It was strange to wake in the vast darkness of the mine. When Quentin opened his eyes, he did not know that he had opened them at all. The sensation of blindness was so overpowering that for a moment Quentin’s heart clenched in his chest until he remembered where he was and how he had come to be there. Just to make sure, he winked both eyes several times, but could discern no difference. So he lay on the hard, uneven stone and waited, not inclined to bump around in an attempt to light a torch. From the deep, regular breathing that filled the chamber’s towering silence, he knew the others were still asleep. He would wait.
They had made two more long marches before fatigue overtook them, and Durwin decided they must sleep before moving on. They had reached the first level shortly after they had stopped to rest and eat the first time. The corridor with the low roof had ended in a steep incline that emptied upon a room of interminable size, judging by the echoes the stony walls flung back at them when they spoke. But they had no light to see how large the room was, for the torchlight failed to illuminate its farthest dimensions.
They had crossed the great room, passing huge columns of reddish stone carved of the rock of the mountain’s core, rising out of the floor like monstrous trees sweeping from the ground, their tops lost in the inky blackness above. Quentin counted twenty pillars before they reached the far end of the room, which tapered to a huge arch through which they passed. The arch bore the unmistakable marks of having been made by Ariga stonecutters. Quentin would have liked to stand and admire it, but they passed quickly on.
The next corridor was more difficult to navigate than the first. It was wider and its roof higher, allowing for more freedom of movement, but numerous shafts and galleries opened off it, often abruptly and at slight angles. It forked in several places, splitting off to the right and left. Sometimes they would pass by an opening that Quentin could not see until he felt a chill breeze on his face and smelled the dank, musty odor of stale air and stone. Once they crossed a stone bridge that arched across a wide crevice, splitting the floor before them in a sharp divide. On the bridge, Quentin felt a warm updraft and guessed that the rift was the chimney of some subterranean fire eternally blazing.
Each time Durwin came to a fork or a turn that offered a choice of paths to follow, the hermit elected to take the one that promised a downward course. He admitted he had no precise notion of what they were looking for, but had the idea that the highly prized ore they sought lay at the deepest levels of the mine.
They had rested in a curious domed chamber on the far side of the stone bridge. They talked among themselves at first, but somehow— through fatigue, or through the wearing oppression of the deep darkness— the conversation seemed to dry up like a trickle of water in the desert sand, vanishing slowly without a trace of its having ever been there.
Though tired, and aching from the weight of the packs they carried, they had decided to press on. The slope of the downward track increased dramatically once they left the domed chamber. With the extra weight they carried on their shoulders, the falling grade impelled them onward at a faster pace than they would have normally had strength or inclination to attempt. The result was that they reached the second level in what seemed no time at all.
Quentin knew they had been walking for some hours when they tumbled into the enormous cavern that formed the central chamber of the second level. But time had ceased to function in its normal way. Hours collapsed and minutes stretched out incredibly until it seemed that time had no meaning at all unless it was measured in footsteps or in tunnels passed.
They had been walking in silence, each wrapped in his own thoughts as in a hooded cloak from head to toe, when Quentin felt a touch at his elbow that caused him to jump in fright, nearly dropping his torch. “Toli! You scared me. I did not hear you creeping up behind me.”
“Excuse me, Kenta. I did not mean to alarm you.” He looked at Quentin with large, shining eyes as deep as fathomless pools. For a moment Quentin was reminded of the time, long ago it seemed now, when he had met a young Jher in the forest, dressed in deerskins and peering at him with the soft, wary eyes of a wild creature. The look Toli gave him now was exactly as it had been then. With a sudden creeping sensation, Quentin imagined Toli had entered some more primitive state. Looking at those large, dark eyes glittering in the quavering light of the torch was like looking into the eyes of a wild and frightened animal.
“What is it, Toli? Is something the matter?” Quentin spoke in barely a whisper.
Toli stared around him in a strange, wide-eyed way. When he spoke again, it was with a quivering voice on a strange note that Quentin had not heard before in his friend. Toli appeared poised and ready for flight; Quentin feared that he might suddenly dash off into the darkness, never to be seen again. “My people do not love dark places,” said Toli. “We have never lived in caves. In ages before this one, when holes and caves were home to many men, my people lived in the forest and made their homes in the light.”
The way he spoke made it seem that Toli was offering a deeply personal confession. Quentin did not know what to think.
“There are still those among us who speak of the times of the cave dwellers,” continued Toli. “Some even have been inside caves when they have come upon them in the forest. But I have never been.”
All at once Quentin realized what Toli was trying to tell him. And he realized what strength it had taken for the Jher to follow him into this dark place. To Toli it was not a mine; it was an ancestral taboo that he was willing to put aside, out of love for his friend. But the darkness and the endless walkways of stone boring ever deeper into the bowels of the earth had at last stripped Toli of the veneer of civilization he had acquired living with his Kenta. He was the Jher prince once more, wild as the free creatures of the Wilderlands.
“We will soon be finished here, Toli. Do not fear. You will see the living land once again, and very soon.” Quentin felt the emptiness of his words. The more so when Toli turned an uncomprehending, glassy stare upon him and seemed not to recognize him at all. Quentin had the odd feeling that he was looking at a stranger whose face was as familiar as his own. The Toli he knew had vanished.
“Delnur Ivi, Toli,” Quentin murmured as they trudged along, repeating the words over and over by the flickering torchlight. He had racked his brain for some smattering of the Jher speech he could use, and that was what he had come up with. Delnur Ivi. Hold on . . . hold on.
Quentin rolled over in the darkness and was startled to see a faint light bouncing toward him out of the formless void. It seemed to float or swim in the darkness, and it blinked like the eye of some cave beast that had happened upon their trail and was now stalking them. He watched as the light grew brighter by degrees.
Quentin sat up, wondering whether to wake the others and warn them. He heard the shuffling footsteps of someone coming down the passageway toward the chamber where they had huddled to sleep. But even as Quentin framed the thought, the feeling of danger passed. He waited, and presently the light burst through the arched entrance to the chamber, filling the room, or so it seemed to Quentin’s light-deprived eyes, with a sun-like brilliance.
“So it is! You are awake, Quentin. Come with me. I want to show you something.”
“But the others—”
“Let them sleep. It is not far. Come along.”
Quentin stood stiffly and found at once how sore his feet were. He padded after Durwin, who lifted the torch high so both could use it as they entered once more the main tunnel they had been following on their last march. Presently they came to a small arched entrance in the side of the passageway. Durwin stopped and said, “I have been wandering long up and down this gallery. I only saw this when I was returning to the chamber to sleep a little while ago. I decided to try it. Follow me.”
Quentin, curiosity piqued, stooped and ducked under the arch. At once they were in the uncomfortably close confines of a low and narrow wormhole tunnel that twisted and turned with barely enough room for a man to stand erect.
The tunnel fell away steeply, far more rapidly than Quentin thought safe; it seemed as if the tunnel would suddenly pitch down and he would find himself falling into a bottomless well. But Durwin seemed to have no fear, lurching along as quickly as his legs would carry him. So Quentin kept his fears to himself and followed dutifully along.
They came to a narrow place at the end of the tunnel. But Quentin saw Durwin turn sideways and disappear into a crack just wide enough to squeeze through. He, too, turned his shoulders and, holding his breath, scraped through the thin opening. As he came through, Quentin felt Durwin’s hand on his arm; the hermit stooped and lay down the torch so that he could see that he only stood on a narrow ledge.
Then Durwin smiled at him in the glow of torch, his face gleaming with ferocious glee. “What is it, Durwin?” asked Quentin. He felt a thrill of excitement tingle along his spine. Quentin heard his own voice fall away from him, and he knew he must be standing before an enormous chasm.
“What is it? What is it indeed!” laughed the hermit. “I will show you.” Durwin’s voice sounded empty and metallic as it reverberated through the dark open space before them. Quentin crowded closer to the rock wall at his back.
The hermit took the torch and with a mighty heave sent it spinning off into the darkness beyond.
“No! Wait!” cried Quentin. His cry echoed back to him across a great distance. The torch tumbled and spun as it fell and fell, and Quentin saw the reflected flash of the fire on smooth surfaces as it plunged and at last was extinguished in a splash that sounded like ice splintering on a newly frozen pond.
“Watch,” said Durwin breathlessly.
Quentin could see nothing and worried about the torch. How were they to find their way back again? But then a strange and wonderful thing happened.
As he watched, he imagined that he saw the stars of heaven come peeping out, one by one, into the darkness surrounding them. At first these stars were but the tiniest slivers of light, but they began to grow. “What . . . ?” began Quentin. He never finished the thought.
Above him the vaulted roof of the enormous chamber began to shine with a soft amber luminescence that blushed pink like a winter sunrise. The far walls held glimmering green traces like liquid light streaking down. The floor of the cavern far below shone with its own ghostly light in irregular splotches here and there, in seams of blue and gold. Within moments—though to Quentin it seemed like the slow dawning of day—the vast chamber was radiating light from all sides, and Quentin was swept away with incredulous joy.
“Durwin,” he whispered.
“Yes, Quentin. We have found it. It is the lanthanil.”