Felegum and the wheelbarrow were increasingly becoming incompatible as the trail from Greenrest to Janwald got rockier, but Lankin was doing his best. Continuing to supervise any land vehicles, Zeno offered his best advice, but even so progress was rough. It was almost a relief when, a few hours into our travel, someone heard something in the brush and had us stop.
Zeno, probably bored with walking, wandered over first with me, Helli, and Awk not far behind him. Since the wheelbarrow was not an all-terrain vehicle, Felegum had to stay on the road and Lankin and Harry stayed with him as the rest of us prowled after Zeno in the woodlands and fields. When we caught up to him, he was standing over the body of a bear-like, wolf-like, person-like entity, who had had its throat torn out. Zeno did not look particularly bothered, just confused, or trying to figure out if this was humanoid enough to zombify.
It did not seem to be, in the end, but Helli and I were curious about what had gone down, since there was a pretty significant trail of blood leading away from the slain wolf-bear-man. After five to ten minutes of comparing blood directions in which once again, my professional respect for Helli grew, we collaborated to find a copse of trees where the smaller patches of blood ended.
Here, the going was less easy. It took us another ten minutes to find another blood pool, but beyond that the trail seemed to have disappeared. Zeno and Awk caught up at this point, and we shushed them so that we could listen. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of sight. And sure enough, a few moments of careful quiet revealed a raspy breathing in the canopy.
Maybe something hurt. Or, maybe something that had stolen that wolf-bear-man’s kid. I didn’t know, I was struggling to think what would make that much blood for us to follow, because it clearly hadn’t been the dead guy.
Unfortunately, this was the precise moment when Zeno decided to yawn as loud as humanly possible. “This is boring.”
All noise stopped.
I was about to be furious, but then Awk became a direwolf and began sniffing around, which seemed much more promising than haranguing Zeno for blowing a potential rescue operation. Through Awk’s keen wolf nose, we were able to locate a pool of blood which was dripping down out of nowhere mysteriously. I stared up at it with my hands on my hips. “Huh.”
Helli and Zeno were kind of a loss for what to do, so I hopped on the broom, whispering the short version of the command word this time, and floated up as high as I could before whacking into tree branches. I had a vague idea of where the blood was coming from, so I figured, since we were leaving anyway and all, that I’d try my old standby and see if I could put anything to sleep up here. Maybe it was really good at hiding.
So, I did that and a squirrel and a bird fell out of their trees and bounced onto the forest floor. I winced, but also doubted that whatever had killed the wolf-bear-man had been a squirrel or bird. It was probably still up there.
Possibly asleep, even.
But, no, I was responsible. Definitely not the type to just dart right into danger.
Then Zeno saw the bird and squirrel that my genius plan had produced and laughed.
And well, that was pretty much the end of it. It had been a great plan, and I shouldn’t have had to defend it, but it made me just angry enough that I wanted to be right. If there was a third, sleeping party that was the thing we were looking for, I was going to find it.
I soared right into the spot where I thought the blood was coming from.
This would prove to be a bad idea on several counts.
First, there were a lot of branches. I hate trees and most of nature for good reason, and usually that reason is because it generally wants to kill me. The other half of my hatred stems from the fact that it’s really hard to fly in trees. Above trees, yes. Through trees, no. I got hit a lot by branches and honestly smacked hard enough that I was already bleeding from the cuts and feeling not great, and that’s before we came to the second bad thing.
All of a sudden I felt super shivery and then out of nowhere, there was a pressure around my neck.
I couldn’t breathe. The broom spun out from under me as whatever was trying to strangle me yanked me off it, squeezed harder, and made me feel like I was decaying from the inside. I kicked my wings into gear, hoping to relieve some pressure on my neck. They crashed into branches around me, but I still couldn’t see who or what was doing this to me. Things were going gray fast.
Then my attacker stabbed me with an insect leg in the shoulder. It didn’t hurt as much as the strangling or the decaying feeling before, but it was enough to snap my mind into focus amidst the panic.
I still had my hands free and maybe one breath left. I couldn’t last long like this without help. But if I couldn’t see what was attacking me, maybe everyone else couldn’t see me either. And when you can’t rely on sight–
I released my last breath in a gasp of words and cast Thunderwave as powerfully as I could. A loud boom erupted through the canopy and sent me and my attacker rocketing upward. I had just enough presence of mind to register the creature’s form, terrible and full of tentacles, and shouts–closer than I expected– of Zeno and Helli, and then everything went dark.
When I woke up, I was on the ground with Awk, back in gnome form, standing over me, as two figures on a broom made a dark shape erupt into a thousand tiny forms. I hurt like hell, but I was pleased to see someone actually using the broom to fight aerially. It was fun as hell to be able to fly, despite the risk of falling. I picked myself up as Zeno and Helli landed and Helli returned the broom.
Zeno had managed to skewer one of the things that the creature had turned into. “Look, Set, this was what got you! Just this little guy!”
It was an impish, purple-grey blob with mottled wings, a small gross face, and razor-sharp teeth. One long, omni-directional tail went on for about three feet behind it.
Harry also, somehow, was here. Monks, man. Either I’d been out for a lot longer than I’d thought or Harry was just unbelievably fast. “Was that the harvest spirit?” he asked Zeno.
Zeno examined the bat creature more closely. “No. Well, maybe?” He paused and gave it another once-over. “No. I think it was just a bunch of bats. Kid! You got taken out by bats!”
I stormed off to examine the blood source, hoping to redeem myself by maybe rescuing a captive or something, but no. It was just a dead deer, still stuck in that tree, still dripping and half-eaten.
This also felt creepy and bad. I kind of wanted to do something about it, but no one wanted to spend more time here than we had to.
And I had to agree. My neck and shoulder had a large bite mark and tendrils of red crept under the skin. I heard my dad’s voice explaining to patients that this was a classic indicator of an infection.
Zeno came over and clapped me on the shoulder, right in the middle of my wound. “Set, you should get that checked out.”
I hissed at the pain, though the healing energy went a long way. “Thanks,” I said through gritted teeth. “And yeah, I think it might be infected.”
I put my hand on my shoulder, hoping that maybe this amber light situation would be a little more helpful. My own healing power made me feel better, not a lot but a little, although it did not seem to be doing much if anything to reverse the tendrils. I sighed and gave up for now, well enough to walk and do most things, just beat to hell.
Kheryph, luckily, was still okay. The boots were proving to be the best purchase I had made so far; he was really enjoying the warmth.
When we met back up with everyone, Lankin and Felegum mentioned that they’d seen a swarm of bats coalesce back into a single shape somewhere way out in the distance. They’d thought it was crows being weird, but it looked like that thing had just moved along to a new place.
Travel was slower the rest of the way unto Janwald. I’d like to say this was because Lankin was taking extra care not to jostle Felegum in his delicate position, but if I’m being honest it was probably because of me walking extra slowly.
Honesty sucks sometimes and this is why I generally prefer lying.
Anyway, we reached Janwald in the early afternoon, just when docks workers were coming out of the Meat and Slop and the Room Where the Sausage is Made had pulled into port. Somewhere on the deck, Captain Cheri was calling out orders to her crew as they hauled in the day’s catch.
It was all very picaresque, until we began making plans. Helli and Felegum split off to go see about buying some cushions to make Felegum’s journey a little easier.
“We’re going to see Milto, right?” Zeno said, already heading in that direction.
“I-I can’t go in there like this.” I gestured, expansively, to all of me but especially the parts that had been strangled and bitten. I wasn’t eager to check if I was getting weird stares from fishermen in town, but this was not exactly normal.
Zeno shrugged. “Why?”
I fixed my eyes on a particularly interesting crate of fish. “You ever meet someone you just want to, I don’t know, look cool in front of? This is not what I’d call cool.”
“Set,” Zeno said, slinging an arm around my shoulder, “take it from me. Having a giant hickey does make it cooler.”
I blustered something, then cast Disguise Self so I’d look like normal me, the version that hadn’t been recently strangled and bitten, just before we entered the shop. Zeno and Milto discussed their agreement with the cold resistance potions that he had been experimenting on for Zeno, and the firbolg brought out two pale blue potions. Zeno popped the cork on one and wafted it. I wasn’t sure what he discerned, but apparently it was to his liking.
Zeno “forgot” the price he’d agreed to pay for the potions and Milto had to “remind” him, and in the end that transaction was concluded with a good degree of civility. With a snap of Milto’s fingers, Zeno’s gold vanished into a back room.
Never one to miss a dramatic moment, Zeno pulled out the rapier with the weird grey bat skewered on it. “Hey, Milto, have you ever seen anything like this?”
Milto recoiled. “Ew, where did you find that, my dear Zeno?”
“Around here, actually. One of us, who is definitely not Set,” he coughed, “accidentally almost got strangled by it, but we scared it off.”
I stepped in to salvage this. “What we’re wondering is: is this normal? Or is this more bullshit that the dragon is causing?”
Milto considered for a moment. “I haven’t studied the Nine Hells much, but I have studied dragons. This doesn’t seem to me to be draconic in origin, but more demonic.”
That was a relief, but also kind of annoying because we couldn’t use it as an excuse to go storm off and end this Calcryx problem once and for all. Awk, no doubt riding the high of temporary victory, asked after the mushrooms he’d given to Milto for research. Milto reported success, the mushrooms were indeed able to offer some ability to withstand cold, and the resultant potion would be sixty gold. Awk did not take him up on it, and the firbolg shrugged.
Zeno mentioned that we were going to Csipherus and Milto said he heard it was hard to get into. I snorted. Understatement of the century.
Conversation turned to checking in on any dragon activity. Milto said that the fog continued to come at night, but beyond that, that was about it.
“Sounds like Awk’s dream,” the bard said.
“Oh?” Milto leaned in. “Do tell.”
“It involved dragons chomping on dock workers,” Awk began, and gave the summarized version of the bad fork of the dream, explaining that attacking Calcryx would only lead to more death in the long run. “It’s probably going to get pretty chilly around here,” he finished. “So yeah, winter is coming.”
“Our cultist does weather reports,” Harry muttered from the back of the room.
Awk summoned his weather hemisphere and we watched as the half-dome went briefly opaque. “Cloudy tonight, Harry,” the gnome said. “Anyway, Milto, I just wanted to check in and make sure that you hadn’t told anyone about Calcryx. So we can keep her safe.”
“Are you kidding?” The firbolg laughed. “I don’t consider myself a braggart, but I do like to talk. It’s not every day you face a white dragon and live! Why, I was in the Meat and Slop the other day telling sailors stories about it.” He winked. “It makes it much easier to distract them from their cards.”
Awk deflated visibly. “But what if some adventuring party comes after her and kills her?”
“Worse,” Harry said, “what if she develops a taste for humanoid meat?”
Conversation somewhat dwindled at that point, because no one really wanted to dwell on that side of things, not even Awk. Instead, we made to leave. Milto asked if we had a way of contacting him (no) and Awk assured him that we would not need it and that Milto would more likely need to talk to us instead. I went to a corner and messaged him, which to my mind was about the extent of our long-distance networking abilities. Milto replied “cute” as if that hadn’t taken me a long time to figure out how to do.
Anyway, unimpressed with our communication skills, Milto headed into his back room to work on things and everyone else said their farewells and headed out. I hung back, ducked under the counter, and knocked on the doorframe. “Uh, Milto?”
He looked up. “Yes?”
I fumbled through my bag and fished out the summerberry jam I’d gotten from the Green Mug. And okay, it wasn’t going to be ambrosia or anything, but I had to start somewhere. “Th-this is for back there. In the citadel. Thank you for saving us.”
Milto took the jam, undid the cap, and sniffed it. “Thank you, young one,” he said.
Heat crept up my face and the disguise spell wavered for a moment before I snapped it back under control. “Uh. It’s gonna go bad soon so use it quick.”
He laughed. “Very well. Now, get out. If you come behind the counter again I’ll banish you.”
I paused, halfway to the door, recalling what the helpful librarian in Paripas had said about making something a familiar. “Wait, you can banish things?”
Milto glanced skyward and made shooing motions. “Yes, now go.”
I left, but made a note to talk to him about potential lizard banishment later. As we met back up with the others, I remembered that Felegum could also banish things and had, in my presence, even.
We had another stirring meal at the Meat and Slop, where everyone but Awk and Harry got the meat, which was a fish. Awk got the slop. Harry waited to see what both options would be, and the barkeep called him a coward. Having actual food made me feel better.
What did not make me feel better was Awk knitting a hat for me or whatever out of the demon bat Zeno had speared. The gnome was excitedly working on it all through dinner, which was not only grossing everyone else out, but also getting demon innards everywhere. I told Awk that I was not interested in this hat, but this did not deter him.
Opting instead for peace instead of violence, I struck up a conversation with him as he worked about the deer we’d left behind. “I feel bad about it, dying like that.” I rubbed my own neck. “It must have been really scary to die by that thing. Do you have any druidic rituals or whatever to honor animals and help their spirits feel more at peace?”
“Actually,” Awk said as he threaded a fresh needle through the disgusting corpse, “I think that the wolf-bear-man killed the deer earlier and the demon we found just stole it from him.” He took a moment to examine his work. “Besides, that’s just nature sometimes. Death is a part of the cycle.”
I frowned. That seemed pretty bleak. If Kheryph had died back with either dragon and someone had told me that death was just part of the cycle, I’d probably have socked them. “Well, thanks.”
I stood up to go find a bed and sleep because this neck injury was no joke, but Awk looked up. “Wait, you didn’t come here to talk with me about my deer girlfriend?”
He’d probably thought I was going to give him endless shit about it like Harry and Zeno tended to do. “Actually,” I said, “I totally forgot about your deer girlfriend.”
In retrospect, this maybe wasn’t the most tactful thing to say. But Awk just sighed. “It still hurts to see deer like that for me. Her death was deeply personal.”
I nodded. Maybe death was only “part of the cycle” and not something world-shattering when it was an animal you didn’t know. “Well, okay,” I said. “I still don’t want that hat.”
We slept, and the morning saw me feeling better. Not back to normal, but much better than I’d felt yesterday. Felegum had bought several cushions for his wheelbarrow throne and they seemed to improve his travels as we headed out toward Egonia. We had an uneventful full day of travel and we set up camp as the sky began to change colors in the late afternoon. Lankin wandered off, saying something about scenting good game nearby, and the rest of us went to work preparing for the night.
By which I mean: Helli sat down and worked on another music box, Zeno played music, Awk continued to work on that stupid hat, and I actually made dinner. Harry probably was gathering firewood or keeping watch or something useful, and Felegum was chair-bound so he got a pass. Helli is not the world’s best singer, to put it politely, so she and Zeno were going back and forth trying to get the pitch right on her latest creation. Zeno was slightly pained, but seemed generally enthusiastic about assisting in the realm of art, and I was attempting to spiralize without losing my mind.
“It’ll be a nice potato,” I said to Kheryph as I carefully wound my knife through the vegetable. “You might like this, you should try it. Do you think I should make the radish into spirals too or nah?”
Unfortunately, I was never to know the answer to this question, because that was when Awk tried to throw the repellant demon hat on my head. Harry deflected it, which was good because it was heading for the food. I calmly put down the potato. “Awk,” I said in a quiet voice. “I am going to kill you.”
And then I whipped out my knife to stab the damn boundary-disrespecting gnome.
Rage seared through me, enough to make my strike go wide, and I was about to swing again when Felegum sighed, grabbed the nasty hat from Harry, and held it out toward me, saying, “Oh, for gods’ sake,” and tried to banish me.
It did not work. I was too powerful.
I rounded on Awk, about to julienne him into gnome frites, and that was the moment when Lankin dragged a gigantic moose into the clearing. “Hey guys!” He waved, sweating and grunting as he pulled his kill into camp. “What’d I miss?”
Sensing his moment, Felegum molded earth into a chair for himself, cast a dome around him and me, and I finished preparing the rest of the vegetables in peace as Awk made entreaties for me to leave the dome. I passed vegetables outside of it and cooked moose-vegetable kebabs, but did not come out. Harry and Lankin butchered the moose and cooked it, and Lankin decided to see how food storage in HFVNN worked.
Felegum took the opportunity to identify the piece of cloth he’d gotten from the Goblin Shopping Network back in Paripas, and found out that it was a Cloth of Incite Emotions. Zeno made some stellar remark about it not really being necessary here, and we fell asleep, meat sweats and all.
Actually, despite weird sweating, I felt pretty good. The demon bat had taken a lot out of me and that next morning was the first time my body seemed back to normal.
Once we packed everything back up, we set out again and after several hours of walking, shapes appeared in the distance. Dark floating platforms littered the horizon, huge slabs of stone suspended midair with balloons between them. Lightning flashed between the slabs and floating boulders, and five to ten miles ahead was the shadow of a city.
Egonia lay before us.