When first I heard about the Amulet of Yearning, I didn’t know of the simplicity of its beauty, nor the tremendous danger that lurked within its power.
It was a warm and dry afternoon in the desert of Forah. My sodden tunic hugged my body, soaking up my sweat, with no breeze to caress and wipe away the salty beads that crowned my forehead. It was the third day Benadar and I had been wandering through the endless gritty landscape, our feet kicking up the burning sand, which clung to the back of our bony shanks.
“It’s only a day’s hike away,” Benadar had said to me three nights before, as we were throwing dice made of knuckles in the city’s dusty and quiet marketplace. “All merchants talk of it, but none has dared to go looking.” Benadar’s voice had dropped to a whisper then, even though most of the men and women had retired for the night to houses made of clay and sand and straw.
I still remembered the dice’s edge cutting into my skin as I clenched my fist around it, excited and scared at the same time. It hadn’t been the first time the thief’s cave was brought to my attention. Most of the merchants in our city knew of the legend. A long-abandoned cave that once served as a hiding place for the plunder of a band of roaming thieves who had since been captured and slaughtered by our ruler.
The leader of the band, bent under the weight of torture and threats to curse his spirit, had succumbed and confessed to the ruler’s torturers the existence of the cave.
Many had wondered at the time about the brutality that nestled in the heart of our ruler, for it wasn’t his way to kill—torture the thieves and throw them in the dungeon, yes, but killing, for him, it was another matter. It wasn’t long after that when the rumors started spreading among the guild of merchants. The ruler had lost to the hands of thieves a powerful amulet—the Amulet of Yearning—a precious talisman that had the power to fulfill your heart’s deepest desires. A dangerous artifact like this explained the actions of our beloved ruler.
Soon after came the ruler’s orders: a rich reward beyond anyone’s dreams for the one who restored the amulet to its rightful owner. The only thing the ruler asked was for the one who found it not to dare place it around his neck—the amulet was not to be trusted.
Neither were the ruler’s orders, in the eyes of the men, as I would hear later in the market. The rumors started as mere breezes at first, whispering of the ruler’s dishonesty: It must have been the case that whoever wore the necklace would get their heart’s deepest desire. And the ruler must have feared some would want to take his place.
On the first day, some men left—of those, we heard no more. Neither did our ears perceive again the voices of the men who went after them, or the ones after them. Every man who ever went to look for the cave and retrieve the amulet got lost, or worse, met with a deadly fate before his time.
“The desert should not be taken lightly,” I had preached to Benadar two nights before he proposed to search for the cave. He’d merely smiled and nodded his head, but offered me no words.
The next day, right after the morning prayer and as the dust was settling down from all the feet of men and women who trudged to their tasks, Benadar had come to me, cradling a rolled papyrus and twisting his lips into a smile that showed his crooked teeth. “Here,” he said, brandishing the paper, “is the map that will guide our steps.”
I furrowed my brow and pursed my lips. Benadar was kind and honest, and I was afraid he had fallen prey to the various schemes thieves had come up with to entice the minds of those who were fast to believe. Some of them promised they knew the way to read the stars that would lead to the cave in less than a thousand steps, and some of them waved trinkets that clinked and smelled of sweaty leather, promising they possessed unique powers that parted the sand before your feet and showed the way to the cave. To all of these, I always posed the same question: “Why don’t you take your own medicine, then?” And always I would earn myself an angry glare and a venomous scowl before they shoved me aside to look for men who were more gullible and easier to part from their coin.
Benadar must have guessed my feelings, for he shook his head and gave me the most earnest smile he could muster. “This is different, my friend. We are merchants, and I got this from people in our guild. Told them I wanted to go west, looking for the trading village by the riverbank. I bought this map for only two pieces. And when I studied it …” He dropped to his knees then, unfolding the delicate papyrus on the floor and placing a merry finger on a small spot at its center. “I found this.”
I joined my old friend on the ground, curious to see what he had found. On the brown surface of the map, several small scribblings marked places of interest for the likes of men like us—merchants who liked to travel and know the world and its treasures. Beneath Benadar’s finger rested a small circular mark with a dot adorning its middle. The unmistakable symbol of a cave.
“How do you know this is the one?” I asked, although my heart had surely fluttered in my chest. The cave’s location matched all the descriptions the thief leader had spouted under the pressure of the ruler’s torture.
Benadar smiled. “I just know it. Will you join me, my friend?”
I pushed myself to my feet. “I am not sure, Benadar. The ones who haven’t returned are many …”
“They were not like us. We are trained merchants and know well how to cross the unfriendly paths of the sea of sand. And now, with this map, it will be like a child’s walk for us. Think of the glory and the rewards that we will reap once we return the amulet to the ruler.”
His words, at first, didn’t ward off my doubts, but it was that night—the night before we left to cross the sand—that Benadar had convinced me over a game of dice. And thus, the two of us took off with satchels heavy with waterskins and dried meat that we had washed to get rid of the salt. Being thirsty in the desert wasn’t a wise man’s working.
“It’s only a day’s hike away,” Benadar had promised, and I had believed him.
But on the third day under the relentless sun, Benadar collapsed with the scorching heat, his lips cracked open at the corners, his eyes glistening with maddening despair. “I was so sure …” he whispered.
I stopped, knowing that it was futile. We had followed the map to the step, but it was faulty. There was no cave to be found. Only the endless mounds of sand that grabbed our feet and pulled us in, making our every step an agony. Our waterskins had emptied, and now the only thing that quenched our thirst was our own sweat and tears, and these we tried not to spill senselessly, for we knew the dangers of depriving a body of all its moisture.
“It’s for the best to go back,” I offered.
Benadar shook his head, his gaze nailed to somewhere on the horizon. “We won’t survive the mere act.”
He was right; that I knew. I shaded my eyes against the midday sun, which burned the top of my head. What had gone so wrong? Why were we so eager to call the men who had been lost before us ignorant of the paths of sand?
Another look at the empty gaze of Benadar at my feet convinced me this was no time for despair. “Come,” I said, lifting him to his feet. “A good merchant knows never to give up.”
Benadar gave me a wan smile and an unsure nod, yet he rubbed the sweat off his bushy gray brows and took the lead.
When the last drop of water had trickled down our clenched throats, we saw the cave. It was the ugliest maw I’d ever laid eyes on, yet at the time it seemed to me like a mother’s embrace: cool, inviting, and shaded.
Benadar and I exchanged glances full of joy and rushed to meet our savior.
As soon as we took our first steps past the cave’s threshold, something crunched beneath our feet. I gazed at the ground in disbelief, and with the tip of my sandal, I sent the round, hollow rock before my feet turning. A human skull gazed up at me through gaping sockets, and I took a step back, all the time looking at the set of broken teeth that adorned its mouth. I knew this arrangement of teeth well. “It’s Gorjan …” I whispered to an equally shaken Benadar.
He was gazing at his feet as well, not knowing what to do with himself, for the whole cave floor was littered with the bones of men the ruler had sent to retrieve his amulet, and judging by the short daggers, the leather belts, and the moleskin gauntlets, it wasn’t only the ruler’s men who had engaged in this dangerous endeavor but also thieves, merchants of nearby towns, and even shepherds.
Benadar’s eyes dripped with horror when he spoke. “How come their flesh is gone so fast?”
His words stirred a thought in my mind that had been nudging me ever since I entered this cursed place that I had believed to be my savior. The bones were bare and clean. So clean, as if the men had been dead for decades. However, Gorjan’s shattered smile told us this couldn’t be true. He’d left only a full moon ago and, like the rest, had never been heard of again.
“We should leave,” I said, eyeing the passage that led to the bowels of the cave—narrow and paved with more skeletons than we could count.
“We made it all this way,” Benadar said, stepping on what seemed to be a long femur. It snapped under his weight, making me cringe. “At least let us take the amulet first.”
“Don’t you see?” I said, raising my hopeless hands into the air. “All these men came looking for the same. Only bones and dust remain of them!”
“We shall not share the same fate,” Benadar said, raising a preaching finger. “We are merchants, after all, and a good merchant knows never to give up.”
I groaned as I watched him follow the narrow trail that led deeper into the cave, his feet smashing into the remains of men we had once known and others we would never know. Reluctant to remain alone in the company of the dead, I followed the only other man who was still breathing, clutching the rough stone that paved the passage’s walls, trying to guard my ears against the screams of creaking bones.
Soon we emerged into a chamber big enough to hold a company of ten men, with a ray of light illuminating a stony mound that held an open chest.
“There,” Benadar said, rushing to the stone.
“Benadar,” I warned. It all seemed too staged to me. “Touch nothing!”
Fortunately, he slowed his pace. His head hovered over the chest, his eyes wide with joy. “The amulet!” he told me with a smile.
I raised a calming palm and joined him, eager to look. When I laid my eyes on the contents of the chest, I knew it to be true. Many had spoken about the beauty of this artifact, yet now I realized that their words hadn’t done justice to the pendant that lay before us. On a velvet pillow rested a chain made of woven gold that surpassed the intricate designs of all the goldsmiths I had ever known. The two parts of the chain flowed and met in a ring of diamonds that cradled an emerald so green and sparkling, my eyes watered from its shine.
Benadar’s hand broke the spell as he reached for it and grabbed it before I could do or say anything to stop him.
My stomach churned when I saw him pass the chain over his head, letting the emerald fall over his tunic. The diamonds sparkled all at once, and the emerald emitted an eerie glow, as if it had come to life.
“The ruler warned us not to wear it …” I started, but Benadar’s gaze, which dripped with venom, stopped me.
“The ruler just wants everything for himself. It’s time for us to satisfy our yearnings. Fear not, my friend. Once I am done with mine, I’ll give it to you, for you are the most precious friend I’ve ever had.”
Even as he spoke the words, I knew them to be lies. Benadar’s eyes shone with a dangerous glint that made me fear for my life. What if he wanted to keep the amulet all to himself? I was the only one who had witnessed him steal it for himself instead of returning it, unworn, to our rightful ruler. What if Benadar tried to kill me? What if this was what had happened to the men who lay dead beneath our feet?
“You seem frightened, my friend,” Benadar said, baring his crooked yellow teeth. “Do you not trust my words?”
I swallowed hard and took a step back, for even though Benadar spoke to me of friendship and favors, his left hand now embraced the hilt of his dagger, and there was a weird sneer on his face and a look of despair in his eyes. “Benadar …”
He unsheathed the knife faster than I’d ever seen him do and raised the blade into the air. “I’m sorry, my friend,” he said, his voice a throaty whisper.
I closed my eyes as my legs gave in, and my bowels turned to water. I raised my hands to ward off a blow I knew would come sooner rather than later, by the hand of a friend I had known all my life.
A soft thump told me the blade had met with flesh, and I expected the pain. Yet it never came. When I opened my eyes again, I watched in horror as Benadar stabbed himself in the guts over and over until he collapsed on the cave floor, senseless and moving no more.
I rushed to my friend’s side, but his glassy stare told me I was too late. “Why, Benadar? Why?” My voice barely came as tears streaked down my face. I eyed the amulet, which still sparkled around his neck. “Cursed thing!” I made to touch it and then stopped, paralyzed with fear. What if the amulet hurt me, the same way it had Benadar and all these men?
Did I have the courage to return it to our ruler? Could I carry back to the city the very thing that had claimed my beloved Benadar’s life? My heart gave me the answer.
I resolved to remove it from his neck and place it back in the chest we’d found as fast as my hands would allow. Then I would write a message on the cave wall with Benadar’s blood, warning other eager men not to place the necklace around their necks, reiterating our wise ruler’s message. Perhaps I could still make it back, if my body could survive the thirst. Then I could tell our ruler of the location and have him send more trusted men to retrieve this devil.
My fingers trembled as I released the amulet from Benadar’s neck, passing it over his tangled hair. As soon as it had left his body, the emerald sparkled more brightly, and I felt a cold clutch at my soul. A fist had grabbed my will and ordered me to wear the amulet around my neck. I fought but watched in horror as my hands rose into the air and dropped the golden chain over my head. The emerald felt cold against my tunic, and voices whispered in my head. “Kill, kill, kill …”
And then I felt it—the yearning. It was a strange commandment, a cursed longing that ordered me to kill. In my mind’s eye, I saw our ruler. He was crying on the floor, unable to satisfy his murderous urges anymore. In his hands rested the amulet, harmless and dead. The ruler opened his mouth and murmured some words I couldn’t fathom, but the emerald sparkled and came alive between his fingers. “And now you will hold my yearning,” the ruler whispered to the amulet, exhausted from the transfer. “An amulet of my yearning. I shall kill no more.”
My heart twisted, and I opened my mouth to protest as I felt the emerald invading my heart’s deepest desires. “Kill, kill, kill …” the ruler’s voice whispered, and my calloused fingers closed around my dagger.