We were on the run, and what a mess we were. Lankin and Zeno were unconscious, half of the rest of the party was barely hanging on, and we had no earthly idea where to go in the mess of my city. Harry was somehow willing his skin back together, which he did from time to time and was a little weird, and Lankin’s boots, his sole article of clothing, bounced against Tem’s armored back.
Scrambling out over the rocks, we had a blank expanse of rocky ground to traverse before the city buildings cropped back up. I oriented myself: the Sunspire had had a fairly open space around its base before the Red Eyes had toppled it. It made sense that that was what we were running through now.
Sphinxes lined the approach to the tower and the safety and anonymity of the city itself.
Felegum shattered another group of zombies following us out as Tem readjusted Lankin on her back.
“Are we out of heals?” she asked me.
I, extremely tired after having spent literally every spell I had to heal people, glowered at her. “If only we had a paladin,” I said.
Then I took up a defensive position on Kal again, because I was not about to let him croak at a time like this.
For the most part, the initial rush to cover seemed to be okay– Harry, Kalends, and I traveled as a unit, Zeno appeared to still be alive despite Helli and Felegum’s best efforts, and Tem had decided to try to have fun by smacking the undead with an unconscious Lankin’s boots.
I made a mental note never to lose consciousness around Tem.
Anyway, she was lagging behind, because that’s when the Red Eyes started to emerge from the cavern hole.
The five of us had gotten to shelter in the buildings by the time they began to give chase, leaving Tem and Lankin in the open still. Felegum sent his magic missiles at the Butcher to give the last two some cover and I began to lead the way to a hideout, with help from Felegum, Helli, and Harry, while being slow and stealthy.
What followed was a depressing back and forth of finding a nice spot, realizing that the Red Eyes had probably still seen us due to Tem’s excessive jangling, and then needing to repeat the process.
We weren’t sure if they were still following us and we were starting to get tired of running away. They could still finish us off if we weren’t careful, and the exhaustion was setting in. Felegum and Tem looked especially winded, so I took over on Zeno dragging duty.
Harry, perhaps desperate, perhaps inspired, turned to the extremely injured but still competent rogue on his back. “Kalends, any ideas?”
Kalends too oriented himself in the city, then opened his eyes. “Head north, head north.”
We did. It seemed like an okay spot, not a lot of people around.
“Down there,” Kalends hissed, gesturing at a set of stairs down to a sewer.
We hastily piled down, finding a fifteen to twenty foot wide room with a bench and a barrel or two. It smelled very bad.
All of us got quiet and waited. There was a buzzing noise, almost like the insects that Felegum had transformed into fireflies, but then it left and did not come back.
We were quiet again, just in case.
After some time, though, it seemed like we were in the clear. The buzzing did not return and the noises of the small break room for sewer workers started to seem less threatening and more normal. Inside the space were the barrels but also a chest, which Helli was obviously fascinated with and I assisted her with opening.
Mostly, the contents were pretty boring.
“There’s some clothes,” she said. “Maybe for Lankin?”
We looked at the very naked body of Lankin and then back at the sewer coveralls. Definitely for Lankin.
“Also, there are some snacks,” Helli said, fishing out some oat bites. They looked a little old, but we were truly beggars and not choosers in that moment and they still tasted just fine.
Harry joked around with Kalends, which only made me mildly jealous, and Tem set some alarm spells to alert her to any intruders coming in. I said nothing about not having spells left for healing even though I really wanted to, because that was petty and I was better than that.
We decided that watches would still be a good idea, even given our limited and tired numbers. I tried to get Kal to go on second watch with me, but Harry had already gotten him to agree to first.
Which was fine. It wasn’t like this was the first time I’d seen my best friend in years and that I wanted to catch up or anything.
Instead, I got second watch with Helli, and Tem and Felegum took third.
Before I went to sleep, Kalends told us that he’d found this place by going down here once on a dare. No one else had wanted to, he said, because it was creepy and smelled horrible. Now it seemed like both of those factors (abandoned and no one wanting to explore it) worked in our favor.
I fell asleep, watching Harry and Kalends laugh and have a good time and feeling very salty about it.
Second watch was cold and smelly– though whether that was Lankin’s barely contained feet, Zeno’s feet, or the sewer itself was unclear. Helli and I talked for a while.
“Have you seen Harry’s glowing tattoos?” she asked.
I did a double-take at the sleeping form of the monk. “What the hell! Harry has glowing tattoos?”
They weren’t as hard to spot as I’d thought once she pointed them out to me– what seemed to be a trick of the light was indeed a strange purply etching into Harry’s horns, head, and various other parts of his body. The one that Helli showed me specifically and thought was pretty great were the crab-like pincers that curled around his horns. On the back of his head, an eye glowed out into the darkness.
“It’s like he’s becoming his staff or something,” I whispered back to her. She nodded.
Conversation turned to the complete debacle of the day before.
“It could have gone so much better,” I said, since we tended to be of the same mind on sneaking around without arousing suspicion. “But we made it.”
“Yeah,” she said, then paused. “You know, this is just a lot. All these Red Eyes and zombies. I think this is too much for us. Either we need help or we need to leave.”
There was a long silence.
“I told you guys,” I said, “when we came here, that even though we kind of have a history of running from stuff that feels too big for us, that we couldn’t run from this. This is my home. This is literally the most important thing to me.”
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “But this place is honestly terrible. There’s nothing to steal, everything is trying to kill us, and I am making no money. I think we either need reinforcements, like what Tem was saying with her people, or we need to go.”
I got quiet again. Then, I said: “If you guys leave, you know I can’t go with you. I made a promise.”
“Oh man,” came a familiar voice, “you better watch what you’re saying because he looks like he’s about to stab you.”
Kalends cracked a sleepy eye open at the two of us. “I can’t sleep,” he said by way of explanation. “Hurts too much still. What’s got you two upset?”
Helli sighed, reiterated her case, and this time got baleful looks from not one but two angry Csipherians.
Kalends said that we, as a people, endured. We’d been through a lot of really bad stuff for a really long time, and we didn’t need people dipping on us just because things got hard. I was prepared to be superior in that moment, but then he turned to me. “And you,” he said in this accusing voice, “what the hell happened with you out there, being all self-sacrificing? Who the hell told you they wanted that?”
I didn’t have a good reply. I thought that we were on the same side, that he was going to praise me. “Uh–“
“We endure,” Kalends repeated to me. “Don’t forget that. We didn’t get this far by hurrying into battle and dying because we wanted to be noble or whatever. We make good decisions so that we can outlast this.”
I nodded, head down.
Kalends ruffled my head. “Okay, now let me tell you about something I found.” He glanced over at Helli. “You’ll probably appreciate this too, since you seem to have similar skillsets as we do.”
She scooted in eagerly, and Kalends told us about several interesting things he’d found before he was captured beneath the pyramid. Those insects, for one thing, had seemed to be lured here from other places–planes?– to be fought by Durnen and company and their undead, then had the gems growing in their chests ripped out and collected.
As for the rest of it, well, that’s a secret between thieves.
Helli and I discussed how the dragons might play into it, both of us agreeing that Atarka was probably not the lever we’d try to work on if we wanted to split the lightning duo apart from the Red Eyes. It would have to be Ojutai. I’d need more magical expertise to unravel what I’d learned from Kalends, but I felt the seed of something here. We just needed to figure out how to pull this puzzle apart.
Near the end of my shift, I settled into a chair and tried to get cozy, having given my bedroll to Kalends.
“Hey Set,” he said.
I looked up. “Yeah?”
“It’s good to see you again,” my best friend said and smiled.
I smiled back, and for a moment it felt like I’d never left, that two years were gone in the blink of an eye, and that I was finally home. “Likewise,” I said and promptly fell asleep.
The next morning, Zeno woke with a groan after everyone else. I was feeling better, surprisingly so after spending hours in a chair, more alive and more capable.
“Here,” Kalends said to the still-groggy bard, “take a whiff.”
Zeno smelled his surroundings and recoiled. “Oh my god, it’s like– it’s like dried poo.” He paused, then narrowed his eyes. “Who took my shoes?”
Helli cleared her throat. “Well, they’re gone, but…”
She held up a pair of boots she’d unearthed from the supply chest down here.
“Are those–” Zeno grimaced.
“Sewer worker boots,” Helli confirmed solemnly.
With extreme distaste and much sighing, Zeno donned them, obviously not wanting to walk around a sewer barefoot. The boots squeaked with every step.
“Are there any clothes?” Lankin asked from another corner of the little room, also waking up.
Helli handed him the coveralls she’d found, and Lankin, delighted by this new find and strange fabric, tied them around his waist in a loincloth approximation.
As we got ready for the day, we discussed a strategy for taking out the Red Eyes moving forward.
“Perosnally, I wouldn’t take Yuval with any back-up,” Felegum said.
“Yeah,” Zeno said with a sigh.
“What about the two blue dragons?” asked Tem.
“They might lose interest.” Zeno shrugged.
“Yeah,” I said.
“From what I know,” Tem continued, “your old friend Tiamat may be involved. Especially when dragons are working together.”
“Perhaps they’re after something else,” Felegum said.
“How do we know they want this city?” Tem leaned forward.
“Because,” I said, “Ojutai told me.”
“You all have stumbled your way into a battle of the planes.” Tem steepled her talons. “This is a closely guarded secret and I only know a limited amount. As a paladin, my mission is to gather information.”
We all kind of leaned in because Tem had been kind of notoriously mum about her past and order, and this felt like we were possibly finally going to get answers.
According to her, conduits controlled the flow of magical energy between planes. To control all of them meant to control magic. Tem was worried that the dragons might be letting the Red Eyes do their dirty work here.
“Six conduits,” Harry pondered. “How many schools of magic are there– six?”
“Eight,” Kalends and I said at the same time.
“Oh, never mind then.”
Felegum was still ruminating on this new information. “Messing with the weave of magic to affect reality, perhaps? There are good planes that transfer good energy to us, and likewise bad planes that transfer bad energy. Like undeath,” he said, answering the unspoken question. “Maybe that’s part of what the conduits do.”
Helli and Felegum got involved in a conversation about conduits for a while.
Zeno exhaled and waved it off. “So this makes it sound like portals are kind of like the conduits?”
“Maybe?” Helli said.
“If the energy was following through them, perhaps,” Tem replied.
“I think the portals we’ve found are related to the conduits,” Felegum said.
“I mean,” I broke in, “Csipherus is a magical shipping highway. Or at least we were on one in ancient times. We’ve found one of these things in the desert while we were traveling here.”
Helli thought about it. “Could they have unearthed that one from the desert and then brought it to that place below the pyramid?”
“Well,” Harry said, “before we solve all this, we need to get this one to–“
Here he pointed at Kalends, who recoiled. “Don’t point that yellow thing at me.”
I’d assumed that the yellow ribbon on Harry’s finger was to bind a wound, but then I remembered where it had come from.
“Yeah,” Harry said, looking down at it. “I told the mages’ guild we’re still alive. Via the acrobats. I guess this has got to stay on me until they get back to me or something.”
He looked uncomfortable about it, but not as uncomfortable as I felt. Everyone seemed really inclined to bring in other armies or guilds or forces to free my city without asking what would happen after.
What did a standing army want, more than to conquer and establish itself in a new territory? What could Paripas ask for beyond a new colony in the desert?
I clenched my fists. Whatever. We’d fight off the red-eyed menace and then we’d fight off foreigners trying to take us over after too. I’d see my city saved and independent, a jewel of the south once more.
For the time being, though, I contented myself with healing Kalends again, lessening the pain in his legs as much as I could.
For some reason, Zeno chose this moment to get up in my face about not wanting to transport Kalends to the Thoth temple colony, and I had to patiently explain to him that no, that was not a Calendar property and also no matter how badly he wanted to bone the people there, us visiting now would put them in danger. He accused me of being disloyal and all sorts of foolishness before he realized the error.
“Oh,” he said. “My mistake. I forgot about the children there.”
Kalends’ head shot up. “There are kids?”
For the first time since we rescued him, he looked hopeful. Something in my chest hurt, but not in a bad way.
“Yeah, Kal,” I said. “There are kids down there.”
We shifted toward making a plan, but I didn’t miss the wonder on his face. We endure. It was true, and it kept surprising all of us, no matter how long we’d been here, our people’s tenacity and ability to hold on despite the worst of heaven and hell.
It was pretty unanimous that we needed to get Kalends back to the Calendar. It was also pretty unanimous that we didn’t have a great way of doing that.
“Set knows the signs like I do,” Kal said. “He should be able to find a meeting spot.”
“They blindfolded us the last time,” Helli said.
“That’s pretty standard protocol.” He stretched. “Anyway, we had a thing we were trying with some of the alchemists. No idea if that worked out.”
“You mean the hole in the wall?” Zeno said. “Because yeah, that worked out.”
Kalends’ face lit up again. “Holy shit, it worked? Those crazy bastards.”
We broke up into teams to try to scout around for Calendar meet-up spots or safehouses. Maybe if I was higher up in the organization I’d’ve been able to just have a meeting, but I wasn’t so we were kind of stuck with this. Not like I was about to advertise that. I was very cool, and I’d worked so hard to keep up that mystique.
Helli offered to go exploring with me, but I couldn’t do it. I still wasn’t in the mood to work with someone who wanted to leave my city to die. Zeno asked if we were still cool and I said yeah, so we decided we’d go exploring later together, see if we could find a Calendar spot.
Meanwhile, Harry, our resident carpenter, had gathered lumber from what buildings he could in order to shore up the sewer break room we were in. He dumped his findings unceremoniously on the floor.
Kalends scoffed. “I don’t want you doing my splints anymore.”
“Look,” Harry said, much put-upon, “I’m the only one–“
But he didn’t get to finish that sentence because Zeno, luckily, cut in to diffuse things.
“Hey,” the bard said, holding up some sewer dirt. “If you put this dirt in your mouth, I can make it taste like nougat.”
He waggled his eyebrows and offered it up to Kal.
“Really,” my mentor said.
Kalends looked at the dirt as though giving it consideration, and then his gaze traveled down to the floor. “Hey, your boots are untied.”
“Oh–” Zeno looked down.
Kalends flicked his nose. Classic. I too had fallen for that. Several times, but I wasn’t about to let them know that.
It was also at this point that it became kind of impossible not to notice Harry vaguely glowing.
“Is it bad?” the dragonborn asked.
“You’re the same Harry you’ve always been,” Zeno said, not reassuringly at all.
Harry turned toward him. “How concerned should I be?”
The bard waved it off as but a trifle. “You’re a weapon, right? I think you’re good.”
“Well,” Harry said, then sighed. “We’ll deal with this later.”
There were some words written on his chest. Helli and I were squinting at them, but they were too close to the hemline of his (new) shirt and we– or at least I– couldn’t make them out. It was weird seeing him sport ink, but also kind of nice not to be the only one anymore.
And with that, we made plans to head out. It would be me and Zeno, and then Helli and Felegum. Both of us would be trying to contact the Calendar.
“The rest of you,” Felegum said, “just stay here.”
“The shirtless ones and the jingle-jangles,” Zeno smirked and we were off.