I ALWAYS PUT MYSELF IN DESTRUCTIVE SITUATIONS: in which we get peer-pressured down a chasm and a dragon is totally uncool about it

There were more duergar behind the massive door than we’d thought, like five or so, and both Felegum and Zeno tried their hand at communication. Like before, it was difficult going when neither party spoke the other’s language.

“Good morning!” Zeno called and did his best to communicate this through body language. We all realized at about the same time that these were the same duergar who had been baffled when we’d shown them an illusion of a sun.

“Good eternal darkness!” Lankin amended.

One of the duergar made a growly noise and more of them filtered in. They weren’t particularly hostile, but they also weren’t throwing out the welcome mat. We’d talked before about trying to find a way out of here that didn’t involve going into the maw of the beast– Zeno and I were pretty adamant about wanting an escape route– knowing that we may have to make a few duergar upset on the way out.

They pointed down a hallway, maybe a little exasperatedly, like they’d given these directions before. Awk was doing his best to interpret for us using his patron-granted powers, and while being able to understand half the conversation was useful, it still didn’t afford us the information we were truly after. Zeno conjured images of rope ladders reaching upwards into darkness, stairs, inclines for the duergar to interpret– all to no avail.

The duergar were starting to make angry noises, which Awk was able to translate into something about their way out of the caverns being blocked. “‘We’ve been trapped,'” the gnome repeated, “‘stuck here for generations.'”

Lankin gasped. “We have to free them!”

Harry, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic about the prospect. “Oh yeah, trying to reincorporate an isolated society back into the world. Always a good idea.”

“Friends,” Zeno cut in, “I don’t know if I mentioned it earlier, but I saw claw marks in the river in that cavern above this one. I am worried about this thing in the water.”

“They’re cursed with greed. Right, cultist?” Felegum asked Awk.

Helli looked up from her investigation of the wall behind the duergar throne. “What’s wrong with greed?”

“Nothing,” Zeno said, waving it off. “Greed is fine.”

It looked like Felegum had given up on his pursuit of knowledge regarding what was behind all the duergar doors, but I was still kind of curious, so I went ahead and opened one. Inside was a cozy arrangement of beds, some living quarters, and a very intricate rug.

Zeno peeked in over my shoulder. “That’s a really nice rug.”

I didn’t disagree, but the duergar were making distressed noises so I just held up my hands like I had no idea where I was going, because I didn’t, but made a note of the rug for later. I didn’t buy that there wasn’t any way back up to the surface from here, though the fact that the duergar, dudes who presumably were good with moving rocks and earth out of their way, considered themselves trapped was a bit concerning.

We found ourselves outside the massive chasm, duergar watching us expectantly. I narrowed my eyes, extremely disliking it. Kheryph placidly crawled around my neck and looked down at it. It was so deep we couldn’t even see the bottom of it.

Just a rope ladder going down and down and down.

Helli checked the knots, just to be sure. According to her, they seemed good, just kind of old.

Harry, deciding that he would take one for the team in case the ladder wasn’t reliable, began his descent. I cast Light on the tip of his quarterstaff for him so he could see, boarded my broom and floated up into the air above the hole, and watched the little speck of light get smaller and smaller, until it was nothing at all.

“Harry’s by himself down there,” I said and started to float down until Felegum stopped me.

“Wait, wait,” the mage said. “Don’t you want to take someone with you? What about Helli?”

Helli, who had scaled walls, waterfalls, and various cottages with ease, and I exchanged a look.

“I would not insult her climbing skills by offering. I have too much professional respect for her,” I replied and pointed the broom back into the abyss. “Later.”

“Then take me instead.” Felegum waved me down. “I’m bad at climbing.”

I landed adjacent to him for him to get on and the Flying Broom Express began its descent. We found Harry sitting cross-legged with his eyes closed at the bottom of the cavern, acutely listening and perceiving with senses beyond his limited sight.

Probably. I don’t know, man. We used to give Harry a hard time for not being so good in the darkness, but it seems like he’s on the fast track to not needing to see at all to be dangerous as hell these days.

Around us was a stone platform, more water, and a stone bridge, like the one we’d seen before with the rivers above, to the north. Three rivers ran in from the west and merged into one that ran eastward.

Trusting that Harry and Felegum could mutually look out for each other, I began the descent back up. I passed Zombubbuli awkwardly making its way down the rope ladder and had to commend Zeno on his control of these things: remote controlling a zombie down this sort of thing couldn’t be easy.

Still gross as hell, but definitely not easy.

The rope ladder swayed under the weight of the zombie, and for a moment I was concerned. But then the swaying stopped. I continued my flight up, passing Awk and Helli (who was expertly climbing her way down, as expected). When I reached the top of the chasm again, Zeno and Skeletono were holding onto one of the posts that had popped out of the ladder to support the gnomes’ descent.

After a little bit, Zeno sent the skeleton down and kept holding the post in himself.

I shook my head and pointed at Glorc. “Dude, why don’t you use that guy? He’s strong af even if he’s only got one arm.”

“Good point,” Zeno said and turned to his remaining zombie. “Blorc! Hold this.”

The former orc chieftain lumbered over and held the post down with Skeletono continued his skeleton shimmy downward.

“Set, can I ride your broom?” Zeno looked at the rope ladder with a moue of distaste. “Because I am absolutely not climbing down that.”

I looked at his purple carpet slippers and sighed. He had a point; he’d probably break his neck falling off the damn ladder. “I figured,” I said. “Hop on.”

Zeno being Zeno, he tried to sit side-saddle. At first, I didn’t think that he was going to make it, but he was more graceful than I thought. Until I began the descent and he gripped me way too firmly.

“Hey!” I called. “Dude, let up– I’m trying to drive here.”

“Sorry, Set.” Zeno turned to his zombie. “Blorc, don’t move.”

Blorc seemed to harden into stone, sinking down and concentrating fully on keeping that rope anchored. Thus satisfied that we’d at least be able to get back up, Zeno and I rejoined the group below. Zeno discovered that Zombubbuli was now a few fingers poorer from a misadventure with the ladder on the descent, but everyone else seemed to be in good order.

Investigation of the water to the left yielded little– the three rivers were all fast-flowing and did not look like we could swim up them without considerable effort. Proceeding to the right yielded another bridge and more cavernous space ahead. I was feeling better about the situation since the ceilings didn’t seem too high. Not much flying space.

But, as Zeno had pointed out earlier, this was a dragon who could swim.

Most of the party had crossed the second bridge except for Helli, Lankin, and me, and that was about when everything went to hell. Helli had just enough time to execute an impressive leap over the bridge before a line of acid cut across the path, striking Zeno, Skeletono, Zombubbuli, and Awk.

I heard a small splash, and judging by Helli still being right before me, it was probably Awk. Probably about to try to convince Nightscale to join his dragon cult. Then another larger splash, as Lankin leapt from his spot in front of me into the water after the dragon and Awk.

Judging from all the splashing, he didn’t seem to be having a lot of luck, though he was trying very hard.

Ahead of me, Zeno shook off some of the acid, slugged back his Potion of Acid Resistance, and yelled something in Draconic across the lake. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I imagined that it was indignant as his tone made it sound. Or maybe that’s just what everything in Draconic sounds like. Who knows, man.

Zombubbuli, though, was no more. The acid left only a gross pool of his remains. Skeletono was not looking amazing, but he was still standing, impressively.

Then a huge black sphere appeared over Zeno, Harry, Felegum and probably the the two idiots in the water. Dronie buzzed over the cavern somewhere, scouting for the mage as usual. Downing her Potion of Acid Resistance as well, Helli skirted along the shadows, and yelled to everyone that the black sphere was just a black sphere. Then she whispered “stabra cadabra” to her dagger, and that was when I knew things were getting serious.

I drank my own potion so that I would also have some degree of protection from acid damage, force-fed some to Kheryph, and then made an attempt to coax the lizard off my shoulders and to a safe spot. He did not want to leave and in true Kheryph fashion just crawled right back up my leg and into my hood again.

I leapt over the remains of the bridge, clicking my tongue in annoyance. “Dude, you super do not want to be around me for this, I promise.”

Harry surprised me, not only by leaping into the dragon-infested waters, but also by how fast he swam through them onto an island in the middle of the lake with mountains of coins and other treasures stacked on it.

“You see what I am,” Harry said, gesturing grandly to himself and his surroundings, “and you know what my breath can do to your pile of treasure. We’re here to talk.”

The dragon seemed to narrow their eyes at him, but made no movement.

Felegum was still in the middle of the black sphere, but he must have been controlling Dronie, since the little guy flew over the dragon and pointed a metal arm down at it. Something seemed to be happening underwater– there was a lot of splashing, so I figured Awk and Lankin must have been either trying to make war or peace or both down there.

“What would the Stone do?” Felegum called out to the wood elf for encouragement.

Lankin surfaced, took a deep breath, and yelled, “The Stone would not be in this situation!”

Then, perhaps thinking more clearly, he made a valiant effort to speak to Nightscale in their native language, but it sounded less like Draconic and more like… Dog.

“Did I hear Lankin barking?” came Zeno’s voice from within the black sphere. He emerged moments later, feeling along the ground to find a way out, then straightened and called out across the lake. “We have treasure! We are here to barter!”

I couldn’t see super great, but it did appear to give the dragon pause. It at least gave Helli a chance to creep along the way and back into visible range.

Then all of a sudden the dragon was face to face with Zeno, their maw opening wide to chomp him. Zeno’s hackles rose. “Excuse me!” He scolded the beast. “We’re trying to talk here!”

Nightscale’s jaws snapped closed right in front of Zeno.

And on their head, grown into their horns and almost embedded into the dragon’s skull, was a brass-gold disk.

The Aegis.

“This is my lair and I will take what is mine!” Nightscale roared, and then made a beeline for Awk and, apparently, his otter friend. Awk must truly have done something to piss the dragon off, because it chomped through Chernyka in a single bite, sending the otter back into seafoam. Then it slashed out at Awk, perhaps for trying to convert this dragon to the Church of Non-Greed per his patron’s wishes.

This is perhaps where it started to go wrong for me. Still having Kheryph crawling around under my hood was not the battle plan I’d envisioned, so I hopped on the broom and flew over past Helli, searching for an escape route. Worst case scenario, I figured, I’d ditch the lizard on a safe spot on some rocks over here, out of the line of fire, and then join the fray. I hid against the cavern wall, seeing nothing but…more cavern wall, though the lake opened into a river to the east.

Harry continued to make his stand on Treasure Island. “That which your greed has taken can be taken away from you. Speak peacefully and we can negotiate.”

That was pretty metal. I thought back to the monk I’d seen antagonizing a bunch of kobolds to their faces. This Harry wasn’t about to start a fight, but he was absolutely here to finish one.

I could barely make it out, but then it seemed like he’d started to chew something which was confusing and less metal, but it seemed like part of the plan.

Felegum had found a way around spellcasting within the black sphere and seemed perfectly happy to attack via Dronie, using his familiar to heat the metal of the Aegis on Nightscale’s head. The sizzle and smell of burning flesh drifted over the lake.

Then Awk said something in what I can only presume was Draconic, and the Aegis shimmered as the spell was redirected onto Harry. The monk seethed and shook it off. “Wrong dragon, dumbshit!”

Then Awk tried to climb onto Nightscale’s head, and the dragon dove beneath the waves again. Lankin, sensing an opportunity here, returned to the depths for another round of trying to attack Nightscale aquatically. I was actually surprised to hear a thud from underwater; I hadn’t been expecting him to actually do it, but he seemed to have connected with something hard.

Zeno slid the binoculars down over his eyes, then sighed and slid them back up again. “This is your last chance!” He yelled out across the lake. “I have all these treasures!”

And then he leapt over the bridge and left.

I was shocked by his gall.

“I’m leaving, I’m leaving!” the bard said again. “This is your last chance, dragon!”

The black sphere vanished. I held my breath. Were we actually going to have a negotiation?

Then the water level of the lake rose, catching Zeno, a seated Felegum, and Helli in its wake. Luckily, being on the broom, I avoided it, but the rest were swept into the lake. Harry also got caught in it on the island, but his weird monk talent allowed him to hold steady and weather the watery assault. “Now this just seems petty, dragon,” he said, around the thing in his mouth.

Helli climbed back on one of the ledges along the wall, shook the water off, and threw a dart at the dragon.

Then things got hairy. Nightscale attacked Awk, trapping the gnome in their mouth. Awk became a minnow, a tiny little fish, except then Nightscale went in for another round of acid and nuked the fish in their mouth. Awk’s limp body hung from their teeth.

And well, you know. Awk was goofy and probably put too much trust in his patron or whatever, but dude didn’t deserve to be snack.

I’d intended to try to get Kheryph off me again on the ledge, but there was no time. Hoping that I could get in and out of there, I flew over to Nightscale and, with more strength than I expected from myself, pulled Awk from the dragon’s maw and onto the broom.

And that’s when Harry unleashed his own breath– except it wasn’t the usual acid stream that I’d come to expect of the monk. This time it was icy cold and smelled minty fresh, a welcome departure from the fetid lake water around us. Piles of gold and copper were encased in ice, and some of Nightscale’s scales cracked and splintered under the force of the refreshing blast.

Then things went off the rails. Felegum tried to cast Shatter on Nightscale, but the Aegis flashed and redirected the spell…onto me and Awk. Dimly, ears ringing, I caught sight of Dronie half-heartedly stabbing at the Aegis as if out of apology.

Awk, already unconscious, did not look improved by the thunder magic. Lankin saw up to Nightscale to divert some of their attention, hopefully, while Awk and I made our escape, and Zeno, swimming closer, yelled, “Get up, you dumb gnome!” and Awk’s eyes fluttered back open.

Then Zeno cast an impressive illusion– a giant diamond hovered above the water. “Look at this!” Zeno yelled, holding up his hands like he was wrestling to keep it aloft. “A diamond!”

“They have treasure,” the dragon contemplated next to me.

And okay, I thought it would be fine. There was a distraction, right? There was Lankin, too, if that failed. I had Awk. My gamble had paid off.

That’s when the insects happened.

It’s hard to describe this. Like, they came out of the water, that much was clear, but beyond that, everything was obscured and full of buzzing and a thousand tiny needles of proboscises on my skin. I couldn’t even see well. Awk was not looking so great either, but we were hanging on.

I heard something small (Helli, maybe?) dive into the water and then a slashing noise. Then out of the mess of bugs, Nightscale’s head appeared.

“I shall enjoy killing the little one,” they said, striking at Awk. I barely managed to keep him on the broom, and then the dragon swept out a claw at me, and everything went black.

The next thing I heard was Zeno’s voice saying something like, “Little did you know, dragon, that I am also Zeno the Necromancer! You may strike them down, but I bring them back at my command!”

I stood, soaking wet, still surrounded by insects in the water. They looked ready to descend, until Zeno, also sensing this, yelling “No, you stay up!” and their attack lessened. It still hurt like hell, but I wasn’t unconscious again.

Not a lot of time had passed, but Zeno had crafted a portal illusion to go above his diamond for some reason, Felegum, in a stunning departure from the Make Awk Big quest had become Giant Felegum, and Harry had latched onto the shield and was attempting to pry it off Nightscale’s head. Helli swept in with her dagger and sent more scales flying off Nightscale’s armor, and the dragon had begun sneezing and choking.

I recognized that yellow powder, from another time and place so far and long ago.

Anyway, the yellow dust in the air also was not bug-friendly, so the insects lanced themselves back into the water as Nightscale did the same to cleanse their palate. I wished I’d been awake to see Harry stuff the bag into their mouth, but we couldn’t have everything.

Instead, I swam into the water, grabbed Awk, healed him a little, and said, “Be an animal, you dumb shit.”

Granted, it was underwater, so I wasn’t sure how well he heard, but I did manage to swim back onto the treasure island and call the broom back to me, so that was good.

In the distance, Harry cracked the Aegis half out, breaking one of the horns off Nightscale’s head. Felegum continued to cough, but remembered to drink water, and Awk, a nice surprise, became a giant toad and also bit the Aegis to help Harry.

Lankin also drank some water from the lake, and Zeno called over to me from across the fracas: “Hey, Set, I could use a lift!”

The black sphere had shifted weirdly near to me, but I felt like I could probably order the broom to him. Hopefully he’d been listening to me ride it enough times to know what to say, because I didn’t think I had time to remind him and I had other plans for how I was going to fly.

Helli got in another good stab, and Nightscale at last went to investigate Zeno’s diamond-and-portal ruse. They attempted to grab onto it and flew through the portal…and got nothing. Enraged, they splashed down into the water and unleashed a cone of acid at us.

And that was it. When I came to, the dragon had fled to the east, Harry had the shield in his hand, and Helli and Zeno were standing over me. My chest hurt, but it looked like we’d won. Several of us were already sizing up the loot and plotting exit plans. Apparently before Nightscale had fled, he’d said that the leaving via the west was only possible if you were a dragon.

A dragon.

A sudden chill passed over me as the last few seconds before I lost consciousness replayed themselves in my head: a black dragon’s fury, an unending cloud of acid, and a lizard who’d refused to leave my side.

I pulled down my hood, heart pounding. “Kheryph?”

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