I lay in a pool of my own vomit at the bottom of a dark stairwell with the worst hangover I think I’ve ever had. My whole body thumped with the pounding in my skull. Never again would I be putting beer into the magic vase. I sat up slowly, using the cold stone wall to keep me upright, and felt for the satchel. It had landed under me when I fell. Yes, never again. The vase was broken. I sighed, too ill to berate myself over my clumsiness. At least the angry crowd hadn’t found me. I looked up the stairs to the fading light. Where had Vytar gone with all of his solicitousness?
“Useless sentinel,” I muttered and then laughed at myself and winced. I guess I’d gotten used to the idea that he thought I was someone special – a lord. He had no obligations to me, and I none to him. My mother’s voice came back to me, saying “Nobility is an obligation. If you are going to rise above your peers to be a leader, you are obligated to them to be a good example. They put you there, they can take you down.” And my imaginary? adopted? mother Kotia saying, “Don’t get too big for your breeches. Even Kings shite.”
Chuckling, I forced myself to my feet and looked around. The wall that I’d been leaning against had a metal door and the landing turned to the left and the stairway continued down. Dim light came from the stairwell below.
Up, through the door, or down?
I heard footsteps from the street above and a voice said, “No sign of him, sir.”
A gruff voice answered, “Keep looking.”
Torchlight illuminated the first steps.
Down it was.
The stairs went down for many flights and finally ended at an open door. I peeked out and saw a vast cavern lit with a hazy orange light. The noise made me want to cry and the smell made me sneeze. Big machines scooped up and dumped ore into carts that rode on twin lines of metal. The carts slid into an enormous furnace. I couldn’t help but think that my elemental friend would find it wonderful. To the right of that, a building made of metal had a sign on it that read, “SS/E No unauthorized access.”
I stepped out of the door and onto a metal platform unthinking. What a marvel this mine? mine was. I saw workers moving off to the left with pickaxes over their shoulders. Next to me on the platform I found a building, smaller, also metal. The wall closest to me had a rack of bright yellow vests, helms made of thin, reflective material – perhaps silver – and strange goggles attached to metal disks. A sign over the rack read, “PPE – your safety is important.”
A stairway lead down from the platform and its building to the bustle below. It had a sign that read, “Do you have your masque?”
The building had glass windows and thin, drawn curtains. I peeked through one and saw a male Dvergr and a man looking at a strange blue map with white lines together and a female Dvergr taking notes.
Beyond the windows, a door to the building, and then a wall with a set of double gates connected to a chamber at the bottom of a large tube that ran from the platform to the ceiling far above.
A horn sounded and men left their machines and most headed up the wide stairs toward me. I dashed to the wall and pretended to examine the equipment. The men paid no attention to me and went directly to the double-gated tube thing. The gates opened, the men entered a chamber, and the gates slid closed and the chamber rose into the tube.
The chamber returned a moment later This I had to see. I pushed the gates open and stepped in. Inside the chamber there were leavers labeled with an upward-pointing arrow, a downward-pointing arrow, two arrows pointing at each other and two arrows pointing away from each other. Before I could experiment, the doors started to close. I stepped out as fast as I could. The chamber rose on its own. I leaned my head in and watched the bottom – smooth metal – retreat to the ceiling.
“Hey – you loose something?”
I jumped and turned to find the man who’d been looking at the blue map standing at the door to the building.
“Why haven’t you got your PPE on?”
He gestured to me to follow, so I did. He walked around the corner and shoved a vest, helm, and goggle thing at me.
“Get down there, you’re late for your shift.”
I shrugged into the vest and, noting how the man’s goggles rested on his chest, put them over my head. I took the helmet and ran down the stairs under the man’s watchful eyes.