BATTLE SCARRED, TORN APART, WE’RE ALWAYS FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE: in which we assail a portal and fall in lava

We rested in the dome after that exhausting journey down and by the time I was awake again, it was still up. Perfect. I tactfully grilled Felegum on his magical expertise with the dome and ritual book, since we have different spellcasting styles. I usually have to figure stuff out and study like hell to commit what little I know to memory and for him it seemed much easier.

“It’s just like, ‘bam! That feels right!'” The mage flicked his fingers toward a pile of stones and they assembled into an orderly tower. “Like that.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but like, do you know the principles behind this thing or do you just do what it tells you to do in your ritual book?”

He replied that it was mostly the latter, but that he was able to do the motions with such gusto and enthusiasm that it just worked.

I poked the outside of the dome a few times, watching my hand slip back and forth through it without resistance. “And you use what for components?”

“A small bead,” Felegum said proudly. “Crystal.”

I nodded, deep in thought, then touched the dome again. “I bet I could do this.”

Harry shrugged. “One man’s magic is another man’s chi.”

Before I could ponder that, the dome dropped and Zeno surged into wakefulness with the onslaught of heat. “Coffee? Coffee?” he asked, bleary and somewhat forlorn.

I did not have any, but this did remind me that I had something for Helli. I pulled out the light globe I’d stolen in a fit of pique yesterday when all the foremen we’d encountered had been staggeringly unhelpful. “Helli,” I said, elbowing her, “I got you something when you were kind of out of it after breakfast. To, uh, say thanks for helping me with the dagger earlier.”

“Ooh!” Her eyes lit up as she accepted it. “Thanks, Set. I’m going to inspect this later.”

My new dagger, on closer inspection, had not yet revealed any more secrets. It did have an opalescent sheen on its milky white surface, which was cool, with a thin groove on both sides. It was curved, like you’d think a former incisor might be, and it was sharp. The pommel had a small guard with a coil of brass wire around it and thin strips of leather wrapped around the hilt. I was biased, obviously, but it was a pretty kickass weapon.

I was skeptical enough not to think that this was automatically going to make me into a legendary hero or anything, but still: people told stories about things for a reason. Maybe not the most accurate stories or the most illuminating ones, sure. Everything I’d been told about this weapon, though, said that it was powerful and that it could help.

That was all I asked.

Plus, it pretty much came from home already so it seemed kind of important that it go back there eventually. Or at least be wielded by someone from there. I don’t know, I’d just feel weird seeing something Csipherian in someone not from there’s hands.

At this point, the realization had dawned on Zeno that there was no coffee to be found so he bespelled some water to be hot (a truly baffling decision down here in the hot mines) and taste like coffee (adding a pinch of dirt for realism and texture).

Harry noticed me noticing this. “The greatest tricks,” he said calmly, “are the ones we play on ourselves.”

Lankin, who was not into tricks, went to start moving rocks away from the pile that we’d squeezed past back and forth. They were hot so he kicked one with considerable force, and it bounced down the hallway on the other side of the pile.

Which, now lacking a support at its foundation, rumbled somewhat ominously.

We went through the hole Lankin had created without issue and continued down the curving hall back to the mines we’d been in before. I went ahead for a little bit to see if anything was coming up for us, since the last time we were here I’d gotten a bad feeling about us being chased. But no, nothing. It just got hotter and harder to breathe the deeper we went, though we weren’t running into any gusts of wind or sharp sand yet.

Then Harry went ahead to see what he could spot for a while and held up his hand. Zeno fist-bumped it. Lankin gave him a high-five.

Harry sighed. “No,” he said quietly, “there’s something ahead and we need to be quiet.”

He took out a piece of meat and dropped it onto the tracks. It had gotten so hot down here that the tracks themselves had started to melt, though the meat, which was already dried, didn’t seem to show much in the way of change.

Deciding not to cross the track bridge (also melted) that had a flame monster hanging around it (the same, perhaps, as the one who had singed my broom), we headed to the right, hoping that one of the other lava river crossings might prove less guarded or less hot.

Of course, this was about when we started to run into different trouble: the ground rumbled and a rush of heat swept over us. Harry, who was unable to sweat, panted more heavily in an attempt to cool down. When this didn’t work, he took his water skin, drank from it, and then poured it over himself.

Awk offered to help Harry somehow, perhaps wanting to help a dragon-like ally, but Harry refused. Possibly because Awk asked it like, “can I touch you?” which probably could not help but elicit narrowed eyes and a terse “no.”

Anyway, Harry continued to sneak forward past wobbly remains of former ooze to a balcony.

“I’m no chicken,” Awk said in a serious voice, “but I’d say you could cook eggs on that stone.”

“Valid,” Harry replied.

“We don’t want to go over there too long.”

“Agree,” added Zeno. “Let’s see if there’s an easier way over.”

We continued on to the right, Zeno leading this time as Felegum took a moment to make himself a slushie out of water, turning it to slightly melty ice with a spell.

Awk called out to Helli to make sure that she was okay, since she’d fallen behind the others a bit.

“I’m okay,” she replied. “I’m just keeping an eye on that path.”

Her voice trailed off. I couldn’t see her, so I could only guess that “that path” referred to the slime path she’d gone down before.

Unfortunately, we also ran into more bad news when we reached the third crossing, the other bridge. The tracks over the lava river here were also melted away, according to Zeno. It was going to be difficult no matter what choice we made for our crossing spot.

On his way back to the group, Zeno tripped on a nail and narrowly avoided hurting himself on rusty iron or something. I don’t know. Awk made some sort of noise go off farther down the tunnel near one of the flame monsters, but it didn’t get much of a reaction out of the flame monster. So instead, Awk approached the fire creature by the third crossing and took out his book.

Unfortunately, it was hot enough down here that the pages were not doing so well. One started to catch fire just due to exposure to the extreme heat, and Felegum put it out with a well-timed spell.

Harry returned to the middle crossing, and sensing what he was going to do, I crept back down the tunnel after him. Meanwhile, Felegum and Awk stayed behind at the third crossing with the gathering force of fire beings.

The sound of a rush of water filled the space, as I imagined Felegum had summoned a tidal wave onto the lava. There also seemed to be a noise from the cave itself, as though the very space reacted to the sudden surge of water. Harry leapt across in one graceful movement, landing on the other side of the crossing without issue.

What was an issue, though, was the spinning tornado of dust and wind blocking the path to where the portal had been ahead of him.

He tried to sneak past it, but it slammed into him anyway. Beyond that, I couldn’t make out too much beyond some glowing shapes– which, if experience was anything to go off of, did not mean good things.

Harry yelled something surprised and angry, but it was lost in the howl of the wind. Whatever it was, we all probably needed to get in there.

Lankin made the leap look easy, sailing above the lava river and past the tornado in a furious rage.

Perhaps the elf made it look too easy, because it convinced Zeno, famously unathletic except when running away from things, that it was within the realm of possibility for him. He backed up, took a running start, and leapt, grabbing for the ledge and missing it, plummeting right into the lava below.

Helli screamed. “Zeno, are you okay?”

No answer.

I handed her my broom and she took it, invoking the spell for flight and promising me she’d do her best to avoid getting it burnt up more.

Something else happened down the hallway– the sound of something growing, I think– but I couldn’t tell. The flame creatures seemed preoccupied with it, whatever it was, so that was good.

I summoned my wings and flew across the gap and over our burning bard. “Zeno!” I yelled. “Grab onto me!”

Zeno yelled something incoherent, and it was at this point that Felegum, fast version, swept into view at top speed, casting a protection spell on Zeno as he sped past. Zeno, meanwhile, climbed up the wall a bit, lava hardening into rocks shaped like cubes that fell off of him. He muttered a few words of encouragement to himself, looked a little less beat up, and let out a groan on seeing that his cask of baneberry wine had exploded in his misadventure.

“How many casks am I gonna lose?” he moaned, covered in fire and regret. A small wine cloud hung over him, which Helli flew across the river and into, also to help pull him out. Awk cackled somewhere else presumably down by the third crossing, no doubt causing havoc for us or others.

I grabbed onto one of Zeno’s shoulders, which were still encased in rock, and tried to pull him out. However, I have always preferred agility to strength and unfortunately my skills were ill-suited to that situation. I dropped him. Or rather, I couldn’t even pull him to begin with and I actually ended up ripping a shard of rock out of his shoulder.

It was wild. The rock was hot and sharp and hurt me to grab, but when I’d ripped it off Zeno, the armor beneath the rock was clean and untouched.

Magic, man.

Hastegum used his extreme speed to clear the middle crossing with ease and also grabbed onto Zeno with me and Helli. Felegum, arguably about as strong as me or weaker, pulled another chunk of rock off Zeno in an attempt to rescue him.

At last, with all three of us helping him, Zeno was able to wrestle his way out of the lava and back onto the ledge. He stood, shaking off the rocks that had hardened onto his armor and patting himself down where he was still on fire. “What do we got over here,” he said. “Guys, I am in perfect condition.”

His words did seem to be having a healing effect on him, but he still looked pretty beat up all things considered.

Helli dismounted the broom and scooped up some of the lava shards from Zeno’s adventures, perhaps for later study. I admired her willingness to get hurt for her passions, because those things were definitely sharp and I wanted nothing more to do with them.

Somewhere down the hall, Awk’s voice called out, “Onward, Flameo!” and a rabbit made entirely of fire, which he was riding, cleared the gap and rushed past the tornado into the portal room.

Sensing that this was where the action was to be had and relieved that Zeno was not dying anymore, I headed that way as well– right into an angry mass of tornadic wind.

It hurt like hell. I did my best to dodge as many of the rocks as I could, but I guess my angle of approach had been bad because, man, did it get me. I cast Mirror Image on myself because yikes, I was done with getting hit by things for a while.

Now that I was on the other side of the wind vortex though, I could see what was going on. Several things stood out: more hot dogs, several of those skull things that had incinerated us before, rocky magma creatures that glowed from within, blistering heat, and…

No portal.

I swore. This must have been what Harry was yelling about.

He and Lankin were exploring down other rooms behind the vat of lava and fire where the portal had appeared the last time, another magma golem blockading their ingress.

Behind me, the air vortex intensified. There would be no easy way past it for Zeno and Helli, let alone Felegum. Then I heard a loud shattering noise, and thought that probably Felegum had his own, likely complex plan for how to deal with too much wind in a tunnel.

“The portal isn’t here either!” Harry called as Lankin lead the way back into the main room. They seemed to be moving from the righthand exit to the lefthand one.

A blood-curdling bagpipe trumpet roared through the cavern and I smiled. At least Zeno was feeling well enough to be a mammoth. He rampaged through the vortex with Helli behind him, using his massive body as a windbreak as she drew her Danger Dagger and invoked its poison.

Awk rode his flaming hare steed over to Lankin, who was facing down one of the magma-rock behemoths. “Lankin, where’s Harry?”

“He said we should pull back!” Lankin yelled. “It’s not where it was last time!”

I shook my head. Of course. It would get complicated when we were all on a very limited timeline of how long we could spend in this hot room. Tracking Harry’s movement, I flew to where I could be close enough to support him as he went for the lefthand room to scope it out, but not so close that the hot dogs would feel immediately threatened. Just in case, I warded myself against blades.

I had no desire to find out how hard those claws and fangs could hit.

The wolves gathered in a blockade pattern before me, not attacking, just barring the way. Fine by me. It wasn’t like they could fly.

Meanwhile, the vortex sounded upset. I didn’t know what Felegum was doing, but it did not seem to be enjoying it. I wasn’t even sure if the tornado was alive or magic or just air currents, though this sound definitely pushed it more toward the “alive, also suffering” side of evaluation.

One of the magma golems smashed through Awk’s loyal rabbit steed and another stepped in to flank him. I was about to call out to Lankin to get in there and do something about that when all of a sudden, a familiar dark sphere opened above the vat of lava.

A vision of an extravagant palace all in bronze beckoned toward us, gleaming in the impossible heat. It was hard to look away from something that intricate, that beautiful.

Harry recovered first, taking advantage of the portal going wide to show us this compelling image to throw the stone he’d received from the Mages Guild into it. The stone was sucked in unimaginably quickly, but nothing changed.

“Well,” Harry yelled, “it seems like we’re still pretty fucked. Sphere’s away!” He called out again, louder.

Lankin, who had not stopped looking into the portal, struck a pose and took a running leap and swan dive toward the portal. “Lankin away!”

It was at this point, though, that the portal convulsed in on itself, shrinking to a smaller size and causing Lankin to land, not in the City of Brass, but in the sea of lava. He hit the surface with a sizzling slap and a yell, and then silence.

Somewhere behind me, the mammoth was attacking something and Helli was stabbing magma golems, her kelp armor retaliating with steam whenever creatures made to attack her. It seemed like a great strategy to keep cool and stay safe and I envied her for it.

Awk yelled out, “Lankin!” and a burst of thunder pulsed through him. Hoping that this would be enough to distract the creatures attacking him, he tried to move toward the elf, but one of the magma golems was too fast for him to dodge and its blow sent Awk to the ground, limp.

“None of the adults in my life,” I said through gritted teeth as I flew carefully around the portal to get to the elf, “can do lava.”

I grabbed onto Lankin, hoped that all those push-ups he’d made me do had done something, and pulled, throwing him out of lava and onto the slopping sides of the vat.

One problem solved. I glanced between Awk and Lankin. Now, which problem to solve next?

Helli’s armor slapped out at attackers as she held the line for us outside. I had to chose fast.

Except that was when the portal behind me began to shift and roil with flame, and I had a feeling things were about to get much worse.

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