“I don’t remember ever seeing it that dim,” Eljar muttered.
“There’s several good veins past the Black Valley,” his uncle reminded him, “and there’s potential beyond the Empty Sea. And that doesn’t count where we’re going.”
“I know. Eljar turned away from the city and continued up the winding path alongside his uncle. “But what happens when there’s no more? It’ll run out eventually. Then there’ll be no more light.”
His uncle shook his bearded head. “That’s not out concern. Our job is to mine the light and bring it back.”
They traveled with a group of near fifty miners with six light orbs between them. They ascended the City Stairs, a path well-known to them all. It curved along the Cavern of the City and opened into the Wide Expanse, a room with a ceiling hundreds of feet high. While a distance from the city, events were sometimes held here rather than along the Shoreline closer to the city proper.
Eljar joined the singing after the mining party turned into Elmo’s Detour. It helped pass the time and helped lift his gloomy spirits.He was not the only one concerned about the eventual end of light. Many of the younger generation could see the signs. The long-used mines were running dim, and the new ones took greater and greater effort to harvest because of distance and location. Eljar wanted to prepare his people for the coming darkness, wanted to help reorganize society upon proper lines, but those in power hemmed and hawed and did nothing.
Eljan usually fell into the routine of travel after the first night, listening to the oft-repated stories and innocently crude jokes of the men, and when they arrived at the work site, he worked deligently, swinging his pick with the pleasure of exertion. Food never tasted as good as after those long days of work. Sleep was as inviting as a kiss. He did not think of tomorrow or the next day, he did not worry of the future of his race and the necessity of saving everything by his efforts. He worked and sweated and laughed and slept. He remembered his worries only once he returned to the city and to his circle of friends.
But this time was different. Day by day the darkness grew more oppressive. The dozen orbs that illuminated the path seemed, in his mind, to flicker, like a prophecy of the end of the days of light. The coarse joking and worn-out stories were thin and tattered; he could sense naked desperation beneath them. Every step was a waste, a fool’s expedition, a blind man’s journey. The light would eventually go out. Eljan was convinced of it now more than ever. If only he could make them see!
The expected days of travel passed, then two more as they wend their way through uncleared territory. They squeezed through slivers of passage, sidling sideways, scraping by, abandoning their wagons until they could widen the way later.
When they finally emerged from these tangles, natural, un-harvested light blinded them—but it was a trick of the eyes. Even a handful of pristine light could blind one used to the dark.
They began their work.
Eljar grew angry. Each swing of his pick felt a mockery and a betrayal. His friends back home were laughing at him, doubting his convictions. His uncle didn’t understand. None of these men did. Buthe understood. He wiped the sweat from his face, repressing a cry of rage. He wanted to throw down his tools and stomp away and savor his co-workers’ reactions.
Three days passed. Wretched, monotonous, futile days. Vast amounts of light were being harvested. He chose a narrow dead-end away from the others where he could escape their songs. He cursed when his arms shuddered beneath a blow. He flung the freed jewels of light into a pile, wanting nothing more than to be done with it all.
With a final blow, he dislodged another, tossed it aside, and decided to rest. A cavity gaped in the opening his work had created. Something about it caught his eye. He could sense light. He peered in. The cavity became a tunnel, just large enough for someone to fit into. He squeezed in, his curiosity growing, and followed it up as it ascended, the brightness increasing until he had to shield his eyes. Soon, he could not even continue forward the light was so bright. He did not know if a lode so bright had been found in a century, perhaps not since the loss of the Sky and the Sun. How far up did this tunnel go?
He made up his mind. Maneuvering down and out, he gripped his pick in his hand and smashed the surrounding rock, his muscles burning, his breath ragged. It was what need to be done.
They must prepare for the coming darkness. The light would only prolong hope.
For the first time since the expedition began, Eljar smiled.