Gondo Firebeard changed into his work clothes.
They were a set of coarsely-designed coveralls, stitched together from sturdy cloth. They stretched poorly and did not feel comfortable when worn. They were a poor choice for everyday wear. However, they were exceptionally suited for working in the mine tunnels, where conditions were poor. Putting it on might not have seemed like a big deal, but being able to wear such gear was revolutionary when one looked back on the history of the Dwarven people and how they had first worked the tunnels while practically naked.
After that, he put on a metal helmet, of the sort that light infantry might wear. The insides of the mines were very humid, and wearing it directly against the skin would be uncomfortable due to the heat and the trickling of sweat. Thus, the miners all padded the insides of their helmets with thick towels.
Finally, he put on a set of dog tags around his neck. The number 5 was inscribed onto the metal plate. It implied that he was on the final day of his five-day-on, five-day-off work regime.
In other words, Gondo would briefly be free from tomorrow onwards.
After his preparations were complete, Gondo emerged from the changing room and headed straight to the usual place, the waiting room.
Gondo squeezed between several dwarves and immediately picked out his name on the message board. There were four other names on the same row as his, and they would be Gondo’s shiftmates — his working buddies for today.
Finding one’s colleagues, the people with whom he would share his toil, was a piece of cake in this cramped waiting room. It would seem Gondo was the last to arrive, because his buddies had already noticed him before he could rush over.
“Ohhh! Gondo! It’s been a while!”
“Ho! Gagaiz! I'm fortunate to have you as shift leader. It’ll be good to work with you. Same goes for the others!”
“Ho, Gondo! Let’s do our best today!”
“Mm, mm. Today’s the fifth day! The last day. I’ll give it all I’ve got!”
“Ha~ I feel like slacking off~”
They chattered on like this as they left the waiting room and signed out pickaxes, shovels, and other mining tools. Then, they drew rations and refreshments — lunchboxes and two liters of water, stored in a magic item which maintained a steady temperature.
However, there was no sign of the dwarves’ beloved beverage, beer. There was no way it would be there. While it was true that the dwarves were highly resistant to alcohol and would not be intoxicated by just a few drinks, no mining boss would ever allow his prized workers to touch the demon drink while working in the dangerous tunnels.
One of the dwarves took a swig from a flask at his waist, which had not been issued to him.
The air he exhaled was redolent with the scent of alcohol.
Neither was he the only one to do so. Gondo had several pouches like that as well.
Of course, he did not have alcohol with him. However, he had flasks of water, soup, five sticks of boiled sweets, and dwarven bread to supplement his rations.
The interior of the tunnels were hot and humid, so in addition to consuming additional calories, they had to take in extra water as well. The fact was that their issued rations were the bare minimum needed for them. Their bosses were the sort who would cut costs whenever they could.
After finishing all their preparations, they stepped up before the Dwarf who was in charge of this state-run mining tunnel.
He was seated on the other side of a counter, a creepy, sinister-looking Dwarf in glasses. He raised an eyebrow, and looked over Gondo and company.
He muttered quietly when he came to the humming Dwarf who reeked of alcohol, but in the end he did not say anything. He might have been their manager, but he was still a Dwarf, and he understood these things. Or rather, it was because Gagaiz made the first move and spoke up.
“I am Gagaiz. Where will we be digging today?”
The creepy-looking Dwarf snorted, and then turned his attention from the group to the map he was holding. Although their view was blocked by the counter, it was reasonable to assume that it was a chart which held the assignments for all the dig sites.
“You’ll be in Sector 8821.”
“8821… heatstones, then?”
Heatstones were very important things to the Dwarves.
Dwarves were a race of the earth. For the most part, they lived underground. When they used coal or firewood to produce the heat needed for warmth, cooking and smithing, it would pollute the air and make life difficult for them.
Granted, there were magic items which could cleanse the air. However, such items required druids to make, and they were regrettably rare among the Dwarves. Thus they could not mass-produce such magic items.
Therefore, they used the metal called heatstones as a replacement for those things.
Heatstones were a special kind of metal. If one struck them with a very hard metal — mithril, at the barest minimum — they would produce intense heat. The Dwarves used this curious metal like coal, and their refineries and smithies consumed vast quantities of them. Thus, one could say that heatstones were a central part of Dwarven life.
Incidentally, firewood and the like were rare in this place.
A set of metal plates hit the counter; they were permits which allowed passage in and out of the tunnels. Gagaiz threaded them onto his necklace with a dexterity one would not have expected of his stubby fingers.
After that, he studied the sheet of paper which had been passed to him. He let the others read it as well after he had verified the contents.
Soon, the paper reached Gondo’s hands. As always it contained the route leading to their dig site. Gondo imprinted the location of several critical junctions into his mind. They would come in handy if they had to flee due to an emergency. After all, monsters might show up even in a Dwarven mine, so it paid to be careful about these things.
“Use the mining cart at the third junction.”
“Got it. Then, let’s go!”
They oiled up the manually-operated minecart at the third junction and then pushed it forward according to Gagaiz’s directions. The interior of the tunnels were lit by lanterns containing naturally-glowing oil. However, those lanterns were spaced very far apart, so at times, entire sections of the tunnel were shrouded in darkness. That said, all Dwarves had darkvision, which could easily overcome the darkness. Of course, this darkvision did not have unlimited range, but it was enough to go from lantern to lantern.
Perhaps the races from the outside world would not be able to bear the sense of pressure which the tunnels imposed on its occupants. However, it had no effect at all on the underground-dwelling Dwarves. The tunnels might have seemed narrow, but they were quite spacious to the Dwarves. Given that the average height of a Dwarf was around 130cm, a tunnel of around 180cm across was broad enough for them.
Before long, the sound of footsteps came from ahead.
If they were miners like Gondo and the others, they should have heard the sound of a minecart as well. However, there was nothing of the sort. What was this, then? If it was the patapata of bare feet on the ground, they would have dumped everything and fled back to where they came. However, that was not the case; the footsteps sounded like they had been made with boots.
They had an idea of who might be making those sounds.
Soon, they saw a squad of Dwarves.
Gondo and the others pressed themselves to the sides of the walls so as not to impede their progress. Well, they did that, but the minecart still took up space in the middle of the tunnel, so saying that they were trying to keep out of their way was merely wishful thinking on the part of Gondo and the others.
“—Heading up? There’s nothing there now, but be careful anyway.”
“Ah, thanks for your concern. We’re very grateful for your help.”
After that brief exchange, they parted ways with Gondo’s crew.
The Dwarf at their head was a tunnel doctor, a magic caster from an alternative system.
His job was to cast spells which would reinforce the ceiling and prevent chunks from falling out of it, keeping the miners from being hurt by sharp edges in the rocks they were excavating, and so on.
It was critical to shore up the tunnels due to the constant danger of their collapse, but wood — the most commonly-used material for such reinforcement — was hard to come by in the Dwarven Kingdom. Thus, tunnel doctors used their magic to strengthen the walls of the tunnels.
In addition, they could tell if they were digging too close to water or gas. With them around, the miners could work in peace, without having to worry about collapse and the like.
Behind the tunnel doctor — who had many important jobs to perform — were lightly-armored Dwarven warriors.
Tunnel doctors were not common, which was why they were escorted by four men.
After they passed each other, the sound of their footsteps faded into the distance.
Much like other Dwarven cities, the city of Fio Kula sat at the heart of several ore veins which it worked. Only the west remained unexcavated for some reason. It lay beneath the earth, under the steep slopes of several sheer peaks.
In contrast to their casual, easygoing attitudes, the Dwarves were excellent mathematicians. The many tunnels which radiated from the city like blood vessels from a heart were the product of intricate calculations, and they formed geometric works of art once they were excavated. Tracks were laid down in the larger main tunnels for minecarts, while hand-powered elevators serviced the shafts which had been sunk for vertical mining. In addition, there were the countless smaller tunnels which emanated from them. When added up, the distance these tunnels spanned easily exceeded several hundred kilometers.
Due to their size, there was no way to fully man them with guards. Even guarding every single shift of miners was beyond them. Therefore, if a monster showed up, the miners had no choice but to drop everything and flee back to the nearest critical juncture, where guards would be stationed.
Unfortunately, as the people on the surface knew well, the Dwarves all had short legs. It would take a miracle for every single person to escape with their lives.
Gondo and the others halted their minecart in the middle of the passage and activated their magical lanterns. They then proceeded into a side passage with their mining tools in hand. Their destination lay at the end of the tunnel ahead — their dig site for the day.
Gagaiz gave his orders, and the miners moved to their positions without any complaints. One to swing his pickaxe and dig, one to split the bedrock with wedges, one to shovel the earth and rock into a basket, one to carry the basket to the minecart, one to push the minecart to the spoil tip—
“All right, let’s start.”
And with that, the day’s work began.
Despite their developed muscles, the countless mechanical repetitions of their work meant that their bodies craved rest the moment their labors ceased.
They stripped off their work clothes and headed to the miners-only bathhouse.
This bathhouse ran off the tremendous amount of heat given off by the gigantic crucibles of the national foundries. Though the water was not very hot, it was the perfect temperature to melt away the fatigue accumulated by their tired bodies.
Gondo filled a ladle with hot, brownish water from a basin, and then dumped it on himself with no reservation.
It would seem there was some sort of iron content in the water, and indeed, one would be able to taste something if they swilled it in their mouths.
This hot water cleansed Gondo’s body of the dirt which clung to it.
He scrubbed hard at his beard and his hair. A dwarf who did not care for and clean their beard could hardly be considered an adult.
“Oi, Gondo! How about getting a drink after this!” Gagaiz shouted as he scrubbed at himself with a towel from a stool opposite of him.
Gondo dumped more hot water on his head and settled into the hot tub before shouting back:
“Afraid I’ll have to decline! I’ve work later on which can’t be put off! Another time, perhaps!”
“Really now! What a shame! If you change your mind, come down to the White Beer Pavilion and have a cup or two with us!”
“Oh! I’ll look forward to it!”
Gagaiz then moved on to talk with his other buddies, and before anyone else could ask him out, Gondo rose from the tub with an, “I’ll be off now!” and strode off.
After towelling himself dry and putting on his clean everyday clothes, Gondo walked up to the counter with the sinister-looking Dwarf manager. He took off the necklace he was wearing and handed it over.
The manager looked it over, and then placed a pouch on the counter.
This was five days’ worth of wages. Due to the fairly high mortality rate in the mines, wages were calculated on a weekly basis. Apparently they had paid a daily rate in the past, but that led to situations where the workers did not have enough to drink at taverns. One could say that the present system was designed to cater to that sad state of affairs. While the pouch before him did contain a sizable sum, Gagaiz and the others would probably spend half of that on beer.
“...Gondo, it’s been a month, if you count today. Let me look upon your face.”
“It’s fine. There’s no problem with my breathing.”
“I’ll be the judge of that, not you.”
He picked up a handlight from the counter, and shone it at Gondo.
Gondo was not happy at the bright illumination, but he continued looking forward.
Inhaling dust particles over long durations degraded the functional capacity of one’s lungs. This caused the skin to gradually turn pale. That condition was called Whitesnow Sickness, and this examination was to see if he was showing any signs of it.
“...Hmph, you do look well.”
“That disease causes strange sounds while breathing. If there are no sounds, then it’s fine, right?”
“...Yes. In truth, I used to discover the symptoms in that way. However, examining the face is more accurate than listening to the lungs. Or are you making light of my experience?”
“Perish the thought. Experience is vital.”
“Then cease your petty griping. It helps nobody. Also, Gondo. Have you not considered a permanent position here? You could be a crew leader. After all, you are quite experienced in that field.”
“Allow me to beg off on that, for I cannot… I will need to leave after this, and I have already accumulated the funds for my travels.”
Gondo had scrimped and saved to the extent that people considered him antisocial, but in truth that was all to purchase the items needed to travel.
“...And where will you be headed now?”
“I intend to delve into the abandoned city, Feoh Raiđō of the south, and go digging there.”
The sinister-looking Dwarf manager’s eyes went wide as he heard this.
“What!... I trust my asking is redundant, but you do know that place is a dangerous region, no? Who will you be travelling with?”
“To the former question: I am abundantly aware of that. To the latter, my answer is no.”
The more people who moved together, the higher the chances of discovery. Once discovered, some or all of them might have to die. Rather than risk that, it would be better to go alone, and lower the chances of being found.
“...Did you leave something behind there?”
“No. I told you, did I not? I plan to go digging.”
“It is the nature of that digging which baffles me. Can you not do enough digging here?”
“Hmph! It matters not how hard I work here… well, there are subsidies for the amount that we move, but that is merely a fixed sum. The truth is, working here simply does not pay enough.”
“It pays better than regular work.”
The Dwarf before him was right. Gondo had chosen to work here because he needed to raise funds in a short period of time.
“Not enough for my aims. That is why I intend to go digging around in the abandoned city. None may gainsay my claim, no matter what kind of metal I excavate.”
The manager knitted his brows into a mass.
Gondo’s words might have been quite extreme, but he was also correct.
“You seek the white iron, then?”
“Yes, exactly. After all, nobody will quibble with me if I recover it from there.”
The fundamental fact was that all these mines were nationalized. Thus, one would have to pay an appropriate — appropriately high — price if they wanted white iron. However, anything one dug out of an abandoned mine was essentially finders keepers. However, if anything happened to them there, the country would not provide any assistance, of course.
“...Would you sell it to me? I’ll pay well, of course.”
They had not yet dug up white iron from the mineral veins near this city. Thus, once the ores ran out, the price of the metal would rise asymptotically.
However, Gondo knew that the Dwarf before him was not making that proposal out of self-interest. He was doing so purely out of the kindness of his heart.
He probably intended to negotiate with Gondo with a higher price than what a middleman would charge. However, Gondo was not digging the white iron up to sell it — in other words, he was not prospecting for profit.
“How shall I say this… I have already decided what to use it for. It will all be going to my research.”
A shadow fell across the sinister-looking Dwarf’s face.
“Are you still saying that sort of thing… Well, I cannot say I do not understand how you feel, but should you not face reality and settle down here as a crew leader? What would your father think?”
In that moment, anger blazed up in Gondo’s heart. However, he lowered his face to hide the rage twisting it before it could show. After all, the Dwarf before him had helped Gondo’s father many times before. That was why he was so concerned about Gondo, his son, immersing himself in research that could not possibly bear fruit.
While the other man had said what he had out of goodwill, Gondo could not bring himself to accept those words.
“I face reality every day. Father did not walk a false path. I will revive the arts that were lost!”
In the end, he could not hold back his wrath completely. As he vented the dregs of his rancor with those words, Gondo turned and strode away without looking back.
He felt guilty about making people worry for him, but it was overruled by the passion he felt for what he had to do, no matter the cost.
That was what he lived for, as someone who could not be compared to his outstanding father.
Gondo bit his lip, and looked forward.