"There are a few... important details we haven't covered yet." The Phoenix steepled his fingers and rested his chin on them. He was switching his gaze between all of them. "I didn't exactly explain how dire this situation is. The forest is in danger, and if we don't find the Shell within the next year, everything we know will be gone, including everyone." Eri felt her insides twist into an unpleasant knot. The expressions on the others' faces reflected her own. "This is not pleasant, but you must know what is at stake. The magic is in the roots of the forest and the blood in our veins. Without the Shell, everything will fall into chaos and then just disappear.
"I know a year is a lot, but the Shell is very far, and there is a lot out there that will hinder you. There are unimaginable dangers that magic has hidden from us, and I wish with all of my heart that I didn't have to send anyone on this quest." He looked down for a moment, collecting his thoughts, then back up at them. "The dwarves will arm you with their best, and I have gifts for each of you, but this will stretch you to your limits. Please understand that I personally chose each of you for a reason. You have a job to do, and you are the ones to do it."
They sat in silence for a few moments, digesting everything. Even the ever bubbly Fye was subdued. His eyes had strangely changed to an orange-yellow color.
Lupos was the first to speak. "How will we find the Shell? The world is a big place."
"Indeed. Head towards the North, with the knowledge of the Sun rising in the east and setting in the west, as well as the North Star during the night. You will know you are close when you see the stars during the day.
"Now, unless there are any more questions...?" They were all silent, although Eos was whispering to Lyra. "Alright, let us go to the dwarves and get your armor and weapons. I'll be around during the week if you need to talk to me as well." He stood, and everyone copied his movement.
As they were walking out the door, Eri heard the Phoenix whisper fiercely to Eos, "Stay out of this, demon," and an indignant protesting squeak from Eos. Eri pretended she hadn't overheard the exchange.
Soon the five plus the Phoenix were standing in front of the mouth to a large cave. Eri could hear the faint sound of hammer against metal already, mixed with the scent of wet stone caves. A large dwarf with bright blue kindly eyes and a big curly gray beard scuttled out of the cave and bowed. He had a leather apron and gloves on, with googly protective glasses on top of his head. He smiled and took in the scene before him. No judgment passed across his face as he looked at Eri, as usually happened. She liked him already.
The Phoenix and the dwarf had a short exchange Eri couldn't hear, then the dwarf pursed his lips as if calculating something and nodded.
Turning to the rest of them, he spoke in a heavy and rich accent. "Welcome. The dwarves are honored to have you in our humble abode. It is most generous of you to allow us to make your gear for this important journey."
"We are more honored that you would accept my offer. I'm fully assured that my chosen five will have only the best for their journey. I have things I must attend to currently, so I will leave it to you." The Phoenix turned to the five. "Meet back in the castle study when you're done." And with that, he was a phoenix flying towards the Sun. They all blinked. The temperature seemed to drop a few degrees.
The dwarf snapped them out of their trance. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Fimtri. May I ask for your names?"
Weirdly reluctant, they all surrendered their names. Eri found listening to them speak for the first them intriguing. Their voices told Eri a lot about them.
Fimtri bowed. "It is a pleasure to meet you. Please, come inside. It appears we have quite a task ahead of us."
He ushered them inside the cave. They silently walked a pitch black hallway for a few minutes, then the dwarf turned them left and they all stopped, gaping.
In front of them stood a huge cavern, about twice the size of the clearing they were in a few minutes ago for the meeting. Huge pillars of stone hung from the ceiling, reaching towards pillars on the floor. Near the center, the pillars had been cut off into stone stumps, gems glittering in their centers. On the floor stumps, dwarves were working, hammering metals and shaping them into various objects. They worked with the metal like it was a part of themselves.
In the very center a huge stone mound sat, openings like mouths gaping every few meters. A pulsing orange light glowed in the openings. Eri assumed it was a furnace, and her hunch was confirmed when a dwarf came a put a metal rod in an opening and took a white-hot one out in turn.
And the sounds. Hammer on metal coming from a hundred places at once. The background noises of hot metal in water, walking feet, a slight drip of water, and the distant sound of mining. Eri spotted other tunnels branching off the cavern and guessed they were where the mining sounds were coming from.
Fimtri threaded his way through the maze of working dwarves. He stopped at a table covered in precious jewels and tapped the shoulder of a younger dwarf who was inspecting a generously sized ruby. He looked just like Fimtri, save the brown hair untouched by age. They embraced, then Fimtri introduced the five. He also introduced the dwarf as his son, Tuini. "They are the ones who will save the forest," he explained.
A hint of awe crept into Tuini's eyes. He bowed. "It is my greatest pleasure to meet you. But, may I ask, why have you come here?"
"They are in need of our finest craftsmanship in weaponry and armor," Fimtri said. "The Phoenix came and told me himself."
Tuini's eyes widened and he nodded wordlessly. He then pressed his lips together and looked them over. Muttering happily to himself he padded over to a kind of desk area carved into a taller rock stump. Fimtri and the five joined him as he started drawing away. In his hands, the pencil drew deadly but surprisingly beautiful weapons. A couple of swords, a crossbow and a weapon-like horn covering took shape as they all watched.
Fimtri snapped them out of their reverie and took them over to another dwarf, a young woman flattening a white-hot rod of iron. They watched and waited as she finished pounding out the metal, then dunked it in a bucket of water next to her. The water bubbled in protest. She took it out and placed it on the back of her station, then turned to them, taking off her protective goggles. She smiled, bowed, and introduced herself as Uio.
"How may I help you today?" She asked in a soft flowery voice.
Fimtri explained the situation again. She nodded, thoughtful.
"I have already talked to Tunini, and he's off brainstorm drawing. I thought you would like to measure for yourself before they leave?"
Uio stuck out her chin and studied the five. "Yes, yes I would like to do that."
She made a motion for someone to step forward as she grabbed something to write on. No one moved. Eri rolled her eyes and stepped forward.
Without looking up, Uio asked kindly, "What's your name, dear?"
Uio nodded thoughtfully and jotted down a few notes. Then she looked up and scrutinized looked over Eri. Eri noticed she only used her eye as a measuring tool. She must be a very skilled craftsman.
When she was done eye-measuring, she motioned for someone else, and the process continued.
While Uio was measuring, Eri wandered back to Tunini, making sure Fimtri saw her go. She stood quietly behind Tunini for a minute, watching as he sketched the armor onto a hand. He finished and grabbed another piece of paper to start another drawing. He stopped suddenly and turned to her.
"May I see your bow?"
Eri was slightly startled by this question, but one look at Tunini and she knew it was okay. She took her bow out of her quiver and handed it to him. He spent a solid minute running his hands expertly over the wood, murmuring to himself. He seemed astounded by the bow. He plucked the string, ran his finger on the carvings and leveled it with his eye.
He then handed it back to Eri, saying, "Never in my lifetime have I ever seen a finer bow. Did you make this?"
"Would you mind shooting a few targets for me?"
"Not at all. Where are my targets?"
"Follow me." He handed her back her bow.
She followed as he lead the way to a small weapon testing area on the edge of the cave. There were some straw-stuffed dummies, sparring areas, and a shooting range. There were two dwarves sparring with shining, graceful swords; a dwarf stood on the edge of the moss padded area taking notes of the performance of the swords. Another dwarf stabbed at a dummy with a fully metal barbed spear, slashing at the dummy a few times, then taking the spear out to examine it.
Tunini took Eri straight to the empty shooting range. She adjusted her grip on the bow and assumed a ready stance.
Noticing the multiple heights and distances of the targets, she asked, "Which target should I aim for?"
Tunini thought for a moment. "Whichever one you feel the most comfortable with."
A thought sprang in Eri's head. She adjusted her position in front of the targets, placing herself so that she was in line with three different targets, each one progressively further away and lower to the ground. Tunini looked like he expected her to go for the close but high one, but Eri had a different idea. Faster than you could say Jackrabbit, she had whipped out three arrows, fitted them to the string, and sent them whistling through the air. With three satisfying thumps, each arrow found its home buried halfway through the dead center of each target. Tunini stared, eyes wide and mouth slightly open. Even the sounds of the dwarves testing behind her had stopped. She didn't turn to look, but she suspected their reactions were very similar to Tunini's. He finally blinked and shut his mouth.
"That was incredible! Are you always so deadly accurate and skilled?"
"Almost always," Eri said, not blinking. She closed her eyes and stuck out her free hand. Carefully channeling her magic, she summoned her arrows and one by one they unlodged themselves and found their way into her outstretched hand. She stuck her returned arrows and bow into her quiver. Tunini lead her off the practice field, still awed. The other dwarves managed to busy themselves with their work again. Fimtri and the others met them halfway back to Tunini's workstation.
"Ah, there you are dear. I was just going to show you five out if," Fimtri turned to Tunini here, "you need nothing else from them?" Tunini shook his head. "Alright."
Together they wove their way back out of the cave and into the sunlight. They stood blinking for a moment, then the two dwarves bowed.
"Again, this is our greatest pleasure. You are all welcome to come back anytime. We will send a messenger to fetch you when we are ready for the fine adjustments."
They all said their thanks, then headed off, back to the castle.