We were at the bottom of a well without an apparent exit.
“Set, do you have your broom?” Felegum asked.
I did; it was a little slimy from having plowed into a wall with me on it, but it seemed still functional. Well, as functional as it was these days. Believe me, I had plans to address that when things were less fraught. So, not for a long while.
“Is anyone sure we’re not still dreaming?” Tem asked. It was a good question. I’d thought we were out of that space, but clearly something was still going on unless Harry had a much deeper connection to my city than he’d let on.
And if that was the case, well, we’d have that out. I was giving the monk the benefit of a doubt. I liked him.
A shadow passed over something in me. I’d liked Awk, too.
“If I were dreaming, Tem, you wouldn’t be here,” Zeno said, swimming pass us.
“Harsh,” said Helli.
I shared the sentiment. Tem was categorically not as difficult as Awk. I didn’t feel compelled to issue ultimatums to Tem, though her methods for cleansing impurities remained a little unorthodox. Not like I was one to judge; I could barely cleanse an impurity on a good day. Plus, she had a pretty sick sword. When we got a breather I wanted to ask her about that.
Instead, I coordinated with Lankin, asking the elf to lift me out of the water enough so that I could maybe get some lift on the broom. Normally, Lankin was strong as hell, but maybe the mucks had been a little much for him because he struggled to lift my lithe-ass body above his head while treading water.
“Helli,” said Harry, while I narrowly avoided drowning Lankin, “it may surprise you, but I’ve had bad experiences in multiple wells.”
“That fits with your dark and gloomy exterior,” Helli replied.
“Oddly,” Harry continued, looking around, “I think this well was a triumph. I think I was dragged out.”
At this point, I had said the command word for my broom, but Lankin had super sunk, so I was just floating on it zipping through the water like a self-propelled barge. While fun, it was not quite the exit strategy I’d been envisioning.
Felegum, evidently seeing that the broom was a bust, conjured an ice cube in the center of the pool. Lankin latched himself to it before the mage got a chance to climb on, getting his bare, wet chest stuck to it and freeing himself with a painful-looking lurch.
Zeno had had enough of this tomfoolery. “If you guys don’t see me in five minutes,” he said, gliding toward the one downward exit we had, “follow me.”
“I can come with, I can swim.” Helli swam after him, extremely well, I might add, with the Cloak of the Manta Ray fanning out behind her.
The rest of us continued to make somewhat futile efforts at escape via wall until Zeno called out, “What’s going on down there?”
“A creature!” Helli yelled back, swimming quickly and ably.
I briefly outlined a great plan that I’d come up with for Lankin to lift Helli up and get to the rope that was still hanging by the waterfall, but by that point things had devolved to an incoming creature and people rushing to get out of its way.
Zeno had plans of his own. “Come here, Lankin, come here.”
As soon as the two of them grabbed hands, they vanished and reappeared on the ledge eighty feet above the pool.
That was when an eyestalk broke the surface of the pool and looked right at Harry. He did not look super hot for a moment, but then whatever he was struggling with he pushed through and yelled “get out of my head!” at the weird thing.
Then there were multiple eyestalks coming out of the water and we were in it for real.
“Is it me you’re looking at?” Harry glowed at the optical interloper. “You’re already going for my memories, what more do you want?”
I was starting to wonder if it had been the best idea to follow Harry and place his terrible childhood memories within my larger terrible childhood memory, like some nightmare nesting doll. In my defense, I truly had thought things would be okay.
Next time, we were going to choose someone with a nice past to do the weird manifestation gymnastics. Like Lankin.
Anyway, Harry expressed his anger with some darts, the first healthy thing he’d done maybe all day, and hit the stalk without wounding the eye. As the dart hit, the water of the pool the five of us were still in began to churn and a whirlpool formed in the center.
“Here,” Zeno said, tied two of his ropes together, and threw them to Lankin above us, “handle this.”
“Okay!” Lankin, enthusiastic to have a job.
Helli, being a masterful swimmer, got to the rope first and grabbed it. Or tried to– she couldn’t quite make it, so Tem boosted her up. Meanwhile, Felegum and I swirled around the water vortex, pondering.
“I have godlike strength,” Temhojamak Arkris, sworn paladin of Bahamut, said. “I’m not being a dick about it.”
Then she grabbed onto the rope and the knot in the center absolutely gave out. As in, the entire rope came untied, dumping Helli right back into the drink. Tem, meanwhile, clung onto the slimy wall.
Godlike strength indeed.
I rode over to the rope on my water-broom, affirming that it was indeed disconnected. Dang.
Harry did his best to avoid this situation by climbing up a wall of his own.
Above us, Zeno sighed. “You know what, Lankin, why don’t you try?”
“Okay!” Lankin said, tied a new knot, and threw the new rope down.
Around us in the water, the eyes locked gazes with each other and we were struck with a terrible foreboding sense that something not good was about to happen.
And then it did, a crackling energy rippled through the water and it felt like we’d all just been punched. Immediately, I wanted to get out of this terrible water.
Tem, unfortunately, was not able to shake off the shockwave and let go off the wall, falling back into the swirl herself. Conveniently, now teeth were starting to come up from the bottom of the well.
“Helli, don’t rip it again,” Zeno called down from above.
Helli gamely climbed up the rope and Lankin tried to pull her up, but this also proved to be a lot. I think Helli fell off again, but the why was a bit lost for me in the fog of war so I climbed up it instead. I was maybe a little under halfway up when I noticed that Kheryph, who had been curled around my neck for this adventure, was not moving.
Oh hell no.
Tem, of course, was still paralyzed at the core of the water vortex, and Felegum, still swirling around down there. It did look like he was going to do something because he seemed like he was concentrating, but he must have decided against what it was because nothing happened. He swam toward the wall where I was with the rope.
The whirlpool monster also seemed momentarily out of it, which made me briefly wonder if maybe Harry had popped it while I wasn’t looking, and the monk lobbed two more darts at it from his position on the wall. Helli, at this point, had scarpered up the rope right underneath me. “Hey, Set! Hurry up!”
I had also forgotten how great at climbing Helli is.
Calling out another quick encouragement to Tem– who was unresponsive– she nudged me to get me to go faster. “Do you have any rope?”
I did, and I was going to say that I had a lizard emergency I needed to handle first, with extreme haste, but then Lankin screamed, dropped the rope, and leapt off the ledge back into the pool, ostensibly to go after Tem.
And then, we were falling too.
We fell maybe five feet before Zeno grabbed the rope and stopped it, but truly this was asking a lot of Zeno (as was most physical labor) even on a good day and he looked fatigued. “Ugh, that is unpleasant,” he gritted out,
Meanwhile, below us, Lankin was able to grab Tem and made an effort to kick the eyestalk off her. It retaliated on him, but the elf did not seem to mind.
Now, finally stable mid-air and at last able to turn my mind to more pressing matters, I healed Kheryph. It seemed like he’d just gotten shaken up in the shockwave that Tem was still suffering from below, but you know what? We’d taken all the chances we were going to take on lizard health in this household and I did not regret anything. I kept climbing, making it now just over halfway up the rope.
Tem continued to look frozen below, but she had godlike strength so she’d probably break out of it soon.
At this point, Felegum unleashed his magic missiles on the eyestalks, and the one that Harry had been throwing darts at before broke under the onslaught.
Zeno seemed to be trying to be heroic up there with the rope and I really wished he’d just knock it off and let us climb in peace. Just because Lankin is strong enough to pull people up did not mean we all were. Below us, the strong people, Lankin and Tem were getting pulled under the surface as the water level dropped a foot and a half. Definitely normal, nothing to worry about.
Harry threw some more darts from the wall, one hit, and one missed, but the effort was just enough to throw off his balance and he also fell into the water.
“Hey Harry!” Lankin chirped from the whirlpool, holding Tem afloat. “Should I put her on the ice?”
“Seems like a good idea,” Harry replied, then paused. “Why is she asleep?”
Helli at this point had totally overtaken me, crawling over me to get up the rope more quickly.
“Ugh, finally!” Zeno said. “What’s everyone doing?”
“They’re drowning, Zeno!” Helli said, exasperated. “Harry and Lankin are down there and Tem is asleep and Set has a lizard–“
Zeno cut her off with a nod at the rope. “This isn’t going to hold up here.”
“Then hurry up and fix it,” I said through my teeth, still climbing the rope.
Lankin put Tem on Felegum’s floating iceberg. “Grab onto the iceberg!” he yelled. “We’re going to kick toward the wall.”
Zeno was still determined to be cool, I guess, because he tried to haul me up the rope as Lankin had with Helli. Helli was a gnome. I was a human (except when I had wings). There was a size difference. Also, a significant weight one.
Furthermore, Zeno was not built for feats of strength. He was built for feats of song and needed at least three pairs of shoes to do anything of consequence. Something vital-sounding keened off a wall above and I climbed for my life.
“What,” I asked, out of breath, as I yeeted myself off the rope and over onto the ledge, “did you do?”
“I did nothing,” Zeno said, askance. “I was supposed to have a big strong man up here!”
Below us, the big strong man continued his quest to help the big strong dragonborn who remained stock still. At this point, I was beginning to feel a bit bad for leaving her down there.
Anyway, Felegum pulled out a pinch of mica and shattered some of the many, many teeth underneath Tem’s iceberg, allowing them to join the swirling mess of water like some bizarre stew.
Which, by the way, was draining at a significant rate. The teeth that Felegum hadn’t obliterated were hard at work scraping at the ice, trying to grind through it to get to the armor of the paladin. And then, you know, to the paladin inside.
“Wake up, Tem!” Lankin yelled.
Harry did his best in the water to kick the teeth and he mostly succeeded. On the times when he did manage to connect his strikes with the teeth, the mere act of touching them seemed to cut him back. He did manage to swim and position the ice floe a bit below the rope.
“Now would be a good time to wake up, Tem!” Harry called.
Sensing that we were going to have to get a potentially unconscious, ridiculously large person up this rope and that Zeno was not going to be a sufficient anchor, even if he was the heaviest of everyone up here, Helli very practically examined the rope. Together and most definitely under her guidance, she and Zeno tied the rope onto what was hopefully a more stable bannister.
Lankin tied the rope to Tem and did his best to get it around her waist. Zeno made to check the rope and I decided that I absolutely did not trust him to support Tem and her godlike strength, so I backed him up and braced myself.
Tem limply bobbed along, still out of it. Not a good day for her.
Felegum was now on the rope, making his way up out of the rapidly draining pool and up along the wall. And not a moment too soon, as the eyestalk monster scraped its teeth against the walls of the well, directly in the path of Lankin, Tem, and Harry. Lankin was fast enough to get out of the way (this was Lankin, after all), but the rest of Team Lizard was not too lucky.
Also, the eyestalks were doing a weird glowing thing, not unlike some fish did when they wanted to beguile their prey.
Harry just ran up the wall. It was pretty nuts.
Lankin cried, “Pull up the rope!” and then taking a cue from Harry, also ran up the wall.
I winced, because I’d thought, “no way, that guy is good in arena fights, there’s no way that he too can pull off the same stunt that Harry, a trained monk can” but no, Lankin just crushed it. He made it look as easy as Harry did and kept pace.
“You heard the idiot,” Zeno called, “let’s pull!”
And we all pulled. As we were moving to try to brace ourselves and get Tem up inch by inch, my broom caught my eye. It looked drier, like maybe it could support me in the air again. That was a relief, though not useful right at this moment.
It was at this point that Tem woke up, and it was in the very inglorious way of having her legs attacked by teeth. She started, and then quickly made good progress climbing up the rope. Helli, Zeno, and I braced ourselves, and even though my feet still felt pretty soggy from the long climb, we managed to hold the rope long enough for Tem to make it out under her own power.
Lankin and Harry just continued to run up the wall. Lankin was having the time of his life, as usual.
Once we were all out of the pool and on a ledge, we caught our breath. We couldn’t really stay here– it was too narrow and not really that safe to rest on– and honestly a warmer place away from the sound of teeth would be much better. I wasn’t hurt that badly myself; I was more concerned that we were making a huge racket all the way through this supposedly secret space.
Before this fight I’d been about to mention how stealth was going to be of the essence, but I’d just do that later. Surely everyone had enough intelligence to understand that being loud would probably get my friends and Kalends murdered or moved to a more secure spot.
Anyway, concerns aside, the passageway ahead opened up to a warm, inviting light. It was red, which was weird for a light. Harry looked concerned, to say the least.
“Some of these details are matching up with my past,” he said, after a long while. “This place belongs to an old friend I used to work for.”
Zeno said nothing but passed a rope each back to Lankin and Felegum.
“It might be good to bandage our legs,” Tem said with a wince.
“Bitch, you just slept the whole time.” Zeno snorted. Then he took a closer look at Tem. “Damn, Tem, you look bad. You should probably get those checked out.”
Some healing energy coalesced around her wounds.
“I feel better already,” she said.
I asked Harry what he thought we’d need to know about this place and got a lot of circular monk answers. Again, at least if we were going through Lankin’s past, I bet I could expect some more frankness and directness, but whatever.
The red rug out in front indicated that this place was having a party, and so we went in.
It was a party and it was full of ridiculously attractive people. There were platters of fruit and wine, white silks draped over sculpted bodies, and no trace of the sewer we’d just trudged through, well, anywhere. Barrels of wine lined a wall as the party guests plucked grapes off bunches and lounged as they drank from elegant goblets.
Harry was still busy explaining to us that this was not what it seemed and also bad somehow, but none of that interested Zeno, whose primary interest was, after all, wine and beautiful people, and he walked right in.
One person with olive skin smiled at the bard. “Ah, do come in,” she said. “What is it that we can do for you? Yours is a new face.”
“A drink would be nice,” Zeno said, slipping into that easy mode of his when he’s around other people and alcohol is present. “Is this a northern red?”
I had no idea what that was, but I guessed that it had to be good because the lady nodded appreciatively, as though Zeno had excellent taste.
“Oh,” she said, “we have whatever you’d like. A mountain rosé.” She named a few other drinks. “But you’d prefer the northern red?”
“Yes,” said Zeno after some thought. “It’s been a long time.”
I made a mental note to ask about that later. I too wanted to look cool in bars and know what the rare drinks were, but this one felt like it also had a story.
The lady took Zeno to a chaise-lounge and went to get the drink.
Harry, having at this point noticed that Zeno was no longer following directions and had in fact blazed exciting new ground on his own, sighed and covered his face. He turned to the rest of us. “Hired help is only meant to be seen when it’s called for.”
I slipped my hood back on. So this was a fancy people party, which meant rich people who were about to be massive dicks if you couldn’t pass well enough for one of them. I could lie through my teeth, but without an illusion on me, my wet clothes weren’t going to pass muster.
And I wasn’t about to waste my time impressing stupid people when I had a friend to save. Kalends was more important than that.
And again, I thought that this was something that most of us would agree on. Harry was preaching the good word of stealth, and I was all for it.
Then Tem stepped into the room, quickly found a massage table and two very friendly people helped her out of her armor, a massive, bald tattooed person and then a girl who looked like Lankin, but brighter and like battle, if that made sense. A lot was going on at once.
Helli moved behind Harry and grabbed a glass of wine, practical as ever, and Lankin brushed himself off and strutted in. I honestly did not know what he was doing. A tiefling saw him and smiled.
“Oh my dear,” she said, “what is it that I can do for you? It’s the first time I’ve seen you here. What do you desire?”
“Uh,” Lankin said. “Do you have any snacks to it?”
I took it back, Lankin could absolutely make it here.
The tiefling smiled. “Is food really all that you want? All that we can do?”
Lankin looked a little baffled, but I didn’t see how that one turned out because Harry was whispering to us again.
“Set, Helli,” he said, “watch out for snapping hands. That’s where things get rough. Those of us who didn’t kill were more prized, though it took us longer to do our work.”
This was new. I shook my head. “Every day, Harry, I learn more and more about you.”
I took a grape. I wanted to taste it. Harry seemed to be on the lookout for something, but he sighed. “The help here may be more well-hidden than I was.”
Meanwhile, Felegum entered, having taken a little extra time to change into his silk outfit and strappy sandals.
The tiefling woman’s smile only grew. “Many new faces today.”
Felegum cleared his throat. “I want to pay my respects to the host.”
“We are all here to host,” the smiling woman said. “You are our guest.”
I did not like this. I guess I haven’t gone to a lot of parties, but I really was not into it.
Felegum was led to a bath with a hand in the small of his back. It did not really seem like he wanted to go where he was going.
Zeno, meanwhile, was thriving. He had his wine and a half-elf girl feeding him grapes. He arranged himself comfortably in his chair and laid back. “I’ll take a dance.”
Three other girls came over, and at that point, I had to look away because yikes. I was definitely not an innocent and obviously wise beyond my years in the ways and harshness of the world behind closed doors but nope. Not watching that.
“Helli,” Harry whispered, “behind the bar, can you go and check it out? If someone asks, you’re a customer. If no one asks, be a customer.”
Another monk riddle. But Helli must have solved this one relatively quickly, because she made it two-thirds of the way to the bar before someone stopped her and she was led to a table of her own.
I, meanwhile, was looking for doors and trying to be small and unnoticeable. Yes, there were pretty people, but usually pretty meant you didn’t give a shit about people like me. Also, someone down this pathway was wasting food. Had it been these people? Or was this all really in Harry’s head?
Either way, I didn’t like the idea of this much food for so few people.
Harry was probably having the best luck of all of us, making his way to the bar and finding something there that he seemed to be expecting. But then a dark red-skinned tiefling stepped through the door he’d been eyeing and a look of instant recognition flitted over her face.
“No need to leave,” she said.
“You left,” Harry said.
I tried to melt even more into the wall and wished I’d grabbed more than one grape, because damn, this was about to get good.
“I never needed your services,” the red tiefling said. “Wanted, that is different.”
I nearly choked. Harry had services?
But the monk in question remained stoic. “I’d like to leave with my friends now.”
She shrugged. “Would you deny them that which you deny yourself?”
Ooh, who was asking the monk riddles now?
Then a lot of things started to happen at once. This was where things got confusing. Harry did something and the red tiefling lady said, “That has no power over me here.”
And then Harry was like: “I know this isn’t you. You ran a good joint.”
And then everyone else looked weird and that’s when we found out that Zeno was kissing a demon.
Well, everyone who wasn’t us became fiends, all winged and leathery, like an illusion or glamour had been dropped. Tem and Lankin had a vacant look in their eyes– more so than usual– and even when Harry threw a bottle at Lankin, it didn’t jar him back into his normal focused buoyancy.
“Don’t do this, guys!” Zeno stood, peacemaking no doubt between us and the purveyors of his good time.
And like, okay. I was not into whatever he’d been doing, but he seemed like he had a good idea. He wanted things to calm down so that we could sneak out. Stealth mode. Avoid making a ruckus and rescue Kalends and the others from the Calendar.
“May I leave?” the bard asked the red tiefling lady.
“Are you sure that’s what you want?” she asked him back.
He considered. “I’m not feeling well. I need to go home.”
She gave him a once-over, thinking about it.
“I can’t stay,” he insisted. “I am very unwell.”
That was true.
He and Harry exchanged a look and Harry shook his head.
I narrowed my eyes, unable to read this.
“You need to let me go,” Zeno said, soft and insistent.
“I cannot,” the red lady replied, just as quietly.
I moved toward the door, or where I’d thought I’d seen the lady come through. Stealth. I didn’t know how, but we’d negotiate our way out of this somehow and all would be well.
And that was when Zeno turning into an absolute fucking mammoth.