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Outside, the frost had stilled all but the rush of the wind, and deep drifts of snow had buried the meadow, leaving white mounds over the tops of the standing stones. On such a frozen winter night, even the stoic Dvergar were glad of thick walls and roaring fires.
Glancing out the window of the earthen building, the Dvergr child left his toys for a moment, watching the shadows move among the stones. The cold brushed against his nose like a memory, and the child snuffled.
“Come back over here by the fire, my boy. The warmth is good for your stone bones.” The aged one who peered at him from an oversized armchair was hoary as the frost outside, though the stone of his body was more dusky than ever.
The young Dvergr complied, climbing down from the window and tramping slowly over the packed-earth floor to the hearth where the fire blazed. “Grandfather, why are those stones outside in that shape? It looks like the ships the warriors go to battle in.”
His grandfather, or afi, raised his bushy eyebrows and leaned back in the solid chair, pulling from a stone mug for a long drink. The steam billowed around his face. “The saga of the stone ships is a long and momentous tale, my boy. Are certain you can sit in silence until it is finished?”
The young Dvergr sat by the fire, his eyes aglow with interest. “Yes, grandfather.”
“Good. Little one, have a sip; we will now tell the story of our Delving and Ascension, and how we came to Sigurd’s Realm.”
Long ago, in the time of the First Breaking of the world, there was a mining town called Sindri that had seen better days, nestled among the cold mountains. The men and women that lived there were grim, determined to eke out a life and rebuild their ramshackle town to its glory days.
The foreman of the mine served as a kind of leader among the townsfolk, a no-nonsense man called Durnir. However, he was not their greatest expert on the mine. No, that distinction belonged to the eccentric old man known as “Old Motty”, who often took a mug of the town’s famous mulled beer and went off by himself into the darkest nooks and crannies of the mine. They said that Old Motty had never gotten lost, not even once, though the mine was riddled with twisting tunnels and confusing caverns.
Both men loved the mine, but they were often at odds. Durnir wanted to keep a firm organization running to get the most out of the valuable ore they dug. He tried to keep the miners focused, achieving one goal after another, slowly and surely building up their town.
Old Motty was always searching for something, often alone, or with a few brave souls who hoped some of his expertise would rub off on them. The old miner was instrumental in keeping the main part of the mine running, but he constantly sought the next big find, a concentration of pure ore, the mythical mother lode. He always figured that if he could just find something better, the mining town would suddenly flourish once more.
Though the storms pelted the townsfolk with rain, wind, and magic, Durnir kept them organized, and they sent team after team into their cave-riddled mine, working through the dangers that other towns would not. But their resolve would come at a terrible price.
One day as dark as dusk, when a truly terrible Veilstorm tore at the earth with its thunderous fury, the stone and mud of the mountain shuddered under the assault. A massive promontory of the mountain shifted, as though it were trembling with fear.
Deeply alarmed, Durnir called for a team to retrieve the on-duty miners before a collapse could trap them. As he watched the volunteers gather around him with brave faces, Durnir realized they were mostly the rain-spattered wives, husbands, and children of the miners that were inside. He tried to dissuade them, but it was no use; the men and women of Sindri were fiercely brave and determined.
However, just as he entered the cave mouth at the head of the rescue team, the earth shook under the force of the storm, which had become a truly terrible Malevolence. Something screamed through the town behind him, probably the wind. Steadying the others, Durnir glanced back.
It was not the wind. As the Malevolence smote the town with its magic, people were changing. Through the driving rain, the miners could discern the people of Sindri twisting into strange shapes and horrific visages.
Behind, Old Motty emerged from the cave mouth, gasping with horror. Screaming rose on the wind, and the rescue team watched open mouthed and weeping as the fearful magic ran rampant through Sindri below. Durnir had to put out an arm to stop Old Motty from running headlong down the slope back to town.
“You can’t go back!” the younger man shouted over the roar of the storm, though his spirit nearly failed him. “They’re all becoming monsters!”
A tremendous rumble and crash made them both look up. A colossal piece of the mountain had sheared away above them, and was now sliding with a great shriek of stone on stone down toward the cavernous entrance to the mine.
As the rescue team dove past him to escape the landslide, Old Motty shouted to his family, his friends, and his neighbors, though there was no chance they could hear, even if their humanity hadn’t already perished under the Malevolence. At the last moment, Durnir reached out and yanked the old man inside the cave, away from the deadly fall of earth and stones. Monstrous shrieks and howls were the last the miners heard out of Sindri before the cave opening was buried in the crushing boulders and mud.
In the quiet dark, the only sound left was their own weeping.
The miners crouched low in the dark, covering their heads and choking on the damp dust that flooded the cave mouth. The walls cracked, and chunks of the roof fell among them. As water began pouring down the walls and pooling on the floor, many cried out. Fear took hold; complete panic was not far away. Even Durnir seemed to have lost all control of the situation.
Old Motty cleared his throat. His voice rose above the frightened people in the dark, holding their spirits up like a sturdy foundation. “We’ll be alright, everyone. Follow me.” Lighting the candle on his head, the old miner pushed through the crowd with the handle of his mattock. The light flicked and shimmered on wet faces and fearful, flashing eyes as people stepped aside unevenly, blinking at him.
Old Motty led the way down through one of the shafts to a dark part of the mine that was little used. There, by the light of his candle, he showed them where he had long ago broken through to a different part of the cave complex. “We should be able to find a good place to hole up—if you’ll pardon the pun—until this is over, yes?”
Some people laughed as the tension broke. Some shed tears for all that had just been lost, and at the terrible transformations they had witnessed. Some people noticed Old Motty didn’t say the words ‘escape,’ or ‘get back outside’. Even now, though he was shaking with strain and sorrow, Old Motty was as comfortable within the mine as most were in their homes. For his part, Durnir lit a torch from the candle and brought up the rear.
As the storms raged on outside, and the weight of the mountain seemed to press down on the cave mouth, they began to follow the crazy old miner, wandering through the cave complex to find shelter. Something behind them cracked again, and the mouth of the cave flooded with rain-soaked mud. They came upon a few shafts and openings to the outside, but inhuman roars and screams echoed down into the tunnels.
Feeling trapped, one of the younger members of the group spoke up. “What of our home? My mother, my friends, and my uncle, all still out there?”
Durnir answered him gravely. “Only be glad you’re alive. They have have been changed by the storm, but do not think on it right now. You have spoken of the loss that we all feel.”
Old Motty shook his head sadly. There was no going back. The howling of the Abominations that had been their loved ones seemed to chase them through the twisting tunnels. There was nothing to do but follow Old Motty, who led the way with a strange certainty. The old miner was the only comfort to be had in that dark place, which was getting ever darker as their lights burned low.
As the storm reached its highest pitch, Old Motty stumbled, looking confused for the first time. To the terror of the folk that followed him, he seemed to have lost his way. The thunder shook the earth so violently that cracks appeared in the smooth walls. The candle on his helmet guttered out, as did Durnir’s torch, and they were left in the pitch black.
The men and women of Sindri huddled together in fear. The storm would kill them soon, if they could not find a way deeper. They did not feel protected from the Malevolence at all. They felt the tumultuous shifting of the earth, wracked by the wrath of the Pierced Veil. Praying, Old Motty hoped desperately to find some way to survive, something to give them life in this dark place.
Gradually, as the magic of the Veil flowed through the stone around like blood through veins, and the ground hummed with energy, Old Motty felt his eyes begin to burn. At first, he thought it was from weeping at his loss; but then, in the pure darkness, he began to see. “What…fear not, friends, I can see Durnir’s warts again!”
Durnir, for his part, smiled wryly. “Oh, my eyes must be hurting at the sight of your wrinkles, Motsognir.”
Others felt their eyes burn, too; they saw light in the dark. They could wander on, their eyes weeping like the walls as the shifting magic changed them. They were becoming part of the earth, changed by the flow of magic through the cave walls into something else.
With his new sight, Old Motty could see that a large crack had opened in the side of the tunnel, leading downward. He stood, dusted himself off, and led the way once more, his strange certainty returning.
“Where are we going?” Durnir asked gruffly. Others blinked through hot tears and wondered whether it would be worse to crawl outside or to go deeper.
Old Motty shrugged and grinned. “Seems to me this is the best way to go. I don’t pretend to understand it, my friends, but I feel that we are meant to go this way.”
There was nothing to go back to but Abominations and certain death. So they walked, leaving the Malevolence behind.
All the tunnels, twists, and turns only seemed to lead further and further down, into the deep parts of the world that even the bravest miners had never delved. The power of the storms filtered through the land all around them and slowly, painfully, they continued to transform.
They ate the last of their food on the second day, still trekking down, trying not to think about the nagging feeling of loss, that they would never see those that they left behind.
It was Old Motty who found sustenance: a field of mushrooms in the crevices of the deep, richly flavored and plentiful. As the storm’s water seeped through, they picked and plucked the fragrant food. Wishing only to survive as part of the earth, they ate of the earth, and walked deeper, beyond where any of them could remember the paths they had trod.
Having long lost track of time and distance, the people of Sindri were brought to a halt when they came to a place where the tunnels narrowed, and even Old Motty paused.
Durnir spoke up. “We should stop here, Motsognir. We can go back to those mushrooms and survive on that for a while, or…”
Old Motty scowled back at him. “Nonsense! Are you miners for nothing? Get out your damn tools, and get to work! Or would you really rather go back, and all the way back, to the monsters and the storms above?”
The sound of picks and shovels echoed through the ancient caves rhythmically, bouncing back and forth off the stone until it became a jumbled roar. Eventually, they broke through, down to a vast series of caverns far below the surface of the world. There in the warm dark, a vaulted cave opened like an endless tomb of the gods. It was lined on the roof with shimmering crystal. Stars, here in the deepest reaches of the world.
Something about the great chamber made the people of Sindri feel safe. Sorrow and mourning burst free of the constraints put on them by the journey. Many broke down and wept at last, unable to hold back any longer. They had lost so much, so suddenly. The horror of the Malevolence had taken everything that made Sindri a home and changed or buried it.
Old Motty grunted, “Come on, up and at ‘em. Let’s see where these tunnels go. There’s lots of things to see. We may yet find a better place…” He trailed off, as no one was listening.
Durnir shook himself and stood before them all with raised hands. The keening quieted. “We have lost a great deal. We cannot ever return to the place that was our home, for storms and magic have destroyed it and changed our families and friends into…something else. But look.” He pointed at the high crystalline roof. “Here is a sky that has no sudden changes. No storms come here to wreak havoc. This is a place where we can allow ourselves, not to forget–no, never–but perhaps, to survive.”
Old Motty kept insisting that they should go further, but the folk of Sindri-that-was refused. They called this place the Dark Fields, and settled there.
They never forgot Sindri, where they had come from, and the loss stayed with them like a bleeding wound. On the other hand, Durnir pointed out that there was much to do. There were so many things to organize: caverns had to be hollowed, tunnels explored, fields of mushrooms farmed. A few brave souls began experimenting with different brews, trying to find a new recipe for their beloved, nourishing beer.
Far below the ground, they discovered bizarre magical flora and fauna, things unheard-of, beautiful and strange. Eventually, many of them were tamed and husbanded by the folk that had been born in Sindri, and Old Motty called the most plentiful ones “deepsheep.”
They built beautiful homes carved into the stone, and formed their own tribes and even kingdoms beneath the earth. They began to call it the Inner World, and the storm-torn surface the Outer World.
Old Motty kept saying that they hadn’t fully explored everything, but they were all much too busy surviving to think about that much. He argued with Durnir at first, but over time, Old Motty retreated farther and farther into the deepest caves, and Durnir became king over the Dark Fields, capital of the Inner World.
The people of Sindri changed their Inner World to match themselves, even as their bodies changed to match their surroundings. Other caves they had hollowed were given their own names, and became somewhat independent kingdoms called Nodes. Over each Node there ruled one of the original miners, now called the Ascended. It was they who remembered the surface, and told and retold of the torrential destruction above.
All were comfortable and happy in their wondrous and mysterious Inner World. The Dvergar, as they began to call themselves, slowly began to miss the surface less and less. They had children who knew of clouds only by stories.
They were content. Until the one called Thyra was born.
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