The silhouette of a blue dragon, probably Atarka, swooping down off the central pyramid off to terrorize someone else somewhere else, looked no small bit like a hydra. And indeed, that was what this all had begun to feel like, as though we were fighting against so many disparate heads of enemies that all promised to grow back stronger and with more force when we cut through them.
The Calendar escorted us out, and yes, it felt pretty bleak. My city, which had always thrummed with activity, even in the days when I’d been roaming through it stealing from passersby and from stalls, was quiet and eerily still.
I considered my options.
I’d hoped that the Calendar would want to work with us, you know, that we’d form an alliance and then take down the Red Eyes together. And maybe with Kalends on my side, something like that would have been possible. For now, we were relatively unknown. And we’d need somewhere to hide out as well as get food and water from in the meantime.
This was not, needless to say, how I had envisioned coming back to my city would look.
Not like I’d expected to come home in a blaze of glory or whatever, but I thought that maybe, I don’t know, I’d have some allies on the inside who could help us not start from complete scratch. Or that maybe parents would still be alive.
But maybe things would have been different twenty months ago. I’d never know.
That stuff was a dark pit, one I couldn’t fall into right now. Eventually, yeah, I’d had to go home. I’d have to see what was left and deal with those feelings. But right now, I couldn’t afford to that. I needed to be able to function, and that meant putting all of the stuff with my parents and our old life into a nice little box and sealing it up until all this was over.
Because the market district was too far from where we were (it was way out in the north, even if it would probably have had the best potential for food), I took us to the southwest. If you thought about Csipherus like a sundial, as it was a radial city, this would be somewhere between seven or eight o’clock. There had been a really nice coffeeshop there, too expensive for me or my parents, of course, but they’d had decent scraps.
I’d always wanted to go in there when it looked normal, because that was where educated people would sip their elegantly brewed drinks in small cups, pull abstruse books from the wall offerings, and sit and ponder, turning pages and watching the passersby outside, thinking grand, airy thoughts.
Now seemed as good a time as ever to explore, and what was more, the shop was in a small square with a community well at its center. We were pretty much out of water and naturally I didn’t have water creation packed today, so access to a well was a necessity.
Hopefully it still functioned.
We crept up to the cafe as stealthily as we could. On the way, there was a small group of skeletal zombies– and I’m talking more skin and weird flesh-stretched-over-bone-than-viscera kind of skeleton. It was weird being able to differentiate between types of undead things, but having been unfortunate enough to see so many, it was getting easier to separate them into types.
A few held implements from the city, like a walking stick or a wheelbarrow.
“We should be quiet,” I whispered.
Helli stepped on something loud and I shushed her, surprised, because she was usually pretty solid at this stuff.
“Hey,” Harry whispered up our group, “there’s a red tube that they’re holding.”
We all squinted at some of the skeletons, and sure enough, as Harry had said, they were carrying a long red tube. I did not like it, but I also had so little an idea of what it could be that I wasn’t sure I wanted to blow our cover attacking them for it. Still, after letting Ahkmatix get away with the red gem, one of the gems that the Calendar had been working so hard to keep out of the Red Eyes’ hands, allowing them anything seemed like a terrible strategy.
The zombies carrying the red tubing disappeared around a corner.
Felegum wanted to follow them and figure this whole thing out. It was a mystery, he’s a curious dude, I get it.
Harry held out a hand. “A hasty hunter is a poor hunter.”
That still didn’t stop Felegum from heading off in hot pursuit with a few of our more stealthy members (me, Helli, Zeno, and Lankin) while Harry and Tem stayed behind. As for me, I wanted more information. If this was something essential to the Red Eyes’ project and I was just letting it escape, then that would suck. If it was well and truly a trap, well, then I wanted to be as informed as I could before falling for it.
Anyway, what we saw was a number of skeletal zombies shambling down the street, with some of the ones on the middle and to the left also carrying the red tubing. The tubes themselves were not even an inch across, though they were about twelve to fourteen inches long.
At this point, Lankin dipped and went to go find Harry because things were not super interesting. The rest of us watched the zombies, unsure on whether we ought to make a move or not. Felegum suggested maybe reverse pickpocketing a piece of the cube into one of their pockets so that we could track them, which was not a bad idea, but given that the cube could be tracked back to us, we opted against it.
At this point, even more zombies had joined the throng, and a conflict looked both difficult to win and also like it would for sure alert people to our presence. I led the group back to the others, and Felegum cast his arcane eye spying spell to see what the red tube zombies got up to while we regrouped at a safe distance.
Returning to the square, we found it populated by dead bodies. Not undead per se, but just a lot of fallen people. Zeno was obviously thrilled, though this was very out in the open and it took some time and noise to raise his own zombies.
Everything was quiet. It felt especially odd for this time of day, where you’d normally expect people to be rushing through the streets on their way to dinner, bartering for food or keeping a firm hand on their coinpurse to ward against late evening pickpockets, sweating in the throng jostling to get home.
Now, no more. The only sound was the steady, slow drip of water from the faucet on the well in the middle of the square.
It was too good an opportunity to miss, especially now that the band of undead had just passed through. We probably had some time.
Zeno and I took lookout (and I think Harry did as well), and Lankin began to get out Shatterspike. Unfortunately, something came up– someone saw a pack of seven or eight skeletons coming our way, so we all crammed into a building and waited them out.
They walked through the square and then out the other side, not stopping at the pump or doing anything in particular. Satisfied that they were probably gone for now, we headed back out to the area.
Helli inspected the well and the pump for any traps– it did seem odd that this would still be available, but maybe the Red Eyes thought they’d cleared out enough of the people in the city that they didn’t need to control the water. Or, maybe they didn’t have as tight a grip on the city as we’d thought.
That idea was comforting, but I’d need more evidence before I stopped being cautious.
Anyway, Lankin got an empty barrel out of HFVNN, the three lookouts took up their positions, and we got to work.
I spent some time watching for zombies, but the cafe building kept catching my eye. It was three stories, made of stone and brick, and covered in dried mud. The first floor was the main cafe area, and it had a nice awning as well as arched pillars and some broken tables and chairs. Above, on the second floor, was overflow seating for the cafe– more tables and chairs with walls enough to hide behind comfortably and defend. On the third floor was a roof patio, which was a little more open but also a nice lookout position.
Strategically, I liked it.
Anyway, by this point, Helli had been working on tap for a while and Lankin, who was with her, waited for the cue to pump. Felegum’s eyes had gone kind of soft and not-quite-there, so I imagined he was probably looking through Dronie or through his spying spell to get an idea of anything coming our way.
Eventually, Lankin had had enough of Helli’s careful direction on how to operate the rusty pump. “Looks great!” he said and went at the job of pumping with gusto.
While he was clearly trying to be gentle– the pump looked old as hell and truly my city had not improved its infrastructure in some years– the entire process was just loud.
A few of us hissed at him to stop, but Lankin was too into the satisfaction of a job well done to give up on it now. And to be perfectly fair, water was coming out. Like, actual, not cursed (as far as I could tell from this distance) water.
Felegum stepped out into the street, perhaps to stop Lankin or perhaps for better magical reception– I knew spell boundaries could be tricky– but Lankin was dedicated. Me, Zeno, and Harry kept watch per the plan, but I was a bit distracted by all the noise and was only half paying attention if we’re being honest.
Something crashed somewhere else, but again: did not see what. I was getting bad vibes, but we needed water so badly I didn’t want to call a stop to it unless we really had to. Maybe the longest two or three minutes of my life later, we finally had a water barrel and large, large groups of skeletons were starting to beeline down the thoroughfares leading to the square.
We had made a spectacular announcement of our presence here, to say the least.
Water secured, Lankin smashed through the door to the nice cafe I wanted to hide out in before either Helli or I could pick the lock or even, you know, check to see if it was locked. I had a brief moment of seeing the door as it had been in the past and then it was donezo. We hastily tacked up a board onto it to, you know, keep the remnants of what had been the door shut, while Lankin managed the barrel (which uncorked but not lost any of its water due to the elf’s supreme balancing skills and also Felegum’s quick use of a water controlling spell to manage it).
Meanwhile, seeing that the door was kind of a lost cause, I cast an illusion on the broken hole with haphazard wood to make it look like a door again.
Zeno shook the barrel, perhaps as a victory gesture, and we headed up to the third floor to get a better view of what was going on. Luckily the stairs were on the interior of the cafe. We watched from our concealed spot as anywhere from fifty to eighty skeletons swarmed the square, collecting around the water pump.
Some skeletons kicked it, others hit it with sticks they carried. It still appeared functional from what I could see. Maybe they were going for a person.
Maybe they just had really bad eyesight.
I felt my concentration ebb away on the illusion below, but from what I could see none of the skeletons were all that insightful about the door being gone or different than it had been before here.
Deciding that we were probably safe for now, we headed to the second level to wait it out and talk. I had a bunch of stuff that I needed to get off my chest, starting with all that weird stuff that Ojutai had said to me, so I talked about, softly, that as we all had some water.
“I don’t feel like we’re going to win this if we don’t play a game of perfect information,” I said, which sounded really smart but also was the only reason I was discussing half of this stuff. “Anyway, there’s, uh–“
I looked down, trying to formulate my thoughts.
How did you even bring something like this up?
I closed my eyes, then looked up. “There’s this girl?”
I looked to the side. “She’s, uh–” look to other side– “been appearing in my dreams. Nightmares. I don’t know. Always a desert and always this girl. She tells me to protect things, so it’s not like I get a bad vibe from her? One time she became my lizard,” I added, as if that would make it better.
For some reason Lankin was laughing, which I could not figure out, but whatever. Dude probably laughed at most people’s nightmares because he knew he could beat them up.
“Anyway, it probably doesn’t even matter,” I went on blithely, “because she’s stopped appearing in my dreams. I used to think that it was because I’d done something wrong in running away from everything here, but like,” I paused, swallowing, “now I think maybe she was the city. Csipherus. Talking to me. She became a lot of people, a whole multitude at once, the last time I saw her. And maybe she’s not talking to me anymore because there’s no city left.”
Or, I wondered but didn’t say, because she thought I’d well and truly given up on her, run away for good.
Maybe she didn’t want to talk to me anymore.
I also told the group about my parents, how my dad had gotten sick with the creeping plague after my parents had run themselves ragged treating patients, and how me and my mother, being slightly more than human, hadn’t. And that was it, why I didn’t really have much in the way of hope: my dad had been poorly off when I’d left. Granted, the plague did take some time to claim its victims, but I’d been gone for eight months, plus the twenty that had vanished in transit.
That was almost two and a half years for the sickness to do its work.
And it’s not like anyone else was particularly safe here either, even people like me and my mom.
On that happy note, Zeno checked the undead situation from the first floor, peaking out the back door. Still an absolute mess of them, all in the square, perhaps even more than there had been before.
The sun was setting and they showed no sign of going back, so we decided to make camp here. There were some bedrooms on the upper floors, like eight to ten of them, and they were a nice change of pace from bedrolls on the sand. The second floor, beyond its share of bedrooms, was mostly open space and overflow cafe seating, and didn’t have quite as much broken furniture as the ground floor.
I actually really liked this place and felt like it would be a pretty sick hideout long-term.
It even had books on the first floor. This was like, one of the hallmarks of a fancy cafe: you’d go and act like you were terribly cultured, selecting a book from the shelf and ordering your drink as you read for a few hours on whatever abstruse topic it contained.
I crept down the stairs, eager to see what this place had. You never knew. Maybe it could help.
I took two at random, in the style of a cafe patron choosing their next entertaining read. However, my hand gesture was a little too extravagant and the books I had the luck to choose were just the ones which were holding up the already-damaged shelf.
I removed them and the entire thing crashed down.
It was at this point that I also remembered that the door to the outside was open. My illusion was gone and also, in case anyone forgot, there were a ton of zombies outside. Like, maybe a hundred now.
And I could have just ruined our sweet hideout for some books.
Quietly, I took out my weird eyelash in gum arabic, murmured a spell, and vanished. The zombies who had heard the noise stared at the spot where I was for a heartbeat, then two, and then lost interest. I didn’t let go of my held breath until I’d reached the top of the stairs again.
What a mess.
But I had come away victorious with two books: one on farming in arid climates and irrigating same, making use of our two short growing seasons (it promised to be a fascinating read for someone like, maybe, Milto), and another one that I immediately recognized from my childhood, a picture book called The Sphinx in the Hat.
This one was a classic. I explained the plot to everyone else and then began to read it. “It’s basically like, this sphinx comes to your house and keeps messing shit up every time you don’t answer their riddle correctly or fast enough,” I said, turning the pages. “Oh man. It’s terrible. Teaches Csipherian kids a lot of basic puzzles, but boy, do they make it high-stakes. Just imagine someone destroying your cistern if you can’t figure out what’s tall in the morning, short at noon, and gone at night.”
There were also some sand gnomes called Thing One and Thing Two, but that kind of translated weird in Common. Their Csipherian names were a little less on the nose. They were also a mess.
Anyway, I read the story to the group. Lankin was delighted, and we plotted out watches. Tem was moody about keeping watch, so we just left them to their own devices and planned out things without them.
Helli and I were on first watch, then Felegum and Lankin on second, and Harry and Zeno with third.
Things seemed pretty quiet for me and Helli, until she spotted a dark figure darting between alleys pretty far in the distance. She pointed them out to me and indeed, that was definitely someone not dead hanging around here. Maybe Calendar, maybe not, it was too far for me to tell. Helli also chatted with me about potentially joining the Calendar, and I was kind of taken aback.
Like, I hadn’t really expected this group to be so cool about it? I’d talked to Felegum, Harry, and Zeno about some of my past before we’d entered the city, saying that I wasn’t exactly the most law-abiding person, but it had become a surprising non-issue. And Helli, who was a badass in her own right, was even interested in becoming a part of the group.
I was shocked, but in a good way. It felt almost out of place in this city, much worse than when I’d left it, to be happy about something.
But I was happy Helli thought my friends were cool and I was happy that there was someone else alive who was scavenging things and sticking it to the Red Eyes through the sheer force of existing in such an inhospitable place.
We decided not to investigate or follow the figure– there were still a ton of zombies standing watch in the square, after all, and I wouldn’t want to bug someone who was probably already preoccupied with stealthing around all these skeletons– and I fell asleep feeling a little better.
And I dreamed of her.
She was in white, so bright I could barely see her and she was leaning down to whisper something in my ear. A secret. She was smiling, like it was a good one.
I closed my eyes and listened.
“Yoohoo,” Zeno whispered in my ear in real life.
I shot up and out of my bedroll, sweaty, fists clenched and sputtering. I was overcome with an immense urge to clock the bard, but I held it back. “I–” I said, shaking. “She was– it–“
Zeno just smiled.
It was terrible. Truly, my self-control was impeccable.
“So anyway,” Lankin said, “that red-robed guy showed up?”
Immediately, all of our attention turned to him. It seemed like Ahkmatix, the man in red who we’d encountered on the dune in the desert and who the Keeper had warned us about, had popped in to check on what had gone down. He’d cast a spell– according to Felegum, something perhaps to detect magic in the area– and then, we guessed, finding nothing remarkable, told the zombies to pipe down and go home.
“Interesting that he came to investigate when the zombies collected,” Harry mused. It sounded like he was already forming battle plans for how we were going to lure this guy out to murder him, and I liked it.
Anyway, at this point, it was time for breakfast, so I went downstairs to hopefully find the kitchen here and see if I could forage for anything useful.
What I found instead were two dead bodies, not zombies, who were sitting next to each other in the cooking area, clutching an urn and holding hands. They had probably been the owners of the cafe, I realized, and they’d probably starved to death here, holed up in their house, waiting the plague and the takeover out for as long as they could.
Culturally here, some families had ancestral urns, burial vessels where the ashes of dead ancestors were allowed to collect and co-mingle. It was like returning to your family, your home, one last time. The couple here looked both like they were protecting their urn but also like they knew they were dying and that there wouldn’t be anyone to make sure their ashes joined the rest of their family.
I couldn’t do much, but I could at least try to offer them some degree of connection. I took my dagger and cut off a tiny bit of hair from each corpse and placed it in the urn, offering up a prayer that these two would find peace.
And then both bodies dissolved into ash, flowing into the urn as if a desert wind melted them to dust and directed their ashes like pouring water into a cup.
I watched in awe, then looked at my own hands. “That was metal.”
Then I heard Lathander’s voice in my head saying something like, “The passing of those who were once living is not to be celebrated as personal success.”
And like, okay, valid. I hadn’t intended to be a huge dick about it. This was just new, and it was a lot more in the way of peace than I’d thought I would be able to give these people. But I could take some constructive criticism. We’d work on it.
I was also oddly pleased that, of all things, Lathander had called me out on not 100% perfectly respecting the dead but not on slitting Awk’s throat. That had not been an easy to decision, and it…I don’t know, it made me feel better about it, if such a thing was possible, better about having made that call after he’d said he trusted me, to have it not held over me like damnation, to not have totally ruined everything because I decided wrong.
Dead thus assisted, I turned next to the task of assisting the living– namely, us– by foraging through the cafe stores. Mostly, it was a lot of flavorings, salt, but I managed to unearth some cinnamon, cumin seeds, and coriander seeds, which I brought up to the second floor. It wasn’t much, but it made the bread in our rations a little more pleasant.
And as the sun continued to rise over the city and a smile replayed itself in my head, it was enough.