Call of the Exiles

Chapter 1 – Book 1


A jolt of pain shot along the back of his arm, and for a moment Nyl lowered the pickaxe and gritted his teeth, grimacing against the dull throb that spread all the way up to his shoulder. He stood there, hunched over in the dim light cast by the lantern standing on the floor a few feet away, one hand still holding onto the handle, the other gripping his right knee as he tried to force stunned muscles to break through the cramp.

In the near silence of the tunnel, he could hear his own strained breathing more loudly than the distant howling of the wind blowing through the mines.

He swore under his breath and forced himself upright to stare at the wall of rock in front of him. This cursed vein of iron had been his bane for almost two weeks now as he worked deeper and deeper along the seam. Most of the labour was arduous and monotonous, the ore-laced rock falling away in large chunks only with some effort, and Nyl knew it was his own complacence that led to the occasional shock that would come from hitting a tough spot too hard and not paying enough attention to how he was holding his pick.

It didn’t help that the tool was far beyond the day it should have been thrown back into the casting pits to be melted down and turned into something else, but penance miners were rarely given new tools, and most of the other souls in this section of the low delves managed to get by using tools that were much older and less efficient than his.

He lifted the pickaxe and searched its handle, shaft and blunt head for any signs of further damage but saw none.

A re-threaded grip was what it needed, he thought, seeing how thin the leather was. No wonder the skin on his hands was cracked. The edges of the handle were split and worn, and in places tiny slivers stuck out at odd angles. How long had it been since he’d bothered to maintain the thing? Three months? Six, maybe? He shook his head.

I no longer even keep track of that, he thought. And it was the first pride of any miner. Well, any free miner. But he wasn’t free, and with six more years of this toil over his head, he knew he would be too worn out and old to continue after the debt was paid.

With a deep breath, Nyl hefted the pick axe over his head and eyed the split in the rock seam that had caused him pain. The quarrymaster of the day’s shift, one Drenas Briarscorn, was still quite young, and over-keen in Nyl’s opinion, and he knew that if even one pick stopped resounding among the din of many, the whelp would hear the difference and come looking for the culprit that had stopped working. And whether he had respect for that worker or not, the punishment for failure to work was more than Nyl could stomach today.

He breathed out a sharp burst of air, gritted his teeth once more and swung hard, leaning into the strike. He was rewarded when the offending chunk of dense ore fell away and rolled to the floor to sit in the pile of loose rubble. For a few seconds, Nyl thought he saw the colour of granite behind the crack in the iron ore, and he lowered the pick. He reached down to retrieve his lantern and shone the dim light into the gap. His heart sank. More iron. It’d been a trick of the light—or lack of it.

He cursed for the second time in a few minutes. His eyes were not what they used to be, either. In his much younger years, when his life was his own, he’d had the keenest eyes. When he first started working in the mines he was able to spot a potential vein of rare ore just by the slightest changes in the colour of the rock, but now his senses were slowly deteriorating. He’d noticed it over the last few years. Sometimes he had to squint just to see clearly.

And you’re but a few days past your thirty-fifth yearday, he thought. Not even close to forty years old, and your back is starting to turn crooked and your eyes are failing.

Nyl sighed, placed the lantern back down on the ground, and turned to lift his pick again, but then he stopped and frowned. He stood up straight, listening intently, trying to figure out what had just changed.

A cold breeze blew down the tunnel, brushing against his face, almost instantly making his eyes begin to water. Something significant was different, but somehow Nyl couldn’t place what it was. To his left, a small piece of rock fell to the floor, voluntarily giving up its battle against him. It clattered among the others that had fallen just moments before, and it was then that he noticed the echo.

Nyl’s eyes opened wide as he realised that the change wasn’t with him; it wasn’t even in his little section of the spider-web of tunnels. It wasn’t the noise of the other miners, or the howl of the chilling wind. It was the lack of it. He couldn’t hear a single other man-made sound echoing through the caverns. There were no distant clinks of pickaxes hitting rock, no voices mumbling in the dark, no sounds of carts straining with the weight of ore being shunted to the surface. All he could hear was the sound of the wind blowing along the tunnel, whistling as it travelled along the many winding corridors, his current work spot and alcove along from which the massive iron ore vein jutted.

Other than the low howl of the wind, all that greeted him was silence.

And it was that lack of sound that he focussed on, standing there in the near-dark, with his pick hanging limply from his hand. If he hadn’t heard the whistling howl of the wind twisting its way to the lower caverns, Nyl would have thought he had gone completely deaf. That would have been the last of it, he thought. Bad back, gnarled hands, failing eyes and then to go deaf. He looked down at his day’s labour, a smattering of rocks on the floor, and scuffed his boot against the pile. There was a clatter as some of the smaller rocks fell into gaps between the larger ones. It was enough of a haul.

No, not deaf. And not yet blind, and it seemed the only damn miner in the whole mine still working. They had been there a moment before, hadn’t they? The usual background sounds, a thousand distant clinks and clanks, drowned out by the loud banging of his own pick. Or had they been there? Had the noise stopped hours before and he’d just carried on without noticing?

Puzzled, he looked over to the pile of oil flasks that lay just a dozen feet away inside the entrance to the alcove.

Could he have misjudged the time? No, he didn’t think so. He was sure that no more than half an hour had passed since he had refilled the lantern. It couldn’t be break time yet, surely?

The oil flasks confirmed this. Two lay on the floor, empty, right next to the four still full flasks. Break time was halfway through the day, and his oil would tell him when that was. And yet everyone had stopped working, it would seem.

Unless something was wrong? Had there been an alarm he hadn’t noticed? Not possible. No, he was determined that his hearing was almost as good as when he had been ten yeardays. He would swear on that much. There was no way he could have missed the blaring noise of the siren. That thing was so loud that he could hear it echoing miles away along the corridors of the caverns. And anyway, if the alarm had been sounded, it would still be blaring away.

But something was wrong, and he had to go and find out what it was. He picked up the lantern and the leather loop to which the oil flasks were attached, patted the rope and hook that was wrapped around his body for the eventuality of needing to climb out of a sinkhole, swung his pickaxe over his shoulder and started to trudge up the tunnel.

A hundred yards on, Nyl reached another alcove, this one cutting twenty feet into the rock. Allon, an old man who could have been working in the mine before Nyl was even born, should have been there, but the tunnel was abandoned. Nyl called out and listened to his own voice echoing back at him, unanswered. He lifted his lantern and peered into the short corridor that Allon had been carving into the iron ore vein for the last week and saw a pile of rubble like the one he had just left behind. But that wasn’t what drew his attention. Instead, his gaze fixed on the pickaxe lying on the ground just two feet from the rockface.

He trudged up the short corridor, knelt, and picked up the pickaxe, turning it over in his hand. The handle was still warm. Allon had been there very recently but was nowhere to be seen now. The old man would never have left his pickaxe behind. Also, on the floor, just a few feet away, far enough to not be damaged by falling rocks but close enough to cast a reasonable amount of light, was Allon’s lantern, and a few feet further along the tunnel lay the man’s pile of oil flasks, propped up next to a leather bag. Nyl recognised the bag immediately—it was Allon’s. The man always kept it with him, refusing to leave it in the bunk cavern.

Nyl stepped toward the bag and knelt next to it, reaching out and almost touching it, before pulling his hand back. He was curious to see what the secretive old rooster kept in it, but decided that Allon would be furious if he found out, and that was more trouble than it was worth.

But surely Allon had to be nearby? The old man wouldn’t just leave his spot with his gear lying there where anybody could mess with it. He looked down at the ground, scanning the flat surface of the tunnel, and spotted the footprints. They led away from the alcove, alongside the set that he had made coming up the corridor, but this set of footprints turned left at the end.

Nyl followed the prints, thankful that there was little movement allowed while the miners were working, at least not until they had reached the end of their shift and the barrows were sent back and forth to gather what had been mined. Dust clogged the air and drifted to the floor, gradually coating it in a layer of black dust, covering footprints from just hours before, so the fresh set leading back up the corridor toward the centre of the delve was easy to follow.

But he still couldn’t hear anyone moving about. Sure, the loudness of the wind would cloak most noise, but he should still hear something.

Nyl held the lantern out in front of him and followed the tracks until he came to the next junction and yet another alcove. This was twice the size, with passages leading off both left and right, meaning the seam was thick here and two miners should have been working there.

Nothing. No one. Only more abandoned picks, discarded oil flasks, and two more sets of footprints leading in the same direction as old Allon’s.

“This is nonsense,” Nyl said, surprised for a moment at the loudness of his own voice. He barely spoke when working. There wasn’t really much point, when the nearest living soul wouldn’t be likely to hear you unless you raised your voice, something that would bring down the wrath of the quarrymaster.

He sped up, thinking that the other miners must be just up ahead. If they were walking along the passages without even carrying a lantern they wouldn’t see very well and were probably stumbling and bumping into one another. But after a few hundred yards he had passed a dozen alcoves and the footprints were now a mess, and still there was no sign of anyone else.

Nyl slowed to a stop, his stomach churning. He wanted to go ahead, follow the prints and find out where everyone was, but at the same time a chill was pinching at his nerves, and not from the cold breeze. It was his own instinct telling him to turn back and hide in the dark of the tunnels.

Then the first figure came into view ahead of him, along the chiselled passageway that wound its way through the rock. It was one of the miners, he was sure of it, but the man seemed dazed and confused. Nyl sped up, closing the distance between them.

“Who is that?” he called when he was ten feet away. The man turned but didn’t look directly at him. His eyes seemed to pass through Nyl as though he weren’t there. He was tall for a miner and looked younger than most.

“Hey!” called Nyl. He thought he recognised the man, but he wasn’t from Nyl’s tunnel. Maybe he had seen him in the bunk cavern. There were enough miners down here—hundreds, even—to not know everyone, and Nyl could count on two hands how many of the workers he knew well enough to sit and play a game of dice with.

The man didn’t respond, instead he turned back to the darkness ahead and began his slow walk once more. Nyl thought he was close to stumbling, his steps uneven. After a few months in the mines you got used to the bumpy ground, yet this man walked as though he were treading a cobbled street for the first time.

“Where are you going?” he asked. “Where did everyone else go?” Again, no response. Frowning, Nyl sped up and caught up with the other man, but he didn’t go too close. There was something odd going on —maybe with all the miners—and Nyl didn’t want to catch it. He’d heard of all manner of strange ailments over the years, and some had said that there were even illnesses that you could catch just by breathing the air that others had breathed. That thought made him shudder and he retched before grabbing the neck of his shirt and using it to cover his mouth.

He followed the lone miner along the passage, judging by the locations of lantern hooks embedded in the walls and the curvature of the rock face that they were close to the first main cavern, now. There were eight main caverns near the centre of this level of the mine complex, just as there were on all levels, and each had a purpose. The first they would reach, maybe another hundred yards further on, was the sorting hall, where the wheelbarrows would be gathered and the ore from the day’s work accounted for.

It should be noisy up here, he thought. There should be a constant din of the larger rocks being broken up and the loading of the carts for taking up to the lift hall. But what he heard was almost silence. Almost. There was a noise coming from somewhere now. He couldn’t place it, but as they neared the end of the passage and the opening widened out into the sorting hall, the sound grew a little louder, but it was still distant.

It was the scraping of boots on rocks, he thought, and not nearby, but further up into the upper caverns. But there were no voices and no coughing. Both were expected but were absent, and the sorting hall was empty of workers.

The sorting hall marked the entrance to the mines themselves; four passages led out of it that would split and spider their way deeper and deeper along the seam of ore for half a mile. It was the same with all the mines above them, though most of those had been almost picked clean now, and the workers up there were only tasked with finding any missed remnants of the ore seams. Down here at the deepest mine—the low delves—was where most of the work, and Nyl’s life, was.

Over at the far end of the sorting hall the tracks ran toward the lift hall, another large cavern where half a dozen other miners normally worked through the late shift, sending heavy barrels of ore to the surface. Nyl left the empty sorting hall and made his way along the track and into the lift hall, where a dozen filled barrels were lined up waiting to be hauled upwards.

The hoist platform the miners used to haul the ore from the lower levels and up to the high delve, ready to be taken out of the mine, was dormant, and two barrels lay on their sides, their tops open and their contents spilled onto the ground.

In the middle of the lift hall the dozen or so rough wooden benches—used by all the miners for taking their infrequent breaks—would normally have been occupied by at least two or three guards and usually the quarrymaster, but even that area was abandoned.

Nyl walked over to the nearest bench and lifted a tankard that had been discarded. It was still half-full, and the sharp smell of ale filled his nostrils.

None of it made any sense to him at all, and he stood in the middle of the hall and watched the dazed miner trudge across the cavern floor toward the hoist. He tried several more times to catch the man’s attention, but it was useless.

He could strike the man a sharp slap across the face. Maybe that would bring him to his senses. But what if he did and the man went mad? There were no guards where they should be and no other miners. The sound of boots on the rock had almost ceased. No. It would do him no good to anger the man. He had to find out where everyone else had gone.

The whole thing was crazy. Something had happened that had passed him by, missing him when it had caught everyone else down here—possibly even the guards, too. But what? There was nothing down in the mines, so far under the earth, other than the miners. Sometimes they had infestations of rats, but it had been a couple of years since the last, and other than that the mines were a place of solitude. That was the punishment, part of why a period in the mines was such a common sentence even for petty crimes. Offenders should spend their time considering their misdemeanour so that when their time was up they would step out into the sunlight newly focussed and repentant, no longer a threat to the peace.

Nyl lifted one of the flickering lanterns from the table and walked off in the direction of the stumbling miner. Somehow, even in his state of stupor, the man seemed to know where he was going, and Nyl decided that must be where the others had gone too.

They entered the north corridor out of the lift hall and passed the main stairwell. Nyl stopped and looked up the shaft, listening for any signs of movement or voices, but nothing answered his hopes. He frowned and briefly considered leaving the stunned miner and whoever else was down there, and making for the stairs to seek assistance. The winding stairs disappeared upwards into the dark. It was a good hour’s journey up those stairs until you reached the fresher air in the upper mines and the prison bunkhouse, and another hour longer to reach the high delve.

There was no noise on the stairs, and that meant that wherever everyone had gone, they were all still down here somewhere—even the guards and the quarrymaster.

He shook his head and jogged to catch up with the miner. The man was just reaching the edge of the light the lantern cast, and he didn’t want to lose him in the dark.

There was a fifty-foot corridor from the stairs to the next hall, but off that were a dozen other passages that were originally dug when the prospectors came down this far, years before. Some of them led for miles and miles up and down twisting and splitting passages. They were blocked by a single board across the tunnel entrance, wedged into the wall on either side at about waist height, but that wouldn’t be difficult to crouch under or fall over if you weren’t of your right mind. If a miner was to head down one of them, he could be lost in minutes and never be seen again. Nyl had heard that some of those corridors led so far that you could cross half of the Narrowfang mountains before you came to the end of them.

But the miner stumbled on, ignoring all the barred paths, and didn’t hesitate as he walked out into the central cavern. He stumbled onward over the uneven ground, heading towards the middle of the vast, open space. Nyl didn’t follow him. Instead, he stopped at the entrance, fearful and unable to push himself to enter, afraid of what he saw there. No, afraid would have been mild. He was terrified.

Gathered in the shadows of the hall were the other miners and the guards. Most stood motionless, but some seemed to be confused, and wandered along the jagged walls as though they were looking for something that wasn’t there. Some bumped into each other but then continued their meandering, seemingly oblivious to the others around them.

In the centre of the hall stood a gaggle of such individuals, and it was this group that the miner Nyl had stumbled into. He didn’t stop and knocked two of them to their knees as he staggered forward and shoved his way past them. He seemed unaware of them, and they of him, for the two that fell simply stood again, their brows creased with confusion, and continued to stand on the spot where they had before. The miner stumbled onwards and disappeared into the darkness of the cavern.

Nyl took a step back into the passage, the urge to leave almost unbearable, but then he glanced to his left along the wall and saw none other than Allon standing nearby. The old man was breathing heavily, his chest heaving as he leaned against the rock wall. Nyl edged out of the entrance and moved quickly along the wall, grabbing Allon by the arm and turning him.

“Allon,” he said, his voice a whisper that still seemed to echo around the chamber. Nyl glanced away as several of the other miners turned in his direction, their eyes looking for something but not focussing on him. He turned back to Allon. The old man’s eyes were glazed over, the bright hazel now a dull brown. He seemed to be trying to focus but wasn’t finding Nyl. “Snap out of it, you dolt.”

Allon blinked and then frowned. His gaze drifted over Nyl’s features, and then his eyes went wide. “Ny-”

“Yes, you fool,” Nyl whispered, grabbing the man by the shoulder and hauling him towards the entrance. Some of the other figures shifted and turned to look in their direction, and Nyl shivered as they seemed to search for him but saw nothing. The nearest man spat a glob of phlegm to the floor, his expression distorted with annoyance, but still he didn’t look directly at Nyl.

“Come on, you oaf,” Nyl whispered as Allon tried to struggle.

“It calls,” said Allon, his voice barely audible.

“What?” Nyl asked as they reached the entrance. He pulled the older man a few feet further into the darkness. “What you say?”

“Don’t you hear it?” asked Allon. “It’s calling.” He stared into the cavern, where the other miners’ shadows moved silently.

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Nyl. “But you’re scaring the hell out of me. What’s going on in there?”

“Can’t you hear it, boy?” Allon asked, grabbing his shirt back from Nyl and tightening it against his chest. “Damnedest of things, it is. Darkness an’ all. I can feel it.”

Nyl shuddered again, and this time he felt a pressure building on his temples. The darkness inside the cavern seemed to deepen, seemed to be pressing in on him, and he found it difficult to focus.

“It’s coming,” Allon said, the panic in his voice rising. “It’s coming for us, for all of us. We have to go.”

Before Nyl could grab him, Allon hurried off along the passageway, colliding with the wall before righting himself and running onwards into the darkness. He was out of sight in a moment.

“Wait for me!” Nyl cursed, running after him. He looked back at the lantern that was now sitting on the floor near the entrance, cursed again for not picking it up, and then ran after Allon.

He reached the stairway, expecting to find the old man staggering upwards, but in the light coming from the hall nearby he could see that Allon wasn’t on the stairs. He looked across the lift hall and saw the shadow of the old man just before he vanished into the mines. “You old fool,” he shouted. “We need to go up, not down there.”

A shriek sounded from the corridor behind him; it was far away, as far at least as the central hall where the other miners were, Nyl thought. But what the hell was that noise? It wasn’t human, that was certain. No man or woman could make such a sound. If it was, then hell only knew what horror they were being subjected to.

I can’t stay here, he thought.

He ran forward, crossing the lift hall, and reached the other side. Allon was long gone, and not to somewhere that he knew. Just a few feet away, where the first barricaded passage began, he could see the wooden bar splintered and broken on the ground where the old man had run through it.

He’s run off into the far delves, Nyl thought. Lords forbid.

Nyl turned back. There was little he could do for the old man now except hope he somehow found his way out. As he crossed the lift hall once more, Nyl heard more shrieks coming from the passage ahead, and shadows moved across the uneven wall.

Just as he reached the middle of the hall, with the idea of reaching the stairwell on his mind, hopefully before whatever was shrieking got there, the first of the miners burst into the lift hall. The man was running but didn’t seem to have complete control of his own limbs. His legs struggled to keep up, and his body lurched forward, arms outstretched, as he rushed toward Nyl. Nyl looked beyond the man, and saw more figures, most likely the other miners, stumbling into the cavern, each in a hurry to get somewhere.

But the first miner wasn’t trying to run across the room. He seemed to be half-running, half-stumbling directly toward Nyl. Nyl stepped a few feet to his right, and the man turned with him, still stumbling onward. When he was twenty feet away, the man staggered into a ray of light shining from a lantern hanging from a rope, and Nyl saw his face. He nearly screamed, but instead felt bile rise in his throat. Where the miner’s eyes had once been, now there was just a pit of blackness. Dark, spidering lines spread across the man’s white-pale skin like tentacles.

Nyl backed away, then felt something touch his shoulder. He did scream this time, and spun around, his hands fumbling to defend himself against whatever had crept up on him, but instead he found the hoist chain that was used to haul the platform up the mine shaft, its thick steel links cold to the touch.

Up, he thought. Go up. Climb. And he did, grasping hand over hand, foot by foot, moving up and away from the ground. He barely needed his feet to grip onto the chain, such was the strength in his arms from years of mining. His body may have wasted somewhat from lack of nutrition and over-work, but his arms were muscular and powerful, easily able to hold the rest of him.

He felt something scuff against his leg as he rose, and glanced down. Below, the miner had found the bottom of the chain and was clawing at the air underneath him, grabbing at his legs and feet. Nyl pulled harder, moving further up the chain until the miner could no longer reach him, and only then did he look back down again.

There were four of them now, each of them once a miner like he, but even in the dim light from the lanterns that hung from ropes on the ceiling, he could make out that they had eyes as dark as the unlit caverns themselves. They were sick, he knew. All of them. Something had done this to them.

It’s coming for us, for all of us. That was what Allon had said. What had done this? Some fell creature? Nyl did not want to find out.

Dozens more miners were pouring into the hall from the corridor. Nyl squinted as he looked down at the man at the very bottom. Was the man hissing at him? He thought so. The miner’s mouth gaped wide open, showing a maw of teeth that looked much too sharp to be owned by a healthy human. Blood dripped from the man’s mouth, and Nyl thought that he could see splits in his gums.

Nyl glanced across the hall towards the mine entrance, and then upwards, following the line of the chain as it loomed in the darkness above for what seemed like forever. It was a long way up. Hundreds, maybe thousands of feet. But he had no choice now. All he could do was climb. Not to would mean joining the men below.

“Keep running, Allon,” he shouted. “Just keep running.” Then he started up the chain, once more gripping hand over hand, his legs only loosely wrapped around the links below him. There was a pinprick of light above, in the far distance, and it looked a million miles away. But he could do it, he thought. He could climb out.

Keep climbing, he told himself. Just keep climbing.