Amused, Thorn watched the monks toss ideas back and forth. Before they could come to a consensus on the best way to deliver the line, their boss, Pulen Blood Beard, flipped out. Thorn had been keeping an eye on him from across the fire so he was ready when, roaring in rage, Blood Beard launched himself forward.
“Wave Crossing Chop!” he yelled. His jump brought him smoothly across the fire, and he landed steadily in front of Thorn, bringing his axe down in an over head chop. At the same moment, a faint twang sounded, like the string of a guitar being plucked, and an arrow shot from the darkness toward Thorn’s back.
Startled by their boss’ sudden move, the two monks dropped their discussion and raised their weapons, striking from the side. Despite the four rings banging around on the khakkhara staff, the weapon made no sound as it struck at Thorn’s feet. Rather, it was the mace that let out an evil wail as it swung toward Thorn’s right shoulder. From how smoothly the attacks came in it, was obvious that the group had practiced this attack often, and they were quite proficient ambushers.
Initially, Thorn planned on meeting the axe head on, but the arrow shooting toward the center of his back made that a dangerous gamble. While Thorn was wearing armor, who knew if the arrow had any special ability. Instead, Thorn lifted his tetsubo in a smooth motion, jabbing it at the mace-wielding monk on his right while twisting his body to the side to move out of the way of the arrow.
The abrupt shift caused the arrow to miss and Mali to step back, but the other two attackers adjusted their weapons’ trajectories, continuing to smash toward Thorn. With a slight smile, Thorn took a large step forward, his massive stride taking him well out of the reach of Jamir’s staff and Pulen’s axe. Mali was still moving backwards as Thorn pressed forward, his maces attemting to ward off Thorn’s tetsubo, which seemed to have transformed into a spear.
Aware that another arrow was probably on its way, Thorn abruptly changed directions. Turning his body toward Pulen Blood Beard, he stepped forward again, lashing out at the chain-mailed warrior with a horizontal strike. The red-bearded warrior was in the middle of an attack himself and could only brace himself as he saw the blur of the tetsubo coming toward him.
With a loud bang, the steel-wrapped weapon smashed into Pulen’s side. Shock flashed across his face briefly as his body immediately turned into small motes of light that drifted up into the sky. For a moment, there was silence as the other attackers stared at the place where Pulen had stood in utter astonishment. Had he really just died from a single hit?
The warrior who had been following Pulen was the first to react, giving a high pitched scream and running away as fast as he possibly could. Mali quickly backed off a few steps as well, his eyes extra wide. On the other side, Jamir put his hands together and started chanting again, though it was obvious how nervous he was from the sweat that began to bead his brow.
Keeping an ear out for the sound of the archer in the woods, Thorn glanced at the two monks. His one strike seemed to have knocked the fight right out of them.
“So, are we going to keep going or what?” he asked, spinning his tetsubo in his hand.
“There is no need, no need.” Mali’s maces disappeared, and he waved his hands frantically at Thorn. “As the Buddha has said, ‘Let’s not fight’ and ‘It is better to show mercy than to build a ten story pagoda.”
Ignoring Thorn’s puzzled look, Mali rushed over to stand next to Jamir, who was still softly chanting.
“Benefactor, we will not bother you anymore. Come, Jamir, let us leave this wise man to his thinking.” Mali bowed his head repeatedly toward Thorn and, grabbing the other monk by his arm, pulled Jamir into the woods as quickly as he could.
Thorn watched until they were out of sight before using the end of his weapon to poke through the few things that Pulen Blood Beard dropped when he died. Apart from the small amount of coins, there was a set of bracers and a half-used sharpening stone. Pocketing the coins, Thorn tossed the armor and sharpening stone into his inventory. The bracers were much too small for him, so he did not even bother examining them.
Sitting down by the fire again, Thorn stretched out and closed his eyes. It was obvious that Pulen Blood Beard had been the motivating force behind the attempted robbery, and since he would not be able to log in for twenty-four hours, Thorn was not concerned that they would be back to try again.
The next morning found Thorn well on his way to Embersplit Mine. He had woken up while it was still dark and started on his way after cleaning up his camp. Because it was night, his ability [Blessing of the Moon] activated, granting him excellent night vision, so walking in the dark was no problem.
It was mid-morning when he finally arrived at the sprawling town. Unlike Berum and Narthil, the town of Embersplit had no wall. The buildings were largely wooden, hastily constructed and seeming in danger of tumbling down at any moment. Mentally, Thorn swore to be extra careful as he walked around. It would be an utter disaster if he were to accidentally knock most of the town down.
The mine was located on the north-west side of the town, tucked in between two mountains. Unlike the quarry, the mine was not open-air. Instead it dove deep into the mountain range through a series of twisting tunnels.
Calling up his notifications, Thorn saw that he had a chat request from Oberlin.
“Hey, Thorn! How is it going?” Oberlin flashed his trademark smile.
“Aren’t you still supposed to be in prison?”
“Eh, details.” Oberlin waved dismissively. “I heard you are headed to Embersplit. That is really quite a coincidence, because I happen to be there right now.”
“Yeah, what a coincidence.” Thorn rolled his eyes. There was no doubt in his mind that the thief had peeked at the documents in the warden’s office before breaking out of the quarry.
“We should totally meet up. I am at the Green Goblin in the center of town.”
Knowing that Oberlin would not let him go, Thorn sighed and agreed to meet him. As he closed the call, Thorn could not help but wonder if he was forever cursed to be hounded by over-enthusiastic people.
The Green Goblin was a squat building situated in between a general goods store and the local surveyor's office. According to the sign hanging crookedly on the wall, it was the oldest inn in town, having been established when the Embersplit mine was first discovered. Staring at the doorway skeptically, Thorn called up Oberlin.
“There is no way I am fitting inside this place. How about you come out?”
“Huh? Oh, right. Yeah, sorry. I did not think about that. I’ll be right out. We can stay somewhere else.”
“I’m planning on camping out near the mine anyway. I am pretty sure that if I touch any of the buildings in town they are going to collapse.”
“Haha, that would be quite something.” Oberlin walked out of the inn and patted Thorn on the arm. “Good to see you again, buddy. So, do you need any help with your quest? Since we’re both here, why don’t we team up and help each other?”
“Will you allow me to refuse?”
“Haha, no, probably not.” Oberlin gave a small smile. “You are pretty much my only shot at completing my quest, so I’m afraid I’m going to keep bothering you until you say yes. But I’m happy to help you with whatever you need to do first. Don’t you have a quest to get rid of your criminal status?”
Sighing, Thorn decided to give up trying to shake Oberlin off. If their time in prison had taught him anything it was that the thief was persistent.
“Alright, you can help. Step one is gathering information. I want to go scope out the mine and talk to the mine supervisor, so let's head that direction. According to the quest, the miners are not meeting their quota, which could mean any number of things.”
“That doesn’t tell us anything.” Oberlin’s brow furrowed as he read the quest description that Thorn shared with him.
“Actually, it gives us a couple really useful pieces of information. First, the problem is solvable. And not through mining. That is, I don’t have to do the mining work. The quest is expecting me to clear whatever obstacle is keeping the miners from being productive. Second, because something is keeping the miners from being productive, we know that whatever the problem is, it is probably not an issue of the miner’s attitudes. And even if it is an issue of attitudes, it is likely that there is a simple and direct solution.
“After all, the quest is expecting me to be able to clear it in a short amount of time. Third, I did a bit of research about Ember Iron, which is the mine’s primary mineral. Unlike normal iron, Ember Iron is actually a type of coal used to increase the temperature of smith’s forges. It allows for more efficient smelting and is in high demand. However, Embersplit mine is known to be one of the smallest Ember Iron mines already, so the fact that the production has fallen is not actually a serious issue. This leads me to believe that the reason I was dispatched to the mine is less about the actual production levels and more about resolving a different issue. The production is just being used as cover.”
As the two walked out of town, they talked about possible problems the mine could be facing that would cause production to slow down. After concluding that there were way too many possibilities, they began to talk of other things.
The mine entrance was roughly a quarter of a mile away from the town of Embersplit, so it did not take them long to reach it. A wooden fence surrounded the naturally formed cave entrance, and a guard dressed in rusty armor sat near the door, dozing in the sun. Opening his eyes as Thorn’s shadow fell over him, the guard was so startled he fell backwards off his stool.
“We are here to see the mine supervisor.” Just as Thorn was about to speak, Oberlin stepped forward and stared down at the guard.
“O...okay.” Recovering slightly from his shock, the guard got to his feet and opened the fence door. Thorn and Oberlin followed right behind him, stepping into the fenced-in area in front of the cave mouth. Oberlin looked around with interest while Thorn examined the cave before sighing with relief. It looked high enough that he would not have to duck.
After a few minutes, a frazzled-looking man stumbled out of one of the buildings, still trying to tuck his shirt tails in, without much luck. Unkempt hair pointed this way and that, and one of his suspenders had fallen from his shoulder, making one side of his pants sag dangerously low. Hurrying toward them, the man slowed down drastically as he got close and took in Thorn’s staggering height.
“Hello. Are you the supervisor here?” Thorn spoke in as friendly a tone as he could manage. “My name is Thorn. I’ve been assigned a parole quest to help you determine why your production has fallen off in the recent months.”
“Hello, hello. Welcome.” Nodding his head repeatedly, the mine supervisor invited them into his office. “I am Supervisor Hobson. I am in charge of day-to-day operations here at the mine. Thank you for coming out to help us figure out the issue.”
“Why don’t you tell us about what is going on. When did you notice something wrong?”
“Of course, of course. So, everything was normal up until three months ago. Production was normal for the first half of the month, but it suddenly dropped due to a small cave-in. After that, it recovered slightly, but then it dropped back down by the end of the month. It has been sporadic ever since.”
“How do you measure your production? Is it simply by the weight of the Ember Iron you pull out?”
“No, no, we only weigh them to verify the number of pieces that we bring out of the mine.” Supervisor Hobson opened a cabinet and pulled out three pieces of orange and brown ore. “Ember Iron is a strange mineral in that all the pieces are uniform in size and density. See, the variation on them is incredibly small. This is one of the advantages of Ember Iron as a consumable; it makes for a controllable fire.
“It also means it is easy to determine the mine’s production. We used to count the number of Ember Iron bars pulled out of the mine each day and then weigh them to verify, but these days we mostly just weigh them and then pay accordingly. Recently, though, we have been finding that our monthly totals have been lower than they should have been. Part of that is due to losing one of our best miners, who quit. I’m worried that, when the end of the year comes, we will be so far behind that the mine will be closed down.”
“We’ll need to see your books.” Stepping out from beside Thorn, Oberlin smiled his best smile.
“And you are?” Supervisor Hobson looked at the thin thief warily.
“This is Oberlin, my partner. He will be helping me with the investigation.” Thorn rested a big hand on Oberlin’s shoulder. “We will not only need to see your books, but if you have a list of your employees and schedules for the last couple months, that would be helpful as well.”
“Of course, of course. Please give me one moment.” After pulling the documents out, Supervisor Hobson left the two of them alone, saying, “I have to go see what the miners have produced today. If there is anything you need, just come get me.”
Watching the supervisor leave, Oberlin had a strange look in his eyes. Turning to Thorn, who was looking through the schedule, he hesitated for a moment, before saying softly, “He is lying, you know.”
“Hmm?” Thorn looked up, a large finger marking his place on the page.
“The supervisor is not telling the truth about something. He is really nervous for some reason. In my line of work being able to spot lies is really important, and he was definitely concealing the truth.”
“Is that so?” Thorn couldn’t help but smile. This was getting more and more interesting. “Do me a favor: go find out where Margo Talern is. Try to do it without alerting anyone, though.”
“Yeah, he was a miner. According to this schedule, his last week was the week that there was a sharp drop in production. I’m going to keep looking over the books.”
“Got it, leave it to me.” Nodding his head, Oberlin left the office as Thorn busied himself with the account books.
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Bio: My name is Seth Ring and I am a writer. I create worlds and tell the stories of those who inhabit them. I love exploring these new worlds with other people. To get advanced access to chapters you can support me on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/SethRing.