THIS TIME, WHERE ARE YOU, HOUSTON? IS SOMEBODY OUT THERE? WILL SOMEBODY LISTEN? in which we search for spell components and find a secret casino

So anyway, there we were, outside of Ingrin’s tent on top of the teleportation circle, surrounded by other mages’ tents camped out also on the circle, trying to figure out what on earth we wanted to send to Paripas. We’d been through several iterations, felt good about a few options, and then realized that we’d never actually registered as the Sovereign Dungeoneering Company anywhere official besides the Mages’ Trials.

Back to square one.

Harry was a bit wary of inviting in mages’ guild personnel from Paripas when it was pretty clear that magic users weren’t treated super great here in Egonia. I, personally, was invested in seeing if we could take the teleportation circle out.

“We have a good idea of the price on that,” Harry said, somewhat glum. “And uh, I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford it.”

I chewed on that. If we really were going to get embroiled in the situation here in Egonia, we’d also need a roundtrip.

“Ingrin said that the guild would be interested,” Zeno said with a shrug. “It sounded like something they haven’t seen in a while.”

“They didn’t give us a timeframe to solve this mine thing, right?” Helli asked.

I shook my head. “No, we just harassed them until they gave us a quest. It seemed open-ended.”

Harry sighed. “Back at the monastery, we could just send an owl.”

“Wait,” I paused to think about it, “how would that even work during the days?”

“Well, there are a lot of predators around that eat messenger pigeons,” Harry said, and dove into a brief explanation of owl maintenance, how it was inconvenient when important letters went missing because something got hungry, etc.

Somehow, we ended up deciding on a message to send and headed, all of us, back into Ingrin’s tent. I took off my hat again and folded it back up. Felegum handed Ingrin our message to try and send:

Found portal to elemental plane of fire near Egonia. Major disruption to locals. Seeking expert advice – Felegum Reinel and the Sovereign Dungeoneering Company.

Ingrin picked up a bone, wrapped her fingers around it, and then whispered the message into it. It was very cool. Unfortunately, it also did not work.

“There appears to be a problem,” she said after a moment. “It did not have a recipient and so the message failed.”

I asked about it, since it seemed like Ingrin had known someone in Paripas, but she clarified: messages to Paripas were sent through a central beacon and then disseminated to their recipients from there. Things had changed slightly from when Ingrin was in more close contact with the city; perhaps the system had been able to handle more general messages back then.

Anyway, we needed to try again, this time with a person in mind, so we chose Letitia and amended the message so it would be directed to her. Another round of holding the bone necklace later, Ingrin reported that the message had gone through successfully and would be passed on. We waited a moment, but no reply seemed to be forthcoming immediately and she’d said she’d let us know.

Feeling like I should just shoot my shot on the teleportation circle idea, I asked how much it’d cost to have Ingrin take us to Paripas.

“I imagine you saw those huge mark-ups in teleportation they’re charging in Paripas,” she said with a sniff as though the idea was deeply offensive. “I’d be happy to teleport you there myself, but I lack the supplies. Specifically, I require powdered inks that contain the essence of particular gems. If you could bring me those…”

She spread her hands.

Naturally, I asked the quantities involved.

“I’d need 20g worth of crushed rubies, 20g amethysts, and 10g of sapphires,” she said, after some consultation with her notes.

I thought it sounded doable; Helli clutched her pockets, no doubt protecting whatever gems she had on her person.

Ingrin also noticed this. “Do these materials make you uncomfortable?”

“I just don’t know where you’d find them!” Helli said. “Wherever I’ve looked here, all the walls have been empty of gems.”

“Ah,” Ingrin replied with a nod. “They used to be full of gems, as did the treasury, but we had a king who squandered it.”

Zeno took the opportunity to ask about prometheum– honestly, a smart move given that most other dwarves we asked about it seemed to be more inclined to make fun of us for asking about it versus trading in real information. It did sound cool and I still wanted to see it in person, but I got Zeno wanting to know whether this thing was causing major problems. According to Ingrin, prometheum was a primary catalyst to convert lightning into heat to help power the forges (and other things).

Then Ingrin went off on how great it was being underground and I obviously had to counter with how great not being buried beneath the earth was, and seeing the sky– I mean, she’d probably never flown, so I really couldn’t blame her, even if she was talking about security and nice things like that. Freedom was better.

“What about Csipherus?” Zeno interjected as Ingrin and I got passionate about our respective cities’ best features.

“I don’t think that’s going to work,” I said.

“Oh?” Ingrin said. I briefly caught her up the scarring of the teleportation sigils at the mages’ academy back in Csipherus that we’d heard about in Paripas from Letitia. I hadn’t even know we’d had sigils and whatever before that, but surprise, we had. They really did not want anything getting out.

Harry was not alone in naysaying the teleport idea.

“We could go back to Paripas,” I pushed.

“Or,” Felegum countered, “we could be stuck in time.”

Ingrin had had it. “There are a lot of people who make mistakes! I admitted mine–one mistake!– and I get the shit end of the deal.”

She crossed her tiny gnome-dwarf arms in a huff.

“Oh my god, I am not doubting your abilities.” Felegum put his hands up.

“It sounds like you are,” Zeno observed.

“Yeah,” I added, “it really does.”

There was more debate. More teleport doubters. Eventually, we were just wearing everyone out, so Felegum politely excused us.

Or so we thought.

“I’m pretty sure Tiamat could come down here,” Awk said.

“Oh my god,” Felegum said, pushing Awk out the door. “Thank you, goodbye!”

“Have you heard of the elder dragon?” Awk called.

Zeno patted him on the shoulder and reinforced Felegum’s hold. “Maybe over drinks tonight.”

Our thoughts turned to finding gems. The price Ingrin had quoted us– literally just the inks she needed– was cheap as hell and it seemed silly not to explore it as an avenue.

“We might be able to find dwarves who have stolen gems,” Helli pondered as we explored the streets. It was, as she’d noticed before, not exactly like the walls or surroundings had gems in them. Most dwarves didn’t seem too preoccupied with outward displays of wealth either out here.

Felegum discussed transport to Csipherus, and we once again ran into the scarred circles problem.

“Dang.” The mage snapped his fingers. “So much for my shortcut.”

“Yeah,” Zeno said, “looks like we’ll have to go outside the city.”

Awk chose that moment to pretend to be a zombie, making his eyes flash green with some weird warlock magic. Harry sighed. “Zeno, should I hit him or you?”

The bard thought about it. “You.”

Harry picked up a rock and threw it, smacking Awk in the forehead.

Felegum, a thousand percent over being team manager, had had it. “Stop fighting!”

“I’m just being silly,” Awk sulked. “You’re being too serious, Harry.”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “You leveled a city!”

The gnome shrugged. “I’m a druid. Nature reclaims all.”

“Wine’s ready!” Zeno announced, having perfect timing as usual. It was also about at this point that Helli had come to the realization that it was just not feasible for her to carry around the minikeg she’d purchased the night before– it was just large enough that it was exhausting to haul everywhere in the city.

“Helli, may I?” Zeno asked, and then receiving approval, knocked off the spout of the keg and filled his to-go mug, then Helli’s. Awk made a move to sneak in his personal cup, and Lankin just lay on the ground underneath the keg, drinking the rest of it.

Once the minikeg had been defeated, we broke into two groups: one to sell the Rod of Liquefaction, hopefully at a decent price, and another to find gems. Awk and Felegum were Team Rod, and me, Harry, Helli (naturally), Zeno, and Lankin made up Team Gem.

Initially, we were not having a lot of luck finding straight-up jewelers, which was odd. All we wanted was either crushed gems or gems we could crush, and nada. So, Helli and I looked at each other and in a perfect moment of “are you thinking what I’m thinking?” we both tracked down signs of seedy underbellies and less-than-legal activities around us.

The signs we found led us back to the slums after twenty or thirty more minutes of walking and into more tents and yurts. Eventually, we came to a gruff looking dwarf with a fancy nine-strand plaited beard and gems coming off the tie he’d used to wrap them all together.


I left it to Helli, since gems were her expertise and game respects game.

“We had a feeling you might know where you find beautiful gems,” she said. “I see you have them.”

The gruff dwarf sized us up. “What can you provide the house for entry?”

“Beer?” Zeno offered.

The dwarf exhaled, unimpressed. “We can get that on our own.”

Helli held out an ivory figurine, not unlike the one that had appeared on Felegum’s wheelchair contraption. This one was a tiny serpent.

The gruff dwarf beheld its fine craftsmanship and accepted it. “If you cause trouble, we’ll cause trouble for you.”

“Oh,” Helli said, “we are not here for you.”

Zeno snapped his fingers with an “alakazabulous” and transformed into a black sleeveless cloak with a hood pulled over his head. The gruff dwarf gave him the once-over and winked. Zeno, naturally, winked back.

Also, he licked his beard? I don’t know, man, that dude is weird sometimes. Maybe it’s an adult thing.

Harry, however, was not allowed to pass. And to be fair, the three of us did look pretty metal. Lankin looked like Lankin, which was intimidating enough. From what I understood, too much of Harry’s clothing had been melted or burned in places to make him look presentable enough for whatever awaited us down there. It was a sad state of affairs, but with any luck we’d be back shortly. I fist-bumped Helli on the way in.

The yurt ended up being more just a front– inside were stairs going downwards that led us to a foyer sort of holding room in dark shades of gray. There were dwarves there clad in slivery shimmering jackets with their hair combed down who asked us if we’d like to check our coats, but those who had coats chose not to part with them.

“Welcome to the Den,” one of them said, and ushered us past the next curtain.

Beyond, bright lights and blinking colors bombarded us. We had found a casino. A secret, underground casino.

I did a quick look over the room, trying to get some sense of things as the group headed to the buy-in counter. As someone relatively well versed in the arts of picking pockets, I was especially interested to see if any of that was going on, but nothing. It’d be odd, except for the presence of guards and bouncers walking through the throngs of dwarves and other humanoids around tables, all of them looking for the same things I was looking for.

It all clicked. With people like this, people who had probably been trained the same way I had been, keeping an eye out, there would probably not be any shenanigans. This seemed like a place that prided itself on keeping its patrons safe…until presumably it could take their money from them at the gambling table.

I communicated this to Helli. Professional courtesy and all.

At the buy-in counter, Helli and Zeno both went in for large amounts of money, like 150 gold apiece. I did not and the counter dude mocked me (rude), which was embarrassing on the face of it and also because then Helli very generously put in 50 gold for me and that was a lot.

Lankin asked about feats of strength and was also out of luck. “Arm wrestling?” he asked, hopefully.

There wasn’t arm wrestling, but there was, according to the counter guy, mud wrestling that Lankin might consider. The elf squinted at the fighters hamming it up in the distance, and quietly began critiquing their forms, walking off and muttering offhandedly about faulty positioning and how they were making it look fake.

Helli suggested that we look for blackjack, so that’s where we went. Zeno and Helli dealt in, and Helli encouraged me to join the fun.

I shook my head. This was all…a lot. “I really can’t.”

“Why not?”

I stripped off one of my fingerless gloves and showed them the back of my hand, crisscrossed with pale scars. “I,” I paused, trying to figure out how to say it, “I used to work with people where failure had consequences. And I’m not really interested in failing here.”

I slipped the glove back on, feeling weird about it.

“Buy us some drinks then, Set.” Zeno waved me off.

“Or,” Helli added, “see if you can find gems some other way.”

This last one held some appeal for me. If people were throwing around this much gold to bet on stuff, then there had to be smaller gems being bandied around somewhere. Maybe a kid’s game or something. I made a plan to check after Helli and Zeno’s game concluded.

I did my best to look stern and not confused as Zeno and Helli played. After a few rounds of cards, Zeno snorted and put down his hand. “Bah! This game is stupid! I’m out.”

Helli, though, ended up winning a ton of money. I wasn’t totally sure what all the chips and stuff added up to, but it seemed like much more than she’d put down. We’d also observed that it seemed to be a custom here to give some of the winnings back to one’s competitors as a sign of respect, which softened the blow of Zeno’s loss and was a tradition Helli was happy to keep up.

Recognizing that she was on a roll and that I was probably going to be out of my depth on this anyway, I handed her thirty of her gold back, told Zeno to pretend to be my dad as part of a ruse, and then set off in search of gems on my own.

Unfortunately, my poor luck continued. There were no kids here and no games where, as I’d hoped, one might win cheap rings with small quantities of precious gems in them. I changed tactics, swaggered up to the bar, made a valiant attempt at being a sad, gemless individual here with their dad, also the cause of all their misery, stressing my limited allowance and wanting to look cool. But that didn’t work either, since the barkeep was super busy and did not have any idea where I’d get gems besides winning them via games. And the risk on that was too high for me.

Instead, on tersely being asked whether I was going to order or not, I ordered a Reach’s Fallow’s Hatten, the drink Zeno had mentioned before. It came out looking really pretty, all rainbowy from top to bottom. I was actually pretty happy with it, considering that this whole night had been a mess– I couldn’t find gems, my ruse had failed, but hey, I’d gotten the drink that Zeno wanted, so at least that was one win in my corner.

Sometimes, I told myself, you had to chalk it up to doing one task okay and failing at everything else. You took the win where you could. It wasn’t like before, when I had to do everything exceptionally well by myself.

It was going to be okay.

“Set, did you get me a Fallow’s Reach’s Hatten?” Zeno looked the elegant beverage over as I returned to the table and he finished putting his tokens away. “Don’t get me wrong, kid, it looks great, but it’s like, in the wrong order. Upside down.”

He kept explaining it as I stood there, seething and motionless.

And I wasn’t sure if I was angry because he’d told me the wrong thing or if I’d said the wrong thing at the bar, or what had happened, but this was it. This was the last straw. Everything about Zeno was pissing me off right now, from how he really didn’t have to change that much from how he normally acted when I’d asked him to be my dad, to the idea that maybe he’d given me the wrong order on purpose.

I stormed off to the bar and theatrically threw myself down on it.

The barkeep sighed, but surprise, asshole, I was used to sighs. Sighs didn’t stop me. Making sure his other patrons were taken care of, he wandered over. “What’s wrong?” he asked, with that deadpan wariness most people reserved for sad teens in unexpected places.

“I’m just sad,” I said, truthfully. “Everything’s just a mess and I don’t know what to do anymore. It feels like I can’t do anything right.”

The bartender studied me as I slid a 5 gold token around the bar to him for a drink. To my credit, I’d had enough foresight not to blame him for the drink order being wrong– as much as I didn’t think I’d gotten it wrong, the possibility existed. I did not like the possibility, but I was more interested in being angry at Zeno than some rando. This was a storm that had been brewing for a while.

He sighed again, shook his head as though this were a commentary on all teens in distress, and moved back to the bar. “Do you want sweet or savory?” he asked, pulling out an assortment of bottles.

I peered over, curious, as he took three small vials out from the cabinet underneath the bar, fully sealed, and carefully let a few droplets of each fall into the glass. “Savory,” I said.

The drink was orangey-red and even more elegant, if that was even possible, than the last one I’d gotten. I slid another 5 gold token out to tip him, figuring I’d just pay Helli back later for that one.

The barkeep slid it back to me. “Said you were on a tight allowance, right?” He nodded at me. “Keep that.”

Slightly bewildered, I did, and headed back off to find Zeno.

I did feel slightly bad after the unexpected kindness of the bartender, but quelling my anger was like trying to convince a falling pebble to fight against gravity: while we may know that we may not like where we ended up, the end was still inevitable.

I joined the bard back by tables, where he was watching a wrestling show take place. Lankin was front and center, his clothes having dramatically malfunctioned somehow in the early stages of the performance.

“Get a lot of Lankin’s wang!” Zeno crowed.

Indeed, that seemed to be the centerpiece of the tableau.

“Here,” I said, offering him the fancy drink, “since I messed up your last one.”

Zeno took a sip and began to sway to the music gently. “You know, you’re alright, kid.”

And that did it. “You’re not my fucking dad,” I hissed. “I already have one and I’m not looking for a replacement. And all this ‘kid’ stuff– I’m your equal, got it?”

“Sure, yeah,” Zeno said, continuing to bop around, just vibing. “This is really good, you want some?”

The anger left me in a rush and I just felt like a huge dick. Not as huge as Lankin’s, but up there. Yeah, I’d asked Zeno to be a part of this ruse briefly as my fake dad, but for months he’d also been condescending to me with this “kid” stuff. Had I ever actually told him straight up that I didn’t like that?

I thought about it. Probably not.

I looked at the glass. It hadn’t killed Zeno and now I felt actually bad about slipping him stuff as revenge. There was only one thing to do.

I downed the rest of it.

It was, as promised, savory. There were hints of turmeric and fire spices, and it burned in a not unpleasant way as I swallowed it. And I could see why Zeno was so into the music– the world lost its sharp edges. Things did not seem so bad. We had a plan, Helli was just crushing it out there, Lankin was doing something, and Awk was nowhere to be found. Zeno didn’t seem mad at me. I hadn’t disappointed anyone.

And it felt like, as daunting as my problems seemed, that they weren’t insoluble. Things were going to be okay.

I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it, not feeling like I had to run and run and run or else risk losing my own life or my family’s. It was like how I’d felt when I was a kid, climbing out windows and watching the city at dusk, just still and alight with wonder.

I hadn’t felt that way in years.

Maybe I’d had the wrong approach with fire and brimstone when someone did something I didn’t like. Maybe I really just should…talk with people about stuff.

“Have I ever told you,” I said, slining an arm around Zeno’s shoulders, “about my parents?”

“No,” Zeno said, glancing over before returning to watching the staged match in the mud pit. “But go for it. I’d love to hear.”

“My parents are just good people.” I shook my head at a particularly brilliant counter from Lankin. “Like, I don’t want a replacement for my dad because I already have one. And he’s great. He and my mom run an apothecary back home and they’re just like, stupidly good. They heal people and they don’t charge for it, it’s a pay-what-you-want kind of thing.”

“Wow,” Zeno said, “seems ill-advised.”

“Yeah, right?” I snorted. It was nice having someone else get it. “It actually worked really well for them for a while, because their wealthier clients would pay more and the people who couldn’t pay much still got treatment. They always told me to believe that things would work out, and generally they did. Until everyone got sick and no one had any money to pay us anymore. My parents kept telling me to trust that things would work out, but things didn’t. We were starving and that’s why I had to start stealing us food.”

I shook my head. Even then, they’d been loathe to accept it and had tried to give it to our “worse off” neighbors until I’d yelled at them.

“That sounds hard,” Zeno said.

“It was,” I said softly. “I don’t think they understood how bad it was, because they just don’t see it. I miss them a lot.”

Zeno nodded, like something was settled. “I want to help these lovely people.”

I blinked, stunned. “What, really?”

“Yeah,” he said, “why wouldn’t I? They sound great. All I’m good for is music and boning.”

“What’s boning?” I asked.

“Oh,” Zeno said, waving a hand, “raising people from the dead.”

“Right, right.” I nodded back. “I knew that.”

I asked Zeno about where he’d come from, since what little I’d remembered of his past was that he’d been forced to leave his home because he’d stirred up some trouble.

“What was I charged with, treason?” Zeno shrugged. He missed his mother, he said, since she was all by herself. He didn’t know who his dad was, only that he was responsible for his elven side. The guy in charge of his town, Scholtenheim Reinbach III, sounded like a real piece of work, though. What a dick forcing Zeno to leave because of one song. Dude made songs about everyone; that was just how it went.

They weren’t that bad either.

I grasped him by the shoulders. “Okay, how about this? Once we finish fixing stuff down in Csipherus, why don’t we go back to your town and beat him up? Like, kick his ass. I bet we could do it.”

“Uh, sure,” Zeno said. I did not feel offended by his hesitation– the idea of going home was weird sometimes. But, the thing was, we had a good group going. It wasn’t like this was beyond us. It was painfully within the realm of possibility that we’d be able to pull something like this off, both restoring Zeno to Reach’s Fallow’s good graces as well as, you know, mastering the Csipherus conduit and saving my city from the undead.

Helli had won an unreal amount of money, Lankin was just trashing the fake wrestlers on stage, Harry was probably trying to out-stoic the guard outside the yurt, and for a moment I swore I could see Felegum weaving through the crowd.

Maybe we could pull this off after all.

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