Jothal sat in the filth of the metal cage amongst the miners. Thoughts plagued her mind with What Ifs and Should Haves. The darkness of the metal box consumed her and left her no distractions to clear her mind. Only the whimpering of the disfigured men around her and the occasional far away creak filled her ears. She felt someone approaching her.
“Don’t be discouraged. You will be free.” She heard a soft voice whisper. It was so light that she almost mistook it for her troubled mind making words from the wind, but the air here was stagnant and the syllables were undeniable. Jothal turned to see the voice, but saw only black and two faintly white orbs. “We will all be free. Soon.” The voice added.
“What do you mean? How can you know?” Jothal whispered back. She was never one for unrealistic hopes. They could only disappoint.
“I have seen it.” The voice replied. “A shadow shall bring us light.” She heard a soft laugh, like tiny bells. “Soon… soon…”
“Sorry, friend. I can’t afford your vague riddles right now. I have to find some way out.” Jothal muttered, although she knew that there was no way out. Not one that she could use from the inside. The voice only laughed in reply.
“Soon… soon…” the voice repeated as it faded away, the light laughter punctuated his words. Jothal sighed.
“I’m trapped and everyone around me has gone mad.” She murmured. It was terribly lonesome. Even though she knew that she was surrounded by many others, she still felt so solitary. She remembered Stone. Maybe if he remembered who he was, he could remember how he got here and if there is a way out. “Stone?” She called, and then heard a shuffling.
“Yes?” A voice replied. “Is that you Jothal? Have you escaped? Have you returned to free us?” The man entered into the single beam of light coming from the door’s window. She could see that it was indeed Stone. He was peering through the bars, eagerly searching for any sign of her.
“No… I’m stuck here with you now, but I know why you’re here.” She began. “You all are the miners that had disappeared. These are the iron mines of Mainstay, where we all live. You are an Ithoan.” The man stood in the beam, the torchlight illuminating the fleshy side of his face. A look of realization began to creep onto his face.
“Mainstay…?” Stone pondered aloud. “That sounds so familiar… and yet…” He trailed off.
“The point is,” Jothal interrupted. “We need to get you back home. Unfortunately, I’m a little incapacitated and clueless at the moment. You wouldn’t remember any way out of this thing?” The man again looked ponderous.
“The last thing I remember before this metal box was an office… then, fire? After that, there was a tunnel and…” Stone frowned. “I’m sorry, miss. It’s just all so hazy. It feels like we’ve been down here since the third age.” He rubbed his one clear temple slowly, closing his eyes tightly. Jothal decided that he would not be of much help at this point.
“It’s alright…. I’ll have a look around.” She sat up and walked over to the door, now standing besides Stone. From between the bars, Jothal could see that the key had been taken. However, there was a small lantern and a lighter on a nearby shelf, tantalizingly close. That would at least help her see in this wretched cage. She tried to size up the width of the bars from each other. She might be able to reach it with her right arm… Jothal flattened her hand as much as she could and moved it towards the window, however, as soon as her fingertips reached the window’s gaps, a strange glow appeared, the same glow that seemed to engulf the box when Jothal was thrown in. It was as hard as the metal box and prevented Jothal from going any further.
“Damn.” Jothal huffed, holding her stubbed fingertips. What else was there to try? Perhaps the next time that the robed man came back, she could organize some sort of revolt amongst the miners, but, hearing all of the soft moans around her, she decided that it probably was not a good idea. Jothal slumped to the floor, her mouth and upper torso illuminated in the beam of light.
“Great Creator…” She spoke softly, her head drooped and her eyes fixed on her lap. “I’ve done what I could for Mainstay and its people. Please, let me escape with these men and seek justice for this cultist’s acts against you.” She finished her prayer but kept her head low.
Suddenly, Jothal heard the clattering of metal and a soft thud. The robed man must be back. However, Jothal did not give the sound another thought. If he was to come back and take her other arm, so be it. She welcomed the darkness of the metal room, but even this was taken away from her as the door creaked open, painting a stripe of light on the room.
“Hey, miss. Get up!” She heard a whisper. She cared not from whom it came. “I said get up!” The whisper returned, bringing a hard jolt upwards to Jothal as she felt her body being raised. Her feet felt no need to cooperate. “Why must you always be so difficult?” Jothal finally pried open her tired eyes and focused them on the intruder.
“Vos?!” She exclaimed, her limbs regaining their strength and her eyes shooting wide open. She felt his hand cover her mouth.
“Shh!” He hushed Jothal, an angry look on his face. “Do you want to ruin everything?” He helped her stand to her feet on her own. Vos was dressed in dark shades of black and brown. He had a dark mask in his hand that he was using to quiet Jothal down. He had his set of lock picks on a belt around his waist. She stepped towards the door hesitantly, the light now fully illuminating her. “What happened to you?” Vos asked, noticing her lack of arm.
“The cultists… they…” she stammered. She still couldn’t come to terms with this new body modification. Vos nodded.
“I suppose now isn’t the right time for explanations of that sort… What I need to know right now is what’s going on.”
“There’s this group of cultists… They wear these red cloaks… I’m sure you’ve seen some of their work back through the tunnels. Anyway, they’re the ones behind the disappearances. These men,” Jothal motioned with her good arm towards the dark room. “They’re the miners that have gone missing. Well, maybe not anymore…” From the doorway, Vos could see Stone and the white-eyed man. He frowned. “They’re very dangerous and capable of some kind of dark magic. They talked about raising an army for this demon… Azzasmar I think, and they took my warhammer axe, and my bag, and, well, everything.”
“We’ll try to get them back, but right now we need you and those miners to be free. No one should have to live like this.”
“Hey Vos… How did you find me?”
“Well, you were gone for so long that I began to get worried that you had been killed. I would never forgive myself if that happened. If I hadn’t been so proud…”
“Listen, I understand. You can always tell me if you’ve gotten hurt. I won’t think any less of you.”
“Hurt?” Vos laughed. “Please, that little singe? No… to be honest, the last time we were here, I spotted that Matok wall, and I knew that there would be things that I didn’t want to deal with. The last time I was around the stuff, I nearly died.”
“Matok? Do you mean that dark stone that you use the white powder to get through?”
“That’s the one. I’ve run into folks that use this stuff before. You can always be sure to find something really special or something really dangerous around it. I’ve started to get really jumpy around the stuff. I didn’t think you’d be able to get past it. Regardless, I always keep a small sample of the powder on me.” Vos patted a pocket on his belt. “Anyway, you’ve discovered all this a while ago.”
“It hasn’t been that long.” She teased. “Only a few days.” They heard the pattering of footsteps coming from the hallway that Vos had entered through, and the two snapped out of their conversation.
“We’ve got to go!” Vos whispered hastily, taking Jothal by her arm.
“But what about these men?” Jothal retorted, pulling her arm free. “We can’t just leave them here.”
“We’ll be back for them.” Vos replied. “They would catch us if we all moved together right now. We’ve got to get you armed…” Jothal glared at him, and Vos smiled sheepishly. They fled down the unexplored hallway, closing the metal box’s door as they left. The tunnel was rather short, as tunnels go, but had many branches that led who knows where. It ended in a bronze door. Vos flung this door open and the two stepped into the operating room. Jothal’s memory flashed back to the day she lost her arm. She felt sick.
At the far end of this room was a gold colored door. Vos led Jothal over pools of blood and discarded, crude surgical instruments and pushed them past rolling tables until they burst through the gold door into a small closet.
“This works.” Vos whispered once they were safely inside. The footsteps continued in their direction. Jothal held her breath and waited as the footsteps grew ever closer. Vos had moved to the back of the closet and had begun rifling around for any useful items. He was surprisingly quiet as he searched. Vos donned a headlamp that cast a dull orange beam. “I think you’re in luck!” Vos whispered to Jothal. She looked back at him. He was holding in his hand her backpack!
“Not that I can use it right now…” She muttered back. The footsteps had begun to grow quieter. Jothal figured that she could lower her guard now. She carefully opened the gold door, letting the torchlight from the surgical room flood the closet. Vos donned Jothal’s backpack himself. Jothal looked inside the closet. It appeared that every personal item from Jothal and the miners was here. She rifled through a pile of pickaxes and broken headlamps as best she could. Finally, she found Rankein. He was dirty, but he was okay. Jothal checked the axe’s blade and found that it was still just as sharp as when Master Hebak had forged him. Jothal placed her weapon momentarily to the side and looked for her shield. However, after a few minutes of rummaging, Jothal concluded that her shield was missing or stolen.
“It’s okay.” She said, looking at a concerned Vos. “It’s not like I would have been able to use it anyway.” Clutching Rankein in her hand, Jothal and Vos headed back to fetch the miners. They unlocked the door and released the men.
“Everyone who is able, listen up! Through the bronze and gold doors is a supply of your old mining equipment. If you aren’t carrying someone, take a pickaxe as protection! We’re going home!” Jothal briefed the group of men who emerged from he metal box, blinking in the light and itching for vengeance. Jothal and Vos waited for the miners to return with whatever weapons they could find, and then led the group away from the metal box. Jothal carefully opened the door to the alter room.
“Run!” she yelled. “Fight if you are able!” They had entered a not so empty alter room to find three robed men huddled over an old text. Luckily, it looked as if the men had just entered, because the red outlines of a door still remained on the Matok wall. “Through that door! Hurry!” she commanded. The cultists jumped to attention as they saw the group. While many of the less capable miners flew past the cultists, the promise of freedom letting them forget their pain, Jothal, Vos, Stone, the white eyed man, and the man with patches of fur stayed to fight. The miners worked on one particularly burly cultists who appeared to be rather fond of fire while Jothal and Vos took on a robed man each.
Jothal’s rival looked very similar to the man that had taken her arm. He had a shaved head, muddy eyes, and the red cloak. However, this man had a round face and a gift for controlling rock. Jothal thanked the Great Creator that her legs had not been stolen as she dodged the rock formations that her opponent seemed to be pulling out of the ground. She felt Rankein in her grip, waiting until she could take a swing. She waiting until his attacks let her leap towards him, and then brought the hammer end of Rankein careening through the air towards the side of his head. However, moments before impact, a wall of rock broke Rankein’s path, sending shattered rock flying. This bought Jothal just enough time to circle back around with the axe end. It’s sharp edge came hurdling towards the man’s side. The explosion of rock had distracted the man long enough that Jothal was able to plunge the blade of her axe into the man’s ribs. The man spluttered and fell to the ground. Jothal shoved the man off of Rankein with her leg and turned to see who needed help.
The miners were doing surprisingly well against their opponent. They had the man’s hands pinned behind him, sending fire at the ground and out of harms way. Stone was bludgeoning the man with the flat end of his pickaxe. She looked for Vos, but found only his match looking around, confused. He had frost on his fingertips, so Jothal assumed that he favored ice attacks. She started for this man, but suddenly, seemingly out of thin air, Vos appeared behind the cultist and slit his throat with a Zehnite dagger. The act was fluid and skillful. It occurred to Jothal that she knew very little about this man.
It seemed that the miners had finished with their cultist as well, and so, with a nod from Jothal, the group sprinted towards the red door on the Matok, threw it open, and ran to the foreman’s office. They ran to the main chamber of the mines, turned to their left, and headed for the entrance to the mine and freedom. They burst from the mine like birds escaping a cage and found the other miners waiting close by. A small gathering of Ithoans had formed, including Master Hebak. He gave Jothal a stern look, but she knew that he would be glad to have her home at least after he gave her a strict talking to. She sighed with relief and anxiety. Life would never be the same for her or Ithoa. Whatever these cultists were planning didn’t sound good. She searched the crowd for the High Priest. She ran to him eagerly.
“My child!” Tacims said. “What ever happened here?” Jothal recounted the tale to the High Priest. His face remained rather stoic as he listened intently.
“They mentioned that they were trying to create an army for some demon… Azzasmar was his name.” Jothal concluded. The High Priest lowered his head.
“Then it is true.” Tacims sighed. “The fast approaching clouds are indeed a sign of his return to power. We must prepare. But later.” He turned to Jothal. “We need to have you back in working order. There’s no use hiding things from the people now. The signs are undeniable. A war is approaching.” Jothal frowned. She was safe, but the future worried her. However, if she had learned anything during her journey, it was that she was prepared to fight for her people and their way of life. Whatever came next, Jothal was determined to meet it head on.
A few weeks later, production of weapons and armor was at an all time high. The mines had been cleared of all cult activity by Ithoan guards and a large supply of iron ore had been found, enough to start supplying the army that High Priest Tacims had ordered. Mainstay was bustling with life as the people prepared for the inevitable war that the approaching cloud would no doubt bring. Master Hebak’s shop was constantly busy, and he could not be happier. Even Vos had taken up training some volunteers who had interests in joining this army alongside a few other capable men and women. As for Jothal, she was getting used to her new mechanical arm, made from a new shipment of Zehnite. She was beginning to help Master Hebak in his shop again, and could not be more relieved, even despite the growing tensions all around her. She knew that life would only continue to change, and that she could do nothing to prevent it from happening. Still, she couldn’t help wishing for more adventures. She would find this adventure that she sought in the upcoming weeks and months, as the entirety of Lithilen prepared for battle.