SHE’S THE ONLY ONE WHO KNOWS WHAT IT IS TO BURN: in which Harry plays fast and loose with raisins and Helli unearths unwanted treasure

It was not until the miners had taken off and Lankin was happily bounding off toward a faraway light source down some mine cart tracks that I realized something extremely important: I was yet again taking a poor, defenseless lizard into a place where he might die.

The dwarves had warned us of the extreme heat, and after the elven woman at the armory made jokes about needing or wanting a canary, I’d figured poison in the air was a possibility. I’d even bought a mask to shield myself against it. And there I was, with Kheryph, who could fall prey to any number of things down here, not even counting the normal problems I had to worry about with him in battle.

Already the air was hotter down here, stiflingly so, and I felt very stupid.

I hung back as the rest of the group followed after Lankin. “Hey, Awk,” I said in a low voice, “are you still interested in making it up to me about that terrible hat earlier?”

“Oh.” He blinked, then thought about it as we walked on. “No. I just meant to apologize for talking about the deer. I thought that might be awkward.”

I did a double-take. “So you don’t want to apologize for the hat?”

Awk shrugged. “No, that was great.”

I will admit, I had not planned for this. I had, mistakenly I saw, thought that there might be some remorse in there. “Well,” I continued, “if you want to make it up to me, could you help keep my lizard alive down here and make sure he’s okay?”

This was, at least, amendable to Awk, and he cast that spell he and Lankin both have that lets them speak with animals to talk with Kheryph. I didn’t make out what they were saying, but Kheryph licked his eyes a lot. Awk said that Kheryph was sassy and recommended that I keep him in my mask, which was a struggle initially, but was able to be accomplished. Granted, his tail and head were hanging out and the mask was more of a lizard hammock than actual face guard, but I made it happen.

Lankin, Zeno and Harry had been oogling some charred bones in an alcove and Helli was inspecting a wall by another fork in the mine cart tracks. I glanced down at my cold-proof boots and vaguely wished that maybe we’d found something fire retardant.

Awk and I hung out with Helli, asked about her opinions on this mining operation, since gems were her area of specialty, and listened while she explained mines being built to follow veins of materials in the earth. We also found our own set of charred remains. The other group found that they did not enjoy the heat coming from the lava flow underneath the set of tracks they’d been pursuing and decided to meet back up with us instead.

Zeno took the lead, and we proceeded along the right fork of the tracks, hoping it would be a bit less hot and also maybe lead to some of the more valuable deposits. Either option seemed to have bones, so it stood to reason that whatever was killing dwarves down here was going to be around no matter which way we went.

“Guys,” Felegum hissed after us as the group walked on, led on by Zeno, “don’t you think we should be stealthy?”

We did not, apparently. Helli and I were quite content to let someone else handle any unfortunate traps for the time being, both of us having run afoul of enough to not be super keen to disarm them. Zeno found some more rubble and smaller bones, as well as the head of a pickaxe but no handle.

“Burnt away,” he murmured.

“I’m sensing that my wooden staff is about to have some trouble here,” Harry said, giving his ornately carved quarterstaff a once-over.

We found some more bones.

“What’s weird to me,” I said around Kheryph’s body in front of my mouth, “is that no one gathers these bones. They were so upset about their friends dying and yet, the bones are still here.”

“Maybe they’re a very practical society,” Harry offered.

I checked the bones over, using what I knew of animal bones used in fortune telling back home. These didn’t seem that old, much closer to the recent animal sacrifices augurs used to cast bones into the fires.

But I didn’t have long to dwell on how cool I was examining humanoid bones or how much I missed dumb home things like people caring about their fortunes and paying others to read the fires for them, when there was a scraping whooshing sound from down the tunnel.

It wasn’t fire or heat, just a massive cloud of dust and tiny grains of a harder sand. It stung when it hit skin and I was grateful that I’d bought all this extra stuff to take with me down here. I tried to poke Kheryph into getting back inside somewhere (surprise: he did not listen) and he beat a quick retreat into a donut shape inside the mask once the unpleasantness of the dust cloud made itself apparent.

Three or four minutes passed before the dust subsided. Everyone else was okay, just a bit sandier for wear. Lankin reluctantly pulled on the pants he’d purchased over his dusty legs. “These are so uncomfortable, guys,” he said in a miserable voice. “I don’t know how you can wear them all day.”

Felegum looked supremely unbothered from his leather-clad clothing cocoon.

“What are we even doing here?” Lankin whined, legs chafing as he walked.

“Not saving my city, for one thing,” I said, muffled by lizard and mask.

“Oh god,” Zeno said dramatically, “it’s on the to-do list, Set. We need to get some practice saving lesser civilizations first.”

“Lesser?” Felegum asked, arbiter of all that was civilied.

“Shorter,” Zeno replied. “Smaller.”

It’s not like we didn’t have the occasional dwarf, gnome, or halfling in Csipherus, but that seemed beyond the point. Felegum sent Dronie ahead and his familiar picked up on a gust of flame by the railing over the lava river. The group, very sweaty at this point, decided that lava was a no, so we headed south, away from it.

Lankin touched the walls as we passed and complained that they were a sticky. “The wall is different than the others,” he said.

Felegum took a closer look and his keen eye revealed something etching at the tough stones. “This is acid.”

“Oh no,” I said. I had signed up for fire and possibly dead stuff, definitely not acid. “My lizard melted in acid the last time, no thank you.”

I hadn’t expected to come up against this so soon and I was not prepared to handle it any better than I had the last time with Nightscale. Which was, in effect, not prepared at all.

Zeno explored a passage that lead closer to the lava but in a different direction. “It’s a little more messy over here.”

We agreed that maybe fire messy was less ideal, but did not have much time to move before another gust of that glass-laced wind rushed over us again. This time, we’d put on our leather armor to shield us beforehand, though it was still unpleasant to weather. The dwarves must have really wanted whatever was under here to deal with this crap all the time.

To pass the time, Harry told stories while we sheltered in place.

“Zeno,” he called, “ever hear the parable of the miner and the hunter?”

Zeno replied that he had not.

Harry spun the tale of two people, both going about their professions. The hunter offered the miner the following advice, “Whenever I follow tracks, what I see at the end is worth my time.” The miner took this to heart and then returned the next day, angry at the hunter. “I followed the tracks,” the miner said, “and all I got was hit by a cart.”

I was unsure of the deeper meaning. From the way Harry said it, that may have been the point.

Maybe we were just unsuited for the job we were carrying out. I’d have to think on it more.

The gnomes went ahead southward to check out another chamber that curled off the main path and seemed not to be as prone to wind storms as the tracks were. It would be nice to get some reprieve, or to at least know that we had a place to rest.

Awk, however, could not seem to resist the temptation of long, dark, empty tunnels for long.

“ECHO!” he yelled, and lo, indeed, it did echo.

“I think,” Harry said, “we’re trying to be quiet.”

Not to be outdone, Zeno bellowed out a resonant YOOHOO.

Somewhere, probably, Felegum was face-palming.

We did not have too long to dwell on this, though, because that’s when Helli cried out in surprise and we all ran down the tunnel toward her. Ahead of me, Felegum unleashed some magic missiles and the thwap of kelp (weirdly dissonant in this place) hit stone.

Something, maybe the same thing that had gotten Helli, wrapped around Felegum’s arm. Harry pulled the sorcerer out of its grip and grunted. “I need light!”

Zeno, already nearby, went in to do the same for Helli. However, trained in the arts and not in the same physical rigors as Harry, his maneuver was less successful. He tripped and fell, pulling Helli down with him. “You know,” he said amiably from the cave floor, “I’ve been in worse situations than this. I think you can solve it.”

Awk solved his problems with warlock energy blasts. Then something else dropped down on him from the ceiling, another dark and shadowy presence.

Felegum carefully sculpted a wave of water to slam down on the attackers and the resultant steam helped clear the air of particles to some degree– we could see a little better, though it was still pretty dark.

I heard Dronie punch something and then the little monodrone zipped on out of there and back into the hallway as something slimy and oozy seemed to fall apart.

Lankin dashed in, ready to save the day, and that’s when I finally got there. “Still want light?” I called out to Harry.

“Yes!” he said, frustrated.

I cast my light spell on his quaterstaff and many things became apparent.

Helli had her dagger out and had clearly been going to town as much as she could on what had popped out at her, a massive black slimey mess that seemed to be eating through everyone’s clothes. Lankin had both Helli and Zeno under his arms and had mostly pulled them from the oozes, though everyone had been splashed by the tendrils of the creatures snapping apart. There were three oozes total: two small ones by Harry and one big dude by Zeno and Helli and Lankin.

It was, pretty much, a huge melty mess and I wanted no part of getting close to that.

Harry, being also made of acid, moved in and attacked with his darts, now able to see where he was going a little better.

Zeno, perhaps realizing that a blissfully unaware Lankin was pulling them into the path of another ooze, smiled and said, “I can’t go easy on this anymore,” and played a dissonant and haunting tune on his pipes toward the larger ooze that had held him.

The weird gooey exterior of the oozes shone in the amber light from Harry’s staff and seemed almost to dance like magma.

Suddenly, the fire did not look so bad anymore.

Pleased with the suffering his music had inflicted on the ooze, Zeno clapped a hand on Helli and healing energy emitted from it. “You’re looking better already.”

“Aww, thanks, Zeno,” she said, “it’s burning less.”

Awk was not done. “For Moon Moon!” he yelled and an all-too-familiar (to me and Harry, at least) circle of moonlight opened above the giant ooze.

“It’s like a Vantablob,” Felegum observed.

The Vantablob was not a shapeshifter.

It was, however, still coming after Helli. She was able to dodge its attacks and Felegum unleashed more magic missiles in an attempt to kill it, but still the ooze persisted.

Seeing that she would have to solve this problem herself, Helli untangled herself and climbed the wall out of the line of direct fire with the ooze. She took out her own wand and sent off magic missiles toward the ooze herself. It looked hurt and yet stood still, even after Lankin shot it with his crossbow.

I crafted what I thought was a very clever illusion of Helli creeping back toward the ooze over the wall with her dagger out for revenge, but this also did nothing. Felegum helpfully reminded me that oozes do not have eyes, only ears (somehow). Without sound, my vengeful Helli was not catching its attention.

I really did not want to get close to that thing. It was melting people’s clothes and melting people. I had a lizard who had already had that experience.

Luckily, Harry was here to save the day. He punched one of the small oozes with a relentless series of blows, then splattered it into the wall behind it, where it dissolved into a mass of tadpole oozes wriggling away. Then he punched the other small one.

Zeno too was fed up. “You–” he whirled on the massive ooze– “you’re just the slop!”

Not even the meat from the Meat and the Slop. I winced. A harsh insult indeed. It was unclear whether this inspired condescension had any effect though.

Awk contented himself with blasting the second smaller ooze and his moonbeam continued to illuminate the non-shapeshifting big Vantablob. The last small ooze tried to envelop Harry and, in a battle of acid versus acid, could not. The Vantablob made for Lankin.

“Leave Britney alone!” Zeno called. This confused Lankin (whose name was not Britney) but also confused the Vantablob enough for its strike to miss Lankin entirely.

At this point, Felegum had had more than enough of this ooze madness and he cast his shattering spell on the remaining oozes, blowing them to little gross ooze bits. The Vantablob was blown back by the shatter spell into the moonbeam, where it died in lunar glory.

“Someone get a sample!” Zeno called. Harry obediently scooped ooze bits into a vial. A valiant effort was made to stopper the vial, but the ooze was still acidic enough, even though inert, that it was eating through the cork. Harry decided to leave it in the alcove so that we could come back for it on the way out as proof of the foes we’d slain.

Another rush of heat and glass breathed down the hallway behind us. We all groaned.

“Sorry,” Helli said, “it was just so shiny!”

“Is everyone okay?” Felegum asked.

Mostly we were, just hurt and tired. Awk took the opportunity to moonbeam the rest of the oozes off the walls so that no one got any ideas about resurfacing anytime soon. “So,” he said, “is that it? Are we done?”

Helli was looking very singed and in pain, and Lankin’s pants had burnt off in the acid. We needed somewhere to rest, and not somewhere that the glass wind kept coming through every now and again. Walking farther south yielded a cavern, one that looked large enough for us to rest in.

We were maybe ten minutes or so into settling in and binding up wounds and things when someone spotted two flaming piles of stone trundling up the hallway to investigate the light. The amber-colored light.

My light.

We ran back to the entrance, which to be fair is what Felegum had wanted us to do at the start, although no one appreciated him being all I-told-you-so about it. The others rested and I meditated briefly on why everything I tried to do today seemed to end in failure. We spent an uncomfortable hour binding wounds in relative peace. A fun discovery was that, while Helli’s boots had melted, her magic socks had not, so she was walking around this hot mine sock-footed.

Kheryph had had enough of being in my mask and crawled into my shirt. “Dude,” I said, “people stab me there, this is like the worst place for you.”

Attempts to evict him and place him somewhere safer were also met with failure.

Once the others felt okay again about moving, we headed back east, but took the path closer to the lava river this time, away from the fire creatures we’d seen before. At Felegum’s request, I cast light on Dronie so that he could see a little better as he scouted ahead.

“They didn’t warn us about the acid slimes,” Helli said as we waited for Felegum to report back what he’d heard via Dronie, “that’s not in our contract.”

“Do you have acid slimes, yes/no,” Zeno laughed.

Felegum nodded, ever thoughtful when it came to contracts. “I’m thinking about putting it in there.”

The report from Dronie was that to the north seemed to be some more rooms, empty so far but with some bedding and living quarters. This seemed amenable. Crossing the tracks over the lava would prove difficult, as Dronie had narrowly avoided a spurt of flame on his last crossing, but it could be done.

Lankin proved it by dashing across the tracks as fast as he could go.

In the meantime, I invoked the magic on my broom and ferried Felegum over while Harry dashed across. All seemed normal, at least as normal as flying over lava could be, until I noticed more flames than usual coming out of the lava.

I returned, got the gnomes on the broom, and began to fly across. Zeno, deciding that speed was better than elegance, raced over the tracks himself.

Midway over the lava, a creature of flame reached out and took a swipe at us. I didn’t think I could have avoided that one– I wasn’t exactly expecting to get flamed. But then a second rose from the lava before us and I had to do something, fast.

I fished out a piece of fleece from my spell components and, piloting the broom as I cast, created a second image of me, Awk, and Helli on the broom. The real us juked left and the illusion juked right, and the flame monster swept at the righthand one, allowing us to zip past onto the ledge with the others.

Made of fire, the flame dudes did not seem keen to leave the lava. We were not keen to venture into the lava to destroy them either.

“Hey Awk,” Harry said, watching them wackily wave down in the molten rock, “any weird spell driving these things?”

Awk took a look at it. “The lava’s a little magic, but the monsters aren’t.”

It didn’t look like it had always been lava down there either. I voiced my theory that we probably didn’t have to fight the monsters in the lava as much as find whatever the source of the lava was and turn that off.

Because nothing was easy, the sand blasts on this side of the lava were worse and the journey to the living quarters that Felegum had been keen to inspect was more unpleasant than last time.

Eventually, we came to a larger room with three large metal forges full of–you guessed it– molten lava.

The tracks ended here and there was a pool of something next to the forges as well. We’d been trying for a while to figure out the elf armorer’s riddle about what exactly prometheum was– “you’d know it when you saw it” and “I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise” were vague enough descriptors that made us more inclined to explore and throw out random hypotheses.

Someone had wondered if the oozes and Vantablob from before were prometheum, which would certainly be surprising if true.

Harry stepped up to the edge of the still, silvery pool and threw some shriveled up baneberry raisins into it.

A Vantablob eerily similar to the ones that had just wrecked most of us oozed up to the surface.

In the surprise and many people yelling “NOOO”, we ran a variety of directions. Most of us ran south, back to the tracks and at least the knowledge that we could just run over the magma again to get some distance. Felegum, however, ran farther north.

“Oh no,” he yelled, “I’m on the wrong side!”

Another Vanta-ooze slid down the wall by Harry.

“Oh,” came Felegum’s voice, “I am interested in these skulls.”

A tiny ember floated through the air toward him from the interesting skulls.

Then there was a loud explosion, illuminating Felegum, Harry, the oozes, skulls, and some wolves that looked suspiciously like they too were on fire. But deliberately.

“I have made a terrible mistake,” Lankin said, voicing what I had felt this entire day.

“I think the paths reconnect!” the sorcerer called out to us in the hall, separated from him by ooze and char, his hands already weaving a familiar, watery spell into being.

I had a lizard in prime stabbing territory, not a lot to help at a distance, and everything that hated us here was either made of acid or on fire. Our fragile magician was by himself with who knew how many enemies and our monk kept unleashing oozes by the dozen. This was a mess.

And we were only getting started.

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