It was kind of nice to not be involved in an intra-party standoff for once. Sometimes I wondered if I was just a fighty person or what, and this confirmed that no, even adults could throw hands. Or, in Blancanieves’ case, a whole lot of arrows.
Surprising no one, Zeno did indeed tempt fate by trying to bring back another body. He had enough common sense to read the room and see how angry Blancanieves looked about it, and had his newly raised Zombie Blanca interpose themselves between him and the livid archer before he started playing.
Which was a good thing, as Blancanieves promptly shot Zombie Blanca in the face.
This did not stop Zombie Blanca– they seemed as fine as they had before, just extra large side of creepysauce with a literal arrow sticking out of their forehead, but you know, beggars truly could not be choosers. Zeno had somehow made it through crypt after crypt of my city’s beloved dead without giving into his baser urges, and that had to be some kind of testament to our friendship.
As much as I wasn’t thrilled about it, I wasn’t going to stand in the way here when there were perfectly non-Csipherian, possibly not even real bodies for him to use.
Anyway, as usual, the situation was rapidly deteriorating.
“Well, I tried.” Felegum threw up his hands and walked off.
Blancanieves looked at Zeno, still playing his dirge, then at the zombie. “I can’t be a part of this,” she hissed, and then disappeared back into the woods. Zombie Blanca continued to stare in the direction she’d departed for a long, long time.
I sighed, partly because she’d been metal as hell and partly because she also seemed like she’d be really good at hiding in a forest. Then I slapped my captive on the cheek. Like, gently. Medicinal slaps. “Hey, hey. Wake up.”
Nothing. Dude was definitely still breathing but he was not giving me much more than that.
Tem came over, still soaked in the blood of this bandit’s compatriots, and I wondered if I was going to have to defend this unconscious dude too, but she just laid her hands on him and a little glow came out. The dude began to move.
“Have you tied him up, Set?” she asked gently.
“Uh,” I said. “No. But I did partially undress him.”
Tem gave me a weird look and then promptly tied my captive up as he stirred, then went limp again.
“Anyone have anythig pungent?” Harry asked. “Perhaps from the goblins?”
I narrowed my eyes, keeping my death stank jar close. “That,” I said, “I’m saving for a special occasion.”
This was not a special occasion.
“I can take off my shoes,” Lankin offered.
We all were kind of stunned.
“You wear shoes?” I asked. He was basically naked all the time except for that loincloth that I kind of figured that he was going around barefoot too. Judging from the expressions on everyone else’s faces, no one had really thought otherwise either.
Lankin huffed. “I have protective foot gear!”
He shucked off a shoe and thrust his bare foot into the bandit’s face.
What we didn’t expect was the cloud of yellow gas to mist off Lankin’s foot. And like, I had seen foot diseases (not many, but still). This was like nothing I had seen before.
And, like Lankin, it was powerful.
Almost actually too powerful, since it had most of us coughing and feeling miserable as well as our prisoner, who rolled over and barfed. I felt too awful personally to care.
“Lankin.” Felegum coughed. “Put that away.”
Lankin appeared extremely unbothered throughout this entire ordeal.
“Lankin, don’t give me more nightmares,” Harry said.
Tem groaned. “We’re going to end up in a shoe.”
I shuddered and resumed my slapping of my captive. “Dude, dude, dude. Dude.”
No response. This whole smelly ordeal could not have been for nothing.
As Harry explained that this guy had come from a group of bandits who he’d fought off in the past, Helli took matters into her own hands and gently stabbed him.
“Set, hold on,” Zeno said as I instinctively jolted, as most people do when a knife stabs something close to them. “This’ll be good.”
“Was that the good stuff?” the bandit slurred. “Or was that the bad stuff?”
“Yes,” Harry said, in true monastic style. “Canderra ring any bells?”
“Candle…area?” the bandit said after much thought.
Zeno tsked. “This just confirms to me that not all of us have rich internal worlds.”
“Do you remember the monks of the Open Hand?” Harry pressed. The dude struggled. Nothing came of it, and as we chatted more with Harry we wondered if maybe the reason why some people were more fleshed out than others (like the Countess) was maybe because Harry knew them better.
I tried looking at his weird blue-white tattoo again since it looked kind of like a city, but it didn’t seem like any part of Csipherus I knew.
“The scene on his arm looks like where I met him,” Harry commented after I’d given up. “It was a port city near the monastery that we kept protected.”
A port city. I was into those. “Yeah?”
“The monastery was a fairly positive experience for me,” Harry said. “But talking to you guys it seems like it was harsh.”
I asked about how much of this had been a surprise to him. Pleasant Hill was the name of the place the Countess kept, and that had clearly been very different, as had the well. “What about the serpents?” I pointed above us.
“No,” Harry said, following one across the strange sky, “that’s new.”
“What about the whole watery feeling here?” Felegum asked.
“Yeah, that was gonna be my next question.” I gave Harry a pointed look.
“No,” he said with infinite patience, “the water is also new.”
The entire place felt like water both in a tactile sense (the air, if you could call it air, was gelatinous) and a visual one (the trees looked like kelp forests, like what we’d seen with the mermaids). It made for a strange blend.
“There’s a vague sense of familiarity,” Harry said, “but nothing that draws me strongly.”
Also important at this point: all the bodies on the soil were now gone. Well, except for my dude and Zeno’s two zombies.
That felt a little concerning and no one wanted to stick around and wait that one out longer than we had to, so we set off past shorestone walls and along another dried riverbed.
I led our captive with us along the cracked ground. For all the effort we’d put into him, though, he had not proven very talkative or even maybe capable of talking much. He muttered a lot, constantly stared off into space, and basically seemed like a shell of a person. Which made sense, considering how briefly Harry had known him, certainly not well enough to know who he was, but it was still weird.
“Okay, you can sit,” I said to the bandit once we reached a tree near the riverbed. The soil was different here, and while I didn’t think we were in danger of this dude getting absorbed and returning to fight us a la our first big Durnen battle, I still wasn’t taking chances.
The bandit took a seat and leaned against the tree, falling asleep almost instantly. I patted his head. “Good.”
Then I turned and left. Felegum was giving me this absolutely horrified look, like he thought that I was going to slice the dude or something and when I turned back to protest that no, the guy was unscathed, our bandit captive had vanished, just like the others.
I guess that happens when someone stops thinking of you sometimes. Not a pleasant thought.
“If anything,” Harry said, “at least it’s nice ground to walk on in the realm of nightmares.”
“Some of these seemed happy,” I said.
“They were.” The black dragonborn sighed. “They were happy, or at least memories where I felt accomplished that got twisted.”
We walked on in companionable silence, except for one brief interval where Zeno announced that his zombies would be named Blanca and Blancain’t.
Around us were the sounds of men working and the smell of woodsmoke, as moments in a past came and went: the rotted frames of buildings changed over time, roofs collapsed, to different structures.
Somewhere in the gray fog was a massive wooden semi-circle, not unlike a bowl.
As we walked, the stone wall become more and more solid and whole.
The river widened into cracked stone and ground after about half an hour, and shapes of stone ruins covered in vine peppered the woods. An arch here, a column there, nearly lost in the overgrowth.
“Come,” Harry said. “There was a low spot in the walls that was easy to get to if the doors weren’t open.”
This was it? I squinted at the trees again. Not gonna lie, it looked slightly ruined. Was this what it was supposed to be like, or had something happened to this place?
Harry didn’t wait for us, jumping onto a stone. “Still got it,” he said.
We followed him. The approach to the central stone building was lit with hanging lanterns on either side, and two large stone doors marked the monastery’s entrance.
Also present were two stoic figures. One was old and the other was, well, kind of disreputable and lightly disshelved.
“Melthas,” the old monk said, “it’s been a long time.”
I looked between Harry and the old dude. Harry had a secret name? It had taken me so long to figure out his last name and he still had more names to go? Damn.
“You’ve been hiding who you are,” the old man continued, perhaps seeing our surprise.
“We agreed,” Harry said somewhat tensely, “that’s not my name.”
“Names are a funny thing,” his old master said. “They are what we choose and work toward. But you have not yet chosen a path. You have wandered.”
I shivered. Monk riddles.
Harry replied something pithy about wandering and being lost, which his old master did not seem too impressed by.
“Then what purpose is that?” The old man snorted. “Killing those with abandon, not helping anyone in a true manner, slipping through the cracks. You are not accepting the weight of your responsibilities.”
“I still have time,” Harry said, somewhat worryingly. “I’m still young.”
What, I wondered, was he supposed to be doing something? I thought he was just here, you know, because he’d kind of fallen into it.
“But will you continue to hide from it?” his master asked.
“I’ll continue to choose my own path.”
“But there will always be a weight on your shoulder.” The old man was relentless. “What is your path?”
Harry took a breath, thought, and then went for it. “I continue to help those I choose who I deem worthy of help.”
His master hummed, then tsked. “The choices you’ve made have brought others to harm. You are quick to hold information. Quick to hide information. All to consolidate what one might consider protection. One day you might find that you regret the path you have chosen.”
“I remember my mistakes,” Harry said. “And I recognize that my triumphs are small. There’s always time to reflect and choose a new path.”
Honestly, I had no idea what most of this was about. It sounded pretty damn fraught, for one thing, but then again, I was also still processing that Harry had a completely different identity.
“Then tell me, Harry,” the old man said, “what reflection have you done since you left this place? Or so I would say, but you and I both know that is not the whole truth. Tell me about your successes, your failures, and your path forward.”
“We’ve made our way into a town–” here I kind of snorted because Csipherus was not merely a town, but perhaps one of the greatest cities the world had ever seen, past or present, probably also future, but Harry had yet to experience worldly things like I had, so I guess he just didn’t understand the magnitude of the understatement he was making here– “that needs our help. We’ve found people who need our help trapped beneath this city. We need to keep moving forward.”
There was a part of me that was glad that I wasn’t doing the talking because I would not be able to deal with talking in vaguenesses for this long. Everyone needed help here. Why wouldn’t you want to do anything you could?
“Harry,” said the old man, “always one to take action and not reflect. I can offer you what you seek, a path forward, accepting powers of those you do not understand. All I ask for is a moment of time to share the truth of yourself. Your decisions. Your path.”
Felegum nodded. “Seems like a pretty fair deal, Harry.”
I agreed, even though from the set of Harry’s back, it didn’t seem like the monk was that excited to dive into introspection. “Well,” he said after a moment, “what would you like to know, old man?”
“Three successes,” said the old master, “and three failures. And how these experiences led to your path.”
So Harry began to tell stories. The first success was the coin story we’d walked through at the start of this adventure with Aljahar.
Harry, as with other younger monks, had been challenged to retrieve a coin from the bottom of a well. The previous winner of the well challenge did not take kindly to someone else doing better than they had, and had followed Harry in. An altercation had ensued where Harry nearly drowned, but he’d gotten the coin.
“And what does that tell you?” his old master asked.
“An obstacle can always be overcome,” Harry replied.
“Seen another way,” the old man said, “if you take certain actions, you might not be able to make other decisions afterward. Would you consider this story a success?”
Harry nodded. “Yes.”
“Then,” said the old man, “tell me about a failure.”
Harry talked about the mine in Egonia and how he’d died. I looked down.
“And how does this story differ from the last one?” the old man asked.
“Well,” Harry replied, “I was not there to just do good for myself. I was there for others.”
“Then why is that a failure?”
I looked up.
“There’s still a portal there,” Harry said. “Perhaps it’s still open and endangering a town.”
The old man turned to the rest of us. “What about you? You were there during this time. What do you think of these stories?”
“Honestly?” Zeno shrugged. “This is the most I’ve heard him talk in a month. At least.”
“But,” the older monk pressed, “what do you think of the stories?”
Tem puffed up her chest, ready for her moment. “As a fellow member of a religious order, I feel these tests of faith are petty.”
“I don’t think this is a test,” the old man said.
I also wasn’t super sure Harry was religious either, but that was splitting hairs. Tem was trying to be a good friend.
“I don’t think of the second as a failure,” I said. “Why do you think I’m a cleric? Because you died! And I wanted to save my friends.”
Embarrassingly, my voice got quieter and quieter as that sentence went on and I just…slunk back into the shadows.
I’d felt really bad when Harry had died. And then again when we were trapped in the mines with basically nothing left to revive each other. I never wanted to feel that way again. And I didn’t think that was a bad thing.
“I think,” Lankin said, with the air of someone presenting the only logical answer when everyone else was committed to overthinking it, “the difference was that Harry was alone in the first story and with people later.”
He wasn’t wrong.
The old master leaned in, curious perhaps about what else would follow this insight. “And what do you make of that?”
“I don’t know.” Lankin shrugged. “There were a lot of stories.”
Good to his word, Harry told the story of how we fought Nightscale, how he’d used his cunning to threaten the dragon’s hoard and then, when we had an advantage, climbed atop their head to pry loose the Aegis.
“And what did you learn?” asked his old master.
“That there are many ways to solve a problem,” Harry replied. “Sometimes you have to knock someone’s teeth out.”
The disreputable dude cracked an eye open. “Something I’ve been wanting to hear about is this lady fella.”
We all sort of perked up at that. Like, Harry was not one for revealing things and this fell into prime unlikely-to-be-talked-about territory. And yet, here we were.
“Well,” Harry said, no doubt aware of the group’s palpable interest, “the Countess ran a brothel and would collect information on the corrupt and the powerful.”
The disreputable man pulled a bottle out. “What drew you to that line of employ?”
“She needed help,” Harry replied, “and best I could tell, she had a good heart. She wasn’t on the right side of the law, but her actions were always on the right side of her city.”
“She was a courtesan who went from being a farmer’s daughter to taking down a corrupt clergy,” Harry finished.
The disreputable man raised the bottle to his lips, drank, and sighed. “Harry, you’re not the protagonist, just a passive participant, working for pay until termination.”
“I was asked to do a job,” the monk replied, somewhat more stiffly. “I didn’t see the bigger picture until too late.”
“If,” the disreputable man mused, “you had seen–“
“It wouldn’t have changed what I did.” Harry crossed his arms.
This is where things, already pretty weird, got even weirder. The old master and the disreputable man both looked at Harry in this odd synchronicity that made me very aware that they weren’t real people, just figments of Harry’s head.
The disreputable man spoke, but when he did he did not sound quite like he had before. “There is a common thread throughout the stories of your life. But what you focused on was the choosing–“
“–but never really choosing,” finished the old master.
Then they spoke in unison. “But you must do what we try to teach you: choose your path. Do not be the leaf. Be the tree that releases the leaf. Remember the finest of lines separate success and failure and how you think about it.”
Then the entire monastery turned to dust and before us was a single black sphere.
And nothing else. Not darkness, not light, just nothingness.
Lankin cleared his throat and patted Harry on the shoulder. “Sorry your dad turned into a black hole.”
Harry seemed like he was on the verge of saying something, then thought better of it and walked toward the orb. So did the rest of us, since it was really the only thing here besides us, and on its surface or inside it was my city, seen from above.
It was in ruins, more so than what passed for usual these days. Armies marched through the gates of the city and outward, their eyes bright red and purposeful. They lay siege to cities I’d seen before and ones I hadn’t, but ones that Felegum and Zeno gasped at.
And then there was a familiar whispering voice in my head: this is what shall come to pass if you shall fail.
Then Harry touched it and we were somewhere else.
The floor was dusty. We were no longer in the weird non-space, for starters– this was a basement, a smallish room, maybe fifteen feet by twenty, with wooden bars across and behind stored goods. It looked oddly familiar. Csipherian.
Zeno pulled out his bottle of scotch and looked deeply pleased with himself.
Above us on the first floor, voices were raised in argument. It seemed important, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been here before.
And then it hit me. This was Kalends’ basement.
But it wasn’t totally like how I’d remembered it. This place was packed with food, for one thing. Kalends’ parents’ house hadn’t been like that. We’d only met after the creeping plague started to affect the city, when I’d started to steal food.
This was a place I knew, but not exactly.
Helli, Harry, and I snuck up to the top of the stairs, where a small curtain separated the basement stairs from the main floor. Kalends and his parents were arguing about his increasing involvement with the Calendar. I’d never been around for that conversation, though it was certainly a familiar one, someone actually solving a problem when no one else would.
Then it hit me.
“I think we’re in Kalends’ head,” I breathed, excited, after we came back to the rest of the group. “Like how we were with Harry when things were like. the same but not quite what he’d remembered. I think we’re in Kal’s version of that.”
I started pacing around. “Now I just have to figure out how to get him aware of us without making him hostile. I don’t just want to barge in there or anything– ugh.”
Too many variables. How would he react if I just walked out? With curiosity or, if I knew him, super poorly?
“Uh, Set?” Felegum asked. “Why don’t you just send him a message?”
I stopped. I could just send him a message. He was right there.
“I–yes.” I looked at the stairs, palms suddenly sweaty. “I just have to figure out what to say.”
I bought myself some time while Harry and I snuck back up the stairs. When my hand grazed Harry’s back as I climbed, though, it came away with a weird strand of white thread, almost see-through. I brushed myself off for white strands but found nothing. Maybe it was just a mind travel thing.
Anyway, I sent Kalends a message. I was nervous for one thing and this made everything sound disjointed and weird as I asked him to come to the basement, but the spell itself also felt different.
And then the basement was gone and it was just me and Kalends. And everyone else, I guess, but I wasn’t really paying attention to them.
“Hey,” I said.
“Set,” Artemis Kalends said, eyes gleaming with either emotion or danger or both, “is it really you?”
I had lost a lot since coming back to my city. When I’d left, I imagined that things would be different, but that me bringing back a solution would be worth it. Instead, I’d returned with little beyond myself and my friends. My parents were gone, my city had mostly fallen, and I’d lost so much time.
And yet, despite all that loss, I still had one last person.
“Yeah,” I said, swallowing. “It’s me.”
“Prove it,” Kalends said, tears running in tracks down his face. “They’ve tried to get into my head before. What’s something only the real Set would know?”
Shit. My heart raced– did the Red Eyes know about me and Kal? What could I possibly say that would convince Kalends that I wasn’t one more ruse to get at whatever information he held?
I patted myself down, freaking out. I hadn’t been able to take much with me from the city when I’d escaped and I knew even less about upper level Calendar stuff. How much of Kalends’ memories had they accessed? What had he kept safe? What was so important he’d be willing to do this to himself to protect it?
My hand brushed the hilt of the dagger.
I unsheathed it, slow and deliberate, making no secret of what I was doing. “Once,” I said, “before I left the city, you gave me your dagger.”
And I handed it to him, hilt out.
It wasn’t until he took it and raised it up by his face in one of the postures of defense that he’d taught me that I realized I’d handed him a weapon.
There was a brief moment when I wondered if I’d chosen wrong. Kalends was very good with a knife. I was better now, but even so, I didn’t know if I could match him and I didn’t want to find out.
“I did do that,” he said, still holding the dagger, tears still streaming down his face. “Hey, Set.”
I laughed, the sound half-drowned in my own tears. I walked over, slowly, arms out, and enveloped him in a hug. He flinched, then clasped me to him, still holding the dagger tight.
He must have felt so powerless for so long.
After a while, we talked about what this place was. Kalends had been trained by the Calendar to make this, a mind palace where he could hide and be somewhere else when his body was being tortured. As far as he knew, the only way he knew to exit it was–
“You have to die?” I spluttered.
“Is anyone else concerned about Set wanting to die so much?” asked Tem. This was not accurate so I ignored her.
“Look, I don’t know,” Kalends snapped back. “I wasn’t taught a lot about this stuff, just how to do it. The person who was showing me this brought me into theirs and said they had to die to end it.”
“Die in your head or die in real life?” I asked.
“I don’t know!”
I swore. I did not want to kill Kalends, even in a weird dreamlike thought-place. I had not come so far just to watch him die, whatever Tem said. Death was an easy way of solving a hard problem.
I was here because no one had been willing to work through a hard solution.
“Why is this place like this?” I asked.
“It’s what I wanted most,” Kalends said, gesturing at the full stores and bountiful supplies. He glanced up at the stairs above. “Where I can replay the last argument I ever had with my parents over and over.”
Nodding, I exhaled. As frustrating as it had been, I missed my parents and me clashing too. Or just being with them at all. If this was all he could remember, all he could do to keep being with them, I understood that.
“Kal,” Zeno said, “can I call you Kal?”
“No,” said Kal. “Not yet.”
Those two introduced themselves or whatever–I was not paying attention so much as I was noticing that Harry was still doing that weird misting thing and Kalends wasn’t. Also, Tem had gone off to meditate by herself and a little lightning bolt shot from her head out into the ether.
When she opened her eyes, she was stern.
“That vision in the orb, what we saw,” Tem said as we got our bearings again, “if you give me six months, I could have an army of my people here. We could have thousands to help us.”
I imagined that same ruined city I’d seen in the orb overrun with dragonborn, with foreigners, with people so eager to help a decimated civilization that they might mistake conquest for compassion.
And yes, I knew Tem meant it to help. But generals and armies have a certain way of viewing a city on its knees.
“I mean, I can’t stop you,” I said. “But I can tell you that we Csipherians are a proud and resilient people, and that if we stave off the Red Eyes, I imagine we can fight your armies off too. But all that aside, we don’t have six months to wait around for back-up.”
Anyway, we had an intense conversation about what to do. Harry thought the path that Aljahar had made for us would only work if we went directly to Kalends’ body in the prison. I was wondering if, since we had Kalends in this mind palace deal, we could just…backtrack and take him with us.
I really did not want to have to do this the hard way if we could avoid it, and it felt like this was avoidable. Hell, Kalends had even heard of Aljahar. Granted, this was as a childhood story of a benevolent spirit who would grant wishes, but the point still held.
We all sat down and focused on where we wanted to go, Kalends and me sitting next to each other. I thought of getting his body and getting out.
Harry gave me a look like fix your shit, dude and I was so annoyed and confused I grabbed my holy symbol and was like, “What do we do? The really hard path or the easy one?”
And to my great surprise, a familiar voice answered.
The easy path is never a choice you want to make, though the hard path is also difficult. But the paths before you are not easy. In this you have saved but one friend. But one is a start, he said. And you have brought together your friends. You can achieve many things united in power.
I really did not want to have to do the hard thing. I did not want to see Kalends actually beaten up to a point where he felt like it would be a good idea to leave his own body. He’d always seemed so untouchable. I did not want him to stop being that way. I wanted the teacher who dodged blades like a dance, whose wry humor and skill with a dagger were matched only by his razor-sharp mind.
I didn’t want it to hurt, not like this.
“I really don’t want to do this,” I said. “I mean, I obviously want him free, but like, this is going to be really bad.”
I know, Lathander said.
I sighed. “Okay.”
Then, struck by sudden inspiration–I kind of had him here already, so I figured I might as well– I asked about the girl in my nightmares, who she was and if she was connected to Lathander. I definitely got answers, but I did not like them. I was going to need some time to think on that.
Hold your friends close. Lathander’s voice whispered after me as I opened my eyes.
“What’s the way, Set?” Felegum asked. “Do we have to go to prison or is there another path?”
I scowled. I hated being wrong. “Well,” I said somewhat testily, “we have to go to prison.”
Belatedly, I supposed that maybe leaving backwards with Kalends would mean we’d just have his mind and not his body, or that maybe we wouldn’t be able to ride the Aljahar Express back to the spirit room and we’d just be trapped in Kal’s mind palace forever.
“Oh, I don’t want to do this,” Kalends said, once again sitting next to me as we prepared to try to exit his mind palace again.
I laid my head on his shoulder and held on. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m not sure if I’ll be able to be of any use back there,” he said. “I was…not in a very good place when I came here.”
I nodded against his shoulder. “Thanks for doing this.”
He laughed, kind of like it had been way at the start, when he was constantly surprised by how much I didn’t know about life on the streets.
Then basement around us filtered out to a familiar non-space and then became a fifty-foot long room filled with torture implements and the mutilated bodies of people who had were likely my friends and allies.
And there was Kalends, chained to a table with both his legs at strange angles, unmoving. He looked bloody, beaten, and awful.
I went in and laid my hands on him.
He’d done so much to trust that we could do this–that I could get him out of this– and I couldn’t let him stay like that a moment longer.
“The fuck?” he rasped, in that same hoarse voice I’d heard when I’d used that scroll.
“Here,” said Zeno, and gave him the scotch again.
Kalends drank it and sank back against the slab. “Now you can call me Kal,” he said.
I narrowed my eyes. Oh sure. Like I hadn’t had to go through hell to earn the right to that nickname but whatever. It was fine.
“So,” Kalends said, “how the hell are we getting out here?” He looked at Harry. “Also, why is he glowing?”
That, I had to admit, was an excellent question.