Hanmoul hailed from the bloodline of Bürumm-Dal Irøngut, famous for turning any amount of alcohol into white-hot battle-gall. The ancestor was also a renowned warrior berserker. And among the Iron Borns, his blood flowed thick and sanguine, filling his descendants with equal-parts courage and choler.
The Maotai, or perhaps the herb Gwen had placed inside the Maotai, seemed to have awakened something in Hanmoul long made dormant by his thankless labour as the Commandrumm of the Overland Expedition. Straightaway, his face grew beetroot, his bile churned, and his torso filled with fire.
Hanmoul slammed the jadeite cup so hard that it splintered the ironwood, jarring his instrument-sensitive fingers.
"Another!" His blood was boiling, evaporating the pain in his hand, swelling his head to twice its size. “I’ll not let you drink me under, lass! The Hammer Guard will never live it down if a mere child, and a human at that, defeat the sons of Bürumm!”
“I am afraid you’re in for a surprise then.” The girl’s jadeite irises gleamed, vivid with the hue of rainbows— a surface phenomenon that only the Overland Expedition had ever laid eyes upon. “Bathroom breaks be damned; there’s only one way this is going to end.”
“Oh-ho, lass, yer playing a dangerous game!” Hanmoul summoned his lads and ladettes behind him. “KINNA! Brin' the stash you’ve got hidden in the cellar!”
“YER SURE?” the barkeep, a matronly Dwarven woman wider than even Hanmoul, hollered back with a voice no less loud than a Clarion Call. “That lass's quarter yer size. Do yer fancy popping her Human life-preserver?”
“I’ll be fine, really.” Gwen’s tone was almost amused. “Commandrumm, care for a wager?”
Her audience banged the table with their steins.
“Ankrumm! Ankrumm! Ankrumm!”
“Ankrumm it is! What do yer fancy?” Hanmoul belched, expelling the hot, alcoholic air, feeling as though he had just delivered a breath attack. “I’ll wager yee, alright, but woman, but what will ye do if yer lose?”
“First, that won't happen because I’ll drink ALL of you under…” The sorceress placed a hand on her pancake-flat abdomen. “If I win, promise me you’ll help me with some of my ‘Overland’ businesses. I need Dwarven Machinists, like the ones they’ve got in Bavaria to repair my Dwarf-made printing engines.”
“I donnae know if anyone’s willing ter leave the Murk.” Hanmoul’s eyes were twin moons as he spoke. “But aye lass, I’ll find ye someone. And what if yer eyes are bigger than yer stomach?”
“First, I’ll pay for everyone here. Additionally, I’ll import, gratis, ten more bottles of this priceless liqueur,” Gwen offered. “And supply you with monthly care packages from the above-ground world, sans commission.”
“Ha! Yer on!” Hanmoul’s face was radiant with Essence. “Bring on the Jäger and Korfrumm!”
The crowd roared.
“Kor! The Commandrumm’s serious now!” Grimgal’s face glowed with admiration. “His old man gullet might never recover from this.”
“Shall I call for the Kirkdun?” Tordrum, who was the oldest, asked the general vicinity. "We might still need the Commandrumm, come tomorrow."
Gwen narrowed her eyes when a familiar-looking green bottle materialised on the table.
“From the old country.” Hanmoul grinned with confidence.
Gwen did her best to read the label.
“Tell me that doesn’t say Jäger... meister.”
“Korfrumm is distilled from the crushed Korumm beetle. Do you have Korumm in the above-ground world?”
Gwen gave the dark amber liquid a sniff. It was, for all intents and purposes, a sickly-sweet coffee-mead.
“Don’t tell me.” She licked her drying lips. “You pour the Jäger into a thimble— then you drop it into a stein of Korfkrumm…?”
“You have heard of the magnificent Jäger Bombe?”
Gwen pinched her brows, suddenly assaulted by heady visions of Friday night outings, projectile hurling, student dorms, ravished dresses and the ugliness of the morning after. When the only time a student could afford drinks for herself was the happy hour, it made for terrible drinking habits.
"HA, no regrets, lass? Wilting on yer Commandrumm already?"
“Not really.” She sat back to reassess the situation. Ollie was asleep, thank god. Additionally, she was wearing tight, waterproof, malfunction-safe armour with magical undies, not to mention her liver was booze-proof. She was in good hands, ones belonging to herself. All-in-all, what was there to fear but fear itself? Student-Gwen would have been three shots in already.
“Alright, Hanmoul.” She banged on the long table. “You lot! Clear out! Mistress Kinna! Line 'em up!”
If there was drunken Karaoke in this world, Gwen was sure the Dwarves would be champions.
"... We must away— ere break of dawn.
Far under the Himmseg— to low-ways deep…"
Inside The Nut and Cog Rotary Tavern, a Human sorceress' voice reverberated.
Earlier, Grimgal had regaled their audience with a bawdry jig about a lonely female Mechanic who discovered an amusingly shaped spanner. After a smack across the head, the aborted act was then followed by an epic recital by Hanmoul about Bürumm-Dal’s slaying of the Dusk Wyrm at Dürren’s Hall.
Tordok attempted a song but passed out two verses into the tune. A few others obliged, too intoxicated to recall the lines, but made merry all the same.
When finally it was Gwen’s turn, she had to sing, or it would show that she was too intoxicated and therefore signal her loss. Driven to a corner by their expectant, exuberant faces, she called upon the spirit of Tolkien to see her through the predicament.
Softly, beginning with melancholic, lilting notes, her contralto voice wafted through the boozy air, narrating the only “Dwarven Song” she knew.
"The fire was black— it flaming spread..."
One by one, the belching, groaning, fussing half-conscious tavern grew silent.
What would the Human sing? The crowd had wondered. A song of home? A tale of sorceresses and suggestively shaped vegetables? Indeed, a sorceress of such alcoholic depth would possess a harem of legumes.
Then she opened her mouth, and with the Divination-assisted aid of the Alexandrite left to her by her Master, she belted out the Dwarven words, drawing on a minor Ventriloquism cantrip to reinforce the sentiment.
“Far over the Misty Mountains cold
To low-ways deep— an’ caverns old
We must away— ere break of dawn
To find our lost and wayward home.
The Dark was roaring, down below
The earth was moaning— in th’ deep
The drake was black— its flames had spread;
Our Citadels blazed all night.
Now the iron's rusted, on the heath
And in Dyar Morkk— there stirred no life:
There the Murk lay— in night and day
And dark things silent crept beneath.
O' Farewell, to hearth and hall!
Though death may follow— our kin may fall
We must away— ere fall of dusk
Far under the Himmseg— to low-ways deep—
The longer she sang, trying to modify the tune on the fly, the more soundless the tavern grew until all she could hear was quiet sobs.
“… Was it that bad?” Gwen stopped, her face so red as to radiate scarlet from chin to ear. “If so, I am sorry for killing the mirth.”
“Yer making me eyes mourn, Ancestors’ beard,” Hanmoul bawled, clearly overwhelmed by both alcohol and emotion. “Aye, the deep, the DEEP! I know, I know. We’ve got ter fin' our way back through the blasted Murk. It's the Dwarven thing to do. Aye, yer Gods— O' Ancestors…”
“Are you sure yer, not a Dwarf?” Grimgal was drooling snot and tears from every conceivable orifice. “How else can you harken after Deepholm?”
The other Dwarves, those still conscious, collectively sighed. Somewhere, another Iron Born cried himself to sleep.
“A righteous Skūld.” Hanmoul wiped away something from his face. “If that tune had come out of the lips of a Deepdowner Runesinger, I wouldnae be stunned, but from you, a Human lass? What can an old Dwarf say?”
“You could clarify if we’re still drinking…” Gwen’s eyes swept across the half-hundred bottles, glasses, and steins, not to mention the mountain of Dwarven carcasses snoring beneath the tables.
“Nae lass, it's yer win.” Hanmoul tried to stand. For an awkward second, he looked down at his feet as though surprised to find them there. “Bürumm's beard… I cannae seem to move my feet.”
“Commandrumm, that’s my feet,” Grimgal, who sat beside her commander, informed him with great solemnity. “Yours are buried between Thorke and Tordok.”
“Ah. Right you are.”
The Commandrumm kicked away his junior officers. “I should show you to your quarters.”
Gwen pointed to the half-bottle of Maotai still left. “Not finishing up?”
“Nae wannae explode,” Hanmoul growled. “Do yer mind if I gift what’s left to my teacher? Yer got no more, yer said?”
“Not for a while, no. It’s all yours.”
Hanmoul nodded, stowing the bottle. “Right then lass— let me show yer how our folk relax after a stiff stout!”
The Guild District.
The Rotary Guild, Guest Quarters.
Gwen regarded Ollie’s comatose, rag-doll body, as well as the freshly laid out Hanmoul.
According to the Commandrumm's last lucid moments, orders had been given to ready the facilities for her use, including the communal bathroom, the lounge, the meeting room, and the steam bath, a must-try local speciality.
"Ah, boys," Gwen mused to herself.
Once Hanmoul and Ollie were placed side by side and on their side to prevent choking on their vomit, she was finally in the mood to take in the sights. Prominently, she was given a room with a view. From the vista offered by the stained-crystal bay-window, Gwen saw that they were high up in the Guild Hall, in one of its side towers. Below, she could just make out the city, and in the distance, its all-enveloping stone barrier.
How like our cities, she considered the déjà vu— where they had Shielding Stations, the Dwarves had Rune-etched Walls.
The Dwarven outpost, as Hanmoul had foretold, was split into four districts, with the Guildhall, the Ancestor’s Hall, the Golem Hangers, the Hammer Guard’s Barracks and other administration buildings at its centre. To the north sat the Gate of Kazhul, housing the Clans and their keeps. The east and west held the manufactoriums, while the spillage to the south was home to the factories and foundries. There, in the low-rising buildings, the vast majority of the Dwarven labourer-citizens eked out a living.
Thanks to the floor to ceiling “Wall”, the vista of the citadel appeared miniaturised, like one of those extensive model train-sets the English love to collect. Though she was in the “centre” of town, the loci of the citadel sat like a sunnyside egg with the government buildings rising like the yolk while the eggwhite spilt into the dark. The difference, Gwen conceived as her eyes studied the pin-points of light, was that the Dwarves utilised vertical space, even ceiling space, in their city planning.
Where the horizontal plane constrained humanities' cities, the vertical space of Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth utilised every stalactite and stalagmite. Reinforced by runic warding and transmuted stone, these grew into natural apartments. Likewise, to service these population centres, track-lined ring-roads spiralled throughout the citadel’s interior, making her eyes dizzy.
Khunk! Khunk! Khunk! Khunk!
A continuous, unceasing drone permeated the air, punctuated by the sound of a six-storey tall hydraulic hammer in the Craftsmen’s quarter. To Gwen, whose body-clock informed her that it was ten PM at most, there was no discernible way to tell night from day. No change in lighting, sound, or the perpetual industry suggested that there were sessions for rest and recuperation.
She tore herself away from the organised chaos.
Gone was her booze-stained combat armour, the victim of many a quaffing from a dozen Dwarves hoping to see her make-out with the grimy floor. She had won the drinking contest thanks to Almudj’s blessing, though the price of excess was a bone-weary soreness that came from overtaxing her organs.
“The steam bath…” Gwen pulled out the access Runes Hanmoul had gifted her before he passed out. Water wasn’t a plentiful resource in the Murk, not because it wasn’t everywhere, but because the Dwarves tended to prioritise industry over all else, leaving little fresh water for things like private showers. Instead, communal bathhouses akin to Sino Onsens pockmarked the residential districts.
The Guild Hall’s quasi-magical steam bath, according to Grimgal, was one of the best facilities in the Citadel. Most importantly, there were no other guests, meaning she had the facility to herself, or to share with Ollie if she so desired.
After a few twists and turns through the winding corridors, Gwen reached her objective. Scented acacia framed the entrance, a rare material in a land without natural light— showing the investment the Guild had put into making visitors feel well-loved.
Gwen ducked under the doorway, finding herself in a long sandstone corridor dipping into the earth. Once past the warded threshold, the narrow space exponentially expanded to reveal multiple tiers of geometric baths covered in blankets of rolling mist. To her left and right, tastefully stone-shaped, were alcoves that served as private change rooms, made to appear out of sight when inside the bath.
Happy that Grimgal's advice rang true, Gwen disengaged her Shen-teī suit, then peeled the outfit from her sticky body like a second skin. Materialising a muslin towel, she stepped out of her undergarments, then gave herself a Prestidigitation to ensure she didn’t pollute the bath.
Gingerly, filling her nostrils with nourishing steam, she walked up the stone steps, then descended into the deepest pool at the apex of the cascade.
Once the water kissed her waist, she melted.
“Mother of God, I should bring Elvia here…”
The Dwarves' trademark recreation utilised no mortal bathwater. The liquid was dense, almost gelatious, allowing her to sink into luxury. Once the bath was past her shoulders, Gwen felt as though returned to the womb. Additionally, the mist soothed her sore throat and dry nostrils, making her want to spread her limbs and just let it all go.
“I should build one of these in London…”
Gradually, every knot in her muscles unwound, bringing forth the shower’s Zen’s lesser-known cousin, the bathing Zen.
“Jorumm.” Her Translation Stone did its best with invoking the throaty invocation. Near the ceiling, the hexagonal crystal rods dimmed.
Smothered by the mellow “Murk”, Gwen slowly sunk into the water, circulating Essence until she began to in-breathe, drinking the wealth of mana offered by the pool.
Held aloft in the bobbing, buoyant liquid, she made mental bookmarks for the expatriate craftsmen she desired from Hanmoul, ideally a dozen or more, working on rotation to prevent the Dwarves from feeling homesick. Applications for cultural exchange could have to be made through the Tower— ideally requested by Lady Grey. Additionally, Shielding Resonators for London’s Stations had to be commissioned, then affixed to her employees to prevent spontaneous combustion.
She also desired to barter with the Dwarves, possibly through the creation of a trading station. From the looks of their love for Jadeite and Maotai, perhaps an exchange of luxury goods was possible with the help of Marong and Mayuree and the House of M.
And while she had Hanmoul's hospitality, investigations into the transferability of Dwarven Magi-tech such as their Scrying Engines, Communication gadgetry, and semi-autonomous Golems would take priority. Likewise, if the Dwarves had a streamlined production process she could appropriate, she wasn't going to be shy in pushing Hanmoul's people.
As for the Tower's request, she would compose a wonderfully detailed report— on trade, and luxury goods, and the potential boons of establishing a permanent trading port that would include military assets like Golems.
After that, she would return to London. First, she would have to visit the isle to ensure that Elvia and her operation was running smoothly and that Wally and Mathias had taken care of business. Assuming all went well, she had a few more days to spend with Elvia, maybe visit the London Museum, or see what passed for theatre in this world.
During this time, she would also have to track down Walken and Dominic, though the latter depended on her new crew of Machinists.
After that would come the finale. On NYE, they could watch the parade while sitting somewhere suitably elevated, such as the spire of one of London’s dozen bridges, to watch the fireworks and count down the hours. If at all possible, she would like to borrow an LRM device to contact Gunther, Alesia, her Opa, and her family in China.
What would Uncle Jun think of her exploits?
Had Percy learnt any new spells?
When would Petra get to London?
The sound of the hermetic seal sucking shut stirred Gwen from her half-slumber. Very quietly, she brought her head above the water, all the while adjusting her eyes with Almudj’s Essence for low-light vision.
There was a Dwarf— female by the shape of her heavy-set hips, inching toward the bath. When the woman did not react to her presence, Gwen realised the rolling steam must have obfuscated her body.
Before she could decide if a polite cough was in order, the Dwarf woman stepped into the tub with a delightful moan. Gwen smiled to herself, knowing well the bliss they both shared.
From her higher vantage, she could see that the Dwarven woman possessed skin like pale milk, flawless and aristocratic, not at all what she had imagined of the stout folk. Her hair as well, caught in the dim golden light, were flaming orange— not the auburn-scarlet Alesia sported, but apricot fading to honey, hanging just below her waist.
And her bosoms— Gwen’s nostrils flared. Even Yue would be impressed.
Into one of the shallowest pools, the woman sat, then profoundly inhaled and exhaled, as though attempting to purge all her worries from her lungs.
Once her intruder was suitably relaxed, Gwen made her move.
“… Hello,” she said in Dwarven.
The woman froze.
A welling of ultra-dense mana suffused the woman’s eyes, turning her irises brilliant citrine. The purity of the Earthen energy was such that, Gwen couldn’t help but respond with a mana-rush of her own, preparing for sudden combat engendered by panic and fear.
With great deliberation, two pairs of glowing eyes in the mist faced one another.
Gwen responded by emerging from the water, one hand raised and the other covering her unobtrusive shame.
The Dwarven woman parted the mist by swatting the air. It was impossible to tell the woman's age, though she did possess a delicate mien with large eyes and a Roman nose, made imperfect by a weak chin.
“I was here first,” Gwen said softly. “If you must know. I am a guest of the Commandrumm.”
“… I know,” the woman replied, appearing to make up her mind. Coolly, she lowered her mana-charged hands. “My apologies for the intrusion.”
“Not at all.” Gwen remained still. “Shall I leave?”
“… no.” The woman shook her head. “The fault is mine. Do stay, Surfacer.”
At a loss for conversation, a stony silence accompanied the gentle flowing of water.
“… the steam there is the hottest in the room,” the Dwarven woman asked, attempting to dispel the awkwardness. “How are you not fainting or feeling ill?”
“I’ve got a good constitution,” Gwen explained. She had thought the water perfect for relaxing her Caliban-drained muscles. “Quite the sigh you had. Long day?”
“I wonder." The woman stiffness visibly mellowed. "Often, it feels as though the Vigil of Varekan-Kül never ends.”
“Are you a noble?” From her skin and her hair, Gwen could guess that this was not a Dwarf who engaged in manual labour. That and the guest’s steam room had wards that granted exclusive access, meaning she had to be somebody. “Sorry, I have been rude. My name is Gwen Song, a Human Magus. I hail from London.”
“Hilda,” the woman replied after some hesitation.
“Nice to meet you, Hilda.”
“… do you mind if I dim the lights?” Hilda asked. “The lumen rods don’t agree with my eyes.”
The lights winked out.
“… sorry, can you see?”
“Would you believe me if I said I could?”
“A surfacer who can see in the dark?” the woman scoffed. “What am I holding up?”
“The Sign of the Thrice—“
“— Sorry." Hilda's skin flushed peach and scarlet. "I believe you.”
Gwen delivered a good-humoured snort, putting the matter to rest.
Now acquainted, the duo enjoyed the bubbling silence, soaking their bones in the mineral-rich springs.
“Gwen, where do you call home?” Hilda’s voice drifted through the dark.
“A place far, far from here, called Australia.”
“Your home. What’s it like?”
“Well's there are millions of us. We live in cities of glass and concrete that reach out for the skies, staked into the earth like swords. In some places, Humans rule supreme. Elsewhere, we’re food for whatever Magical Monsters that make it past the Shielding Walls.”
“The land, I mean. What’s it like?”
“Ah—“ Gwen's tone grew homesick. “Australia is an old and ancient country.”
“Beyond all concept of size. It’s the wide brown land, stretching from horizon to horizon.”
“Strange words. I don’t know what that means, I am afraid…”
Gwen wondered if she could translate her nostalgia into more relatable terms.
“Well,” she searched her memory for something appropriate, locating her answer in the verse of a fellow expatriate homesick for the land of the boxing Kangaroo. "I come from a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, full of rugged mountain ranges, droughts and flooding rains…”
Hilda closed her eyes.
"... an opal-hearted country, land of the rainbow gold. Though the Murk may hold all splendours, if ever I should encounter a Drop Bear, I know to what country, my Contingency Ring will fly.”
“I can see it now.” Hilda opened her eyes, cooing happily. “So that’s your home, a place of opals, precious stones, and Drop Bears.”
“Yes.” Gwen supposed that was good enough.
“You’re very good with your Dwarven.”
“It’s the Translation Stone,” Gwen explained. “A gift from my late Master. So far, it's doing a bang-up job.”
“Then it must be you in the Guild's Tavern…” Hilda’s voice grew pregnant with emotion. “I am told that you sang a song about Deepholm to the Commandrumm and his men.”
“Ah…” Gwen now realised why Hilda had asked her about 'home' in the first place. “Yes, I did.”
“Could you… sing it for me?”
Now that she was completely sober, singing an appropriated, plagiarised-song adapted from Tolkien’s original epic seemed utterly cringe-worthy.
“Please?” Hilda’s voice quivered.
“Okay, but don’t laugh..”
"Okay, let me warm up..." Gwen obliged as best as she could, beginning with the “Misty Mountains Cold”. After a few rounds of the Chorus, she got into the mood, eventually ending with a rousing verse of “and Low-ways deep”.
“… I don’t understand,” Hilda’s voice quivered with emotion. “Why you can vocalise what so many of our kin fail to comprehend.”
“The desire to return home. Every stone cycle, we push and pull into the Murk, but every time, once we discover new seams or hollows, the Guild stops to mine the place. Each time, they bring the lode here— not to Dwarfholm, but the Citadel.”
“That’s Dwarven nature though.” Gwen could sympathise with Hilda’s frustration. “What’s wrong with the Red Citadel?”
“It’s so close to the Surface, for one. ”
“I don't think that's the problem?” Gwen refuted Hilda's claim. “What's 'too close?' Too close for raising a family? Finding a career? Eke out a living? Put food in their bellies? Money in their pockets?”
When Hilda remained silent, Gwen continued. “Folk are folk, Hildy, anywhere you find them. They’ll stay as long as there’s employment, bread, and the occasional circus. Home is where the hearth is, right? And the hearth is where you raise your family. Give a Dwarf a stiff drink, a pickaxe, a bag of precious minerals and a forge to call home, and he’ll stay put. Humans are the same, no matter the skin colour, the creed or the culture.”
“… I see.” Her companion grew contemplative.
Have I upset the aristocrat with a teeth-jarring truth-nugget? Gwen felt a bout of paranoia. “Hilda?”
There was a polite knock on the sealed door.
“Thank you for the company,” the woman replied, suddenly displacing the bath. Glorious in her nudity, she made for the nook. “Apologies Surfacer. I must return to my duties.”
"Sure, it was nice meeting you."
There was the rustling of cloth, the donning of armour; then the silhouette was gone without a backward glance.
“Hmm…” Gwen muttered to herself. “Should have gotten her last name.”