Chapter 17

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Amates 21, 1277. Mid-morning. Alone with my thoughts, and a little more. The latter wasn’t the best company.

     I knew exactly where I was. Out in the middle of nowhere.
     It had been about an hour since I had cut myself loose from the ropes. After that, I picked a direction and started walking through the dry prairie heat. I could tell where ‘east’ and ‘west’ were just by the position of the sun. North and south were a bit harder.
     For those, I pointed my left arm toward the rising sun and my right to where it ought to set. That had me facing south. I double checked this when I found a crab ant tower. Crab ants build these tall tower mounds out on the Planus prairies, taller than most people. Along the base, about halfway up, the mound stretches out in a wedge-shape. That part always runs north to south.
     So, I had my directions. Did I know where Banye was? I had no idea. But I wouldn’t find it by standing still.
     The jackals had been my constant companions since I got free. I figured they had to be shadowing me out of either curiosity, or were just waiting for me to collapse from the rising heat. Which, if I did collapse, they would probably attack me in a second. I just needed to hold out a little longer. Sand jackals don’t like heat, which is why they hunt at early morning or evening. So I expected they would leave sooner than later.
     They also weren’t much for conversation and kept about a stone’s throw away from me. But the jackals were someone to talk to, even if they didn’t reply much past the occasional yip.
     “I know that I should have remembered what Ihodis told me about the Crystal.” I wiped the sweat from my face. “But I’ve been busy with the Crimson Company getting in the way, and talking out ideas with Mikasi…”
     My words trailed away when a gust of wind blew past that cooled me down a bit. I closed my eyes to enjoy the sensation. The sweet wildflower scent stole a little of the tension out of back. But I could feel the tingle of a faint sunburn on my skin.
     I glanced over my shoulder at the jackals. It could have been the heat, but I thought I saw the lead jackal nod at me. I sighed, then looked back at the all too flat horizon. It was an ocean of wild grass. The bright sunlight over all of it made me squint. I kept walking.
     “You’re right, I should have paid more attention.” I shook my head. “Been more careful.”
     A series of sharp yips from the jackals made me turn around. They had kept about 10 nindel away from me for most of the morning, or roughly 13 paces. Like I said, close enough to hit with a rock if I wanted to throw one. Now? They were three times farther away.
     Most stood and looked around in different directions, tense and alert. The big one that I considered their leader sat down and stared at me. I almost thought they were looking for a nearby threat, but the leader didn’t seem alarmed like the rest.
     “What?” I asked with a shrug.
     Then the ground dropped out from underneath me.
     I shrieked and fell into pitch darkness for a few seconds before I careened off a gentle slope of gravel with an unpleasant crunch. Two bounces and a tumble later, I found a nice, flat, smooth piece of black volcanic rock to cushion my fall. Immediately, I rolled to my right until I was outside the circle of sunlight cast from above.
     Broken chunks of the prairie rained down from the hole. They shattered against the dark rock where I had first landed. Over by the cavern wall, I curled up to make myself as small a target as possible while the debris cascaded down.
     Eventually I uncurled, then looked up, once the avalanche of dirt and rocks stopped falling. I slowly stood, ignoring the chorus of aches along my sides and left leg.
     The hole, now roughly large enough for a buffalo to fit through, was a good two stories overhead. A pile of gravel and rock reached most of the way back up, but stopped short of the ceiling. I scowled and studied the distance from the top of the pile to the opening. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to reach the hole, or if the edge of the opening would support my weight.
     There was only one way to find out.
     It took me three attempts to scramble to the top of the gravel pile. The edge of the hole was rough and thicker than I was tall, so it should more than handle me climbing on it. My problem was I couldn’t reach it. When I tried, the gravel would crunch and shift, nearly throwing me downhill.
     I was trapped.
     That dark and ugly thought ran around in my head for a moment, looking for a place to take root. I mentally shoved it aside with a shaky breath. Thinking like that wouldn’t do me any good. This wasn’t the time to panic. I took slow deep breath of stale, dry air, then carefully scrambled to the bottom of the pile.
     “All right, think. This makes no sense. How is there a cave out here under the prairie? And how in the Cresting Tides did its ceiling cave in under my weight?”
     I paced, but stayed on the illuminated part of the ground. There was more space to this cave I was in, several paces to either side, but I wasn’t ready to explore it. Not yet. I needed to think this through.
     There was a familiar yip from above. I glanced up.
     Five sand jackals stared down at me, ears raised, curious. I grimaced at them.
     “You could have warned me sooner, you know. Also, how about a little help here?”
     They didn’t bother to reply. Instead, they raced off in a cloud of dry grass and dust. Their leader was the last to leave after he twitched his ears at me twice. I shook my head.
     “Right. I get it. Pay attention,” I muttered. “Like they understood anything I said, anyway.” After a long sigh, I resumed pacing.
     On each pass, I eyed the gravel. That it was even there just bothered me. Gravel, best as I understood, was usually in rivers or lakes. I had never heard of gravel, especially this much, building up on its own underground. I stopped pacing.
     “Unless it had help,” I said slowly.
     Wide-eyed, I raced over to kneel at the pile and study the stones. Bank gravel, like from a river, was smooth and a variety of colors and sizes. Those colors stood for various kinds of rock carried down from different locations along the river’s path.
     These stones didn’t look a thing like that.
     The gravel here was roughly all the same size. They were a collection of small, light-tan stones that looked like they came from the same source. Not limestone but sandstone or granite? They also hadn’t been worn smooth. I had seen gravel like this only once before.
     “A mine!” My voice echoed in the half-lit expanse. “This isn’t a cave! It’s a tunnel, or a mine.” That thought sank in. “A ruin? Out here?”
     My excitement shoved away any sense of caution. I hurried over to the nearest wall outside the well-lit spot in the middle of the chamber. Rock dust swirled around me when I skid to stop. If this was a mine, or even a tunnel that once belonged to a building, there should be marks on the walls where miners smoothed out the natural rock. I slowly ran my hands over the wall.
     There was worked stone all right. The dry, chilly walls hadn’t been smoothed out by miners, they had been built.
     These were marble, perhaps even granite, brick walls. There was no mortar. These immense bricks, as best as I could feel, had been cut and laid so precisely, they didn’t need it. I squinted in the dim light for a better look.
     Each mottled blue-gray stone was as tall as my head and easily twice as long. It gave me a better sense of where I was.
     This place was old. Ancient Order old? Maybe, but I didn’t know enough to tell. There were a lot of ruins across Awldor, like the Temple of Draosis in the Anestri’for jungle, that were built after the Great Collapse. Sometimes well after the Collapse.
     Still, this changed everything.
     Tunnel or mine, that meant the pile of gravel had to be waste rock. Stone that would have been tossed away from where the main dig happened. I wasn’t that far underground. There had to be stairs or some other way back up to the prairie, I was sure of it. All I had to do was find that way up and not get killed.
     My only light was from the hole in the ceiling, so I wouldn’t be able to explore very far. But it was worth a try. I placed one hand against the wall and walked into the darkness.
     Then the ground shuddered from an earthquake.

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