People crave warmth, lust for the flame.
The mountains that ran along the southern region of the northern lands were covered with snow all year round, just as they were on that day.
Amidst the frigid, whispering winds, a cold swell blowing in from vast and distant oceans locked the earth in ice. White snow, gray clouds, and black forests were the only colors to be seen here. The gloom and monotony of this scenery weighed heavy on one's spirits, while the cold, harsh weather ravaged the body.
To a human, this vast and barren wasteland of ice was essentially no man's land. To cross here without having made extensive preparations beforehand, without a doubt, would only end in a pile of bones buried beneath a blizzard. Even if the climate had grown warmer of late, such remained the fact of this land.
Of course, not everyone shared the same fear of this weather.
Starfall Year 832, the 26th day of the 2nd month, noon.
In the southern reaches of the Great Ajax mountains—those snowy peaks which meandered for hundreds of miles—a small band of knights were holding up fluttering banners as they galloped through the billowing snow.
The ice-covered mountains of the northern lands were the source of all the rivers in the surrounding region. Winding glaciers rolled down from the soaring peaks, tumbling down cliffs and over boulders, through dark and dense forests, and along valleys on its way to far-off places. And now, the band of knights were following the somewhat more even path alongside the river bank towards their destination – a thick column of black smoke, standing stark against the snow-white world, which they raced towards with all their speed.
Hooves thundered past, churning up the snow, which had long, lay still. The warhorses, with dragon blood in their veins, possessed fearsome endurance which granted them tremendous strength and stamina, so that they were unhindered by the frost. Before long, following behind their leader upon the black warhorse, the knights arrived at the crest of a tall hill.
Now they could see the source of the smoke.
"What a sight…"
As they looked out from their high vantage point, there was a cry of admiration from one of the knights, which was echoed in the hearts of all present.
Right before their eyes, in this concealed basin amidst the mountains, the vast expanse of glittering snow suddenly gave way to coal-black soot, heat shimmering in the air, while columns of black smoke rose up towards the sky. Right at the center of the blackened ground, there was a lake of red and gold—an enormous pool of lava, boiling and bubbling, giving off nearly limitless heat.
They could already smell the acrid stench of sulfur thick in the air, while those with sharper senses could also detect how, with such a great mass of elemental fire gathered in this frozen land, the intense heat of the lava had turned the snow in the air into piping-hot steam, which rose with the heat currents until it punched a gaping hole through the heavy gray clouds which shrouded the sky.
The most well-known landmark upon the southern face of Mount Great Ajax—the open-air Volcanic Lake.
This was the home of the rune dwarves of the north. Scattered across the burnt and blackened land around the lake was an assortment of gray stone buildings, including homes, shop-houses, and even a paved cobblestone road with street-lamps. At a glance, it looked like a small town in its own right.
Dwarves were not just some fictional race in tales and legends. These short but sturdy people, with long beards and iron wills, lived right alongside humans as a typical part of their society. In the empire, dwarves enjoyed the same rights as humans, and were true citizens in every sense of the word. Technically, dwarves also swore fealty to the baron of their land, and deferred to his rule—of course, to truly earn their sincere co-operation was no simple matter.
"That town ahead is where we're going." Steering Black along at an easy trot, Joshua cautioned the knights behind him in a low voice, "Be careful. In a geo-thermic area like this, there'll occasionally be geysers of hot steam bursting out from the cracks in the ground. Don't let your warhorses get hurt or frightened."
"Yes, sir!" With a loud reply, the group set forth once more.
Picking their way along carefully, and managing to avoid a few eruptions of steam, they arrived at the dwarves' residential area on the surface after a while.
The buildings which lined either side of the road were not especially tall. This came as no surprise, for why would the dwarves aim for spectacle when building their own homes? In any case, the rune dwarves of the north hadn't made their name through grand architecture; it was the mountain dwarves of the west which were known for their expertise in building cities and strongholds; even the earth dwarves, skilled at re-shaping the very earth, were more renowned in such matters than the rune dwarves were.
In fact, what the rune dwarves were best at was forging weapons and creating various magical items. In this department, neither gnomes nor goblins were a match for them.
"Is no one here?" Mounted on a gray horse, Ling looked around in bewilderment. "Although I know the dwarves live underground… since they've built houses up here, how come there isn't a soul in sight?"
"It's not quite that there's no one here." Riding ahead of him, Joshua shook his head and leaned over to explain. "Before we arrived, we sent them a message by magic. Right now, they should all be waiting to welcome us in the town square, up ahead."
And that's how it really was.
In a little while, turning down another street, they saw a few dozen dwarves gathered in the square. When they saw the company that the warrior was leading, and their flags displaying hands bearing swords, they all waved in greeting to show welcome.
One of the dwarves seemed to be in charge. Accompanied by several other dwarves in armor or regalia, he advanced directly towards Joshua's group, who of course dismounted to receive him.
"Esteemed lord Joshua, welcome to Black Steel Town."
Beginning with a respectful bow, this dwarf took the lead to express welcome and humility. "My name is Ironborn Tanya, my liege. Please forgive the modest welcoming party, for most of our people reside below."
He was approximately 1.4 m tall, his tough skin a little on the darker side, and he kept a long, dark yellow beard, festooned with discs of various metals, each one clearly inscribed with a character. This was the dwarves' custom; after a dwarf came of age, each time they accomplished a remarkable feat, they could bind another such disc to their beard, as a symbol of pride.
If you wanted to tell the difference in station between two dwarves whom you were otherwise unfamiliar with, it was as simple as counting the number of discs in their beards. The dwarf standing before them had at least thirteen discs in plain sight upon his beard, and this was not counting whatever discs might yet be concealed within. Going by Joshua's experience, this here was somebody really important.
"It's nothing. Truthfully, I'm surprised enough to be able to see such a large group of dwarves on the surface."
Naturally, Joshua wouldn't think anything of such a trifle, never being one for pageantry – it was more than enough to have someone to show him around. However, he couldn't help feeling a bit curious upon hearing the dwarf's name. He decided to ask directly. "Master Tanya—if I may address you as such—your surname… it reminds me of Master Moreila."
"That's right." Pressing a hand to his breast, Tanya turned and bowed slightly, as though showing respect for someone not present. "Ironborn Moreila is my father. My lord baron, if you don't mind, you may leave your mounts in the care of my attendants, whilst I bring you down below to where my father awaits you, by the forge."
Passing the reins over to the dwarves in the square, the warrior and his knights continued on with Tanya.
At the end of the square there was an archway, and beyond it a passage leading underground. Keeping pace with Joshua, the assembled party followed Tanya and several younger dwarves in. After making their way down several corridors lit by glow-stones, what they saw before them was a whole world, beneath the surface.
Brightly lit passages led off in all directions like strands in a spider-web, an orderly confusion connecting all the major areas. The walls of the tunnel they were standing in, meanwhile, were formed from some alchemical material the dwarves had specially created—in his previous life, Joshua and the other players had habitually referred to it as 'dwarven clay,' its original name lost to memory.
Upon the tunnel walls there would occasionally be intricate carvings and magnificent murals. There were even some pillars, standing in the middle of the passageway, which seemed to have been shaped out of raw metal ore. This was another one of the dwarven traditions; when excavating their underground passages, to encounter a vein of ore was seen as a sign of good fortune, and so the stone pillars were preserved where they had been found.
Joshua was a worldly man of broad experience. In his past life, he had visited the underground fortresses of the dwarves countless times and was deeply familiar with dwarven architectural styles and customs. The same could not be said of the knights following behind.
They passed through another tunnel, which opened up into a colossal natural cavern. Across the ceiling were red crystals of elemental fire, glimmering intensely, as numerous as trees in a forest. Clyre had been silent since the beginning, while Ling followed closely by the warrior's side, taking in all the sights with wide eyes and bated breath. The knights had unconsciously slowed their steps, lost in the wonders of this underground domain.
Leading the way in front, Tanya, of course, noticed the awe and admiration of his guests, and at the same time that he felt a quiet pride swelling in his heart, he also couldn't help marveling at the calm with which Joshua conducted himself, in comparison.
Truly, we should be proud to call him our lord baron, the dwarf thought in his heart. This aura of tranquillity—it sets him apart from the others.
And so the time passed in this way, gawking at the sights of the world below the surface. Eventually, Joshua and company found that they had traveled rather deep underground. Beneath fathomless layers of granite, the ground felt much warmer, and they could even hear the movement of lava currents through the walls. Yet strangely, it somehow didn't feel especially hot, the heat channeled away by the light-gray dwarven clay.
Joshua had been quietly keeping track of the corridors and caverns they'd passed through. Closing his eyes to make an estimate, he realized they'd already passed through at least three layers of underground defenses, turned four times… what's more, the way the dwarven tunnels seemed to wind every which way in a tangled mess, forming a literal maze—any would-be invader would essentially be defeated without the dwarves having to lift a finger, in all likelihood becoming hopelessly lost and finally dying of starvation in this labyrinth of tunnels.
They don't leave anything to chance. Out loud, they call me their count, but in truth they're trying to keep the route a secret from me. The warrior thought this quietly to himself but didn't take it personally. Such behavior was common enough—he could understand, and he didn't think anything of it.
After all, their deceit had been wasted on him.
Despite all the twists and turns, they would soon be reaching their goal. When their guide Tanya said, "We're here," Joshua and the others came to a halt.
At last, they had arrived at the underground home of the rune dwarves.