As it turned out, there was a reserve of molten lava, harvested from the mines, in an outpost reserved for weary miners to relax during their breaks. This lava reserve came from deep within the earth and replenished periodically. It burned at exceptionally hot temperatures and was used as an efficient heat source for producing the steam required to run much of the mining equipment. However, this lava was not available to the public, and anyone taking interest in it would surely raise suspicions. Due to High Priest Tacims’ warning that they should keep things quiet for the time being, they had to be careful.
“Can’t we just ask the miners for some of this lava?” Vos asked pointedly. “You are blacksmiths after all. You could tell them you’re trying something new out with iron ore to make it stronger.”
“No…” Master Hebak shook his head. “Those miners know their ore… They would get suspicious. Iron is smelted perfectly well in our furnaces, so there would be no need for such a hot substance.”
“That’s right… and we can’t go around telling them about the new ore. The Ithoan people cannot know about the Zehnai yet… or the cloud for that matter. Not until High Priest Tacims figures all of this out. “ Jothal added. “We’re going to have to steal it.” Master Hebak frowned.
“I’m afraid you’re right… “ He said, sullenly.
“I will get this lava for you.” Vos volunteered. “I’ve had some… prior experience in tasks such as this, so I should be able to enter and leave the outpost undetected.”
“Are you sure?” Jothal interrupted. “You’ve only just recovered from your ailment… I’m not so sure that it would be very wise for you to push yourself like that. Besides, you would never make it past the city gate without a thorough search from the guards. They would see the lava and throw you in jail.”
“Come with me then. A guard wouldn’t give you as much trouble.” Vos offered. “I’ll get the lava, and you can bring it inside the city.” Jothal thought over the plan. She supposed that it would work, especially since blacksmiths were known to visit the mines every now and then. Additionally, with the iron shortage, even more smiths had been making the journey to see if they could buy iron before it went on the market. The guards would be none the wiser.
“That sounds good to me…” Jothal finally said, after much thought. “We can store it in your old obsidian teapot, Master Hebak.” Her master nodded and went upstairs to rummage around for the teapot. He had quite the collection of knickknacks and old treasures that had accumulated in corners throughout the house. The master had collected quite a few obsidian items in his days as a merchant. The obsidian would not melt in the lava’s heat, and the teapot’s lid would cover the lava so no one would be able to see the stolen lava as they transported it around town. “I can lead you to the outpost and tell you all that I know about the layout of the building, but then you’re on your own.” She addressed Vos. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?” Vos nodded.
“Don’t worry about me. Just tell me what I need to know.”
Jothal found herself that evening waiting behind a rock formation on the outskirts of the mines. She had wished Vos luck and watched him slink towards the small outposts. They were squat little buildings that glowed with life. She could tell that their target outpost was filled with no fewer than thirty workers at this time. This job would require no small amount of sneakery. Not one hundred yards away, the gaping mouth of the Great Ithoan Mine sat, swallowing the evening shift of miners into its darkness. She looked towards the sky, then back down at the outpost, and then back towards the mine. Each second felt like an eternity to Jothal. She looked back towards the basement window that Vos had entered. There was no sign of him. Jothal’s palms began to sweat.
“Come on Vos… hurry up…” she muttered under her breath, glancing around her for any sign of trouble. Looking back towards the basement, Jothal saw a figure emerge from the basement. That must be Vos. She thought. The figure grew large and Jothal confirmed that it was indeed the outdoorsman. The dark teapot swung at his side as he hurriedly jogged back to where Jothal hid.
“Told you I could do it.” Vis bragged, handing over the piping hot teapot. “I’ll wait around here for a little while and meet up with you back at Hebak’s place.” Jothal rolled her eyes playfully and thanked him quickly and she made her way towards the city gate. The guards were stationed in their usual places, and Jothal waved to the one operating the gate.
“Hello! I am Jothal Sotlan. I live at Master Hebak’s Blacksmith Shop in the eastern district of Mainstay. Requesting entrance.” She stated the rehearsed dialogue so that the guard could hear and confirm her identity.
“What’s that you’ve got in your hand, miss?” A guard asked, as stepped out of the tower to get a closer look.
“Just some tea, for my master.” Jothal lied. The guard could not see the contents, so all would be well. Slowly, the gate creaked open and Jothal scurried inside. She wound through the narrow streets towards the shop, where she found Master Hebak waiting for her arrival.
“Have you got it?” He asked, shutting the door behind her.
“See for yourself.” Jothal said, placing the teapot on the metal counter and opening the lid so the master could see its contents.
“Good, good.” Master Hebak nodded. “Come, I’ve prepared a place for this.” Jothal followed her master up the stairs and into the smith. He had placed an obsidian bowl from his collection into the furnace. This would ensure that the lava would not cool down. Jothal tipped the teapot and watched as bright, molten rock oozed from the spout into the black bowl. Master Hebak could hardly contain his excitement as he fetched the reddish metal. He had made much more metal out of the powdery ore whilst Jothal and Vos were gone. Taking a piece in a pair of tongs, Hebak submerged it in the lava, being careful not to hold the tongs themselves in the lava for too long. When the metal was plucked back out of the hot lava, it glowed a bright reddish white. Hebak proceeded to pull and shape the metal carefully, hammering it into sharp edges and a sturdy handle. Using all of the ore he possessed at the time, Hebak slowly fashioned the form of a dagger. Jothal watched Hebak’s eyes shine with a youthful fire as his hands worked expertly on the metal. She decided to leave Hebak alone to his work. She walked downstairs and found Vos sitting at the counter.
“So, did it work?” Vos questioned. Jothal nodded enthusiastically.
“It sure did. I’ve never seen Master Hebak this excited and full of life…” Jothal stood besides him. “We had better let High Priest Tacims know.”
The two walked down the central road towards the temple. Jothal could almost imagine how proud the High Priest would be once he heard the good news. This would surely bring many new customers and investors to the shop. Master Hebak would be thrilled. Entering the temple, Jothal and Vos were engulfed in the orange glow of the Raon stones as they set out looking for the High Priest. Walking clockwise around the circular temple, they eventually spotted him.
“High Priest Tacims…!” Jothal started, before noticing that he was praying on his knees at an alter to the Great Creator. Incense was burning all around him, filling Jothal’s nose with the musky scent. She quickly muttered an apology and turned around to wait until he was finished.
“Jothal, is it?” Tacims spoke, stopping Jothal’s retreat. He rose to his feet. Jothal surveyed the Priest as she turned around to face him. He looked weary. His eyes looked drowsy and his voice was weak. “I pray you have good news for me?”
“Excellent news!” Jothal perked up, remembering for reason for visiting the temple. “Master Hebak and I re-“
“Now, now…” Tacims interrupted Jothal harshly and in a whisper. “Let’s talk about this elsewhere.” He gave a shifty glance about the room at the few Ithoans who were praying at the alter. He led Jothal into a hallway branching away from the main chamber. This hallway led to another, smaller room that opened to reveal a large table where Tacims, his attendants, and his students would eat. “So, what’s this news?” Tacims finally said, once the doors had shut behind them.
“Master Hebak and I refined the Zehnai ore! He’s working on making something right now, but I wanted to tell you as soon as possible. We’ve finally done it!” Jothal beamed. Even High Priest Tacims began to regain the life in his skin as Jothal proceeded to tell him about how they refined the new ore. At the end of Jothal’s tale, Tacims had a peaceful look on his face.
“I’ll never condone stealing, but under the circumstances I’ll excuse the act.” Tacims tried to sound strict, but could not hide the smile in his eyes. “The Great Creator has blessed us this day.”
“We used all the ore we had, though, so the sooner you can send us more ore, the sooner we can start finding out more about this ore and its uses. Hebak is making a dagger for practice now, but with a little more time and ore, we can start making different kinds of supplies.” Tacims’ eyes regained a tinge of sadness.
“Yes, well… We only have a little more of the Zehnite, as I’ve taken to calling it, until the Zehnai return with more. You may take all you need, but use it wisely. I fear there is trouble brewing under Mainstay as we speak. This may be the last bit of ore you receive for some time.”
“What do you mean? I know that the iron mine has not been kind to us lately, but haven’t the miners found a new ore vein yet?” Tacims shook his head in reply.
“It seems as if all the iron in Mycith has fled the area.” Tacims paused and looked Jothal over, as if trying to decide whether he should speak or not, and then he seemed to make up his mind. “Miners have started disappearing... The last few shifts have ended with no less than a third of the men missing. I fear that we may have to completely shut down the mine, not that there’s much reason to send them down there anymore.”
“Once we get our hands on more of the Zehnite, we may not need the iron mine anymore.” Jothal smiled, trying to think positively about the situation, but the truth was that she was scared; She was scared about the livelihood of Mainstay, and Master Hebak for that matter, scared about the dark cloud that was undoubtedly on its way, and scared that Lithilen was changing so quickly. Jothal bid the High Priest farewell and promised that either she or Master Hebak would keep him informed about the Zehnite. Jothal trudged back home, discouraged. The Zehnite was just a faint flicker of a candle in a mine. They may have made progress with the ore, but what did it matter considering all of the tragedies that surrounded them.
“I didn’t know things were so bad lately…” Vos finally broke the silence. Jothal startled at his voice. She had been so wrapped up in the news and her own thoughts that she had forgotten that he had been with her the entire time. “You don’t think it could be the darkness, do you?” Jothal shook her head.
“No… It hasn’t reached Mainstay yet. While you were stealing lava from the miners, I made sure to check the skies. They’re as clear as they get around here.” Jothal sighed. “I just don’t get it. Why would both iron ore and miners be disappearing so suddenly?”
“Maybe the workers were stealing ore and selling it themselves. Then when the foreman found out, he decided to get rid of them quietly and blame both disappearances on the mine. “ Vos suggested. Jothal laughed.
“That is ridiculous. You may not be familiar with it, but here in Mainstay we Ithoans have something called ‘integrity’.” Jothal quipped, a smile replacing the worry on her face. “Well, whatever it is, it’s got something to do with the mine. I’m sure of it, and I’m going to find out one way or another.”
When the pair reached the shop, they found Master Hebak standing behind the counter. In front of him was a shining, reddish dagger. It’s handle was a twisted metal branch, and it’s blade seemed to be on fire in the glow of torches hanging around the shop. Jothal walked up to Hebak’s creation and gingerly picked it up, taking in every inch of the knife.
“Master Hebak… this is beautiful…” She delicately returned the dagger back to its resting place in front of her master.
“Oh, you flatter me.” Her master said, a wide grin on his bushy face.
“Looks like you know this ore pretty well now. I suppose you’ll be needing more of it.” Jothal replied. “I spoke to the High Priest. He said that you can pick up the rest of the ore at your convenience. The High Priest calls it ‘Zehnite.’”
“Zehnite…” Hebak mused, feeling the word in his mouth. “That’s not the worst name I’ve ever heard.” With that, he walked back upstairs to the smith to clean things up. Jothal heard the clanking of tools being shoved back into drawers and the sliding of anvils across the floor. Although she knew Master Hebak would not approve, Jothal couldn’t help being drawn to the mines and the mystery surrounding them. Something was causing the mines to dry up and the workers to vanish; something that would harm all of Mainstay if it got a chance. She swore to herself that she would find the underlying cause of these disappearances no matter what it took. Jothal turned to Vos.
“Tomorrow, I am visiting the mines to find out more about these disappearances and the iron shortage. When the time is right, I’m going into the mines to see for myself what is really going on.” Jothal said. “You can join me if you’d like, but I don’t know if an outdoorsman like you would be very comfortable in the close, dark spaces of the mines.”
“I don’t think you could keep me away if you tried.” Vos taunted back.