Gold Fever, by Igor Ljubuncic

Updated: January 16, 2012

This is a chapter from a book I started writing some ten years ago and never quite finished ...

Gud and Gid were small crooks with big ambitions. When they had been told by that blind galley trader from overseas that they could win lots of gold without much sweat or risk, it had not taken them long to decide and go for it.

They had first reached the fence of rusted wire with signboards hung at even intervals, reading a warning not to go beyond. Since they could not read, the threat written in dry blood on those old panels did not repel them, and so they had cut a section and trespassed, hurrying onwards. They totally missed the skeletons, some human and some animal, half-buried in the white dust of the huge bleak desert they were invading. After that, they had encountered a strange phenomenon. In the middle of the desert, there was snow. As if a magical force suddenly began or ended, an ocean of pure, untouched snow reigned ahead of their path toward the gold. The fact that it was indeed magic, draining the heat out of the land and atmosphere to sustain its high concentration present about the place was alien to them as much as reading. Wise men would have turned about and quickly, humbly retracing their steps. Instead, Gud and Gid hurled on, into the heart of the magical fuss, the Center of the World.

The trek they had been unprepared for had cost them a lot. Hungry desert dogs had attacked them several times. Gud had lost two fingers to a lupine bite and one to frostbite. Gid had only one ear left and even its fate was uncertain. They had grown gaunt from malnutrition. The cold was expected to leave permanent scars they would need to learn to live with - if they survived the trek back. Gud was complaining about his blood circulation, that it was weaker than it used to be and that his left leg occasionally went numb without reason. Gid, who was of a quieter nature, suffered silently, but it was his vision that had been blunted by the wind-swept icicles blowing incessantly across the snowy desert. Now, they were lying in the snow, watching. Gid was squinting and scowling and blinking, and his eyes were red and watering from excess effort. Gud, cold and shivering, was surveying the land ahead. The spot they had chosen was probably the highest place for fifteen miles about. It was a dwarf hillock barely worth its name, but it was a mountain in the flat desolation.

North and west, about three miles away, rose the Spire of the World.

Erected by the gods upon the finality of creation, the Spire was a tapering tower of gold with its round basis two miles wide and tall beyond reckoning. It was the strongest evidence of theology found anywhere in the world. On shiny days, it could be seen from a thousand miles away, a blazing needle of yellow that cut the sky in two. The shadow darkened lands weeks of travel away. Its beauty was a source of worship and fear.

For the small crooks without much appreciation for religion, the monument of gold only meant that where so much gold was found, there was also gold to be had.

Gud and Gid did not know they had entered the Spine Land. It was a corridor fifty miles wide separating the western and eastern hemispheres of the world. Safe passages existed, to allow people to move freely about their bisected world, but otherwise, entrance into the Spine World was utterly forbidden to humans.

The Spine Land seethed with magic. The air crackled with it. The ground was over-saturated with it. The magic in the corridor was so strong it denied any other form of life for long. It was too powerful even for the sun to dissipate. Snow was the only thing allowed to burgeon here.

Around the Center, where the Spire rose, the power of magical fields intensified until it became solid.

The only people who could enter were the Guards to the House of Gods and slave workers washing away their sins in labor and magic. The Guards were priests of various churches assigned with the holy work of protecting the site from heathens. They wore special suits that protected them from the lethal radiation of the condensed magic. The slaves were being blinded, so they would not behold the beauty not meant for mortal eyes. They labored in mine pits, excavating magic.

The World Alliance of Churches had long ago agreed that pure, crystallized magic that could be found round the world's center should be used for the benefit of humanity. Too terrified to dare wage wars over this holy place, the religions had decided to use the nether deposits, dissolving the rich magic ore into magical powder so often used to enhance spells and give conjurers additional ability in their work. Every large, recognized sect had its cave and its battalion of slaves working. Strict supervision and pedant transportation processes assured that equal amounts of magic were distributed among the customers. In such fashion, the balance was preserved.

As Gud and Gid gazed in astonishment, Gud more than Gid, they could see rows of miners dragging carts of shimmering red material out of the gaping shafts and line them out in the snow. Rough-cut blocks of magic stood in sharp contrast to the milky, crusted snow and pale blue ice. Some were small, with the sides only about a yard long. Others were giant cubes, ten and twenty yards in length, height and width.

Here and there, the Guards patrolled the snow, bundled in thick clothes and wearing masks on their heads shaped in the resemblance of various mascot animals that different congregations favored. There were wolf heads, there were snakeheads, and there were catheads, all horrid and inhuman-looking.

But Gud and Gid were past fear in their hunger for gold to acknowledge any of this. Waiting for the nearest sentinel to walk away, they descended the midget mound and ran for the nearest mine. Snow crunched under their feet and they staggered as the drift ate their legs to the ankles. Without getting spotted, they managed to reach the heap of useless rubble heaped by the dark shaft.

The Spire watched them, pure and shiny.

A bleary sun, its rays distorted by magic, reflected pinkish in the green-colored sky.

Wild wolves, a morbid mutation of the common wolf that had used to live in forests adjacent to the corridor, yipped and howled as they prowled the snow. There was nothing they might catch, but it was the hunting instinct that propelled them. Adapted to live under the yoke of magic, they had long learned to feed off its power. These wild wolves, mercifully, did not prey on humans. Their bellies were full, and it was only confusion that made them going about in predatory circles.

Still, Gud and Gid had to admit, they looked terrifying. The wolves were huge as oxen. The small dogs that had attacked them in the desert looked like mice in comparison.

Gud leading, they entered the shaft.

The cave was huge. Beams of steel suspended the walls and ceiling. Magical torches burned on every prop on both sides, providing ample illumination. The floor was slick with ice and frigid water. Snow and dirt-like debris dripped from the roof. Grooved tracks for ore rail wagons ran into the distance, humming with far-away motion. Booming noises of chiseling and towing of gigantic blocks of raw produce echoed through the tunnels, the sound effects magnified by so much steel.

Human refuse, food, tools and excrements, littered the frozen ground. Blind slaves did not mind the filthy environment, having nothing to appreciate it with. Neither did Gud or Gid. They were used to similar living conditions, in wet, moldy cellars.

Lost after the second turn, they advanced deeper and deeper by whim and guess. Hissing sounds of work and conversation often diverted them from taking certain paths. Silence, which they wrongly interpreted as safe, dragged them on into deserted passages.

After a while, the rails ended. Steel supports became old wood. Torches no longer burned. They produced their oil lamps. Cobweb was expected in these places, rats and bugs as well, but there were none. Life here did not exist in large amounts. The chill was deep, but it was not as cold as higher up on the surface. Black water splashed their ankles.

Plinking noises sounded like a drizzle. They echoed, sometimes resonating in a queer way that reminded of a baby's crying or a hyena's scream. Grinding noises always caused sift of dirt to rain softly from the ceiling.

Rubble fallen off the walls crammed the ever narrowing corridors. They soon were forced to walk stooped. Gud, who was taller, shuffled painfully bent. Before long, the human-made shafts became natural caves, bores lengthening through the flesh of the earth.

Bedrock gleamed with unheard of metals and shimmered with red veins and dots of magical mineral. They extinguished their lamps. The walls, which looked covered in wallpaper of meteors frozen in mid-descent, and the floor, a litter of embers, provided crimson light that was strong enough to see by.

They would expect this glowing red material to be hot. Instead, it was perfectly cold.

It was almost an hour before they hit another intersection. They had no clue where they were or how to get out.

They were in a man-made tunnel once again. To their left, a fire burned inside a metal barrel. Crates of simple stone were arrayed by the opposite wall. Bodies of dead workers lay preserved all about.

Swallowing their dread, they moved on. Suddenly, there was a shout, its meaning distorted by the reverberating effect of the cave. After a few moments of ghastly silence, the sound of thunder and the shiver of seismic magnitude knocked them off their feet. A blast of dust from the darkness swept above their heads. A commotion of voices erupted, mixed with screams of pain and panic.

Blind workers appeared, running without bearing. They collided into props and one another, staggered and fell as they tried to reach their trapped friends further away. It seemed that a cave-in had just diminished this mine's work force, and that the survivors were trying to salvage what they could.

"Where is your blasted gold?" Gid, practically blind like the rest, whispered.

"Soon," Gud assured him. He was as lost as his pal, but he was too proud to admit it. He followed the slaves into the ruins.

Instead of lending help, they crawled by the mashed and half-buried men, ignoring the sights and screams. On their knees and elbows, dozens of miners were trying to clear the wedge of rock that had dropped on their comrades. Red magic, like chips of ruby, rolled through their bleeding hands as they tried to accomplish the impossible.

Gud and Gid, full of terror and greed, walked around the collapsed wall. And noticed the hidden passage behind it.

Frowning, Gud climbed the heap of rubble, ignoring the workers and hopped into the void beyond. He dragged his disoriented friend after him. The shaft descended steeply. They followed its course, amazed by this turn of fate.

Stagnant air not breathed for an unknown time assailed them. Outside, in the manned shafts, air vents let in fresh air that mixed with the underground fumes, producing a breathable gas for the workers. The crooks were forced to endure the dead air trapped in this wormhole. They soon became nauseated.

Just as they thought they would throw their souls up, the air cleared. Fresh gusts of icy wind slapped them, invigorating them. Hope washed over them. Greed, till that moment suppressed by terror, bubbled up again and became the major emotion. They grinned madly, looking up in the red-dotted murk, scanning the vast chamber that had opened before them.

The cavern loomed vast before them, with a vaulted ceiling, walls that looked as though made by a giant chisel and a floor full of gaping holes. The shadows seemed almost alive. Crevices hissed silently with hidden malice. Swallowing fresh lumps of dread, Gud and Gid moved on. Avarice further dulled their moderate intelligence to let them realize the full extent of their foolish venture.

Stalactites and stalagmites spanned the height of the huge chamber, like cones of molten wax cooled over. Knobby fists of magical rock sat gnarled all about, ogling the two intruders. Veins of phosphorescent magic dappled the chipped surface of the walls, glistening like lava through cracks in the soil just before bursting out. The reddish illumination was mind-boggling, almost a palpable omen.

On the other side, another passage awaited them. Without a backward glance, their minds entranced in stupor and horrifying wonder, they entered.

The natural ugliness ended there. Before them, stretched a cell with polished, round walls of smooth stone, with a perfectly flat floor. It was small and crammed, all the more because of the mound of bleached human skulls piled in the center.

It was a perfect pyramid of about a thousand heads, all facing the entrance. Gid could see little and Gud had eyes only for the morbid architecture in front of him, and so they both ignored the words of warning splashed in paint on the chamber walls. They ignored the bits of fossilized bone strewn about the cave, with looks that suggested inhuman forms. They ignored the hints of death so splendidly arrayed before them.

For on top of the skull pile was a box, simple and wooden, with silver and bronze decoration.

And embedded in the lid was the biggest sapphire ever, pure blue with a million cobalt facets, as large as an egg.

Fingers burning with desire, Gud reached and touched it and took it for his own. He showed it triumphantly to Gid, who squinted at it and then broke into a leer.

Laughing madly, they fled the chamber and its evil portend, never twice thinking of the fatal encounter with magic they had survived that day.

Some said it was luck that had sustained them on their way back into the normal world.

Some said it was magic and destiny that had given them superhuman power to live through the ordeal, so they could become their slaves.

Some said it was nothing but chance.

Some said it was the box.

Two months following the theft, they had sold the box to a merchant highly interested in oddities.

Four years later, the merchant's carrack had been intercepted by pirates and his collection of souvenirs looted.

Decades passed, and finally, no one knew anything about Gud and Gid and no one knew anything about the box - except its unknown owner.

When eventually history became old enough to become written records, there would be no mention of the two little profane men who had all alone made it possible for the Tormentor of Souls to become free in the human world again.

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