Jothal and Vos sprinted back through the tunnel that in which they first entered the room. Jothal could hear and smell the office room burning behind them, but she dared not look back. Her headlamp’s light bounced in front of her, poorly revealing the way out, but it was enough. They exited into the large cavern and turned to the left, remembering the way they had entered, and ran straight into another tunnel. The winding passage seemed to go on forever. Jothal was certain that she heard a third set of feet following them, but as she reached the door at the entrance of the mine, pulled it open, and turned around to make sure Vos hadn’t gotten lost, she saw no other followers and the sounds stopped. Jothal figured it was her mind playing tricks on her and promptly exited the mines with Vos.
“What… was that?” Vos gasped, securing the padlock back on the door.
“I didn’t catch a glimpse of what it was, but I don’t think it wanted us in the mines.” Jothal replied.
“Whatever ‘it’ was, it must have caused the disappearances.” Vos concluded.
“That still doesn’t explain the iron ore.” Jothal countered. “We have to go back.”
“No way.” Vos said defiantly. “You can do the next trip on your own. Humans weren’t meant to be in small dark places like that, and we certainly weren’t meant to have fire shot at us.”
“Figures that a nature boy like yourself would be scared of a real adventure.” Jothal taunted. “Suit yourself. Either way, we should take a look at that journal.” It was evening already, and the few workers who remained at the mines had gone home. They easily evaded the two meandering “guards” and entered the city through the gates. Vos handed the journal to Jothal, who flipped through its pages until she found an entry that caught her eye. Underneath the usually log of air conditions, ore supply, tools to be repaired, and other numbers that Jothal couldn’t be bothered to make sense of, there were a few footnotes that appeared to have been scribbled hastily.
“Listen here, Vos.” Jothal got his attention with a prod to his arm. “‘Iron ore extraction further slowing. Talk of noises in the eastern tunnels continues. Investigation by the foreman tomorrow.’ That was written about two weeks ago.” Jothal again leafed through the book until she found another cluster of notes. The writing was very sloppy this time. “Here’s more… ‘Miners have gone missing. Sounds of scurrying feet haunt me. Workers are becoming afraid. The ore is almost gone.’ This was written a few days ago… Scurrying feet… I thought I heard footsteps as we were leaving the mines… “
“I think what you heard was me. I was following you, remember?” Vos’s attention had drifted from Jothal and the book. “This book isn’t helping… it’s only telling us what we already know.” Jothal frowned and flipped through a few more pages. Finally, she found a page with no recorded information on it. Three words and some spilled ink were all she could see.
“In… the… vug…” Jothal slowly formed letters from the scribbles. “Well, that’s not very helpful, either.”
“Vug? Was he spelling something out or is that just gibberish?” Vos commented.
“No… A vug is a hole or crevice in rock. It’s miner slang. Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, that mine is filled with rock, and we still don’t know what is in this vug.” Jothal looked up at Vos, her gray eyes shimmering in the setting sun. “Vos?”
“What?” he replied, his eyes focused ahead of him.
“Whatever is in that mine is dangerous, and you wouldn’t want me to get hurt, right?” Jothal did her best to sound sweet and innocent, but she could quickly tell that Vos wasn’t buying her act.
“You can take care of yourself here, miss. Besides, you wouldn’t want to be distracted by a nature boy like me.” Vos’s mouth formed a smug half-smile.
“Why won’t you come with me?” she pleaded.
“I have no more curiosity to sate, and you’ve led me into enough danger.” The two walked the rest of the way home in near silence. Jothal entered the shop with a glum look on her face. Even though Vos might be a bit of a burden, what with his height restricting his movements in the small tunnels, Jothal longed for a companion on this journey. Someone to talk to, adventure with, and face mysterious danger next to. Still, no partner was better than an unwilling one. She immediately went upstairs to find Master Hebak. She found him eating a late supper, and her grumbling stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten all day. Sitting down next to him, she wordlessly poured herself a bowl and drank in the warm broth.
“Where have you been all day?” he asked, absent-mindedly.
“I was just showing Vos around the city’s outskirts.” She mumbled in reply. Master Hebak grunted and swallowed the last of his dinner.
“Then why the sad face?” He asked.
“Just… tired. That’s all.” She replied.
“Well, once you’re done, you might try looking down by the forge. I’ve got you something that might make you a but cheerier.” Master Hebak cleaned up his things and headed off to bed. Once Jothal was done, she trudged down the stairs towards the forge. Its soft, glowing heat warmed her and made her feel a little better. On top of an anvil was a long box, crudely wrapped in a messy ribbon. She pulled the knot back into a thin line of silk and discarded it on the floor. Sliding the lid of the box off, she gazed inside.
A weighty, reddish warhammer axe lay inside, it’s edge shining in the glow of the forge. A long handle, with metal thorny vines of copper winding around it’s circumference, attached to the head of the weapon. To one side of the head was an axe, filed down to a razor sharp edge. To the other side of the head was a hammer, shaped like a lotus flower. A tall spike crowned the magnificent weapon. She turned the gift over in her hands and noticed lines carved into the side of the handle, amongst the vines.
“Rankein…” she read, letting the name of her new companion fill her mind. She clutched the weapon to her chest. Maybe this was the companion she needed for her journey tomorrow.
As Jothal lay in bed that night, she couldn’t help thinking of Vos’s refusal to accompany her on a return trip to the mine. He had been so eager the day before even despite knowing the risks. Now, he seemed angry at Jothal for wanting him to return. She knew that the mines were certainly no place for humans, but an adventurer like Vos had surely been in his fair share of uncomfortable situations and was used to danger from what Jothal had gathered. It didn’t make sense. Why the sudden change of heart?
The next morning, Jothal again gathered her pack, grabbed Rankein, and went downstairs. When she got to the shop, she noticed that Vos has fallen asleep on the metal counter. Sighing to herself, she grabbed a spare blanket and went to cover him with it. Despite her anger towards him, she couldn’t let a guest at her house be cold. As she placed the fabric around his shoulders, she noticed that he still had dirt smudges on him from the mines. He snored lightly and slept deeply. She supposed that he must have been telling some amount of truth in that the mines were too much for him. He looked exhausted. However, upon closer inspection, Jothal noticed that there was also a long burn mark on his arm. She could tell that he had tried to cover it, but the singed flesh stood out even amongst the dirt. It didn’t look that bad, but it had to be painful. Jothal covered a gasp with her hand. That must have been why Vos had been so reluctant to return to the mines. She felt sick. If it weren’t for her, Vos would have never been in that situation, and if she hadn’t teased him so much, he wouldn’t have felt the need to act so tough. Jothal’s mind raced with the possibilities. It was her fault that Vos had been burned, and it was her fault that he had felt the need to hide it. If only she hadn’t been angry at him earlier, maybe he would have asked for her help, but it was too late now. She couldn’t embarrass him further. Jothal slipped out of the shop, tears welling in her eyes, determined now more than ever to find whatever lurked in the mines and be rid of it.