Fantasy Fiction posted May 15, 2020 Chapters: -1- 2... 

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An earthquake heralds the destruction of Dhuldarim.

A chapter in the book The Gemcutters Daughter


by K. Olsen

At home in Dhuldarim, Tali's life is about to change course forever.

The most beautiful gems came from the deepest mines. It was an ironic twist of Fate that those most capable of making them shine were those who could not see the glittering colors. Instead, the dwarves relied upon artifice to determine the nature of their gems, upon their dim vision in black and white to craft shapes. Tali Khondurahl had spent many a day with her face pressed almost against the stones, squinting in concentration as she worked. She was only an apprentice, of course. Her father made it look ridiculously easy.

Metal was easier to work, at least for Tali. Heating it until it melted and then pouring it into molds for jewelry was simple enough. The fine detail work of shaping it while it was still hot was a joy. The geometric or fractal patterns were the closest she had ever come to seeing flowers or lightning. Truth be told, however, she barely thought of a world beyond her home. Even Bar Tarum seemed distant and foreign.

Much of Dhuldarim was mine, almost endless warrens of cramped passageways and vents, cooled only by the flow of the Khuldar River as it snaked its way far beneath the ground. The tunnels stretched for miles in every direction. There was even a passage that went towards the surface, but it was barely used. The dwarves of Dhuldarim had no need and no trust for the surface world. 

There was hardly desire either. The gods had placed all things where they were best, and Tek had given the place beneath the earth to the dwarves. That was something they understood.

“Done!” Tali said with a grin, swiping at the sweat all over her dark forehead. Her darker, bushy hair was pulled back into a simple braid that kept it out of her face while she was working. Skyborn said when they visited Dhir Daral that dwarves had skin like bronze, but Tali couldn’t tell. She carefully rinsed the stone to remove any remnants of the final polish.

Her father took the sapphire when she finished and brought it near his face, turning it over in his rough hands to check the alignment of the cuts. “Better than any skyborn could do,” he said. Her father’s voice was like his hands: rasping and steady. “It came out well. Geim was right.” 

Tali cocked her head at the mention of Geim. “What did he say?” The Master of Gems hardly ever spoke with her. He just had too much to do. Trade with the other cities—and with the surface, through Dhir Daral—was absolutely vital, which meant cut stones and jewelry went along with the ore, every single shipment. Skyborn had yet to master the art of gemcutting, perhaps because no dwarf was willing to part with such precious secrets, which meant that the crafts of the dwarves of Dhuldarim were prized. 

“He said you’re just about ready to become a full gemcutter,” her father said. He gave her a stern look when she grinned. “You still haven’t made your mastercraft, remember? You need to give that a lot of thought. It took me five years.” 

Tali still beamed at him. “I have some thoughts on that point. How about—” A sudden, explosive shudder silenced her as it resonated through the ground. Tools and toolboxes hit the floor with clinks and crashes, but fortunately, there wasn’t any molten metal around to be sloshed. Tali grabbed onto the workbench to keep her feet and her father did the same. She counted under her breath, timing the seconds with dwarven precision. 

Twenty seconds

Her father’s white eyes were only wide for a moment. Once the most powerful of the aftershocks had faded to smaller ones, he grabbed her arm. “Tali, we need to get down there! The mines!” 

He didn’t have to tell her twice. Tali led the way, almost bolting out of the workshop. She hit the walkway at a dead run, grabbing at the work-lines with a vice-like grip. Swinging with her long arms took her further, faster than just walking, so she made full use of her proportions. Her father followed with the same speed. 

The core of Dhuldarim was a giant machine, metal and stone woven together as giant gears that powered the turning of the world itself. Some of the energy was diverted into their forges, but that was such a small expense of power comparatively that Tali doubted that anyone above had noticed, let alone minded. Homes and workshops alike were carved into the whirring parts, carefully placed to never impede the flow of progress. Walkways spanned the great chasm between gears like spiderwebs, delicate and miniscule beside the gargantuan workings of Tek's great machine. 

The depths of the city were in chaos, but even in chaos, there was order. Lights flickered above the main switchboard, marking active tunnels. Eleven crews were not reporting in, their lights dark. As soon as the earthquake’s aftershocks had settled, crews assembled to brave unsteady areas. They would undertake the perilous task of shoring up passages and clearing rubble to recover miners. Team leaders and their two mine bosses barked orders with a practiced ease. Collapses were a part of life in the depths, though not on this scale. Every able-bodied dwarf was needed now.

Tali grabbed a helmet and made her way to the nearest figure with authority. Even through the dirt on his face, she recognized Thorgin. He was a rock in hard times, able to take anything in stride. “Khondurahl reporting for duty,” she said. 

“Head for Tunnel 3, Tali,” the mine boss said. “It’s got two passages down.” He looked at her father next. “Allo, Garran. Head for 14. It’s the biggest mess.”

Tali trusted Thorgin and his judgment. She didn’t even ask if she could go with her father instead. If Tunnel 3 needed her, she would go. Tali hugged her father, knowing collapses were incredibly dangerous, and then headed off towards the tunnel entrance. She grabbed a pick and a shovel on the way. There was always a surplus of tools near the mines, just in case something broke.

Tunnel 3 was a ways away, on the opposite side of the Garden. She swung and ran her way along the hard ground, making full use of the walkway rails and occasional guide chains. That path ended at the Garden itself, which lit her passage with a soft glow. The mushrooms of the forest—some towering stalks and others squat, some with broad caps casting shade and others thinner and spongy—cast light in many colors. A skyborn might think it merciful relief from dull stone, shades of brilliant red and gold, blue and purple. Tali appreciated it differently without seeing color: some were edible, some more appropriate for tools, and some were fine building material. Oami, beetles the size of a dwarf’s torso, grazed on the lichens cultivated everywhere or trundled over to the deep pools of water to drink. The bugs were both docile and delicious. 

The Garden and its inhabitants were life for the dwarves of Dhuldarim. 

Tali didn’t stop to enjoy the smell or peaceful sound of the rustling oami. Instead, she kept bolting. She dropped down to a second walkway and passed the tefia pen, a large cavern full of webs from arachnids the size of a dwarf or sometimes larger. Dwarves had carefully trained them to avoid eating their caretakers and fed them well on oami, so they gave up their silk in return. It was occasionally perilous to tend to them, but the hairy brush of their legs was usually something closer to affectionate than to aggressive.

The young dwarf skidded to a halt at the tunnel entrance, where she heard Sibta Aethrum marshalling her team. She was something of a legend among the miners, as she’d survived more cave-ins than anyone else alive. One could chip a diamond against her determination.

Sibta turned when she heard Tali’s approach. “Here to help?”

“Thorgin sent me to lend a hand. How bad is it?” Tali tried to be matter-of-fact, but a brief twinge of apprehension in her stomach was definitely present. 

“Bad,” Sibta said bluntly, running a hand over her bald head. She wasn’t one to soften the blows. “We’ve got about twenty miners behind or beneath a thick wall of rock. I’ve never seen an earthquake like this. The spirits of deep-fire must be angry.” 

Tali had never seen deep-fire, but she knew what it was: molten rock that flowed beneath the surface, sometimes roiling restlessly and causing tremors through the mines. At its worst, it erupted past the tunnels, towards the surface. A mine tunnel could fall prey to it, spelling death for the miners there. The spirits dwelt normally much deeper than Dhuldarim, but the stories said that deep-fire was the thing that propelled Tek’s great machine. Its heat kept the cavern network warm and livable. 

The spirits of deep-fire were, for all their destructive power, seen as benevolent. They worked far more good than evil. Once Tali had even collected obsidian from passages that they had abandoned.

Tali bit her lower lip, shovel and pick resting against her shoulder. “What do you need me to do?” 

“Dig. I’ve got people in there shoring up the passages, but we need more diggers. Get a move on. They haven’t got forever.” Sibta turned her gimlet stare toward the blurry shapes that were her mine crew. “Let’s go, people!”

The young dwarf immediately obeyed. She headed into the tunnel, praying softly to Tek for the survival of the trapped crews. Soon, though, her prayers stopped. It was more important to breathe as she worked, chipping away at the rubble. Dwarves could move a great deal of stone quickly, particularly so when motivated, but a quake like this could drop a mile of tunnel easily if the epicenter was nearby. 

As she moved manageable chunks of stone and earth, Sibta and a few others rigged together pulley systems to move the massive pieces slowly, allowing others to shore up the passage with timbers cut from the largest of mushrooms. It was dangerous work, as there was a solid chance that more would collapse. Even dwarven strength and constitution was insufficient protection against tons of rock plunging towards one. 

There was no friendly chatter now, just Sibta and two team leaders ordering or the crew members warning each other before the shifts. Every word came with grim purpose. It wasn’t perfect and there were plenty of injuries. 

Tali dug until her limbs were quivering and the drinks of water from Sibta’s canteen couldn’t rid her of the raw itch in her throat. There was no sign yet of the other side, even after hours upon hours of work. Every breath felt like punishment, though when she tore off her sleeve and wrapped it around her face to cover her nose and mouth, it at least kept the dust out of her straining lungs. The rest of the crew had either done the same or wore proper masks. Her muscles burned in protest and strained at every movement. 

After what felt like years of digging, a hand grabbed her shoulder and pulled her away from the rubble. “Easy,” Sibta said. “Crew’s rotating out. Go get some rest.” 

Tali wiped at her brow. The stone dust had mingled with her sweat, creating a sort of mud. “I can still—”

Sibta brought her face close to Tali’s, leaving no room to ignore the scowl. “You’re no use to anyone if you flop over like a beached cavefish. Go get something to eat and wash up. I expect you back here in ten hours.” 

The young dwarf nodded reluctantly and staggered out of the tunnel. The warm air of the city center left her feeling overheated too. She made her way to the Garden to sit near the pools and cool off. She wouldn't wash in them, not when she was this dirty, but she could lie on the lichen and relax for a little while. A few oami clicked their greetings and ambled over to her, hoping for treats. They were never in a hurry, though food could get them to meander a little faster and with more purpose. 

“Sorry,” Tali said, patting the carapace of one. “I don’t have anything for you.” 

A young one crawled into her lap, looking up at her with quizzical eyes. She lifted it up and set it next to her, ignoring it when it sniffed around her to make certain she had no food. Beneath the shade of the greatest of the fungus, a tower of a mushroom with a convex cap and a bright glow called Old Trol, Tali felt exhaustion setting in now that she wasn’t in the thick of it. Bed would be more comfortable than sitting here, but she couldn’t find it in her to move. 

The oami slowly wandered off, no longer interested now that they knew she wasn’t there to feed them. When the rustling faded, she heard an approach and voices. She didn’t immediately turn around or speak, feeling honestly too tired to move. She laid back on the lichen-covered ground instead, barely keeping her eyes open. The earth beneath her was surprisingly soft from the lichen and she was far enough away from the nightsoil used to feed the fungi that she was comfortable, not that she was clean at the moment to even fuss over it. 

“It’s just an earthquake,” a familiar voice said. Geim’s tone told Tali that the old dwarf was doing his best to convince himself of that and wasn’t succeeding. 

The throat-clearing sounds she heard next meant he could only be talking to Dorn Urald. The Forge-Tender always sounded like he was gargling with gravel when that worried tic kicked in. “It’s more than that, Geim. Something is wrong. I’ll consult the Heartforge while Sibta and Thorgin lead work on the mines," Dorn said.

“What do you think it is?” Geim asked, sounding almost defeated. 

“I think it has to do with the Spark.” 

A chill set into Tali’s blood that had nothing to do with the cooler temperature near the water. The Spark gave life to everything. Everything. If something had harmed Tek’s gift or if something was wrong with it, it could only mean disaster for the whole city. What if the Artifice itself stopped and with it stopped the turning of the world? The skyborn days, their seasons, their everything, all gone, and for the dwarves? Even worse. 

Geim sighed. “We don’t tell anyone until after the Heartforge has had its say. Fear is a greater foe than an earthquake.” 

“Agreed,” Dorn grunted before heading off towards the center of the city. Geim tottered along back towards the workshop. 

The young dwarf was certain she was going to be sick. She waited until the parting footsteps were so far gone as to be inaudible to her keen hearing, then almost vaulted up. Her body burned with exertion, but her heart was hammering in her chest with a sudden energy. Her head swiveled as she took in her options. Going to the tunnels to locate her father wasn’t really an option, not with all the activity down there. She could write a note and leave it at the switchboard, but anyone could pick it up by mistake. 

Dwarves were sensible creatures. That did not make them immune from panic, however. Tali didn’t want to cause that. The Heartforge would give its wisdom and she would honor it, no matter how much she felt a sudden urge to flee or freeze clenching her heart. 

Home would be the best place to wait for her father. Hopefully, he would know what to do or what to say. Besides, she needed to wash up before she could sleep. For all their grime when they worked, or perhaps because of it, dwarves liked to be clean in their off-time. Cold water would also do wonders for the bruising inflicted by falling stones and beams. 

For the first time in her life, Tali hoped the Forge-Tender was wrong.

Tali - protagonist
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