It was a truth universally acknowledged that if we were going to travel anywhere, the cart was in want of a new wheel. Harry had tried his best and it had certainly gotten us and our ill-gotten gains to Greenrest, but it was not going to get us much farther. We made it into the general store without injury and split up: one group to talk to a wainwright and the other to finish unloading goods to Miriam.

“Commerce should be booming in the future,” Zeno said, leaning on the counter of the general store. I couldn’t tell if he was making eyes at the newly widowed mayor and frankly did not want to know. “In fact,” he said with a gesture at the cart, “in the near future, we have many goods.”

He also bought some hops (“the good ones”) and attempted to buy barley, until Miriam reminded him that there was barley on the cart that he was trying to sell to her. He and Harry finished unloading the stuff, and talk drifted over to travels north.

“We traveled in numbers and got there safely.” Miriam counted out gold for our grains. “Probably thanks to the caravan and safety in numbers.”

“Have you met Milto by any chance?” Helli asked.

“Oh, what a character. Who hasn’t met Milto?” Miriam replied, in a way that was hard to tell whether this was a positive or a negative thing.

“Do you trust him?” Both Zeno and Helli asked at the same time. Harry and I were both being silent and intimidating by the door, which was easy to do considering I dress all in black and Harry’s a black dragonborn.

Miriam shrugged noncommittally. “I have no reason not to trust him. Why? Just out of idle curiosity.”

“Curiosity,” Helli replied back.

Miriam didn’t seem perturbed. “He keeps a lot of details close to the chest.”

So was it a good sign that he was trusting us? I wanted to believe that, but also couldn’t discount that the mage could be pulling a fast one on us. Helli didn’t seem to trust him, and as much as I wanted that fancy cloak I also tended to value the opinion of someone else in the trade of stealing things.

We headed to the wainwright and found Garis, Felegum, and Awk now in his fancy ironwood armor. Unfortunately just before we were able to pull the cart in, Harry’s wheel exploded and we had to push the cart, along with the horses, into the stables.

A horse neighed in protest at this sudden indignity.

“Shut up or you’ll be glue,” Zeno grunted from the stern of the dilapidated U.S.S. Landcart.

Garis watched us haul it in, amused. “Would you like me to repair your cart wagon?”

Awk looked up at him, still sparkling in his new armor. “Is the wheel salvageable?”

“No.” Harry and Zeno both said together. There were little pieces of the wheel broken off and scattered throughout the street. A few kids were using them as toy daggers and boats.

Garis agreed that the wheel had gone to land vehicle heaven and told us that he’d send a steward to fetch us when the cart was completed at dusk. We would, as ever, be at the Green Mug.

I went off to the inn again and the rest of the group went to see Francis, with Felegum carrying the tablets on his head. “It’s not that hard,” the sorcerer said. When they got back, apparently none of the tablets were broken, so he must have had good balance.

According to them, Francis used to own one of the tablets and had sold it to Durnen a while back. Apparently Awk had also asked how old Francis was and Zeno had needed to apologize, but Francis was able to confirm the contents of the tablets, i.e. that there were six conduits and a seventh location, called a locus, where “whatever was supposed to happen, would happen.”

In the meantime, Layne taught me how to make energy cubes, which were bacon grease, dried berries, grains, and pemmican, and a quick snack for the road when I didn’t feel like rations. When the rest of the group came in, Layne waved at them heartily. “Lunch? Our young friend here has the makings of a cook.”

We had seafood stew, lamb, crabs, and some tankards (mostly Zeno), though he also bought one for me, even though he didn’t particularly expect me to drink it. Helli earned some gold from gambling, and we settled in to discuss next moves.

“What about heading back to the Sunken Citadel?” Awk suggested.

“Should we go yoohoo on that box?” Zeno pondered over his mug.

“I want to open it,” Helli said.

Zeno turned to Awk. “Hey, how are you so friendly with the dragon if you don’t speak Draonic?”

Awk shrugged. “I don’t know, I don’t speak it.”

Felegum sighed and waved it off like this was an easy, bothersome question. “It speaks the slave tongue.” When no one knew what he meant, he had to clarify: “Common.”

“Speaking of,” I said, “Awk, are you okay?”

“I,” the gnome replied, “am in the best place of my life.”

That felt worrisome. “Blink once for Awk, twice for dragon,” I said.

“Wait,” Zeno cut in, “is the dragon you connected to a dragonpriest?”

“Hey,” Awk said, “I made a contract to save the six of our butts.”

“The six, or the seven?” I muttered. There was a weird silence. The dragon dude had been in contact with Awk for a while.

“I made a contract to ensure that dragons would be freed from their bonds of greed. They’re corrupted right now.”

Felegum steepled his hands. “So you’re saying that the behavior of dragons right now, liking shiny things, is corrupted and you’re trying to help them get over it.”

Helli looked visibly confused at to why liking shiny things was bad.

“Helli, your liking it is a choice,” Zeno said comfortingly. “That’s the difference.”

“Oh, okay.” The thief seemed much more at ease. “Just to clarify, the contract is between you and a dragonpriest, right? Or an actual dragon?”

“And here you guys were,” I said, “getting on my case about the Milto thing, when Awk’s made a pact with who-knows-what.”

“I pledged my service at the Durnen battle.” Awk confirmed, without being specific. He and Helli were sharing a cup, because gnomes.

“Does this mean that you won’t be a bear anymore?” Zeno pushed the tankard from me over to Felegum. “No more transforming?”

“Oh no,” Awk said. “I’m still a druid, not to worry. I can be a bear, a frog, all kinds of things.”

Felegum had grown noticeably quiet during this conversation. We all sort of wanted to know what was up, and luckily, he broke the silence.

“Frogs killed my parents,” he said over his tankard. And then the whole sad story came out: it had happened two years ago in a city named Fallow’s Reach to the west. Felegum lived there with his dads when he was still a youth. “One night, I was woken an kidnapped by those frog monsters. They killed my parents and I was saved by an adventuring party.”

We all had a moment of silence for Felegum’s fathers.

“Well,” I said, feeling it was finally the time, “I’m this thing called an aasimar.”

I don’t know all the in’s and out’s of being partially celestial, but I explained the hood thing to keep my glowing eyes hidden. Sometimes people like aasimars, but sometimes people really don’t, so I like to keep it on the down-low.

Felegum nodded. “We all know that Zeno’s been whoring around for his whole life.”

“Actually, no. It’s been a bit like you and Dronie. Like, you’re a while with someone and then they’re not there anymore.” The bard shrugged. “But yeah, I’m a fugitive. My music was a little too good. I called it art, the ruling class called it treason. I had to leave my mother and siblings back home in Reach’s Fallow.”

We all turned expectantly to the other members of the party. Helli cleared her throat. “I got jilted in a business deal, so I had to leave. My business partner– he was embezzling all our funds and he ruined our reputation.”

“But why is she so bad at stealing?” Felegum stage-whispered.

“It’s a new venture for me!” Helli protested.

“She’s good at doors,” Zeno said.

We got our wagon fixed, decided to name it the Sovereign Dungeoneering Cart, I practiced flying a little longer, and then we went to sleep. We thought it was safe to relax, but little did we know what awaited us.

You’ve embarked upon your journey. You’ll be testing your mettle against your companions…

I woke up and slipped into the hallway, keenly aware of a noise. Bad dreams I was used to. I was also used to people trying to be sneaky uncomfortably close to my unconscious form.

But it was just Awk.

“You’re up late,” the druid-with-a-dragon said.

“Weird dreams. Different from my usual weird dreams.” I dug through my stuff and, feeling bad for hitting him in the dream, offered him a snack. “Want some focaccia bread?”

Awk glanced back over his shoulder. “We could prank Harry, you know. Maybe put his hand in water?”

“I support any pranks and lock-picking activities,” Helli said, also looking newly awoken.

“Oh, that’s right, you’re good at doors.” I nodded. “Come on, let’s do it.”

Harry poked his head out of his room. “That seems so childish. I’m in.”

Awk transformed into a frog and leapt outside, telling us that he was going to look for more frogs. That left the rest of us to formulate our plan and head downstairs. I wasn’t sure what we were going to find in the kitchen, but we did locate a nice plate of boysenberry danishes that Layne had left out for hungry guests. Helli, Harry, and I all sampled the delights and left some silver as thanks.

Once we had what we were looking for, we headed back upstairs, Helli picked the appropriate lock, and we did our dirty business. Harry went back to bed, hoping for more restful sleep this time. It took Awk a while to find a frog and I’m not really sure what he did with it because Felegum came out of his room yawning a few minutes later.

Awk pulled out his jam.

“Here,” he said, “this might go well with that focaccia, Set.”

I spread some on the bread, and we watched the stars over the forest for a little bit until we got tired and went to bed. Awk was a loose cannon and I still wasn’t sure about that dragon pact, but I also knew a thing or two about being in over your head with magical forces you did not completely understand.

It was a truly delicious jam, after all. And it was nice not to have had to steal it.

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