SUPERSTARS SUCKED INTO THE SUPER MASSIVE: in which we go to wizard school and the heist takes a draconian turn

I tried to fly around the ceiling of the Axe of Fire, but was abruptly stopped by a half-orc bartender named Julia. She pointed to a NO FLYING sign affixed to the bar and said, sternly, “No flying.”

I hopped off the broom and stowed it over my back. “Sorry, didn’t see the sign. What’s up with not flying indoors?”

“We had issues in the past. With some goblins and flying.” She pursed her lips, as though wondering how much detail to share, and then jerked her chin at a dark brown stain below one of the windows. “It wasn’t pretty.”

“Oh.” I said, feeling it was not polite to inquire further.

Thus assured that I was not going to wind up another stain on the Axe of Fire, I rejoined the group, who were also all showing off their magical items to each other. Zeno pulled out the Pearl of Power, a sneaky choice considering the amount of trouble we’d skirted (or been narrowly involved in?) surrounding pearls in this place.

Zeno wanted to show his new acquisition off, but in order to do that he needed to cast a spell. Awk was a natural target, so Zeno deafened him and then repeated his tongue twister of a command word to get his spell replenished via the Pearl. Awk yelled loudly for a bit but no one in the busy tavern seemed to care.

Perhaps wanting to show off, or maybe still deaf, Awk reached into the Bag of Tricks for a small bit of fluff and threw it into the air. Felegum had been telling us how he had abandoned his quest to find the biggest he could make Awk in favor of learning more powerful spells, like Shatter instead, when a hyena sprung into existence from the fluff and sat down at the table.

Once again, no one at the inn seemed to care that a hyena was now present.

I was briefly concerned about Kheryph and was ready to lay a hyena to waste in defense of my lizard, but it turned out that the hyena could not care less about the creature in my hood and Kheryph was unperturbed. He’d seen a lot worse than a random hyena, I guessed.

Helli took a clockwork mouse out of her things and placed it on the table before the hyena. It got no reaction.

Zeno, being Zeno, pushed over a glass of beer for the hyena, which the hyena drank. Of course. Then he made some off-hand comment about me sweeping the room and keeping it clean with my broom, but I just shrugged.

We’d see who had the last laugh on that one when someone needed a ride over something nasty.

The hyena turned out to be pretty chill. He just sat at the table and didn’t really do much. No one in the Axe of Fire seemed that perturbed by a hyena either.

Felegum sighed, leaned on the table, and wondered what we were going to do tomorrow. The answer seemed obvious. “We,” I said, “are going to the Mage’s College.”

We slept, utterly exhausted after all that, and woke up early with the aim of getting breakfast at the college. Truthfully, breakfast at the Axe of Fire was already pretty great, and I was a little doubtful of finding better fare elsewhere. I’d never been to wizard school or whatever, but I’d read about kids going off to faraway schools. And the one thing every story had in common was that the food at schools was never as good as the food outside of schools.

Harry seemed to be of similar mind, as he slipped a few Danishes into his monk’s robes for later, just in case, as we passed a cauldron of coffee being prepared early in the morning. I also took a pastry, not knowing if we were going to find anything good. Zeno, being practical, got a to-go cup of coffee. Naturally.

And with that, we headed to the Mage’s College. We made it to the loop point without much issue, and were able, at last, to walk past.

It wasn’t long before things looked different. Prismatic light decorated the sides of buildings, and what once were rows of ordinary houses gave way to elegant structures replete with crystals. Even the light seemed clearer here, brighter, as dawn settled in and the giant tower came into view.

It was made out of black stone and like the other buildings was adorned with prisms, sending colored light up its sides in the sunrise. Or maybe it really was just perpetually enchanted. Felegum took advance of the opportunity to approach someone on a bench about where one registered and got a long and arcane door number, and we went inside.

A long, circular staircase spiraled up the center of the tower, and more benches populated the inside, for students to study or socialize at, as well as a reception desk for visitors. Oak doors speckled the walls and hallways, leading down into further rooms and specificities. Several people were working the desk, and Felegum chose to talk to a female dwarf who looked pretty stressed out over her studies. Maybe he was asking about Letitia or something.

I was distracted at that moment, because there were two other people, a tiefling and a human, at a different reception area who were playing a game involving a folded up piece of parchment and making a net out of your forefingers and thumbs.

I walked up and held my fingers in a diamond shape and stood a bit back from the desk. “Bet you can’t shoot that through here.”

The tiefling hit it right at my face.

I winced.

“Sorry,” she said with a wry smile. “But you’re not supposed to hold your hands that high up. It’s more like, to the side.”

She demonstrated and I went to mimic her when Zeno’s hand clasped my shoulder. “Hey, kid, we’re going downstairs.”

I made my excuses to head down with the group, since that’s where the food was located according to Felegum’s stressed out dwarf friend, but then Zeno held up a hand. “No,” he said, “stay. We’ll be back.”

So, we chatted. They were both second-years procrastinating their homework while working at the reception desk as part of their scholarship jobs. The tiefling girl was called Qoivula, and the human girl’s name was Klein. Qoivula was from this place called Rosen City, a little south of Greenrest. And for a little bit, it felt nice to be normal and just talk about parchment and strategic angles.

After a while, Klein invited me to try it out.

I took the parchment and eyed out the bucket Qoivula made with her hands. “So it’s just a flick, right?”

“Well,” Qoivula said, “sorta. What you really do is use magic to direct it.”

“Oh,” I said. Magic. It would be.

“Do you not have magic?” She asked.

The temptation to use it after all this time was stronger than it had been during the Mage’s Trials. But I was hiding it, and honestly even though I felt like it would be worth the weird dreams just to absolutely crush it at this game, we still had no idea if getting things out of the vaults would be easy or not.

“I don’t,” I lied, and actually felt bad about it.

Zeno had re-emerged at this point from the basement cafeteria, and I said good-bye to Qoivula and Klein. As soon as my back was turned, a paper triangle hit the back of my head. I picked it up and winged it back to them, though my aim wasn’t the best: the pair were right, it would be much easier if I could use magic.

I was still feeling pretty good, though, and then Zeno handed me the food he’d purchased for breakfast.

It was Csipherian, a traditional breakfast from back home. Rice, flatbread, kebabs, falafel, skewers of chicken, pineapple, lamb, and mango.

Maybe I was really hungry, but my throat went weird all of a sudden and I couldn’t figure out anything to say that made sense. There was a whole global assortment of food down there; I’d found that out from Qoivula and Klein. Zeno could have gotten anything. Food from the place he hailed from, or somewhere close enough to taste like home.

Instead, he’d gotten food from mine.

I mumbled some expression of thanks, shocked. Of all the people here, I hadn’t expected anyone to care. Except maybe Harry, but being a monk I guess it was kind of his job to be a decent person. Definitely not the bard.

But maybe that was part of being a good actor, never letting anyone know when you’re faking and when you’re actually paying attention.

I opened my mouth to say thank you properly, but Zeno cut me off and told me to eat.

So, I did.

Eventually Felegum and the others came to find us after breakfast. “Come on, guys,” he said. “Let’s get registered.”

There were helpful arrows leading to the registrar’s offices and the half-elf behind the desk was forthcoming with information. How we registered depended a lot on what we wanted out of the Mage’s Guild. There were merchants, acolytes, and presumably other titles associated with the guild that we hadn’t unlocked yet, like Letitia’s special maintaining-the-field job.

Registering as a merchant was pretty much what you’d expect– you could buy and sell objects with the blessing of the guild. Being an acolyte meant that you could take classes, learn things if you wanted to, as well as take on tasks the college had open, presumably for some reward, either monetary or knowledge-based.

I found out that Letitia hadn’t accepted students for a long time, being so preoccupied with keeping the city’s magic field up. I also was curious about how anybody learned magic in a place like this– Qoivula and Klein had mentioned work studies– and members could take classes here, provided they paid the tuition. To do that, though, you had to either be able to demonstrate magic or take a test for your aptitude, the former I couldn’t do and the latter cost something like fifty gold. So much for that.

Felegum was, unsurprisingly, very interested in how Paripas was governed and the nice half-elf said that the library was the best bet on that. Helli’s ears pricked up at the mention of an artificers’ association within the guild. Awk asked about libraries.

“Oh,” the half-elf said, “those are in subbasements 2 through 36.” After a somewhat stunned silence from the rest of us, the half-elf shrugged. “We’re proud of them.”

Zeno asked after Sylla, but was told that she was probably busy, or at the very least that the half-elf at the desk didn’t know where to find her. The bard and the mage sent letters to Sylla and Letitia respectively, and we broke off to explore various things.

Felegum and Harry headed to the library, with Awk following behind. Helli, Zeno, and I went to case the vaults.

In Subbasement 47, courtesy of a magical lift system, we found them. We also realized at this point that the tower was almost certainly deeper than it was high, almost like a glacier itself.

Helli asked about security measures and I played along, saying that we were new initiates of the Guild and curious about storing some of our valuables. It seemed like things were going well toward resolving Milto’s errand in an aboveboard way, but I always liked having a back door just in case.

In this case, though, being able to steal something from these vaults seemed pretty unlikely, given that each vault basically its own plane of existence. Beyond learning that nothing living was allowed to be stored in a vault, that was about all we could get out of the guards without looking too suspicious.

We headed back to basement 1, where the cafeteria was. “I can’t believe you didn’t get the after-main,” I said to Zeno, “that’s like the best part. Come on.”

I asked Helli if she wanted one, but apparently she’d found the tabaxi food cart earlier and had embarked on a quest to eat an entire breakfast burrito. She waved off the offer, saying that she was still feeling pretty full. She went off to explore the artificers’ area outside instead.

So, I talked to the guy, and got two after-mains: one light green and another dark pink. Dark pink, naturally, was berries and cream, and the light green was pistachio, which I offered to Zeno. Some people describe it like fried ice cream, but it’s more like a roll-up of crispy fried dough around a frozen ice cream center that spills out at the ends. Either way, it’s really good.

Felegum, Awk, and Harry rejoined us after their library stint (Felegum picked up a white after-main, aka mint vanilla) and filled us in on what they’d found. Harry found some references to the Sunken Citadel (answering the long-term question that the dragonpriests were just priests who really liked dragons), Awk learned something about what Durnen might be, and Felegum discovered that some pearls are rumored not to be consumed entirely in an Identify spell, making them really valuable for spellcasters who don’t want to have to lug pearls around all the time.

At some point earlier, Felegum had sent Dronie back to the inn, but because Dronie can’t open doors (I think his thing is that he can only do one task at once) the monodrone was just bonking into the side of the Axe of Fire for a while until we got back at dinner time.

There were two letters for Felegum and Zeno. Everyone seemed to answer their mail so quickly here. Sylla replied to Zeno telling him that she was planning an expedition and wouldn’t be available to meet until she returned to the city. Felegum’s was from Letitia, saying that she could meet with us about the Milto situation in two days time at sunset on the 17th floor of the tower.

Until then, we had time to ourselves.

I was debating the wisdom of trying my luck with the map again to see if I could get to that temple, but Zeno had an errand and wanted me along, so I found myself sitting on a hallway bannister in the necromancy department or whatever while Zeno did his thing. A family passed, a mother and father, a little kid, and one of the parents carrying the body of a small animal, a dog, limp and lifeless.

They entered one of the rooms, there was soft conversation I couldn’t quite make out, and then a gentle ebb of light. A few minutes later, the family walked out, all smiles, the dog bounding alongside the little kid, who hugged it while it waited for the rest of the family by the stairs.

Kheryph peeped out from my hood and I petted his head absently, watching the family laugh and one of the parents wipe a tear from their eyes as they shepherded their charges back into the city.

Resurrection, huh?

Then Zeno called me over, his voice coming from the same office down the hall. I walked over.

“Kid,” he said, gesturing at the mage, “tell her where the well was.”

Maps and I, as we’ve discussed, have a somewhat fraught relationship. The professor of necromancy, whose name was Leota Cone, had summoned a projection of what I guess was Paripas and the surrounding countryland, but I couldn’t tell. Zeno, having not been inside the well, was unable to really describe the set-up, where the crystals were, what the lab looked like, that stuff, and wanted me to go through it.

I paused, then looked at Zeno, thinking. I had been surrounded by magic for so long without being able to do any. Plus, the vaults did look pretty well-guarded. A calculated risk might be worth it.

“I’m going to tell him the details,” I said to Leota, hoping Zeno picked up on what I was about to do, “and since I don’t have magic, he can make a diagram for you of what the well looks like on the inside.”

I whispered the words of the spell in Zeno’s ear and cast Silent Image to show a basic floor plan of the well and to his credit, Zeno did his best to make it look like he was summoning the ghostly schematic. Leota gave us some side-eye while the shenanigans were going down, which made me wonder if she’d caught on, but she said nothing. Instead, she asked if certain areas could be enlarged to show detail, which I did behind my back, quietly as Zeno mimed nonsense spell-motions.

After some back and forth, Zeno negotiated a price for the knowledge of the location of the well, which Leota was considering using to grow her own crystals, which would be useful for her own necromantic practice.

Two weeks ago, more, before I’d entered this city and learned about what was happening back in Csipherus, I would not have been hesitant to deal with people crossing the boundary line between life and death. But Leota seemed pretty decent; she’d resurrected that dog, after all, and I felt like someone like that, who mastered complicated arts and had the necessary precision to tether a soul back into its body, and who then used that magic to rectify something that most people would chalk up to a weatherable loss except those who were affected by it, had to be pretty decent.

So, the deal was made. We told her about Borne, she handed Zeno a writ like everyone did in this place, and we headed back to the inn. The one thing that slightly unnerved me about it was that she blinked at us to memorize our faces. Was I being too paranoid? Maybe. She said she was doing it so that she could send us a message about further developments and potential profits to be made about using the well to grow crystals for her work, which seemed legit. That drow from earlier just had me rattled. I wondered if we’d run into them again. I couldn’t say I was looking forward to it, but I’d also be happy for a chance to show I wasn’t as useless at escaping magical traps as they thought.

The next day, we went to see Letitia.

Felegum led the way to the seventeenth floor at sunset, and we found Letitia at her desk, golden light filtering in and giving the snow outside Paripas a rainbow glimmer. Felegum brought up our task and Letitia snorted.

“Oh, the shit he got into,” she said. “He bit off more than he could chew.”

“Could you tell us what happened to get him banned from the Mage’s Guild?” I asked.

She was vague, citing his liaison with Sylla and mentioning that Milto and herself hadn’t been on the best of terms at the time either. There had been the expedition that they’d been planning and “– he chose not to go.”

I scowled, trying to remember. I thought that Milto said Letitia was the one who’d backed out at the last moment. He’d said he’d organized the mission…if he’d been the one to back out, what had made him change his mind?

Letitia continued. “Anyway, it seems like you have gotten into a deal with someone who does not keep their promises.”

I huffed and kept quiet. It was hard to make a judgement about what was going on or who was at fault or not when no one would talk about anything. Still, when Felegum asked about the possibility of Letitia opening Milto’s vault for us to complete our errand, she was open to it.

But she had a task for us to do if we wanted her assistance.

“There is a place called the Glittering,” she said, “and beneath it there is a river. There lies an aegis, a famed shield I wish to study for use in maintaining the city’s barrier.”

“Is it dangerous?” Zeno asked.

Letitia paused. “To my knowledge, it is in the hoard of a black dragon named Nightscale. I suppose the dragon is guarding it. There are likely duergar, orcs, and drow as well.”

We discussed our options: breaking into the vault had been extremely last-resort from the start, and actually getting Letitia to help us and use her clout to make things go smoothly as we collected Milto’s things would be a plus. On the other hand, we’d be going out of our way, out of the town, away from useful things like letters and other communications, for probably about a week. Also, there was a potential dragon.

But, we agreed. Letitia graciously offered to teleport us that night to the base of the mountain where the dragon lived, and we set about as fast as we could to get ready. I remembered belatedly that I had another letter to send, but couldn’t do it as Felegum and Zeno managed to sell the big pearl from Lake Norka to the Mage’s Guild (astoundingly easy) for a 1500g writ apiece.

We split across the city to buy various things. Harry, who was a black dragonborn, was resistant to acid, but the rest of us wanted Potions of Acid Resistance in case things went south in there. I did my best to find that shop that I’d marked on the map Felegum had given me before to buy those nice boots, but the map must have completely stopped working because not only could I not find the shop, the one place I could find that sold them charged, you guessed it, 1500g for the pair.

I sighed and bought them. They were pretty cool, after all, and I also was none too anxious to repeat the previous struggles of trying to keep Kheryph warm and worrying whether or not he’d last the night. At least this way he could hang out in a boot and keep warm. Plus, the Boots of the Hinterlands were pretty sick.

We met back up at the tower and Letitia teleported us out just as evening was fading from the sky. Before us, a shark fin shaped crag jutted out of the ground and the snow once again crunched under our feet.

Felegum made a tiny hut with one of his new spells, Zeno set about testing his stout, and we all settled in for the next leg of the journey.

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