AND I GO SEARCHING THROUGH REFLECTIONS FOR YOUR OUTLINE, BUT IT’S JUST MINE: in which my sense of direction is wrongly doubted and Warden White is called to action

Clean-up crews swept along the streets as the city glimmered in the distance. Zeno sighed.

“Brothel?” he asked, surveying the group for interest. “Oh no, wait, I threw all my spending money into that dagger.”

I felt a little bad but not that bad. It was a pretty great dagger.

We next turned to the important task of finding a place to sleep. The consensus seemed be that we should find a close place rather than return to where we’d been staying before, but initial attempts revealed that most places were closed. We passed the Violet Beaver and the Wretched Nightingale, both dark, and continued to search until we came upon a still-bright halfling establishment called the Loving Lettuce.

The staff was in the process of cleaning up when we blustered in and did not seem all that happy about our last-minute arrival, but they checked us in and were cool. They had more than enough rooms for us, and breakfast was even included, so it seemed like we’d found our place for the night. Heading upstairs, though, a surprise awaited us.

Well, it was surprising and not surprising at the same time. The Loving Lettuce was run by halflings, a smaller humanoid race, and so the rooms were smaller. Awk and Helli, the gnomes of the group, were able to fit inside their rooms just fine. I overheard someone saying that this was like a “capsule hotel” and that kind of made sense: each room seemed big enough to fit about one person of roughly halfling size comfortably and not much beyond that. In short, it was a tiny room with a bed and a sliding door for privacy off the hallway.

There were twelve rooms and availability was somewhat limited, but we had enough for our group. Lankin was in room 3, Zeno had room 4, Helli took room 6, I was in room 7, Awk had room 8, Felegum was in room 11, and Harry rounded out the group in room 12. Like I said, Helli and Awk didn’t have much trouble at all– it was just the rest of us that encountered difficulties. Room 7, for example, was weirdly tall– like five feet– but in order to lie down I either had to be curled up or I had to sleep on a diagonal. I did not know what Harry’s room looked like or how he managed, though when I looked out there was a pair of dragonborn feet in the hallway.

We were all settling in when an eerie creaking of wheels grew louder and louder from outside our rooms. “Tea?” an older halfling woman’s voice asked. “Would anyone like some evening tea?”

She was pushing a cart piled with small, delicate cups and kettles and offered us a last cup of tea before bed. Maybe everyone else in the inn was already asleep or maybe she’d come out for us specially. Either way, it was a nice gesture. I accepted the tea.

It was new, something peaceful like a chamomile. Being sized for halflings meant that the cups themselves also didn’t hold a lot of volume, but it was a good mouthful. We returned our cups to the cart and listened as the old woman crittled– a combination of creaked and skittered, I guess– back down the hall.

“This is super cozy,” Awk said, “like that one time I wintered with snow hares.”

I closed my sliding door. Somewhere down the hall, Lankin had already fallen asleep and that seemed like the smarter idea. Before I went to bed, I took out the dagger and held it up. As it had before, it felt like sand and pleasant warmth. I flipped it over, watched it catch the low light.

When I’d first started this journey, I’d been on the hunt for a cure-all, some antidote that could save a city. When news about Csipherus had spread to Paripas and the group had decided to go, sensing a conduit, I’d hesitated. I didn’t want to go back with nothing. And sure, technically I was bringing “conduit experts” home to solve the problem. But that felt very opaque and wispy– I wanted something concrete. There was a lot about this knife I couldn’t figure out, but it felt like my city. That was a start.

I wished

“Is this you?” I asked the ceiling, miles below the sight of any stars.

I fell asleep, and as usual, got no response.

In the morning, the creaking of the tea cart woke me and Kheryph, except that this time, not only was the old lady dispensing tea, she was also our breakfast provider. There were quite a few offerings, but she asked that we only take three each. There were biscuits, made from some cold crumble alchemy, cured cave slugs, smoked and seasoned beetle, eggs, oatmeal, and bacon, to name a few.

I got an egg and a biscuit and let Kheryph choose the last one (he went with cave slug, leaping from my hands onto the cart, yeeting a slug back into our room and then slithering down the cart). Luckily, the old halfling woman appeared more amused than anything.

We convened in the hallway and ate. Or rather, we all kind of faced the hallway from our rooms and chatted.

“Good news and bad news,” Harry said. “Good news: money. Bad news: the mage’s guild can give you a ring whenever they want.”

I wanted to point out that they technically had given him a ring of mind shielding or whatever, but Harry meant it more like, reaching out to contact you whenever. He pulled out a jet black orb and tossed it to Felegum. The mage turned it over– you could tell it was heavy from the way he was handling it– and inspected the object.

“What if it’s a conduit down there?” Awk asked.

Felegum tapped the orb with the hilt of his dagger and no sound came out.

Intrigued by this, Awk took a closer look at the magics inherent in it and was able to see divination, abjuration, and transmutation. It sounded like a lot of remote viewing and protecting the sphere from being dissolved in a fiery plane to me, though what that transmutation part did I had no idea. Harry wrapped it up in his white cloak and put it away as I, knowing where we were bound, headed downstairs.

I found the tea cart lady by the kitchens in back and she offered me some extra biscuits she had leftover from breakfast, which I accepted happily.

Between bites, I asked her if she knew of anyone trustworthy who might look after a lizard for about a week. She replied that she herself would be happy to take care of him and that given how much he enjoyed the breakfast cave slugs he’d probably do well here. I chatted with her some more and found out that her name was Oaurrgr, which I also seemed incapable of pronouncing.

Oaurrgr was very kind and offered to feed Kheryph and keep him nice and toasty in a little terrarium by the oven for two gold for the week. I added on five silver in the hopes that this would both ensure the best care for the little guy as well as possibly ingratiate me with her so that I could learn that biscuit recipe when we came back.

It was hard putting Kheryph into the terrarium, both emotionally and physically, since he just kept wanting to crawl all over me and despite not having full use of his back legs he was still a very slippery character. Eventually, though, Oaurrgr and I succeeded and he was curled up happily around a warm rock, munching on cave slugs.

Awk chose that moment to come up behind me as I was finishing my heartfelt goodbye to attempt to sell Oaurrgr his opium. I yelled at him but then gave up because 1) this was Awk and it was going to happen no matter what I did, because I was kidding myself if I thought he respected my opinion or anyone’s and 2) Oaurrgr seemed pretty chill about it.

Awk was really pushing for a trade for something called pipeweed that he was convinced that Oaurrgr had. She said they didn’t have any, but that there would probably be a shipment next week if he wanted to come by and try to trade then.

We met back up with everyone downstairs and then proceeded back to the mine entrance. I wasn’t super keen on that place, but having Kheryph out of the line of fire (literally) made it a little easier to imagine going back. Besides, we were only going to lob an orb into a rift. How hard could that be?

Much harder than anticipated, as it turned out. The foreman (a different one, again) was not happy to see us and argued with us about carts as we “finally headed down to do the job we were supposed to do.”

Zeno did his best to persuade him to let us have one, but even our bard’s wiles could not sway the foreman form his assholery.

“I don’t have no spares,” he huffed.

“It seems like you’re operating on quite a thin margin,” Felegum added, also turning on the charm.

Unfortunately, this did not improve things.

“I was gonna give you a nice cart, but this one–” he pointed at Felegum– “keeps questioning my activities. So, I’m gonna give you this here hand cart. And you can thank your friend over here for it.”

“Oh,” Zeno said, surveying the broke-dick cart with distaste, “he gets to do the pushing.”

The foreman nodded as though he approved. “I’d expect nothing less.”

Zeno sat in front, and since this cart was indeed just barely functional, it did not come with a light source so I cast Light on the front and kept my hand there “to maintain the spell” even though it was not really one of those spells that needed maintenance. Zeno and I exchanged a knowing nod, and Felegum (with assistance from Dronie) began to push the cart.

It was just silly enough– obviously Dronie was not adding anything to the effort– to make me miss Kheryph even more. A portable terrarium would be pretty ideal, especially a fire-proof, beast-proof one.

The cart, also, was not going anywhere until Zeno found the parking brake thanks to his skill with land vehicles. Once that was located and disengaged, we were off. Helli, who had eaten a good deal of biscuits, remained in a food coma next to Zeno rivaling that of the tabaxi cart burrito. While halflings and gnomes were of similar size, the biscuits had been very large owing to halfling appetites.

Directions proved challenging in multiple instances. The first was when we did not see a way through a junction of carts going through all different tunnels and shouts of “coming through!” behind us quickly turned into swearing and insults as we were rammed by another cart coming in behind us. We all held on, but had to deal with a very angry dwarf.

“Sorry!” Felegum, cart manager, called out. “Foreman What’s-His-Face told us to go this way.”

“Ugh, that guy!” the dwarf behind us swore at the foreman too. “He sucks.”

The dwarf gave us a series of somewhat incomprehensible directions in Dwarven and, seeing that none of us had the requisite background knowledge, sighed and pointed us toward a cluster of three tunnels. We got rammed a few more times on the way, but we made it to the tunnel trio.

Unfortunately, none of us by that time could remember what the dwarf had said. Harry, Zeno, and Awk thought that the tunnel to the left had to be the right one, while Felegum and I knew it was the center. Helli was still groggy and Lankin had been watching the cave lichen or something.

“If Set thinks it’s the center, then I am definitely not going down the center,” Zeno said.

My hackles rose. “I am one of the smartest people here–“

“–and you get lost all the time–“

Felegum held up his hands. “Whatever, guys, let’s just pick one.”

So, we ended up going the left one, since more people thought that one was the path we’d taken before. It was much easier having a dwarf guide when we’d done this the first time, but oh well. We would probably be okay. And if not, we thought, we could always use the hand crank to pump the cart back up the tracks.

Again, probably should not have thought that it would be so easy.

I’m just going to come out and say it: the left branch proved to be a disaster. Regardless of how right or not I was, Zeno definitely did not choose the tunnel we’d been down before. Instead, the left tunnel led to a dizzying spiral downward that whipped us around columns and then sent the cart flying over a dark and bottomless abyss.

This happened several times. Lankin tried to stop us but he pulled the brake off the broken-down cart. At first we were like “oh shit!” but then someone rationally pointed out that we’d figure out stopping eventually and that we might as well go on without panicking. Sounded legit, right?

Then, over one of the chasms we were flying across, Felegum, who was enjoying the thrill, let go of the cart to experience that sensation of weightlessness. I got it– I love flying for the same reason. However, Felegum did not have the best reflexes.

He flew out into the darkness.

We had moments to mourn his loss when ahead of us I spotted a hard wall. “Guys, wall!” I yelled.

Unfortunately, no one’s reflexes were fast enough for the wall. I was barely able to get a leg over my broom and hop out, totally whiffing on the words and an attempt to fly. Helli rolled out and Harry landed on a rail spike. Zeno transformed into a giant owl– a good choice, except the tiny hallways didn’t get him much space to fly and he too smacked into a wall. Awk became a bear and tried to save the cart before it impacted, but no luck. Lankin I guess also must have rolled off somewhere bruised.

But yeah, there we were, busted-ass cart well and truly busted, with two animals, a bunch of scrapes, and no mage.

“Wow,” I said to Owl!Zeno, “you were totally right about it being the left one! Good thing we trusted you and your excellent sense of direction!”

The owl looked momentarily ill, then horked up an owl pellet by my feet and flew back off down the tunnel where we’d came.

Bear!Awk sauntered over to smell the pellet. I put my hands on my hips.

“Well,” Harry said, dusting himself off, “we can’t get more lost.”

This was true and a healthy way of looking at it, even if I was still angry about it. I offered the broom to Helli and we rode along together back up the tunnel. We came to the sprawling blackness of the bridge. I tried to message Felegum, but we were still too far away because I got no response. Awk made some weird bear motions at us, which Harry and I did not understand, but eventually after continuing to walk along the tracks for a bit more we came across Felegum and Zeno again.

Felegum waved. “Hey! Did you guys get Dronie?”

Harry and I looked at each other. “Uh,” Harry said, “no.”

Dronie was not built to take commands from people other than Felegum, and so he was probably still back at the cart, eagerly pumping away at the hand crank on the broken pieces of the land vehicle. Felegum sighed and resummoned him.

Our surroundings were, well, not what we had anticipated. The cart had crashed down a dead-end tunnel, and where we were now was a massive cavern that went down and down and down. If I squinted, there was a little bit of an orange glow going on below us, but you know, it’s not like anyone can tell if it’s the right orange glow from this far away. We figured that, worse came to worst, we could always try to find a more direct way downwards, but we’d need a little more confirmation.

Felegum and I decided to hop on the broom and take a closer look. We’d done this tons of times before.

And for the first time, my broom faltered.

I noticed it was a little different when I was riding with Helli, but between a heavier Felegum and the updraft of the cavern walls, control was harder to find. It must have been back when it got singed as we escaped before– something about the enchantment was no longer holding right.

I flew us back up. “I hate this place, it wrecked my broom.” I landed in a huff and deposited Felegum back on the ground.

“Wait, take some one with you–” he called. “Maybe a gnome–“

But no, too late. I was not about to deal with that bullshit again. I descended solo. “I’ll be back in ten minutes!”

I kept within sight of the cliff– I didn’t want to get lost out in the darkness– but since Felegum had mentioned slimes and oozes potentially hanging around this far below ground, I also didn’t want to hug the wall and face one of those alone. Supports from the bridges embedded into rocks around me on the way down, and after eight hundred feet of descent, the walls started to curve inward a bit more, like maybe we were approaching the bottom soon-ish.

I was close enough to identify the orange glow as a pocket of lava breaching the rock surface, but not much beyond that. Then I saw another hole in the rocks– not hewn, but present– and instantly I wanted to go inside. It was on the far wall of the cavern, so a while away, but its inconvenience only underscored the likelihood that it had cool stuff in it untouched by other people.

I was about at the five minute mark, so I flew back up, shared what I’d found, and pitched the far wall cave entrance.

Because the rest of the group did not share my spirit of discovery, we left it alone and headed back up the tracks the way we’d come. It was exhausting. By the time we got to the spiral, I was back on the broom and still getting tired and Zeno looked like he’d been through the wars.

Suffice it to say that after four or five hours, we left the spiral, made it to the cart interchange, and were indeed a sorry, sweaty sight when we descended on the foreman.

“Which path is it, boss?” said a very pissed off Zeno.

“The right one,” he said smuggly.

“Alright, I’m done.” Zeno shook his head and cast Suggestion on the foreman.

At once, the dwarf became much more responsible to work with, giving us the key to one of the fancier magically powered carts and told us that the right path was actually the center one.

Just like I’d said.

Fueled by this vindication and definitely annoyed at both missing out on potential treasure and having the walk all the way back up, I thought I was well justified in taking a souvenir with me. Harry and Awk noticed, I tried to play it off as me admiring my new dagger again, but they weren’t fooled. No dwarves cottoned on, and that was the most important thing.

“Honestly, I am totally fine with you stealing from them, Set,” Harry said. “They deserve it.”

Awk nodded his agreement. “Yeah, definitely fuck them.”

Once the mage and the bard got the key into the cart and we started moving, Zeno vented his frustration via land vehicle.

“Oi, watch out there, you air-breathing idiot!” one dwarf shouted at him.

“Haven’t you ever heard of a Paripas left?” Zeno shouted back, piloting to the three tunnels again.

This time, we took the center path. Again, I felt smug and justified. It looked like the right path also rejoined this tunnel at some point, so yes, we had indeed chosen the one path that did not take us where we wanted to go the last time. After an hour of travel on the speedy cart, we reached a familiar open room where Helli had pinched the dwarves’ lunch (there were no dwarves working there this time), and then traveled briefly down the long curving corridor down to the mines we’d explored before…until we ran into that rockslide.

The rockslide that Zeno had very specifically paid that one dwarf quite a bit of gold to clean up.

“I’m going to kneecap him,” Zeno said.

To the dwarf’s credit, an attempt had been made to clean the rocks up, just not a very thorough or good one.

As Felegum hunted for a passageway or gap in the rocks, I took my winter boots off and switched back to my regular ones. I’d thought that Harry was being overcautious with his before, but now seeing my broom melted made me extremely against risking my nice boots. Hopefully these things wouldn’t melt my new dagger.

We did indeed find a hole to squeeze through and the heat increased significantly on the other side of the rock pile.

“Definitely not a balrog,” Awk said, wiping sweat from his brow and putting his mask back on.

“Is that from your book?” Helli asked.

“What?” He blinked. “Oh, no.”

Felegum at this point was getting tired and floated the idea of setting up the dome and sleeping for the night. We all thought that might be smart, and so we squeezed back through the rock pile to the cooler side and trekked the five minutes back to the open room the dwarves had been working in before where we’d parked the cart.

“Why did we do that?” Zeno asked, well and truly tired.

“Lack of foresight,” Felegum replied as he cast the dome, “that’s generally the source of our problems.”

And with that apt characterization of our group, we settled in for some much needed rest before the orb throwdown.

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