For a moment, I was happy. We were out of the fire. Everyone had survived. Things were going to be okay. However, this was short-lived. Behind us, a massive wave of fire was rolling up the tunnel. There was no time to do anything else but make a run for it back to the pile of boulders that would, hopefully, block the fire from coming up any farther.
So, we ran.
Felegum used a spell to make the earth a little easier to traverse and Lankin floated the idea of caving in the tunnel behind us. Unfortunately, it looked like we would probably also get caught up in the rocks falling, so we tabled that idea. Zeno emitted an encouraging yawp to himself. Running alongside next to me was Harry, and it did not take a long, lingering examination to see all the pus dripping down his face from his brush with death and fire.
Taking inspiration from Felegum’s slushie idea earlier, Zeno pulled out his mug, poured some water into it, and willed it to be cold before splashing it on his face. The water turned to steam in the sweltering tunnel.
Though there was fire behind us, it was still pretty dark ahead, so I lit up my necklace. It wasn’t doing a lot, but at least it was something.
Awk the goat, who was carrying Helli, bleated at Zeno.
Zeno shook his head. “The only fast song I have is ‘The Morning After’!”
Which he played, as best he could given the circumstances.
Felegum also played with ice a little bit, encasing his head in the stuff until the sudden temperature drop became too overwhelming and he had to break his ice cap off. It was a noble effort, as parts of the tunnel were melting down and breaking off.
In short, it was pretty unpleasant no matter what way you were getting through it.
Another tremor shook the tunnel as we ran through it, pelting us with lava globs and stone. Normally this would have been a pain but not too much for us to handle; this time, after having already escaped barely with our lives (some of us after a lengthy tug-of-war for them), the blast of heat and rock debris was nearly overwhelming.
Harry, Helli, Lankin, and Felegum all fell unconscious. Thanks to his periapt, Felegum would be fine, but we had three people who needed immediate help in a perilous hallway. Someone spotted a passageway to our left, a small cave entrance, so Zeno and I grabbed onto Harry and began dragging him that way, since he was the biggest. And also, you know, he’d already died and come back once, and it felt shitty to make him do that again.
We made it about halfway as Awk dashed to the cave with Helli on his back and licked her face with his goat tongue. That was gross but honestly, the least of my worries. Everyone looked so bad it was hard to figure out where to begin first. Zeno was tapped out and obviously I’d used my limited healing bringing back Awk earlier in the battle, so we were going about this the hard way.
I was using all the training I could remember from my parents’. But it was hard, trying to call all that back when rocks were raining down outside and I had no idea how to work with burns, whether what I was doing was helping or making it worse. I couldn’t make headway on Harry, so I moved onto Helli and got her back to a comfortable state.
Zeno, for whatever mysterious reason, did fine making Harry stable. Maybe falling into the lava himself had granted him some insight on what worked. Once that was accomplished, he dashed out to get Lankin onto the goat and slapped its butt.
Awk, dedicated to this job, pulled Lankin into the cave with so much aplomb that he dragged Zeno along with him.
Meeting back up at Harry, Zeno and I yelled at each other about how wrongly the other was handling this and got the dragonborn into the cave at the same time. We arrived just in time to see Awk licking Lankin as he had Helli (weird, man), so I sighed, brushed the goat’s head out of the way and went to work. As a professional. Within moments, Lankin was okay.
The three of us realized at about the same time that Felegum was still left out in the tunnel hallway– with everything going on and the threat of half our team dying, we hadn’t paid much thought to the guy who miraculously became stable. Awk galloped out and dragged him into the cave just before another round of fire rumbled up the tunnel.
We scrambled. I blocked the doorway with my cloak, hoping that its magical properties would help with toning down the fire. Awk also made a good goat attempt at blocking the flames, but even between us, it was just not enough. The four were looking bad– well, Felegum remained okay– and we briefly threw out options.
There was still about a quarter mile to go until we reached the rock wall and the cart. That was way too far to drag four bodies, and we couldn’t stay here because the fire would just keep on coming. Awk became a gnome again and, thankfully, had some healing spells left. He brought Felegum back to consciousness, perhaps hoping that the sorcerer would have something up his sleeve to get us out of this mess.
Zeno, once again whipping out his trusty medical kit, was able to get Harry back up, while I struggled with Helli, too frenetic to carry out the series of checks and procedures my parents had instructed me in long ago.
What if we all died down here? I had nothing left except illusions and sleep. I couldn’t do healing magic like Zeno and Awk, who were already on their way to tapping out, and I’d used my last potion on someone who died anyway.
My hands shook.
I was useless.
“Set!” Felegum yelled from near the doorway. “If you have one, give me your waterskin!”
Numbly, I dug through my stuff for my mostly depleted waterskin and threw it over to Felegum who was gathering them from everyone (including, it seemed, a vial of baneberry juice– no doubt Zeno’s contribution).
When he’d talked to me more about “feel” for magic rather than studying and learning it, I’d kind of written it off as a shortcut. Like, you couldn’t be bothered to put the time into actually doing it the hard way so you bamboozled your way through spellwork.
But seeing him drift the water out of the canteens like the liquid was an extension of himself, a ribbon trailing behind him in a complex dance, I began to understand what he had been talking about. Feel was different from study, certainly. It wasn’t how I’d figured out my tricks, but it was powerful in its own right, like being able to hear music that no one else could and then dancing along to it.
The water wove through the air, conducted into shapes and order. He hadn’t given up.
He had a plan.
I nodded, cracking my knuckles to get out the numbness and shakes. I still had things I could do, limited though they were.
I returned to Helli, my dad’s voice in my ear. Ensure good air flow, treat visible wounds. Steady hand, and look, now it’s just another puzzle to solve, Sethandriel.
Tearing off pieces of my undershirt, I went to work, and by the time I’d finished, she looked in much better shape. Not walking and talking yet, though not dying either. I was out of practice on this stuff, but I still had it.
The ice shield formed over the cave entrance, Felegum put his effort into making it strong enough to withstand the oncoming blast, with Zeno collaborating to keep it chilled for as long as possible against the extreme heat. The next blast of flame rolled up the hallway and the two at the doorway tensed, concentrating on holding and maintaining the shield through the onslaught.
Steam filled the cave. But when the haze cleared the shield still held, dripping and whole.
Beside me, Awk gave one of his healing potions to Harry. “Do you think,” the gnome said calmly as he poured it into the unconscious dragonborn’s mouth, “that we could use another one of these?”
He held up, infuriatingly, a second healing potion.
Here, Zeno screamed, not like in pain or anything, but more like extreme mental anguish that those had been on Awk this entire time and yet we’d gone through this whole ordeal of frantic last-ditch stabilizing of people for almost no reason. He grabbed the potion with another indignant noise and fed it to Helli.
Once we had everyone up, we decided to run for it. Felegum and Zeno folded the water shield back into itself and the sorcerer maneuvered it into the waterskins again, filling two about halfway. We’d lost a lot bring time. Lankin had been counting the breaks between the blasts to spot a pattern and said that he felt the fire was coming a bit less frequently, which only confirmed our decision to run like hell.
And so, we did.
Reaching the fallen boulders, the gnomes were able to get through fastest, being the smallest and easiest to maneuver through the gap between stones. We’d managed to make it all the way back up to the pile without having to endure another fiery burst from the mines below, but the glow at the curve of the tunnel was getting brighter, meaning another one would be on the way soon. Felegum, being thinest, went through the gap next, then me.
Zeno went next, with Harry helping shove him through. But because this was Zeno, he had to do it cheekily.
“You wanted to do this for a long time?” He winked at the dragonborn.
The monk sighed. “Because you saved my life I’m doing this gently.”
Zeno made it about halfway through torpedo style, but kind of had to crawl the rest of the way. There was a lot of heart in the performance but the execution was just not good.
Lankin was next, expertly squishing through the tight space. All that was left was Harry. Clearly disappointed with how Zeno’s torpedo experience had gone, he closed his eyes (well, he closed them as best he could given that one of them was looking a little gooey) and channeled his ki, bursting through the rocks in majestic fashion.
Felegum shook his head at all this tomfoolery and used a spell to try to control the fire after Harry came through so it wouldn’t hurt us on the other side of the wall. Not keen on staying here any longer than necessary, Helli was already locating the minecart. We piled in and once again relied on Zeno to handle the land vehicle.
He did, as only Zeno could.
What followed was a long, tense hour of the mine cart gaining speed and powering its way back up the surface as the glow behind us got fainter and fainter. I thought I imagined it coming farther up the mines than it had the last time, but I was too exhausted to think too much about it beyond being glad to be getting out. The higher we got, the more my spirits rose. This had been bad, but it couldn’t get worse, right?
By the time we reached the junction, I was a little salty that we never went down the cave entrance I’d found that one time.
Zeno, at this point fed up with either driving, dwarves yelling at him at various intersections, or maybe just caves in general, parked and threw me the key. “Set, if you want to go back, be my guest.”
I took the key. I had no idea how to drive, but it was a cool key.
The party entrusted me with leading the way back to the Loving Lettuce (“Set,” Zeno said, “I would love to go on a two or three hour walking tour of Egonia.”), or really finding any inn at all, since we were all super beat up, and I performed my duties ably. We were, of course, drawn back into the ever-enticing urban sprawl, a sometimes inevitable part of travel, but we ended up on this beautiful overlook, on a balcony where the entire city was spread out beneath us. It was nice, almost like the night sky.
We probably still looked pretty beat up, all things considered, but after two or three hours of walking through the city we were able to catch our breath and find familiar streets.
“Impeccable timing,” Zeno commented as the Loving Lettuce came into view.
It was packed. Lit, as my contemporaries might say. I had no idea why. This place had been super dead when we’d come by after our gambling excursion.
And then all of a sudden it hit me.
“Oh my god, this is your cocaine!” I swatted Awk.
“What?” he said, baffled.
I shook my head. It had been opium. “Your drug!”
Helli, also curious, tried to scale the side of the building to make her way in. I helped her up, professional to professional. Meanwhile, Harry chatted up the local dwarfs carousing.
“Anyone know a place with larger beds?” he asked, sounding about as tired and desperate as he looked, which was very.
One dwarf laughed. “There’s the biggest bed there is!”
And he pointed to the road.
Unsurprisingly, this was not received well by Harry and at this point Helli was out of sight on the roof, so Felegum began muscling his way through the bar. It took him a good twenty minutes, but he managed to procure us a table. I sent a quick message off to Helli to see what she could find from above as Zeno tried to hop into the swing of the music with his bagpipes. He did not quite match the vibe, but it had been a long day for all of us.
Harry asked a server for some food.
“Food?” The server replied, looking genuinely relieved. “The first sane people in here who want a tray of bread!”
Helli, or rather, a very sooty gnome, showed up. Zeno cleaned off the front of her face so she could see properly. She had also mysteriously acquired wine.
They came back with drinks and food, serving a massive tray of bread brushed with butter which Harry and I set into with equal ferocity. The reason for the massive popularity, we found, wasn’t due to Awk’s opium, but rather a drink that the Lettuce would occasionally get in stock. Apparently it tasted like different things to different people.
Felegum, at this point, finished brokering for rooms and headed up to sleep and crash. I did not have the fancy drink, but the others did. Lankin liked his so much that he threw his cup down onto the the ground and yelled, “Another!”
Besides the bread, heartier fare was also served. If you guessed cave slugs, congratulations, it was cave slugs. Presenting it like that, though, wouldn’t do the dish justice. It was braised cave slugs with plum compote. Naturally, anything cave slug made me think of Kheryph and the waiter recognized me.
“We’ve been teaching him tricks,” they said. “He’s a stubborn one.”
I was so proud I just nodded. “That’s my boy.”
Ultimately, I decided I’d leave Kheryph where he was for the night since things seemed so busy already (and he’d probably appreciate having another cozy terrarium spa day).
Instead, I asked about what the drink was that had everyone popping off in here and the waiter said it was something special that they only came up with once every few months. This batch, a particularly notable one, was Concoction 37.
More discussion with the waiter revealed that there were baths, but that the inn only provided hot baths during the morning. We were, not to mince words, really rough looking, and more or less begged the halflings to please let us use the baths, even if they were not hot. The waiter was kind and took pity on us and said the baths would be ready shortly, just not piping hot water. “Give me about half an hour,” they said, “and we’ll have them ready.”
We had some brief discussion of who should talk to the foreman, since that seemed like it was going to be a touchy situation. We’d yeeted the stone into the portal, hopefully closing it (though that seemed a little too optimistic given how badly things had reacted down there), but every one of our encounters with the dwarven foremen had gone horribly. Honestly, we had, at this point, had a higher ratio of success when we were in Nightscale’s place with the duergar.
Lankin went to sleep and the rest of us headed to the baths to take off at least one layer of grime and grit.
The pool in the Loving Lettuce’s basement was vaguely steaming, which was more than I had hoped for, and it boasted a robust collection of elixirs for bathing. Zeno elegantly bathed with no reservations, Helli took one ofthe herb-based elixirs and found a secluded corner for herself, ignoring Zeno, and Harry slowly sank in too.
One of his scales peeled off.
Zeno winced. “Don’t get that in the water, dear.”
This was…a lot. I made a plan to wake up early to get to the baths first, but since I didn’t want to go to sleep totally dirty I washed off my arms and hair, as best I could without removing my undershirt.
After toweling off and making our ways back to our small capsule rooms, I caught Harry before he went to sleep.
I’d felt awful for a long while after it happened, but between the running from fire and the almost-dying, there hadn’t been much of a chance.
“I’m sorry,” I finally said, not quite able to meet his eyes. “I got scared and I ran away. I couldn’t help you and then you died. I couldn’t save you.”
Harry shrugged, though even that small a motion looked like it hurt him. “Eh, it’s okay.” He paused and thought about it. “You ran away from me, but you saved others. I would feel worse if my death came at the cost of another. It’s more important that you chose an action and acted.”
I nodded, still kind of damp from the bath and let that sink in. Then I looked up. “You’re pretty strong, Harry White.”
Then, feeling lighter, I finally went to sleep.
The next morning was awesome. My plans to dash down to the baths first thing were quickly cast aside when the breakfast trolley came by with oolong tea and delicious breakfast specials, a beautiful coiled roll with spice wrapped in it and a gracious helping of icing dolloped on top.
I devoured it, then abruptly remembered my mission and made a break for the baths. It was so nice to get to sit there in the bath and actually get the dust, ash, and other cave dirt off me, and I was just starting to relax when the others came in.
I sank below the water, head only visible. “Harry,” I whispered, “could you hand me a towel?”
He did his best, but either the pool was too big or he was still kind of injured from the last day and dying, but the towel did not make it all the way. It fell in the water.
I was not too proud to suck it up and roll with it. I grabbed it, wrapped myself up super fast and ran out of there as fast as I could to dry off in my tiny room. To add insult to injury, I’d forgotten my clothes back by the baths, but naturally only realized this when I got to the room. So I ran back down the stairs, back to the baths, grabbed the clothes, and raced back up.
Finally actually dressed, I emerged from my room and found a cup of tea out there. Huh. I glanced down the hallway. A placid Awk sat drinking tea in his room. Ah.
I headed downstairs to see a halfling about a lizard.
I found Oaurrgr in the kitchen and talked with her about the breakfast rolls this morning and also how things with Kheryph had been. She was so excited to show me a new trick that he’d learned: she held a cave slug above him and he stood on his back legs and flared out his neck frills. Also, his front legs looked much stronger, like he’d gotten plenty of practice pulling himself around while we’d been getting burnt to a crisp.
Needless to say, I was delighted. I tried to offer Oaurrgr a tip for all her amazing work with Kheryph, but she would not accept it. “Just spread the word about the inn,” she said and smiled.
It did seem like they did awesome when they had their fancy drinks, but maybe on more normal days like when we first found them things slowed down. Well. We could do something about that.
Anyway, Oaurrgr had also mentioned that the breakfast rolls were made with this excellent mushroom flour. I remembered the tea. “I have a friend who’s really into mushrooms, actually,” I said. “He’d love to talk with you about this. Would you mind if I called him down?”
Oaurrgr agreed that would be fine and I fetched Awk.
“Hey, there’s mushrooms happening down in the kitchen, talk to Oaurggr about it, thought you’d like them.” I gave his shoulder a squeeze. “You did good.”
Slapping Lankin on the ass was maybe not how I would have executed the task, but no one got ice knifed. We’d take the win where we could.
Felegum, in the meantime, summoned Dronie back, and Awk returned from the kitchen with a bag of mushrooms. We headed off first to talk to the magicians on the teleportation circle and returned to Ingrin’s tent.
Ingrin welcomed us and took her kettle off its stone and poured tea for us. We discussed briefly messaging plans, Zeno threw out messaging Letitia again, and Harry remarked that someone had spoken to him…but that he hadn’t gotten their name.
This time, for a fee of ten gold, Ingrin sent a message to the Wardens department for Harry, stating the the stone had been thrown into the portal and that we were awaiting further instructions. Once that was done, she asked if we had other business, like additional Sending spells or to use the circle.
I saw my chance and I had to take it. It’d be, basically, most of my money now, but I figured, whatever, even if the foreman knocked a heavy chip out of our pay for the mine job, I wouldn’t be poor forever.
I took out ten gold and asked Ingrin if she’d be able to send a message to someone she didn’t know provided she knew what they looked like. She replied that she wasn’t totally sure, it would be a risk, but that she’d be willing to try.
I had to.
Casting my disguise illusion spell, I made myself look like Artemis Kalends. He looked like me, same skin tone, a bit taller, older– I think he was 23 or something like that– wearing leather armor and his familiar daggers.
Kalends was not about to like what I was about to do, I was pretty sure, but everything else I’d tried hadn’t worked. Grasping at straws for what might make him less suspicious about the spell, I asked if Ingrin knew Csipherian. She did, so I spoke my message for Kalends to her in that language:
Kal, it’s Set. Speaking through an intermediary. I’m coming back. I have something. Are you okay? Are my parents okay? It’s magic, you can reply.
Ingrin paused after repeating my words, then shook her head. “I don’t believe it went through.”
I nodded, frustrated but understanding. That had been the risk.
Ingrin must have seen my face, though, because she turned to a cabinet in her tent and pulled out a scroll. “This is a scroll of Sending,” she said, offering it to me. “Perhaps you can use this to contact your friend.”
I was flabbergasted. I offered to try to give her something, but she would not take it. “Are you sure?” I asked.
She nodded. “I hope it can be put to good use.”
We thanked her and left for the foreman’s, wrapping up hopefully our last bit of business. Harry really wanted to get some shopping in and buy some new clothes–he was, truthfully, not looking that great– and I’d seen a temple I’d potentially been interested in stopping by as well.
But unfortunately, things were not meant to be.
We sent in our big guns, which was Zeno. Negotiations went poorly. Much more poorly than even I’d been anticipating. The foreman was not into paying us, not even anything. This realization was still sinking in when things got so heated that the dwarf slapped Zeno.
Zeno slapped him back.
“Oh, so is that how it’s going to be?” The foreman asked and then blew a whistle.
Everything stopped. All the dwarves working around the foreman’s office ground to a halt, staring at us.
Zeno surveyed the audience with equal parts hauteur and casual pissed-offed-ness. “I paid one of you to clear out a cave-in. Which one of you didn’t do it?”
I had to admire that; that was some good use of stage presence and an ample stage to do it on.
However, the foreman was not as impressed. “Bribery!” he yelled.
The situation only continued to deteriorate. Dwarves were slapping their hammers against their palms, looking like they were ready to attack, and honestly they had the numbers on us. Felegum, sensing an opportunity to be petty, cast his alarm spell on the foreman’s desk so that it would make a ringing noise whenever anyone went by it.
Somewhere in all of this, there was a rumbling coming from the mines and the whole city began to shake. At once, we left.
As we were beating our retreat, Harry got a far-off look on his face, then said, “Good news, I finally know who I’m working for!”
We wanted to congratulate him, but escaping the city seemed like taking priority. Lankin wondered, “Is there an evacuation alarm?”
Finding none, he tried to scope out the place where the Den had made its yurt before, but it was gone. I wasn’t sure if Harry had enough time to get clothes or if we had to drag him out with us– I certainly didn’t get to go explore a temple– but we made it back to Ingrin’s place on the circle with haste. Felegum handed the crushed gems to her and she went about the process of moving the other magicians off the circle.
We debated briefly about where to go– Paripas would be a nice option to restock and get gear, but we were so low on money right now that I doubted we could afford another teleport out of there to some place closer to Csipherus. Even if we went north again, we’d probably be delaying getting to the desert by a much longer span of time.
“What’s the closest city to Csipherus?” Felegum asked.
“Tormani,” I said.
We communicated this to Ingrin, who nodded and began to draw in the ritual markings for the spell. She remarked briefly that we were leaving in a bit of a hurry, and some of the others laughed it off. The rest remained silent.
But like, Ingrin was nice. This city was full of people who probably did not deserve bad things coming out of the mines. Like the people at the Loving Lettuce and these magicians. I couldn’t just not do something.
So, I tried to warn her. I said that we’re worried that something bad might be coming out of the mines, that it may not be normal, and that if she felt anything weird about it, to just get out of here as soon as she could. She could teleport. She could run.
I did my best. But after a lifetime of lying maybe I wasn’t very good at being earnest because she looked and me and said, very kindly, “I’ve lived much longer than you. Don’t you worry. I’ll be able to take care of myself.”
She would not be the first person to tell me that. Maybe she’d be one of the lucky ones who meant it.
With that, Ingrin completed the spell and teleported us out. At first there was that uncomfortable pulling sensation between realities, and then it stopped.
The wind blew, the air hot and parched, and tiny pieces of grit stung my skin as I opened my eyes.