After we had exited the “den of frivolity”, some of us were looking rougher than others.
“Do you think,” Harry asked, extremely beaten on and newly brought back to a state of consciousness by yours truly, “we could take a rest here?”
Zeno took a sip of his fancy cocktail, which he had somehow managed to escape with unspilled. “How did you know those people, Harry?”
It was perfectly pleasant, while also indicating that the answer had better be pretty damn good.
“Old job?” Harry replied, hopeful perhaps that he could yet evade the questioning to come.
I crossed my arms. “So how’d you and your boss get into my city?”
“I don’t know.” The monk did not look exactly comfortable. “The coin was a memory. So was the well. Well, minus the monster.” He explained that the club was not exactly true to the memory he’d had, that he’d worked there as a bodyguard and that his boss had been a good person.
We kind of mulled that over.
“Was she, uh…” Lankin trailed off.
“A fiend?” Felegum asked.
“She was a tiefling,” Harry said stoically.
The elf turned to Felegum. “Wait, what’s that?”
“Me, but demonic,” I said.
“Like Set but with a tail,” Zeno added. This, I felt, was not quite accurate. Tieflings, to my knowledge, didn’t fly.
I was very cool. My mom didn’t even fly. Or at least, she’d never flown around me.
“Now that you’re done judging,” Harry said, perhaps a little testily. He told us then that his boss, the fiend-lady-who-was-not-a-fiend, actually brought down some of the clergy in a city, which had made her pretty unwelcome there, even though it sounded like she was acting in the service of good.
I asked him for her name and he said that that was a closely guarded secret known only to one person, but that most people who worked with her called her the Countess.
“So the one person who knows her name,” I said, then raised my eyebrows at Harry.
Okay, that was pretty cool. Dude had depth. Well, I guess I’d expect most monks to have depth. Unexpected depth.
Felegum surveyed the path and sighed. “Maybe we go forward.”
No one sounded very enthusiastic about plunging into another of Harry’s memories, Harry maybe least of all, but backtracking felt like defeat. Like we knew that we’d taken a wrong turn. It would mean admitting that we’d just wasted all that time.
And I’d wasted too much already. I had to get to Kalends before it was too late.
Anyway, Tem, who was still very new to all this high-intensity prisoner saving, was more focused on other things. “Was that well like the one you keep talking about? With the crab?”
“No,” Harry said patiently. “Different well.”
“Harry,” I said, “is this an area you recognize at all? Is it safe to chill?”
We were in a night garden, some place that seemed calm, if not for the rhythmic sound of gongs every now and again. It would have almost been peaceful except that it was kind of loud.
Actually, it was very loud.
“Harry, can you remind us what you asked the spirit for?” Helli said, covering her ears during the worst of the gongs.
“A path to the prisoners,” Harry said.
“The spirit said you could imagine it and it would happen. So, you imagined a route,” Felegum summed it up.
Tem stopped polishing her monster sword for a moment. “What reason do you have to believe this will work?”
I shrugged. “You’ve got to believe in something, Tem.”
“Seems like we’re the ones being royally screwed over,” Harry said bitterly.
“But how do you know this is still the dream?” Zeno asked.
Tem snorted and flared her large golden nostrils. “This has all the trappings of a deal with Tiamat, I don’t like it.”
“Well,” said Felegum, “you’re free to leave.”
“Is she, though?” Zeno asked.
“Your demonic friends couldn’t even give a properly restful massage,” Tem griped, presumably to Harry, who did not dignify this with a response.
Meanwhile, I brought up prisoner logistics. We might not come back to reality until right before we encountered the prisoners, making stealth a priority. Or we might just find the prisoners in Harry’s twisted monastery memories. Maybe we would have to backtrack through said memories, but with injured people who couldn’t do waterfalls. Maybe the imagined path would disappear once it had fulfilled its purpose and we’d need an alternate route out.
The problems seemed endless.
Somewhere, as I was outlining potential back-up plans, Zeno leaned on a wall with his fancy drink and promptly fell through it.
I was going to be mad at him because that was not helpful in plotting our escape, but I was also pretty sure he’d been leaning against a wall, not an entrance to another series of hallways. Weird. I packed up my stuff, flicked the boa back over my neck, and followed the others after him.
“Zeno, pleasure,” the bard introduced himself to someone.
The someone in question sounded pissed off. “Blancanieves,” she said. “Not a pleasure to meet you.”
I liked her immediately.
“Okay,” Zeno said, “at least you’re not playing mind games like the others. Ah,” he paused, “where are we?”
We came around the corner to see Zeno addressing a short human archer with incredibly white skin, incredibly dark hair, and a long bow and arrows slung over her back as she walked with a torch that showed no signs of burning out. “I don’t know,” she said as we came into view. “I’ve passed by familiar places, but…”
“My god,” the bard said, his hand on his heart. “We have so much in common.”
Harry squinted at her. “I don’t know this one. Are you real?”
Blancanieves looked vaguely offended.
“I mean,” the monk amended, “the last couple of places have been the greatest hits from my childhood nightmares, so.”
“What are you suggesting?” she asked, expression unchanging.
“Do you know us from your nightmares?” Tem asked in a genuine way. It was perhaps one of the most metal things I’d heard from her. My appreciation went up a notch.
Naturally, Zeno made it weird. “Have you dreamed about me, darling?”
Blancanieves narrowed her eyes at the dragonborn. “I’m a bit skeptical of you two. I’ve never seen people like you before.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Felegum waved it off. “They’re fine.”
“That’s…a lot to trust,” our new acquaintance said.
We asked her about how she’d come to be here and introduced ourselves. Kheryph made an appearance from the boa, which he was luxuriating in. Blancanieves had been struggling to remember her past for us and had come up with little. “I don’t remember anything,” she said, “other than feeling angry.”
“I like her,” I said, “this one’s alright.”
I worked well with anger.
“There was a large blue spirit,” Harry said and trailed off as Blanca thought.
“Blue resonates with me in a negative way,” she said after a time. “What happened before I found you?”
“Demon attack,” Felegum said.
“Bar fight,” Harry said.
“Typical night out,” Zeno said.
“Anyway,” Felegum cut in, “we need a rest.”
Lankin was now very intrigued by the newcomer’s bow. “Did you fight anything?”
“Various small rodents,” Blancanieves said.
“Metal,” I said.
It was at this point that the gonging was really getting to be too much.
“It’s starting to take a toll on me,” said our resident gong expert as the cavern shook. “You may be in my hell now.”
Felegum threw up the dome, which helped cut down on the noise, and I had my daggers out in defense mode during the casting. Things had a habit of getting to Felegum when we needed the dome, and I was not in a mood to have to do restart this process. Luckily, nothing interfered.
In the meantime, Blancanieves worked some healing magic on Harry, which was a surprise– perhaps she had a moment of sympathy for the dragonborn, who truly was not looking great even after my extremely good medical advice.
“I appreciate it, but save your strength for what’s coming,” Harry said, in possibly the most foreboding way ever.
“Did you touch the moonbeam,” Tem said it more like a statement than a question, looming over Harry.
“I–” Harry began.
“Because I did not move it onto you,” she said, eyeing his clearly moonbeam-induced injuries.
The dome popped up, saving Harry from having to explain himself to the other dragonborn, and Blancanieves took it all in.
“Wow,” she said.
The mage brushed party dirt off his shoulder. “One of my specialties.”
Tem and Felegum made a valiant attempt at sleep, but it was too difficult with the gonging still kind of going on in the background. Also, people kept talking to Felegum and waking him up.
Harry explained that this gong was a means of punishment for wayward monks. They’d have to stand here and contemplate the universe until they found inner peace or started talking in riddles or something. I don’t know; much of what Harry does stopped making sense when he started running directly up walls.
Anyway, they’d stand in a big bell and just ruminate there or something.
I tactfully floated the idea of destroying the persons responsible for this. “So who’s ringing the bells and how do we kill them?”
“Well,” Harry said, “they were really liked at the monastery.”
According to him, one of them was like a father figure to him so I was like, well, fine. I still didn’t like the situation but I wasn’t going to murder Harry’s monk dad about it.
Anyway, Zeno did his best to incorporate the intermittent gonging into a bassline for his bagpipes. It was a little weird musically, but it worked to a degree.
It gave Blanca some time and space to sort out her thoughts.
“I’m looking for a clearing,” she said after a time. “I want to see the sky again.”
Felegum paused. “We were underground when we started.”
Blanca shook her head, searching for more information and finding nothing. “I’ve just been utterly alone.”
I went out on a limb. “Does the name Csipherus mean anything to you?”
Something lit up in here. “Yes, I know that name.”
“Do you like it?” I asked. What? I had priorities.
Something had been jarred in Blancanieves’ memory enough to recall that she’s come to the city on a mission of revenge. She’d been married, happily, to a prince who’d once helped her through a terrible bout of childhood food poisoning. Everything had been great until her husband had been murdered by a dragon. She’d come to the city seeking the dragon to slay it.
“Do you, uh,” I tried to think of a good way to say it, “remember the name of the dragon you’re trying to kill?”
“How could I forget?” she said. “His name was Ojutai.”
It took a moment for that to sink in. Like you could say “oh shit” in that silence.
“Real quick,” I said. “Jewel of the Desert: dragon or city?”
Blanca looked a little unsure. “City?”
“Perfect,” I said.
Blancanieves still looked pretty confused, but hey, it was a necessary question when dealing with those two. I’d rather know sooner rather than later if there was going to be a problem than have a dragon destroy my caravan, if you know what I mean.
We turned to the problem of deciding where to go next. There were three tunnels to choose from: the one we’d come from, the one Blancanieves had emerged from, and then a fresh one. So, really, the decision was not too hard. The fresh tunnel did have a weird light coming from it, though.
I thought we’d all moved on down the hall, but then Tem screamed about something being everywhere and we had to get her. Helli checked ahead to see if she could find anything trap-wise. “Guys,” she called out ahead, “be careful of acid on the walls.”
This reminded us of another acid-filled adventure we did not want to repeat, so we were careful, realizing that Harry’s memories with us might well come into the mix. Heading north, we came upon some trees whose branches were moving slowly, not quite through air anymore with large pockets of something around the trees.
Also, there were serpentine creatures flying overhead. It was pretty but weird.
Above was open sky.
Exactly as Blancanieves had wanted.
Lankin, as was his wont, strode confidently forward into the clearing. He seemed surprised, and then he seemed to be saying something, but it came out kind of weird and garbled.
Harry gave the strange trees and landscape a look over and then turned back to Blancanieves. “Does this ring any bells for you?”
She also surveyed the area ahead and then frowned. “No, not my memory.”
“Doesn’t this feel like water?” Harry passed his hand in front of him, toward the room ahead. “Maybe Lake Norka?”
Oof. If we were already at the point where Harry met the group, did that mean we were going to see manifested versions of us? Was I going to have to fight myself? That I foresaw as a huge problem, as I was awesome and would be hard to take down.
Anyway, Helli went into the room with Lankin and nothing bad seemed to be happening to either of them. Zeno very deliberately took off his shoes and put them in his bag. Blancanieves gave him a weird look.
“I have had so many problems with shoes, I’m not taking any chances,” he said, snapped his bag shut, and dove gracefully into the watery room.
I hung back and took a closer look. It did seem familiar, but more like a mix of different places that we’d been before, not a specific one. “I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet,” I said, as I finally joined the others.
“We are just entering the woods, Set,” Tem said ahead of me.
I sighed. “Yes, I am all too aware that I’m one of the few intelligent people here. The burden weighs heavily on me. That was a figure of speech. I can see woods.”
“Sorry, I thought you were concussed,” Tem said quietly and then walked on.
Then I felt like a jerk. She’d just been trying to be kind.
Anyway, Tem didn’t seem super bothered by it, since she started trying to talk to the little serpentine dudes in the air above us in something that sounded suspiciously like Draconic (to which Felegum responded NO in horror) and Blancanieves also I guess tried calling out to them too.
So basically the like, two of us or whatever who couldn’t speak to dragons were just chilling and hoping Team Dragon had things in hand. The pattern they were flying in appeared to change, so that must have indicated something to the Draconic speakers. Helli took the opportunity to look for paths, Lankin just went off into the wild, and Felegum couldn’t let him just go alone.
The rest of us, done now deciphering the serpent patterns, followed.
“Is this a suicidal mission?” Tem asked casually.
“No,” Blanca replied.
Zeno did a little experiment where he tied a cord of rope around himself and tried to swim down. I was not totally clear on the reasoning behind this one, but he was not able to go super far. Things around were pretty gelatinous.
Helli, meanwhile, was zooming around and had zipped over to Zeno, so this had to be some kind of liquid. Both Kheryph and I seemed okay in it, as did everyone else, but that was still weird seeing confirmation of it via her cloak.
Then Helli and Zeno both went alert.
“Zeno, it’s archers!” Helli yelled. “Archers in the woods!”
“We’re under attack.” The bard, still tied to a rope, I guess, was already girded for battle.
And indeed, there were dark shapes in the woods ahead of us moving through the weird trees. I did not like it. Something felt off, even as Tem invoked the blessing of Bahamut on herself, Lankin, and Harry, and Blancanieves fired off two arrows into our attackers. Blanca was pretty badass; though one of her arrows missed, the other literally split in half to hit two different people.
Meanwhile, I was trying to get a read on the situation, so I squinted really hard at the archers and stuff to see if they were alive or not. This sounds dumb but it’s a recently acquired talent and it actually works, and when I did it I learned two useful things.
One: the archers and people in the woods attacking us? Alive, for sure.
Two: the forest floor was both dead and alive. Not undead, but also very much like that loamy soil from the sunken citadel.
I disliked this even more. Still sorting through my thoughts, I hid underneath a tree as Lankin got super mad again and whipped out his own crossbow to shoot people with. Felegum followed up with a ray of frost and then there were just a ton of arrows.
Someone swung on Tem, and Zeno got hit with a well-aimed but poorly constructed arrow that more or less fell apart when it pierced him. “That hurt so badly,” he said in an affected and terrible way, and the poor archer just died of embarrassment.
It almost reminded me of the old days back in Greenrest where he used to mock things to death the same way. Simpler times.
Anyway, Blancanieves and Felegum also both took arrows, and Harry was able to snatch another one out of the air.
“These amateurs are back again,” Harry said as he threw the arrow back. “I think I know these clowns.”
Harry, I was beginning to realize, knew a lot of very strange people.
He sliced with his fancy talons, destroying another assailant and sinking into a defensive stance. Likewise, Helli moved in around Zeno to give him a little more cover and stabbed a nearby bandit.
“Okay, you two, order up,” Zeno said, and then played a haunting tune on his pipes. The bandits around him ran away, and Helli cut one of them down. The other moved dangerously close to me in the tree, enough for me to make an attack.
I didn’t move.
My gut was a block of lead. These people weren’t undead, but what if they weren’t exactly Harry’s memories either?
What if they were someone else?
Tem leapt through the air, bisecting one clean in half with her massive greatsword. Blancanieves sent more arrows onto the bandits, each other them splitting and felling more and more distant enemies.
I spared one near me and then stepped closer to the dude who’d just fled through the trees past me and flipped my dagger around hilt-side-down, and knocked him out.
The sounds of the battle carried on beyond me: Lankin bounding through the trees, another tinkling of ice from Felegum, an arrow bouncing off fine golden armor, and fists on flesh. Helli whispered through the trees, trying to find me and Zeno had taken out his flute, playing a familiar, half-there, half-not, haunting tune, but my ears were ringing too much to catch more than that.
Dimly, I heard Tem’s greatsword slice through another body as I lowered the person I’d knocked out to the ground and methodically and quickly worked the armor off their torso, then pushed their undershirt sleeve down on their left arm.
When there was no Calendar tattoo, I sank to my knees and exhaled a long, shaky breath.
Not Kalends. Not any of the prisoners.
These were truly just figments of Harry’s past, slightly twisted, not our objectives brought into this shortcut to mess with us.
What was weird, though, was that this dude still had a tattoo. It was blue-white and shimmering, not unlike the serpents overhead.
“Helli,” I said quietly, “can I get your professional opinion on this?”
At the sound of my voice, she turned and gave the tattoo a thorough inspection. “We didn’t have stuff like this in Ballad.”
“Yeah.” I bit my lip. “We just have regular tattoos in Csipherus. At least as far as I know.”
I was going to call out to the others to examine and talk with our captives, but Zeno had already gone all-in on necromancing and had whistled himself up an animated corpse.
Technically, this was abiding by the letter of what we’d agreed on– this really wasn’t a Csipherian and potentially not somebody I could even theoretically bury. Weird that they were undead now, but I guess we were in a realm of dreams coming true still after all.
Blancanieves, understandably, was a little unchill about it.
Especially when Zeno took out his bagpipes to, you know, make another zombie.
She shot at him and he sputtered in protest.
“Excuse me, miss–” here his smoky magic recoiled from the corpse and rose around the bagpipes, deflecting the arrow– “don’t even think about it.”
“Just wanted you to know that I was firing a warning shot,” Blancanieves said, hand ready by her quiver.
“Fine,” said Zeno, “I’ll just cast it again.”
“Don’t you dare!”
“This zombie,” the bard said of his first reanimation in weeks, “I will name Blanca.”
Yeah. Definitely going to go over well.