“The critical thing,” Felegum said as we began the long walk back up the mine tracks, “is who created that portal.”
“I’m with you on that,” said Zeno.
The trek was long and winding, and honestly pretty tedious. It had taken a while to get down here, and now that we lacked a cart, we expected that it would take a while to get back. We were making steady but boring progress until the ground started shaking and stones began to fall.
“Get off the tracks!” Felegum yelled. We did, probably remembering Harry’s parable from a while ago about miners and trackers.
We waited, but the rumbling didn’t stop. It actually got worse, causing sections of tunnel to begin to collapse ahead of us. We made a run for it.
Harry and Lankin, the most athletic of the group, easily pulled ahead, joined somehow by Zeno, who appeared to have no problem with physical activity as long as it preserved his life.
The rest of us, me, Felegum, Helli, and Awk, fell behind. The ground shook, and a massive boulder fell from the ceiling, blocking the tunnel completely and separating us into two groups.
“Don’t worry, guys! We’ll get you out of here.” Zeno’s voice came muffled through the rock. “Uh, Harry?”
There was a sigh and the sound of moving rocks as the dragonborn set about his task.
I tried to send a message to Zeno that we were indeed okay and that we’d try to dig too, but nothing happened. I looked accusingly at the copper wire which had failed me. This has never happened before, except when someone was too far away from me. Maybe my wire was broken?
Awk transformed into a giant badger and went to town on the rubble ahead of us as Felegum did the same thing, just with a spell to move the earth. Helli chucked rocks that had been unearthed out of the workspace and down the tunnel, and I kept watch. We’d left in a hurry, and while nothing had come after us when we’d taken some time to breathe, there was no guarantee that that was going to happen again.
Progress was mostly steady, except for when we heard an “Ah!” from Harry and Lankin. This did not seem promising. Then the rocks shifted and things really did not seem promising as a cloud of gross-ass dust poofed out and we all choked on it for a bit. Helli and Felegum got the worst of it, being at that moment closest to the rock slide, but even Awk and I joined them in coughing before I walked away down the corridor to get some distance and keep a better lookout from behind us.
Somewhere in the distance was something bright that hadn’t been there last time.
Instantly, my self-preservation kicked in. “Uh guys, we gotta go,” I said, jogging back into the dust. “There’s a bright light coming our way.”
It hadn’t seemed like any of the hot dogs or fire monsters were following us, so maybe it was just rising lava levels. Like that sounded much better.
I gave Helli my waterskin to drink out of and hopefully clear the dust from her throat, but I guess she drank too much of it too fast because she coughed it all back up, with blood for good measure. I didn’t need to have lived seventeen years at an apothecary to know that was worrying.
Awk and Felegum returned to the dig, Helli to her rock clearing, and I to the watch. I was so fixed on monitoring that bright spot for any sign of change that I failed to avoid a rock that a still-woozy Helli hefted my way by accident, but even with this godly level of focus I couldn’t tell if the light was getting closer or farther.
I guess some progress must have been made because Awk got stabbed by Zeno or something? I don’t know, I just heard Felegum yell out something like “no, that’s Awk” and then Zeno being mildly unrepentant about it. I was more concerned about the light, so I crept about a hundred feet back down the tunnel toward it, trying to remain out of sight but also get a better idea of what, you know, was coming after us.
And you know, while the air was easier to breathe away from the site of the cave-in, I still couldn’t figure it out. It seemed really far. Also, it was just nice to breathe fresh(er) air for a while. It did feel hotter, though, and that I did not like. Whatever was coming, it was almost very much on fire and probably powerful if it was making me sweat from this far away.
I was debating getting closer– because hell, I wanted to know– but then another rumble shook the cave. Not wanting to be separated and the closest to whatever fiery mess was pursuing us, I sprinted back to the others, who were working on widening the hole to the other side. It was not very large, but the gnomes could at least make it through.
A few more rocks dropped from the ceiling and Helli coughed, having trouble breathing. Felegum picked her up and passed her under the rock to the other side. “Anyone have heals left?”
“Yeah,” Zeno said. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s got dust.”
The bard scoffed. “Then give her water?”
“We did,” I cut in. “She coughed it back up. With blood.”
Lankin and Zeno received Helli on the other side, and presumably Zeno healed her because then she coughed again and he said “ew” to something, but she sounded much better.
Awk and Felegum passed through the gap in the rocks, and as I was about to start shimmying through it on my back (Kheryph still refused to leave my chest and it wasn’t like I could crush him against the rock) when I glanced back down the corridor one last time.
The light was flickering. Like a fireplace. Or like something walking.
I had to peace. So, remembering fondly those halcyon days of my youth spent watching snakes my parents had to study and collect antivenins, I imitated a serpent and wiggled under the rock. Comfortable, it was not. But it got me and the lizard through.
I communicated the flickering light and my extreme misgivings about it to the others and we took off at a jog down the hallway. We kept running and honestly, it was exhausting. Somehow Zeno and Harry kept it up, though? Harry, I could expect– he was the kind of person who would wake up early just to run laps and do pushups: I’d witnessed that on more than one occasion. But Zeno? Who never did work? Mind-boggling. It was like he’d saved up all his athleticism just for this moment.
And then, after we’d all slowed down to a walk, he played the pennywhistle.
In an enclosed space.
It would have been infuriating, except he was doing it stupidly well and did not cause another cave-in. The cave rumbling continued, but it was much weaker than the first two instances.
At last, after almost another hour of walking, we heard voices and saw light. Actual light, not terrible flickery mine light. This light came from these cool mine globes, and it illuminated a glistening copper vein in the cave walls the dwarves were working on.
“Oh hello, dwarves,” Felegum called out their way. “Do you know what prometheum looks like?”
“The hell?” One turned around and examined us. Burnt, sweaty, with a slight twinge of blood at the side of Helli’s lip, some of us missing clothes due to slimes. “No one comes from deeper in the mines.”
There was a brief bout of explaining, in which Felegum made a valiant attempt to justify our presence via invoking the foreman, whose name we did not know. “We’re here to clear up a…” He thought about it. “A mess.”
“Ain’t no mess down there,” the dwarf replied, setting down his tools and fixing us with scrutiny. “Only death.”
Harry shrugged. “Oh, we know.”
“It sort of–” the dwarf made some sort of ambiguous hand gesture down the hallway– “flares up every once in a while. But it never makes it out this far.”
I certainly hoped that proved to be true. I didn’t feel exactly great about leaving these two miners down here if something was coming out, but it did seem like this was an acknowledged safe zone.
What followed after this was small debacle in which Felegum revealed that we had had some difficulty with the cave collapsing after us and the dwarves being very upset that we did not clean the mess off the tracks and reinforce it, despite not being miners or having any idea how to do that ourselves.
“Is it your first time underground, boy?” One of them peevishly got up in Felegum’s face.
“Yes?” he said.
“And you didn’t–“
Zeno stepped in. “I’ll hire you to clean it out.”
He gave the dwarf one gold. The dwarf beheld Zeno’s fashionable attire and the ease with which he parted from the gold piece. “Sweeten the deal.”
Zeno held out two more gold, analyzing the response. Meanwhile, Felegum lost patience and handed the dwarf four gold. “Here,” he said.
The dwarf took the gold, pocketed it, and smiled. “I’ll make sure that cave-in never happened.”
While it was nice to know that the cave-in would be fixed, I hoped that we hadn’t sent this dwarf to his death. There was a reason, no doubt, why they weren’t supposed to go farther than this chamber, even for many more gold extra. It felt a bit gross. If whatever was down there was a monster, the rocks would hopefully slow it before they melted. And if it was lava, then maybe the rocks would melt away eventually anyway. I don’t know; I’m not a rock expert.
Zeno, having established rapport through currency, decided to try his luck on prometheum.
This time, the dwarf waxed poetic. “It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen,” he gushed. “We have to use special acids to get it out of the rock, but it’s worth it.”
“Like this acid?” Harry held up the vial of one of the slimes we’d gone through that had melted at least half of us.
“Where’d you get that?” the dwarf asked darkly.
“An unfortunate interaction with your acid of choice,” the acid dragonborn replied.
“Didn’t harm it, did you?”
This seemed like an unfair question, given that we were clearly scathed and also the acid was in jar, but Harry gave our boilerplate answer in situations like this: “It attacked us.”
The dwarf was exasperated. “You–you gotta know how to herd them, focus them on the wall.” He sighed. “It’s an artform.”
“Don’t worry, those things are running rampant down there,” Felegum said.
“Well,” the dwarf said, “don’t mention that to the foreman.”
Perhaps our best tip yet.
Harry asked about heat sources, and another slightly incredulous conversation followed where the dwarf was gobsmacked with how little any of us knew about mining, either in general or Egonian practices thereof.
Harry, though, had had enough. “You already consider us idiots asking about forging. So, how do you forge?”
“We like to use a little more efficient things than fire,” the dwarf said, after a pause. He didn’t know terribly much about what powered the forges himself, though he mentioned aesther. I was unclear on whether that was the same as the ether they mined from the sky or something different, and as we were being sent off with another barrage of insults as we headed up the tracks, I was not inclined to ask.
“At least we know not to mention the slimes,” Felegum said optimistically.
It took another two hours or so until we came to more populated areas of the mines, and another hour after that until we saw mine carts going by with more regularity. We ended up catching a ride on a pretty cool one, powered by this sick lightning bolt on the wheels and driven by a dwarf who sat upfront with the controls.
Helli had miraculously acquired bread and meats and she shared them with me as we rode up, snacking and chatting.
“I think the slimes are attracted to metal,” Lankin said.
Harry nodded. “They use it as a food source?”
“They didn’t seem very friendly.”
At first I wasn’t sure if Lankin meant the slimes or the dwarves, but then Harry clarified.
“I think they’re more friendly when they’ve been drinking,” the monk contemplated the cave walls as we sped past.
“We’re going to get insulted again,” muttered Felegum.
Harry shrugged again. “Water off our backs. I didn’t care.”
There was a pause.
“I cared a little bit,” Felegum admitted.
Friendliness aside, we also faced an important decision point in how far we wanted to pursue this job.
“I’m okay with leaving,” Helli said, gesturing with the bread. “I feel really unprepared.”
“I agree with Helli,” I said. “I know I struggle with running away, but I’d be okay running away from this.”
Zeno, Harry, and Felegum seemed keen to pursue the mines more, with Zeno insisting that it would be good practice for Csipherus. Privately, I did not think this would make good practice if a) we died or b) Csipherus went extinct in the time it took us to get there, but, given that I had no leads except for “conduit experts” to bring home, I didn’t exactly have much choice. Letitia and Milto hadn’t seemed to know much practical operation stuff beyond legends, I had zip going for panaceas, and it wasn’t like I could recruit Durnen or another Red-Eye for an assist.
All the same, it was still embarrassing when Felegum argued for like five minutes with the dwarf driver dude when he stopped the cart about driving us into the city proper when, like, we had to walk fifty feet or whatever and we were there.
I don’t actually think he’s bad or anything; in retrospect, he was probably sad because Dronie got nuked again, but still. I experienced a moment of deep shame for my elders and walked on.
Once again, Egonia was in Party Mode. I wasn’t sure if there were more modes besides Party and Work, but Party meant food, so I was all for this one. We found an inn with a sign that had a spiked beast all curled up on it and a number of dwarves having what they called “a quiet drink” but was in actuality a subdued fistfight and wrestling match.
Luckily, through Lankin’s superior investigative talents, we were able to procure rooms at the sleepy snake inn and spent some time unwinding with ale. Helli liked it so much that she asked if they sold it bottled or by the barrel, and she was able to acquire a modest keg. Awk, on the other end of the gnome spectrum, got so drunk he peed on the side of the bar and then told us about it.
The ale tasted earthy and warm, oddly soothing after the events of today. Harry, not liking being soothed, went into a meditative trance and then suggested we find food. Helli offered more bread, which I liked, but I was also not going to pass up the opportunity for culinary exploration. Zeno, now done with all physical activity, settled in at the table like a fixture.
We ended up leaving Zeno, Helli, and Lankin at the sleepy snake place, and Felegum, Harry, Awk, and I all went out to hunt down dinner.
“Harry,” Awk said with heart-stopping sincerity, “we are best friends. Also, you remind me of a lizard I once met.”
I slowly hid Kheryph back in my cloak, just in case Awk got any more lizard inspirations.
As we searched, something smelled familiar. It was tough going at first because mostly everyone just smelled charred and awful, but eventually the alluring smell of spice and meat overpowered it. And sure enough, we came upon a long line and a familiar white and orange cart. Ahead, two tabaxi prepared meats and cooked flattened dough.
I immediately got in line.
And yes, it did take almost an hour to do this properly and that was annoying, but some things were worth waiting for. And lo, when it was finally my turn and I got to place a massive order for a seven-person Flaming Moltres with legendary spiciness and a side of four piyachus, it was worth it.
“Legendary spice?” Felegum asked.
I shrugged. What, were we not going to live?
“Can we get an extra Bulbasauce?” the mage asked, weakly.
The tabaxi chef added that to the order and then called out to his co-chef. “Beatriz! Did you get that?”
She called back in the affirmative. The male tabaxi named some absurdly low price and I handed him four gold, an overpayment I urged him to accept. “I love your food. Please take this.”
He nodded, as one does to a fellow warrior on the battlefield of Good Taste, and held up a hand for me to wait as he reached for something behind the cart. It was a massive straw hat with little beads and bells sewn along the rim. I put it on without question.
“There you go.” Handing me my seven-person-long Flaming Moltres (as always, exceeding my expectations), I took it into my arms like I was presenting a sword of glass to some monarch. Luckily, Felegum was there to spot me on carrying the eight Bulbasauces and Harry, who had also inexplicably ordered a Flaming Moltres with Charmander level spice (a mystery), hauled the piyachus. We returned to the inn in triumph.
Lankin was arm wrestling a burly dwarf, chatting him up about whatever and just not in general paying attention, but slamming his opponent’s arm to the table with ease nonetheless. The dwarf looked alternately angry and shell-shocked, though Lankin continued his pleasant banter throughout each round.
In a grand gesture, I laid out the massive dinner, basking in the oohs and aahs, and then we got to work. Cutting off a slice of it, I bit in, only to be bombarded by an unexpectedly powerful peppercorn. I had to cough it out, but we managed and through our collaboration we discovered that the Flaming Moltres had not one, not two, but three different veins of meat running through its impressive length.
Lankin periodically stopped by between wrestling bouts, grilling his opponent for information on the mines. “If I win,” he said, “you have to tell me what you know about what’s at the bottom!”
The dwarf looked genuinely puzzled. “I’ve never been.”
There was a brief pause. “Oh,” said Lankin. He stood. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” said the dwarf, who then passed out on the table.
Harry looked around the bar also, but either he too was too wooed by the siren song of the Flaming Moltres or he couldn’t find what he was looking for, because he stayed put.
Lankin, though, was not a quitter.
“Tell me about the fire demons!” he grunted at his next dwarven opponent.
The dwarf expounded on the fire demons behind the operation of the tabaxi cart, demons who, according to him, made food so spicy it had caused his face to go numb.
He chose that moment to look up and see my terrifying visage, still wearing the massive hat and also not able to feel my mouth or face very well anymore from the spice.
“Oh no,” he breathed.
“I’m your worst nightmare,” I said through partially numb lips.
It is a testament to my truly intimidating presence that he just ran right out after that. Anyway, we headed to sleep after that. About half the Flaming Moltres was left over and there was no reason to waste it, so I wrapped it up for later and fell into the deadest sleep I’d had in a while.
When I woke up and unwrapped the burrito for our breakfast, two meticulously calculated bite marks had been taken almost a strategic distance apart. I knew there had to be some reason for it, but it escaped me. Zeno made a big deal of not wanting to eat the bitten bits and a few of the others said it was gross, though it didn’t bother me. If someone was that hungry that they needed more food in the middle of the night, then whatever. We had plenty, and it actually made me kind of happy that most of these dorks didn’t feel like they had to hide food or obligated to barter with me so they could go to bed full.
That was nice.
The bite marks were weird, yeah, but maybe someone got so drunk they lost their spatial relations. Honestly, it was probably Zeno for that alone.
Anyway, we polished the Moltres off, I put my hat back on at a jaunty angle (surprise: all angles were jaunty), and we headed to the foreman.
“Ah,” he said, “I did not expect to see you back so soon.”
“This,” Harry said, flipping a carcass onto the table, “is a flaming dog.”
The animal was much less impressive dead than alive and the foreman was not oblivious to this fact. “Don’t look like it’s on fire no more,” he said astutely.
The conversation alternated between us negotiating that this was indeed some proof that weird monsters from another plane were walking the mines (the foreman was skeptical) and gleaning more information about the forges. The foreman was able to enlighten us that they ran on aesther-power, whatever that was. Not normal fire, at least.
Things got tense.
“You said you were adventures!” the foreman popped off. “Of course it’s dangerous! You should have known how civilized people mine rocks!”
“There appears,” Felegum ground out, fighting for calm amidst this storm, “to be a magical phenomenon.”
“No shit!” the foreman cried.
“Let me finish!”
“Then talk faster, you pencil-thin mage child!”
This was not a very nice way to address Felegum, who could not help that the frogs had stolen all of his muscle potential or that he had sacrificed his gainz on the altar of higher magics, but I was just pleased to sit quietly under my huge jingly hat and not be the child.
Fortunately, like volcanoes, it seemed like once the eruption had passed and the pressure had been released, the foreman was much more docile and willing to talk. In his dormant mode, he told us how dwarves don’t like unkept flame down in the mines (hence the globe-like things I’d seen Helli eyeing with fascination). He also mentioned that if we felt ill-prepared, we could always speak with some of the mages in town. There wasn’t a Mage’s Guild, per se, or really even much of a chapter of Paripas’ Guild, but there were a few magicians squatting out on the teleportation circle we could speak with.
The foreman did not think highly of them. “Untrustworthy,” he pronounced, “especially after that teleportation mishap.”
He then explained that if one wanted to shut down a forge (another likely course of action for us if we chose to return), a good strategy was to wait for it to burn itself out. Forges could be fueled in many ways, whether by fire or by an aesther-filled tube of crackling lightning. Harry quietly wondered if maybe someone had tried to use a portal to the City of Brass to supply a forge with continual fire, or something else to power it for much longer.
Helli asked about the process of learning to become a slime herder, if it was something that could be taught. It was, but it was very artisanal, according to the foreman, one of those professions that took years to master and that you couldn’t just step into overnight. “It’s quite difficult,” he said. “You have to secrete a, uh, nice secretion to herd them toward the prometheum.”
He got a little suspicious. “Did you hurt the slimes we rely on?”
“Nope!” Helli said quickly.
Awk made a brief bid to get us some slime herders, but the foreman shut that down, unwilling to risk more dwarves down in the dangerous part of the mine, stressing that he had paid us to solve this, not take his help.
I asked about all those skulls and bones in the corner by the forge, since that had felt very deliberate. While the foreman hadn’t seen what had happened himself, he’d heard that the attackers had piled up the dwarves’ bodies. He also knew about the flame skulls.
He kept coming back to the idea of potentially using the portal as a power source, which did not seem very good, although he did offer us a cart to borrow the next time we went down so we wouldn’t have to walk the entire way back up.
Felegum got the name of a mage to speak with (Ingrin) and Awk’s thoughts once again returned to serving others.
“How about,” he asked, “we find a dragon to harness this power?”
“Awk,” Zeno whined as we headed out of the office and toward the circle.
“People thought that they could control the situation!” Harry said. “Look what happened!”
“A dragon,” Awk stressed, “could control the situation.”
We reached the circle, a flat encampment populated by tents and very modest living conditions. Ingrin turned out to be a half-gnome, half-dwarf woman who invited us into her tent for tea. With an elegant flick of her fingers, she put a kettle on, then counting us, set out an additional kettle. “Darjeeling or oolong?” she asked pleasantly.
I had managed to wedge myself inside still wearing the hat, but she made me take it off because it was crowding everyone. The hat was not impossible to fold into a smaller shape, but it also required me to keep one hand on it so it didn’t spring back into full-size. Felegum explained the situation and Ingrin listened, nodding.
“I’ve seen these things before,” she said, of the fire monsters, “in my travels. They’re elementals.”
Felegum pressed for more information, but she held up a hand. “Don’t get too hasty. We’ve got to take our time and get the tea right first.”
I nodded, because attention to detail was something I also admired. I had no idea how Zeno or Awk got their spells, but I had to figure mine out through trial and error and inspiration and dumb luck sometimes. It felt like cooking, in some ways. You could just think up a tea without fully understanding the tea. There was a process.
Once the tea had finished steeping and we each had a cup, Zeno made an illusion of the sphere we’d seen above the forge.
“That’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Ingrin said, leaning in with her cup clasped in both hands. “Curious. A portal.”
She mentioned that the mages of Paripas had found themselves a portal in the past, but that it had also been some time since she’d last been there. I forgot the exact number of years, but it seemed in the neighborhood of seventy. She wasn’t sure which of her contacts back in the city were still around.
Awk took a brief moment to regale us with tasting notes from his tea.
“Ugh.” Zeno made a moue of distate. “Awk, you’ve ruined it for me.”
“Now that you’ve discussed this portal,” Ingrin continued, “what is your intent?”
“Slamming it shut,” Harry said. “There have got to be some pretty nefarious purposes that caused a portal to appear.”
“Could it be spontaneously occuring,” Felegum asked, “or cast by magic?”
“Both are possible,” Ingrin said. Then, declaring that she’d lost her manners having not had visitors in so long, offered her us a snack to go with the tea. “Pickled frogs, anyone?”
Felegum naturally declined, but Zeno, Lankin, and I gave them a shot. I wasn’t about to turn down an offering of food, especially when the person didn’t have much to begin with. It tasted surprisingly okay, like soft-shell crab.
“Do you have any healing potions?” I asked her. It wasn’t like I was super desperate to replenish my supply, but like, I just had the emergency one and I was not anxious to go into battle on only that.
“No,” Ingrin replied, somewhat sadly, “people don’t like these here. Why can’t you just go back to Paripas and get them at a discount there, being members of the guild yourself?”
This was, I thought, a good question. There were a few things I’d like to do up there as well.
“Anyway,” she said, “it’s hard finding people of similar views here. There’s a lot of work, but not a lot of progress.”
“Is there anyone fully against science and more into magic?” Harry asked.
“Down here?” She raised an eyebrow. “No. Maybe in the aesther mines, though.”
“Aesther affects dwarves?” Harry raised an eyebrow, perhaps forgetting or not having had the pleasure of encountering these denizens of Egonia.
“It makes them assholes! Airbreathers! But no, no specific person comes to mind. Most mages I know about have moved back to Paripas. Dwarves dislike mages.” Ingrin sighed. “They don’t even offer us drinks.”
Felegum nodded, recognizing this gesture’s importance in the culture. “Problematic.”
“It is problematic,” Ingrin said with a sigh, “and that’s why we’ve got to pickle ourselves our frogs.”
We briefly put forth the theory that maybe someone disgruntled with the science-heavy Egonian lifestyle could have put the portal down in the mine to either prove that magic was better or sabotage the forge, and then wondered whether it would be better or worse to call in help from Paripas. As members of the guild there, that was an option, though Ingrin did make it clear that magic was not exactly welcome in this place.
Apparently, there had been a slight mishap a few years ago with teleportation where the circle had gone wrong and the dwarves she was supposed to be teleporting vanished. “They’ll show up again sometime,” she maintained.
Ingrin offered to send a message to one of her old contacts still at the guild on our behalf for a fee, and suggested we talk about what we’d like to do outside, since her tent was getting a little crowded with eight people in it.
Before I left, I took out the sugar cane stick I’d gotten from Lars and Lars and snapped it in half, offering one to Ingrin. “For your hospitality,” I said.
And you know, I meant it. Because it takes a generous kind of person to share their tea and frogs with you when they hardly have anything. I respect that.
And it would have been a nice moment, except my giant hat, no longer held to more manageable size, sprang open and began rolling around. I stuffed the other sugar half back in my bag for later and ran after the runaway hat. Ingrin laughed politely and accepted the sugarcane, using it to stir her tea.
So that’s how we ended up outside the wizards’ tents, struggling to either come up with a message or ask for a teleport, or debate whether or not we even wanted Paripas involved and what they would do.