Adventures of Yazir and Paco

A New Life

His hand had started to hurt a while ago, but now the pain got unbearable and he felt the bones being squeezed to induce even more pain. Yazir bit his lower lip and made a fist with the other hand to get through the pain without screaming. Becoming a father was not easy, he reflected.

He looked down on Asisa again. The face of his wife was wrought in deep creases and thick pearls of sweat covered it as a scream tried to escape her open mouth. The contractions were now coming faster and faster and the old midwife mumbled something about the head being visible. The scream escaped and Asisa crushed his hand again, long and hard this time. There seemed to be no end to his ordeal. Life is a cruel little thing, Yazir thought and clenched his teeth together. He needed to get out for a while, the hot air was hanging thick and unmoving inside their house. Wrenching his tortured hand free, he pronounced that he would go and fetch more cold water. Asisa yelled something after him but he was already through the door and took a deep breath outside.

It was already well past midday and the sun declined slowly in the west. The ground was still hot and the air was dry like age-old sand. Yazir looked down the street and decided to take a stroll. Clouds of dust swirled beneath his sandals as he walked past a group of children playing with a shaggy gray goat.

This was their third child and he wondered how they would even feed yet another mouth. Asisa worked as a washing women at the red markets and he worked as a builder whenever he could and as a camel herdsman too. They were already hard pressed with two children, this too was not easy, he thought. After a while he slowly walked back to their house, still rubbing his hand.

Asisa held the baby in her arms, she looked exhausted and happy at the same time. The midwife was sitting besides the bed and grinned at Yazir when he came in. “Girl,” she said in her husky old voice and nodded thoughtfully. Yazir knelt beside the bed, gave his wife a kiss on the forehead and then looked at his daughter. She was beautiful.

“Her name is Meline,” his wife said. Then she looked up at him and suddenly any trace of love vanished from her face. She looked him straight into the eyes, unblinking, and said, “Yazir, go find better work. My daughter will not live in this pigsty. How will she find a good man if she lives like this?”

Yazir swallowed. This was serious, when she was like this arguing was hopeless. He began to sweat and resorted to the only defense he knew in the face of his angry wife: agreement. “Yes, my love. I will, my love. Find better work.” He swallowed again and stumbled to the door, her petrifying gaze was following his retreat until he shut the door behind him.

Standing on the sandy street again, he considered his options carefully. He could feign his death and leave the city, he figured. Or he could become a thief. He shuddered to think of both options. There had to be a better way.

He started walking down the streets, heading to the markets, but his thoughts were clouded and he didn't really care where he was going. The vendors on the white market would soon close their shops and the people of this part of the city were rushing to get some of the last produce for the day.

The sun was already going down on the horizon when he entered the White Goat. Sheep herders, fruit vendors from the markets, thieves and builders were sitting at the tables. Half of them were already drunk and all of them were loud and merry. Most tables were full to the last chair. Then he spied Paco in the corner underneath the stuffed goat head.

He sat down beside him and ordered a cup of sivan over the noise of heavy laughter from the other side of the tavern. Paco and Yazir had already been good friends when they were still young boys. Paco was a good man, simple minded, but with the heart in the right place. They didn't see each other as often anymore, since Paco had become a camel herder for one of the sharifs.

When the sivan arrived Yazir gulped down almost all of the strong brown brewage at once and let the alcohol swirl through his head. While he told Paco about his daughter and wife, he starred into his cup, looking for an answer. Paco looked at him and started to grin broadly. He shouted to the innkeeper to bring them two more cups of sivan and leaned over to Yazir. He had an idea, Paco said, that could solve all their problems. It was simple and brilliant, he said. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

The Law of Fives

At the White Goat Paco had told him, how he had obtained an ancient map of even more ancient tombs from a traveling vendor of the eastern coasts. Each supposedly filled to the brim with riches. Yazir had tried to explain that no man would be stupid enough to give such a map away, but there was no dissuading Paco from seeking his fortune. As they poured several more rounds of sivan, the map and the fabled riches seemed more and more plausible, even to Yazir.

Later that night, they had both been considerably drunk from the of sivan at this point, they went to Paco's house to look at the map. When they had finally found the premises, after an unplanned detour through countless and nameless back alleys, Paco produced the map from under his mattress and showed it to Yazir. They were both too drunk though to make head or tails of it at the time.

The next morning, his head had still been spinning, he took the map again and looked at it incredulously. It was a white, rolled up sheep skin that had been emblazoned with the now faded drawing of a sun symbol on the outside. He had unrolled it on the table and a landscape of fine black lines, that had been seethed into it with a hot iron needle, had appeared.

Intricate drawings and symbols filled the entire inside of the skin, there were rectangles and circles filled with minuscule script, almost too small for the eye to read. There were lines of words running alongside fragments of stylized landscapes, swirling symbols of ancient magic and emblems of noble houses long forgotten. The borders were stitched with wavy lines of fine silver thread. It looked marvelous. This was most definitely not the crude facsimile of a map Yazir had expected to see. He had looked at Paco in awe.

When he went home Asisa scolded him loudly for disappearing the day his daughter was born. Yazir apologized profoundly and tried to soothe her with kisses, but she would have none of it. She kicked him out again to go look for better work before he could even mention what Paco had gotten hold of.

The next weeks he rarely went home and was at Paco's house when he wasn't working at the construction site of a store house being erect at the blue markets. They spent day after day trying to figure out what was on the map. Paco could read only a handful of words, so it was up to Yazir to read all the tiny script scattered over the skin. It was not only written in very small letters, they looked very strange too, like distant cousins to the writing he had learned. The text in the rectangles and circles turned out to be colorful descriptions of priests and clerics. They all seemed to have belonged to a sworn circle, followers of some subcult that was largely unknown even to the prevalent temples.

Even more interesting were the lines of letters running all over the map in narrow streams. They were hints to paths leading to the sacred sites of the cult, to their divination places, to untold riches. Some of the places seemed to be underneath the city's temples, but most were scattered throughout the ruins of the old city and the valley that lay beyond the stony waste.

The first site turned out to be a crumbled hut that had been an outhouse judging from the stale smell that had had engulfed them after digging half a day. The second had been a tomb, a somewhat damp cavern really, incidentally also home to half the scorpions this side of the stony desert. They had crawled everywhere and had threateningly stared at them. Yazir hated scorpions, with a passion, especially when they stared at him. He had instinctively ducked behind Paco, who had gone in first. Just thinking about that dark hole full of creeping tiny legs and poisonous surprises made him shudder.

When they arrived where the third was supposed to, they were standing right in the middle of a rather large patch of sand and stones. They dug, they argued about the map, they dug some more. At the day's end they went home exhausted, blisters on their hands and with a new appreciation for dark caverns. Yazir cursed the map and the forsaken dilettante who had scribbled it on the poor sheep, but Paco brushed it off as a minor discrepancy of information.

Paco's optimism was still unscathed when they had barely made it out of number four again, empty handed once more, but richer in knowledge about contraptions involving large blocks of carved stone. Number five then had been much like number four, but the stone blocks had been smaller and swifter.

Number Six

This was the sixth. There would be riches beyond their wildest dreams inside, gold and jewels larger than a man's fist. They would be the wealthiest men in the city. And Asisa would have to admit that he wasn't such a failure after all. Of course Paco had said the same about the other five and that hadn't played out that well. Not well at all, Yazir reminisced.

Guided by the symbols on the map they found an abandoned temple in the old city. The sand had crept through every opening and settled on the floor of every room and hall. Half-shattered statues were standing in every corner of the sanctum, their dismembered parts either turned to dust or laying at their feet in dunes of fine sand. They were oversized figures idolized only by sand and broken by time. Yet they still seemed to radiate the divine presence their sculptors had given them, filling the hall of the sanctum with a silent grace that commanded hushed voices and humility before the elder gods.

Their own feet left swirling prints on the floor as they walked down an aisle of damaged sandstone columns to the altar at the back of the hall. The air was thick with the warm air that had been in this place since the last people had abandoned the old city a century ago. Yazir looked at the statues and faces carved into the walls and wondered what gods they represented. The elder gods had been left behind with the city during the exodus. In the new temples of the new city they were never spoken about, the people didn't care about their great-grandfather's gods and the priests were likely glad they didn't have to deal with questions concerning their own legitimacy.

Behind the altar was a giant statue of a muscular man sitting cross-legged and holding big globes in each hand resting on his knees. It sat before the rear wall and its head almost touched the arching ceiling above.

The altar itself was topped by a large stone plate with a small statue on it. The statue's featured had apparently been chipped off by force, it was impossible to see what it once had been. The whole plate and the featureless figure were covered with a thick layer of sand and dust. When they shoved the dirt away with their hands the engraved symbol of the sun, that was on the map too, became visible on the plate's face. They tried to move the stone by pushing at one corner, but it didn't budge. Yazir panted and Paco scratched his head.

Paco's face suddenly lit up. He looked over to Yazir and said, “I go and get the camels.”

While Paco was walking back to the camels, Yazir turned to the giant statue again. Its face had a deep gravitas that seemed to contain the wisdom of countless ages and the empty stone eyes stared nowhere and everywhere at once. Standing below the towering figure of a sitting man, it was hard not to be feel small and unimportant. The sculptors had done very well if that had been their intention.

Paco came back, leading the two camels behind him. They tied a rope around the base of the figure atop the altar and then bound the other end to the saddles of both camels.

When everything was in place Paco sat on one camel and spurred it to move forward, Yazir pushed against the plate with his bare hands. For a few moments nothing happened, then the stone suddenly moved with a grinding noise and the plate crashed to the ground in a long slide.

A cloud of dust rushed up while the echo of their handy work resounded from the walls. Yazir came closer again and looked at the now revealed contents of the altar. A mummified body was laying inside, surrounded a myriad of little gray pebbles.

Disappointment crept into Paco's expression. “No gold? Not even some rings or bracelets?”

“Maybe under the bandages?” Yazir suggested doubtfully. “We could… unwrap it.” He looked over to Paco and shrugged.

They grabbed the body, Yazir at the head and Paco at the feet, and lifted it out of the altar. The bandages rustled dryly and crumbled to dust under their fingers where they touched them, but the stiff body underneath did not bend. The whole body emanated that certain smell of age that only mummies can give off.

They had just laid down the mummy when a curious hollow sound came from the altar. They both stood still for a moment to listen to a faint, clicking echo.

“What is that?” Paco wondered.

Yazir stepped back to the altar and saw the little pebbles on the deathbed within slowly sinking away on one side. He dug into pebbles with both his hands and shoved them aside. When he reached the bottom of the bed, he felt a narrow gap in the stone that extended along the short inside of the altars marble wall. “There is something under this altar, Paco,” he said.

They started shoveling the pebbles out with their hands and threw them to the floor around the altar's base. Another engraved sun symbol became visible on the marble plate at the bottom. Yazir squeezed his fingers into the gap, it was barely wide enough to get them in, and when he pulled his hands up the whole bottom plate tilted away easier than he had expected. Paco helped him pull, together they lifted the marble plate from the altar's sarcophagus and carefully put it down at the base.

The removed plate gave way to a long dark shaft, the light coming from outside was barely enough to make an arm length or two of the rough stone walls visible. Yazir got their torches from the saddles and lit one to peer down into the darkness. He leaned over the sarcophagus' edge as far as he could and dipped the fire into the black. The flickering orange fire didn't reach down to the bottom of the shaft, but the rungs of a ladder became visible about a man's height below.

When Paco saw them he lit another torch and flung it down into the black. For long moments it fell deeper and deeper, illuminating the shaft's wall and the rungs on its side in passing. Then it hit solid ground, they could still see the flames burning, a small and humble light in the depth below.

Paco grinned broadly at Yazir. “You go first, I climbed into that scorpion's nest first.”

Yazir sighed, it was true, Paco had gone into that crawling pit without fear, at least until they saw all the scorpions, then they had both made a run for the entrance as fast as they could.

“I will wait here and help if you need me,” Paco added with a rueful smile.

Yazir gave his burning torch to Paco, untied the rope they had used to open the altar from the statue on the head plate and pulled the camels closer to the gaping altar. Their other rope he slung around his torso, diagonally over the right shoulder. Holding the rope tightly with one hand he climbed over the edge into the darkness, while Paco was holding the torch above the shaft to light his way as far as the flame dared to reach.

When he reached the top of the ladder, he first tested the three upper rungs to see if they would hold his weight. They didn't budge, so he stepped on the ladder and let go of the rope, since it was too short to get him all the way down.

He started his descend, carefully testing each rung before he dared to put his whole weight on it. As the light from the torch above faded his surroundings sunk into darkness. First he did not see the ladder at his feet anymore and blindly felt for it in the dark, then he could not see his hands right in front of his eyes anymore. There was light above and below, from the still burning torch Paco had flung down, he could see it but the shaft itself was black and featureless, except for the protruding rungs of the ladder.

“Yazir, how is it going?” Paco shouted. The shaft gave his voice an uncomfortable echo.

Yazir stopped for a moment and looked up. He saw his companions face hanging over the rectangle of light that was the temples ceiling. “Fine,” he shouted back. “Splendidly.”

“Don't get lazy, Yazir. Your wife is waiting for you,” Paco's voice echoed back.

He didn't answer, instead breathed deeply and resumed his descend to what undoubtedly would be a treasure vault full of giant scorpions, Yazir imagined.

When the dim light under him started to cast a faint glow at his feet, he hastened his steps. Carelessly he put his weight on a loose rung, it came out with a fatalistic noise. Yazir slid down and bumped his chin into the rung in front of his face. Pain shot through his head and he let go of the ladder, plunging down. A scream almost escaped his mouth, but before it found its way out, he hit the ground hard with his back. First he only heard the thud of the impact, then dull pain embraced him and all he could do was lay still and let the worst of it pass.

“Yazir! Yazir!” Paco yelled from far above. “Yazir, are you alright?”

He opened his eyes unwillingly. The torch was burning at arms length to his right and bathed him in its unsteady orange glow. Without moving his body he looked up. Paco's head was a dark circle at the other end of the shaft. Slowly he tried to rise, the pain in his back suddenly made him feel old beyond his age. When had successfully lifted himself into a sitting position, he reached for the torch and picked it up.

He swung it from side to side and shouted up, “I fell, but I'm good!”

“You scared me, Yazir. Don't do that my friend!”

He smiled weakly and stood up with the speed and grace of a grandfather. Putting his free hand into his back he arched his spine with a knack and looked around, trying to spread some light with the torch. It was a large square room with rough stone walls, a stone floor and a very low ceiling, just high enough for him to stand upright. There were two wooden doors on opposite walls, a passage with a gate made of iron bars was on the third side, and a stone figure was standing before the wall on the remaining side, opposite of the gate.

Yazir walked to the statue holding the torch in his right hand before him. When he came closer, he saw it was the stone carved likeness of an old man in a long robe. He held both hands cupped together before him like a beggar. His face was full of deep wrinkles, his mouth and eyes were smiling together. This was the most friendly looking statue of a man Yazir had ever seen, most of them portrayed either heroes in warrior poses or important men with serious faces and various symbols of power in their hands.

He was about to turn away when he saw something in the statue's hands. Holding the torch right above them, he saw it was a key made of black wood. Yazir picked it up and was surprised how light it was in his hands. The surface was slightly rough and the bow was carved like overlapping flower leaves. It was a beautiful thing and Yazir wondered what treasures of even greater beauty it might unlock.

“Yazir, did you find anything? Gold? Jewels? Women?”, Paco's laughter rang hollow from above.

He put the key into the left pocket of his pants and walked back to the shaft. Paco's face had disappeared and there was only the small rectangle of light visible. Yazir turned to the passage with the iron gate. When he came close he saw a short hallway on the other side that bent around a corner at the edge of the torch's light. The gate was mounted on a sliding mechanism that disappeared into a narrow slit in the wall. It didn't move the slightest bit when Yazir tried to push it to the side. There was no obvious way to open it.

That left the two doors. From where he was standing they looked identical, in the dim half-light of his torch at least.

He mentally flipped a coin and walked to the door on his right side. The handle moved only reluctantly, but when he put his whole weight on it, it finally budged with a miserable creaking sound. Pulling the door open was even harder, the hinges protested rustily and loudly. Yanking at the handle, Yazir put his foot to the wall besides the door to get the necessary leverage. It was a power play between himself, the wall, the torch and the door. Finally it swung open and he almost lost his balance.

The torch lit a step's length of corridor on the other side of the door. Then a stone plate blocked the passage wall to wall, floor to ceiling. Two squiggly waves were carved in its middle but otherwise it gave no hint of its purpose. When Yazir walked up to it, a distant, booming rumbling came from deep within the surrounding walls.

He froze and listened intently, but the sound subdued and nothing else seemed to happen. Leaning against the plate he felt the rough surface under his palm, but it refused to move. Yazir started to wonder what kind of game this was supposed to be and went to the door on the other side that was the mirror image of the first.

Preparing for another fight and already putting his foot to the wall, the door opened almost easily and this time the surprise made him lose his grip on the handle and he fell backwards, hitting the floor with his bottom.

“Paco, next time you go down into the dark pit again!” he shouted over his shoulder at the shaft. He waited for an answer but none came.

Still sitting he looked up to see what his straining had gotten him. The door was a twin to the other not only from the outside. Behind it was another short span of corridor, blocked by another plate. Only there was a different symbol carved into its surface. Yazir got up and walked closer with the torch. And when he stepped upon the floor behind the door, there was another deep rumble from somewhere, this one was longer though and sounded even more threatening than the first. Again he waited silently, but nothing more happened. He held the torch up to see the symbol, it was a wave too, but different, more akin to a sand dune.

When he stepped back into the room, another rumbling sound came from the surrounding depths. It was alarmingly loud and deep, like giant blocks of stone sliding down a diagonal path. It reminded him uncomfortably of number four. The floor vibrated, the sand and the little pebbles started to move excitedly.

Yazir was afraid, this felt like the prelude to being buried alive in a giant contraption of stone. The scorpions were a distant second suddenly. He felt panic swelling up and stumbled to the spot below the shaft.

“Paco,” he screamed, “I think something really bad is happening here.”

I didn't feel like an adequate description at all and as everything around him started to vibrate stronger and stronger, the words lost their meaning.

Yazir heard a rushing noise, it grew louder and louder, and seemed to come from everywhere at once. Then the noise was right on the other side of both stone plates. He swallowed the last bit of moist in his mouth and looked up again. There was no sign of Paco, he was apparently alone in this.

Then the plates crashed into the chamber with a furious knock. Behind them were walls of sand and it disgorged into the empty space alarmingly fast. Before he had even realized what was going on, Yazir's feet were buried in the fine sand and it kept streaming from both sides seemingly without end. While he pictured how this would not end good at all, the iron gate suddenly opened by sliding into the wall.

All hesitation was gone from him and he sprinted into the luring hallway. Following the bend it took, he found himself in another room moments later. On the other side were two exits, both blocked by gates with iron bars, similar to the one he just had left behind. Yazir approached both and saw a flight of steps leading down behind the left gate and its upended twin leading up behind the right. Both gates had locking mechanisms with small keyholes in them.

He heard the sand creeping up on him and saw that it was already flowing around the bend and into this room. Then he remembered the black key he had taken from the statue and pulled it out of his pocket. The sandy deluge at his back made him decide to try the key on the right gate first, the one that promised ascension.

He turned the wooden key in the keyhole and in an instant the lock opened and the key bit burst apart with a brittle, little noise. Nothing but the key's bow was left when he pulled it back out, but the gate was open.

With the torch held high above his head, he walked up the stairs and soon they wound up higher and higher while the sound of the flowing sand still whispered from below. At the top Yazir found himself in a small room, barely large enough to turn around in. A small door was set in the wall. It had no handle, so he pushed hard against it with his shoulder. The door opened and he faced a wall at arm's length. Between the wall and some bulging, carved stone shapes on the right was barely enough space for him to squeeze through. When he had pushed to the other side, he realized that he had just come out of a hidden entrance behind the giant statue in the temple's sanctum.

The camels were still standing lazily besides the open altar, but there was no trace of Paco. Yazir walked over to them, his knees felt weak and his mouth was dry like sand. He took a wineskin that was filled with water from one of the saddles and drank a good gulp. Droplets of water were still falling from his chin when Paco came back and shouted, “Yazir! You are back!”

Yazir looked at him incredulous. “Where have you been?” he asked.

“I had too… water the desert,” Paco answered with a broad grin. “Did you find something? Some jewels? And how did you get back up?”

“No gold, no jewels, just sand. Lots of sand.”

Disappointment spread on Paco's face. “Oh well, that's not so bad. Have I told you that I got another map from a peddler in the forbidden streets? I'm sure we will find great riches soon, I can feel it in my toes, Yazir.”

Paco went on to describe how they would surely find the hidden treasures of king and court in the next tomb. Yazir listened with half an ear and occasionally nodded his approval while they led the camels out. Before they left the sanctum, he looked back over his shoulder at the statue and wondered what would have been behind the other gate.

Short Stories

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