FEAR IS HOW I FALL, CONFUSING WHAT IS REAL: in which the heist is concluded without drama and we come to collect

We left to head back to our old rooms at the Axe of Fire, having planned a visit with Letitia in the morning. Awk was overly insistent about “getting into” her “private library,” which Zeno and I did not let him live down, so it took us a little while before we had to just abandon him to the Mage’s Tower, but we made it back to the inn where Linda Rueburn, proprietor, was waiting for us.

“Linda, Linda, Linda,” Zeno called, arms wide open. “It’s so good to see you again.”

She greeted him with a smile. “You as well. What’ll you have?”

“Beer,” the bard said with relief, collapsing into a chair.

“I have a coffee cream nitro beer,” she said, holding up a glass.

Zeno exhaled in quiet joy. “That sounds perfect.”

Meanwhile, Lankin was rummaging through his coin purse. Zeno paused in his appreciation of the brew. “Lankin,” he asked, “do you have…money?”

“Yeah!!” Lankin exclaimed. He did indeed have money. Just not a lot. Well. I stepped up to the bar and ordered a red wine. Partially, because I felt I needed it after our discussion earlier and partially because I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through another round of intense questions about home again without one. Anyway, worst case scenario, Lankin could always sleep on the floor in our room.

As I reached for my own coins, Zeno slid money across the bar for me, covering the wine. I looked up, then nodded.

But it turned out we didn’t talk much about Csipherus, but about next steps in a vaguer direction. We unanimously elected Felegum as our administrative bullshit handler, which was productive.

On at last being told that her library wasn’t so much a library as a collection of books that could be pulled from given a topic, the gnome at last allowed himself to be led back to the inn.

We contemplated next steps over drinks.

“Maybe,” Harry mused, “we should buy another cart?”

“Maybe,” Zeno replied, and then we all had a moment for silence for Buttercup and Dave, eaten to death somewhere on the Shark’s Tooth by the painted memory of the first Soveriegn Dungeoneering Cart. Maybe it wasn’t quite time for a new cart just yet. “Linda,” he said, turning to the half-orc, half-elf proprietor, “do you have horse?”

I nearly spat out my wine.

“No,” she replied, “unless you want a special requisition.”

Zeno gazed into the middle distance a moment. “Do it.”

I elbowed him, suddenly concerned. “Are you going to reanimate the horse so we can do transport on a budget?”

“No.” The bard scoffed. I wasn’t sure if that was a “of course not, Set, why would I pay tons of money to reanimate a horse when horses are cheaper to buy alive” or “I was actually considering it but now that you mention it my mind has changed” kind of “no,” and sleeping on it yielded no further insight.

Breakfast the next morning was the typical, expansive affair it always was at the Axe of Fire: multiple options, all of them smelling delicious and wafting their way up the stairs as we came down for food. Lankin had indeed been able to get his own room, so he was well rested and fine when we came down. There was meatloaf, sausage, bacon, with a nice brandy reduction over it, and then the whole thing was lit on fire, which was awesome, like this breakfast meatloaf flambé situation.

Anyway, the piece de resistance was a pastry-like loaf of bread that, as Linda sliced into it, revealed spirals of yellow-white paste inside. What looked like flour on top was a powdered sugar, and inside the loaf slices were little pieces of nuts and dried fruits.

I obviously had to go with the swirly bread.

Once Linda had lit the meatloaf aflame for the people who were getting meatloaf, she peaced out and we were left to the delectable dismantling of our foods.

Our first order of business was to head to the Mage’s Guild, especially prismatic in the earlier morning light. We’d arrived a little early to figure out basic things about guild membership that everyone seemed to think we knew, but didn’t, since we were all from out of town. This time, a female triton in full mage regalia was at the infodesk.

“Good thing I already fixed my hair,” Zeno said quietly, and then walked up.

I shook my head. Waterpeople and this dude, I swear.

“Anything I can do for you?” she asked.

“Hi,” Zeno said, leaning on the desk. “How are the tides today?”

The triton mage looked very confused.

“Oh my god.” My palm met my face. I had to intervene. “Hi,” I said, stepping up. “Could you point us to the Registrar?”

I had a weird feeling we’d been there before, but then again maybe we’d been to some other different registration place. I wouldn’t even be surprised here. They probably had registration offices in at least ten varieties, all distinct in minute details. The thought made my skin crawl.

“B3,” she replied, and we were off, descending once again past the global cafeteria in the first basement, through another basement, and at last to the Registrar. At the desk there, a dwarf and a gnome worked on some contraption together. Taking the lead, I asked about registration.

“Do you have a status update form?” The dwarf asked, nonchalant.

A form. I looked at Felegum and mouthed “help.”

The mage sighed. “Where do we get the forms from?”

“A high-ranking person in the Guild,” the dwarf replied. “Do you want to hear information about the different ranks while you’re here?”

Oh, did we.

What followed was an in-depth breakdown of the four major wings of the Mage’s Guild, which were in turn subdivided into smaller groups. The four major wings themselves were artisans, prehensors, magi, and pathfinders.

The artisan wing was made up of four subdivisions: artificers, alchemists, infusers, and versifiers. Artificers and alchemists were pretty straightforward to understand, but we had to ask about the other two. An infuser was a mage who specialized in making items magical that were mundane before. A versifier, on the other hand, made works of art magical, like Helli’s music box.

The prehensor wing was all about information gathering and organization, compromised of people with or without magical talent. It was made of two subdivisions, archivists and illuminators. The archivists did what it said on the tin: they stored and kept knowledge. Illuminators were people who sought out information and brought it back to the Guild.

The magi, or the mages, were divided between the eight schools of magic, though a mage sometimes belonged to multiple schools. This felt pretty self-explanatory.

Last, the pathfinder wing had three subdivisions: executors, inheritors, and wardens. We definitely needed more information on all of those, since nothing about that was self-explanatory, but luckily there was no one else at the desk and the dwarf had time. The general vibe on pathfinders was that they typically preferred to act more independently, that they were a more adventuring sort.

Executors were members who not only reported information back to the Guild, but often did this from widespread realms, and in general provided assistance to other members of the Guild. Inheritors were in charge of retrieving objects for the Guild, and wardens took care of problematic creatures that needed taking care of.

In general, pathfinders and artisans were the wings where merchants and members of more common guilds tended to end up, or those without magic. The Guild itself had members in far-ranging cities and places, and it seemed like there were many doors open in it regardless of where you ended up. Kind of like an endless library, which was cool.

The dwarf also mentioned that sometimes the crossover between wings led to interesting results: some warriors were also versifiers, for example, and brought their artform to the blade or more martial pursuits.

I tried asking if the dwarf had ideas on where in the giant library of this place I could find something, but he told me I’d be better off asking an archivist about it. And also that they’d probably be thrilled to help me out.

Before we left, I think Felegum asked the name of the dwarf registrar who’d been so helpful, and it was Riggold.

From there, it was back up to the 17th floor for our 10am meeting with Letitia. She had black fingernail polish and it looked pretty cool. Per usual, she was rushed and somewhat exhausted-looking already and was relieved to hear that we’d already figured out the different options for what our positions in the Guild could be.

She asked us, then, what we positions we wanted to hold.

Felegum went first and chose to be a mage of the school of abjuration. Letitia nodded approvingly of his choice. Zeno went next with illuminator.

“How do your illuminators go about their tasks?” the bard asked.

“With old-fashioned persuasion,” Letitia replied.

There was a small pause, maybe because that sounded a little dark or maybe because we were expecting more than just…talking to people to be the answer.

“Well, it works,” she brushed it off. “Do you have a new piece of knowledge to recommend you for this position?”

Zeno raised an eyebrow. “We shared a lot last time.”

“That is true,” she said.

Helli, to no one’s surprise, chose artificer. Her clockwork mice have always delighted the people she’s shown them to on our travels, and it seemed like a fine choice.

“Do you have an example of something you’ve created?” Letitia asked.

But instead of a mouse, this time Helli took out her music box.

Now, I have heard of this thing. I knew Helli was enchanting it or having it enchanted, after she’d built it to play Zeno’s “Tale of the Wicked Arena,” and the last I’d heard it seemed pretty effective magically. So I did the most natural thing that came to me, which was hiding behind a table. I don’t know, it felt like a good idea at the time.

And who knows, maybe it helped. All I am certain of is that I felt mostly in control of myself when that haunting melody started playing, not staring into it with the same blank expression that Lankin wore.

Letitia laughed, clearly delighted by the collaboration. “Most excellent!”

Helli accepted this praise, then thought. “Any tips on how to get it to not affect me?”

“You could always throw it?” Letitia suggested.

Helli looked scandalized. “Well, I’d prefer not to…”

I whispered to her. “My Mage Hand could operate it within thirty feet…”

And thus, perhaps, a new collaboration was born. We’d have to see how far we needed to be out of range for the music box to not affect us anymore, but at least judging from Lankin’s momentary stun, hopefully the effects wouldn’t be too bad if we goofed.

Letitia turned to the rest of us and asked if we’d made our choices, so, naturally, I stepped up.

Snapping my fingers (not a necessary somatic component but definitely necessary for flair), I disguised myself into a near-perfect replica of Letitia. I wasn’t entirely sure if both hands had the nail polish on them or just one, so I took a guess. Either way, I figured, made an impression.

I was used to people asking me to prove my worth and I was used to impressing them.

Except that Letitia didn’t look so much impressed as contemplative, even staring at her mirror image. “You’re very afraid,” she said.

Instantly, I bristled. “I’m not afraid.”

Hide behind one couch and everyone’s a critic.

But she just smiled, like she and I were not talking about the same thing. “You may think that,” she said and raised a hand, “but there is much fear in you.”

And all of a sudden I wasn’t in on the 17th floor, or in the Mage’s Tower, or even in Paripas at all, but back home, in familiar streets. And for a moment, everything was as it had been before all this mess started, my family, our home, the city aglow in sun and sunset. But then everything shifted: my parents’ faces went haggard with worry, the shop more and more barren as herbs and poultices vanished, the Sun Stone in shadow as Csipherus fell to ruins.

I was on my knees, face wet, unsure if what I’d seen was my own memories or what was happening now.

The disguise spell was gone.

“Being afraid,” Letitia continued, “is not a bad thing. Fear has driven many people to do wondrous things. If you could channel it, then perhaps…” She sighed, then looked at me a little more kindly. “Do not be ashamed of what you carry within you.”

Easy for her to say when she didn’t have to live with it.

“Magi, for me. Illusion,” I said.

She tapped her lip with a finger a moment before nodded. “We’ll have to see.”

What that meant, I don’t know. As fun as it was being officially on Team Mage with Felegum (we will need a secret handshake or something), I’m still not sure how far I trust these magicians. They’re smart, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a different kind of smart from what I’m used to, a language of cleverness I can’t translate fast enough to be sure that I’m keeping up. I prefer directness.

Anyway, Harry was next.

“I have a knack for retrieving things that seem to need retrieving,” said the monk who had more or less carried the Aegis over weeks-worth of taiga and frozen wasteland, with some assistance from Lankin. “I find paths between through things, that’s the way of the monk.”

I was half-expecting some comment about how these paths had lately been through seafood or ghosts, but no one did, because what Harry had said was true: he was our most expedient route between two points, a dragonborn-shaped fist to the throat of all our problems.

Letitia seemed to agreed. “You might be surprised how many times punching a hole through something has led to unexpected results.”

This actually did make Zeno laugh. And not wrong: we had experienced that wisdom for ourselves many times.

Awk had not been present and we hadn’t seen him during the day either, a little worrying.

“Is he okay?” Zeno asked Letitia.

Probably, I thought. The real question was, were the people around Awk okay?

“Yes,” Letitia said, “he spent the night here.”

With the business of taking ranks concluded, we moved onto the next matter.

“Milto!” Felegum said with a flouish. “At last we can open the vault!”

“Just pop over to Paripas, he said.” Zeno snorted.

“No time at all, he said.”

“It’ll be fun, he said.”

Firbolg thus lambasted, we followed Letitia down to the elevator and then down deep to the vaults. In order to open anyone’s vault, we learned, you had to present their name and their rank within the Guild. Milto’s ranks, according to Letitia, had been infuser, diviner, illusionist, and executor.

The infuser part made sense given that he owned a shop– he’d need to enchant items, after all– and so did the executor part– getting between a tiny place like Janwald and Paripas surely would have taken a lot out of a young magician. Or even a more experienced one, fleeing. Illusionist, though. We’d see about that.

We concluded our business with the vault desk attendants, who both looked hype that a vault was actually being opened, and entered the vaults themselves.

Letitia held out her hand, and her nail polish shifted from black to gray, like some sort of authentication, and the stone wall before us turned transparent, like glass. “Ah yes,” she said, half-present, “I believe we should find it down here.”

Before us was a hole doing straight down with stairs winding around its sides toward a circular door at the bottom. Once we reached the door, there were three sigils. When Felegum put the signet ring he’d gotten from Milto on the right one, it glowed orange. The one at the top, permission from the Mage’s Guild possibly, was already glowing green-yellow.

For the last sigil, Letitia placed her hand on the one to the left, murmured a few words, then turned her hand and pulled out a wisp of a ward that dissolved into thin air.

At once, light sucked into the center of the vault and I briefly worried I was going to have to fight something again. But no, that was it. It was just like looking into darkness. The door was open and everything that had been in there was gone.

Hopefully, back to Milto. There was a part of me that imagined him cleaning his shop, making a potion, or trying to tell something overpriced to a customer, and being startled with a deluge of twenty-or-so-year-old magical items interrupting his home life.

Another part of me wondered if they’d made it back to him at all. I’d thought that there would be more certainty, more flair.

Shows what I know about magicians, I guess.

The way out was cool, though: once we were back above the door again, liquid stone filled back in the space where we’d been, pooling up from the bottom to the top. It was an intricate process, the stone shapes covering the surface and rearranging themselves until everything fit neatly. We walked back up the rest of the stairs, following a line of light emanating from the marble stone until we reached the desk again, and the marble behind us was just marble.

The goblin attendant was very excited. “It’s not every day we get to clear out a vault!”

Felegum, as always thinking ahead, asked about a teleportation circle, and Letitia explained that yes, the conjurers in the Guild did indeed run a circle but that it cost some money to use. It had been about 850 gold to transport us and the cart the last time.

Which, no one pointed out, she’d paid herself, not telling us that it would be an inconvenience. Either she was pretty rich and that much money was not an issue, or she’d been kinder to us than we’d thought. I didn’t think someone would drop that kind of money on people they didn’t think would come back.

Or who knows, maybe she was a gambler. She’d gotten the Aegis out of it, after all. 850 gold probably was chump change compared to that.

The circle could also be used for return teleportation, at an additional fee. How much had Letitia been willing to spend on us without telling us? If she’d thought we wouldn’t come back, it would seem foolish to go to the excuse of return transport.

But at the same time, it really did feel like we got thrown to the wolves on Nightscale there. People seemed to assume that we knew what we were doing a lot more than we did.

There was more circle discussion. We thanked Letitia, let her get to her work, and headed up to the teleportation authorities to get prices and specifics. When asked about teleportation to Csipherus, we were informed that the circle there was closed, sealed shut from both sides. This was really zero surprise to me– no one came into the city– though the fact that the mages in Csipherus had taken pains to contain whatever was happening and not save themselves seemed fairly altruistic.

Maybe they thought they could fix it. Or maybe they just escaped a different way. Who knows. But either way, a lot of people had left us high and dry.

There were a few circles along the coast that we could go to. We debated this, then also debated Lake Norka and possible commerce to help cover the cost of teleportation. It had been a little easier when we’d had the cart, but now, cartless, horseless, and generally a bit over traveling exhaustively on foot, the lure of magical transport was strong.

We’d learned most of this information from a small side hut near the teleportation circle, where a little female orc explained it patiently. It would be 100 gold per person to a known location and 75 gold per person to a known circle. When Zeno asked about a return trip, that was trickier and pricier: 175 gold per person, way too rich for most of us.

We scheduled a trip out to Lake Norka for four days out at dusk. Also, there would be a 5 gold surcharge for Kheryph, because he would also need his life essence dismantled and re-mantled or whatever.

Harry asked what the nearest known circle was to our destination, and that was 87 miles southwest in a city called Egonia. So, we figured, we could always just have a trip to Egonia and then teleport back to Paripas after.

“Okay,” Zeno said, settling it. “One way it is, then.”

The party then broke into two groups: Lankin, Harry, Zeno, and Helli went to go talk with some pathfinders about potential jobs, and Felegum and I did some library work. The Registrar had told me to find an archivist after all, and I intended to.

One of the nice things that I learned on the way down to the library was that we no longer, as Guild members, had to pay for food. I made a mental note of this for lunch and headed into the library.

From there, I embarked on a familiar quest: how do you get an animal from this plane to be your familiar? Divine intervention had done some good for Kheryph– he was alive and that was great– but there came a point when you had to stop asking gods to do all the legwork for you and actually fix your own problems. As Letitia herself had intimated, the arcane was happy to step up where the divine left off.

Anyway, it felt like a complicated shenanigan so I asked for help.

Archivist Lavalle was a nervous person, and this was not helped by the fact that I had to ask her name at least like three times because I kept pronouncing it wrong, but she was really helpful and was able to locate for me four tomes on nonstandard DIY familiar-making. They were all falling apart and I too, perhaps abosrbing Lavelle’s anxiety, held my breath turning the more fragile pages and hoping I didn’t unleash an army of book mites or whatever.

In essence, it seemed possible. The reading I did seemed to indicate that you’d need banishment and recall spells– Felegum had made a valiant attempt to banish Awk earlier, so maybe that was covered– which were uncommon, and then something to bind a creature’s essence to your own. I guess the more traditional familiar spell had that inherent in it.

I returned the books to Lavelle with my thanks, as Felegum finished up his reading on Egonia. We chatted a bit– it was a dwarven city at the base of a volcano, not a very nice tourist place, considering the ashy air and constant forges, but it sounded memorable.

We met back up with the others in the global cafeteria.

Zeno, clearly having also gotten the you-don’t-have-to-pay memo, was going to town on a steak. Harry also had a steak, apparently overcooked because Zeno was giving him hell about it. Helli sampled some Fallow’s Reach fare, either a corn spice pot pie or a creamy stew– there was some debate about combining Fallow’s Reach and Reach’s Fallow foods to make a pie pot pie, unsure how that would work– and Lankin was putting away jowl bacon at an impressive rate.

If Awk was there, it was probably in vegetable world. Or not, who knows. Maybe we were witnessing the downfall of our party in slow motion, as our vegetarian gnome slowly unraveled eating meat until he snapped and finally turned. Zeno postulated a theory that maybe Awk was just eating mushrooms the whole time and not actually a warlock.

I ate a whole plate of after-mains as a meal, a feat never allowed by my parents, and clearly for good reason because I felt super sick two-thirds of the way through, but still managed to finish. They were cinnamon-covered and so good, and despite momentary discomfort I did not regret it.

Felegum had a sensible salmon salad.

After lunch, we headed outside to Helli’s dwarf artificer friend, who agreed to move the enchantment on the Shield of Kelp to her armor.

“Did you know that I just joined the wing of artificers?” she asked him.

He was delighted. “Did you show off your clockwork mouse?”

She shook her head. “I don’t have any on me at the moment, though they’ve wandered the world. Wolves saw one, the goblins saw one…”

She asked about training materials in artificing and the dwarf laughed, clapped her on the shoulder, and told her to experiment. She nudged Zeno and muttered something about the glasses.

“Oh, that’s right!” Zeno in turn nudged Harry, who brought his begoggled head forward. “We think these are nightvision goggles. Can you tell us if that’s true?”

The dwarf squinted at them, then exclaimed, “I crafted these! I made them for my very close friend Velmary, who was supposed to be back by now. He was late.”

The goggles were, in fact, Goggles of the Night. I was quietly smug about it.

We also let Helli’s mentor know the sad truth of Velmary’s death. He accepted it stoically. “I hope they serve you better than they did my friend,” he said. He settled on a price with Helli to move the enchantment and also agreed to help instruct her in the basics of artificing more of the next few days.

From there, the next few days passed as we rested up and enjoyed not fighting for our lives every moment. Since the only temple I’d managed to locate was one with zero divinely magical people in it, I took matters into my own hands and tried to feed Kheryph some of the Elixir of Health in an effort to cure his back legs.

I used about a quarter of the bottle up before realizing that nothing was happening. Frustrated, I apologized to the lizard and we went to bed.

We opted to sell the Rod of Liquefaction until we reached Egonia– as a mining town, Felegum figured that it would fetch a much better price there– and after identifying the other wood rod we had as another Wand of Magic Missile, Felegum sold that one for pearl money, since this was becoming very expensive.

Maybe we should just set up a system or something. A group fund.

The day we were going to head out, we packed everything up and did one last swing by of the merchant’s quarter. I annoyed someone by purchasing a Potion of Healing with gold instead of a writ, and we stumbled upon the Goblin Shopping Network’s main Paripas branch, run by none other than Farwyn.

He was standing atop a six-legged construct sort of thing that did not look particularly stable, but seemed to be holding. All the shops around his seemed to be nice, but this– this was a glorious pile of weird goblin junk no doubt giving some order-loving Paripasian a heart attack, and it stuck out like a sore thumb.

And it could not have been more welcome.

Farwyn himself was dressed in snappy red vest with a purple pattern, and it did my cold heart good to see him doing so well for himself. “Legitimate business!” He waved over, greeting us. “Goblins going to docks!”

Soon, no doubt, to conquer the ocean.

With that, we got right into the business of, well, business. I held up the Potion of Death (still unused, I had been saving it for a special occasion) and asked after more of it. Farwyn did not have more of that particular kind, but he did have a Potion of Siezing which I quickly purchased, especially after a demonstration on some willing but wary employees of the GSN.

It was pretty metal. And coming from a Mage Hand? Ho boy, the things I had planned.

It was Helli, though, who single-handedly came up with the best idea for the Goblin Shopping Network ever: grab bags. You give them a certain amount of coin, Farwyn chooses a thing for you. What it is, you have no idea until he tells you. Or not. That’s the joy.

Helli’s 10 gold netted her a canvas bag. Considering that we’d bought HFVNN, aka the Bag With No Holes, from the GSN, bags were a highly coveted item. This one was a Pouch of Wind– it contained a Gust spell, which seemed very useful.

Harry’s 6 gold resulted in a call of “Minkin!” to an employee, who brought forth a jar, containing maybe a canteloupe? Maybe something different. When Harry shook it, it made no sound. That was a mystery. According to him, it did feel very solid, though.

Lankin went for broke. “I’ll give you one gold for something ugly,” the elf said, holding out his money.

Farwyn held up a polished metal plate. “Look inside!”

Lankin squinted, then looked closer. “It’s so shiny!”

We all sighed collectively for Lankin.

Next up was Felegum, going in for one platinum piece. His purchase was a 10-inch square of fine red cloth, which according to his Detect Magic spell was magical. He’d have to figure out what it did later.

Not wanting to be left out, I went in for 15 gold. Go big or go home, right?

Farwyn eyed me. “You like foods, yes?”

I nodded, then he handed me a carefully packed eel jar. A jar of eel. It was not, unfortunately, magical, but I had no idea what it did beyond that. Food? Maybe. I did have three-quarters of an Elixir left if things went pear-shaped.

Zeno was observing all this with somewhat amused detachment, until Farwyn called: “We have goblin drink you can try!”

“Ooh,” Zeno said, instantly perking up.

“One gold.”

“Done.” The bard handed over the money, received his drink, and…it was a lot more than was expected, judging from the heat rising in his face.

“It’s a sipper.” Felegum observed mildly.

“Yeah,” Zeno said, coughing, “it’s a sipper.”

From there, we bid our farewells to the city for now– I was a little disappointed not to receive a letter back from Sonard’s family, but understood, and more worried that nothing from Kalends had come through– and went to the teleportation circle. One familiar twisting sensation and 105 gold later and we were in a field at dusk just outside Janwald. It was strange to be back.

What was also strange was the screeching noise from above, and the two manticores firing spines down at us. I got speared, a little too near Kheryph for comfort, and immediately began thinking defensively.

Ever since I’d seen my reflection in those three plates that Helli, Zeno, and Felegum had dredged up from Nightscale’s lair, I’d had an idea for a spell but I’d never actually carried it out. I tended to get hit a lot, and I thought, well, if I can’t upgrade the armor or move faster, then why don’t I just give my attackers something else to hit instead?

Solving problems with arcane means.

It was at this point also that Zeno realized that he’d left his zombies somewhere in Paripas, having been tipsy enough to have forgotten them on the way out. He muttered that they were probably terrorizing people somewhere now, but probably Paripas and its eternity of mages had two rampaging corpses under control.

Helli unleashed some magic missiles, and the beasts swung fifty feet up in the air, firing down at us again. This time I actually managed to get out of the way of the spikes.

Helli unleashed some magic missiles, and the beasts swung fifty feet up in the air, firing down at us again. This time I actually managed to get out of the way of the spikes. Zeno yelled scathing words at the creatures and Harry even managed to catch a spike and throw it back before responding with darts of his own and taking a defensive posture.

Lankin got super angry (maybe now realizing Farwyn’s joke) and threw a dagger at one of the manticore.

And then, I finally got my words and gestures just right. One copy, then another, and then one more fluttered into being around me, until there were four Sets, three illusory and one real. I may not be particularly burly, but I could be tough to hit.

Behind me, Felegum raised his hands and banished one of the manticores. It winked out of existence and we just had one to deal with for now.

Zeno, not deterred, was right back in with the trash talk. “What are you, some shitty bird?” he called up to it. It seemed actually rattled. He turned to Helli. “Take down that shitty bird.”

Again, Helli sent forth magic missles toward the manticore. It, in turn, wheeled down toward Zeno, attacked, and then took flight again. Lankin was quick enough to get in a swing of his battle axe at it, but it bit down on Zeno, locking him in its deadly grip.

The bard did his best to fend it off. “Buy me a drink first!”

Losing its purchase, the manticore took to the sky again, frustrating a lot of us. Harry pulled crazy monk stuff: running, then leaping and grabbing it to grapple from below and stunning it, crashing into the ground with the manticore incapacitated. Harry, being Harry, escaped without a scratch.

This was the perfect opportunity for Lankin, who carved into the manticore with his battle axe. Right through the spinal column, it was done in seconds.

Which left one more.

We took a brief time to position ourselves, Lankin got a bow from Felegum, and then the mage dropped the banishment spell. The manticore spun back into the fray, with Zeno trying to inflict blindness on it (it did not work) and then running away to hide in a little crouched form behind Helli. Helli threw a dart at the manticore, hit it, and then ran to hide behind Zeno, a much more effective shield.

Then, the manticore scooped me up before I could fight it off. It did its best to bite me, but it kept biting my duplicates, eventually dispersing one of them as we rose twenty feet in the air. Again, Harry leapt into action, jumping an obscenely high distance to quarterstaff the manticore in the throat. Lankin used his elf powers and mastery of the bow to shoot the manticore and not me or Kheryph, and at that point I burst out my wings, hoping that the surprise would be enough to break free.

It was not, but I was glowing a lot for the evening.

Then, out of nowhere, a column of water appeared mid-air, meticulously and artisanally crafted with a Set-shaped hole in it so as not to hit me. It was this sort of thoughtful thing that made me really appreciate Felegum. Sure, we gave him well-meaning crap about all the forms, but he also did not ice shard us out of carelessness.

With some dark-sounding whispers from Zeno and another dart from Helli, the manticore fell to earth and I had just enough time to wriggle out of its grasp to float down unharmed as it crashed and expired behind me. And for a brief moment, six-eyed and six-winged, I felt pretty cool.

Then the spell ran out and Zeno puked, dizzy, because apparently seeing all those Sets converging back into one Set was too much for him after the goblin port.

“I know, right?” I said. “My new spell is just sickeningly good.”

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