IF I STAY HERE, TROUBLE WILL FIND ME: which dances from a sewer into the trash

Suffice it to say, we’d had a full afternoon. We’d slain (? probably) a Red Eye, I’d done my best to inspire hope in my people that something was getting done about this whole interplanar interloper situation, and then I’d nearly died on the way out thanks to a surprise lich visit. I still felt awful, Helli had escaped somewhere aboveground (we hoped), and to make matters even more uncomfortable we were in the sewers of Csipherus with a headless body (courtesy of Harry) and angry zombies (courtesy of, presumably, Felegum).

Harry finished rifling through Hat-Broom Man’s body and zombies charging toward us. It was not lost on me, even in my physically abused state, that he’d taken much better care of this headless Red Eye corpse than he had the unconscious body of my good friend, Artemis Kalends.

Zeno leapt to his feet and ran toward the zombies. This felt new, since usually the only zombies he ran toward were ones he’d created himself. He gave Felegum some side-eye, confirming my suspicions about the provocation.

I had a lot of things to say but, not expecting there to be zombies below here gathering as well as on street level, I’d saved those comments for later. Instead, I called forth my magic and shimmered out of sight like the sun over a hot surface.

Tem invoked a blessing on herself, Harry, and Zeno, who was inspecting the zombies and sighing.

“What!” the bard said. “Only one is frosty! You made them all angry just for one!”

“It’s a single-target spell!” Felegum called back in his defense.

“Ugh.” Zeno shook his head. Three zombies ran away from him, as the ones aboveground had done before. “Join your friends!” he yelled to the ones who hadn’t fled.

Then he ran back to the rest of us, leaving Tem to face the onslaught. “Well, good luck!” he called back to her. “Thanks for the good morals!”

Undeterred by being left alone, Tem dashed up to the zombies to attack and even cut through two of them.

“Run the other way?” Harry asked.

Zeno shrugged. “I could be down.”

Then Harry got up in one zombie’s face, causing it to get more aggressive. It didn’t seem like he was trying to do this on purpose, since his goal seemed to be more to move through them than anything, but one still got pretty steamed at him. He backed off, by the zombie continued to follow.

I emptied my bag of ball bearings down the hallway with the angry zombies. We were moving away from them; it only made sense that we’d want to make it harder for the zombies to try to follow us. Then I snuck by Zeno and Felegum.

Some zombies from the street were crawling in through the grate we’d dove down, and I deeply hoped that Ahkmatix didn’t follow them. Though, that would be an amusing image.

Other zombies attacked Tem, who was the biggest target, but none of them could make it past her armor.

Outside and above, an incantation boomed and bone piles around us started to rattle.

Zeno moved toward Harry, through the ball bearings I’d so strategically placed. To Zeno’s credit, he picked a careful path through them all while impersonating a zombie.

It almost seemed impossible to believe, but it was actually working. The zombies were paying him no mind.

Tem, sensing that the party was going the other way, once more asinine summoned her moonbeam to keep the zombies at bay as they came in from the grate. She too stepped away, getting hit on the way out.

Surprisingly, Harry decided to try out Zeno’s method as well, putting his arms out in front of him and bumping into the zombie in front of him. It raked out at the dragonborn, missing him, and a few other zombies looked over to see what the commotion was.

Zeno also paused and looked over.

Sighing, I moved back into the area I’d just made incredibly inconvenient with ball bearings. What I had assumed was a clear plan was clearly no plan. Perhaps this should have been comforting with its familiarity, but it was not.

I took advantage of not being seen to run my tongue over my upper row of teeth. To my relief, nothing felt different. I was normal.

Stepping into zombie territory, I moved behind Zeno to follow in his wake and got ready to dodge out of the way of the messy undead.

Initially, I had been concerned about this approach– Zeno, surely, as he had demonstrated before, was capable of acting like a zombie. He’d certainly been around them long enough to develop a pretty solid idea of how they acted. The rest of the visible group, though– Tem, Harry, and Felegum– were sure to run into difficulties.

But I needn’t have worried, because if Zeno was the killer opening act then Felegum was the showstopper. Other zombies looked to him for guidance on how to be undead and lifeless, that was how into it he got, dancing and shambling after me and Zeno in an almost-coordinated shuffle.

It was something to behold. Usually Felegum was supportive and quieter, letting Zeno take center stage. This was a new side to the sorcerer and it was pretty cool.

Also, the zombies weren’t horrible dancers, even if they occasionally lost a body part or pieces of skin with their more extravagant moves.

More worryingly, though, the bone shards on the ground continued to bounce to the rhythmic verses being read above us– another clear problem we were bent on avoiding– in addition to the force of everyone’s hip dancing. The zombies themselves continued to pile into Tem’s moonbeam, some more affected than others depending on where they walked through the circle of the beam.

None of them were shapeshifters, if you were curious. One charged over to Tem to attack, but she was able to handle that with ease.

I was more concerned about the coalescing mound of bone behind the wave of undead, but that was just me.

Anyway, Zeno kept on shimmying down the hallway in between the zombies, taking a turn to the left. It was slow going, partially because there were a lot of zombies and also because you couldn’t really move fast in this kind of group without breaking character.

And considering that his method acting (and Felegum’s charismatic number in his wake) was all that was keeping the zombies from attacking him on all sides, I didn’t blame him. It was darker ahead that way, though. Hopefully that meant we were heading somewhere safer.

Tem subtly moved the moonbeam along after us and she too seemed to draw inspiration from Felegum, becoming a large, formidable back-up dancer and holding the zombies in thrall. Knowing Tem, it must have required considerable effort not to strike down the undead around her where they stood, and I appreciated not only her restraint but her commitment to the ruse.

When she went all in, she was pretty cool. Not like I was about to tell her that anytime soon, but you know.

We only had one more person to worry about to convince the zombies that we weren’t hostile, and that was Harry. While Harry played his cards close to his chest, he also hadn’t been super talented at pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes or pretending to be someone he wasn’t, so I was a little concerned.

But maybe it was just a stubborn unwillingness to be outdone by Tem, because Harry did pretty well. It might have looked a little out of place to have two dragonborn would-be zombies, but with all undead eyes on Felegum and with Zeno paving the way, the dance went on uninterrupted.

What was really metal about all this was that Felegum’s table leg had even joined us at this point and it actually punched through the chest of one of the zombies (on rhythm) without disturbing any of the undead.

Ranks were closing around Zeno and the others, making it a little harder to keep up with them, being unseen as I was. I managed to move along after Zeno, but I kicked a rock on the way there, causing some of the zombies to turn and look in my direction.

That gave me an idea.

My brief rock mishap didn’t even make that much of a difference, because Felegum continued to exude such a strong presence that the dance continued relentlessly. Zombies from past the grate were also so enticed by this that they surged through Tem’s moonbeam and just disintegrated into dust and nothingness, and a significant pile of bones and detritus had begun to gather in our wake.

More chanting continued, and a giant mound of bone rose upright, a bizarre, nonsensical form lumbering after us at the back of the wave.

The chanting abruptly stopped.

Being so close to Zeno, I was able to see him twitch his fingers while shambling to make the requisite motions for an illusion spell, summoning forth a small Helli with her dagger out facing toward the massive boneflesh monster.

One zombie didn’t like the cut of Zeno’s undead jib, I guess, because it tried to hit him, and to my great surprise, the bard was so committed to his act that he just took the blow. Didn’t even try to deflect it, just acted confused and slightly angry as a real zombie would.

The attacking zombie quickly forgot about him and moved on.

I was impressed.

Tem opted for the best of both worlds, striking out at an adjacent zombie while still pretending to be one, and managed to pull it off. It appeared that inter-undead violence was nothing particularly new to them, which was nice but also kind of sad.

The zombie Tem had punched went on to punch the Helli illusion, which was fine.

What was not fine was that Harry seized this opportunity to move directly behind Zeno. Granted, he couldn’t see me (and probably couldn’t have in this low-light even if I was visible), but this left me without an easy place to follow the others through the zombie crowd.

Remembering, though, that the zombies seemed especially attuned to following noise, I took out a bell that I’d had (good old Kalends, always insisting I take the most random shit with me out of the city) and winged it toward the edge of the moonbeam.

It made a lot of noise and hopefully provided enough of a distraction for me to move without too much difficulty after the rest of the group.

Felegum at this point was Lord of the Dance, and under his sway, the procession continued northward. Not fast, again not wanting to risk looking suspicious, but enough to get out of the immediate vicinity of Hat-Broom Man’s death.

It took awhile, so I went ahead and followed in my esteemed mentor’s footsteps by pickpocketing a zombie. There wasn’t much, but it was more about the principle of the thing anyway: were you able to do it?

And I was. Of course. I was well-trained at this sort of thing.

I was a little annoyed, because all I really got were two drink tokens similar to the ones we’d found in Bacchus Jolly. One was a roc with outstretched wings and the other was a skull.

Maybe I could start a collection.

Once we were in a safe spot, Zeno and Felegum dropped the ruse and we all relaxed.

“Oh my god.” Zeno spun around. “Where is Set?”

I leaned in close to his ear. “Oooh,” I ghost-moaned, “I’m here.”

“Oh my god, he’s haunting me.” The bard despaired.

“It’s okay,” Felegum said, “I hear him too.”

“You all did bad, feel bad,” I said in a wavery ghost-voice.

“Sometimes,” Zeno said, wiping away an imaginary tear, “it feels like he’s still here.”

Then things got a little weird, because we were no longer quite alone.

And I don’t mean “not quite alone” in the sense of “you are a party of four friends with one invisible dude” but more like “you are four visible people with one invisible one and also there’s someone else coming up a passage you don’t know.”

I hoped for a brief moment that maybe it was Helli.

Not the construct. Also, not the lich.

“Trash! Trash!” came the stranger’s voice. “Man!”

“What,” Zeno said to the newcomer, “are you doing?”

The person who emerged was covered in refuse. As someone who had seen some pretty lean days with my parents, let me be the first to say that this dude definitely had seen the same and had had his own way of coping. The way seemed to be exuberant amounts of trash. Trash sewn into clothes, trash in his hair, accoutrements of trash– just a whole trash lifestyle. It seemed to be sustaining him, so no judgement, but he also stank comparable to the sewers, which was saying something.

“I’m avoiding zombies,” replied the Trash Man, whose name was Sam.

“Hi Sam,” said Felegum. “I’m Felegum.”

Sam gave the dancing star sorcerer a once-over. “Well, anyway,” he said, “come along.”

And he went back to shuffling along down the hallway of the sewers.

Felegum followed after him, while Harry gave the pair a look of abject disbelief.

“Are you coming or not?” Sam called back to the others. Then, he pushed on a wall.

It swung open, revealing a small room which Sam the Trash Man had turned into an impressively livable apartment. There was even a table with chairs, at which sat the skeleton corpses of what had been three zombies. Their names, we found, were Huey, Phillip, and Charles.

“So, you got any food?” Sam asked in a gruff voice. “Because uh, I don’t.”

Zeno sighed, and he actually looked unhappy about it. “We used to. We had this kid who was obsessed with food, but he’s gone now.”

He spread his hands and I took advantage of the moment to pass him the jar of beans I had on me.

Zeno gaped at it. “See? A blessing from beyond! Spectral beans!”

“What do they mean?” Sam was alert, raptly fascinated by the bean jar.

“I don’t know!” Zeno said. “They remind me of my friend.”

This was where it got a little mushy. Zeno, the one who constantly made fun of me for things, insisted I do chores, and had the capacity to make me feel awful about my frankly amazing skills, was…sad because he thought I was dead?

Suddenly I felt pretty bad that I’d assumed the worst, that it had constantly been this old dude dunking on me for no explicable reason other than it was fun. And sure, maybe even this was one more epic performance, but somehow, I doubted it.

I had, for the first time in a long time, found a good friend.

Then Sam shattered the jar of beans on the ground and crouched to read its entrails.

“What does it mean?” asked Zeno.

Sam looked up from the shards and scattered legumes. “I don’t know,” he said gravely.

I huffed. What a waste of perfectly good beans. And jar. It wasn’t like Csipherus was in a position to make more jars on the fly.

Harry, perhaps also wanting to contribute, offered some raisins that had presumably been baneberries at some point in their lives. He poured them into the trash man’s hand.

Sam scrutinized them, then raised a discerning eye to Harry. “Small poops?”

Harry shook his head. “Dried fruit.”

“Trash!” Sam pronounced, then threw them on the ground. “Now,” he continued, “to interpret the sign of the beans.”

Sensing that my spell was at its end, I positioned myself with an arm wrapped around Charles’ shoulders convivially. “Well, Charles,” I said as the invisibility faded, “what does the sign of the beans say?”

“Set!” Zeno yelled, sobbing, and leapt into my arms.

It was actually pretty emotional and heart-warming, except for the fact that we shattered poor Charles on the way down.

“I didn’t know you could be invisible!” Zeno cried.

“Yeah!” I said amidst the wreckage of the skeleton. “I’ve been invisible before. A few times! Like with Pinjin.”

I tried to prop Charles back up, but it was a lost cause. Too much of him had been lost even before Zeno for there to be much to salvage now.

“It’s okay,” said Sam. “I’ll get another one.”

“Another Charles?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “It’ll be someone different.”

I had so many more questions than answers still.

Disentangling myself from Zeno, I offered what other skills I could toward the preparation of food. “I can make water,” I said. “In a non-gross way.”

Sam nodded, thought about it. “Ah, no. No thanks.”

“Fair,” I said.

A little while later, the food was done. Sam announced it with a “trash!” then ate and promptly fell asleep after telling us to make ourselves at home.

Felegum detected whether or not any of the objects that Harry had pulled off Hat-Broom Man were magical while I refilled my and Zeno’s waterskins with my magic. I’d thought about magically creating water as a gift of thanks for Sam the Trash Man, but Harry had been a wet blanket (not literally) about it, saying that we didn’t know what was culturally important to the trash guy, so best to not mess with it, which was unfun.

Zeno had broken out his endless bourbon bottle and was enjoying a moderate amount of it.

“We need you, Zeno,” Tem said.

“I’m just getting to baseline,” the bard replied after another drink.

Of all the objects that Harry had removed from Hat-Broom Man, only three were magical: his robes (grim), a deck of playing cards, and thick leather bundle wrapped around something. Harry had also found waxpaper with meat in it, some money, and a pouch with spell components.

Felegum, to my surprise, had some pearls left and he used them all on identifying what the magical things were. The deck was pretty cool– it was a loaded deck that would always give its bearer and advantageous draw. It couldn’t win games for you or anything, but it would set you up a little more nicely before any game.

The robes were of some spellcasting flavor and probably destined for Felegum once we washed the evil out of them (and also figured out how to size them up). Meanwhile, the leather turned out to be wrapped around a plague weapon, similar to the one that Helli had carried with her. This was also a shortsword.

“Ew, gross,” said Zeno. “That’s why it’s all wrapped up.”

I was inclined to agree; anything that carried the creeping plague was a no from me for personal and professional reasons. Still, I had to admit, the blade looked fine.

And it was nice, to be talking about silly things like bean signs, trash, and yet another plague weapon, and to take a breather somewhere that, for now, felt safe.

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