The speaker was a turquoise figure with a ton of pairs of arms. I tried to recall whether Harry had ever successfully talked anything down from fighting us. I couldn’t remember, so I kept the daggers out because that many arms meant a lot of tricks up a lot of sleeves.
“We seek to aid the city and its people,” Harry said as Helli, likewise not into this whole thing, clung to his sleeve. As usual, she seemed the one person I could rely on to take this situation as seriously as it probably needed to be.
“But I do not understand how to add this city I live in to my own realm,” the six-armed creature said. “Do you wish to aid me?”
“Depends on what you want,” Felegum said.
I didn’t know about this. Dude was living in the catacombs of Csipherus, possibly a holy ghost or a really bad deal. All I wanted to know was whether this was a spectre that needed busting, not make a bargain with him. Or help him. Truly, he seemed to be doing great on his own.
“We’re trying,” Harry continued, “to find a way to help the people trapped below this city.”
The six-armed thing shook his head. “You still do not understand. I do not know the city of which you speak.”
Okay. That was not the answer I was expecting. Csipherus was kind of a big deal. Kinda hard to miss. It might not be everyone’s favorite, but like, come on, man. A dragon wanted this city. I wanted this city. We weren’t exactly small potatoes here.
Harry, perhaps familiar with handling such riddles from his monastic training, paused and asked, “What lies beyond your catacombs?”
“This is not a catacomb,” the six-armed figure said, “that implies these things are trapped.”
I mean, not wrong but also not right either. The spirits should be free to leave, but the bodies damn well shouldn’t be.
Harry rephrased. “What lies beyond your realm?”
“My realm,” the thing said, spreading its many, many arms, “is limitless.”
“Have you seen other people invading your realm lately?” the monk asked. The Red Eyes, probably.
Lankin perked up. “Wait. Does time pass differently here?”
“I feel like this one is confused,” the six-armed dude said.
“Tell us more about your realm!” Lankin said, taking it all in stride. “Who are you?”
“Demanding things in my own realm?” the six-armed thing bellowed and lifted his arms.
The air around us seemed to shimmer, like we were in a cloth or tapestry, and this guy had pulled all the threads taut. And then it felt like lifting, like leaving, and I was somewhere else.
It was a garden. Maybe a rooftop one, like my parents’, and it was bursting with life. Hanging plants, some herbs I recognized and some not, dripped down a pergola like beads as vines clung their way up. Underneath it was a table where some of my friends were chasing each other around as my parents chatted and unpacked a picnic lunch. Kalends, one of the big kids, looked a little out of place, but held each plate very carefully, like he was concentrating on the most important task in the room.
Wine cups were filled and passed out to the adults and the rest of us ran around the columns, chasing beetles and each other as the adults dipped bread into oil and told us to slow down and have some snacks, like honey cakes.
I grabbed a few, hands sticky with sweat and then sticky with honey.
My mom said something and my dad laughed. Kalends stole a honey cake from me when I wasn’t looking and winked as he ate it. I got another.
At the base of the pergola, though, something moved. I thought it was the wind, but a small, slightly gray and almost transparent creature crawled out, then tilted its head.
I had a lizard like that. I headed over.
The closer I got, the more familiar the lizard looked. It stood up on its back legs and cocked its head.
“Kheryph, come on,” I said, “there’s so much good food.”
Kheryph watched me for a moment, his form much more translucent and see-through than I’d remembered, and then took off down the corridor, away from the rooftop and the feast.
I ran after him. “Hey, come on!”
He was fast– that much felt normal– but he was also agile, like smoke always slipping away. Once or twice I thought I’d caught up with him, but he’d always be somewhere else, somewhere farther away. We wound through corridors and buildings and hallways, him somehow still slightly ahead of me.
Naturally, this did not deter me. I’d caught him plenty of times and I’d do it again.
But we ran pretty far. It stopped looking like my city and the streets and started looking more like mines, like some place burning. Then we ran through some colder place below the earth–a citadel?– and then into passages that looked closer to where I’d been with the Calendar. The catacombs.
And then I was somewhere else, a stone cavern.
Also, somehow, I was on the floor with Helli gripping my shoulders. Over her shoulder, in the doorway we’d come through, was a small lizard, standing on two legs, made entirely out of smoke.
As it vanished, I followed the smoke back to its source: Zeno’s bagpipes.
A lot of things were going on. First, I felt not great. Second, my lizard was around my neck, just chilling like he’d been before I was on the floor and he seemed fine. Third, Helli was slapping people and Harry was in a defensive stance between us and the extremely blue dude. Also, Harry had a staff again, which was weird considering it had been burnt to death dramatically in the desert.
Maybe this was more weird monk stuff, I didn’t know. But Harry had definitely been holding out on us if he could just manifest a staff out of nowhere all this time.
“If there’s anything I cannot abide,” aforementioned blue six-armed dude said, “it is those who would deny anything with a mind to conceive of truth and the world around them. Tell me what has happened.”
Okay, so now we were friends with the spectral guy with too many arms? Unexpected, but okay.
“Our information is limited,” Harry said, “but there seem to be six red-eyed fiends in search of a powerful artifact. They’ve allied themselves with dragons, which have caused us much harm when we’ve encountered them.”
Unfortunately, new blue guy seemed to get even more confused the more Harry explained things. “I do not understand,” he said, again. “How does this bring you to me? Or to the realm of truth and possibility?”
Harry made a valiant effort and tried again, but the blue dude cut him off. “You’re saying the same things.”
“Aljahar?” Zeno asked. “Is that it?”
“Is that it?” The being presumably known as Aljahar asked, genuinely. “I think so. Yes, it sounds familiar.”
“We are all about the fulfillment of free will,” the bard continued. “We seek to spread this message elsewhere.”
“Where?” Aljahar asked. Again, dude was genuinely curious. I was starting to get the picture he did not get out very much. Let alone, you know, understand that he was living in the catacombs of my city or even what my city was.
Zeno, a storyteller, was perhaps more suited to the task of explaining the unexplainable to Aljahar. He gestured around him. “We were not here before. We were from other places. There are other places you can leave and come back to.”
“That’s the form of the will,” Aljahar replied. “You can manifest your reality as you see fit.”
Zeno shook his head. “It’s not as easy as that. You can close your eyes and still be here.”
“Have you never left this room?” Felegum asked.
What followed was more philosophy and defining what a room was and wasn’t to a being who was not ready for the advanced concept. Anyway, the whole exercise was exhausting, so I have spared everyone it. Aljahar, maybe understanding what a room was, maybe not, let us pass.
“We might come back,” Zeno said.
“Thank you, goodbye,” Lankin said.
“Yeah,” Zeno amended. “See ya.”
Meanwhile, Felegum was concentrating on something as we tried to figure out a direction. Presumably this was cool magic stuff, so we just let him do his thing. Tem, also back up from being knocked out, checked on her sword. I, meanwhile, was checking on Kheryph again because, while I knew the smoke lizard had been Zeno’s doing, I didn’t want the real lizard losing his soul or whatever because he’d looked at the dark wrong.
Anyway, he was fine.
While I was checking on him, though, Harry tapped the ground with his ghost staff and gave with a serious look. “Set, do you trust me?”
I could probably count on one hand the times when I had been asked that question in this city and not felt bad about answering in the affirmative. Most of those times had probably been Kalends.
It was weird, but kind of nice to feel that way again.
“Yeah,” I said, after a moment of thought. “Let’s do it.”
I had no idea what it was, but that didn’t matter.
Harry and I walked toward an entrance that had opened up that I hadn’t noticed before. Zeno sighed dramatically and followed us, though he sounded pretty salty about the whole thing. Along the way, Harry drove his staff into the stone floor and it became a tree. He walked on, leaving it there as it flowered and took root.
It still seemed pretty sad, even though he didn’t bring it up.
Behind us, Felegum and Lankin were trying to get something into HFVNN. Tem, somewhere, ran to catch up with us in the distance.
We all followed Harry for a bit and eventually we came into something not unlike a hallway. It was just weird, though, because one of the things we passed was this pile of nuts. I realize this doesn’t sound weird in and of itself, but the pile was like, person-size. Or, as we were all pretty much realizing at this point, we were nut-size.
Which was smaller than rat-size. I bring this up because, you guessed it, guarding the pile of nuts was a massive rat.
The rat was super cheesed off and bite Zeno and then Felegum, who had been itching to pull the trigger on banishment for ages, managed to banish the rat, but then Zeno fell like fifteen feet or something to the ground. Helli grabbed a massive fruit from the pile and Tem looked upon the scene agog.
“Is this real, Harry?” she asked.
Harry turned to the bard. “Was it real, Zeno?”
“Oh yeah,” Zeno grunted from the stone floor. “It was real.”
Felegum reminded us that we didn’t have a lot of time left to hang out before the rat came back, so we dove through a grate in the wall where we could pass through but it was too big to and took a moment to assess our situation.
Before us were three tunnels, and the smell was different down each one.
On the left, the tunnel smelled musty and damp. On the center, it smelled like really old meat and cooking. But like, in a bad way. On the right was overfermented beer.
“Before we choose,” Harry said, “I should explain what’s going on here.”
Manifestation something or another, probably. I’d tried to fix Kheryph’s back legs using it while we were in the room, but nothing had happened so it honestly couldn’t’ve been that great.
Anyway, Harry explained that he’d returned his staff and then asked for a path to the prisoners. And the room had opened up that doorway in the wall, we’d all gotten bite-size, and now we were here. Ostensibly with a choice as to which way would bring us to where we needed to go.
Since this was an important decision and we really did not have much to go on besides smell, Felegum cast his cool spying eyeball spell and investigated each corridor over for a while. He first went down the center path and quickly grimaced.
“Lots of dead animals up here,” he said. “Dead rodents, dust. The tunnel opens up vertically and the flakes are drifting down from above.”
Then he collapsed for a moment, and explained later that a bat got too close to the eye and it was overwhelming.
With that tunnel investigated, he sent the eye down the right tunnel, the one that smelled like overfermented everything. This was even grosser, basically sewage. But not just any sewage: this was uneaten food. The ground was covered in slime and mold, and it even seemed like the tips of the slime molds had grabby teeth.
Last, with only a little time remaining on the eye, Felegum checked out the last, left tunnel. This one had huge mushrooms and giant reddish-black shapes with six legs (not again) with antennae from their heads for zest. Ants, we guessed. It seemed like they were farming littler bugs as well as the fungi.
“Alright, guys,” Felegum said, sitting back, having explained everything he’d seen. “That’s what we’ve got.”
“Well,” Lankin said, “what do we want to fight more?”
A very Lankin way of putting it. Ants versus bat versus slime.
“The bat.” Felegum sighed and shook his head. “But the sewer is my choice.”
“I agree,” I said. “Food, unused food in this city? That’s got to mean people, and the only people I can think of who would have leftovers while the rest of us starved would be Red Eyes.”
There was a small discussion about the ants, whether they could allies or not, maybe, but we’d pretty much settled on our path: as usual, toward food.
And hopefully, finally, towards rescuing Kalends.