SO PARDON ME WHILE I BURN AND RISE ABOVE THE FLAMES: in which many things are on fire that shouldn’t be

You might think that our first encounters in this cave would’ve given us perspective on not rushing into battle or provoking anything dangerous, but you’d be wrong.

Felegum, somewhere, was backlit by something canid and on fire in the distance, Harry had caused more oozes to emerge, and the rest of us were grappling with how we were going to approach this situation, given the aforementioned Vantablobs between us.

Helli, being quick-thinking as well as quick on her feet, took off down a hallway to the left. “Gotta make a path for Felegum!” she whispered, creeping down the corridor. Somewhere in the room ahead, Harry’s scaled feet swept over the sooty floor in a defensive maneuver. This was solid, I’d thought. We were taking advantage of any possibility of surprise we still possessed.

And then Zeno made an entrance.

He walked boldly toward the slimes, bagpipes rumbling through the cramped hallways and forge areas as he cast his spell on them, making them look weaker and less capable. Then he clapped Lankin on the shoulder and said, “Go get ’em, boy!”

Lankin was so motivated by Zeno’s speech or by the fire wolves themselves that he called out, “I want one!” though it was unclear whether he meant that he wanted to fell one in battle or acquire one as a pet. Probably the latter, if I knew Lankin.

Awk being Awk, the moonbeam was out again on the slimes, revealing their true forms (still slimes). In the distance, Felegum spoke a spell into being with the pronouncement “oh shittius!” and moments later ran down a corridor into view of me and Helli. “Hey Helli!” he said. “I didn’t see anything else but the dogs!”

Then he kept running.

I squinted into the darkness ahead of us beyond the forge area, just enough to make out a small spark arcing toward me, Zeno, Awk, and Lankin from what looked to be a floating skull.

I had just enough time to meditate on how skulls never ever meant anything good for me when fire charged the air around us and all my mental faculties were focused on finding gaps between the two blasts. It was dicey there for a few moments, but we made it out okay, Kheryph still plastered to my chest. Zeno and Awk, though, were not so lucky.

Both fell in a crumple of limbs in the corridor.

Lankin, charred but for the most part okay, threw his dagger at the skull who had flamed us in a bout of rage. One enemy addressed, he unsheathed his axe and went ham on one of the oozes until it was gone. Some of the acid from the ooze had etched into the blade, hissing and cutting marks into the metal.

I swore, because honestly I had no intention of getting too close to those things with my lizard on me. But we were two people down and unfortunately they were both the people with healing spells. I slapped Zeno on the shoulder as I rushed past him to hide in the shadows along a wall. “Get up, old man!”

Zeno stirred, looking around in confusion. “Thanks….someone?”

At least the remaining ooze continued to burn under the moonbeam. Lankin winced. “I don’t want to watch this,” he said, but the ooze retreated back toward the forge, or just trying to get out away from the beam.

Meanwhile back in the corridor, Helli and Felegum were discussing options.

“Felegum, what’s down that corridor?” She pointed in the direction he’d sped back from.

“Bunch of wolves!” He shook his head. “Two huge fireballs!”

Helli nodded. “Okay, so no good options.”

She came back along the wall, whispering “stabra cadabra” to her dagger though it didn’t make the dagger do anything because she’d already done that earlier today. “It just makes me feel better,” she explained.

Then, just to add onto the list of things that were out of our control, a pitch black sphere appeared in the center of the forge. At first it was just a weird thing, but the more you looked at it, it was like you couldn’t look away. What’s more, it drew you into it, like you saw deeper into it as though you were looking through a window. Fields of coal spread out for miles under a burning sky with leathery winged creatures dotting the horizon. It looked like there was something more there, but the sphere continued to descend out of sight.

We shook it off and Helli pulled out her wand of magic missiles, ready to go. Harry was thoroughly done with the skulls and demonstrated this feeling by punching a skull and launching it fifteen feet to the left. Then he expressed his frustration with the wolf by stunning it and then kicking it into the lava where the sphere had been before.

Moving faster than normal, no doubt the handiwork of Felegum, Harry the sped out of the ooze’s reach, got hit, saw us, took in the situation, and then doubled back to back Lankin up in a defensive posture.

The hot dogs charged– surprisingly– not toward us but at the ooze, incinerating it with their flaming breath and sharp, hot teeth. The whole hot teeth thing we didn’t know until Harry got bitten by one and his arm started steaming.

Zeno scoffed at the unconscious form of the other gnome. “Awk, quit dicking around,” he spoke with his healing power.

And that, ladies, gentlemen, and other esteemed persons, was why I chose to heal Zeno. Because, while he might give you grief about it on the way, he will actually use healing spells.

Then he turned to the the skull. “And you! Quit dicking around!”

The skull looked mildly hurt.

“Come on, guys,” he called, “get out there! I’ll keep you alive.”

Back on his feet, Awk called forth a tangled patch of roots and vines around the hot dogs. I forget who said that, but whoever did was very clever and I liked it immensely.

Felegum, inspired perhaps by Zeno’s words, moved in and unleashed another tidal wave of water on the hot dogs. The skull Zeno had taken umbrage at shattered against a wall, while the other continued to float above the lava in the forge. It trained two beams of fiery energy toward Lankin, who managed to dodge the first. As for the second–

“Hey!” Zeno called. “Keep those lasers off Lankin!”

It was just enough to distract the skull from hitting him. The skull did not seem amused, although that was a tough emotion to read on a skull, especially at a distance.

Lankin, backing up Harry in a dynamic duo of fearless fire-fighters, attacked the dog closest to the dragonborn. Unfortunately, he slipped, maybe on the ooze or the acid or in the sweaty heat, and Shatterspike got lodged in the table as the elf tumbled expertly through the dogs. He took out a dagger, stabbed a different dog, and was sad.

“I really wanted one,” he said, glumly.

Thinking of my own animal ward, I glanced down at my chest to find Kheryph still brazening it out under my leather armor. “Buddy!” I hissed. “You’re not even hidden. This is ridiculous.”

I tsked. I couldn’t persuade my lizard to get back in a more sensible place and I certainly wasn’t about to have him melted. So, I did the next best thing: made myself harder to hit by summoning three mirror copies of myself and hiding along a wall to get an idea of the action ahead.

Then the strange sphere was back and it captivated us for a moment, visions of a devilish or demonic head breathing fire before it vanished once again.

Helli walked past me, wand in hand, and I flashed her what must have been eight thumbs up from the shadows as she summoned a bunch of magic missiles to smack into a hot dog. Harry also smacked the same hot dog with his quarterstaff, except this time it caught on fire and he tried to hitting faster in an attempt to quell the flames. Admirable and efficient, I thought, though maybe not effective. Harry must have realized this too, kicking another dog, then moving unbelievably fast, punched the next, and made an attempt to throw the corpse into the lava pit.

Unfortunately, the dog had been caught in Awk’s vines and was held too tightly to be able to be thrown. Harry was able to punch its head right off and into the lava, though, which must have counted for something.

He then tried to wrest Shatterspike from the table, but the sword was wedged too deeply for him to get it out. “Everyone okay?” he asked, sawing deeper in the wood.

“Yeah!” Zeno called. “Totally fine.”

I, having been the one to revive him after too close a brush with fire, shook my head, nonetheless impressed by his ability to brush over things he did not want to discuss.

“I’m going to try to get Lankin out!” Harry called and then ran back to the grassy snare area.

Zeno played a disconcerting tune on his bagpipes and the skull floating over the vat of fire trembled and fell in, burning out of sight. One hot dog breathed flame on Harry and Lankin before swan-diving into the pit of fire, followed by the remaining one.

“No!” Lankin cried, still slightly crispy. “I wanted a pet!”

Part of me wanted to tell him that pet ownership was honestly not all that it was cracked up to be, especially when you tended toward the melee side of things, but Lankin just seemed so desolate about it that I couldn’t.

Awk moved into the forge room, dismissed the entangling plants that had so enveloped Lankin, and got some weird warlocky energy ready just in case anything fresh popped out at us.

“How’s it going, guys?” Felegum asked, moving into the larger forge room again. “Where are the enemies?”

He too prepared a spell, getting the same vibe that Awk was that something was likely lurking in the wings waiting for us.

And lo and behold, they were right. Emerging from the pit, a skull floating out above the vat with an energy shield of some kind around it. Felegum’s magic missiles plonked into the shield and fizzled, while Awk’s blasts made it through. I was pondering how on earth I was going to go about fighting something that was floating over a lava vat when a familiar ember floated out toward Helli, Awk, Felegum, and me.

Felegum could not move out of the way fast enough and went down, dropping the sorcery he’d worked on himself and Harry. The monk looked exhausted. Helli and I did also not appreciate this, but we were at least a little lighter on our feet and able to dodge more. Lankin threw another dagger at the skull but it clanked off the forge’s walls.

I weighed my options. I was not particularly good at a distance and I did not possess Lankin’s willingness to throw my daggers at things, let alone Helli’s skill at it.

So I took out my rose petals and cast my sleep spell at the skull.

When I finished the enchantment, it floated more slowly, in a gentler arc back and forth than before. Success. Now, we just had to finish it off in one blow or escape. I dragged Felegum’s body out of the room and back into the hall, since pretty much everything here was on fire.

Helli too tried to drag Awk forward out of the flames, but both of them being gnome-sized and Awk not being unconscious, it was harder. She unleashed a few more magic missiles at the skull, but unfortunately its shield was still holding strong.

Harry continued to gasp and catch his breath after the astonishingly fast moves he’d pulled earlier.

“Helli, best of luck!” Zeno called encouragingly from the corridor next to me. He then turned to the skull. “Hey! You don’t even have any hands!”

It woke up, frothed in fury.

“Worth it!” Zeno said as me and my three illusory selves held up the unconscious body of Felegum, just waiting for a heal.

Luckily, Awk’s frostbite spell on the skull was enough to make it a thing of the past. As it fell, the same black sphere re-emerged from the lava, this time showing an image of a palace of bronze with flaming turrets and a triad of stone peaks with winged creatures in the distance.

This was something Felegum would no doubt have been fascinated by if he wasn’t unconscious. Ahead of us in the room, Helli steadied herself, as though she was resisting some urge to move toward the furnace. Helli, Harry, and Awk were buffeted by hot air as the flames almost seemed to shift into images of that strange city.

Harry grabbed a hot dog corpse for proof, and Zeno realized that Felegum needed help. “Felegum, there’s some stuff happening! Get up, get up, get up!”

Helli kept looking back toward where the orb had appeared as though it has reminded her of something, and Lankin vented his feelings. “Felegum, this is some weird shit.”

“What?” the sorcerer said, looking up. “Are there any enemies left?”

“Uh,” Zeno said, “no.” His eyes then alighted on Shatterspike and he sighed. “Lankin, you have got to take better care of this sword.”

“I’m sorry,” the hulking elf said, eyes downcast.

“Come on, man.”

Between the two of them, Lankin and Harry were able to pry the sword free while Awk concentrated hard on the orb, like he was trying to memorize it or something. Felegum, at last able to see the orb since he’d either been outside the room or unconscious when it was appearing, puzzled things out to himself. “I think it’s another plane.”

Helli nodded. “That’s what I thought, I think it’s the City of Brass.”

I shrugged, the title meaning nothing but sounding very metal.

“We should report to the dwarves about the other plane,” Felegum said.

“What do we have for proof?” Lankin surveyed our kills. “Can we bring it with us?”

“Well, we’ve got a dog and we’ll pick up the slime on the way out,” Harry said, hauling the dog carcass with him.

As this was going on, the orb continued to flash in and out with periodic bursts of heat. It brought enough light to the area to illuminate a pile of broken bones toward the back of the forge.

Zeno’s eyes widened hungrily. “I would like to take time to put a zombie together.”

At this, I had to put a foot down. “Zeno, we are not here for arts and crafts.” I gestured to the popping lava forge behind me. “This place is literally on fire.”

With that, the sphere appeared again and a much hotter wave of energy rippled out from it, burning our skin. It was enough to instantly knock Awk and Lankin out. Helli examined the forge before grabbing Awk’s unconscious body with Harry and getting him back out to the hall with the rest of us. Zeno’s talents brought Lankin back to some modicum of health and he waffled about healing Awk until he realized that we’d have to deal with the logistics of carrying his body across the river otherwise.

Activity on the river of lava and flame had picked up as well– there had always been wacky waving tall fire dudes walking over the molten rock, but their number had increased. Awk became a giant spider and patrolled near the front with Felegum. He’d decided to walk on the ceiling directly above Felegum’s head, which would have upset me but the sorcerer did not seem too perturbed by.

Gouts of flame periodically spurted out from the river. Harry and Felegum made their best guesses at the timing of the flames, but it seemed pretty patternless to both of them. So, I got the broom out and Felegum began to cast his floating disk spell. The tracks over this section did not look very easy to run over, and while our use of magic seemed to attract the creatures, it also didn’t seem like we could get everyone across without it.

Dronie was noticeably absent.

“I’ve made a terrible mistake,” Lankin said. Maybe he still blamed himself for suggesting we travel the northern paths. We all had wanted to go up here rather than continue down and face the other flaming rock entities, though, so maybe he was just sad about not attempting to make peace with the dogs before.

Felegum finished casting the disk and it spread out into existence and hovered some feet back from him. “Wait and see if those things calm down,” he said.

Well, we waited, and it did not seem to be the case. Zeno made the sounds of crying babies emanate from one of the corners of the cavern (via magic, though I’m sure his bardic talents would have allowed him to do it without as well), and Harry, the first part of our plan, ran and leapt across the gap unscathed.

The original idea had been that I’d pilot the broom with Felegum riding on it (since he was still kind of injured with his leg) and then the disk would float behind him with five hundred pounds of whoever needed transport. We’d take Helli and Lankin on the disk for sure, and Zeno had said that he’d find his own way across. Awk, as a spider, could go on the disk but he elected to find another path.

So, we began the crossing.

I dodged to the right to avoid some of the flame dudes attacking us right out of the gate, but Felegum and I still had to pass through their hot bodies, which was less than pleasant. Behind us, Helli flattened herself onto the disk and Zeno droned low on his bagpipes, curling as he had done once before into a cocoon shape, this time emerging into a giant owl and flying toward the ceiling, out of reach of the flame dudes.

Before us, another flame dude emerged, no doubt drawn by Felegum and my magic. Seeing this, Felegum cast his Shattering spell on the stalactites above us so they rained down on him. Above us, a giant spider leapt over all our heads, tucking and rolling over itself safely on the other side of the fiery river. I hated to admit it, but he did make it look very cool.

Lankin once again looked angry enough either to punch something, grab something, or complete some athletic feat, so I decided we’d see if the trick I pulled last time worked again. I seized a piece of fleece, whipped out the motions of the spell, and a duplicate version of me and Felegum flew back off toward the other ledge and the real us pulled ahead.

I feel like I should mention that Felegum at this point was telling me to just “fly around these things” and to “go to the other ledge, over there” but that felt like cowardice and also I’d fooled them once, so how hard would it be to fool them again?

Unfortunately, luck was not with me. While my illusion was enough to distract attackers away from Helli and Lankin, it was not enough to fool the flame dude in our path. It caught the end of my broom, which, to my great amazement and horror, began to burn.

I’d thought magical items were indestructible.

My attempts to put it out with mundane things like slapping it and blowing on it proved unsuccessful, only increasing my panic, but luckily, Felegum was kind enough to control the flames magically and douse them. Some of the broom straw looked a little singed, but it was okay.

Harry was, thankfully, also able to collect his slime sample without incident from where he’d left it down the tracks.

“I don’t think we’re equipped for interplanar energy just yet,” Helli said, sliding down to the ground.

“Extraplanar?” I repeated. “Oh no. No way.”

This felt like way too much for us to handle. There was some brief discussion of how it had been interesting that the hot dogs had fought the slimes– our opponents definitely hadn’t been all on the same side. Harry or Helli posited that maybe the prometheum wasn’t the slimes themselves, but possibly was what the slimes had been eating or something that they were drawn to. It didn’t answer the question of why there was this portal to the City of Brass hanging out in an Egonian mine, but at least we knew more than we did before.

Zeno asked Awk what extraplanar insights he had to offer.

“My patron isn’t responding,” the gnome said, somewhat defensively. “It’s more of a one-sided relationship.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I know the feeling.”

Or at least, I’d known the feeling.

Kheryph made it through just fine– I was genuinely worried that he might have been hurt in the exit, but the flame dude had struck the end of the broom instead of the part where we were, so he was unhurt.

As we walked back up through the mine shafts to the city proper, we pondered our next steps. We had more knowledge of what was happening down here, but we weren’t sure whether we were the ones stay and fix it.

“No evidence of gems,” Helli said, clearly not into it.

“I know we’re trying not to run away from things,” I added, “but I’d be happy to run away from this.”

“Maybe they tried to connect to the elemental plane through their forges, maybe to heat them or something,” Harry wondered aloud. “That’d be an effective way to keep them hot. Maybe that’s where their missing mage scarpered off to.”

We’d found it intriguing that Egonia had a teleportation circle and no magician capable of operating it– or at least, none that anyone knew about. It wouldn’t be surprising if they’d sent one down here to try to sort out the monster problem, but we didn’t know that for sure.

“Other planes?” Awk winced. “Probably out of our depth right now.”

I was glad no one had gotten compelled or sucked through the orb or whatever. Did it warrant another look? Sure. Were we the right people to do that? That was what I was less convinced of, worthy though it may be to help the dwarves ensure that no more of their friends and family went missing.

“But,” Harry mused as we ascended through the darkness, “then why did those dogs attack the slimes?”

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