That One Time I Went On A Quest

Kastor applied for a job he wasn't qualified for and got it. His employer? A woman known throughout the Realms as the greatest dragon slayer in the world.

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24. We All Have Lost (2/2)

The refinery is a grey monstrosity of stone wedged against the cliffs. Inside, behind two massive cylindrical crushers that churn with laborious thunder, is the entrance to the mines. A steel cabled winch, worked by two giants, is pulling a train of mine carts filled with glistening ore up the steep decline. 

As the carts crest the final rise they pull into a looped track with huge claw-like fixtures at the bottom. At the pull of a great lever only a little giant can reach, the entire loop rises up on steel struts and tilts toward the crushers. The cascade of ore and their subsequent decimation under rows of giant metal teeth is so deafening, it puts dragon roars to shame.

Haylis, who has for some reason volunteered to be my guide, yells with her mouth on my ear. ‘We’ll take the last cart down! They tell me Oon’Shei is on the third level.’

‘Why is he here instead of…anywhere else?!’ I yell back.

‘The little giants believe that their souls go to the stone after they die. They’ve dug endless catacombs in the Ranges apparently – in fact, the mining crew dug into one earlier today. They’ve been celebrating.’

‘The little giants built this mine too?’

Haylis shoots me a look that says what do you think, idiot?

The inside of the mine cart is disgustingly wet and slimy with greyish mud. Although her brows couldn’t be more furrowed, Haylis doesn’t complain. In fact, she hasn’t complained at all, about the work, the dirt…especially the dirt.

The carts descend fast enough to beat up a strong gust. There are very few lights down here; torches, all dim and eerily blue-flamed, are sparse and hung up so high they’re no brighter than firebugs. The air is breathlessly humid; water is everywhere: dripping out of the rock, running in streams down the decline, puddling at the bends and hidden pits around the corners…

Couldn’t see my own hands, even as I hold them up to my face. The carts seem to be going in a clockwise spiral. Every once in a while a darker shade of black would open up on the left – probably barren tunnels that have been left alone.

At what feels like the second lap of the spiral, the walls begin to glitter. By their whitish luminescence I could see Haylis pointing ahead. ‘This is all magisite,’ she shouts above the wind. ‘They – I mean we – make dry powder from it.’ She giggles as the mine cart runs straight through a big puddle, sending up a putrid splash. ‘Ironic, right?’

I couldn’t hold back the question any longer. ‘How are you enjoying any of this?!’

‘Would you rather be constantly staring into the sky, waiting for the dragons to come?’

Just as my neck begins to hurt from always twisting one way, the mine carts pull into a sudden stop at what seems to be the nexus point of a tunnel network. Down here the rock faces are so thick with luminous dots it resembles a canvas of stars…if stars were covered in icky slime and made the skin burn.

There’s a sudden white flash in one of the deeper tunnels, followed by a muffled boom. Haylis points to it. ‘Let’s stay away from the working face. Oon’Shei wouldn’t be there; he’d want a quiet spot.’

As we speak, a little giant emerges from the tunnel carrying what looks like a tower shield in one hand and a massive pickaxe in the other. On his back is a basket filled with glittering ore. He looks at us inquisitively, head tilted to one side. After a short performance on the silent bells, courtesy of Haylis, he points to a pitch black tunnel on the left.

We walk, Haylis lighting up one of the blue-flamed torches and taking it along. Within seconds of entering the tunnel all sounds fade, all but the incessant seeping of water from the walls. It’s so very warm down here, and deathly still.

Haylis loops her arm through mine and leans close. ‘I’ve not been this deep before. So quiet.’

She’s shivering. ‘Are you scared?’ I ask.

‘Aren’t you?’

‘It’s just dark and uncomfortable.’

‘You know, you’re a little different,’ she declares. ‘You’re supposed to be scared of everything.’

I could only nod. This suffocating black tunnel, dripping with almost certainly toxic water and silent as a grave, hasn’t left a deep impression, probably because I’m preoccupied by the memory of Kathanhiel kneeling in molten metal and clutching Kaishen to her chest. Will Oon’Shei be the same?

He would. That’s what it’s like to lose someone you love.

‘I wouldn’t know.’

‘Wouldn’t know what?’ Haylis asks.

I shake my head. This topic doesn’t make for titillating conversation.

The tunnel turns out to be extremely short; judging by the minimal luminescence, it must’ve been too barren to dig further. After a sharp turn we spot Oon’Shei at the end of the tunnel, down on his knees, with his hands placed flat upon the rock. Around him, like the fingers of a withered talon, stands three obelisks carved out of glittering ore.

‘He’s singing to the stone,’ Haylis explains, whispering even though he couldn’t hear us anyway. ‘I don’t really understand the meaning but it has to do with returning what belongs to the earth.’

I hope that I’ve managed to keep the apprehension out of my voice. ‘What do the obelisks mean? What do they do? Why are they here? Did he make them? He did, didn’t he?’

‘Something to do with the giving and taking of life, I think,’ Haylis says. ‘They’re like gravestones, except they’re meant to be broken apart after mourning.’

Oon’Shei turns around and sees us. His shoulders heave in surprise, but after a moment’s consideration he raises a boulder of a hand and waves. ‘He thanks us for coming, and wonders if we want to join him in prayer,’ Haylis says. ‘It would be very rude to refuse.’

We walk forward and put our hands against the wall; it feels slick yet inexplicably warm, like the skin of some hibernating beast.

‘He asks if you saw how she died,’ Haylis says quietly.

On the way down I have pondered a hundred times how to answer this question. There is no way around it; Oon’Shang died because of me and no amount of apologies or subtle manoeuvring could change that. Might as well tell it like it is.

‘She withstood the fire of six Apex candidates for an entire day, and saved my life.’

As Haylis conveys that with the silent bells, Oon’Shei’s arms begin to tremble. A low growl permeates through the rock and into my bones as my teeth begin to vibrate their way out of my gums. He’s screaming. Oon’Shei is screaming, and the earth screams with him.

‘He asks…he asks….’ Haylis looks dismayed. ‘He asks whether your life was worth saving.’

It used to be the case that this self-loathing would last for days, weeks. It’s different now – I know better. Oon’Shang didn’t make the sacrifice just so I can feel sorry for myself.

‘It was,’ I reply. ‘Because of her I was able to bring Kathanhiel back to Iborus, even though I’m not sure how I did it. That’s something, isn’t it?’

Oon’Shei reaches out, and for a terrifying moment it looked like he was going to hit me – which wouldn’t end well for every single one of my bones – but instead he merely pats me on the back. Staggering, my head encounters the rock face at a reasonable speed as to raise a massive lump.

Haylis laughs softly. ‘He says he saw you on carrying Kathanhiel and the sword of Ush’Ra, walking toward our walls. He says he gleaned in you no evil, only righteousness.’

That sounds like a compliment I don’t deserve. ‘I…I never thought I was evil, to be honest with you.’

For the next ten minutes we stand in silence, with our hands against the stone – silence from only my perspective, of course; Oon’Shei never stopped singing, and as his voice pass into the stone and into my bones, there comes wayward tears. I look over and see the same in Haylis’ eyes. Did the stone pass into us his sorrow, or did it well up from within?

At the conclusion of our vigil, Oon’Shei bids us stand back. With solemn care he wraps his hands around each of the obelisks and breaks them with the sheer strength of his grip. As the glittering rock fall in powdery rain, a chilling wind runs through the tunnel, carrying away ephemeral voices. 

Fear, anger, love...the winds of the mountains have carried them away, never to return – Rutherford said that. Rutherford didn’t know what he was talking about. 

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