Episode 4 Bonus: A Really Great Ax

In memory of Vabok Kadolsigun
Born 40
Went missing in the year 111
Slayer of Clovenfish the Faded Sadness
United with black bronze

The pinkish rock salt tablet seemed woefully inadequate to the bearded man that had changed Kol Copperleopard’s world.

They hadn’t noticed each other at first; on the long, cold journey to the new fort, in the lean early years of Ragdreams, when all had been dolomite dust and cold berry mush for dinner, he had been simply another dwarf in the mix. He was an adequate miner, a decent conversationalist, but not really noteworthy in any respect. Unlike many of the others, however, he didn’t yell at Kol. Somehow he had recognized that being expedition leader did not truly make her the arbiter of the fort’s fate.

It might have been his politeness that made her appreciate him at first, or maybe his pleasant tenor singing voice. Or maybe it was just his complete and cheerful disinterest in what anyone else thought of him. Regardless, it started with shared laughter over the manager’s complaints to Kol, overheard by Vabok one evening in the dining room. The manager was always complaining; nothing pleased him, possibly because he’d inherited the job after his predecessor died in the great zombie attack of 110, and he had no idea what he was doing.

As his complaints echoed off the unsmoothed walls, Kol felt the familiar exasperation sinking in, the despair that somehow everything was always her fault. But Vabok met her eyes and smiled comfortingly. Gravity shifted—the inexorable pull of the mines eased, and she felt the knot of volcanic fear and stress ease, seeing for the first time the calm warmth of his sepia-toned eyes.

Stolen moments turned into a lingering idyll.

“They act as though I can stitch the zombies back together!” Kol ranted to Vabok one peaceful night over plump helmet beer – the same old booze, another source of dwarven angst that Kol had to hear about, as if she could control even the crops. “What do they want me to do? I’m helping carry the bodies, I helped mine out the tombs for the truly dead, I even sorted through that pile of teeth to get the right bits into the right coffin. They act like I just sit in the depot all day gossiping with merchants. What more can I do?”

Vabok leaned over and kissed her smooth scalp. “They know you can’t fix it,” he said. “They don’t expect you to fix it. But they trust you with their fears.”

Kol took a long pull of her beer. She could taste the grit of the rock mug through the rough sourness of the mushrooms. Maybe the dwarves’ complaint about the booze was fair. Maybe she understood.

The words settled into her very bones. She found a core of empathy she never knew existed, and listening to the haranguing voices became a gift she could offer to her fellow settlers.

“I’m very empathetic,” Kol told herself. “I can help my fellow dwarves.”

They trust you with their fears. She carried those words close to her heart.

While she indeed could do nothing about the zombies, the weremonitor lizard attacks finally ceased, thank DEITY. Things in Ragdreams began to approach normal. They mined deeper, as dwarves will. They began to smooth and engrave their walls and floors, an attempt to create peace and beauty in their dirty and blood-smeared world. There was talk of starting a hospital to treat the numerous injuries from the were- and zombie invasions. No one felt happier, not really—but Kol felt as if she was helping, finally, and that made the entire world feel lighter. All because of Vabok’s warm, gentle presence in her life. Kol felt herself becoming lighter, too.

Months passed and uneasy peace settled over their hamlet like a fine mist. Things occasionally took a turn for the strange, admittedly. Zombie janitors carted away waste. Children played make believe in the numerous tombs. Peasants, unable to find their calling, created extraordinary artifacts.

And Vabok found a battle ax he liked.

He came into the bedroom that morning as Kol shaved her scalp, a daily routine made worse by the lack of soap and a mirror. But it was what she did and had done for years, and it made her feel like herself.

He wrapped one arm around her waist, the ax in his other hand, and kissed her on the neck. “Look at this ax,” he said.

“Hmm?” Kol said, drawing from her well of empathy. “What about it?”

“It’s a really great ax,” he said. “I just… I really like it.” He gazed fondly at the ax.

As far as Kol could see, it was nothing special – a battle ax, with an avocado wood handle and a copper blade. She had bought it herself from the merchants the previous fall, intending it for their newly formed squad.

But she was very empathetic, and anything Vabok liked, she liked, too.

“That’s… well, that’s great, dear,” she said meekly.

He beamed at her. “I think I’ll take it with me today. We’re digging out that ramp to the water in the second cavern so that the new hospital can have a well.”

“Perfect!” Kol said, her enthusiasm genuine this time. The hospital was her idea, and if any miner could get that ramp done, it was Vabok. And if having this ax with him helped him feel good about the job, all the better for everyone.

The door banged shut behind him, and Kol smiled to herself as she scraped the blade over her scalp once more.

The news of Vabok’s death – rather, the news of his ghostly apparition wafting into the tavern near the caverns – took time to reach Kol, who was sleeping peacefully in her engraved bedroom, dreaming of the newly engraved temple. When she woke, she stretched, smiling to herself, warm in her belief that life in Ragdreams had turned a corner.

She stopped in the temple on her way to the tavern, a brief moment to herself to thank the gods for her blessings. Sure, the zombie praying beside her smelled a bit bad, and the manager had yelled at her again on her way here, but she had a plan to order some better meals from the kitchen, and there were enough yaks to slaughter one for meat and tallow—soap, at last! And best of all, she had Vabok, with his warm smile and his really great ax.

The good mood carried Kol through the rest of her day, even though lunch was mussel pancakes—again—and she even felt up to the task when the first reports of the ghost reached her. Ghosts were nothing new, after all; after the weremonitor lizard attacks, most of their resources had gone to entombing the remains they could identify and engraving slabs to honor those they could not bury. More than one ghost had spurred them to speed the enterprise.

So when the manager approached her, his face grim, she felt well-steeled to deal with his complaints. Only when his words sank in did her smile begin to fade.

“The ghost,” he said. “It’s Vabok. The ramp he was digging to the underground lake must have collapsed…”

His voice faded into noise, his mouth moving but few of the words penetrating Kol’s shock. “No body,” Kol heard. “We can only guess what happened.”

They engraved a memorial slab, of course. Kol stood before it, still in shock. The lack of a tomb felt wrong, but no one had ventured down the collapsed tunnel to seek his body. His sister cried to Kol, who held her hand and spoke gentle comfort—she was so empathetic, after all.

And when everyone else left, Kol remained, staring at the pinkish slab with its profoundly inadequate memorial text. There was no mention of his singing voice or his warm sepia eyes or his favorite ax.

They didn’t even have the ax—it remained in the tunnel with his dear lost body.

Perhaps she would send someone to revisit that tunnel. They needed the well for the hospital after all. And it really was a great ax.

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