In Forge of Ashes, the dwarven warrior Akina returns home to the Five Kings Mountains after years as a soldier and mercenary, accompanied by Ondorum, her silent companion of living stone. What she finds there is far from what she remembers: a disgraced brother, an obsessive suitor, and a missing mother presumed dead. Yet the damage runs deeper than anyone knows, and when Akina’s brother is kidnapped by ancient enemies from the legendary Darklands, she and Ondorum must venture below the surface—and into danger as old as the stones themselves.
Chapter Four: Contemplation of Stone
Ondorum watched the snoring dwarf for a little while after Akina left. He looked for any sign that Brakisten might wake, or even be sensible enough to work the door latch if he did. He studied Brakisten's twitches and briefly wondered what he might've been like before drink, deception, and grief took such a harsh toll. Little use, however, in questioning what might have been. Better to focus on what could be.
Ondorum searched the rooms for stashed alcohol, but the den lacked any hiding places he could discern. He guessed it'd be a while yet before Brakisten woke. Perhaps he could use the time to explore a bit on his own.
While he'd encountered other dwarves besides Akina, he'd never visited one of their kingdoms before. What glimpses he had so far proved fascinating. He'd been looking forward to meeting Akina's family—at least, the brother and mother. She'd told him how her father had died while she'd been in battle training, buried in an avalanche during a Kingtower Pass patrol. In the years they'd traveled and fought together with the swords-for-hire, she'd occasionally spoken of her home and remaining kin. Her tone had initially been dismissive, but had grown increasingly wistful until her return had been inevitable. Her asking him to come along had been one of the great joys of his existence, but he possessed no certainty of how long it'd last.
Best to make the most of it, then.
Believing it safe to stroll for a bit, he bowed to Brakisten and prayed to Irori that the dwarf might have a soothed mind and soul when he woke. Then he stepped outside and took a moment to orient himself. Fortunately, he had an excellent sense of direction, a talent the mercenaries had often put to use when navigating unknown territory.
As he wound through the district, he admired the roads and bridges. The dwarves had fashioned well-situated thoroughfares, yet their constructions retained the sense of having sprung whole from the earth. Studying the dwarves themselves, he almost believed the legends that their earliest ancestors had been formed of living stone with fire baked into their hearts. He sensed their joy and peace in knowing who they were and where they belonged—a peace he knew Akina no longer held. Even though she'd never said it outright, he reckoned she'd hoped to regain that centering of herself by coming home. Could she still, he wondered, despite the unfortunate beginnings?
An inconsistency nagged him as he wandered. Something about the city itself...
Ah! Of course. The light. He should've realized. Akina said her people worked all hours, taking shifts to ensure the forge fires never dimmed, the mining carts never rolled in empty, and the tunnels and buildings never stopped being strengthened or lengthened. While Ondorum knew dwarves could see in the dark just as well as he could, the artificial light displayed their handiwork in far greater glory.
He paused on the corner of a four-way intersection atop a rise. From here, he could see down one of the massive rifts dividing the city. Structures appeared to be built into the depths of the rift itself, with chain-and-pulley lifts providing transportation up and down. Mining entrances? Homes?
He gazed upward and let himself feel the weight of the cavern. Not a claustrophobic press like many humans or elves complained of after spending time underground. To him, it offered a soothing weight, like a warm blanket beneath a frigid sky.
It seemed a city an oread might be right at home in. Oread culture was a loose thing, in itself. They had no central government. No real inclination to congregate with others of their kind. Most, like him, chose their own paths. He'd heard of other oreads finding homes among dwarven settlements, their inclinations toward stone helping them blend in well enough. He'd even heard of oreads and dwarves who'd married and had children, though he and Akina had never discussed such. Not that they'd been talking much lately.
Guilt cracked his concentration at that thought. He knew Akina detested his self-imposed vow, sometimes opining that he must've taken it just to provoke her. But did she realize how much it tormented him as well? Ever since they'd first begun traveling together, he'd enjoyed the steady way they'd drawn ever closer. Now he'd distanced them in a way neither of them could bridge. In the pursuit of perfecting himself, did he now fail her?
Trying to restore a more contemplative focus, he shut his eyes and visualized his ki as a golden ball at the core of his being. Palms opened to the ground, he imagined lines of ki stretching out into the stone, connecting him with the essence of the city. A futile effort to gain a sense of the place, perhaps, since he'd only seen a fraction of Taggoret, but all lessons began somewhere.
As he attempted to meditate, a memory of screams teased his thoughts. Past mistakes and failures rose to taunt him, as they so often did. The golden ball of ki turned to granite. He fought to corral the riot of sudden emotion and steady his breathing, but everywhere he turned, regret threatened to overwhelm him. Akina. The monastery. The village. All of them hurt or lost despite his best efforts. The wrong words. The wrong actions. Yet he still struggled to know what he could've done or said differently in the circumstances.
Irori, please. I'm trying. Truly. I've ever believed yours is the hand that should guide my path, but it can be so difficult to know which way you're pointing. Is Akina's solace more important than my silence? Is my vow meant to be broken? Or is this a test to refine both of us?
He waited, listening for an answer, memories still haunted by screams. Then he opened his eyes, realizing some screams weren't in his mind. A faint roar sounded nearby, followed by a cry and crash. Someone in trouble?
He reached into his robe and drew out an iron rod no bigger than his thumb. He carried a small collection of such metal rods and chips to be employed when circumstances required. While he could fight decently enough with empty hands, he knew better than to overlook the advantage of an extended reach.
Calling on his elemental heritage, he let earthen power flow through him and infuse the metal, giving it the potential to be so much more than it appeared. The rod lengthened into a full quarterstaff. While it was a temporary transformation, and one he could only repeat after a lengthy delay, it could help if he needed to intervene in a scene of violence.
So armed, Ondorum stepped out into the middle of the street, looking for the source of the disturbance. A dwarf walking by jumped aside, fists cocked. Then he gave a grating laugh.
"Flaming beards, boy. Thought you were a statue."
Ondorum pointed down the road and cupped a hand to his ear. The dwarf frowned, but then brightened."Oh, that's the Scarred Knuckles. Best fighting hole in all the mountains. There's a tournament tonight. Was on my way, myself." He sidled up and nudged Ondorum."My bet's on the Silver Skewer, but it'll be a good fight either way. For some of us, blood gleams brighter than gold, eh?"
Quarterstaff tapping along, Ondorum fell in step with the dwarf, who talked as they went. The dwarf didn't seem to notice the oread's failure to reply as he guided Ondorum to one building and ushered him inside. The noise quadrupled in force, and Ondorum tried to let the cacophony flow over and past him. At least two hundred dwarves crammed into multi-tiered seats surrounding four sunken arenas. Each ring held a pair of fighters. The crowd loosed another roar as one combatant hit the ground and didn't move.
His dwarven escort cackled."Remember! All bets on the Silver Skewer."
Others called out names such as The Haunch and One-Nostril. Ondorum shifted through the crowd as the audience slapped and pounded one another in revelry, celebrating with what would've been bruising—or bone-breaking—force for many other races.
Ondorum's attention fixed on a cage set off in a corner. At first, it appeared to contain nothing but darkness; then the slightest movement suggested a figure huddled within. Ondorum got closer until he discerned the captive.
Clad in filthy rags, the person looked dwarven in shape and size. However, his skin was a dull gray, and what hair remained in his beard hung in white patches. He lay curled up beside a chamber pot, withered arms and legs weighed down by chains bolted to the stone wall. The wrinkles and heavy folds of his forehead and cheeks made him seem practically ancient.
Duergar. Ondorum had heard of the dwarves' fallen cousins but never seen one before. By the look of him, this one had been kept there as a spectacle for many years. The duergar stared out past the cage bars, dark eyes unblinking, face slack.
Ondorum frowned, uncomfortable with seeing any creature imprisoned. Akina had once entertained the mercenary band with tales of the outcast race. Once dwarves themselves, they'd rejected the call of Torag to seek the surface millennia ago. They'd remained below and, to survive in the treacherous Darklands, sworn themselves to Droskar, the Master of the Dark Furnace. Now the duergar continued to toil down in the Darklands, ruling their fell kingdom in cruelty and malice.
After a few minutes, he moved on, realizing he wasn't about to solve the ancient enmity between the two races with a little sympathy for a prisoner. He approached one of the nearer rings and looked easily over the heads of those crowding around it. The two fighters exchanged a barrage of hits and kicks before stumbling back from each other. The brief pause gave him a clear view of one bare-knuckled combatant and her platinum-streaked hair.
The crowd might as well have vanished as he focused on her in dismay. Her half-crazed eyes, the flex of her jaw, and the hunch of her shoulders told him she rode the edge of fury. Ondorum gripped his staff, uncertain. Even if he broke his vow to shout her name, his voice would be lost in the riot. She always thought she could control her rage, and so often proved herself wrong as she rode the swell up and over into temporary madness. The others here didn't know the danger, and would find out too late.
∗ ∗ ∗
Akina howled in glee as her fist cracked across her opponent's cheek, sending him somersaulting. Every landed blow meant more coin added to the wagers on the bout. She didn't know her enemy's name. Didn't care. She bounded after and forced him up against a wall to pummel his belly while he beat at her skull. Might as well have been knocking stones against stones.
Here. She belonged here, dealing pain to any and all.
The longer her blood boiled, the more the world altered around her. Her nostrils flared as she picked out others by their sweat, by the auras of smoke clinging to them, by their reeking fear. The air itself felt like a rich current of magma through which she flowed as easily as thought, while those around her slogged and stumbled and burned.
With an incoherent battle cry, her opponent sprinted in. She took the hit and tangled fingers in his thick hair. Turning with his momentum, she drove him face-first into the wall. He rebounded, and she threw her weight into another slam. Then another. He went limp after the fourth, but she held him upright and cracked bone to stone, wanting to smash his skull through and beyond. Blood spattered her and the wall. He gargled in her grip as she reared back for a final thrust.
A hand grabbed her shoulder. She dropped her victim and spun, aiming a blow, but something slapped her fists aside and threw her off-balance. As she recovered, the newcomer scooped up the fallen dwarf and threw him out of the ring.
Akina shook bloodstained fists."No! I was winning!"
Cheated on the brink of victory. For a moment she thought she recognized the new enemy, but then it didn't matter. Yet as she charged, he stood solid and took her strikes as they came. Open palms intercepted her fists; his arms didn't even as tremble at the hits. When she tried to grapple him to the floor, he stepped aside and let her sweep past.
Each missed attempt stoked the fires higher.
"Stand—" One moment to the next, the flames in her belly turned to a block of ice. The cold weight of it dragged her to her knees. She shook her head, hands planted, trying to rise."No, I was winning..." Quivering limbs refused to support her.
As she collapsed, a pair of hands caught her. She blinked away the gray haze long enough to focus on Ondorum before a curtain of ashes enveloped her.
"Sorry," she said."It's the only way I know how to pray."
In addition to Forge of Ashes, Josh Vogt is the author of the Pathfinder Tales stories "The Weeping Blade" and "Hunter's Folly," as well as the forthcoming creator-owned novel Enter the Janitor. His short fiction has been published in such venues as Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show and Shimmer. For more information, see his website at jrvogt.com.
Illustration by Davi Blight.