THESE ARE HARD TIMES FOR DREAMERS AND LOVE-LOST BELIEVERS: in which we execute a complex agricultural stake-out

Anyway, Awk offered me something he called a “hangover tea” and I obviously refused because 1) I was not hungover, I just had a bad headache that made the world too loud for some unknown reason and 2) accepting things from Awk seemed like a perpetually bad idea, only worth it in times of extremity. We weren’t there yet.

Everyone was giving me light grief because my rolls had come out just slightly lumpy–and it wasn’t even like Innard would have let me serve something less than passable to his guests– while munching on them and porridge, and it wasn’t until Felegum had very sadly maneuvered most of the way down the stairs on his broken leg that one of us realized that we probably should have helped him.

Zeno walked back in. While last night it had not been apparent to me where the bard could possibly have ended up, the Set of this morning was sharper and clearer, even if thinking hurt a bit. Zeno had not needed a place to stay because he’d been celebrating the win with a fellow teammate, one who lived, I’d hazard a guess, at the general store.

He ordered a coffee, which he also recommended for me. I accepted this advice and asked Harry, one of the few other people who’d been up early, how his outing had gone.

According to Harry, he and Lankin had stumbled across some interesting markings out in the field, weird patches of blighted land in leapfrogging patterns.

“Awk, do you like farming?” Lankin asked. “Aren’t you about nature?”

The gnome steepled his fingers on the table. “It’s not natural to grow the same thing in the same area, that’s for sure.”

“But, like” –Lankin paused to think it through– “what about farming versus leaving the land plain?”

“Oh,” Awk said, “I like gatherers.”

This matter settled, we turned to discussion of what Harry had seen and what meanings it might have. Specifically, if Calcryx was indeed keeping her promise of not coming out of the Sunken Citadel or not. If the land was dying, it seemed like not.

“It’s decay,” Harry confirmed, “because she’s speaking out both sides of her mouth.”

“Yeah,” Felegum nodded.

“What if,” Awk put forth, hopefully, “we have Calcryx do food for the city?”

“Honey, no.” Zeno sipped his coffee. “She’ll just eat the town.”

Lankin took the fraught moment of Awk glaring at Zeno as an opportunity to compliment me on the rolls and biscuits, which I accepted with gratitude. Maybe I really should think about opening a cafe when all of this was over.

With breakfast settled, we established a plan of attack: whatever was doing this weird stuff to the land probably had some idea of whether or not the dragon was messing things up, so we’d attempt to ask it about Calcryx. We figured we couldn’t just leave the town a giant dragon problem if we knew that it was slowly killing them, but the other sane and more cautious people in the group raised the point that we’d gotten pretty beaten up by Calcryx the last time and that we didn’t really have a great plan to lure her out from the Tree, which had complicated things. I should know, being the only one of us who could fly to get to her when she was up there. Awk, as usual, maintained that Calcryx had done nothing wrong, even though this was a huge falsehood since I’d nearly died and so had maybe Zeno.

So, we struck out north with Felegum on the broom with me, on the hunt for dead plants.

This turned out to be a lot harder than we thought it would be. Yes, there were dead plants, but there were no farmers working the dead plants to talk to about anything. There were other plants between the rows of dead stalks that seemed to be doing fine– like wildflowers and weeds and whatever, I don’t know, I don’t farm– and we finally reached where Lankin and Harry had been earlier.

“Awk, where would an agriculture spirit hang out, if this is such a thing?” Felegum asked.

“Well,” the gnome said, “I could go talk to the trees for a little bit.”

Zeno and I grimaced, because we both knew that this would take a while and neither of us liked forests.

“Lankin and I are good at tracking animals, but less good at plants,” Harry said, and the two of them set out to explore. They managed to find an ocular area of lush new growth with some knocked down plants in the center. We were very intrigued when they reported back to us.

“Can you fly up and see what it looks like from above?” Lankin asked me and Felegum.

I laughed. “Please, like I can’t.”

We’d been on the ground for a little bit since I didn’t feel like sitting on a broom constantly and I guess no one besides me wanted to either sing to the broom or learn to fly it, so Felegum climbed on again and once more I spoke the invocation: “I can show you the field, shining, shimmering, splendid. Tell me, farmland, now when did you last see all this new growth?”

We got pretty high up, enough to see the distinct symmetric shape of the verdant area, and Felegum remarked that something felt magical below. It was very faint, but according to him, it was most potent in the area where all the plants had been crushed in the center of the shape.

After being directed around to fly yea high or yea low, Felegum came to an important conclusion: the non-blight was indeed magical in nature.

Meanwhile, Awk was on the case of the mystery nature-helper, looking for tracks for the ovals’ originator. However, there weren’t any big creatures that had gone through here that he could see, and the nearest forests with trees large enough for him to talk to would be back by Janwald and its river. Lankin did his damnedest to find a small creature to converse with, but was met with little luck. A few abandoned farms dotted the fields, various sides or roofs collapsed, and these attracted the attentions of Zeno and Helli.

Felegum and I flew out a bit farther looking for more of these extremely green areas, with Harry of course, following below us for safety, and we encountered a few more. The farmer Harry had met last night lived somewhere to the northwest, so we were hoping we could maybe find some people to talk with, but instead we found two more ovals of fresh growth.

Noting the areas down, Felegum made us a map:

(Felemap of the area)

The rest of the group seemed inclined to do their own things, with Helli and Zeno scoping out buildings and Awk and Lankin communing with nature, so Harry, Felegum, and I headed west, closer to the river that we’d had to hop over that one time with the chimeras near Janwald.

The river itself had gotten narrower and deeper, and we were about five or six miles out when we reached more of the farmed areas with growth picking up. Harry, being the first on the ground, asked a local for the particulars. “Hello,” he said, “do you have a second to answer some traveler’s questions?”

The farmer dropped her basket and ran off, yelling about monsters and magic being nothing but bad news around here. Felegum and I flew after her on the broom, and somehow the magical part of that didn’t seem to bother her since both of us looked closer to human. I tried asking her about the land to the east and if she knew any ghost stories about it, but either she was still super freaked out or just did not know anything, because she was not very forthcoming.

I handed her five silver. Yes, she was a dick to Harry, even after Felegum tried explaining that he was fine. Still, people not having enough food to eat never sat well with me, even if the people were dicks.

Our next house contained a man coming back from the fields with his son. Harry, this time, was absent, not wanting to scare the locals. But this man seemed legit. He was much more helpful and said he used to live over by the fallow lands, that they’d planted the same crops over and over in the same places because that was what the crops liked (I had no idea), and that something had gone wrong, probably some curse, and now they were here.

His particular journey had seen him without much money to his name after his family farm had folded out east, leading him to spend two seasons working on the planation here to save money for afford his own plot. “Thank Pelor and the gods above,” he said, “I’m so glad to be done with that place.”

It had been six years since he’d come here, so his little farm was fairly well-established. His name was also Lars.

I tried to give Lars some coin for his troubles, even though I was a little frustrated that literally no one knew anything about anything magical and hoped that Lankin and Awk were having better luck. Lars, though, refused, saying that he could not possibly accept my generosity. Used to this game from my parents’ patients, I persisted, and eventually Lars offered to sell me some vegetables from his farm and save him the trip to market.

I agreed, and he called for his son, also named Lars, to fetch a sack. I wasn’t entirely sure what food was going for in this area, but I knew that he was giving me a ton and only asking one silver of me. I said I’d give him two silver, no exceptions, and he gracefully accepted, though he added in this stick as a special treat. “We weren’t able to grow these this year,” he said, “so this is one of the few I have left. It’s very sweet, though.”

I thanked Lars and Lars, and we left.

Briefly, Felegum and I flew to the plantation– it was there, why not– and landed on the porch. There was a bell, which Felegum rang because I just wanted to be alone with my vegetables and check out the haul. Also, two people was more than enough new people for me.

When the door opened, though, a very angry man came out. Felegum coughed politely. “Hello, good sir.”

But the good sir wanted nothing to do with us, because it turned out that the bell Felegum had rung called everyone in from the fields. This made the plantation owner super mad. Us, not so much, since we’d not heard nice things about him, and I tried to make some workers laugh by using magic to make myself look like the owner and fall into a puddle of mud instead.

It landed about as well as I did: a big, wet flop.

Thankfully, Felegum took mercy on me and magicked the dirt away. “I hope you’ve learned something, Set,” he said as we sailed out of the area with Harry trailing below.

“Yeah,” I said, not messy and now just damp, “that I’m better at scaring people than making them laugh.”

I secured the vegetable goods onto the broom handle, and we took off once again back to the field as dusk rolled in. The vegetables ended up being a pretty nice windfall– I spiralized the potatoes with dagger work that I was totally sure would have even made that goblin back in Paripas envious. Since Lankin had a good grasp on cooking, I asked him for advice on how to prepare the rest of the vegetables, but he was momentarily mesmerized by a red root.

“The Radish,” he said, holding it up reverently, “perfectly roasted that one time in the arena by the Boulder.”

I made kebabs while Lankin soliloquized about the magnificence of the Boulder, the Radish, their various nemeses, and the glory of the arena itself, all while Felegum magically started a fire for us. Zeno set the atmosphere by playing his silver pennywhistle very loudly and Harry put in some more time on his quarterstaff designs. Spice-wise, I made the executive decision to save the tethis for later and use rosemary from Lankin’s plant for now. Things tasted okay, though the offering seemed to be missing something.

I couldn’t put my finger on it, though.

We made a plan for the night. Awk was going to meditate in the verdant oval, as the one most likely to commune with whatever was doing this, and the rest of us would take shifts watching him to make sure, I don’t know, he didn’t get eaten by wolves or manticores or something. I was on third shift with Zeno and on the whole, it was pretty pleasant. Unfortunately, Zeno cannot steal zombies from other people or just control them, so there goes one plan for saving Csipherus.

Anyway, we were just discussing the particulars of zombies and also reminiscing about that one zombie that Zeno accidentally left unattended in Paripas and probably went on a small rampage, reaffirming my view that undead things are just not very great.

So I was just thinking about this, you know, a zombie let loose in another city and how good or not I felt about that, when Zeno out of nowhere jabbed my shoulder. “Set,” he hissed. “Did you hear that?”

I listened harder, but nothing. “No.”

“It sounded like squelching.” He got up and then peeked around the corner of the farmhouse we’d been camping out in. “Holy shit!”

A few moments behind, I poked my head out too. Nothing. I narrowed my eyes. Awk’s prone form out in the middle of the grass oval, twitching a little bit, probably because of the cold. “Looks pretty normal to me. I mean, Awk looks like he’s dreaming, but that’s about it.”

“Big tentacle ball,” Zeno said. “It came down and everything went–poof!”

He expertly mimed a sprout shooting forth from the earth. I squinted out into the dark again. “Whatever it is, it’s gone now.”

After we settled back in after that encounter, the sun rose and Zeno played a stirring round of the Ode of Waffles, noble orc-slaying warrior, to help our friends greet the day. Awk ran screaming into the the dilapidated hut, perhaps normal for Awk, but not likely a consequence of Zeno’s music. It was a good song and it was clear he’d practiced.

Awk, though, was well and truly freaked out. He said that whatever spirit of the land had been there, perhaps the same thing as what Zeno saw, and that it had granted him two visions, each a path on a divergent road we were heading on.

To the right, the ground was torn, the lush farms of Greenrest and Janwald had become a frozen wasteland full of terror and skeletons discarded in the snow, including us. Above our battered bones were spires of ice and a battle-scarred dragon ruling over the ruins of the villages.

To the left was a peaceful snow over Csipherus.

This, Awk explained, was a sign: if we fought Calcryx again, we were doomed to failure and death, and also pretty much ruining the lives of the towns around the citadel too. If we chose to move instead toward Csipherus, Awk continued, we’d be fixing a problem.

I bawked immediately, partly because I wanted to rip my city’s name out of that gnome’s mouth and partly because this seemed too cut and dry and too convenient. But Awk seemed genuine: he was well and truly shook by his vision. Even so, I didn’t like it.

“We have nothing to offer my city and everything to cost it,” I said. “And while I believe you that you think this is the best idea not to attack Calcryx, I also believe that’s exactly the kind of message a spectral dragon would want you to take away from that.”

“Exactly,” Felegum said. “They’re trying to trick us into only seeing two options here, when we could also head back to Paripas and do that water mission for the Guild.”

Zeno winced, almost audibly. “Besides, the Guild, Milto, all of them didn’t know that much about conduits, it seemed. Not more than us.”

“We need to go to Cypress,” Awk pressed.

“Csipherus,” Zeno corrected, quietly.

The vision or dream or whatever still bothered me, though. “I don’t like that it was snowing there,” I said. “I’ve never seen it snow. Heard of it, sure, maybe like once every hundred years? But that doesn’t seem good to me.”

“It was peaceful snow!” Awk interjected.

“Or,” I said darkly, “it could mean a white dragon comes to my city. And, quite frankly, between the dead walking and the plague, it has enough problems as it is.”

Felegum nodded grimly. “That’s exactly why I wanted to ask you about the snow. That seemed weird.”

“It was peaceful! It seemed nice!” Awk said again.

Peaceful for the conquering dragons and the legions of undead, maybe, sure.

“Right.” The monk sighed, narrowed his eyes at Awk, and shook his head. “Regardless of whatever motives this one is working under, we may be the foremost conduit experts out there. In all our conversations, we always bring new information to the supposed experts. And that, more than any cure, might be exactly what Csipherus needs.”

I didn’t want to admit it, because 1) it sucks to be wrong about something (although luckily I’m wrong about so few things that I don’t really have to worry about it much) and 2) I wanted to come back with a plan. This still felt too similar to us exploring a city for kicks and then leaving whenever. And I couldn’t do that, not with my home.

Not when I’d promised myself I’d save it.

All the same, Harry had a point. Milto and Letitia had studied this stuff for ages. They had some information, but not the in-field experience that we did. Granted, no one seemed to have a great handle on actually turning off a busted conduit, which was what we needed, but if that was what Csipherus needed, then there came a point when you actually had to solve the problem.

I sighed. “Harry, I don’t trust many people, but I do trust you. If this is what you think is going to work, then let’s do it.”

I hoped I hadn’t just signed my city’s death warrant, although it hadn’t been looking too hot for a while.

To take my mind off of all the ways this could go wrong, I checked on Felegum’s leg injury again and imagined what my dad would say, looking at something like this: one or two months, no movement. Maybe even the broom had been too much. I chewed on the inside of my cheek, thinking it over, and relayed the advice to the sorcerer.

After that, we went on a nice trip to an apothecary, which was okay, I guess, if you liked places that organized their herbs the wrong way and used bizarre systems of measurement. Felegum picked up some willowbark tea to help with the pain of the injury, and Awk asked for opium and bought some.

It was at this point that I just walked out.

The next day was off to a good start with lemon poppyseed scones for breakfast courtesy of Layne and Innard, and after some carpentry magic from Harry, the wheelbarrow was adapted into a wheelchair. At the tip of it was placed an ivory sculpture of a kraken. Helli grinned at me when she saw me noticing it, and I had no doubt that she and Zeno had done some interesting exploring of their own while I’d been bartering for vegetables. It made an absolutely sick hood ornament, though.

And so, we set out for Janwald to check in on last time with Milto, and then we’d chart our course for Egonia, city of dwarves, and, more importantly, a teleportation circle.

Before we left, I checked in with Layne. “Did, uh,” I paused, trying to figure out how to phrase it, “any letters come in for me this whole time?”

She shook her head, concerned. “No, none. Were you expecting one?”

I looked down. A sign. A direction. A rumor. I’d been chasing the faintest hopes of cures and miracles for months, haunted by what I was leaving behind to do so, and now all my ghosts were silent.

“I guess not,” I said.

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