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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Short story: ‘The Mountain’s Heart’ (Part 1)

Normally, night in the forest below Crystalshine Mountain was quiet and cold, broken only by the twinkle of fireflies and the chirp of crickets. But tonight, there were two intruders in this peaceful domain.

“And I tell you—well, my cousin told me, and he heard it from … doesn’t matter. There’s a ruby in that mountain. Big as a house and red as hot iron! They call it the mountain’s heart. Crystalshine’s heart.”

Amidst the darkness, a fire crackled, burning low as evening gave way to the rising moon. Two men sat hunched around the campfire; one old and gray, the other young with shining eyes. Both were short and stocky, with enormous beards.

“A ruby that big? What exactly are you going to do with something like that, lad? Can’t much fit it on a ring!” The older one cackled.

Both had large backpacks, resting on the ground a short distance away, lanterns and picks and rope hanging off them. Just beyond, two tents sat squat against the night sky.

“W-well, if you aren’t interested in the heart, why’d you agree to come out here at all, mister Odgruck?” the younger one said, flushing slightly. His beard was brown, and his bushy eyebrows were unfortunately angled to give him an almost permanently worried look.

“Oh, well …” Odgruck hummed to himself, stroking a wispy white beard. “Suppose I just wanted to get out of the house. Been too long since I went prospecting. Can’t lay in one place for too long, at my age, or you might just lay there forever!” He chortled. The younger dwarf tried to grimace and smile at the same time, and failed at both.

“We aren’t prospecting. The prospecting has already been done. We’re here to get the ruby.”

“Mmm. By your cousin?”

“Well, my cousin heard it from his uncle, who heard it from …”

“Ach! Too complicated.” Odgruck shook his head and waved his hands. “The big gem either exists, or it doesn’t. It’ll be nice to stretch these old bones either way.”

“It exists!”

Odgruck nodded, but the look in his eyes was one of humor, not agreement.

“Well then, young Mossgran, we’ll have a long day ahead of us tomorrow hauling it out. Either way, us old folks need our sleep. Goodnight!”

Mossgran blinked as Odgruck hefted himself up, took one last swig of his mead, and sauntered off to his tent, humming a jaunty tune the whole way. He sighed, rubbing his eyes.

He really hoped his cousin was right. The only other miner willing to go out “chasing a fairytale” with him was Odgruck—if he didn’t find the ruby, how could he bear to face the others when he got back?

He shook his head, and resolved to think no more on the matter. His cousin was right—he had to be. That was all there was to it.

~

The sun beat down on them as the two dwarves hiked out of the forest up the mountain, their heavy packs jingling as they walked.

“And you said … *huff* … this cave was … *huff* … how far up the mountain?”

“It’s just past this ridge! We’re nearly there.”

Mossgran allowed himself to feel a sliver of satisfaction at how easily he moved compared to the graybeard beside him, before shoving it away—it wasn’t a kind feeling.

Together, the two of them came upon the yawning cave his cousin had described, about halfway up Crystalshine—far enough to be well above the trees, but not high enough for the air to grow properly cold or thin. Mossgran looked back across the mountain trail they had taken, allowing himself a moment to take in the green carpet of forest below them, and the unspoiled summer sky above.

“Ohhh … now that’s a view. Could imagine retiring in a place like this.” Odgruck joined him.

“Mmm.” Mossgran gave a pleasant sort of hum before beginning to fidget, stuck between the desire to get back to work and his respect for Odgruck. Desire won out. “Time to look for gems, eh?” He motioned towards the cave behind them.

“Yes, yes, I’m coming.” Odgruck chuckled.

~

With a grunt, Mossgran fit himself through a narrow split in the stone, lit only by his and Odgruck’s lanterns. He stumbled as he pulled himself free, the scraping sounds of flesh against stone echoing in the quiet caverns, only to be caught by Odgruck. Here, in the caves, the wiry old dwarf’s experience outshone Mossgran’s youth, as he slipped through claustrophobic shafts and crevices that Mossgran’s bulky frame struggled with.

Or maybe the old man was just far too thin.

“Careful there. Big lad like you’s gotta take it slow.”

Mossgran grunted in agreement, and reached back to pull his pack through.

Soon, the two of them rounded the corner together, Mossgran prepared for yet more empty stone and winding cave. But instead, the cave widened, and widened and widened, opening up into a truly massive chamber lit with a dull rainbow light. Mossgran gulped, seeing the darkness yawning below them, before turning his head upwards and gaping at the sight that met him.

“Now that’s something …”

He could only nod dully in agreement. Far above, set into the ceiling’s chamber, were dozens upon dozens of gems—sapphires, diamonds, emeralds, amethysts, spinels and opals—and at the center of it all, an enormous ruby. The true size was impossible to judge in the dim lighting and with such distance separating them, but he was sure it wasn’t house sized. It was bigger.

“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go get it!”

“Lad, wait!”

Mossgran didn’t wait. He respected the old dwarf, certainly, but he was slow, quick to tire and quick to stop. Just as he had led the way up the mountain, so too would he lead the way to their prize. And so, he grabbed two iron spikes from his bag, stabbing them into the stone to form handholds as he began to climb the enormous chamber. The work was fast, his strong arms pulling himself up with ease as he scaled higher and higher, ignoring Odgruck’s protests below. His movements were sure, his breath steady, and he felt a swell of lightness rise in his chest. He could do this. He would do this.

It was at about that moment that the rock around one of his spikes cracked, then shattered, and he was sent tumbling into the abyss.

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