Regrouping, we evolved a plan. The casino showed no sign of slowing down; in fact, things only seemed to pick up as we discussed next moves. I congratulated Helli on her huge wins and told her I owed her 5 gold after I handed back the other 15 gold in tokens to her I’d had earlier.
“Did you sell your wand?” Lankin asked Felegum.
The mage shook his head. “No, no offers were good enough.”
Lankin gestured around the swirling room, where you could barely stretch out a hand without whacking someone wreathed in gems or opulent robes. It was jarring just how different it was from how the city had been outside and made me wonder more about what in Egonian culture made it so not chill for them to be more open about this stuff.
But that was a problem for another time. Right now, we were more interested in making off with our winnings in the form of gems and cashing out ahead.
Zeno took the elf in and tsked. “Lankin, you are extremely muddy and incredibly naked.”
Lankin looked down at himself and shrugged. “Yeah.”
A guard approached us, perhaps noticing that we were not seated at either a gambling or dining table and looking to abate any problems before they started. “Are you perhaps in need of assistance?” the dwarf asked.
“Yeah,” I stepped in. “Could you maybe show us where we could cash out?”
“But you’ve only been here for thirty or forty minutes,” the guard replied.
Momentarily disconcerted that they’d been paying that close attention to us and immediately disliking that we couldn’t leave when we wanted to, my mind went to escape strategies and defense. Luckily, Zeno took the lead. “That’s right. Can you help show us where the most exciting things are?” He smiled. “We’re new.”
The guard nodded. “I can tell. Well, there’s a chance to win fortune over that way, a contest of wits and strength.”
“Ooh, I have at least one of those things.”
“Strength?” the guard asked wryly.
“Yes,” Zeno replied, “let’s hang out.”
The guard showed us toward a dining area where we could get food, drinks, and be seated while we explored more of the other games. Awk mentioned selling some drugs here, which was about when I noticed that he’d joined us and also when Zeno and Felegum, able to read a room, advised against it.
Two servers approached us, one a dark-skinned elven woman and the other a human man, both scantily clad. They said they’d be happy to bring us food and drink and also mentioned something about a main event starting in a little bit.
Zeno handed the elf two platinum for drinks. “Just keep ’em coming.”
She accepted it, then passed out empty glasses to all of us and snapped her fingers. From the ceiling above us, an apparatus descended and began to fill our glasses with a dark-colored drink with reflective pearl sparkling in it. Awk stared at the glass for a long time, murmuring about trying to find dragons in it as the machinery folded itself back up into the ceiling from whence it came.
“Before you leave,” Zeno said to the woman and then to Lankin: “Hey, give me your robe.” (“Sure,” a confused Lankin said, doing it.) Zeno offered the slightly muddy robe for the elf woman. “We’ve got a dragonborn friend outside. His clothes leave a little something to be desired. Can you see what you can do?”
The elf accepted the robe and slung it jauntily over a shoulder. “Okay,” she said. “We’ll see what we can do.”
Lankin, at this point, was completely naked again. I guessed that it had stopped bothering him or maybe he’d just gotten used to it, because he was just chilling at the table, drinking with us despite some of the stares he was getting from other patrons.
The drink itself was good, coating the mouth with a strange darkness that, similar to the dwarven drinks at other establishments, made you feel full without having to eat food. This one was a bit richer and smoother than the others we’d had in this city, though.
I noted that Awk was carrying a new book with him and nodded at it. “Did you get a textbook or something to learn from? Hard at work bettering your mind?”
“I’m learning about the nuance of relationships from Turgius Maximus and Holly Goodhead,” Awk replied. “She’s a nymph.”
Zeno snorted. “We need to find you a courtesan.”
“What’s a courtesan?” Awk asked.
“See page 34.”
Awk flipped the pages and squinted. “‘This coin will buy him the pleasures he so richly deserves.’?” He looked at Zeno.
“It’s sex.” The bard gave up. “The book is about sex, Awk.”
“What?” The gnome looked at the pages, then back up. “Why not just say that?”
Awk continued to splutter about this as Zeno turned, waved, and then cast a spell. Someone swore loudly behind us and Zeno winced for a moment before his face returned to its usual amusement. He made another drink order for a very unhappy looking dwarf behind him and I guess Awk had also gone over, but I wasn’t entirely sure why.
The dwarf of the crew who seemed to be in charge came up to Zeno. “Make sure it doesn’t happen again, goddamn elven folk.”
I raised an eyebrow.
But Zeno just spread his hands and took it in stride. “We’re the worst.”
“I know,” said Felegum, the other half-elf.
I supposed Lankin had not been paying attention. It wasn’t like he’d noticed or cared terribly much about being naked in this huge room either, so it seemed like not a lot made him self-conscious. Zeno took advantage of the moment to hand Awk’s drink to Harry, who had just arrived wearing a now mud-free robe that had once clothed Lankin. “Here,” Zeno said, “I got you this.”
Harry drank the entire thing in one go, which probably said all we needed to know about how the staring contest outside the yurt with the gruff dwarf had gone. “Well, that was concerningly tasty.”
Awk headed off back in the direction of the mud wrestling pit and Helli headed to see what the cash-out area had on offer. The rest of us chilled at the table, chatting and taking in the sights. When Harry put his empty glass down, it was immediately refilled by an apparatus at our table, which was pretty cool. The dark-skinned female elf came back to the table to check in on us (translation: give Lankin a once-over and then flirt with Harry) and promised she’d come back with something special for us when we asked about food.
There was a small commotion when the dwarf guy who Zeno had bought drinks for before punched a scantily clad dwarven waiter for not bringing him his drinks fast enough. At first I chalked this up to bad judgement and vaguely wondered where Awk was (as one always does in any conflict), but then four guards– the same ones who had escorted us into this place, clad in their snappy blazers that hid weathered leather armor– descended on the dude and beat the living daylight out of him.
It only took maybe ten seconds, and the angry guy and his two compatriots– who I could not see had done anything wrong– were beaten and bounced. Again, my thoughts drifted to Awk. If that gnome got into trouble, the establishment seemed to operate on a one-bad-apple-ruins-the-bunch policy and I was not interested to pit myself against those guards.
Luckily, I did not have long to linger on this unpleasant possibility because the elven server was back with food. It was, as she had promised, special.
There were soft pretzels with dipping sauces, crispy chicken legs in oil, chips with red and green sauces, dovals with reddish powder, and orange, purple, and white carrots in an elegant and aesthetically pleasing ring around the arrangement.
Helli grabbed a pretzel. I exercised my skills to move the chip basket closer, but unfortunately misjudged how heavy the green creamy sauce was. This proved fatal when everyone looked at me trying to maneuver it closer.
“Hey,” I said, “party foul, okay?”
Helli, munching on her pretzel, relayed her discoveries at the cash-out counter to Felegum. “They have some magical items there,” she said. “You might have better luck getting rod sold there, but gems are still pretty expensive. We’ll need chips.”
Awk plopped down four 500 gold chips on the table.
“Wow,” Helli said after a pause. “That’ll do.”
Awk did not seem inclined to bring up how he’d acquired such things; he was more excited to find some dragon-themed games. And maybe this was the side of his dragon obsession that I didn’t see as much, the harmless side, the goofy tiny gnome keyed up about massive, intelligent beasts and not the warlock who played fast and loose with our lives.
And find a dragon game he did. After all, if there was anyone in this entire casino who would be most prepared to sniff one out, it would be Awk.
The game was called Delving the Dragon’s Hoard, and it seemed to be a pinball-like game with a betting element. Strength and wit, I supposed. You made a team out of three people, each buying in with 50 gold, and the first team to either reach the dragon’s hoard or get closest after all the other teams had backed out, won.
You could pay a little extra for another chance to get closer or farther, depending on where you were in the cave. Get too close and the dragon would incinerate you, and there was always the chance that you’d get unlucky on the way down and would be eliminated before the round was done.
Anyway, Awk, Helli, and Felegum decided to make a team and went up against two other groups: one of three dark-skinned dwarves with embroidered thunderbolts on their chests (possibly aesther miners was the general consensus) and then another, more diverse trio of a rock gnome, a dwarf, and then an almost human-looking individual with a wide brim hat and eyes with no sclera. Like, none. The whole thing was dark blue. As both a connoisseur and possessor of distinctive eyes and large hats, I immediately wanted to meet them.
So did Felegum. “Hi,” he said, sticking out a hand, “I’m Felegum. How are you guys doing? You’ve got really cool eyes.”
The individual with the hat and cool eyes beheld him coolly. “Chat after the game.”
The first round went okay for everyone, ending up with us in the lead, then the mixed trio, and the thunderbolt dwarves in last place. On the next round, Felegum accidentally triggered a trap that got him sealed in a wooden cask, which was absolutely bonkers.
Zeno and I had moved over to get a better idea of what was going on during the game, and I’d brought the chips along with me for snacks. In my head, a message from Felegum popped in. “Set, get me out!”
“Oh hey, Felegum,” I said, approaching the cask that held Felegum and knocking on it.
Felegum made a pained noise inside of it– it didn’t seem like a noise of frustration, more like it was causing him some degree of physical pain. Awk and Helli won the game, but the cup still didn’t release him.
The other trio approached Awk and Helli while the thunderbolt dwarves, also caught in a trap like Felegum, remained in their single-serving prisons. They wanted to keep playing and were willing to up the ante even farther. Helli calculated, agreed, and Zeno joined up to fill Felegum’s place.
This time, the game was more fraught. The trio pulled ahead of us at first and then Awk got trapped himself. It was down to Helli and Zeno, and they were mostly happy with where they were, but the trio was looking absurdly confident.
Zeno shook his head, gave them a side eye, and then turned to Helli. “I think you’ve got to reroll. I think they’re closer than we are.”
Helli paid the fee, played another round on the machine as I nervously ate chips, and got exactly what she needed to get for her and Zeno to reach the dragon’s hoard but not wake the dragon.
The game was ours.
The trio came back over and congratulated us after everyone was free. “A game of dungeon delving well done.”
The wide-brimmed hat person bought everyone who played drinks, which was really nice of them. They felt like the kind of person who appreciated a show of skill or something in the people they chose to become friends with, and I realized I’d missed my chance on that one by not taking a chance.
That kind of sucked, but there wasn’t time to ruminate on it too much because the main event began.
It was acrobats. Their troupe was called the Acrobats of Thengeon, and they were pretty good. Definitely some stuff that I could not pull off, especially not trusting a partner to catch you tumbling midair. I rose to my feet with the rest of the audience, some people throwing tokens at the crew after their half-hour performance concluded.
Things were a little more subdued after the show: Zeno pronounced it “okay” and I tried to get Kheryph to sample the delights of the food platter. I appealed to his better nature with a purple carrot (I recalled he had had some non-orange carrot before) but no: the pretzels won out. He even dunked one in a sauce, which was truly his reptilian intelligence at work. After consuming the small pretzel part I gave him, he curled up in an entire soft pretzel, like a bed, but also wrapped around it.
I picked him up and carried him around like this while Lankin and Felegum went to find more events of strength and wit.
There was a hammer game, also run by the acrobats, that caught Lankin’s eye, one those games where you tried to get a little pellet to travel up a track and ping a bell using force. He tried it out twice and did, well, not great, but the acrobats seemed to like the cut of his jib so they did invite him to join their circus.
“Harry!” Helli whispered. “Play!”
The dragonborn, who had borne the flirtatious advances of almost every waiter who passed our table, sighed. “My funds are somewhat… predetermined.”
There was a small pause and then Harry nodded. “Okay.”
And he stepped up to the hammer game. He swung the hammer down and this time the little pellet almost reached the bell.
“It is a game of both strength and wits,” the acrobat had said to Lankin, and who now looked at Harry with fresh appreciation. “Ooh, you are strong!”
Another member of the Harry fan club had emerged.
Harry looked at his hands. “I’m starting to believe that I cam from a very abusive childhood.”
Deeper conversations saved for later on that, Harry gave the acrobat payment for another swing at the game. This time he struck true, better than he had before, that calculated balance between strength and graceful delivery. And the bell rang.
His prize was a yellow ribbon with the inscription “a favor from the Travelling Band of Thengeon.” According to the acrobat, all that was needed to activate the ribbon was to fold it four times (hot dog style) and speak 15 words. Each member of the group would hear it and, to the best of their ability, perform a service for the bearer if they were able to do so.
A free round was provided at the bar to celebrate Harry’s amazing victory, and in the commotion, when we looked back the game and the acrobats were gone.
We found that Awk had been pickpocketed (alas) during one of the escapades, and both Helli and I lamented not doing it ourselves as we headed to the gem exchange. Even 500 gold down, we still had a hefty amount for trade, more than we needed for the crushed gems Ingrin had requested for her teleportation inks.
This time, the person running the buy-in and cash-out counter was a halfling and he waved at Helli. “Hello again, pretty lady.” A head nod at the rest of us. “I see you brought friends.”
“Hello,” said Felegum, decidedly not the pretty lady in question, “we need gems.”
There was some back and forth: we determined after consultation between Felegum and the halfling that we’d need about one small scoop of each variety of gems to satisfy Ingrin’s request, and the sorcerer also asked after the trade-in price for the sapphire that Helli clearly coveted.
“25,000 gold,” the halfling said, like it was no big deal.
“Whew,” Felegum said, “stretch goal for next time. What about rarities?”
And here he pulled out the Rod of Liquefaction and expressed an interest to trade it in for something.
The halfling called out behind him. “Marsieux! Come inspect!”
A man entered, as though from nowhere, and inspected the wand, confirming that it was indeed as we said. Felegum asked us if we had anything we wanted, everyone seemed to be kinda meh about it, and he asked about leather armor. Then healing points. We could get six, which was good, but like…you could get healing potions anywhere.
“Come on,” I said, “they’ve gotta have something cool here! Like, what about an awesome dagger!”
Honestly, I had done literally nothing here besides eat chips and give Helli the professional courtesy tip that stealing here was not gonna end well. But here we were, looking through ridiculous magic daggers. I’d heard of blades that could catch fire and that sounded extremely metal.
“I could offer you one of these,” Marsieux said, “or perhaps you’d be interested in a blade with a story.”
He had a dagger in the armament rack that certainly looked very flamey and I had no doubt that it could do what it purported. Felegum confirmed with him that we had enough money for the blade and for the three scoops of gems we needed.
If I was more cautious, I’d have known to play it safe and accept this deal rather than push my luck.
But we were, after all, in a casino.
“You mentioned a dagger with a story,” I said and leaned in.
Marsieux put the pull-out shelf of daggers away and unlocked a completely different compartment. Out of that, he pulled a single bone-white dagger with a curved end, not unlike a hook. Something about it felt familiar.
“Here.” Marsieux offered it to me. I handed Kheryph, still on his pretzel, to Zeno, who accepted him as I reached for the dagger. When I touched it, it was like sand all over my arm.
It felt like home, in a way that I hadn’t felt for months.
I had to have it.
But, even with the wand and all our winnings, it wasn’t enough. We were a thousand gold short.
I took out the baneberries and the apple (not looking so hot, either of them). “These contain seeds for delicious plants that grow underground.”
Next, I took out the last shard of soul crystal that I had left. “This,” I said, and then totally forgot what it was because I was super nervous and didn’t want to say “came from the crab well” because that would make no sense to this guy.
“I know what this is,” he said. “Or what it is a part of.”
I nodded, then took out my platinum ingot that I’d been planning to buy health potions with that was worth 100 gold.
At this point, I was a little flummoxed because beyond stuff I was wearing, I did not have a lot more to give.
But Awk put in a giant chunk of money, as did Helli and Felegum and Zeno, who gave me a significant “you owe me” look before doing it. Suddenly my impulse to go for the dagger over the healing potions seemed a lot less smart.
But, I also did not care.
Because this wasn’t something you just left in a case. This was a “see it once and then never see it again” kind of thing. More than that, this was something that had belonged by Csipherus. It was like seeing a ceramic bowl that someone had invested a ton of time into making both beautiful and functional, only to be displayed forever.
This dagger didn’t make sense in a casino. It made sense with me.
And okay, yes, Marsieux saying that it had belonged to legendary heroes in the past didn’t hurt either. I did want to be a legendary hero. Doesn’t everybody, to some extent, want to do something that leaves a mark?
With the transaction finally completed (involving Helli signing away her Paripasian writ, much to her and Marsieux’s amusement at the system), Marsieux turned back to me and handed me the dagger at last. “Treat this dagger well,” he said, “for it has treated its previous owners well.”
“I will,” I said and actually meant it.
Obviously I was very cool as we left the casino. Restrained, emotions in check. You know me.
Somehow Helli also left with an opal, which was impressive. Her cache of reserve stuff was also pretty impressive; a part of me wondered if maybe I should get more on the ball with stealing stuff. I just hadn’t felt the need to because I hadn’t been hungry.
But this, even if I owed everyone forever, I thought as I held up the dagger, was worth it.
Exiting was pretty easy, except Awk almost didn’t get his coat back from the cloak check because he’d forgotten his number. He complained, when the dwarven guards gave it back to him, that it smelled like perfume, and they replied that they’d had to do something to it.
The streets outside the casino yurt were quiet and empty, and I took Kheryph back from Zeno. The pretzel was still warm, magically, it seemed, and Kheryph was nested around it all snug.
In the distance, Egonia’s lights twinkled like stars.
Felegum stopped abruptly to take a message from Letitia and replied that yes, there was a portal in Egonia, it didn’t appear stable, that he wasn’t an expert, and asked her to come in person if possible or to send help.
Felegum also asked me if I’d let him examine the knife to know what it did. And while that seemed okay, I also just didn’t want to give it up. It felt right having it, like I was actually doing something to fix this mess. Plus, it was kind of a journey. Maybe this knife had secrets that would evolve over time and casting an identifying spell wouldn’t tell us that much about them anyway. Felegum gave up, saying if I was that adamant about it then he wouldn’t waste the pearl. And it was at this point that I remembered why the knife had looked so familiar to me.
“It’s a sandworm tooth,” I said.