IT GETS ME SO DOWN, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN: in which we explore a city with mines above and below the earth

There weren’t a lot of travelers around besides us on the road to Egonia, though whether that was because not many people went or because of the acrid smell in the air remained to be seen. This wasn’t the path I’d taken up from Csipherus, and, to my knowledge, was the longer route there by foot. Our goal, so much as I understood it, was to make use of the teleportation circle here to either get back to Paripas or to get to a city as close to Csipherus as possible to save on time. Since some people in the party hadn’t converted their writs from Paripas into gold before we left, I figured we were due for another trip north.

Awk went out to scavenge for things and returned empty-handed while Felegum and I made a coordinated attack on the moose meat. The end goal was something close to bacon, but I wasn’t sure if we got there. I’d hoped to practice my bacon cubes that Innard had showed me, but I guess moose fat is different from pig fat. Who knew.

The baneberries that I’d been saving for Kheryph were also pretty disappointing; I’d waited too long and they’d gotten all shriveled. Kheryph made a fair go at one, but despite his love for them he could not muscle one down. Seeing her own stash in a similar state, Helli upended her bag containing them on the road. Harry picked them up.

Felegum quietly broached the matter of money as we ate breakfast, saying that we would likely need more funds to get to Csipherus. Having gotten from Csipherus to Greenrest on basically nothing, I was unsure why, but then again I also wasn’t popping pearls into nothing on the regular to cast spells. Magic was pretty expensive.

Anyway, we packed up and walked the last five miles toward the city. The moose bacon, while good in theory, was proving to be not so great in practice as Harry and I were sweating profusely. Or rather, I was sweating and Harry was panting a lot.

As we approached, the giant boulders hanging in the air became more distinct. Pitons were punched into some to allow for easier climbing, ropes hung down from others, balloons floated in the sky, and something that looked similar to the ships we’d seen in Janwald inexplicably soared between giant rocks.

When we entered the city proper, it was oddly empty. There was a large hole in the ground, maybe fifty-feet in diameter, some buildings, and then various means of ascent to the massive boulders overhead. What we didn’t see were guards, guardposts, or watchtowers. Above, tiny shapes of dwarves climbed up and down ropes and over bridges between boulders.

“The less paperwork the better,” Zeno said, clearly pleased that this would not be a repeat of Paripas.

“We’re gawking!” Felegum pulled the group to one side as a few dwarves with wheelbarrows of raw materials like ore and metal barreled past. “Let’s find a tavern.”

Zeno immediately brightened and asked a passing dwarf who didn’t look too harried for directions and opinions on where the best taverns were in town. “You got beer here?”

The dwarf stopped and just laughed. After a little more back and forth, the dwarf was happy to expound on the virtues of Egonia’s drinking scene. “Best tavern,” he said. “Well, there are a few. Down the hole, there’s Old Smoky. Good beers, nice even temperature.”

I had no idea what that meant or why it even mattered, but Zeno seemed to nod like this was important.

“Up above,” the dwarf continued and then gave off some arcane string of directions which I, knowing the fickle nature of maps and city streets, instantly memorized, “there’s a bar called the Dwarves and the Aether. Cannot be beaten for sights. It was the first bar set up there and you’ve got to cross Shirley and Contagulous Bondigo to get there.”

We asked what those were, and it turned out that the boulders floating above the sky all had names. Felegum asked what the rocks were called, collectively, and the dwarf snorted and said that everyone just called them “them boulders” as though that was obvious. The dwarf narrowed his eyes at the mage. “What are you, a cripple?”

“Wow,” Felegum said from the wheelbarrow, “thanks for being sensitive about it.”

It was at this point that Zeno thanked the dwarf, who checked the mole (mammalian) attached to his arm for the time, realized he was needed elsewhere, and left. We decided that up was just too cool not to explore, and Zeno began his ascent up a ladder.

Unfortunately, his progress was halted when a dwarf at the top of the ladder yelled for everyone else on the ladder to get out of the way and began sliding down. Zeno abandoned ship not far off the ground, the dwarf slid down, thanked him, and moved about his business. The next ascent went somewhat better, and Felegum and I floated up on the broom after him.

Where the city entrance had been mostly void of activity, the boulder top was brimming with it. The boulder itself had been hewn across so that the top part where Zeno emerged was flat, and it was packed with dwarves. Awk, Harry, Helli, and Lankin also climbed the ladder after Zeno and were forced to confront the massive throngs of small bodies head on. I wasn’t used to seeing this many people all in one place, not even back home after everything started there. I got caught up in it and lost Zeno after he passed under an awning.

However, we were lucky because my keen sense of direction never led me astray. It took some time and experimentation, but eventually Felegum and I ended up on the next boulder over with the rest of the group outside the Dwarves and the Aether.

Felegum investigated and returned with unwelcome news. “Bars don’t open until the evening.”

“No!” Zeno cried, so close and yet so far from victory.

“Should we…go down?” Helli asked. She’d been curious about the huge hole in the earth and had been a little disappointed when we’d taken to the sky instead.

“Well,” I said, landing the broom, “we need a teleportation circle. Anyone have any idea where that would be?”

Thus began us asking a lot of passersby for help.

“Where can we get food?” asked Felegum to some dwarves cooking flatbread in huge stacks.

“Food?” One laughed. “You’re way too early.”

“What time of day is it?” Lankin asked another on the street.

“Day?” The dwarf responded, again as though this were a somewhat clear fact.

Many did not bother to reply, or just called us tourists, which Zeno and Felegum vehemently denied, but even their commanding presences did not seem enough to convince the short-tempered dwarves otherwise.

“Can’t even knead dough,” Felegum’s baker dwarf snarked at our departure.

“Set can knead dough,” piped Lankin.

It was true; I had been extensively trained.

The dwarf took one look at me and snorted. “Yeah,” they said, “with those lanky arms.”

I looked at my arms, tried not to dwell too much on the push-up incident of about a week ago, and swept balefully out of the establishment.

Or at least, that had been the intention before Awk started arguing or something with the dwarf bakers and got us kicked out. It was a lot more ignoble and a lot less cool than I’d planned my exit to be, and my mood continued to sour. The sooner we found this circle and got out of this place, the better.

Awk contemplated the results of his actions. “I’m not above bribery,” he said, on procuring food.

“You’re not above a lot,” Zeno replied, looking down at the gnomish form of Awk.

And so, not wanting to wait for hours atop the boulder, we elected to return to earth. No one, however, wanted to have to go through the massive throngs of dwarves telling them that they sucked and that they were taking up too much space, so the Set Delivery Service was back in action. I ferried everyone except Harry back to land for what felt like ages but was only half an hour.

“I’m exhausted,” I said, landing for what I hoped would be the final time for a while. When I got tired of flying, that was saying something.

This was the moment that Felegum asked me to fly him down the huge hole so we could explore downward. Needless to say, my initial reaction was not exactly positive but we descended anyway. We reached the lowest platform we could get to, spanning the hole and connecting tunnels into opposite sides of it, a relatively quiet place compared to the boulders above.

“What do we do?” Felegum asked.

“I don’t like this,” I said. “Let’s talk to people, otherwise we’ll just be waiting around until dark.”

Luckily, after a little waiting, two dwarves walked past us on the platform, chatting and carrying pickaxes. Felegum hailed them down and the group of them got to talking. These dwarves were much friendlier than the dwarves on the sky boulders. “Ozone up there,” one of the dwarves said when Felegum brought it up. “Does not work well with our demeanor. Makes us mean.”

“Good sir–“

“Excuse me,” the dwarf cut in, “but I am a lady. Can’t you tell by my luxurious beard?”

“I apologize, ma’am,” he changed tack. “People up there were short–“

I had no doubt that he meant to finish that with something like “short with us” or “short of temper” but there were a few tense moments when I was unsure how a misgendered, then insulted dwarf would react. Luckily, Felegum was suave enough to smooth things over and the dwarf herself gracious enough to accept out-of-towners making mistakes. She was kind enough to explain that the actual city of Egonia was not the outpost located on the surface and its floating boulders, but rather deeper in the caverns below.

She gave us a complex series of instructions which I flawlessly memorized, having been led astray by maps before and knowing dangers of city life. I asked her about the teleportation circle, but she didn’t know so much about magic to be able to direct us anywhere specific. She made an offhand comment about not needing the pickaxe if she could just tunnel through walls with magic, and she headed off to catch up to her friend after we thanked her.

After another broom ride up, Felegum and I relayed our information to the group about the city before. I, of course, reassured everyone that I had the right directions.

“Set,” Zeno said, “I have always wanted to get so lost with you that I have to eat my own leg. Let’s go.”

With that, Lankin slid down the rope into the abyss. And I, once again, was relegated to broom service. There was a little bit of shuffling around on the broom since the platform Felegum and I had reached before wasn’t accessible from the rope route, but we all ended up making it down whether through flight or skilled acrobatics.

We headed down the tunnel that the nice dwarf had pointed us toward, and after some walking the vista of the city revealed itself. Winking lights and carved pillars rose across a cavern in the distance, with gems of every color glowing on the directional column in front of us that pointed to the tunnels we needed to take to get there.

Unfortunately, even the kind dwarf lady’s directions were not enough to prevent the inevitable beguiling of the tunnels. I was staring at the same rock wall and wondering how and why this kept happening when I was following her instructions to the letter. Felegum, having been wheeled adjacent, sighed and said, “I am almost positive you are wrong.”

I, personally, felt like this was just one more hazard of travel, but Felegum insisted on asking for directions and we ended up actually getting there without having to camp along the way. As we crossed the city threshold, a chill passed through us. I thought it was just me not liking being underground for so long, but judging by the expressions of surprise on everyone else’s faces this was a universal thing.

And at that moment, as though that cold tingling had been the signal for something, the city switched to utter chaos.

Dwarves cheered and sprinted off to local eateries and establishments for dinner and ale, leaving their carts and packages in the middle of the street. Everyone was running around spilling beer on each other or running off to get more beer, and Zeno was clearly in heaven. He asked for directions to Old Smoky, which we were able to find after pushing past more dwarves, and it ended up being a cozy bar, kind of like a giant fireplace.

It was also completely packed, so Felegum (still injured and not game to try pushing through the throng of bodies inside) and I (not wanting to deal at all with that many bodies either) got a table outside. Some dwarves were a little upset that two dudes were taking an entire table, but Felegum just spread out his spell components and legs even more aggressively and the dwarves went away, muttering perhaps again about tourists.

Zeno returned with beers for all of us, and having only had meat and random roadside scavenge for so long, it was nice to have something different. We moved on to a second bar, this one with a diamond sign on it, and I pushed my way into some bench seating for us. A dwarf was standing on top of the table down the way, singing a song.

The owner of the place came by to take our orders, and the tonight’s offerings were inverse pie, pie, or stew. Most of us got inverse pie, and indeed when it came out it was pretty much the same thing as a pie pot, Zeno’s hometown’s national treasure. The diamond bar was crowded, but not as body-to-body packed as Old Smoky had been.

Zeno chatted a few people up, and his loquaciousness earned us the knowledge that the teleportation circle was in the dead center of the city (though the owner of the tavern had no idea who would be able to use it) and that indeed, as Felegum had heard before, that there had been some issues with delving deeper into the prometheum mines and outside help might be wanted.

Helli had explained to us as we’d walked through the cavern tunnels on the way to actual Egonia that the city mined two materials, prometheum (from the ground) and ether (from the sky), hence the split nature of operations here.

The tavernkeeper went on to describe how the prometheum mining had been impacted, saying that she’d heard rumors of creatures of pure flame, golems, magma, and even some devilry.

“Who should we talk to about it?” Felegum asked, leaning forward. “I hope it’s demons,” he said conspiratorially to us. “They’re less organized.”

The dwarf shrugged and suggested we head to the mining organization in the Heart of the Caverns to speak with the people who were actually having the problem. “I take it you’re looking for a place to pass out for the night, though?” she added hopefully.

“Can we pass out on the street?” Zeno smiled at her.

“Yes,” she replied, “but we have beds?”

“Is there a place,” Lankin cut in, inspired, “where the floor is beds?”

The dwarf looked fondly off into the distance. “Ah, the Serta Bar of legend. It had to close down because it was a fire hazard and also because drinks kept getting spilled on the mattresses, but it lives on in our hearts.”

“We need beds,” Zeno said, before she could wax too poetic.

Four beds were available and we took them.

“Um,” Helli said to the dwarf before she headed off to get our keys, “we came here because we admired your sign. We were wondering, what’s the name of this place?”

The dwarf straightened and looked rather proud. “This is the Glimmering Stalagmite.”

Helli was pleased with her decision to choose this place, we got our keys, and after Kheryph took one last stab at the root vegetables that came with the pie pots, we headed to sleep.

Waking up was weird.

Not just because we’d gotten to sleep a bit later and were tired, but because we were all woken up at the same time by that same wave of shivers that had passed over us when we’d entered the city. The rest of the dwarves and city residents seemed to stir to life as well at that point, and activity outside the Glimmering Stalagmite picked up to the pace it had been when we’d arrived yesterday.

Heading downstairs, we found that breakfast mainly consisted of leftovers from the night before, as well as some porridge and coffee. Today, Zeno was giving me crap about the tunnels to the city taking longer than expected, all because I’d reminded the group what good luck it had been that I was there to hear the directions.

“Hey,” I reminded him, “I’m one of the smartest people here.”

“Yeah,” he shot back, “you’re top six.”

I was definitely more than that, but sometimes intelligence is knowing when to walk away from a battle. Felegum asked about the Heart of the Caverns as Kheryph licked experimentally at my porridge. Helli was generous enough to cover our food and rooms for the night, and we headed off to see a foreman about a mine.

All the way down, the smell of sulfur and brimstone increased, permeating the air. Zeno, being perhaps our best negotiator, approached a likely-looking dwarf.

“What’s your deal, kid?” the dwarf asked. It was weird hearing someone call Zeno a kid, but I guess he looked young for an old guy.

“We heard you’re having some problems with some flamey dudes,” Zeno replied. And indeed, they were. Carts came back singed, rocks were brought up fiery, and occasionally miners returned with tales of fire coming to life and engulfing entire trains of materials.

“We’re good at taking care of monstrosities,” Felegum added, despite his broken leg.

The dwarf scratched his head. “Well, we don’t know if animated fire is a monstrosity.”

“It’s not not a monstrosity,” Zeno added, eyebrows raised. And to that, the dwarf had to agree. They went off and fetched the foreman of the shift, who was game to take us on to see if we could find out what was causing the problem as well as provide some compensation for our trouble.

I personally did not want to do this. Did flames coming to life and devils/demons sound like bad things that would be helpful if we removed them? Yes. Was that why we’d come to Egonia? No. We’d come here because this group was probably my best shot at saving my city, as reluctant as I was to try without some divine intervention. And now, despite this group telling me that I was the asshole for waiting so long to do something about Csipherus while people were suffering, here we were, taking a detour.

Felegum quietly said that we didn’t have very much money, teleportation circle-wise, and that there was probably weird magic afoot that might be interesting. Harry added that it would be a good opportunity to practice fighting and honing our skills.

I’d traveled from Csipherus to Greenrest on basically nothing, so I knew it could be done, circle or no. I didn’t feel ready to do this, and Harry’s promise of more combat practice was comforting.

I just wished it didn’t feel like I was running away from my problems again after I’d finally decided not to.

Lankin, ever practical, asked the foreman for more information about what was going on.

He expounded on the current problem: namely, that it was becoming impossible now to dig directly downward. The mines were now expanding laterally, which was still okay but not what anyone really liked doing because 1) it was harder and they weren’t used to mining that way and 2) the deeper you went, the more treasures you were likely to run into.

More negotiations ensued, which I kind of tuned out of because, you know, I was not exactly amped about the situation, and an agreement was reached: 100 gold each upfront, then 400 gold each if we returned with knowledge of what was causing the problems, and an additional 700 gold each if we stopped the problems and came back with proof (this was very important) that we’d done it. Zeno and the foreman, whose name was Balgene, shook on it.

The plan was to take a mine cart down as far as we could go, walk a bit, then take ladders down into the deep dark hole. When the rocks around us starting heating up, Balgene said, we’d know we were close. He invited us to take a look at the armory and said he’d also give us a discount there for supplies.

The armorer was a black-skinned female elf who seemed genuinely amused by us. “Well,” she said as she took us all in, “this is the first time that I’ve sold items to people who are non-dwarves.”

Her wares weren’t magical (we checked) but they did offer some resistance to the significant heat of the deeper caverns. On offer were heavy leather garments, helmets, gloves, a few things for forging, reinforced boots, goggles, and an air-purifying device like a mask.

Felegum went all in and, once the armorer had some time to adjust things for his thinner, taller size, he became a leather-clad sorcerer.

“I hope it’s demons,” he said again.

Perhaps this was too eager, because the armorer gave him this incredulous stare. “You are an idiot,” she said. “Why would you want that?”

Lankin and Zeno were able to get the moose meat out of the HFVNN and sell it to the elf, who was surprised and pleased to encounter such a thing (probably happy also not to be talking about demons anymore), and we made a little money on that. I got a leather apron thing, gloves, goggles, and a mask, and felt good about it. Then Awk copied me and I felt less good.

Then he asked for a high-five.

As I was seething, Harry made overtures to attempt to sell the manticore tail. The elf, while fascinated, did not know who she would sell it to and had to refuse. Lankin bought some leathers and struggled with attiring himself in them. “I don’t really know how pants work,” he admitted sheepishly after a few attempts.

Awk asked if there was valuable stuff down in the mines that the armorer might want and she shrugged, saying that there were plenty of valuables and that we’d be foolish not to take them. Felegum asked what prometheum looked like so we’d have an idea, and the elf just smiled. “I don’t want to ruin the surprise,” she said.

Fair enough, I had to admit. I’d be looking forward to see how that would turn out. Once all our leather and protective equipment had been sized and donned, we piled into the cart and headed into the mines.

“May the blessings of the stone be upon you,” the dwarf who’d piloted us down said before making their way back up.

And we were left in the dark.

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