We were asked to stay the night with the Thoth bastion, and so we did. After so many days of hopelessness, it was kind of shocking to see people not being dead. They weren’t like, thriving by any means, but they were alive and that was more than I’d hoped for when I’d seen empty streets and only skeletons.
Everybody pretty much split up to do their own thing. Like, Tem went off to go heal people via the power of Bahamut, which was great of her, and Harry went looking for something else.
Meanwhile, I was still thinking about the kids whose holiday sausages I’d stolen (and then given back because I am not a complete monster). They’d be celebrating the solstice– a literal sun holiday– underground.
I’d fallen in love with this city in its heights, the wind between its buildings and the warmth of the sunlight radiating off tall towers. To not be above ground on a holiday as big as that, to maybe not even know what the sun felt like, that was not the Csipherus I knew.
It was hard to imagine the solstice being like any other holiday for them.
I couldn’t give them the sun, but I could do something else to make it a little more special.
“Here,” I said, fishing out my very precious bag of tea leaves from the goblin gourmand back in Greenrest. “This is, uh… it was from a goblin. He said it was very good. It’s tea,” I added, in case that wasn’t abundantly clear.
Elissance accepted the leaves with grace. “We have some small festivities planned. We can use this and the sugar for a treat for the children.”
I nodded back. Good. That was what I wanted.
I tried looking for the hat kid while Zeno talked to Elissance, but no luck. Either there really were a lot of people around here, or Zeno’s question distracted me.
He was asking about apothecaries.
He was asking, in a circuitous way, about my parents.
I took him aside when Elissance said that while there were apothecaries, she didn’t know if there were the people he was seeking. “Look,” I said, “I see what you’re trying to do and I appreciate it. I really do. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to find them.”
I explained my concern that, even if my parents were alive, my knowing about them could do them more harm than good. Especially if Ojutai could read my mind and, if he needed a weakness, that would certainly be the one to exploit.
“If they’re still alive, then this is the only way I can keep them safe,” I finished.
Zeno nodded. “Okay, Set. Whatever you need, I’m with you. I promise not to try to find them again.”
It felt almost too easy. Maybe I was making a mountain out of nothing, or maybe I just felt bad for telling someone who had been trying in earnest to help me, well, not to.
“But,” the bard continued, “I want to ask something in return.”
“Sure,” I said. “What?”
“I want help with hook-ups.”
I paused. “Well,” I said, “the city does need to be repopulated but I’d kind of imagined we’d ask the goblins to move here to fix that. But okay.”
I gave him some clothing tips. Mostly, he’d been wearing that Tormani style in purples and that was just not going to work. Like I’ve been saying for ages, we were a proud people and had our own styles, usually a tunic with a shoulder or sometimes part of the chest bare, white, with a single flash of color to signify rank or wealth. Naturally, Zeno would be purple, and with some critique, we managed to get his magical armor looking a lot more Csipherian and therefore cool.
Next was to talk to people.
I’d hoped that Zeno would have more skill here since I certainly didn’t, and things seemed to be going okay until the mood of the group turned to asking if he had any alcohol or like, party beverages. He didn’t, partially because the desert is terrible, but also because he’d drank the whole thing for his own mysterious Zeno reasons.
He failed to mention that he was a brewer of beers. This was baffling to me, as this was like, the epitome of Zeno things. He drank, sure, like a fish most times, but the cool thing about him was that he also made his own brews and sometimes they were even pretty good. Not like I had a great palate for this stuff, but Layne and Innard had bought his recipes and he’d won not one but two beer battles in Greenrest. This was his strongest asset and yet he was underselling it.
Luckily, he had me. I’d never really played wingman for anyone before, so I was maybe more aggressive on hyping him up than I needed to be, but it was effective. The younger adults looked at him with a new sense of appreciation. Alcohol seemed to be scarce down here and the fact that he was a person who could provide it made him Cool.
To that end, a few asked if he had any on him, which he didn’t. I was kind of surprised that they were so upfront about being disappointed in him, which I tried to deflect by joking with him about it (he explained that he’d drunk it all on the desert crossing, and honestly, what beverage would survive the Tithe, I had no idea).
In the end, we managed to hype up some people by showing them some of Zeno’s surefire brewing techniques and getting them started on making a few things, which would be done–hopefully–in time for the solstice festival. If we came back, probably Zeno would be held in high regard as the Provider of Party Materials.
But that also raised a weird question: these people, ostensibly the last of my city beyond the Calendar, had made it this long precisely because they had been careful and quiet. Visiting them felt like it risked all that.
The night passed with each of us off on our own. Felegum swapped out his Ptarmigan the Adventurer book for something else called The White Crystal and Helli spent some time talking with a group of smiths and tinkerers as Harry sharpened his Claws of Icarus.
As the night wore down, I apologized to Zeno for the lack of progress.
He shrugged, surveying the cobbled-together brewing supplies. “It’s a long game.”
Lankin, somehow, had just been doing push-ups the entire time. This absolutely fit, and it was a comforting thought to fall asleep to that some things never really changed and that a city, if it wanted, really could endure.
I was the first one up, doing my slowly-becoming-usual greeting of the dawn. Morning porridge was cooked and handed out to denizens of the library temple in an orderly fashion, everyone lining up and being pretty respectful all things considered.
Elissance sat down with us for the meal. “Well,” she said, “we can let you out the way you came in, or we can lead you to the catacombs.”
We exchanged a look. The catacombs sounded promising.
“I mean,” I asked, since someone had to, even if it was unpleasant to talk about, “should we ever come back here? The last thing we want to do is blow your cover and lead anything back to you.”
Elissance thought about it. “Our scroungers go out once or twice every month for supplies. As long as you don’t visit too frequently, it should be safe.”
I was still a little hesitant. And this wasn’t about Zeno; that was whatever. These people were giving us a very large gift of trust and I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. Especially not for silly reasons like having a party.
Anyway, while I was trying to plot out massive strategies, Elissance was still talking about scrounging and how they’d subsisted on mushrooms locally found underground until Felegum switched the topic to more pertinent topics.
“Have your scouts noticed patterns in the undead?” he asked.
“They tend to stay closer to the center of the city, in more dense packs there,” she replied.
Zeno tapped his lip. “Can we move toward the center of the city through the catacombs?”
“It might be difficult,” Elissance said after a moment’s thought, “it’s a bit of a tortuous route down there.”
“We have reason to believe someone is being held captive under the pyramid,” the sorcerer added.
“We,” Elissance quipped back, “have reason to believe there are other dangers down there. Sometimes the floor will collapse below you, sometimes the shadows take you.”
Neither of those things sounded great, had to admit.
“Wait, what?” asked Lankin around a mouthful of porridge. He swallowed. “Can I get an explanation for that?”
“Yeah, what!” Zeno added.
“Yes,” Elissance said. “We have light and we keep light, and it’s never fully dark. There are things in there that lurk in the shadows.”
“Light?” Lankin repeated. “Should we have light or deal with the darkness?”
“Lankin,” Zeno said with respect, “you are really smart for a dumb guy.”
He patted the elf on the head. The elf preened.
Elissance spread her hands. “Shadows only exist where there is light.”
Harry grunted. “Tem can learn to fight in the dark like I did.”
Ah, hazing. This was familiar.
“I have torches,” Tem said.
“This is a mess.” Felegum laughed.
But we did decide on the catacomb route, and the library temple dwellers were good enough to remove the barricades in front of the tunnel for us to pass through. Before we headed out, Harry turned to Elissance. “You might want to check out the panel in the temple,” he said. “We, uh, shifted that a bit.”
“Thank you,” she said. “The stairs behind the altar are well-hidden.”
And on that note, we ventured into the dark.
So, I would like to preface this with two facts. One, I have darkvision. It’s very cool, very black-and-white and it doesn’t go super far, but I have it. Two, darkvision generally is pretty boring. I know it sucks not to have it and either need constant torches or me to be slapping Light cantrips on things, but you don’t see a lot of color or much distinction in it. Like I said, it’s boring beyond actually letting you see the shapes of your enemies or like, walls.
There was something dancing in these shadows, something I’d never seen before. Gray figures, almost humanoid, would disappear whenever you tried to focus on them more. This was not usual. This was, in fact, so far from usual that it was unnerving.
“This is so metal,” I breathed. “We are literally surrounded by the myriad dead of Csipherus.”
Zeno handed a candle to Tem, perhaps out of mercy.
I took point, scouting ahead. At least if we ran into a ghost of my city that they saw a fellow kinsman first. Maybe that would make a difference. I could at least speak a familiar language to them. If that mattered.
Anyway, all my extreme scouting revealed was a split in the passage we were traveling down, maybe thirty to fifty feet ahead of the main group. It gently curved to the right, while the other way curved back to the direction we came. We took the forward path.
Felegum commanded Dronie to make a little icosahedron by the door so that we’d know if we were going in circles. Very smart, I liked it.
So we walked on, me in the front, followed by Harry (ghost puncher), then Zeno, Helli, and Lankin, Felegum, and Tem in the rear. Two hundred or three hundred feet later, the walls started to change from solid stone to stone with depressions in them, vaguely square shapes, inscriptions above and around them eroded with time.
We came to a junction in the shape of a T, with a variety of humanoid skulls piled on top of each other on either side of the archways. The junction itself was a gateway of bone.
I closed my eyes briefly in prayer.
Dead of my city, you have been disrespected. We seek to alleviate this wrong and honor you as you should have been. Please allow us to pass without harm.
Call me silly. I don’t care. Even if it took me a while to believe that a god would care about my life, I never had an issue believing ghosts would. Gods were big and had wide domains; it was all too easy for them to forget about small things, like cities in peril or mortals crying out for their help.
Ghosts never had that problem. Everything was personal to a ghost.
Zeno, meanwhile, knocked on one of the depressions, listening for hollowness.
“Zeno,” Felegum said, speaking my thoughts aloud, “isn’t that a grave? Stop knocking on it.”
“Hmm?” Zeno hummed, then turned. “Hey Lankin, can you do me a favor? Punch this.”
“What?” Lankin said, sauntering up.
What followed was a brief argument about whether or not to desecrate a potential grave.
“I just told you how much I love this city,” I said, not adding that I’d just mentally promised not to desecrate it more, “and you want to destroy it.”
“These are niche graves,” Felegum commented, examining them more thoroughly as Zeno and I snarked back and forth to each other. He really was after another zombie, which I could respect, but like, ugh, man. These were people who had been laid to rest in the proper way, promised an afterlife of rest. Sure, Durnen had knocked around in here and raised hell, possibly also raised zombies, but like, we didn’t have to do that.
If he wanted to pick up fallen bodies on the street or unburied dead people, fine. I wasn’t going to say I liked it, but he wasn’t wrong about us needing to be somewhat ruthless here. I just didn’t want to break any more promises that this city had made to its dead than I had to. That felt important.
Worse came to worse, I’d do what I had to, but it didn’t feel like we were there yet.
Eventually, once we’d talked Zeno down (for the moment, with a special provision to go ahead if an errant corpse presented itself) we continued to walk, going straight and following a breeze through the tunnel. Helli seemed especially fascinated by the skulls.
I talked a little about how detested grave robbers were and how there were multiple parts to a soul, how one of those went on and the other stayed, could become a ghost if you weren’t careful about it.
I was also aware that people liked to guard their families’ bodies, so I kept a weather eye out for traps. I must have done a great job because nothing stood out for me.
Continuing to break ground for the team, I noticed that fifty feet out that the path we were on started to turn back around to the left in a wacky hook shape, basically taking us back in the direction of the library temple bastion. Helli and Zeno had also fallen behind, so we regrouped and chatted it out.
“The shadows are concerning,” Zeno said, equally concerningly.
I did not like that other people were seeing weird shit, so I lit up my holy symbol. Everything that it illuminated looked normal, but the darkness remained bad.
“That’s good, though,” Harry said, trying to perk me up. “I was worried that I’d have to start punching your ancestors out.”
At least we were saved from that for the present moment. Tem switched torches from her pack, having exhausted one already on the journey.
I asked what people thought about keeping more light on as we traveled, whether that would be too much of a signal to the Red Eyes, if they were down here, or if we needed the light to avoid being snatched up by the shadows.
“Are we more concerned,” Harry asked, “about the danger around us or the danger that may be coming?”
“Honestly, I’m concerned about everything,” I said truthfully.
Felegum used some cool magic to make the torch red and maybe illuminate more. Or maybe just red for fun. I was unsure.
“Ah, reminds me of some of my favorite nights,” Zeno said of the new color.
Felegum regarded it contemplatively. “Yeah, no one ever told me what those lights meant.”
For whatever reason after that, we tried to figure out who the oldest in the group was, since I was clearly the youngest. Helli thought that she might have everyone beat with her 75 years but Lankin was a dark horse victor with an age of a whopping 350.
“Oh my god, Set, you cannot all me ‘old man’ anymore. This dude is literally over three hundred!” Zeno exclaimed.
“Your back hurt, old man?” I asked.
“No,” he replied acerbically, “because you didn’t help last night. Oh my god, kids these days.”
I had never heard such slander. I had gone above and beyond for him and he’d shat the bed. “Oh my god,” I shot back, “you did not come prepared at all.”
We continued to bicker down the halls of dead people and dancing shapes.
Another slight problem after we returned to the last intersection was that Zeno didn’t want us going down the other passage–the one that, we hoped, wouldn’t take us away from the city center, like the last passage had– because Zeno had taken a poo in it and was self-conscious about us smelling it. Or looking at it, or whatever.
The shadows, for the time being, seemed to be back to normal and not anymore frightening than they had been before. Zeno still maintained that going down the poo corridor would be bad, so we went another way.
There were little tints of green here, and the passageway opened up into a wider room in front of us with spines featuring prominently in the build. I nodded appreciatively. Metal.
“Set,” Felegum said, “I am starting to question your architectural preference.”
I didn’t know what there was to question; clearly I preferred cool shit.
But that wasn’t as important as the supernatural light I’d just noticed from the other end of the room, the one way through it. There was a lush green, pastoral area that shifted between the seasons to a duller green to colorful leaves and bright harvest golds, then to red, falling and disintegrating, withering to nothing, and then sprouting back up again. It felt like a cycle of life.
Red fruit grew on the leaves, ripening and falling to the ground and then decaying away in rapid motion.
We debated passing through it.
“Maybe it’s nothing,” I said, totally unconvinced.
“Yeah,” Felegum said skeptically, “I’ve kind of had enough of messing around with time.”
Rapid aging. I winced. Granted, I was not quite seventeen anymore. My travels would have maybe gotten me to eighteen, but then after Egonia and the teleport mishap, everyone had joked that I was probably more like nineteen. Or “nineteen-star” as Felegum liked to say, annotating the leap in age with a footnote.
Theoretically, if this was a passage that took years from you, I could bridge that gap.
But I didn’t feel good or compelled to, even though Lankin was hype to take a run through it.
Instead, I closed my eyes and tried to figure out if anything undead was around. I couldn’t do this often– again, super new at this stuff– but now felt like the time. If this greenery was life-siphoning, I sure as hell wanted to know.
I didn’t get a vibe from the garden. What I did get, though, was the sense that something behind us was coming.
“Uh, guys,” I said, eyes snapping back open. “There’s something following us. And it’s not alive.”
Tem, the closest to the door and also good with the divine, took a defensive stance by the entrance.
And when the skeleton (singular, dressed in brown burlap and holding a satchel) entering the room, she cleaved through it in one blow.
It held up its hands to defend itself, not having a weapon to deflect the massive sword, and shattered, its bag falling to the ground with it.
I went over to investigate it. It looked different from the other plague zombies, even besides the no-weapon thing. I already felt bad about getting it smashed. Zeno opened its little satchel and found mushrooms, dirt, and rocks.
“Damn,” he said. “Would have given these to Awk.”
He dropped the bag and I picked it up, examining the fungi. These were actually a plant I knew, a delicacy, in fact, that only grew here in the catacombs. I’d begged my parents as a kid to spend the extra money to buy them so that we could try them out, but they’d insisted that it just wouldn’t be practical. We needed to conserve so that we’d have enough for the basics for ourselves and the best herbs and supplies for anyone sick.
I’d always wondered what these tasted like. I’d heard they were lovely.
So, I pocketed them. They had a ton of holes in their brown caps, like they’d been pre-perforated or something. They’d make a tasty addition to a meal, help liven things up in a world of rations, for sure.
That was also an interesting thought, having zombies collecting food for other secret groups of people. Could someone beyond there have been expecting this guy?
I glanced at the greenery, shifting through the seasons. Was that where he’d been headed? Not after us at all?
Felegum tossed a piece of the skeleton into the tree corridor and it slowly sank into the dirt.
All of us except for Tem were quiet, having seen this thing play out back in the Sunken Citadel.
“Someone toss me a femur,” Harry said. Zeno did. The monk tied a rope onto the femur, then threw it onto one of the big piles of fruit before they decayed to nothing and sunk away. He waited for the femur to sink below the surface before attempting to pull it back.
The rope snapped, femur lost, and the rope, when Harry checked it, was decayed and weathered with time. Granted, we’d been using that rope for a while, but this seemed a little beyond the natural amount of wear and tear.
Zeno, still not wanting to backtrack to the poo corridor, pushed for us to brave the greenery anyway.
Harry shook his head. “Of all the enemies I’m willing to fight, time is not one of them.”
We decided to retrace our steps to see if there was anything we could learn about the skeleton, where it had come from, who was controlling it. Felegum and Helli tried to look for clues, which took us back to the junction, and they were able to discover some scraping from the left path. The poo corridor where the shadows had been even more wrong than usual.
Felegum sighed and looked down it. “I know I got a woo-y feeling from the darkness, but I get an even more woo-y feeling from the grove.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “better than unknown woo-y at this point.”
Zeno courteously prestidigitated his poo so that it wouldn’t smell and we set off, me with my symbol alight to help combat the shadows.
They started off distracting, but quickly turned disorienting. I had a sickening feeling in my stomach, which developed into a headache and general queasiness. It was impossible not to watch the figures dance, even as I tried to concentrate on the lit parts of the catacombs. Shapes materialized and vanished and I couldn’t keep track of what was a threat and what was just my mind inventing ghosts where there were none.
Felegum made Tem’s torch burn double-bright and have a larger radius, coating the corridor in deep red.
Everything looked like blood.
I unsheathed my daggers, not trusting it. I didn’t like any of this. This stunk of ambush and something trying to take advantage of us when we were vulnerable. But no, I hadn’t grown up in this city to get blindsided by one of its ghosts. I had to be ready for this, and my eyes darted from shadow to shadow, evaluating the most likely threats and pivoting to make sure I could cut them off, should they leave the safety of their darkness.
I turned, listening for any little sound, though the motion made me a little dizzy. Harry lit another torch, which helped, but not a lot. Only Helli and I seemed to appreciate how much goddamn danger we were in.
Then Tem did something and breathed in sharply, her eyes widening.
“What are you doing?” Felegum asked. “What did you see?”
“Ghosts,” she said, “everywhere. Wisps of energy all around us and through us.”
I swore. Harry nodded, no doubt getting ready to punch something. “Light up your light sources,” he said.
“You want to press through, Harry?” Felegum said.
“What if,” Lankin mused, “we blindfolded ourselves?”
This, no joke, sounded like the most categorically stupid thing to have left Lankin’s mouth. If I was blindfolded, I couldn’t see. If I couldn’t see, everyone was going to die. I didn’t know what trust exercise Lankin was going for with these ghosts or whatever, but it seemed like the fastest way, beyond running through that garden corridor, to bite it for real.
Somehow, though, Felegum seemed to think this was like, the magic ticket or whatever, so he and Lankin closed their eyes and Harry flipped his goggles up.
I mean, yikes. Call me the youngest or whatever you want, but at least I had the gods-given sense not to walk blindly into the worst danger I’d ever felt in my life. Tem, meanwhile, used her burnt-out torch to draw things with the charcoal. I didn’t even know anymore. Everyone had lost their minds.
“Set,” said blind Felegum, “let me help you.”
He cast that spell on me that he’d done in the battle with Akhmatix, which was awesome. For the first time in a while, it didn’t feel like things were getting worse, and along our walk, both Felegum and I were alert enough to notice runes on the ground in silver. They looked familiar, though neither of us could place them.
We got through a sharp turn, then another sharp turn, and I still clutched my daggers in my hands, ready for a fight.
And I must have been right that we were in grave danger, because ahead a voice I didn’t recognize spoke to Harry at the front of the group:
“It’s been a long time since a mortal has dared enter my domain. What brings you here?”
I gripped the daggers tighter and hoped the monk’s diplomacy could buy us some time.