Dinner passed with the usual light conversation and antics: we learned that many people in the party apparently have hair with some degree of red shading in it and that Lankin thought Harry had a tail (he does not). While Felegum was able to ride the broom before, with his leg all splinted up that basically made the broom no longer possible, so Lankin was carrying him, piggy-back style. Lankin lightly bemoaned the state of his weapons– I guess this is an important barbarian thing?– so Zeno did a big ceremonious handoff of Shatterspike.
Personally, I still have the same weapons I’ve always had and they work fine. I’d rather fight with something I know. Which reminded me, I still had weird frozen dragon blood and stuff to get off my shortsword and dagger later.
Still thinking about Calcryx and our plans (Awk had, to no one’s surprise, continued to protest the innocence of the dragon), I set about to the problem of getting on top of a roof. Unfortunately, not only was I not as light as Helli was, these roofs did not look like they were going to be easy to climb up and neither did they, slanted as they were, appear to hold my weight. I flew up on the broom instead to the top of the Meat and the Slop and sat down on the wooden plank dividing the sloping sides of the roof.
And I looked at the stars for a long, long time.
“It’s hard for me to ask a god anything,” I said. “I’ve been let down many, many times before. But at the same time, neither of us are going to get what we want if we keep ignoring each other.”
I thought about what I needed to know.
“Am I…” I trailed off, struggling. “Am I doing the right thing here, killing this dragon? Or am I getting involved in things I’d really be better off not? Am I making things worse?”
I trailed off again, for real this time, and sat in the late night quiet, waiting. Nothing happened. I nodded. “Fair enough.”
This was pretty much par for the course for me on the god thing. Ask on behalf of other people or entities like Kheryph? Might be something. Ask on behalf of self and personal desire not to feel like an asshole? Probable no.
I swung my legs back over the broom to descend and just before I went to head back to earth, an impulse made me look back up at the sky.
A thin stream of misty clouds wove around the moon.
I squinted at it, but no further elucidation was forthcoming, so I went to sleep.
Maybe I was still thinking about it, though, because just before I fell asleep I felt a shiver of cold, then warm. My sleepy brain tried to ascribe meaning to it. Something bad, perhaps, in order to get to something good? Or maybe just a reminder of how cold and miserable it would be to fight Calcryx again, and how good it felt to be warm and tucked away and not to have to.
The next day was considerably less ominous. Once again, we faced the perpetual quandary all enjoyed at the Meat and the Slop: the meat or the slop.
Recalling Milto’s comments about meat for breakfast and hoping that the inside knowledge of a local wouldn’t lead me wrong, I went for the meat. So did Zeno and probably Helli. Awk and Lankin tried the slop, and Felegum took the as-yet-unexplored middle road of half-meat, half-slop. As it turned out, both options were decent today: the slop revealed itself to be a nutmeg oatmeal of some variety and the meat was pork belly, sausage, and eggs.
Also, there was coffee, which made Zeno happy. Really, I think it’s the excuse to use that fancy cup that he, Helli, and Felegum all bought while the rest of us were freezing our asses off outside Paripas guarding the Aegis, but that’s beside the point. There was coffee and it was good.
Zeno wanted to head to Milto’s one more time before we left for Greenrest. It would be good to check in with Layne and Innard, as well as to see if anything had changed down there with regards to the dragon. Felegum had a plan to ask Frances about white dragons and if there was anything the historian-slash-postman knew that would be of help.
Entering Milto’s place first, we crowded inside the store as the firbolg greeted us. “Ah, hello! Any more near dear experiences lately?”
“That dragon, huh? That icy breath?” Zeno shook his head. “We’re going back.”
Milto raised his eyebrows but tactfully said nothing.
“Do you have a–” Zeno waved his hands elaborately– “a potion for that?”
“I’m not sure,” Milto said. “I don’t have one ready in any case.”
“Water is like ice.” This was said by Felegum, who unfortunately was being held over Lankin’s shoulder backwards, so only his butt faced Milto. He wasn’t wrong– Milto’s water-breathing potions were widely hailed as being very good, even by people who hated him– but the effect was a bit muffled and somewhat lessened by his positioning.
Milto, for his part, went to check in the back to see what he did have in stock that he could offer. Moments later, he returned.
“I have this!” He held up what looked like an empty vial at first glance. “A potion of gaseous form. And this,” he said, holding up another bottle, “is a potion of heroism. It’ll let the dragon take one last chomp out of you before your inevitable death.”
“That heroism potion,” Harry said, narrowing his eyes at it, “it’s not just liquor, is it?”
Milto smiled in appreciation of a shrewd customer. “Well,” he said, “a good amount of whiskey went into it.”
“What does it do, exactly?” said Felegum, muffled again.
There was a brief to-do as Milto realized hat he was speaking with Felegum’s butt, then Lankin rotated him around, found that he liked rotating too much to stop and continued, as Felegum and Milto argued the finer points of potions. In summary: Milto was unwilling, perhaps out of proprietary concern, to discuss the specifics of the heroism potion more than “it’ll allow the dragon one extra chomp before it consumes you, body and soul.”
Zeno, meanwhile, had moved on. “Eww, gaseous form?”
“How do you think I was able to get away so easily?” The firbolg asked. I wanted to point out that he hadn’t gotten away particularly easily– but then I remembered that he’d pretty much disappeared except for some footprints that Helli had pointed out to me as we left.
We thought about it. In happier news, Milto was able to sell us some Potions of Healing for the normal market rate of 50 gold, which was nice. Awk got two of them, which was weird, considering that it’s much less expensive to heal people with your own magic, but what do I know, it’s not like I ever heal anyone.
Zeno’s original objective of a potion that let the drinker resist icy breath seemed perhaps outside the reach of Milto’s ability for now, but the firbolg was undaunted. He agreed to do some research, for a fee for his time and materials, and Zeno plunked down 200 gold in a tall stack for him to work with.
When asked how long he’d need to make headway, the magician just smiled. “Oh,” he said, “magic works in mysterious ways.”
Zeno said we’d be back in a week, maybe two, depending on how quickly Felegum’s leg healed, and Awk took out some warm mushrooms that he’d picked up somewhere when we’d been around Paripas, thinking that they might also be helpful to the ice potion project.
“Any advice for dealing with a white dragon?” Harry asked as we left.
“My advice?” Milto considered for a long moment. “Don’t! And try not to get eaten!”
And with that, we departed Milto’s Magical Emporium and returned to the road.
Or, we would have, but then Awk remembered that he wanted to ask Milto about a wheelbarrow, so then we all had to go awkwardly back there after we’d said our goodbyes. It turned out that Milto did not have a wheelbarrow– Janwald wasn’t actually all that good with farms, Milto elaborated, mainly because everyone here was goofy and didn’t listen to him about crop rotation. Apparently one local farmer took issue with legumes and had drained the soil of nutrients so badly after many years of corn that large tracts of farmland was unusable.
Milto was still upset about it.
“Why are you still here?” Awk asked the firbolg. “You’re a wizard! You could go anywhere!”
“I love this lake!” Milto replied, somewhat affronted. “It’s my home! I make an excellent living selling my potions of waterbreathing.”
“Do you think Calcryx won’t be a problem for this town?” Awk asked, leaning in.
“Difficult to say,” Milto replied, thoughtful again. “Calcryx will certainly be a problem for anyone who goes down there, though.”
“Were you able to glean anything about the conduit?”
At this, the magician snorted. “I hauled ass out of there as fast as I could! There was a dragon! I didn’t want to be dead!”
Zeno and Milto fleshed things out for deadlines (“I don’t want you to blow up your shop or anything rushing.”, “Oh, I won’t–well, actually, I might blow up my shop.”) and we finally at last did move south this time.
It was a lot of farmland. A lot. This was hard to overstate. The farms went on and on, crops long dead (presumably what Milto had told us about and their farmers just not having the heart to cut them down, I guessed) with a blackish white sheen on them, making them fold over almost like some kind of blight. I really wouldn’t know; I was no farmer.
Harry seemed momentarily perturbed but did not remark on it, so I figured maybe Awk just did something that I was better off not knowing about, and we ended up making it to Greenrest just around the afternoon. We split off into two groups, one to talk to Miriam at the general store and the other to go and see Frances.
Interestingly, before we split off, Zeno offered a word of caution to Lankin. “Lankin,” he said, “whatever you do, do not unsheathe that in this town.”
He’d motioned to Shatterspike, making me wonder what on earth he knew about that that I did not.
My group, which also contained Harry and Zeno, went to the general store. I had done my damnedest to avoid seeing Frances again after passing the apple slice off to him and I wasn’t about to go back there now.
Anyway, as soon as the general store door opened and she saw who had come calling, Miriam’s face fell. “I’m sorry,” she said hastily, “I can’t help but be reminded of it all when I see you.”
“That’s okay,” Harry offered. “Grief takes time.”
Miriam nodded and ushered us inside. “It does.”
We broke into a discussion of fields and wheat, which was, I have to say, some of the most boring adult stuff I have had to sit through in a while. Everyone was so worried about the plants when Milto had told us that it was just a dumb farm thing. No one seemed to be dying. Yes, it was mildly disconcerting to see dead plants everywhere as we were in the warmer months, but sometimes people goof up and farm badly.
Anyway, Harry asked if Miriam had seen anything in the fields.
“Are you seeing scarecrows?” she asked him.
“No,” he said slowly, “unless they move.”
Oh man. Here was something interesting.
“We made ones that move!” Miriam waved it off. “It’s much more effective.”
False alarm. Zeno snapped his fingers. “It’s like how Felegum casts his spells!” He mimicked the motion of the sorcerer flopping up and down in different directions, the complicated spellcasting ritual that he used to set up the dome for us as we traveled.
There was a short interlude here as Miriam asked more about why Harry was asking, then she blamed Milto for the farm problems, saying that they knew what they were doing and that this was just a “cursed” patch of ground. Or something. “That cow man likes to call it a failure of engineering,” she said, sourly.
“Who owns the farm to the north?” Harry pressed. Super fixated on these scarecrows, I figured, but okay. They probably didn’t have that at the monastery.
“Old man Ferrero,” Miriam replied. “No one’s heard from him in a long time, though.”
Zeno, quick on the uptake, seized his opportunity. “Has it been unseasonably cold lately?”
“Yes,” Miriam said. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” Zeno replied cheerily.
She gave him a small frown, but then shrugged and thought nothing more of it. “We’ve also had an unseasonably early fog.”
On further questioning, we also found that the kobolds had not bothered the town since we went out to fix the problem two or three months ago, so that was good. The one other weird thing that seemed to be happening was this weird screeching sound. It didn’t seem to coincide with the mist, though.
We settled into the more worldly business of shopping. I was trying to figure out a wheelbarrow situation for Felegum, since the store actually sold wheelbarrows, when Zeno asked, “Do you have any liquor?”
And this prompted a whole sidequest down to Miriam’s whiskey cellar, where Zeno bought a bottle of some rum after a tasting.
“How old do you think I am, Zeno?” Miriam asked, over the rim of her glass.
“Miriam,” the bard responded tactfully, “if you have seen many seasons, they have been really kind to you.”
Harry took a drink and sniffed it. “It’s no goblin firewater,” he said.
“I’ve never had it,” Miriam said. “Is it good?”
“No,” Zeno said, with emphasis, clutching his glass.
Miriam handed me a glass. I felt a little out of place and just held it awkwardly. She noticed and raised an eyebrow.
“My parents didn’t want me drinking this,” I said, and it even sounded lame to my own ears. I took a sip, and it was sweet and spicy.
Miriam made fun of me for trying to buy a wheelbarrow, the most practical thing any of us were trying to do, and Harry and I threw around ideas for how we could make Felegum feel comfortable. Miriam’s suggestions and Harry’s woodworking ability led me to buy a more vertical wheelbarrow, with extra wood for the monk to make a chair. I was absolutely here for a Sorcerous Throne. It was too good to pass up.
Once I’d handed over my money for the materials and was trying to get everything balanced, Harry sighed and mentioned he’d seen a six-legged weird shadow creature moving through the corn fields up north.
Zeno spat out his expensive rum. “What!?”
I saved the hammer from falling off my precariously balanced stack of woodworking equipment. “Why didn’t you bring this up before? Like, when we were actually passing by it?”
Harry shrugged. “No sense in making us panic.”
Zeno being Zeno, before we left, he invited Miriam out. “Maybe we’ll see you at the Green Mug tonight?”
She quirked an eyebrow as she held open the door. “Oh, is that where you’re sleeping?”
I shook my head and wheelbarrowed out.
After stowing the wheelbarrow and supplies at the Green Mug and getting a room for me and Zeno, since we’d sort of just become roommates these days, I returned downstairs to Zeno performing in the town square. He was playing an old song, a folk song called “The Ballad of Waffles”, but with a new spin.
The story of Waffles the Warrior King varied a bit depending on who told it, but often in his most famous battle he slew six orcs on his lance at once.
Zeno was drawing a good bit of a crowd, not busking, but probably trying to look impressive. The sound carried, probably all the way down to the general store.
I found a table where Felegum had crawled to– who let him do this? who was supposed to be watching him?– trying to order desserts. Most people seemed to have some sort of dessert in hand, either a puffed cracker with whipped cream and strawberries (a traditional dessert, meant to symbolize the warrior Waffles’ dominion in his famous battle), while others coming from the inn across the street, the Inn and the Out, carried a conical cracker with cold cream and dipped in a chocolate shell studded with chipped nuts.
“So, I have no idea how to make ice cream,” Felegum said, “but I do have magic.”
Using some of Zeno’s baneberry extract, he set about to his task and produced a truly delicious concoction with baneberry swirl. Meanwhile, I ordered two of the puffed crackers with whipped cream and strawberries, one for me and one for Helli.
Awk asked for more of the jam he’d purchased the last time we’d come through here. My ears perked up. I had been on a quest to acquire this jam from him, either through stealing it or some other underhanded manner, but it had kind of gotten put on the backburner and then he’d given it to that frost giant.
“It quite literally saved my life,” he said.
Innard did not seem to believe him. “We’re all out of that one, but what about our summerberry compote?”
Awk and I both said yes to this and paid for jams, and Innard invited me to learn some recipes from him in the early morning in exchange for helping out with breakfast. I agreed.
Harry filled the rest of the group in on what he’d learned about the strange presence in the crops, and went around to various tables in the square to talk with people he assumed to be farmers about this mysterious entity. The tales he came back with spoke of a spirit of the harvest that took many shapes, whether a deer, a spider, a millipede, etc., that attempted to cleanse the land of plagues and blights, or insects that attacked crops.
That seemed like a good thing. A land spirit would definitely know about what, if anything, the dragon was doing to the area.
It was at this point that the evening shifted. There were strings of lights hanging overhead and pleasantly cool night air making sitting outside nice, and it could have been one more leisurely summer night. Until Layne challenged Zeno to another brewing competition.
He accepted and the gauntlet was thrown.
I made an ostentatious neon sign above the Green Mug proclaiming the beer festival with magic, and Zeno got his Scotch ale out from his brewing kit. The battle of the beers would not be just a beer tasting, but a full-contact sport of drinking and agility games.
Two teams of five would face off, the Green Mug crew against us, the Sovereign Dungeoneering Company, over five events. The first team to reach three victories would be declared the overall winner.
The Green Mug crew obviously was Layne and Innard, the owners, but they’d also managed to recruit Frances, the historian, as well as this massive half-orc named Grug who was the innkeeper for the Inn and the Out. Last was Shuldread, an overweight dwarf with a significant beer belly.
On our side, we’d had to cobble things together a bit, since Felegum, Harry, and Helli had gone to bed. It was Zeno, me, Awk, Lankin, and Miriam, who had agreed to step in for us.
The two teams took their seats opposite each other at a long table, with me across from Innard. I figured if we were going to both be doing this, then at least I’d be matched with someone bound to be as miserable as I was in the morning.
Anyway, the first task was something to prove drinkability. Zeno’s offering was, as said before, a Scotch ale, and Layne had made a breakfast beer. Our task was to drink through the offering as fast as possible and the team who finished first won. I kind of liked savoring things, but that was not the goal here.
We started with Zeno versus Shuldread, then Awk versus Grug, me versus Innard, then Lankin versus Layne, and Miriam versus Frances. We narrowly ended up winning, bringing the score to 1-0.
One thing that stood out to me was how strange Frances seemed to be acting, like he was a much younger man than his advanced age. His physical body, of course, looked the same as it had the last time I’d seen him, but he seemed raring to party and party hard, despite the frailty. I worried briefly that I had done something terrible with that apple slice.
The second task was speed-drinking and mug flipping, a tricky task, especially without Helli and Harry around, but we also managed to win this handily, too, bringing us to lead with 2-0.
One more task won and the game was ours.
But the third task was not as easy as the others had been. No, Pebble Mug was an intricate game of skill and poise, and while Layne had perpetually excellent aim, many of the others on both sides (especially ours) did not. I tried to throw the ball into the mug once and totally whiffed, so I just gave up, cast Mage Hand invisibly on the down-low, and then passed the ball to the hand and instructed the hand to dunk it in the cup. This worked twice, though some sharper-eyed members of the crowd began to murmur about it.
Miriam’s skill at pebble mug was unmatched except by Layne’s, who ended up winning the third take for the Green Mug crew, bringing the score to 2-1.
The fourth task was a charcuterie pairing race. There were three steps. First, drink a mug of your team’s beverage. Next, persuade a member of the crowd to drink it. Last, make a suitable snack to pair with it from a massive board of meats, cheeses, and crackers, and present it to a goblin, who was the acknowledged gourmand of the town.
The first team to accumulate enough points would win. We were doing well, and when it got to me, I remembered how terrible seeing multiples of me was for Zeno when he was tipsy. So, as I drank the first mug, I snapped on Mirror Image to confuse my opponent. It seemed like a clever move until…the person I was trying to hand the mug of ale off to drink could not figure out which of my twelve or whatever many arms to take the mug from.
I dismissed the spell, but my opponent had had time to catch up. Quickly, I assembled a cheese-cracker-prosciutto combination and even snuck a pinch of tethis on top of it as well. All seemed to be going according to plan– I’d picked a careful assortment of crackers and snacks that seemed good, or at least reminded me of home– and I was more or less confident that my tethis ruse had not been spotted.
When I presented my offering to the goblin, though, he picked off the tethis, ate it in pone go, and threw the cracker on the ground. I was stunned, angry. I tried to walk off into the crowd, but the crowd didn’t let me, and then someone ate my cracker-cheese-meat thing off the ground and held it up saying “it’s good!”
In retrospect, maybe I wasn’t handling it super well if some poor townsperson literally ate food off the ground (or maybe everyone was drunk as hell) but I also had no idea what I was doing with meats and cheeses anyway, so maybe that was to be expected.
Anyway, I was too busy being a giant turd that I didn’t see who won it for us, but I imagine it was probably Lankin. He’s the type to know what works best together. With that challenge cinched, we were at 3-1, which was enough to call the game for Zeno’s brew.
Grug and Layne had a brief conversation, then the half-orc lifted her onto his shoulders so that she could pull a rope that hung between both inns, setting up an awning with lights between both inns, uniting them. It was very sweet, and also just nice to know that even though they competed with each other, Grug and Layne and Innard were all good friends.
As I was sulking, something in the crowd tugged on one of my sleeves. It was the goblin, the foodie from the last event.
He asked me in hushed tones where I had gotten the spice I’d used, knowing that it wasn’t something local. Catching on, I looked exaggeratedly to either side to imbue the conversation with an air of secrecy. I said it was called tethis, that you could get it in Janwald, and that if he was interested in acquiring more of it to seek out a man named Quincy. Also, I passed off the rest of the dried tethis I’d gotten from the merfolk before to the goblin as a gift.
In return, the goblin gave me a bag of tea leaves, or perhaps tea sticks. It was a little hard to tell in the low light. According to him, it was a part of goblin culture. So enthralled by the gift as I was, I failed to ask his name, and when I looked up to do so, he had already vanished into the crowd.
I headed upstairs just as Lankin tried to crowdsurf, and called it a good night.
The next day, however, was a bit of a mess.
I woke up early as hell, exhausted, sweaty, and the sun was too loud. In this miserable and deeply wounded state, I entered the kitchen. “Innard, I feel terrible.”
He nodded in a similar, woeful manner. “I feel the same.”
“Please don’t talk so loud.” I put my head in my hands. “Do you have anything that can help?”
He nodded, set a cup of hot coffee before me, and suddenly, Zeno’s obsession with the stuff made a lot more sense. Speaking of Zeno, I thought as the coffee kicked in and I felt a bit more myself, he’d never come back to our room last night.
Innard taught me the basics of kneading dough and I learned how to make breakfast rolls, as well as porridge and oatmeal. My first few attempts were a bit lumpy, though Innard was there to help make sure that they weren’t too misshapen to serve to customers. They may have looked a little less polished than usual, but they were still pretty good.
Harry and Lankin came downstairs and I offered them pastries as they set out to investigate the farms up north a bit more for that harvest spirit. We were sending Harry, since he’d seen it before, and also Lankin, since he was good with nature and could talk to animals. Hopefully they’d bring back some news for us and we could get to the bottom of what was going on there.
The rest of the morning for me, though, passed in a blur of activity. Last night’s antics meant more people than usual decided to stay the night in town, and it also meant that we had a lot of food orders. Innard was glad to have the extra help, and by the end of the morning, serving up rolls and food to inn-goers taking their meal under the bunting from the night before, I felt like, maybe this wouldn’t be so bad a life to have.