What a bonkers couple of days. In retrospect, I don’t know much more to tell you than that.
As we laid out plans for watches and sleeping arrangements, Awk had a conversation with me about Csipherus. I don’t remember much of it, but I do remember that he was trying to be reassuring, that he thought we’d do okay. It was always hard to tell with him what he was thinking or how he thought these grand plans and promises would happen.
That’s not to say that we hadn’t done well yesterday, because we had. Awk’s dust devil had helped us evade a wurm and the undead that we’d encountered weren’t as overwhelming as we’d thought they’d be, even with the slight complication arising from the cursed weapon situation. But we’d solved that, too. On the other hand, we didn’t have a cure for this disease, let alone any real course of action for handling the Red Eyes at the city. We were walking in pretty blind.
So yeah, I couldn’t decode exactly what Awk was getting at as he was hyping me up, but I could tell that the intention felt like it was coming from a place of kindness. With Awk, you never knew what you were going to get on the way: he’d tell you that he’d back you up in a fight, and then he’d sell his soul to who knows what and remind you of how much you owed him for saving your life later, when you never asked. Or he’d say he was going to help a dwarf, and then come back with multiple, expensive tokens stolen from said dwarf in a gambling hall. The best I could do was judge intention.
As to our traveling companions, Pinjin’s people were pretty well-equipped with animals. There were three three-humped camels and two four-humped ones. It was quite a sight, that many humps, all in one place. It was still weirder having one in the dome with us overnight, but you know, we made that work.
Zeno gave us a post-battle rundown (“Congratulations on a fight well done”) which was nice to hear from someone who tended to insult things mostly, and Helli brought up that we’d eventually need to check in with Paripas about the device we’d thrown into the pit in Egonia.
The farther we got from civilization, the more it felt like the options for how to use my scroll broadened. I decided not to bring it up until later, when we were closer to the city.
Instead, I watched the sand and stars as the campfire flickered and thought about connections.
Intending to wake up with the dawn, I headed to sleep to the dulcet, Pinjin-approved tones of Zeno’s pennywhistle. It was the middle of the night when someone woke me up and I blearily kept watch with Lankin across the dunes. His eyes were barely open, but luckily nothing attacked or came for us. Eventually, it came time for us to wake the next group.
Zeno and Helli had kept first watch and since Felegum had done a lot of work spellcasting we’d decided to give him some rest. That left–
“Oh no.” I realized.
Lankin went to go wake up Awk, and I turned to shake Harry awake. “I’m so sorry,” I said.
The monk stoically beheld the task before him. “One of us will survive.”
“The stronger.” I nodded, then fell back asleep until dawn.
Or rather, until something thumped onto the bedroll close to me.
“Morning, sunshine,” said Harry, who had fallen on top of Zeno’s chest, while the bard was still wrapped in his sleeping gear.
“Darling,” Zeno said, “I don’t remember a thing from last night.”
I had no idea how Harry had even gotten like that, but whatever. Adults were weird, man. I had some greeting of the day stuff to do for Lathander, so I did that as Felegum chatted up Pinjin, asking him why we didn’t just travel at night when it was colder and easier travel. Pinjin took slight issue with the word “easier”, saying that while daytime travel was hotter and more uncomfortable, it also afforded us the ability to see what was coming, monster-wise.
That made sense, though it didn’t make another hot day of travel any easier. But we were lucky, day three of our journey passed without incident. Felegum and I messaged back and forth down the caravan line for a bit, which was fun. I was a talented spellcaster, obviously, but impressive magical stuff like transformation, or elemental prowess, or raising the dead, that stuff was Felegum and Zeno’s bread and butter. I’m not saying that I didn’t feel cool or anything, but a less confident person might have wondered if they fit in with such powerful people.
Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about anything like that. I was cool. And Felegum even cast a protection spell on me, just in case, which was awesome. Later, when we’d stopped for the night, I helped Harry out with a small spell to help him put his poultice on a bit better–he had to change it every few days or so and today was one of the lucky days– and Helli interviewed Pinjin about the skeletons’ weapons. The weapons, she’d observed, were from a whole bunch of places and times.
“We don’t want to receive plague from the weapons.” Pinjin spat.
“The weapons carry plague?” Helli asked.
Pinjin shrugged. “We don’t know.”
It sounded like he had little desire to find out.
Felegum rose to the occasion again with his stir-fry, and Awk once more searched for a cactus his book talked about and actually managed to locate one with a spell four miles away. Felegum offered to have Dronie take a look at it, and the little monodrone flew off in the direction of the cactus.
Some time later, Felegum started, the link between him and Dronie severed as his familiar disappeared from this plane. Awk gave him two gold to help reimburse him for the loss and re-summoning.
“Probably flew into a cactus,” Felegum joked, though we were all wondering if maybe something much larger than a cactus had gotten him. Something, perhaps, that did not want visitors at their oasis.
After that, we spent a quiet night at camp. Zeno had been inspired by something and most of his nights were taken up with the process of music writing, sounding out new melodies on the penny whistle and bagpipes, shaking his head and discarding most. Occasionally, something would give him pause and he’d replay it a few times, sometimes discarding it, sometimes nodding to himself and keeping it.
Inspired by Felegum, I checked in on Kheryph. Now that the water situation was worse than originally thought, I was beginning to wonder if I’d maybe done wrong in not arranging for someone in Tormani to take care of him. Luckily, he seemed to be doing great with all the sun. Harry practiced his stances and Felegum cast the dome, with our rotating menagerie shuffling another few of the camels around to give everyone equal time in cooler temperatures.
We slept, without incident. Helli and Felegum shared the next day that they thought they’d seen a dark shape in the sky overnight but neither knew what it had been.
Felegum had also brought Dronie back overnight and so we set off on our fourth day of travel with a full group. In the distance, we came upon a group of moving shapes ahead in the sand and structures that looked like they’d been a part of a larger building at some point. We slowed the caravan down to investigate and Awk cast his Pass Without a Trace spell to keep us stealth.
We snuck over to scope it out. I, personally, would have been interested in sending more of the stealth people ahead first, but Zeno and Felegum were not into it, so we all went as a big unit. We scoped out the group, hopefully being as stealthy as we could. I knew I was kicking ass, but sometimes it’s hard to sneak a mage across a sand dune, even with the divine guidance of Lathander helping you out.
Anyway, it was still a group of zombies and they were on a ruin. One of their heads twitched over, maybe at Felegum less-than-gracefully navigating a sand dune. But what was most interesting was that there was a very gaunt man, almost a skeleton himself, in red robes commanding the group. Next to him was a goblin in dark reds and greens with two swords.
Even at this distance, it was impossible not to notice their eyes.
We observed a little more. The dead weren’t like the meandering bands we’d stumbled across before; no, these were going at the ruin with pickaxes and shovels. They were digging and appeared to be excavating the area. And whatever it was they were after, I didn’t want them to have it.
We had a small opportunity to be stealth, so I took advantage of the few seconds remaining before they noticed us to get my mirror images up. I still didn’t know very much about what the plague weapons did when they hit you, and I had very little desire to find out.
Helli moved closer, keeping hidden. So far, so good.
Then, Awk cast a spell and said, “You serve my master now.” A dark crown appeared over the head of the goblin and his eyes went shadowy.
Well, so much for subtle.
Zeno moved in, and now that our cover was blown Lankin just got really angry and started plowing through the sand toward the ruins. If the man in red and the goblin weren’t aware of us already, they certainly were now. Felegum, always thinking of others, spritzed the same familiar powder he’d used yesterday on me over Harry. “Harry, just hold on,” he said, flicking the last of the powder onto the dragonborn.
Harry paused, long enough to suffer through this, and then dashed off. He was so fast and nimble over the dunes that he actually got right up next to the man in red and tried to smash him with his staff. But then the unthinkable happened.
Harry’s staff exploded.
This was the same staff that Harry had poured hours working during downtimes in our journey, whittling away at it by the campfires or underneath the dome keeping watch, enduring our light-hearted teasing him about his carpentry tools and recording our adventures via wooden relief.
It was in four pieces now, at his feet.
Stunned maybe for a moment, Harry quickly recovered and headbutted man in red.
Or, at least he would have, if the man in red hadn’t caught Harry’s head in his hands before impact. And then, as if this were not already horrifically embarrassing enough, the man in red cast a spell and Harry’s whole body locked up. It was unsettling: Harry usually was the one paralyzing other people, so seeing this role reversal and so early in the fight, was not exactly confidence-inducing.
But you know what? I didn’t pledge a lifetime of service to Lathander to leave my friends high and dry. So I unleashed my wings and flew right on in there next to Harry, no attack, no spell, no nothing in mind beyond not deserting a friend.
Up this close, the man in red looked even worse. He wasn’t merely gaunt, like I’d thought earlier, but actually devoid of flesh. Like, okay, dude still had skin. Let us be clear. But it was all stretched out, like how extremely dead bodies kind of deflate over long expanses of time so that the skin just hugs around the bones. I’ve been in a catacomb or two, I have seen some weird shit.
And in my professional opinion, this guy was chock full of weird shit. So flying right in front of his face, a little above the dune, I asked, “What do you want? What are you doing here?”
It was then I noticed, clutched in his hand, a red gem. Fist-size. My eyes narrowed.
The man in red did not answer my question. Instead, he began going through the complicated motions of a spell, not one that I knew, but one that I’d seen Felegum do enough times to recognize the trickier parts of. I stabbed him with my spicy knife in the most inconvenient part of the invocation.
His eyes flashed, like he was well and truly disrupted, but then he pulled on some hidden reserve within himself to get the spell off properly. This was annoying, but I did at least have the satisfaction of knowing that I had thrown a significant wrench into his plans.
He did, though, manage to get the magical crown of mind control off of his goblin compatriot, which did mean problems for me and Harry very soon. Luckily, Helli was at the ready with her trusty wand of magic missiles, sending several at the man in red.
Awk was not willing to relinquish control over the goblin without a fight. “I’m not done with you get!” he said, but this time the goblin did not slacken and the crown did not appear again.
“Go smash some heads!” Zeno called to Lankin, who looked ready to do just that. Turning to the man in red, he drawled, “Shut those red eyes, darling.”
And then I think there was some sort of spell that was supposed to happen. Sometimes magic does this where it works occasionally but then other times, especially if your opponent is good at it too, it’s less effective or just misses them entirely. Anyway, possibly that was what happened here.
Lankin, emboldened by Zeno, went ham. Sensing that Harry was in danger, the elf went right up to the goblin and laid into him with his great axe. Twice. It was not a pretty sight.
Not to be outdone, Felegum unleashed what would become his signature spell of this trip: Tidal Wave. He was careful to carve out a little area around Harry so that the monk (still frozen in place) would not be hurt, and the goblin and a skeleton were knocked over. Interestingly, the water merely parted around the man in red.
This was curious, but less worrying: he seemed perfectly capable of being stabbed.
As might be imagined, he also did not like being attacked or crowded like this and so unleashed some sort of necrotic spell on me, Harry, and Lankin. This kind of thing really isn’t a huge deal to me, but I was concerned for the others because it can be nasty. After all, Harry was still stunned.
Around us, the zombie horde coalesced around its leader to protect him, shambling closer around the three of us and the two red eyes. They tried hitting us with shovels and were surprisingly pretty good at it. Meanwhile, the goblin had decided that he hated Harry or whatever and was just going to town on him with sword slashes.
After two of them, Zeno got fed up and yelled, “That’s enough, okay!” and the last one went wide– understandable, no one expects Zeno to tell them what to do– and then the goblin shook it off and went in for three more slices, the last one at last releasing Harry from the burden of consciousness and sending him rolling down the dune.
Here was my moment.
I’d tried to be cool before with conjuring water from nothing, and then also with calling on sacred fire to blast a zombie from a distance. Time at last to demonstrate my new power via healing.
Except I couldn’t touch Harry, since he’d slid down the sand and out of my reach. I sighed, exasperated, and settled on a healing word. “Come on, Harry.”
The monk blinked dully from the bottom of the dune, not exactly happy but definitely more mobile than he’d been before.
Then I went in for an attack and totally missed. This was only the latest in a string of underwhelming results on my end, but no matter. I’d get him next time.
Except the next time I looked at the man in red, I couldn’t stand it. He wasn’t a foe in the middle of the desert. He was death, my city’s end, my parents dying alone and apart. He was all my mistakes and poor choices come back to home to roost, to tell me you did this.
It was too much, I had to go. Up was always a good option. Whenever things went bad, I generally went as far up as I could, whether that was climbing when I was back home or on the broom these days. So I did that this time too, flying upward and away as fast as I could.
And then he cast some sort of spell, some sort of shield, which I dimly remembered I was supposed to be preventing– but who could prevent something like that? How did you fight against death himself? It wasn’t possible. The best we could do was run and hope to survive.
But no one else seemed to notice the impossibility of our situation. Helli kept hacking away at skeletons like it was nobody’s business, slicing the arm off the one next to Harry. Awk did…something, I was too concerned with the man in red to have an idea what.
Zeno shook his head disdainfully at one of the Red Eyes. “You’ve got to really think about the choices you’re making here, man.”
A certain darkness came over his eyes, like he was setting a curse but then it vanished just as quickly as the Red Eye it was intended for resisted it. Around us, the undead moved in an untidy mass, continuing their efforts to hammer away at us with shovels and excavating tools.
Felegum did the same dispelling motions that the man in red had done earlier, and the globe around the Red Eyes vanished. Harry pulled himself up and whaled on one of the Red Eyes, once, twice, then another round of blows. He didn’t always connect, but he didn’t give up. The skeletons had surrounded Harry, Lankin, and Helli at this point, nicking away at them, although Helli’s kelp armor continued to slap them back, which was pretty great.
The red-eyed goblin made a crushing slash at Lankin, but luckily Zeno was there to intercept it.
“He’s too beautiful to hit!” the bard called.
And lo, all three of the goblin’s strikes were unable to connect with Lankin’s body. It was actually pretty impressive considering how little clothing he was wearing.
I flew back down to the ground, intending to be useful now that the rest of my friends weren’t being sensible and fleeing, but I still couldn’t bring myself to get closer to the man in red. So instead, I gave Harry a defensive boost with a shield of faith and made to defend myself should any attacks come by way.
The man in red pointed at Felegum and a black ray shot toward our mage. Felegum, looking extremely concerned, counterspelled it with haste and the ray dissolved before it reached him. I didn’t have to know what that had been to know that it was probably pretty bad.
Then the man in red said something (which, coincidentally, I later found out was “We have what we came for. I’m bored.”) and he and the other Red Eye, the goblin, vanished in a teleportation spell.
With the man in red gone, things snapped back into focus. All that was left here was just a bunch of dead things, which we’d had no trouble with before. Felegum called out that it had been a really good thing that he’d counterspelled whatever the man in red had thrown at him, because otherwise it would have disintegrated him and he’d have been gone forever.
Even though I was thinking more clearly now, that was still a pretty sobering thought. That dude was not good news.
The skeletons and various undead left behind, when they had been moving with purpose before, seemed less well-directed. Awk entangled some of them, Lankin sliced and diced, and Zeno even helped out with an encouraging and regenerative word to Harry before stabbing one. Felegum, flicking some of the sweat off his brow after that harrowing near-disintegration experience, summoned another tidal wave to crash through the undead forces, and Harry annihilated another zombie.
Frustrated, I blistered through another one in a single stroke.
As I cleaved through that skeleton, though, something shifted in the spicy knife. It was more of a feeling thing than a strictly observable thing, but the dagger felt different than it had before. Maybe I was still too zoned out from the fight to really figure it out beyond just knowing that it had happened.
At this point, we’d pretty much dispatched the rest of the undead excavators, and Helli’s eyes were shining with the prospect of treasure hunting. Without even looking, Zeno held up a shovel from one of the bodies and she grabbed it.
“I mean, there’s got to be something,” she said. “Clearly they were looking for something here.”
Quietly, elsewhere on the dune, Harry picked up the four pieces of his quarterstaff and put them away in his pack.
“I could try to fix it,” Awk offered. Harry declined, and Pinjin and the caravan trundled up as Helli began to dig through the sands, investigating where the bulk of the undead were clustered. Unable to make much in the way of immediate headway, Helli asked the caravan about the ruins and what they were for.
Felegum took some time to investigate the gate side of things. I wished belatedly that I hadn’t gotten cold feet at the last moment there; it would have been nice to take out a Red Eye or at least prevent him from teleporting. Or, you know, disintegrating Felegum. Man, that guy was bad news.
And he’d gotten away.
I kicked some sand.
Felegum’s careful inspection of the gateway revealed that there were some slots on what seemed to be the top part. They were about gem-sized, which fit with what the guy had said. The more I thought about it, the more I disliked this. It wasn’t like I could tell much about these ruins or anything, but ugh. Suddenly I just felt really irresponsible, you know? Like, this was related, probably, to my city and yet, yeah, I had no idea about it.
Helli tried putting one of her own rubies into the slots, and while it fit, nothing happened. Awk went around using his magic book to translate the ruins for us. There were four columns, each with a word on them (“Salvation”, “Damnation”, “Pillar of Fire”, and “Melding”) and then the archway/gateway deal had a bunch of proper nouns or names on it.
The pillars were, of course, broken and not in great shape, but the archway, while listed onto its side and mostly buried, seemed to still be whole. Magically speaking, the pillars didn’t give off an aura, but the archway did. Awk tried walking under it and through, which we were all kind of nervous about, but nothing happened to him.
Helli managed to find some shredded bits of the man in red’s robes, which was pretty cool. Maybe he’d gotten careless walking or maybe I’d sliced some off. Either way, a win.
Felegum moved the earth around the site to try to find something more and accidentally broke the bottom of a column, fracturing whatever magical aura that was on this place. I don’t know; I don’t do auras. Or maybe I do, I just haven’t figured that stuff out yet.
Anyway, after being mad and taking out my frustrations on the sand for a while, I finally remembered that there were other civilizations out in the desert, many years into the past. Csipherus, being the best city and very important, was built on magical trade lines which made it easier to transport goods to and from more quickly. What we’d found was possibly a waystation, a teleportation area for moving things across the desert. It was probably part of a larger network.
I didn’t really know how long ago all this stuff had been going on, I just remembered hearing it at some point growing up and thinking that of course, that made sense, our city was just so cool that we’d developed a badass magical system to tackle the desert in addition to shipping oversea.
Anyway, Zeno decided to be practical and manage Pinjin, who was fast approaching. “We had a very successful scuffle and all’s well.”
Pinjin gave the ruins a once-over. “Ah. Very different than what we had found before!” When he beheld Helli excavating, though, he shook his head. “But we cannot stay. We must leave this cursed place at once.”
Zeno did his damnedest to persuade Pinjin to give us a few more moments. It was for the sake of the noble cause of saving Csipherus, he said, we had to stay, to look harder. Again, he’d gotten pretty good at making inspiring speeches these days and this was no exception.
“I’m with him,” Felegum said, nodding at Pinjin. “Let’s leave.”
“Wait, really?” Zeno asked, somewhat incredulous at having done all that persuasive work for nothing. Near him, Lankin tried to build a sandcastle. This was difficult given the lack of water for cohesion, but he did his best.
Pinjin at that point had had enough and signaled for everyone to leave.
What followed were two days of travel, which I thought were days five and six, but everyone else kept insisting were days six and seven, i.e. that I’d missed a day–which seems weird, to misplace an entire day– but whatever. Let’s say five and six. Harry replaced his poultice somewhere in there and burned the remains of his quarterstaff to charcoal, which while metal, was also very sad. Who knows what happened on day seven. Probably nothing.
On day eight, Awk tried to create water and got nothing. I tried to create water and filled up most of my water skin. Naturally, I did not let him forget this.
The ninth day was when things went to hell.
Zeno was playing music and Harry once again had turned to his poultice to make sure he was following Mo’s instructions. When he took off what remained of it, the eye itself seemed functional, but the scales around it were translucent, not quite black anymore like they had been.
Still pleased with my water success from yesterday, I attempted to summon water inside of a closed barrel. This worked slightly better but not amazingly.
An early highlight in the day was Zeno finding a skeleton. He, like Awk, had been searching for things– Awk in constant quest of his cactus and Zeno for corpses– and it looked like the bard had found the thing he was after first.
It was orcish, standing devoid of liquid, just bones upright like some strange statue. Pinjin made a humming sound. “Clearly ran out of water.”
He did not understand why were we slowing down or why this was such a big deal and motioned for us to move on. Zeno once again mustered his charm and tried to explain in the gentlest and kindest way what his intentions were. Pinjin, as to be expected for someone who travels routinely out of his way to avoid zombies, did not react favorably.
“But it’s good!” Zeno gestured at the bones. “It’s completely separate from the undead you’ve run into. It’s a tool misused out there.”
“You’d made a walking corpse!” Pinjin spluttered. “Out of that?”
A huge argument ensued. I, obviously no friend to the undead, tried to intervene on Zeno’s behalf, saying that yes, this was weird as hell, but we had experience with him raising things and that if it got out of hand we were more than capable of taking care of it.
Side note: no zombies had ever gotten out of hand before. Zeno once told me he had to “reassert dominance” over them every morning to prevent that, which sounded kind of gross but also made me curious what that involved. Anyway, usually the undead under Zeno’s sway tended to get torn to pieces before they could challenge his control, a point I tried to convey to Pinjin.
Pinjin threw up his hands, frustrated and done with all of us. “If it gets out of your control, you kill it.” He walked off a ways. “It’s not okay.”
Zeno played his song to rouse the dead and even though Pinjin was still mad, you could see that he was entranced by the music. It was haunting, a strange half-song, one I’d heard a darker echo of when he brought Harry back from the dead. The music curled around the bones, the notes themselves forming ligaments to make the structure move.
As deeply unsettling as it was, there was a degree of artistry to it. I wasn’t sure if this made it better or not.
Anyway, logistically speaking, this was a pretty solid skeleton for Zeno. It had two very functional legs, a fully intact right arm, and no left arm. As the bard finished his song, the animated skeleton stepped forward and the two of them clasped hands as though introducing themselves to the other.
“Friends,” Zeno said, “this is Drybones.”
Pinjin threw his hands up like he was totally absolving himself of all responsibility and walked off. It seemed like the hardest part of the evening had gotten resolved.
Little did we know, things were only just getting started.
It began very innocuously, with Awk doing the thing he usually did during spare evenings, which was consulting his edible plants of the desert book and then trying to find a cactus.
He found one. Earlier in the trip, he’d located one in the distance, but it was like four or five miles way out of our way and neither Pinjin nor the rest of us were willing to put the time into that kind of a detour. An oasis would be nice, we’d reasoned, and it would be likely that that’s where the cactus would be growing, but the risks were pretty great and it would be hard to save Csipherus if we didn’t make it to the city alive.
Today’s cactus was closer, maybe two miles away.
“It’s much less of a detour!” he said excitedly. “Just think: fresh fruit, edible, only a couple miles out of the way.”
This was more tempting than the first cactus had been for a few reasons. One, while I tended to regard most things that Awk wanted with some degree of suspicion (let’s just be upfront about it: we all knew that while perhaps he did earnestly want to help feed us he also equally earnestly wanted a chance to see that dragon), he made a compelling point about new food. Felegum was doing his damnedest to make stir-fry not suck, but this was a lot of days of moose ‘n’ greens. Variety was compelling.
Two, the water situation was not as good as it might have been. If this cactus was actually by an oasis and we could avoid any draconic things, then we might be able to bring back something new and exciting for dinner as well as refill our water stores. It was a risk, but given that I was having an absolutely cruddy time trying to master divine water creation under extreme pressure, it was looking like the lesser of two dangerous things. I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but Drybones had also been someone who probably thought they had the water situation well-managed, too.
Pinjin was not down with navigating the caravan off course two miles, especially only on the idea of a potential cactus, but Awk wanted to go enough that he was cool doing it solo. This seemed like the height of foolishness, both for him and for us, so I sighed and said I’d go with him. We couldn’t leave the caravan unguarded– who knew if another weird band of undead would sneak up on them– but at the same time, I wasn’t about to send Awk to a dragon alone.
It seemed unsafe, for a lot of reasons. Especially since Awk had been talking with me on a watch with Zeno about how Csipherus might need a dragon, and wouldn’t that be much better than it having zombies?
Yeah. The city I’d grown up in hadn’t had a dragon overlord and somehow, before the creeping plague, we’d functioned just fine.
Awk had made some compelling points back then about how at least people would be alive and maybe the dragon would be able to help manage the conduit, and then asked if I’d really want my people dead or zombified rather than alive, albeit tithing occasionally to a dragon.
Again, I’d said I didn’t believe there were only two options here. But you know how Awk is. Sometimes it’s hard to convince him that he’s got a weird idea of things.
Besides, I mean, I hadn’t asked Lathander for a guaranteed, sure-fire solution to save Csipherus. When I’d offered my service, I’d asked for power enough to keep my friends alive and to end whatever was happening in the city. Whether that end was returning Csipherus to its previous state of glory or putting the city out of its misery and reducing it to one more ruin in the desert was unclear.
Obviously I had a preference, but that was the gamble I was taking. I was choosing to believe that the uncertainty was going to work out in my favor. And if it didn’t, well, we’d get to that when we got to that. I’d said I’d accept it.
I’d promised a lot of things.
Anyway, that was the solemn, weird vibe as I packed up my stuff to follow after Awk on this cactus shenanigan, not really that amped about hiking off for ages with the gnome into the sands but unwilling to stay because this seemed like the surest threat to my city.
Before I left, Zeno clasped my shoulder and whispered in my ear. “Take him out if you have to.”
I nodded. In other conversations, that might have been said in jest, but it was not this time. We both held eye contact a moment, long enough for me to know that Zeno had my back.
And honestly, that right there was why I was less nervous about the zombie thing. Zeno and I might fundamentally disagree about the undead, but when push came to shove I knew Zeno had my back.
I could not say the same about Awk, and that was why I had to follow him.
Harry approached me as I left camp, the last person I saw on the way out. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, jerking his chin at Awk.
I frowned. Not worry about it? I wasn’t sure what he was trying to communicate here because it seemed like there was a hell of a lot to worry about. Unless Harry knew for sure that there wasn’t going to be a dragon hanging out at cactus central, then I was going to remain worried and remain present. Still, I appreciated him seeing us off and trying to offer comfort when I was–maybe, possibly– telegraphing how concerned I was about this. Harry was a good dude.
So, we set off across the sands. It was a lot of walking. I tried to keep in good spirits, but sometimes Awk would talk about Holly Goodhead and it would completely diminish my good mood. Somewhere around the third time this happened, I was about to see red, but then I got a real bad vibe. I glanced down at the gnome and he seemed equally perturbed, too.
We both looked around and Awk cast his Pass Without a Trace spell. We’d walked the entire way here without it and we hadn’t felt like we were being watched, but right now? Oof, did not feel good. In addition, not liking this at all, I went invisible. It was one thing to be relying on Awk, but if a dragon was in the area then I wanted every bit of protection I could get. We’d be two people versing a huge thing.
Not great odds, in my humble opinion.
Still maintaining his previous spell, Awk also attempted to divine where the cactus was now that we were getting close. He also took out his small piece of the cube, the magical item that helped us all find our ways back to each other, in his hand, holding it out. I was not clear what he intended to do with this, but then I got another weird vibe behind me and I turned.
And what I hadn’t been able to see before was that we had a follower.
A white-clad black dragonborn was peering at the tracks Awk and I had made before the gnome cast his Pass Without a Trace spell, trying to figure out which direction we’d headed in.
It was Harry.
Feeling much more at ease (and finally understanding why he’d told me not to worry about it), I backtracked.
“Harry!” I said, not realizing at first that I was still invisible. “Oh man, I had no idea that you were going to come along!”
“I always have,” he said quietly. “Every time that gnome’s gone off on his own I’ve snuck after him to keep an eye on him.”
This was metal, and in retrospect, true. I even remembered him telling me about one such time. Anyway, when I turned back around, Awk had crested the top of the next dune and was standing there, transfixed, and I did not like that. I motioned for Harry to follow after me, but then realized–spoiler– that I was still invisible.
So I dropped some ball bearings in the sand and told Harry to follow after them and the sound of my voice. He did and we caught up with Awk.
It was one of those instances where a lot happened very quickly.
We caught up with Awk just as he passed over the top of the hill and out of reach. Beyond the dune was an oasis, beautiful and verdant, with palm trees and grasses swaying in the slight breeze. It looked like paradise.
And there, right in the middle of it, was an imposing, massive blue dragon.
“Set, she’s beautiful,” Awk whispered, just before he walked out of my reach and into the dragon’s eyeline.
I swore, ducking with Harry behind the dune. Shit. We couldn’t stop Awk without both revealing ourselves and alerting the dragon. In fact– if this was who I thought it was– she had just noticed that Awk was there.
I kept mouthing swears to myself, not trusting myself to make any noise. Harry and I were as quiet as possible, but the dragon and Awk’s voices traveled.
Awk padded down to the edge of the oasis, very casually. There was no response from the dragon.
Then her voice boomed out in Common. “How did you get here?”
He addressed her in what was presumably Draconic– I don’t know it, but Harry was there to translate for me. I knew that Awk had been learning the language, though from the way Harry’s nose wrinkled when Awk spoke, it seemed like the gnome still had some ways to go on pronunciation and emphasis.
A lot of things happened here, so I’m going to do my best to present them as accurately as possible, but I was pretty mad so if I goof or say things out of order, that’s why.
Awk knelt, and Atarka, because we all had a pretty solid idea who this was, said, “I see you serve.” Then she flew up and landed in front of him, lightning crackling between her teeth. “Direct me to better quarry or I’ll eat you where you stand.”
This tracked, given that she was known as the Glutton of the Desert. I wondered if it was because of her that the desert was so unforgiving and forced its visitors to tithe.
Awk said something in Draconic back to her, which Harry continued to translate. “He called her the Jewel of the Desert.”
Something in me snapped.
I scoffed. “There’s only one Jewel of the Desert.”
And it damn well wasn’t her.
Atarka’s head whipped up and she demanded something of Awk. Harry stilled.
“Friends,” Awk called up the dune. “Come down to meet the Jewel of the Desert, Atarka.”
Briefly, my vision went white with fury, but I made no movement.
“Stay here,” Harry said and walked a little down the dunes. He was still close enough to translate for me, but he was most definitely in visual range of the dragon.
We learned that Atark had a deal with the people in the city, the Red Eyes, to leave them alone in exchange for the treasures of Csipherus.
It should be noted that at this point I very much wanted to fuck her up, but thanks to my superior self control I held still.
And then Awk tried to bribe her.
Again, I was hearing this translated through a somewhat distant Harry, but the gist of it was that Awk offered my city to the dragon in the same fashion he’d talked to me about it, saying that the inhabitants of the city would be happy to provide tithe and serve their dragon master, that we intended to free it and would turn it over into the masterful, knowledgeable hands of a dragon for rulership.
I would have blown my cover then if Atarka hadn’t stepped on him. She saw no value in his promises, not when she already had the city’s riches. She wanted food, good food, and now.
Towering over him, she leaned down and smelled him. He came from a group, she said. Surely they must have something exotic, something delicious that would befit a dragon such as herself.
Awk mumbled something about trying to figure out how much moose we had left. He tried to placate her, to offer her things in the future, but no. Atarka wanted food now.
He could not provide it. She said, very well, that it wouldn’t be too hard to find out where he’d come from.
So, rearing up, she pushed up off the ground and soared into the sky, gone from sight.
Harry and I both knew what was going to happen.
“She’s going for the caravan!” Harry yelled. “Run!”
And we ran, knowing that by the time we got there we would already be too late, but knowing that we had to run anyway.
Harry and I reached where we thought the campsite was– Harry was faster and also seemed to remember more easily where we needed to go over the sands than I did, so I followed his lead– but it was very different.
I wasn’t sure what we expected. Level sand was not it.
We were in the right place, though. There was a dead camel, a wrecked cart from the caravan, four corpses on the sand (from what we could tell, four of the nine caravanners we’d been traveling with), and then, inexplicably, four humps. No camel, just the humps.
I was scratching my head at that last one until something trembled underneath the surface, and Felegum expertly moved the sand and earth aside to reveal a small hiding spot beneath the dunes where he, Helli, Zeno, Lankin, Pinjin, the remaining caravanners, and lonely surviving camels had been hiding out.
Harry and I helped them out of their shelter and asked for the story.
Like I said, I wasn’t there for this one, so it’s going to be a little disjointed and secondhand.
Atarka had come indeed, descending on the caravan with the sun behind her for a surprise attack. She’d lit up the caravan with a burst of lightning, killing half the caravanners instantly and nuking one cart. The camels bolted, and Pinjin had cried out to stop them, that there was one carrying their food and another with their water.
I forgot which one Helli went after, but after a devil of a time trying to persuade the animal to obey her commands (here she and I shared a knowing look, as she was very familiar with my struggles managing Kheryph) she managed to save one. Lankin, seeing Atarka perhaps sweeping down after another camel, sliced its four humps of water clean off before the blue dragon fried the rest of the camel with lightning and ate it.
Pinjin and Felegum I guess got in a fight? They seemed really not happy with each other when Harry and I got back and apparently there had been tension in the fight earlier. Zeno told me that they were all basically trying not to die and to save as many camels and supplies as possible as Felegum magically moved sand to bury them and wait out the dragon attack.
And that worked. It was just a lot of very scared, very angry people stuck together underground, which understandably was not great.
Harry and I in return told them what had happened with Awk, how he’d gone out to meet the dragon, promised her my city, and then, having nothing to offer her on his person and no other plans, accidentally spurred her to fly off back here and decimate the caravan.
Needless to say, people were pissed.
Pinjin was especially angry–understandable, his friends and travel companions had died– and Felegum’s telling him to calm down did not land very well. Zeno tried to calm his emotions, but this also failed and he got angrier. Trying to offer my services laying the dead to rest in this moment was maybe not the best or most endearing thing I could have done, but as a new cleric I felt compelled to do so and was pretty powerfully rejected.
Pinjin and the four other survivors went to burn their dead at some distance from us, and Felegum explained a little more of their beef from earlier. “He just wasn’t acting very logically,” the sorcerer said of Pinjin during the dragon fight.
“Dude,” Zeno said, putting a hand on the mage’s shoulder, “his friends had literally just been killed.”
“Yeah,” Felegum replied, “but still.”
After the ceremony had been completed, Pinjin came back up to mend things. “Thank you for saving us and giving us space, Felegum.”
The mage accepted his thanks with grace and nodded. “I’ll send you the bill.”
It was at this point that Awk finally returned, on his tiny gnome legs, carrying that damned cactus.
Taking in the desolation of the camp, the pyres burning in the distance, and the four humps lying forlornly on the ground, he held up his plant. “May I offer you some cactus in these trying times?”
Pinjin snarled and his hand went to his back where a sword seemed to materialize out of nowhere. “I will kill you.”
Helli elbowed me. “Oh yeah, forgot to mention: Pinjin’s a badass.”
I nodded in appreciation.
In the middle of this very hostile environment, Awk told his side of the story, trying to explain things in a positive light. At one point he turned to me and said that I couldn’t have known what he was saying because it was in Draconic and Harry stepped in to say that he’d translated for me. As he finished, I was seething again. He wasn’t sorry, at least not for what had happened. He was just sad that this dragon, like the other two dragons before her, also hadn’t listened to the same song and dance.
He’d chosen his own goals over the goal again and again, even though he knew how much it would hurt us.
Zeno looked at me, as though waiting for a sign. I don’t know what my face did, but something in me broke and Zeno saw it.
“Man,” the bard said to Awk with a sigh, “the time to think about your life choices has passed.”
And with that, he bestowed a curse on him.
“Suffer not the tyrant,” Harry grunted, whacking Awk with his fists, possibly the Talons, I was still kind of reeling and Harry was also punching really fast for me to notice. He paused, stunning Awk, and then hit him twice more.
I was still figuring all this out in my head– what the hell was the right thing to do here? kill my friend, save my city? was one of them the cost of the other?– so I pulled a dagger out and cut myself to cast Bane on Awk. Unfortunately, the spell didn’t take hold on him, and perhaps even more unfortunately, I had unthinkingly used the spicy knife to nick myself to get the blood.
The knife was thirsty.
This may sound like typical teenage drama, but, oh, it was not. The knife literally sucked the blood out of my arm. My skin went dark and almost desiccated as I looked on in abject horror at what I’d done to myself trying to cast a damn spell. It also hurt like hell.
Then Awk turned to me. “You have damned your city,” he said, transforming into a flea.
Helli, not one to miss a beat, took out a book that she’d apparently been carrying this entire time and yelled, “To serve man!” (which I found out later was apparently the title of the book in Draconic) and smashed it on the spot in the sand where Awk had been.
Pinjin, looking on very confusedly, put his sword away. It seemed, as much as we all hated to believe it, that Awk had gotten away. What followed was a moment or two of everyone looking around, unable to spot a flea, and then it gradually devolved into people telling me how cool Pinjin had been in the fight with Atarka before. At this point, some small amount of color had started to return to my arm, making me feel like maybe I hadn’t just sucked out my lifeblood accidentally. Also, the Pinjin stories were pretty great.
“Pinjin, you’re cool,” I called over to him after hearing the third story.
“Damn right I am.” He stood a little straighter.
But Zeno wasn’t done. He took out his bagpipes, knowing that fleas still could hear, and played his most haunting tune. It was eerie and excellent, a supernatural predator of a melody that whispered beneath the sands until, with a pop, Awk appeared a little distance on, buried in the sand up to his waist, his form dropped.
Harry took the opportunity to knock him unconscious and Felegum stressed that we needed to talk this over before we did anything. Previously, he’d been more on the side of letting Awk wander off into the desert and die of water deprivation, but I think that all of us knew that, probably, Awk would find some way of escaping that fate. Helli, too, had been against killing Awk earlier, and I– I had been all for it, but I didn’t know. We didn’t want to hurt our friend.
Zeno and Harry maintained that Awk had done more than enough harm, which was pretty reasonable, but damn. I needed something more.
So I healed him. I held him up by his throat and said, “Your life belongs to me.”
And I asked him to choose between his patron and us. Could he put our friendship first, choose us first when it mattered, or was he always going to be screwing us over if it meant he could get in good with his sepctral dragon boss?
Felegum nodded; this was the question he too needed answered.
Awk danced around the questions, saying what he’d said before, that he had sold his soul to save us when we’d fought with Durnen the last time, that it was foolish not to support dragons, that I was literally letting my city be populated by zombies rather than accept that the only path to victory was through the dragons.
“You travel with a necromancer,” he said. “And you don’t see a massive problem with that?”
“I’ll have those eyes,” Zeno said casually.
“No,” I said, “I don’t. Because I know that he’d my friend and that, when push comes to shove, he’s not going to sell my city to a dragon. All you need to do is say you choose us. Choose us first over your patron. That’s it.”
I grabbed hold of my holy symbol and prayed for guidance. For help, like he’d told me to, like he’d promised he would answer.
And he did.
You have chosen a path of life and to always preserve and protect that life, to show mercy no matter the cost. However, there are some who, if you allow them to live, will cause untold destruction and loss. I cannot say if that is the case here, nor can I tell you what to choose, but I trust in your judgement.
I opened my eyes, calm and clear.
“You know how people always say that clerics and warlocks aren’t that different?” I asked Awk. “How both are just people with bonds to a higher power in exchange for service, being granted their power in return. Want to know what the real difference is?” I swallowed. “My god didn’t tell me what to do. He gave me a choice. So I want you to understand that this is me choosing this, not him.”
Mercy no matter the cost. That was my parents’ way, giving up everything they had to help others, regardless of what it took from them. And sometimes, to be a truly good person, you had to be willing to give up that which you most wanted in order to help others, no matter how much it hurt, no matter how much it would risk.
But before I had sworn myself to Lathander, I had promised to save my city. And once, a long time ago in Milto’s shop, I had sworn to Awk that I would kill him if he kept me from that goal.
“And I am a ruthless bastard,” I said, slicing across Awk’s neck.
I used the spicy knife, knowing what it would do it him, and it sucked the blood up greedily, turning Awk’s skin to near parchment. I sank to my knees and cried. You want to call me weak, go for it. Call me back when you’ve had to kill a friend.
Zeno stabbed Awk’s unconscious body and then knelt down beside me. “Aww, kid. I know it hurts to give up on him.”
“I could fix this,” I sobbed. “I still have healing spells left. I’m just choosing not to use them.”
Zeno nodded. Above us, Harry sighed. “Zeno, I disagree with you.” The dragonborn watched Awk’s body shudder, bereft of blood and water. “He gave up on us.”
Then Harry punched him and it was over. Awk’s form was even more dried out in death, and when the last little bit of his life left him, his pact book crumbled out of his pockets and into ash.
We were all pretty emotionally raw. Pinjin seemed pleased that we’d handled our traitor and gave us some space to light a pyre and give him a proper send-off. Before we did that, we had to turn to the somewhat unpleasant task of taking what useful things off his body as we could. Was it disrespectful? A little, but we were also going into a fraught desert city with pretty much nothing. We needed all the help we could get, even if it meant touching bones too near to the surface of the skin.
Helli was able to find Awk’s writ from Paripas as well as a set of tinker’s tools, and some potions. Harry said we should put those back and she did, but then I scooped them up when no one was looking.
Was that in poor taste? Probably. But I didn’t survive because I adhered to standards of propriety. I survived because I did what no one else wanted to do. These potions might be useful.
And I would do anything for Csipherus.
As we finishing building the pyre, Felegum offered to say a few words, which I appreciated. As a cleric, this felt like my responsibility, but as I was also Awk’s murderer I really did not think it would be in good taste.
The mage cleared his throat and began a meaningful speech, closing it with: “We liked him as he was, a druid with zany antics, not as what he became, a dragon simp.”
That was a pretty accurate summation, I felt.
Zeno took out his bagpipes and played about half of “Amazing Grace” and then trailed off and stopped. Harry lit the pyre and Felegum used his magic to spread flame over the wood and body. Pinjin had needed, for his own mental health, to move on from the site of the dragon attack, so as Awk’s ashes spread over the desert, we moved on and caught up with the caravan again and made camp.
It was a subdued night, one of mourning for both groups. I prayed to Lathander asking him to do what he could for Awk, if there was anything to be done for a soul promised elsewhere. I did not receive an answer, so I stepped out into the desert to take a walk.
Had I damned my city or had I saved it? I still felt like shit either way.
A wind swept across the desert and all was quiet.
And once more, I looked at the sand and the stars and thought about connections.