WE’VE GOT A BIG, BIG MESS ON OUR HANDS TONIGHT: in which an eel and caution are thrown to the wind

It’s possible I spoke too soon.

Awk healed Lankin a little after his bout with the serpent creature, and Zeno approached Zuul to begin figuring out an angle of approach on the dragon. Zuul, however, was not the font of information about Nightscale that we’d hoped he’d be.

According to him, the times the dragon had been spotted beyond her lair involved her swimming up fast-moving rivers. There was a waterfall from which the dragon emerged and no other exit to the lair that the group knew of.

We tossed around a few ideas for luring the dragon out, not wanting to fight her in her lair where presumably she’d be able to unleash all sorts of unpleasantness. Zuul said that the last time she’d been spotted was when she’d been hungry, and Zeno mentioned that he wasn’t into waiting that long. I suggested tempting her out with magic items. Not like I want to give up my sick stuff or anything, but if I were an eternal-ish thing obsessed with collecting a hoard, I’d want to add to it.

“Why don’t we–” Lankin paused for effect– “throw a dance party and invite the dragon?”

Felegum ignored this and turned back to Zuul. Now that it was clear that Zuul bore no resemblance to a frog, the mage was much happier to chat with the giant lizard. “About how big was it?”

Zuul rattled off some number and recounted a time when Nightscale had flown up and harried them. “We tossed bags of coin at it as it came up and it took those instead.”

We contemplated ways out of the cave system, even some ideas to flush the dragon out. Helli brought up the multiple plumes of smoke we’d seen outside as an option. Zuul went on to say that there were some rooms on a floor below that all appeared to be empty and that his group had investigated, but that we were welcome to inspect them for leads. So, we headed down.

Okay. So, was I obsessed with the waterfall down there? Maybe.

But like, give me a minute: we’d just heard that this dude’s entry point into the rest of the cave system was through a waterfall. I guess black dragons are swimmers. Anyway, forgive me for getting real interested in the spot where our biggest potential problem could pop up and lay the smack down on us.

Beneath the falls was a deep, deep cavern the water flowed through, probably where the dragon came up from. Harry and Felegum teased Lankin as I hopped on the broom, said the command word, and zipped toward the falls. Helli had once found a cool hidden room behind a waterfall, so I figured I’d apply what I’d learned. The water was coming down pretty quickly, though.

“Let me help!” Felegum called from the shore and made a little ice gablet, or triangle shaped roof deal, to try to keep some of the water off me as I flew through. Technically maybe it would have been easier to swim over, but honestly I wasn’t keen on backstroking through dragon water and after the mermaid adventure Kheryph had probably had enough of water for at least another few months. Also, flying was cool.

Zeno played me a song to get amped up to, and I flew as best I could into the clear spot Felegum had made. It wasn’t totally perfect– air currents on the broom were weird around the falls– and most of me fell off the broom, I still held on enough to clamber back onto it and climb onto one of the ledges behind the falls.

Beneath me were a bunch of rocks. Some more newly broken than others. I didn’t really know what that meant, though, so I peaced, flying back through the waterfall. This time, it did not go as well and the water clipped the edge of the broom just right so that it slipped out of my grasp and I tumbled into the water.

I called out the return word and it snapped back into my palm, steady enough to keep me from floating downstream, and I accepted Zeno and Harry’s help to get out of the river. Once I was settled, Zeno and his undead retinue headed off to investigate the two doors on the other side of the caverns. One contained shelves, planks, various storage utensils all ruined by water.

Looking to investigate more closely, the bard stepped in. Moments later, there was a slipping noise, an oof, and then a scream. We hurried over to see Zeno stuck in the floor somehow as an ooze slurped on his foot. Lankin grabbed and pulled Zeno out of the floor, but the ooze was still going to town on the bard’s foot, so Felegum sent forth some magic missiles to nuke it while Harry swung out with his staff as Lankin dashed past to yeet Zeno into the cleansing fast-moving waters I’d recently left.

Harry and I, realizing that Zeno was about to be swept away, dashed forward to reach out, and Felegum summoned an icy grille to hopefully trap him. Unfortunately, Zeno somehow avoided the grille– maybe the water was moving too fast or maybe he just broke through it– and Zeno grabbed onto me, I grabbed onto Harry, and together we pulled a very wet and much beleaguered Zeno out of the river.

His boot had been completely melted off and the foot looked like something you might find on a very bad foot cart, but the ooze seemed to have been evicted from its host thanks to Lankin’s quick thinking. I gave the wound a once-over, decided it wouldn’t be life-ending, and touched the leg as gently as I could to infuse some healing into it.

It was not gentle enough and Zeno absolutely let me know.

“Set, Set,” the bard hissed, “just–stop it, let me handle this myself.”

He cast himself a Healing Word and felt a little better and some of the pus went away. I held up my hands. It wasn’t like I’d enjoyed touching his nasty goo-foot either, I was just trying to to help.

Still, even with healing, there was the small issue of Zeno not having a shoe. He swapped out his boots for some purple performance shoes, which did seem more comfortable, though absolutely unsuited for adventuring.

He sighed. “Ugh, this isn’t worth it.” With a quick snap of his fingers, he turned to his entourage. “Blorc, carry me.”

Equally unfortunate was the epiphany that Blorc would have a hard time carrying him as the orc chieftain corpse was missing an arm, courtesy of me. Instead, after some zombie reconfiguration, Zeno was borne aloft in a strange makeshift death throne, sitting on Zombubbli, back supported by Glorc, and Skeletono elevating his injured leg.

Helli had a shot at the other door, which proved more difficult. She turned back to the Zeno Rescue Squad. “Anyone want to break down a door?”

“Yeah!!” Lankin bounded over. “What do you want me to do? I wasn’t paying attention.”

Helli patiently explained and Lankin proceeded to rip the door off its hinges. It was so old and decrepit it pretty much fell apart in his hands.

To put it nicely: it was a room full of rotting crap. It smelled moldy and awful and it made my eyes burn, even being farther away from it. Helli wished that we still had a door to put back on it and close it off, but the door was as dead as Zeno’s zombies.

Beyond were two more doors, which we all eyed warily, debating whether it was worth it. Well, all of us except one person, who seemed unaffected.

“What?” Harry said. “Your parents never made you walk through gross-smelling hallways? This is nothing.”

On waiting for us to affirm that this too was a part of our childhoods and getting nothing, Harry paused. “I’m beginning to think that maybe the monastery was a little abusive.”

Awk, unsupervised and left to his own devices, examined the river. It moved fast, east to west, and as I knew from personal experience, was quite cold. There were some more stairs to the south that seemed to also go down into water, and the ceilings at this part of the cave got lower and lower, maybe a foot and a half high. If we wanted to keep going beyond the river, we’d have to do so on our stomachs, though Helli and Awk might be able to crawl.

I did not relish the thought of encountering anything hostile as I was flat on the ground, so I hung out by the water’s edge, trying to think of something we’d missed. Had I just not spotted the right thing about the waterfall?

Lost in thought, I didn’t notice when Awk turned into an eel at first. He’d been meaning to explore the small hallways as something compact and tiny enough to fit through them, and an eel had been the obvious choice.

Except he’d forgotten that the hallways were on land, not underwater, and was currently flopping around on the rocky floor limply.

Naturally, Harry seized the moment and the eel. I should have seen what happened next coming and prevented it, or at least tried to, but I was so caught up thinking about that damn waterfall that I didn’t notice until too late when the situation was entirely out of hand.

Lankin said, “Hey, anyone want to go down that way?” and pointed to the submerged stairs.

Harry held up the Awk-Eel. “This guy does!” he said and threw Eel-Awk toward the churning whirlpool to the west where all the fast-moving water went.

“Oh no!” Lankin yelled. “Don’t worry, I’ll save you!”

And with that, Lankin dove into the water after the eel and was also sucked into the hole.

Suddenly the cautious, thoughtful approach seemed so much better.

But we didn’t have time to spare. We got out all the rope we had, about 350 feet of it, tied it together, and I lit the end of it with a Light spell so that hopefully Lankin and Awk could see it in the darkness. Harry, Zeno, and I held onto the rope after we shoved it into the water and waited. It bobbed in the churn of the river, and then…nothing.

Helli, small enough and the best at climbing, offered to go down and see what was down there. Carefully, she maneuvered down the rope, over each knot. We’d planned a signal where she just had to pull three times and we’d reel her back up, but once she disappeared, there was a long pause. Then Harry felt something, we pulled, and fished up a rope that had come untied.

We put the cube together next, testing the signal since its magic gently tugged all of its pieces back together. The cube yielded a general westward pull, which made sense, but offered no new information.

There was a small pause as we tried to figure out what to do next. Harry went back to the waterfall, hoping to spot a passage that I hadn’t. No luck.

When he was back, we went over to the submerged staircase and I tied a rope around myself, intending to go in. Just before I stepped into the water, I remembered Kheryph.

Kheryph was not tolerant of my first attempts to evict him from the comfortable inside of my hood.

“You don’t like water,” I muttered. If I’d have known that there was going to be this much swimming involved, I would have planned differently. To think that the frigid temperatures and possibility of getting melted had been the only things I’d imagined I’d have to worry about. Now I had to deal with a champion swimmer dragon and a lizard who had been water-averse ever since Lake Norka.

Then inspiration struck. Maybe these rations could be good for something after all.

Carefully, using a bit of jerky, I persuaded Kheryph to stay on Harry’s shoulders. While Harry had instigated our current woes, I also couldn’t really blame him for it. Who knew Awk would get sucked into a churning death portal and that Lankin would dive in after? Besides, if Harry had been so concerned about me that he guarded me while I was down back with the shaman and had jumped into the serpent arena battle on my account, he was more than capable of protecting Kheryph.

Also, he was holding the other end of the rope because he was pretty strong, so that helped.

“I’m coming back,” I said to Harry or the Lizard or both, and swam in.

And as dramatic as that all lead-up was, it didn’t yield much. The rooms underwater were just like the supply rooms we’d seen upstairs, like the one where Zeno had gotten his foot oozed on. Not excited about making a similar discovery underwater and by myself, I headed back out and retrieved Kheryph from Harry, who had done a good if stoic job of being a lizard guardian.

It seemed like we’d exhausted everything. I was tired and had no idea what to do.

Then Harry leapt into the water and down the spooky hole that had swallowed half the group. So did Felegum, both of them figuring that we had to get back together one way or another.

It was just me and Zeno.

“This is so stupid,” I kicked a rock angrily. “I don’t want to just throw myself down some hole because everyone else did it. That’s like, categorically what I do not want.”

“Set, I completely understand.” The bard slung an arm around my shoulders. “And if it were up to me, I’d be with you walking right out of here. But those are our friends and it would kind of suck to leave them behind.”

“I just… I feel like there’s got to be another way.” I exhaled. “I just don’t see it. And I cannot die. I have something I really have to do.”

Would there be messages waiting for me at Greenrest and the Axe of Fire that I’d never get? Would someone else fix things back home so I didn’t have to? I shook my head. I was here because no one else was doing anything to fix it.

“I hear you. And I have an idea,” Zeno said, and outlined his completely ludicrous and disgusting plan. “We use my zombies as a meat shield.”

“A–a what?” I spluttered, then understood. “Oh, that is– that is so awful.”

However, it was a plausible. Dead things floated, and if there were air pockets down there then we’d at least be guaranteed to hit them and the bodies would probably absorb some of the damage. I didn’t relish getting that close to that many dead bodies again, but nothing else was coming to me. The rooms were as empty as Zuul had purported they were and us two on our own weren’t about to be able to handle much in the way of danger.

So, we went for it. I popped a very unhappy Kheryph into a jar (without holes, intentionally this time) and stuffed that into my knapsack, securing it shut so that there was no chance the lizard would get loose or drown in the journey.

Zeno and I used the last of the rope to tie ourselves together so that we wouldn’t get separated, I Lit it so we could see, and then the bard summoned his posse in for a group hug. Skeletono was on shield duty behind me, perhaps out of consideration for my distaste of the undead. I wasn’t sure if it was intentional, but I appreciated the thought for the brief moment we had before we leapt into the swirl and froth.

It was chaotic and dark, even with the light. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, and even though we were below water, the press of dead things this close was just too much. I hit my head on a rock and for a while, there was nothing.

Just a memory of another time: the stench of refuse in the high sun, my limbs artfully limp, the crush of bodies below and above me, flies buzzing as they landed on my skin and eyelids, and the sound of a cart sloughing its heavy cargo out of a cursed city.

I gasped, coming to with a black draconian face looming over me.

“Oh, good,” Harry said as I sat up and spat water all over myself. “Lankin just broke some of Zeno’s ribs, so I thought I’d spare you the experience.”

“Thanks,” I rasped, brushing myself off and reaching inside my bag for the jar. As I unscrewed the cap and let a very distressed Kheryph out, I looked around. “Where are we?”

“Good question,” Harry said. “And one I don’t know the answer to.”

We were by the banks of the river, now running a good bit slower, with new bridges over it to more doors, a cesspool to the east, and behind us, a massive door with carvings I couldn’t read. Lankin went back to munching on his chicken leg after being relieved of his medical duties by a very distraught Zeno, who now had a fractured rib and scalded foot to deal with, Helli surveyed the terrain, and Awk pointed out the writing on the walls was Duergar, or deep dwarf. We rested in the dim light of the ropes.

Zeno gamely played us a song to recuperate better to, and I transferred my Light spell from the rope to Harry’s torch since it was wet and he needed to see.

Helli investigated the doors over the bridge to the south and didn’t open them, scenting once more the gross decay from the supply rooms back in the last cavern we’d been in. More searching to the east past the fetid pool revealed a massive chasm with a rope tied down into it. Ominous as hell.

Felegum, who could be deterred from no door no matter how foul-smelling, opened the doors that Helli had stepped away from and found that indeed they were rotting storage facilities from an era long gone.

Meanwhile, feeling a bit better, I stood up and checked out the large pair of doors behind us. No traps that I could see. Zeno at this point had finished inspecting his zombie horde and, determining that they were all in good working order despite suffering some slight shipping and handling damage, and headed over.

“The Foundry,” Awk read off the Duergar words after a moment of concentration and a strange spectral light in his eyes. “That’s what it says.”

Lankin nodded, satisfied, and pushed the door wide open.

Maybe he did it with more force than the poor door was used to, because it took the three duergar who were inside the great hall by surprise. They had been sitting and chatting around a fire, and the sudden appearance of a buff wood elf had clearly not been on the agenda.

“Hey guys!” Lankin bounded up. “What’s going on?”

The duergar muttered to themselves in a language that, we soon realized, none of us understood. Felegum, perhaps also conflict averse at this point, made placating motions and tried to communicate using hand gestures. The duergar continued to murmur to themselves, though their hands moved back from the hammers at their sides.

Zeno sensed his moment. Intervening with a mysterious but optimistic melody in a major key, he swept into the hall playing his bagpipes in the hopes of diffusing tensions. The duergar seemed intrigued, even if the bagpipes were still a little wet and emitted one last soap bubble.

Curious, Lankin tried to step onto one of the ten daises in the room, but this made the duergar not peaceful at all, and they moved to block his path. Zeno reached out a hand to them, and tentatively, one of the duergar and the half-elf shook.

Meanwhile, the shadier aspects of the party waited just outside the doors: Helli, Harry (who did not wish to tempt fate by bringing someone who looked like a black dragon in right away), and myself. Awk sort of lingered in the door, visible but not as much part of the action. Maybe this whole being-a-warlock thing had made him more serious. Or maybe he was just exhausted from having been thrown down a water slide of death as an eel.

Conjuring an illusion to illustrate what we were after, Zeno was able to breach the language barrier a little better. He made a miniature Nightscale, complete with the Aegis embedded in her forehead. The duergar watched warily, and then smiled and cheered as Zeno sliced a finger over the dragon’s neck. The duergar also pointed at the Aegis and at themselves, signaling that they–like apparently everyone else in this dungeon– were interested parties in what happened to it.

Through more back and forth and varying of illusions, we were able to learn that Nightscale’s lair was below and that she’d taken many duergar lives and belongings. We were led by the three to the hole with the rope ladder down it and invited to use it, though it didn’t seem like the duergar had all that much faith in us. Honestly, I didn’t have all that much faith in us.

We had no way out, and here we were, potentially waltzing into a dragon’s lair on a whim. I didn’t like it. I’d had enough time to rest and think to realize that maybe Zuul would have known another way down, that we could have asked him before jumping down the river. I didn’t want to fly into another mess.

Flying, though…

I looked up. Cavern. But a foundry meant smoke, and smoke needed somewhere to go to ventilate. There were also plenty of doors in the duergar stronghold that might lead to the surface, though the three duergar we’d spoken with just shrugged when we pointed up or toward the surface. At one point Zeno made the illusion of a sun, but that seemed to stupefy and unnerve them.

Deciding not to head down the rope right now, we were escorted back through the fortress by the duergar and given leave to sleep out in the same uncomfortable spot by the river where we’d camped out before. Felegum even made a Tiny Hut for us, which was nice. Lankin was excited to finally get to meet the dragon, but Zeno, Helli, and I were a little more reserved.

We were close to what we’d come for, yes, but the fact remained that we had no exit strategy if things went sideways, as they were almost certain to do.

We needed a way out. I’d survived one stupid antic and I wasn’t about to go in for a second one until we had a swift peace-out strategy available. We knew what the top levels of this place looked like and now we had an idea of the bottom.

I just had a feeling we were about to make some duergar very unhappy with us as we filled in the middle.

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