We plotted out our next moves in the cafe hideout over spiced breads. Was it maybe the best breakfast I’d ever had? Probably not. Was it a way to make the endless parade of rations a little less boring? Yes. That was all that I would ask of it.

Zeno contemplated aloud ways to get under the city. He felt there had to be some place relatively unguarded. “I imagine the Red Eyes have got to have their hands full.”

“And rescuing people would go a long way for helping the city,” Harry added.

Personally, I was relieved. It made good strategic sense to me to go after the prisoners first, but I was also emotionally involved in this and obviously I was going to make any case I could for it to get priority.

“Red Eyes?” Tem repeated. “Do they take prisoners?”

“Well,” Harry paused to think about it, “not like this before.”

“The worst thing you can imagine about them is probably true,” said Zeno, in classic storyteller fashion.

We talked briefly about conduits for a while. I forgot exactly who said what, but I did notice that whenever we brought up the location of a conduit site, however obliquely, Tem’s eyes glittered with interest. Maybe they hadn’t known about the Csipherus conduit, but they sure knew now.

“I’d always heard of one being beneath the sea, not a lake,” they said, leaning forward as someone talked about Lake Norka and the mermaids (without actually naming names).

“Water is water,” Helli said smoothly.

Harry sighed and mentioned his strong distrust with the Mage’s Guild. Once again, it seemed, we were majorly lacking in information. Anything we’d figured out was almost two years old at this point, and being perfectly honest we really didn’t have much of an idea of how things had worked in the guild to begin with.

I hadn’t liked them meddling in Csipherus and then the conduit going berserk either, but maybe I was being too hasty and that was just bad timing on their part. Maybe they were legitimately trying to help all these cities before terrible problems happened, like here and Egonia.

Or, maybe they were exactly as bad as I feared. I certainly couldn’t say at this point, and I was disinclined to trust them on anything until I knew the extent of their involvement.

Anyway, as dawn crept into morning, the zombies in the square dissipated back to the streets, milling back around toward the center of the city.

Felegum had an existential moment contemplating where Dronie went in his other plane when he wasn’t here. “I’m sure it’s really nice,” he said of the monodrone’s quarters. “He’s like a pokemon in his pokeball.”

“Don’t think too much about it,” Zeno said.

Somehow we got on the topic of dragons. Possibly this was due to an overabundance of caution after Awk; Tem was devoted to a dragon god and people felt the need to check in. Harry or someone asked what, precisely, was the color of the dragon that Tem worshipped.

Tem snorted. “Everyone knows the great dragon is platinum.”

Harry shrugged and gestured to basically everything around us. “Seems like he’s been sleeping on the job.”

Meanwhile, Zeno rummaged through his pack and took out a platinum coin. He examined it. “Doesn’t look like a dragon to me.”

Again, somehow things got weird. Maybe Tem thought that Zeno was offering the platinum piece. Maybe this whole nickname thing was really throwing them. I don’t know.

“Oh,” they said. “My oaths prevent me from taking a lover before carrying them out.”

Also, she revealed that she was female but that it was pretty typical for mammals like us to not really know how to use pronouns correctly for her people.

I felt a little bad and a little angry at that at first, but then again I had no idea if Kheryph was a dude or not, mostly because I just had never bothered to study lizards that way, so I had to concede she made strong points.

Anyway, we needed to get going, so we headed on out toward the center of the city, trying to explore more of what the central pyramid looked like, since we really hadn’t gotten the best look at it before. Figuring that Felegum would need help on this, I attempted to give him a little assistance with his sneaking, but my help was misplaced.

Because it was Tem who totally blew our cover, enthusiastically running with her chainmail clinking around. I was going to say something witty and biting, but then she ran into a pile of crates.

“Tem, no!” I hissed.

We moved quickly along; the zombies around here didn’t seem to move with a lot of haste, so even though we were making noise and presumably attracting them to our location, we were moving fast enough to keep out of their clutches. Here and there, Zeno would push over a barrel of grains (spilling long-dead food onto the street), perhaps to give our pursuers something to pause over and investigate as we ran ahead.

We shifted to more of an inchworm progression, having the quietest people (me, obviously, Helli, Harry) go first, then the quiet-ish people, and then the loud ones (Felegum, Tem) bringing up the rear. We snuck closer, sand and dirt cascading from our feet into the crater below.

To our left were the shattered remains of the Sunspire, and to the right was one of the destroyed parts of the walls. In front of us was a relatively dense pack of skeletons, most of them holding digging and excavation tools, equipment similar to the sight that had greeted us at that dune in the desert with the ruins before.

To see them here, in front of one of the most important places in the city, one that had been kept pristine for years, and just messing it up like that– it’s hard to describe how awful that makes you feel. It was a landmark in the city, sure, but it had also been a memorial to a group of friends who, I think, had founded the city. It was something integral to how Csipherus worked and had been, and now it was one more thing on the way to destruction.

I hadn’t expected being back home to hurt so much. But at every turn, things seemed worse and worse.

Adding to my troubles was the large stone figure sitting on the base of the pyramid, the author of the water tendrils back at Lake Norka, Yuval.

This presented problems on multiple levels. One, Yuval seemed much stronger. Two, dude was surrounded by a zombie army. Three, we’d lose literally every element of surprise we had if we just busted in the front door, which might totally kill our rescue operation. And likely Kalends too. We weighed our options and backed off.

I’d scoured my memory for where nearby entrances to the catacombs were here and had been able to recall that mostly these tended to be in innocuous places. Sometimes they were under temples, but sometimes also not– I’d run into a bunch in strange spots.

Needing to do something, I led us to the second-closest temple I knew of, which one of Thoth’s. Since Thoth was all about learning and knowledge, the place was basically a library in miniature with pews and bench desks for study, as well as books and flat sections.

It looked like a tempting prospect, but then as I continued to look out around the square, more and more places caught my eye. There was a shed. A sewer cover. A basement door across the street. All these potential places for a hidden entrance loomed before us.

The basement door seemed most likely to me. I’d do what I had to in order to give this city the best chance I could, but I wasn’t sold on ransacking a temple for supplies and a secret passageway if I didn’t have to. Plus, this gave me storage vibes. I’d had great success with finding food in basements previously.

So, Helli and I headed to the basement doors and Zeno, Felegum, and Harry went the temple route. I should probably have mentioned earlier, but Lankin had decided to hold down the fort for us back at the cafe, and he’d wanted to read the Sphinx book more, so I’d lent it to him. I’d assumed Tem was going to help out in the temple, but no, soon the jiggling of her armor behind us revealed that she’d chosen to follow me and Helli.

I made quick work of the lock on the bulkhead doors and we were in.

Food hung from the ceiling of the small space, sausages and herbs in clusters drying out. Barrels crowded along in organized rows and jars of pickled vegetables of all shapes lined the shelves. I had no idea how something like this had survived intact for two years. I could only assume that its owners had died and that no one else had been around to loot it. We had just gotten very lucky.

I helped myself to some sausages and a jar of pickles, as was my tradition.

Tem sauntered up next to me. “How many pickles do you want, Set?”

“Enough so that I never have to worry about pickles again,” I replied, putting a sausage link chain around her head like a necklace.

While we were embroiled in storeroom antics, Helli had found a door. Or something that seemed like it might be a door. There was a faint golden line around where the shape of a portal should be, but we had no idea how to make the wall open up, let alone where it went when opened, and even Tem pushing against it with all her might wouldn’t make the maybe-door budge.

Helli tried her dagger and found some scrapes in the floor where things had clearly been moved in and out via the door, but beyond that, we were making very little progress. It was nice to have had the food discovery, though.

Felegum came and found us, expressed his delight at the pickles, and let us know that the other group had had some success in the temple. Specifically, that they’d found a way down in the temple.

Helli, though, was determined about the door and so was I. She found a piece of paper here, which I was able to read since it was a Csipherian inventory list. She tried sliding it under the rock wall, but nothing happened. Eventually, she grabbed a small opaque pickle jar for herself and admitted defeat.

We headed back across to the temple of Thoth, me taking my jar of red and white pickled vegetables with me, and snacked on a few of the peppers. They were good.

Before we left for the temple, I made sure to re-lock the doors to the basement area. If its original owners were dead, then we could always come back to it. But I wasn’t willing to risk leaving this unlocked. It felt disrespectful.

We came into the temple to meet back up with Harry and Zeno, and found them crouching by this one bookcase being really quiet. Some of us tried asking what was up, but Harry gestured for us to pipe down.

“There’s something moving down there,” he said softly, then headed down the steps.

We followed after him, naturally, with Tem at the rear because no one could stop her and also by the time she came into the fray probably whoever we were sneaking up on would already have run into us.

At the bottom of the winding staircase was a heavy, reinforced wooden door. It had diagonal metal braces and looked particularly locked.

Helli nudged her way to the front and began to work. At first, it wasn’t even obvious where the keyhole was, but her keen sight allowed her to spot it and then gently nudge the pins up. It was taking so long that I wondered if something had slipped or if there was a hidden trap. But then there was a moment of clarity, where the lock clicked and everything turned when Helli tried the door, and the massive entry opened.

And before us stood two bird people, white with black stripes on their plumage in blue robes, and between them a lizard person in heavy plate armor brandishing a huge shield and spear.

Sensing that this was about to go very badly very fast, I started talking in rapid Csipherian, explaining that we were here on a rescue mission to free people that the Red Eyes had captured. “Yes,” I said to their disbelieving faces, “we are walking to our deaths and we are very stupid. I’m young, I do that.”

There was a brief pause as the trio took us all in and then gestured for us to follow.

We did, and after some walking through passages we came to a city of tents below the temple. There was a planter box in the very middle of the settlement where humans, halflings, and various other races worked to cast spells and check water levels of the plants.

One of the aarakocra called out. “Come, we have visitors! And they’re alive!”

We were led through the tents, oogled by various people. I was surprised at every turn: this was the city that I’d missed, the people missing from the streets above, recreating a world for themselves below it in the hollowed out husk of an old library. Children darted between sheets of fabric and practitioners of divine magic worked over casks and garden patches to provide for the settlement. Murals had sprung up along the walls, even, brightening the space with images of a city long past.

We were led to an elderly human woman and she offered us coffee, instantly becoming Zeno’s favorite person so far.

She called this space a “bastion of life” and asked if we’d found others.

“We’re here to help fix things,” Zeno said. “Well, mostly we’re here for this guy.” He gave me a nudge.

“We have done our best to keep people safe,” said the older woman, whose named was Elissance. “But we exist like this now.”

“Elissance,” Zeno said grandly, shaking his head, “you do not need to accept a new normal.”

“Do not provide false hope.” She looked like she’d seen a lot of that.

Talk switched to logistics; we went over what we knew and asked Elissance for her thoughts.

“We can tell it spreads by weapons, water,” Felegum said, enumerating the ways. “If it’s a weapon plague, then maybe we can end that by killing Ahkmatix.”

Elissance nodded, then asked if the dragons had left. “Or the glowing-eyed bastards.”

We updated her on them as well as the fact that massive hordes of zombies still roamed the city.

“Try not to think too badly of them,” she said. “They were once family.”

Felegum asked about water and what the group down here did for it.

Elissance spread her hands. “The god here smiles upon us and does what he can. This place used to be a library,” she paused, looking out at the empty bookshelves that had been cleared to give space for the people living here, “but I think that even though it was sad to lose the books, the god would rather we help people.”

More conversation revealed that the group under the temple had been one of many before: there were chattier groups who had communicated frequently about their goings on and one by one they had all fallen silent. We all suspected that this had been the work of Ojutai, the blue dragon with a penchant for getting into people’s heads.

We continued to chat, finding out that the lizardman’s name was Sarkanis and that it had been thanks to his efforts that many of the undead in this area had been cleared out. Elissance and I talked about grief for a bit, and then I asked about our main objectives, which was finding a tunnel that could take us under the pyramid for our infiltration mission.

Elissance pondered. “Different tunnels were dug to connect different groups.”

Apparently there were specific tunneling techniques that weren’t magical and the community didn’t take risks by using arcane magic here, only divine.

She also told me that she knew I had those sausages.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

“The children have been looking forward to those sausages for the solstice party for months,” she said, waiting. Like a parent would, you know, for their kid to make the right decision.

I unwound the sausages and gave them back. Like I was going to be a dick and not let the kids have a nice solstice party. I also threw in the rosemary Lankin had unearthed way back when (it was very dry and very dead) as well as the sugarcane that Lars and Lars had given me in their small village back by Janwald. “For the kids,” I said, as nonchalantly as I could.

Elissance tried very hard not to smile. “Of course.”

Dinner that night was a creamy potato and leek soup which we were generously invited to share with the settlement. Somewhere during the meal, a kid came up and I gave them my tabaxi hat with all the bells on it. Their mother looked totally askance but honestly, this was the best home for that hat possible. It was probably a miracle that it hadn’t ruined my stealth at some point before.

And besides, kids needed something new and terrible to terrorize their parents and friends with.

We chatted about plans and what to do moving forward. I didn’t remember a lot of what we said or thought as we wound down for the night, but I did remember this: the feeling of not being quite so alone or feeling quite as hopeless as I’d felt before.

The city lived, and that was enough.

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