On a world called Kolahvar, in a cave near the city of Mantua and three thousand paces from the cave entrance, Haytham slid on his belly beneath a bulging overhang. The flickering flame of his oil lamp, directed by a small mirror, revealed a larger chamber beyond the crawlway, and he decided to continue.
Soon he doubted his choice. A leather jerkin and pants protected his body, but the hard muscles of his shoulders, built by a decade of labor over an anvil, jammed repeatedly in the narrow tunnel as he pushed with his hobnailed sandals against the limestone earth.
He slipped the lamp into the next chamber and grasped the edge of the crawlway. A moment later, he pulled himself out of the passage and stood on a slender shelf at the edge of a black pool. A cold, damp breeze blew gently past his face, and from some distance came the rumble of falling water.
He checked the oil in his lamp. Almost gone, he thought. He hefted the metal flask of oil and spare lamp he carried in a bag at his waist. More than enough to get back. I’ll try for the waterfall, first.
The shelf widened into a rocky beach. The sound of plunging water swelled, becoming a roar, and a rock wall, higher than his light reached, blocked the way. A tap of his knuckle on the rock chimed above the thunder of the falls. He slid his hand along the wall’s striped face toward the side by the water. As thin as the spine of my knife blade. Holding his lamp behind the wall made it seem like a rind of bacon, with bands of lighter fat and darker meat glowing in the light. Since his fifteenth summer, he had explored these caves to see the strange and wonderful sights not found on the surface, and this wall was both.
He dipped a finger in the water. Cold. No help for it. I’ll get my feet wet. His sandal stirred the silt at the water’s edge as he worked his way around the bacon rind. Something glittered in the crystalline water.
“Eh. What’s this?” A swirl of his fingers in the water uncovered a coin nestled against the pool’s edge. “The Goddess curse him. Someone’s been here and dumped his trash.” He closed his hand around the coin and stood. Only his footprints marred the beach. He looked toward the still invisible waterfall. “Maybe I am the first here. Perhaps the coin washed down from the surface.”
A reedy voice spoke: “Neither answer is true, master, unless you don’t count me. Ask me and I’ll tell you how the coin came to be here.” Before Haytham could respond, the coin moved. “If you would allow me the use of your flame, I would be eternally grateful. The lake is so cold.”
He jerked his hand upward, exposing the coin. A diminutive man-like shape rose from the coin’s embossed surface. The figure grew to thumb height, its feet near the coin’s edge, its arms wrapped around a shivering body.
“What’s this?” Haytham rasped.
“The flame, master. Allow me your flame. Please. You must give your permission.”
He brought his hand close to the lamp.
“Please, master, your flame,” the man-shape repeated.
Haytham held the lamp closer. He barely finished saying “Warm yourself,” when the figure leaped into the fire and did a whirling dance. Two horns, a spiked goatee, and a barbed tail threw sparks as the wick flared under cloven feet.
Haytham almost dropped the lamp. “A demon!”
The creature completed one more turn. “An imp, master. Demons are much larger and not so handsome.”
He felt a slight pain in his hand and the imp squeaked. “Master, you’re bending my coin.”
He opened his hand. The coin, now blank on the upper side, made a small tent on his palm. The coin must be gold. He placed the lamp on the ground and flipped the coin over, exposing a five-pointed star.
“Master, you must restore my coin. It is the one thing I cannot affect.”
Haytham sat down beside the lamp. “Why should I? What are you, and why do you call me master?”
The imp made a formal bow inside the flame, one arm held across its waist and the other arm pointed behind. “The Goddess willed I am yours to command. By finding the coin, you begin my hundred years of servitude.” The imp spun toward the lake. “An eon ago, I was bound to the coin and cast into this icy water. Not a lake or ocean on the earth’s surface, but this light-less pond where no one would find me, such was my crime.” Haytham flinched away from the imp’s squeal. “Except you did find me, master. Ask, and if granting your wish is in my power, I will. But first you must straighten the coin. I can be in only two places: the coin, and where you bid me be, and the flame from this lamp is dying.”
The imp spoke the truth about the lamp. There is risk to this. Can I believe an imp? The flame sputtered. Even if not, I can’t stay here in the dark. He drew his knife.
“Master, what do you intend to do with that?” the imp yelped.
Ignoring the imp, He pressed the coin against the blade by the handguard. “Home with you,” he said when he heard the click of gold flattening to iron.
The imp disappeared from the flame before it flickered out, leaving Haytham in the complete and utter darkness found beneath the earth.
He fumbled in his pouch for oil and flint. “This would have been much easier if I had added the oil before the flame died.”
The imp’s voice spoke from the dark, “Would you like me to make a light, master?”
Haytham hesitated. He had heard stories about magical objects and demons granting a few wishes. Sometimes they did horrible things after the wishes were granted. “You did say you are here for a hundred years of servitude?”
“Could all those hundred years be for me?”
The imp’s laughter tinkled from the blackness. “If master needs me that long.”
“You will grant all my wishes?”
“I am not a god, master, but I’ll bestow those I can, starting with making a light if you want it.”
In for a fals, in for a drachm, he thought. “Yes, I wish for a light.”
The air chilled, and a swirl of color glowed above his head, gathering to a single point illuminating the beach and wall and casting hard-edged shadows.
The coin rested near his knee where he had dropped it. The imp gazed up from its glittering surface. “Perhaps you should hurry,” the imp said.
Haytham opened the metal flask and the stopper to the lamp. “Hurry? Why?”
“Even a demon can’t create light from nothing. The air in this chamber is near freezing. I am using what heat remains to fulfill your wish. Soon snow will fall on the lake.”
He felt his hands stiffen, and he took special care in filling the lamp. He replaced the stopper on the flask and picked up his flint and knife. A practiced stroke of flint against the spine of his knife lit the wick.
“End your light,” he ordered the imp. Once again, they were surrounded by the dancing shadows cast by flame rather than sharp edges from a single point.
Haytham gathered and repacked his gear. “Your magic seems nothing like that of my mother’s stories,” he said.
“What do humans know of magic,” the imp said, “even those who call themselves magicians? Is your mother one of those?”
“No. She kept my father’s house and told stories from her porch.” He pushed his knife into the sheath on his belt with a thump. “Three winters ago, she and my father died of the pox. She was not a magician.”
He picked up the coin, holding it by the edges between thumb and forefinger. “Enough of this. I must start back. If I’m to keep you, what’s the proper way to carry you? I can’t crawl with a lamp in one hand and this coin and you in the other.”
“I’ll enter the coin, again, master, and you can place it in your pouch.” The imp stared longingly at the lamp. Once again, its arms were wrapped around its body. “I should never have allowed you to see me. You should have thought your wishes granted by the coin, but I was so cold and the flame was so close.”
Haytham loosened his belt, exposing a hidden pocket buttoned against his skin. “Would this be better? Warmer and less chance of losing you?”
“You are too kind, master.”
With everything in its place, Haytham again wet his sandaled feet going around the bacon rind wall and walked back to the entry tunnel, where he paused and peered into the small opening. How did I get through that? The hole appeared much wider from the other end. He rubbed his shoulders. They still burned from his earlier crawl.
Something moved against his waist. Of course. The coin.
“Imp, widen this passage.”
“Step back, master, and cover your mouth and nose with a cloth.”
He retreated a few steps and pulled his jerkin over his lower face.
His new position must have satisfied the imp. A fine dust blew from the tunnel, growing in volume until a twisting wind swirled over the lake. The howling died, and the passage cut as straight as the shaft of an arrow through to the other side.
“I would have finished sooner,” the thin voice said, “except for the overhanging rock. The rest is limestone. The rock is granite. The bonds holding granite together are much harder to break.”
Haytham looked from the now muddy lake to the polished passage. “When I get out of here, please explain what you mean. For the moment, I’m trying not to be angry at myself for defiling this place, which I seek to leave as I find it. You tempt me and I succumb. You are a demon.”
The imp squealed. “I did nothing, master, except grant your wish.”
“I know. And that’s why I’m angry at myself and not at you.”