without being able to see.
But for his breathing, it was silent.
He couldn’t say how long he was there, but his eyes began to adjust as his night blindness faded. Soon he could see the pale orange light of his work lamp. Faruk felt sheepish, knowing that his fear had gotten the better of him. He laughed loudly at the darkness.
I am a silly old man.
As he walked toward it orange light, it grew brighter. His pace quickened, until he was almost running along the mosaic tiles beneath him.
But all of his excitement was snuffed out when he came to the opening. There was no rubble on the ground, and the light wasn’t coming from the guttering flame of his work lamp. It was coming from something that was a deeper shade of crimson than fire had any right to be.
May the gods protect me.
He wanted to turn and run in the opposite direction, back to the tunnel, back to where he had been digging. He wanted to run straight to the foreman, to tell him what he had found. Perhaps he could take the rest of the day off, get his bonus after all.
What time is it anyhow?
But Faruk couldn’t run. Something within the chamber ahead called to him in a clear voice. Later, when he would tell the story to his crew, he would say it was the light that made him step further inside. Yet in his heart he knew that it wasn’t true.
But no one would think him crazy for chasing down a light. However, they would think him crazy for telling them all that he heard voices speaking to him in the darkness.
The voice accompanied another tickle of wind across the back of his neck.
Faruk’s arms and his legs became powerless, and they moved forward of their own accord.
Inside the chamber, the once orange, now crimson glow was all around him. It was a small, square room. On its walls were designs of beasts of the land, and the air. In its center there was a large square pedestal.
With each uncontrollable step forward, the room began to glow a deeper shade of red. It was the color of sky on a morning before a monsoon.
Faruk stumbled as the even ground abruptly gave way to stairs before the pedestal, and he caught himself hard on the steps. His burn howled. On his hands and knees, he climbed the stairs, working his way toward the glow at the top.
On the pedestal was a stone, pulsing with low, red light. It looked like a great egg carved from a ruby. But it was bigger than the eggs of any bird he knew. It was almost as big as Faruk’s own head.
He reached his hands out for the stone, and scooped it up in his hands. It was warm to the touch, and it grew hotter every second held it. It was uncomfortable, almost painful to hold.
But he found he couldn’t let go.
For the third time, he felt the tickle of wind on the back of his neck. And he heard the voice.
“Well done,” it breathed.
When he turned to face whatever was behind him this time, he was startled by what he saw. It was an arrow, scraped into the brick wall of the tunnel. Everything was illuminated in a deep shade of red. But as he stared at it, the glowing red light disappeared. To his right, he could see the clear, orange flicker of his work lamp.
The stone firmly in both of his hands, he walked toward the light of his lamp, toward the opening he made in the wall. He didn’t climb down any stairs, just walked across the stone floor of the tunnel. He could smell the fetid odor of the room once again. Shards of ceramic from his dropped lamp crunched beneath his feet.
He wanted to drop the stone, to let it shatter, too. He wanted leave it behind.
But he didn’t dare.
Faruk stepped carefully over the rubble, and toward his work lamp. It was a relief to hear the voices of other diggers bouncing through the tunnels and shafts.
In the light of the work lamp, the egg-shaped stone was cool and dark. Faruk supposed it must be worth a fortune. Perhaps he could hide it, and sell it back in Qamatra.
But he was eager to be rid of it, to hand it over to the foreman. He and his crew would get their bonus, and perhaps he would now have a story for the campfire.
They’ll call you a fool, you silly old man.
Yet Faruk knew in his heart that he was no fool.
Far off in the desert outside of Qamatra, excavations into the old ruins are taking place before the Festival of the Lunar Eclipse. Nothing of value has been found yet, but what lies in wait deep in the bowels of the land?