Were we making progress, or were we just lost in the catacombs below Csipherus? Every twist and turn, every hidden skeleton or magically aging tree was starting to make me seriously question if we had taken two steps forward entering the catacombs through the small settlement of Thoth, or if we had taken a giant step back getting ourselves lost in the underbelly of a city sitting atop a magical nexus of unusual strength?
I got just as many questions as answers when we found ourselves in an unusually spacious clearing in the catacombs.
“It’s been a long time since a mortal has dared enter my domain. What brings you here?” boomed the incorporeal sack of arms and wisps that loomed before our punch-drunk party. I chanced a quick glance around, hoping someone more experienced in ending a conversation in anything other than blows was on their feet. Alas, our party was in rough shape. Something about this place had played with our vision, taunting us with shadows and flickers at the edges of our vision, gradually worming a foreboding sense of dread and sickness into even our most stalwart functioning alcoholic. Everyone was still on their feet at least, and Tem wore a guise of unabashed amazement punctuated by a faint glow coming from her eyes. Hopefully, everyone could rally together and bail me out of whatever mess I was about to make.
“We seek to aid the city and its people.” My aim was a confident boom, but my words registered at more of a stern response to a scolding teacher. As the room swirled and blossomed with ethereal activity, Helli’s grip tightened on the bunched fabric of my cloak. The large chamber had some space to maneuver, but the ghosts’ massive size and glowing horde of ephemeral wisps and images would quickly cut us off if it decided my answer was unacceptable.
“But I do not understand how to add this city I live in to my own realm. Do you wish to aid me?” The spirit seemed just as confused as we were to find us in this chamber. More importantly, there was no need to immediately test my ability to swat spirits. Two sentences exchange, this was officially a better parlay than the kobold matriarch.
“Depends on what you want,” Felegum was much quicker on the draw with the probing response. No immediate attempts to smite us didn’t mean it was a friend. At any point, it could shift to red and remind us it didn’t take kindly to us scattering the essence of our old foe Zuul in the foothills of the Tooth. But until it decided to escalate the situation or ignite the red glow of our foes, we had best play the classic monk game of giving the correct question to a confusing answer.
“We’ve come to return Csipherus to its citizens.” My mind raced to close off the angles. It was too risky to qualify the owners of the city. The spirit would just spot off about how the people who conquered it are the owners. Or if this spirit was old and grumpy, it might think people who came long before the oppressed peoples of Csipherus were the rightful owners and the current people were just visiting. Worse yet, what if the Red Eyes were related to some old cult or organization that left the conduits here originally? Then this lingering pile of spiritual detritus may respect their claim to the city and help keep them in power. We didn’t need more players in the Red-Eyed Band.
“You still don’t understand,” the spirit writhed with a growing frustration. “I do not know the city of which you speak.”
Something was amiss in the Csipherian catacombs, and it wasn’t just us stumbling into a realm of spirits. We didn’t have much to go on, but the last floating pile of ghostly energy that chatted me up was a literal embodiment of death. Now, we’re in the land of the dead of a whole city and all of its history. Granted, my first response to Death was to attempt to attack it as well, but at least that looming cloud was much better about talking me down and explaining the experience of dying. This pile of enigmatic sparkles seemed to be just as confused by us as we were of it. Time to take the question asking offensive.
“What lies beyond your catacomb?” My question was a shift. We had a pretty good idea how much we didn’t know about this entity. What we didn’t know was how much the spirit knew about its own situation. Maybe it was just as confused as us.
“This is not a catacomb,” retorted the spirit. This was not a good sign.
“What lies beyond your realm then?” I needed to find an in, find a thread to pull. Find a path: that is the goal of the monk.
“My realm is limitless.” The arms of the spirit unfolded so that we could truly marvel at the stone walls that barely contained its buzzing hive of flickers and mist. The fingertips of its many arms nearly brushed the domed ceiling as it boasted of its infinite expanse.
Answer not just the question you are given, but the question that needed to be answered.
“Have you seen other people invading your realm lately?” My voice was steady, unfazed by our host’s grand display. Why waste time arguing over what to call the space we find ourselves in when there were more pressing issues like identifying if this realm was in the sphere of influence of our enemies? With my question of realm visitors posed, we could hopefully glean what this spirit did to those who enter its realm, and if the blue ball of questions let slip info about red-eyed visitors, we’d know right away if this enemy was an enemy of our enemies. A wise monk once pointed out that meant they could be your friend.
And an old drunken master I looked up to pointed out that could also mean we just had another enemy.
“Wait. Does time pass differently here?” Lankin finally ran out of patience with our delicate conversational scrap and started throwing verbal haymakers. “Tell us more about your realm! Who are you?”
“DEMANDING THINGS IN MY OWN REALM?!?!” The spirit bellowed and the furious buzz of activity surrounding it stilled for just an instant, a single heartbeat. Six arms, a looming astral torso, a humanoid head with piercing, solid eyes, and a swarm of indistinct energies and clouds all seemed to still for an instant. Then, the blue mass of arms and frustration slammed its many limbs and wisp swarm into the ground, releasing a pulse that smashed into us like a rogue ocean wave. As the wave crashed over me, my robes didn’t so much as shift, but my mind shuddered with the oppressive assault. Clearing my head of all that I could, and tugging my own chi into a place of mental calm and balance, my mind weathered the metaphysical storm unleashed on us.
Many of my friends crumpled under the assault. Set, Felegum, Lankin, and Tem all seemed to lose the will to stand and dropped like marionettes without their strings. Helli was the first to remind me not everyone was down. The sudden release of my sleeve previously pulled taut by her attempt to hold herself aloft matched the quiet patter of her feet as she left to check on Set. Stepping up to my side, Zeno seemed completely unaffected by the psychic assault and quickly made his voice heard as he probed what the creature wanted. His honeyed words and graceful oration kept me and the spirit from devolving into blows.
“…Aljahar the Transcendent…”
“… Realm of truth…”
“… What is truth…”
“… if they have the will…”
“…Anything is possible…”
“…Giving them what they want…”
“…What do you wish to do for the city, and with your friends…”
One phrase stuck in my head, nestled right in the middle of the discussion. I did learn from Death. I was listening this time. Well bits and pieces, but I was listening a lot more than I have in the past.
“… if they have the will… anything is possible…”
So if it was a will you needed, then it was a will you would receive. You had to have the drive to continue, the desire to follow your path, the inclination to seize the weird and wild edge where reality mashed into the metaphysical and come out ahead. On days where I can’t match the physical ability of Lankin, or the brains of Felegum, or the sleight of hand of our rogues, my will to continue on my path is unmatched.
So, if this magical gas bag wanted a battle of wills, then a battle of wills was what he’d get.
I pulled together my happiest memories, my greatest desires to do good. I filled my mind with the memories of fighting the many things that went bump in the night outside the monastery walls, the things that needed to be reminded that they weren’t the predators, they weren’t the bullies, they were something that needed to be thoroughly bumped back.
My hand reached out from my side and took a lose grip on something that wasn’t quite there. Then the blue flames and flickers, the images and wisps, began to coalesce. Starting in my palm, the chaotic shapes and clouds snapped into a solid form. Like it never shattered, pulled back from the day it broke across the the red-eyed lich Ahkmatix, a translucent version of my staff assembled itself into my hand, growing out from my outstretched hand to its full shimmering size. The patterns memorializing my triumphs, solidifying my losses, cementing my lessons were all present, carved into its new translucent form. Guessing that believing and wanting it to be real was the most important aspect of this realm, my staff was back in hand when I needed it the most. It was time for me to rejoin the conversation with Aljahar, his name revealed sometimes while I was lost in my own thoughts.
“There is an evil in the realm that we speak of, an evil that is hurting people, that is taking away their wills, their lives, their hopes. We’re here to end that.” Interrupting Zeno, my snarled desires seemed to catch the attention of our now named opponent. That or taking up a defense position between Zeno and the chatty mass of appendages and spirits wielding a glowing, translucent staff got its attention.
As the spirit pondered my response, hung up on some aspect of my defiant statement, Zeno capitalized on the reprieve and began playing a new song on his bagpipes. My gaze was fixed on the pensive spirit, so hopefully whatever Zeno was cooking up didn’t need my input.
“I cannot abide by this loss of will, tell me more of these oppressors.” Aljahar was unphased by whatever Zeno was working and seemed to be stuck on the concept of will and the ability to take it away.
Found a thread, time to pull.
But as I tried harder and harder to explain the concept of a city outside of this realm, and the people who resided there, and the red-eyed terrors that seemed to force their will on others, leaving trails of death and tyranny wherever they resided, the bigger the rift of understanding between Aljahar and I seemed to grow. The more I tried to dance around explaining Csipherus and its plight without describing the city, its people, or our enemies, the more the spirit seemed to get lost in the concepts of anything outside of his realm. It tried to steer me back to the concept of how one’s will could be removed, and if we believed it could even be restored. This question was especially worrying as the sounds of Helli trying to quietly slap Set awake reminded me that our friends were still fighting for control of their minds.
I hoped they were still fighting at least.
“But can their wills be restored? How can you replace what is lost?”Aljahar posited. Maybe the being of truth and will wasn’t as infinite and wise as they assumed.
“Can you not open your eyes after they have been shut?” Zeno proceeded to thoroughly out-monk me and rouse both Aljahar and me from our impasse. The spirit seemed to nod at the example, content with the apt comparison.
“This seems a worthy cause. If you can do as you say, go forth from this place.” His many arms now gestured towards the path we had come through. Our party members, maybe at the subsiding of the mental assault, or through Zeno’s supportive spell work, had begun to rouse from their induced slumbers. Looking over them, something was a little off in their weary eyes. There was a look of loss or wanting in those who woke up, not the confusion or slight glazed look of someone who just had their mind battered. Maybe it wasn’t just a smashing wave that knocked them unconscious, but something more insidious, something much more difficult to fight. Normally, victory of a force worming into ones mind would leave you tired from the struggle, but elated from surviving with your sanity intact. However, it seems this rest had left its victims conflicted over waking up from it. This was something to ponder when I had the time.
Seeing everyone at least physically okay and back on their feet, I turned back to our host. With an effort of will, built around a kernel of solving all of my problems with violence, a phantasmal memory of my staff was back in my hands. Maybe there was a final parting gift that could be offered from Aljahar and his spiritual oasis.
“Set, do you trust me?” I hissed, just loud enough for Set to hear and a few others to make out. If this plan was to go sideways, and at the cusp of escape, anyone following me was plunged into peril, I wanted to know at least someone did it by choice. And, if my plan worked, having someone who spoke the local language would make for a potential success. Set, freshly slapped awake by Helli, had little time to ponder the question.
“Yeah. Let’s do it.”
And there it was, a small dark hole on the opposite side of the room. Maybe we all missed it before, or maybe Aljahar wasn’t lying when he mentioned to Zeno that “people here could manifest the reality they desired.” My mind had formed a desire and shoved it into the world. The ghost of my staff was a manifestation of what I wanted. Born from something I lost, and something that could comfort me in this wild realm, it was something I wanted. Why not try for something we needed? If i could manifest one thing in Aljahar’s realm, why not more? We still needed a way to get to the prisoners being held beneath the city. Why not push our luck and see how far this realm was willing to go to help us, or at least give us the tools to help ourselves? Pushing the worries of my friends and Tem out of my head, I had a staff to steady my steps, and a path forward.
It was small.
It was dark.
I wasn’t entirely sure it would even fit a mouse.
But it was there.
A small dark abyss stared back at me.
With my staff tapping like a third step, I moved towards the opening with Set in tow. There were a few shouts and a deep sigh behind me. Checking for more opinions or the sounds’ origins was a risk to my grasp on the idea for a path forward, so my eyes stayed locked on the small target.
Step. Step. Tap.
Step. Step. Tap.
Some groaning behind me and the sound of rushing feet.
Step. Step. Tap.
Step. Step. Tap.
The staff began to fade in my hands as the tunnel neared. It was harder to hold, its edges softening and growing indistinct. Like a memory, the sharp patterns faded, the heft of its sturdy wooden construction faded. I let it slip from my hand as I let it die again in my mind. The only thing to focus on was moving forward, towards the path to people of Csipherus who needed us. The people trapped in these catacombs.
Step. Step. Tap.
Then the eerie glow of Aljahar’s sphere of influence was gone. The cold, dry stone of the catacombs had returned, and the feelings of dread and stalking shadows was no longer haunting us. With an exasperated huff, the stress of holding my focus left me. We were somewhere, everyone was alive, another spiritual terror bundled into cloud form had failed to drag me down. It even seemed like we may have come out ahead, bumbling our way through the catacombs to a path that could lead to the people we came down to rescue. It was a small step, but it was a part of our first decisive strike on the Red-Eyes and whatever their end goal was. A little prison break to let them know something is coming for them and that something is here to hurt them. The tension that had built up in my shoulders let loose as we finally progressed on our path of liberation.
Then a giant nut reminded us how much further we had to go.
That and the mangy giant rat that filled the tunnel ahead of us turned its blood red eyes towards the visitors in its food stores.
Two steps forward.
But how many steps back?