Harry and Zeno tried to see where we were, and we soon learned that no, we were not just outside of Janwald by any means. According to Zeno, the water was to the east, but considering the amount of mist and fog rising up, it was hard to tell. What stuck out most, when you actually squinted out to look for them, were the spires of the islands on Lake Norka we’d come across in our travels that way last time.
Meanwhile, Felegum was poking around the fallen manticore bodies with a knife, trying to figure out how to extract magical components from them. “I don’t even know how to harvest things,” he said, after a while.
“Go harvest, buddy,” I said. “Get in there.”
Zeno did, taking two eyes for himself, per his custom.
“Why aren’t you going to make those zombies?” Awk asked.
Zeno turned to the gnome with eyes in hand. “What?”
Awk backed off.
There was some discussion of what was valuable and Felegum seemed to recall that it was tails and blood. Harry had a vial, but the mage also recalled that manticore blood was notoriously difficult to transport. So, tails seemed the optimal bet. Zeno cut off one and Helli lent Harry one of her daggers to begin sawing off the other.
In the meantime, Lankin picked up an entire manticore and tried to stuff it into HFVNN. It did not fit, frustrating the elf immensely.
It was about at this point that we started to hear more cries above us in the air, similar sounds to what we’d heard before the manticores attacked us the first time. Not wanting anything to do with that, Lankin dashed off into the bushes. Harry hacked away at the tail for some time, unwilling to bend, while I thought that probably it was the safer bet to trust the barbarian who had experience with woods. I’d been shot once by a tail barb already today and I was not desperate to pick another fight as these things saw us mutilating their friends or family’s bodies.
But Harry stoically sawed on, even as many of us hid, and lo and behold, he did indeed come away one manticore tail richer. So maybe there’s something to be said for not erring on the side of caution.
Whatever. Harry doesn’t have an extremely wounded lizard to protect.
With some more trudging through the forest and additional consultation of mapmaker-slash-navigator Felegum, we managed to find the edge of the lake and made camp there overnight. Zeno smelled the lake water, which was only a little cringe, but I guess that’s what you do when your most recent liaison is a mergirl.
“Is there anything in the lake?” Lankin asked, also watching Zeno.
“Oh, Lankin,” Zeno sighed, eyes on the surface on the offchance they might spot his beloved.
I turned to the elf. “There are a lot of things in the lake.”
“Lankin,” Zeno said, returning, “I will sing you a sing of them. Later.”
We all knew exactly what song that was going to be. He took the manticore eyes and transferred them to HFVNN for safekeeping. HFVNN had clearly reached his peak as our eye-storage bag. I hadn’t even realized we’d need a bag for eye storage, but this is what the adventuring life had taught me.
This naturally led into the HFVNN talk with Lankin, aka explaining that the Bag With No Holes was indeed sentient but also kind of intractable. Zeno, Felegum, and I had all tried to varying degrees of failure and I had written it off as too time-intensive for me.
“Maybe I should talk to him,” Awk said.
Zeno or I made some offhand comment about Awk’s patron secretly being the bag, which I thought was very funny and caused the gnome to turn to me. “You’re bad at talking to people, aren’t you, Set?”
I held a dagger to his neck. “What makes you say that, huh?”
There’s a difference between being bad at something and choosing not to invest time into it. I was good at lying to people, just not very good at getting them on board by telling them the truth. You work with what you got.
Anyway, the rest of the night was pretty lowkey. Felegum set up the dome for us and Helli found some tracks. We were mostly confident that we were outside of the realm of manticore suspicion. Awk became a brown bear for a while and caught some fish for us in his bear form, an appreciated gesture, though the fish ended up a bit mangled from their journey in bear jaws. Helli and I made a fire.
All the while we made camp, the fog got thicker and thicker. I did not like it and said so, as I was wont to do. It didn’t feel magical, but you never knew. Didn’t have to magical to be bad news. Awk cast a spell to try to find magical things in the area and got nothing out of the usual, so it felt like the fog was probably natural.
Harry sighed, gaze fixed out through the cloudy waters. “I hope we don’t have to go back to the lake.”
Felegum shivered in memory. “Ugh, tendrils.”
Now comfortably settled down in a mood to perform, Zeno regaled us with the Ballad of Lady Zen of the Lake (“her lips, a beautiful shade of turquoise”) and Awk made his fish-lips jokes again. The smoke from Zeno’s bagpipes added to the fog, except that when the bard was done playing the bagpipe-smoke curled back into the instrument liked something inside of it was sucking it back in.
We split up into watches, with Felegum and Helli on the first one, Lankin and Awk on second, and me, Harry, and Zeno on the dawn shift.
It was about as foggy as it had been the last time I’d been awake. Morning had not yet arrive to burn off any of the low clouds.
“Hey, Set.” Zeno nudged me. “I might have learned a new thing in the frost giant’s cone.”
“Oh?” I asked, but nothing more was forthcoming. Zeno did like to make a show out of things, and honestly, it was kind of fun that way. I did not have particularly fond memories of that frost giant, but I was glad that Zeno had gotten something out of it.
Talking with each other, we learned that the first shift had heard a chorus of screeches during their watch, and no doubt those were the same screeches we were hearing now in the distance. Awk, during the second watch, had cast Speak with Animals to try to understand their cries, and he’d been able to glean that they were hunting something. In an effort to protect the camp, he’d taken the fish carcasses about a hundred yards away for whatever was out there to find and not come here.
According to him, he’d felt the wings of whatever was out there beating through the fog.
Harry, Zeno, and I exchanged a look. It sounded a lot like some angry manticores. Zeno listened closely to the screeching around us and said it sounded like four of them. We had about twenty or thirty minutes left of dome time, so we woke everyone up and made a plan to get out without being attacked as much as we could.
Part of the problem was that no one wanted to lead the manticores to Janwald and to its defenseless inhabitants, but at the same time, we also wanted to avoid a battle if we could. We were well-rested and could probably take on more of them if we needed to, though. Eventually, we settled on Awk helping us blend into our surroundings with one of his druid spells and I used my own magic to cast an illusion of a fog cloud around us. It wouldn’t hold up to close scrutiny, but I was banking on the manticores being stupid enough not to see through it immediately. It would buy us a little time, at least.
Two to three minutes into the spell, a large flying creature swooped past. Felegum cast his Arcane Eye spell, allowing him to get a Dronie’s-eye-view of the situation without actually putting Dronie in danger. According to him, the fog went up and up and up for a long while, though once his eye was above it, he could sometimes make out the shapes of manticores flitting in and out through the cloud.
So, our hunch was correct. The beasts were back.
My illusion wore off after ten minutes (it’s a concentration thing and you’d be bored too if you had to think constantly about animating a sun-dappled cloud nonstop for ten minutes), but Awk’s spell lasted for a while longer and we came upon a river without incident.
The fog was still everywhere, and Felegum confirmed through his extra eye that indeed the manticores were still in it above us. Zeno entertained the idea that maybe they were tracking us through the tail, so he and Harry threw it into HFVNN for safekeeping. HFVNN, we can only imagine, was thrilled.
This was, at least to what little we knew of local geography, the last big river before we’d get to Janwald. We just had to cross it and then we’d be free and clear.
The issue was, of course, crossing it.
“I can carry someone!” Lankin said, picking me up while I went for my broom.
“Put me down!” I nearly shouted it, but at the last moment had the presence of mind to remember that we were being tracked by birdlike things-of-prey who would no doubt appreciate the loud noise.
Instead, after I was returned to terra firma, I spoke the broom incantation and floated. “I can carry people across.”
Harry, deciding that there was no time to be wasted, set across the river on his own, wading stoically through the water as quietly as he could. I took a moment to admire his confidence, both in his ability to defend himself and also swim, and then motioned for Felegum to hop on.
And thus, Set’s Delivery Service was born.
I flew over the river, listening for manticores and hearing them flying around us as I white-knuckled the broom and got Felegum to safety on the other side. I’d hoped that Harry would have made it there already, but I guess I was just a really fast flier in my anxiety-fueled state, because we’d beaten him there. Felegum instead hid behind a rock or something and I flew back for Helli, once again feeling wingbeats around me.
I got my comrade-in-daggers, and was in time to catch Awk transforming into a giant toad and Lankin pointedly refusing to ride him. The last time I’d been there, Lankin was gushing about wanting to ride a wolf or a bear into battle, and I suppose Awk had chosen a form most suitable to water. The elf, however, was having none of it.
Helli and I set off, her guarding my back as I piloted us over the river again. The manticores swept close, but we seemed to be flying under their notice for now. I dropped her off and flew back off again.
It was always worse the times when I was flying back by myself, when no one else knew where I was in the fog, and no one was there to help me out if something happened.
So of course, it would be during one of these times when things went to hell.
Out of nowhere, Harry let out a screech no doubt intended to mimic the manticore screams we’d been hearing all morning. It was in all fairness a good beginning attempt, but it was not quite as fearful or as practiced as the real thing was.
“Come here, you overgrown bat!” he shouted.
I exhaled. Okay. So much for stealth.
When I landed again, Zeno was all by himself and just pacing by the riverbank. Lankin had outright refused to be carried by Awk and was wading into the river following Harry’s example and the toad himself had already swum off, so the only one left was our bard. I told Zeno to watch my back as we flew, and he sat side-saddle as was his custom.
Thus began the longest flight of my life.
Somewhere in the darkness, a torch was lit and then flew around in fantastical patterns– so either someone was riding a manticore or had lit one on fire, I had no idea. There were a lot of splashing and punching sounds.
“Get me as close as you can to one of them,” Zeno said. I nodded and sped off into the fog.
Behind me, Zeno began reciting something and also playing the bagpipes, which bewildered me, but whatever, stealth mode was blown for now and my main goal was getting him across. Maybe it was a song of protection or speed or something. Maybe the bard was just looking out for me.
A shape appeared in the distance and I hurtled us toward it. “This better be cool,” I muttered to Zeno and craned my head around.
With that, Zeno blared his bagpipes and fell off the broom.
I yelled out something, probably “what the fuck!” or “don’t do that!” and made to dive down after him because surprise, surprise, you shouldn’t play the bagpipes and fly, but then the magic took hold. Zeno, who had canon-balled himself into a tight circle of pipes and music, glowed then erupted into the trumpeting form of a mammoth, except the trumpeting was all bagpipes.
A wave of water poured down out of nowhere on one of the manticores mid-air, a trick I recognized from Felegum, with one of Lankin’s arrows protuding from its side. The rest of the party must be close. A toad leap out of the water trying to bite but missing one of the creatures by inches, and there was Harry and Helli, going to town on their foes either by leaping and punching or by expert dagger throwing.
Mammoth!Zeno, now that he had his bearings and was acclimated to his new form, backed up and then trampled the manticore he’d grounded, goring his tucks right into the eyes.
What was it with us and eyes? I winced from above.
Mammoth!Zeno made short work of his opponent and trumpeted his victory in a reel-like bellow.
Helli’s magic missile wand continued to prove invaluable as she precision-shot at another manticore, and Lankin grew angrier and angrier on the ground, throwing his bow into the water. “That’s okay,” he said, “it’s not mine, I’m only borrowing it.”
Then he used Awk to leap and lock another manticore in a death grip, reaching for his axe. Harry, at this point, was going for yet another manticore, putting his extreme leaping powers to the test as he jumped up and smashed his opponent out of the air.
I cast Mirror Image, just in case. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I was the only one flying and didn’t feel like being an easy target, especially not after one of their spikes had come so close to impaling Kheryph during my last tangle with manticores.
The manticore Lankin was holding onto broke free, knocked into Harry, and soared higher until another wall of water deluged down on it, courtesy of Felegum. Mammoth!Zeno trundled off in the direction of the additional manticores, on the hunt for more to gore.
Unfortunately, perhaps still unused to this new form, he accidentally gored Harry instead and let out a subdued, apologetic-sounding bagpipe noise. Seeing Harry down, Helli stabbed at the manticore several times, much faster than usual, bringing it down. I was pleased that she too got to enjoy the thrill of a Haste spell.
By some weird monk power, Harry managed to pull himself together–literally– after the goring, and Zeno dropped the five or ten feet to the ground and landed in a flourish, dropping his mammoth form. “I’m so sorry,” he said to Harry, “I hope this helps!”
Then he slapped the monk on the back. Harry winced, but it did seem like that was a healing slap.
Awk, being Awk, checked to see if the manticores belonged to anyone or were wearing collars (they were not). We made our way back to shore, three manticore tails richer for our troubles.
“We did a great job dodging,” I told Kheryph as we landed, not wanting him to feel left out.
“Well, you brought the mammoth to the party!” Helli told me. That was very true.
By about midday, we finally finished making our way into Janwald. There were two ships in port at the docks, and already things looked a little busier than before. There were more smaller boats, more people milling around, and fisherpeople heading out or back home for a snack. Felegum’s water bazaar had caught on, and it seemed like the local economy was flourishing.
We found a stall selling lake food and Zeno graciously talked me up as the tethis dealmaker, I waved it off (but was secretly pleased), and bought lunch for the group, since I basically didn’t do much for the fight. The stall owner gave us his two lobsters from the day, as well as calms, oysters, and a lot of rolls. Harry mainly stuck to the rolls.
“I thought these would be tastier,” Awk commented as he ate an oyster.
I nearly slapped him. “Don’t insult this man in his own shop!”
The shopkeep had been really gracious and happy for the business. Why would you turn your nose upu at food?
Then Awk turned into an otter and more pleasantly ate the calms. I narrowed my eyes. I’d never understand how some people could be so ungrateful about food.
After the meal, I swung an arm around Felegum’s shoulders. “Yo, your bazaaar worked!”
Felegum smiled. “Yeah!”
We’ve been giving him a lot of crap lately about all the forms and everything in Paripas, but the truth is Felegum is really good with these sorts of logistical organization things. Zeno and Felegum briefly discussed a plan to sell their spices from Paripas to the locals and try to recoup some of the teleportation fees, but first we decided to head to Milto’s and tie up that loose end.
The firbolg greeted us warmly. “Those things you returned to me are priceless. Personal, sentimental objects, closer to home, and I’m so grateful to have them back.”
This was about the time when he noticed that I’d disguised myself to look like Letitia, black nail polish and all. I guess I was getting better at it, because he looked stunned for a moment before relaxing. “She’s aged quite well, I see.”
“Yeah,” I said, surveying my work. “Maybe it’s skincare, maybe it’s the necromancy.”
At this point, Milto asked me to stop it because it was way too weird hearing my voice come out of her mouth, and I did so. We had a brief illusionist talk, since that was one of the things that we’d found out about Milto in Paripas and he showed off with this cool rainbow eye dazzle trick. He revealed the secret wall of his shop that contained the cloaks we’d bargained for, another cool illusionist trick, and I made a note to investigate that later.
Felegum brought up the manticore problem we’d run into.
Milto turned to Harry. “You look like you’ve encountered something larger than a manticore.”
Harry smiled in a pained sarcastic way. “Several manticores, actually.”
I supposed that was about the equivalent of a mammoth.
“Usually,” Milto said, tapping his chin with a finger, “they tend to stay in the mountains, not by the river.” He drifted off into thought. “Maybe I can cast an illusion on the town? At least, make us a little less interesting to them.”
We received our reward of cloaks. I put the Cloak of Protection on and already felt much safer. Even Kheryph looked more at home in the starry patterns, which was good because I truly did not feel like he was going to survive too much more in the way of hits. Felegum took the Cloak of the Manta Ray, for the time being, since we didn’t have a person in mind for that one yet.
Our conversation then turned to what was going on with the conduits.
While we were in Paripas, we’d learned that Milto had known about the conduits, that he’d been in an exploration team to investigate some arcane locus of energy up north with Letitia. Our talks with her had revealed that Milto had pulled out of the exploration abruptly. I’d wondered why.
So, I went all in. I told him about what was happening in Csipherus, that my goals were to 1) find out how to unfuck my city and 2) fuck up whoever did it and asked him where he stood on the conduit issue. At first, he seemed like he didn’t know what I was talking about when I brought up the conduits, so I doubled down and said that we had some information on them and we wanted to share it with him, but we needed to know what his motivations were before we did.
“My motivation?” Milto asked. “Why, averting the end of the world.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said. “Welcome on board.”
I’d already gone through talking with him about Durnen and the Red Eyes and asking him that, should he see them, to please tell them nothing about the conduits and instead let us know that they’d been around, and I was about to reach for the tablet transcriptions we’d unearthed. Whatever Milto’s involvement with the conduits had been, they’d clearly cost him a position in the magical echelon of Paripas, a relationship, and many dear items.
I was willing to bet that so much personal sacrifice probably wasn’t being done in the service of evil ends.
Awk, however, wasn’t.
“Don’t play coy with us, old man,” the gnome said, emanating draconic energy, “and tell us the truth.”
It was the same thing he’d pulled on Nightscale, invoking whatever ghostly dragon he was serving to intimidate the listener.
And that’s how, for the second time in twenty-four hours, my dagger was at Awk’s throat. “Don’t you ever do that to an ally again.”
It’s rare as hell to find people who are willing to go to bat for you, much less take an interest in your problems and be helpful. The world, at its core, was a pretty cruel place.
I’d learned that the hard way.
And I’d also learned that when someone was on your side, you treated them like an ally and worked together, not pulled weird power games on them. You could lead a group on fear and fear alone, sure. I’d seen it. But of all the groups I’d belonged to, the ones I’d fought hardest for were the ones who’d believed in me, regardless of what I’d thought of them at the outset.
For a brief moment, I wondered about that sailor and that letter.
The moment dragged out, my blade at Awk’s neck.
The firbolg leaned down. “I will not be threatened in my own shop,” he said in a tone that held all the frost of the Paripas tundra.
Awk sulked off to the lake, the door slamming shut behind him as Harry kept watch out the window.
I apologized and Harry, keeping an eye on the window, explained Awk’s deal with his spectral dragon patron. Zeno smoothed things over a little bit further by mentioning that he’d delivered Mitlo’s letter to Sylla, and for a moment the firbolg looked wistful and wondered if something could be patched up.
Further discussion on the red eyes yielded little: Milto had never seen one, though he had seen Durnen passing through a while back, which fit with what we’d heard from Francis in Greenrest. Mitlo’s in-field knowledge of the conduits was more limited: he’d planned to search for one up north with Letitia, but “things fell apart and I ended up here.”
We circled back to the topic of the tablets we’d taken from Durnen and Milto held up a hand.
“Perhaps, first,” he said, “a show of good faith.”
With an elegant wave of his hand, three tablets appeared, similar to the kind we’d stolen from Durnen in the cart.
“These,” he explained, “were some of the items you retrieved for me in the vault. Are you at all able to read them?”
We were in awe. This was great. We had new information, new leads, just waiting for us.
“Uh, well.” Zeno coughed. “I kind of don’t have that translation spell I used last time anymore.”
There was a small pause in the shop.
Harry sighed, long suffering. “So, the only one of us who actually knows how to read these is Awk.”