The rough tunnel gives way to a smoothly carved and paved passage, which leads to the east about forty feet. At the end of the passage, there is a large door of stone with a large glass grate in its upper half. A light flickers past the grate, in front of which dark shapes throw long shadows.
“So, do we just knock or?” Amaya says.
“Hail! Hail in there!” Nasti calls out in Undercommon.
“Oi! Who goes there, then?” a voice responds.
“Merchants who’ve come a long way to trade, please and thank you!”
“Ahh. Well, me ol’ mum always said money is the only money that’s money. Here for trade, eh? Show the color of your coin so we know whether yer worth lettin’ in.”
The tiefling holds up one of the trade bars. “We have this, for starters.”
Someone whistles appreciatively. “Aye, that’ll get ye in the door and no mistake. Now about the toll…”
She tilts her head. “Tell me.”
“Er … there’s a toll.”
“I would expect no less. How much?”
“How much is entry worth t’ye?” the speaker counters as a duergar face appears at the bars, sizing the ‘merchants’ up.
“You don’t expect our generosity within your community to, um … trickle down to benefit you in the long term?”
“Not as such with the current … administration, if ye catch my meaning.” The duergar sighs heavily.
“Crazy don’t worry much about economic stability,” comes a muttered voice from behind him, and he scowls over his shoulder.
“This must be this Wellfast we’ve heard about.” She’s telling her cousins, even though they don’t understand, but loud enough to be overheard.
“Aye, I suppose word gets ‘round. So, since his, ah, stewardship began, dregs such as us ain’t exactly on an upward trajectory.”
“Well, isn’t that just a kick in the teeth.”
“’Tis. Thus the need for a toll, eh?”
Nasti fishes a gem from the recent loot. “Will this do? It may be difficult to split between the two of you – Oh, I’m sorry, it’s going into the city’s coffers. Silly me.”
“Nice, boss. Subtle,” Canter snarks.
“Quiet, you,” she says.
“For that, ye get a hearty welcome to,” he pauses for a slight sigh, “Wellfast.”
“Excellent. Can I trouble you for a rundown of what to expect inside?”
The gates open and a grinning trio of faces greets you. “I mean. The bazaar is your likeliest port of call. Kavan there can guide you there.” A third duergar near a door on the opposite wall waves vaguely.
“Very good.” In a language the cousins understand, Nasti asks “Shall we?” and strolls inside with as much nonchalance as she can manage.
Kavan exits the room and when the cousins follow gestures east. The passage divides and divides again as multiple five-foot-square rough shafts delve out from the corridor in all directions. The sounds of hammering as of metal upon rock are faintly audible, but the echoes make the direction impossible to trace. Cart tracks are visible in the rock dust which lies heavy upon the floor. "There’s the mines. Not much for ya there, unless yer thinkin’ o’ changin’ professions.
After a beat, he takes a few steps south down a long square tunnel and says, “This way.” A short hike later, a corridor to the west opens into a natural cavern. The floor of the cavern slopes down to meet the edge of a subterranean pool, dark and quiet. The odor of fungus and moisture is strong in the air, and the faint sound of trickling water upon stone brushes lightly on their ears. Upon the far wall of the pool are what appear to be glowing gems embedded in the rocky wall of the cavern.
A pair of nude Duergar lounge in the pool on the far side, glancing up in curiosity when they see the group. “Well, I’m not getting up for this,” one says to the other in Dwarven. His companion glances at the clothes, weapons, and armor piled against the cavern wall and nods in agreement.
Kavan rolls his eyes. “Some natural hot springs, if ye’ve the inclination. All natural, unfortunately.” He shakes his head. The naked duergar raise drinks in salute.
The guide leads the cousins farther south a short distance then turns east where the corridor opens into a very large chamber. Seven mining carts are lined up along the eastern wall. The northern wall is one large rack half-filled with mining implements of all types, but rock picks and hammers predominate.
On the western wall, three giant tarantulas are tethered to iron rings. They all stand quietly feeding upon the corpse of some nameless deep-born creature. The spiders are tended by stablehands. “Don’t mind the steeders, none. They’re well-fed,” Kavan says. The spider-feeders barely glance up at the cousins.
“Mess hall for the workers, guards,” the duergar comments as he leads you past. “Likely of no interest to such as you, but hey. Full tour.”
“Slave pens,” he says a short while later in his most bored tone so far, not even glancing to the west as you pass by. Nasti lingers there a bit too long.
“Additional guardroom,” he says as the party comes upon three more armed duergar. “One moment, please.”
“Oi, what’s all this, then?” says one of the guards.
“Traders from the Darklands. Special Delivery,” Kavan says, giving them a significant look.
“Ah, right, right. Er. Welcome to (ugh) Wellfast, then.”
“I’ll have to update my boss when we get back,” Nasti says. “They still think that Selvandel is running things here.” That earns her a few disgruntled looks but no further comments.
“Assorted rubble,” Kavan says as the passageway opens into one end of a large chamber or hall. The area extends to the west some forty feet before a mass of rock rubble blocks the rest of the twenty-foot-wide and twenty-foot-tall passage. It is impossible to estimate how thick the rock debris is. Another smaller passage gives off this hall to the south.
“Smelters,” he gestures to the southwest where actinic light flares and flashes into the corridor from an archway in the corridor’s western wall. The odor of burnt iron is strong in the air, and the nimble of chanting voices bides with the clang of metal and the roar of raging fires. “Elevator’s this way,” he adds, heading south down a hall.
Kavan gestures toward a ten-foot-wide alcove on the eastern side of the corridor. A thin crack marks the point at which the passage ends and the alcove begins. An iron grate can apparently be pulled across the inside of the alcove to block it off from the hallway proper. He enters and waits while the cousins uncertainly join him in the small room.
The end of a thin metal chain can be seen through a square hole in the ceiling, which is pretty low. Kavan reaches up through the hole and works some magic that enlarges the chain, which causes the elevator to descend smoothly after an initial jerking drop.
At the bottom, he opens the sliding gate, and the adventurers exit into another hall. To the west are boxes nearly blocking a passageway to a larger area, but Kavan ignores that to head down a short southern hallway, where he opens a door into a loud area.
Before the cousins is a tremendous open space, obviously carved from the rock by intelligent hands. The massive rectangular chamber appears to be a large “open-air” bazaar, in which dozens of semi-permanent tent-like structures are arranged into neat rows. Duergar can be seen milling between the tents, apparently bartering with shopkeeps over strange inventories. The torches and magical glow that light the entire area cause strange shadows to be cast thirty feet up onto the walls of the ten-foot-wide stone ledge which bounds the entire chamber. Duergar riding giant spider mounts patrol the ledge, eying the shoppers and traders in the bazaar below, ready to intervene at the first sign of trouble. Various doors and alcoves open off the ledge and the bazaar.
“Excellent!” Nasti says with only half-feigned enthusiasm.
“Enjoy your stay. Your money, as well.” Kavan offers a casual little salute, then heads back north.
“Bro, thanks bro,” Amaya calls to Kavan in Dwarven as he leaves.
“Bruh,” he acknowledges.
“Stick with me, Nova,” Nasti says.
“Sure thing,” Nova agrees.
“I’m kind of looking for somebody,” Nasti confesses in Elven.
“Oh? Who?” Nova asks.
“Twue wove…” Canter says, batting his eyelashes.
It’s hard to see her yellow eyes roll, but Nova knows Nasti well enough that she sees it. “When Chen was … HERE before, she made herself useful by teaching a merchant’s son. I can’t think of his damn name, though.”
“Ah… Well, it’s a good thing there aren’t too many merchants around,” Nova says drily.
“I’ll say,” Canter says.
“We should also see what we can find out about Wellfast the man, and what happened to the duergar who was running things back then, Selvandel.”
Nasti uttering the name of the former leader of the duergar fortress draws a few curious glances and frowns. Switching back to Undercommon, the tiefling says, “I was just saying that my information was out of date. He was running things the last time they sent someone here.” The nearby denizens quirk eyebrows, then go back to their business.
“Maybe some of these merchants speak other languages?” Nova suggests. “Let’s find out.”
Amaya is drawn almost immediately to what appears to be a smut booth. It has the serendipitous name Dark Wings, with a sign design that vaguely resembles something any Lepidoptera enthusiast can appreciate. The spread (ahem) is … generous. They celebrate many a form with the works they display and sell.
“Oh. Oh, my,” Nasti says.
Amaya pulls out her list and checks to see what books/scrolls she’s missing. The tiefling gives the half-elf a trade bar and says, “This is your limit.”
The slightly bored-looking duergar manning the booth perks up a little as the trio approaches. “Welcome to Dark Wings, ladies. We have – well if not everything, so much that you’ll likely leave satisfied. What’s your pleasure?” It sounds more rote than salacious coming from him.
He sizes the three of you up, his eyes leaving then returning to Nasti’s chest. No, her necklace.
“Excuse me, Miss. That’s a lovely piece. Mind if you tell me how you came by it?”
Her breath catches. “My beloved gave it to me for luck.” Her voice drops. “Did you know her, when she was here?”
He tilts his head back, slowly beginning to nod. “That a fact, then. Good. I think that’s … good.”
“She’s safe. She’s happy. My name’s Nasti. Who are you?”
“Nasty,” he says, trying it out. “Me? Oh, I’m mostly no one these days. Barram, they call me. Barram Broadhand. I can see your friend is rather interested in our wares,” he adds, indicating Amaya, who has not looked up from the selection. “I can see about a discount if you think you could see fit to … Maybe sit down for some coffee? There’s a shop nearby.”
“Do you have a fist edition Brokeback Barbarian?” Amaya breaks in.
“First and First Fist Editions, yes,” Barram says with a grin.
“How much for both?”
“Depends,” he says, answering Amaya but looking at Nasti. “I could maybe give ’em to you if we could talk more about that necklace.”
“Of course,” Nasti says.
“Hav, I’m goin’ on break,” Barram calls over his shoulder, then gestures for the cousins to follow. The group heads over to a shop and orders coffee and snacks.
Once they are seated, the duergar seems hesitant to begin. Finally, he speaks and in Common. “Is Chaandrea,” the pronunciation is a little different, “really well?”
“She’s fine,” Nasti says. “She’s the head of a guild, and she’s getting married if the world doesn’t end.” Nova quirks an eyebrow at this news, but Nasti continues speaking. “Was she your teacher?”
It’s odd to see a wistful expression on a duergar face, but Barram’s displays one. “Aye, teacher and at one time I had hoped for more. But no. Foolish childhood crush. She came to us, what … fifty years ago? More? My father acquired her as a learn-ed slave to manage the books. He was bad at maths, my father.”
“She told me that much, anyway,” Nasti says.
Barram nods absently. "She was good at maths. And … kind. The first – maybe the only kindness I have ever been shown came from her. He shrugs, “So naturally. A young duergar falls in love with a slave. Tale as old as the rocks.”
“She is a remarkable woman,” Nasti agrees. “Even in the darkest hour of her life, she chose to be kind to you.”
“I made her that necklace. Saved up a fortune to buy the nephelium. She kept it. All this time.” His eyes get a little watery.
“Indeed, and I promise you that she didn’t give it to me lightly. In fact, I think she expected us to find each other.”
“A nice thought, no? Right, so you probably know this next part. Thirty years ago. Or whatever. Time is illusion. Surface dwellers come and cause chaos.”
“Well…” Canter says, but Barram cuts him off with a glance.
“Quiet, winged-thing. This is a story, not an invitation for audience participation.” The dragoncat looks guilty. It’s a wholly new experience for the onlookers.
With a nod, the duergar continues. “She come to me, she say. She have to go. Only chance. Unhappy. Broke my heart. But.” He shrugs. “It’s true, you know. I know it. And I … I let her escape. Distracted father. She left. Took necklace. Kept it,” the last is said as though he’s still marveling. “Guess she made it back to her world.” He brushes the back of one hand across his eyes.
“Yes. Thanks to you, Barram,” Nasti says softly.
“She wasn’t the only kind one. That was a big sacrifice, helping her go,” Nova says.
He waves a hand dismissively. “Should have done more and earlier. But socioeconomic realities. Bah. You’re not here to talk politics. Unless … Why ARE you here, anyway?”
“The surface world is in chaos, Barram,” Nasti says. “Fire and war and doom as far as the eye can see. We believe that the answer is down here.”
“Oh, it is. Crazy-ass Master beyond the Twisted Caverns send his little gibberlings out the second the damned gates opened.” Barram shakes his head. Godsdamned mess. And gonna draw trouble," he gestures at the cousins, “to us.”
“The surface dwellers who came before were here because of that gate. Those gates,” Nasti says.
Barram’s confusion is evident. “I don’t follow. The gates open every thirty years or so and surface dwellers always come, I guess.”
“There were three crystal components that they brought to… refocus the gate. I’m not sure if they succeeded or not, honestly. But I’m sure it’s falling to us to do the same.”
“I don’t know anything about crystals related to the gates opening, but as you say. Crystals… Hmmm. I know Wellfast has a red crystal rod. Some kind of symbol of his status, I figured. Ugh. Wellfast.” Barram makes a sign to ward away unpleasantness and is joined by a couple of other nearby patrons.
“Why am I not surprised?” Canter says.
“He’s one of the surface dwellers,” Nasti says, talking almost to herself now. “We found the remains of another, but still don’t know what became of the other two.”
Barram shakes his head helplessly. “He WAS a surface dweller. Something happened to him beyond the Twisted Caverns.”
“Oh,” Nasti says.
“Ew,” Canter says.
Barram nods. “Now … Nightmares slide beneath his skin. Everyone here is terrified of him. Don’t want to be made the next example…”
“Does he set examples that often?” Nova asks. “I guess that’s why this place is so heavily guarded?”
“Often enough. But no. Guarded because Wellfast commands it. To stop surface dwellers when the gates opened.”
“Never seen cavalry quite like that above the bazaar,” Nova says.
Gesturing up at the spider-mounted guards ringing the grand promenade, Barram says, “That? A lot of money flows through here. That’s just good business. No, Wellfast is more concerned about something more than basic market security. He doesn’t want anyone to access the Twisted Caverns. Like any sane person would want to.”
“On behalf of his Master beyond them.” Nasti is gathering puzzle pieces in her head.
Barram shrugs. “Like as not. Those caverns … They are filled with horrors beyond telling.”
Nova sighs. “We’re going to have to do something stupid again, aren’t we?”
Nasti’s nod somehow conveys grim determination. “We have to do one stupid thing so that we can go and do the second stupid thing.”
“Well as long as we have a plan,” Nova says.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, but you seem resolved,” Barram says. “There is a well-guarded path leading to the Twisted Caverns from the bazaar, but trying to enter it would pull every guard in the citadel down on one’s head.” He pauses, thoughtful. “You said you needed a crystal. And Wellfast has one. If one of your ‘stupid things’ was deposing that monstrosity, you might find fewer enemies after than you might expect.”
“It sounds like the place’s loyalty to him is less than total, right. That’s exactly what I was thinking. What’s the best way to get to him?”