Tuesday, July 20, 2010


That was the only red tile of the floor. A dark shade of red, resembling dried blood. Its surface was dulled by time and covered with a thin layer of dust, but the eyes of the intruder still saw it red.

Nothing had disturbed the heavy silence of that room in many decades. Except the occasional bugs and spiders that crept under the solid door and through the huge, broken stained glass window. But that was a long time ago, right after the first earthquake.

Back then, people were sometimes entering that hall, seeking shelter from some heavy thunderstorm. They had to make great efforts to open the massive door at the entrance, but most of them managed to enter the warm, rotting building. They never dared to wander deeper inside it, though. Once inside, they seemed to be overwhelmed by the size of the lobby. They usually looked around for a corner to settle into, and most of them picked one of the corners on the far side of the room. Perhaps they felt safer if they could watch the entrance.

Sometimes there was a group of people. Some merchants who crossed the mountain through that pass, on their way to the city beyond, to the north. These ones used to wander around a bit, but none of them left the hall to venture further inside. Most of the time there were lonely travelers, though. These didn't have the guts to walk around, they just darted to their far corner and fell into tired heaps. And none of the living souls that ever entered stepped on the red tile, not once. It was like some kind of magic was pushing them away from it. One would wonder if they ever noticed it.

One of the merchant groups never left that old lobby. An assassin from a rival guild poisoned their food. They met their ends after a short agony, in the north-eastern corner. That was almost fifty years ago, four years before the last great earthquake completely buried the building inside the side of the mountain. Several wooden chests were still scattered around that corner, among the bleached bones of the men. One of the lonely travelers who came after them managed to break one of the chests and some of its content still lied around, covered with debris. It looks like the looter was not interested in old books that were written in a language unknown to him. So he burned some of them along with several pieces of wood from the broken furniture that was lying around. He had to eat and keep himself warm, after all.

Then the big earthquake came. Large chunks of rock fell from the mountain and around the building, blocking the heavy reinforced doors. Silence and darkness fell upon the hall. Nobody was able to tell that there was a building there anymore. The rocks covered everything, including the tall western tower. The only thing that could still be seen was a golden glimmer of light, barely escaping through the pile of stones on top of the tall tower. Snow never covered that spot, the warmth underneath melted it. But who was there to notice all those details?

Fifty years of silence passed and nobody ever stopped to look at the rocky slope. The hall entered a deep slumber and the dried fountain in its center guarded its sleep. Moss and lichens grew on the rocks outside. Enough soil gathered here and there, allowing patches of grass and wildflowers to grow.

Then the silence was broken. First there was the sound of sliding rocks around the stained glass window. Then a shy sun ray landed on the red tile. Someone peered through the opening but left soon, because he couldn't see too much in the darkness below. The sound of moving rocks drifted away, but didn't stop until late in the night.

The next day, the sounds came closer again. They were approaching the doors this time. Someone was trying to clear the way into the building. That was so odd that even the birds fell silent. Even the bees were avoiding the stranger who was working so hard on those stones. He cleared the stones near the door hinges, and then started to remove the pile that was blocking the door. He seemed to be determined to complete his task, although an observer would have wondered why on earth would someone want to expose that old ruin.

But the stranger knew something that few other people were aware of. And of the other few people who knew, only one appeared to care about it. He knew that once that was a wizard tower. Even more than that, he knew what kind of magic its inhabitants were practicing. He was not a wizard, nor was he a sorcerer. He was a thief. Doing a commission for an old man who was just wealthy enough to afford to pay him. So he just wanted to get his job done and go home. He didn't like that creepy old man with his weird requests.

But the tile didn't know all that. It also didn't want to know. Assuming that a red, dusty tile could care about such things. It just sat there, looking odd among the other tiles.

The first thing the stranger noticed was the junk in the north-eastern corner. But he took a quick look around the room before he went there. Chests? Books? He tried to pick one book, but it crumbled to dust between his fingers. He then opened the chests and inspected their content, only to close them again, with a disappointed look on its face. He then took his time to look around further. The fountain! Could it be hidden somewhere around the fountain? Maybe in the fountain?

He almost stepped on the red tile on his way to the fountain. The red marble was smooth, although it had several dents. But that was all. The fountain had no secrets. He straightened his back and looked around again. Only several pieces of rotten wood were scattered around the hall. The rest of the furniture had long ago turned into ashes, being burned by the travelers.

He then started checking the walls. He touched every single stone that looked unusual, but he didn't find anything. No secret mechanism whatsoever. He returned to the fountain, looked up at the stained glass window and sat on the red marble rim. There was little time left until sunset. And then what? Maybe spend the night with the skeletons in the corner. The thought amused him, but there still was a chill running down his spine.

The thief was contemplating the idea of going deeper inside the tower. Torches? Check. It appeared that what he was looking for was not in the lobby. However, he took out a worn, leather-bound notebook and opened it. The old man said that it was somewhere in the lobby. But there was no furniture left and the walls didn't hide anything.

Then he noticed the tiled floor. Black marble tiles. Some of them intact, some of them broken, and some of them missing. And one of them red.

Why red? Could it be that because the old man said that the ruby was the sacred stone of the Order? Yes, that could be it. And, in that case, the thing may be somewhere around that tile. Maybe the red tile was just red because it was the proper color and the hall had to have a symbolic representation of the... Gah, okay, that didn't make much sense to him, so he decided to check the tile.

He came closer, then he searched for traps. If the book was hidden there, then there should be some traps around. He couldn't find any traps. The old man told him that the key was "northern nine", so he stood facing north and proceeded to count the tiles in that direction, starting with the first black one. The ninth tile had an etched circle on its face, but it was so thin that he could barely see it. He stood on top of the tile and jumped nine times. And he heard something clicking.

When he returned to the red tile, he noticed that the dust around its margins was gone. He took out his dagger and tried to lift the tile. Great, he could lift it without much trouble, although the tile was rather large and thick. Odd, it had sharp margins, and he cut his hand on it. Several drops of his blood fell through the opening. The space beneath the tile was larger than expected, and something was glowing faintly in there. Glowing red. And it looked like it was covered with a piece of cloth.

He didn't move the tile aside. He just propped it up using his dagger, so that he could reach down and touch the glowing thing. Yes, it was wrapped in something that felt like velvet. Black velvet, perhaps. A satchel? He tried to pull the satchel but it was somehow attached to the ground. Then he decided to take the tome out of the satchel. The old man had told him something. He told him to use elven cloth and wrap the tome in it if he couldn't take the satchel. The old man also said that nothing else would have worked. But he didn't have time for stupid superstitions. The elven village was several days away, deep in the forest.

The book burned his hand. Then he caught a glimpse of a deep red globe of energy, and choked on the black smoke it released in his face. Why did it smell like incense? He managed to pull his arm out of the hole, but he wasn't quick enough. The last sound he heard was the red tile falling upon his wrist, severing his hand and sealing the hiding place.

But he didn't live long enough to feel the pain.