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Arkmar pursued Ryel up the steps, which would have unhinged a lot of people who were not dwarves or forest elves. The pillar, including the stair carved into it, was at most ten feet wide, and it wasn’t straight, but wobbled crookedly as it went up, looking like the core of an apple after the rest is even.

They paused for a breather perhaps halfway up. They sat down on the steps, which hardly swayed at all in the thick underground breeze, and had a smoke. “So what do we know about the Isle of Quadruun?” asked Arkmar.

“I’m guessing it’s an island,” said Ryel.

“It’s got a piece on it,” said Arkmar. “One of the Seventeen Pieces.”

“Or someone dripped blood on that spot.”

“No, it’s not quite the same color as blood,” said Arkmar, checking again in the dim ambient glow of the abyssal clouds.

“Unless it’s a different species,” said Ryel. “So was that a complete list of what we know?”

“It’s in the middle of the ocean, we know that. Maybe your Captain Alkwadir will stop by and pick you up. Did you fuck him, or his wife, or what?”

“His wife, actually,” said Ryel. “I missed out on him. So yeah, it would be good in several ways if the Storm Queen stopped by.”

“If it comes down to it, are you going to be willing to have sex with whomever in order to obtain the fifth piece?”

“Obviously,” said Ryel. “What a stupid question. You?”

“Ah, elf girlie, the question does not arise.”

They resumed their climb and it seemed like five minutes later they plunged upwards into the abyssal cumulus. It was warm and wet and suddenly utterly dark, except for a glow from the middle of the cloud that did them absolutely no good. Once Arkmar slipped and Ryel barely thought fast enough to stick a hand back and grab his hand to keep him from falling over the side; on the next turn around the spiral, Ryel slipped on a moist step and landed on her stomach. She slithered off the next step down and it was all Arkmar could do to grab her hands and keep both of them from sliding off into emptiness.

“Okay then,” he said as they stood panting on the step below, “safety first.”

“Great advice there,” said Ryel. She looked up. “There’s an island above this?”

“That would imply,” said Arkmar, also looking up through the opacity, “that there is an ocean above this.”

They looked up for another minute, then they shrugged and started to trudge on up. It seemed like five minutes later they were coming up out of the cloud and the ceiling of the Abyss was coming down to meet them. This crooked, skinny “pillar” met a downward bulge of the ceiling, and suddenly entered it, and then for what seemed like a long time, they were trudging up a chaotically winding stone stairway, wet and sometimes under an inch of running water. But there wasn’t anything to fall off into, and it seemed like way too much trouble to tumble back down hundreds of steps, so they trudged onward, Arkmar in front, Ryel in back.

Then they rounded a sharp corner and saw the light of day. They smirked at each other in joy, and took off at a stumbling run. It was further than it looked—it felt like the salesman was raising the price on seeing the eager faces of his customers. But soon they were hearing what could only be the sounds of the sea, and minutes later they were climbing the last few steps into a half-cleaned cave.

“What a rush,” said Ryel as she came up behind Arkmar. The cave mouth was ahead of them, and outside there were pines and palms and cypress. They stumbled on out and down the path to the beach, and that was where the local gnome police officers arrested them.