It was nice not to be running. What was less nice was all the trash, but at this point beggars truly could not be choosers. We had made it out alive, at least it seemed like we all had, that was enough for now.
Sensing downtime, I at last made my presentation of Hat-Broom Man’s eye to Zeno.
I was very proud of myself; I had truly done an excellent job taking this sucker out of the Red Eye’s face, even if it had gotten a little messy in transit and me like, almost dying on our escape.
“Zeno, I have a gift for you,” I said as I presented it with all the flourish I had.
As far as thanks-for-saving-my-life gifts went, this was a good one. Originally, I’d intended it as more of a hey-look-I-am-respecting-your-weird-desire-for-eyes gift, but things had gone a little sideways and I felt it worked better now.
Zeno accepted it. “Well,” he said, delicately handling the eye, “into the bag it goes.”
This was somewhat thwarted by the fact that we didn’t have Lankin around, and by proxy Shatterspike, the delegated HFVNN-opener. It seemed like most any weapon with magical properties would do the trick, which meant that my knife was an option. The only problem was that my knife really hurt when it cut you (see: personal experience) and as weird as HFVNN was, he/they were still a part of our team. I didn’t want to unintentionally dehydrate him.
I didn’t know if that was possible for an interdimensional being like HFVNN, but then again, my knife seemed to have no problem with Red Eyes and they weren’t strictly From Here either, so best not to risk it.
Harry’s fancy monk fists could probably do it too, and it wasn’t like he was volunteering either.
After few minutes where it became clear that no one could or would open the bag, Zeno sighed, found a small bottle amidst all the trash, and put the eyeball inside it.
Somewhere in the mess, Sam the Trash Man snored.
We all set about our nightly activities as things wound down. Zeno was off writing something again, maybe working on a new song. He’d been doing that a lot, even sort-of debuting one at the Hat-Broom Man battle, though he must’ve decided it wasn’t ready yet or something because it had gotten cut short. Either way, it’d be cool to see what he came up with.
I used the time to investigate the trash room. This dude hadn’t used zombies or skeletons or anything necromantically, but he did have dead bodies randomly hanging out around a table. Was it possible he was just a crazy trash person? Yes. Was it also possible that this was the dude who had sent the mushroom-hunting crypt morel zombie? Yes.
I still felt a little bad about messing with someone trying to get themselves food (albeit through whatever means necessary), so I kind of wanted to figure out what was going on with that and if this dude had anything to do with it.
Except that it didn’t seem like it was the case. Granted, there was a lot of trash to sort through in general, though I did find some spices (all ones I already had, so I left them), jars, and basically just more trash. Nothing necromantic, at least, nothing that I could discern.
I was a little disappointed, but it had also been a long shot.
“Harry,” Felegum whispered, “are you awake?”
“Yes?” the dragonborn replied.
“I want to carry the robe around to study.”
“What if we’re being tracked?” Harry replied.
If we were, then by that logic we should probably throw out everything we’d taken from the body. I mean, I was probably being tracked by Hat-Broom Man’s blood all over me. All that aside, I didn’t see a reason not to use a perfectly serviceable magical object. One didn’t always have the luxury of Paripas making you new shit every time you needed it.
Felegum sighed, examined the object again, then turned back to the monk. “We’re not being tracked, Harry. There’s no divination magic on it.”
Still, this did not convince our suspicious monk. “I’ll hold onto it for now.”
It did not escape my notice that Harry was also holding onto a super-cool deck of magic cards. What was up with that? Both Helli and I liked cards. I particularly liked those cards. And yet, they’d become one more thing that had not left his backpack.
Anyway, it turned out I needn’t have looked so far for necromancy because Zeno started in on a song to animate one of the remaining skeletons. Smoke billowed through the room and the familiar dirge picked up as Huey rattled to awareness. The skeleton attempted to drink (relatable, and very sad) and then sat back, perhaps realizing its circumstances.
“Stay there, stay there!” Zeno whispered to his new friend. “This’ll be great in the morning.”
I had to agree; it would.
We took watches. As much as the trash man had been chill, he was also living in a secret trash room in the middle of the sewers, which were crawling with zombies. If anything happened during the night, it wouldn’t hurt to have someone awake.
Harry and Tem took first watch, then I was solo on second, with Felegum and Zeno on last watch.
The last time I’d watched solo, I’d kind of whiffed it– it had been cold out in the Paripasian wilderness of the north and Lankin had already fallen asleep. I too had succumbed shortly after. Keen to redeem myself, I stayed awake.
But, maybe that was also due to all the thoughts running through my head.
What was Harry’s deal?
He’d called for backup without talking to anyone about it, unilaterally decided to keep all these magical items and tell us we couldn’t use them, hated my water, and like, made replacement snarky best friend eyes at Kalends, I don’t know. Things had just felt weird ever since we’d left Harry’s mind palace dream world.
And granted, sometimes you had to act when the opportunity presented itself, but if Tem had done any of that stuff we’d have been super mad at her.
I sat in the semidark of the trash safe room and thought about a lot of things.
I really wanted that deck. Helli or me would be ideal for it, though personally I felt like I kind of owed Helli big time for sacrificing her music box for me and Lankin. What did Harry need with a deck of magic cards that always drew favorably? It was too cool an item for him. What was he planning to do, gamble? Were monks even allowed do that?
What did Harry need with a spell component pouch, when Felegum, Zeno, and I all cast spells that required random shit like fleece and mica?
And what, honestly, did Harry need with a cool-ass demon robe?
I could do something nice to thank Helli for saving me. All I had to do was steal those cards. Harry would probably insist they were being tracked too and advocate for destroying or ditching them just because he either saw no use for them or was too afraid to use them, just like the robe.
But, my better side argued, stealing from someone in the party would destroy months of trust. It wasn’t worth it. Especially when I too had to sleep and trust everyone else not to riffle through my shit while I was out. Also, I couldn’t be awake to protect Kal all the time either.
I sat back in the dark with a sigh.
I didn’t like dealing with people whose motives I couldn’t see. Things had been much simpler when I was younger. I’d known what would happen, for example, were I to cross the Calendar. Likewise, the Calendar also had known what would be the breaking point in my loyalty to them, and were also careful not to push me to it. There was mutual respect for the hurt we could do each other.
This, though, was different. Sometimes I really liked working with these people. Sometimes I could really say we were friends.
Other times, they frustrated me enough to punch a wall.
I guess I’d just have to trust him. I hoped I didn’t regret it.
My watch finished and I woke up Zeno and Felegum, quickly falling asleep as I settled back into my cozy little trash nest.
Zeno woke us with his typical bagpipe summons, trying to be quieter– a commendable feat in such a small room– as he played, and then abruptly cut off mid-strathspey or whatever.
It seemed like a joke, until it became clear over time that he just could not move at all. He was stuck, eternally playing his bagpipes. It also became clear that he was totally still cogent and a-okay in there, as evidenced by Huey the skeleton moving around and trying to interpret things for us via him.
Immediately, I checked him over for weird physical afflictions. It was not the creeping plague, that much I could tell. Beyond that, I was at a loss.
“Felegum,” Tem asked with a wry smile, “did you just snooze the bard?”
Felegum smiled but confirmed that no, this was not his work. And that checked out, he and Zeno tended to be close. Harry looked around for Sam the Trash Man but was unable to locate him.
Huey the new zombie walked over and waved his arms in some sort of movement, and I lit up my holy symbol to see around better, since it was still kind of ill-lit down here. Maybe there was a clue.
“The dead body’s moving and Zeno isn’t,” Felegum observed. “Usually it’s the opposite.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Very weird.”
I tried sending a message to Zeno, only to realize that the message-replier would have to actually, you know, talk. In retrospect, I’d really put Kalends in a lot of danger back when he’d been imprisoned under the pyramid.
He must really like me to risk talking out loud while in mortal danger. A small smile curled around my lips.
Anyway, Huey shrugged and I went back to problem-solving. Nothing seemed to be a great idea, though.
“Maybe move him out?” Felegum suggested.
Harry nodded. “Carefully, slowly, we could do it.”
The trash man at this point was very distinctly not here. Presumably he’d have showed up in this, his living space, if he’d felt so inclined to assist. He didn’t, so I thought the best of him: his ass was just gone.
Harry went to the door we’d came in through to see what was out of there, and I too took the opportunity upon myself to investigate the other, secret back exit from the trash room. Carefully, I opened the door.
It was very dusty and pretty unloved looking, not usual for a sewer. The door opened to another door, which was annoying, but I opened that one too and saw that it also led into the sewer, but a much more deserted side of it. No zombies or skeletons or undead what-have-you insight. Also, if I was reading this right, the elevation seemed to be increasing.
Aka, this was a way to the surface.
I returned to the group, about to tell them this excellent news of how continually cool I proved to be, when Sam the Trash Man dropped from the ceiling, yelling, “TRASH MAN!” at the top of his lungs.
I moved in front of Zeno protectively. Weird to be fighting so close with a zombie (and on the same side), I had to say.
Sam examined Zeno under our careful scrutiny. “Hm,” the trash man concluded after a long look. “It seems like the trash food didn’t agree with him.”
I had to withhold a laugh. That was maybe one of the most Zeno things to happen in a while. Oh, to have a palate so unused to eating food from the garbage. Must be nice.
“Passes in a few hours.” Sam grunted in Zeno’s direction as if that settled things.
“What about a way back upwards?” Felegum asked.
Sam have him a concerned look. “Why would you want to do that?”
“Good point,” the mage admitted, then thought. “Where is the best trash?”
This pleased the trash man. “I have so much of it,” he said, spreading his arms wide. “Right here.” Then he pointed to us. “Trash is the way!”
I had to think about that. Really? Personally, I’d just gone right to stealing when I’d found my parents sifting through our neighbors’ trash for scraps of food, unable to bear seeing them like that. But Sam had lived here, somehow, for years, in one of the harshest states I’d ever seen Csipherus.
I hated to admit it, but maybe he was onto something.
It was also conveniently at this point that Sam realized one of his skeletal friends was no ambulatory. “Huey!” he cried. “You’re up!”
“Uh,” said Felegum, “that was us. We did that. Sorry if that’s upsetting seeing him walk around.”
The trash man sighed. “Ah well. It’s fine. I can always go get another.”
“And another Charles?” I asked.
“Oh no,” Sam said, like this was not a polite or respectful thing to do. “Someone new.”
We all thought about that for a moment.
“I’m going to, uh,” Sam finally said, pointing at the door, “go find some more trash.”
He checked out the front for zombies, then turned around. “Trash man,” he said, and vanished into the corridor.
“Well,” Harry said, “I guess we wait three hours.”
“I think he’s just paralyzed,” Tem commented, then craned her head down toward me. “Set, do you have Lesser Restoration?”
I had no idea what that even was or what it did, but I wasn’t about to let someone else with a god show me and my god up. Tem was always trying to do that ever since she’d found out that I was new to the whole divine thing. I hated this for obvious reasons.
“No,” I said. “What about you, healer?”
Tem said she could do it but she’d need a day. I thought that I saw something glisten by Zeno’s eye, but maybe it was just the trash sweats or something.
So, anyway, that’s how we ended up waiting for like three hours for Zeno to make peace with himself in the gastro-intestinal sense.
He was still mentally kicking, just stuck, so I tried reading him the book on aqueducts that I was planning to give Milto when all this was over, because the Sphinx in the Hat was really short and got repetitive quickly. Never in my life had I read so many different ways to say “arid climates”. It was pretty boring, but it did have diagrams occasionally. Not very interesting ones, though, had to say.
At last, Zeno moved again and there was much rejoicing in trashland.
“Huey can go first, if you want,” the bard offered as we discussed strategy. I scoped out the secret hallway and found that one skeleton had wandered down here. It was wobbling in a circle on the upward part of the ramp. And I don’t mean like he was walking in circle, more like something was going wrong with the magic animating him or something, and he was standing in the same place but wobbling like a glass losing its balance and toppling over.
It seemed to be patrolling the area, which was like a trash collection spot or something.
We all had a big talk about it, and it was determined that sneaky and fast people would go in to take it out. So basically that was me and Harry.
I still felt like there was something more to this. Was it just really poorly enchanted? I don’t know. Maybe a zombie was just a zombie. It rotated again and fell down, with Harry clocking each of the movements to spot an opening. I was a little behind because yes, I was examining this zombie, and yes, I was still having some Harry resentment, but I managed to catch up without an issue as Harry smashed its head down.
How nice not to worry about these things maybe being people you’d known.
People that a weird gem might let you de-zombify if the tablet picture we’d seen so long ago was to be believed.
No time for hesitation now, though. I couldn’t just leave Harry stranded, so I too sliced out with my knife. The spicy one didn’t connect because truthfully I hadn’t expected Harry to kick the entire body of the zombie to the floor, but Kalends’ dagger did and between us, the skeleton was basically annihilated.
Felegum and Tem walked up, followed by Huey, who pulled off the skeleton’s leg. Unsure what was going on here, but presumably that was for a weapon. Or maybe Zeno just felt like contributing. I don’t know.
I did take a few copper off the skeleton, though. It wasn’t much but I wasn’t about to let it go to waste.
Harry looked at the grate above us and surmised that we were below a building. A square of foundation was above, with four posts and a grate in the middle. Harry leapt up to the grate, missed it the first time, but got it the second. His weight proved too much for the grate to handle, though, and both him and it crashed back down to the ground.
Still, we had a hole with rungs of ladder above it, which was something.
Harry lifted me up and I climbed the rungs without issue, tying a rope onto one of them so that the less agile members of the party could make it up without dying or anything.
Duties to the party taken care of, I scaled the last fifteen feet of the rungs and gently opened the trapdoor into the building.
A puff of dust settled around me as I pulled myself into a wide, massive room. There was a chemical smell here that I couldn’t quite place.
I was actually pretty jazzed to get digging into this place, so imagine my surprise when the first first person out of the ladder rung was not a person at all, but Huey, Zeno’s latest skeleton.
“Huey, put your back into it!” called the necromantic bard from directly below his latest servant. “Come on!”
As this tragicomedy was unfolding, I lit up my holy symbol again and took a look around. It was a purple-orange light of dawn, a little different from its typical amber, and it revealed a wide storage area. A very big room, so big one might call it a warehouse.
There were three separate lines of crates, all equipped with ownership, dates of entry into the facility, and organizations to which they were bound. I recognized one from a master spicer going to a restaurant I’d been to once with my parents. Another was from a blacksmith.
Interestingly, some boxes had been pried open already. Given the dustiness of this place, I’d not have thought that anyone had been in here for a while. Maybe whoever had been here first had met their fate already.
Felegum, when he got up, went right to work and started to crowbar a crate open. This was a crate meant for a tailor and it was chock full of fabric and sewing materials. I was massively pleased. This was the first stroke of luck we’d had in a long time. I took some dark gray and also silver thread (for details) and found this beautiful black bolt of fabric.
It was so heavy, but it would be so worth it.
Next on Felegum’s kill list was that blacksmith box I’d spotted before. Inside it was a mysterious white powder, hammers, anvils (it was a heavy box), and ingots of metals, probably iron or whatever.
“Set,” asked the mage, “do you see an apothecary box?”
What followed was a brief period of me trying to recall what my parents did for supplies. At first I thought they’d foraged outside the city for them. We’d had a very small window garden for the basics, but I don’t know, parents did a lot of weird things. Maybe they foraged when I wasn’t around, who’s to say?
Actually, on deeper thought, I did recall some delivers to the house of boxes, or one of my parents bringing back a box marked for our house. We had gotten herbs and salves and such shipped in, but none from this place, best as I could tell.
While all this racking of my mind was going on, Harry had climbed to the top of the warehouse and called down that he thought he knew where we were. Felegum next went to go and see about finding himself some scribing supplies while Tem watched us and probably judged. Self excepted, I did not have a lot of confidence in most holy people to be chill with stealing.
Anyway, Felegum seemed to be having success with his ink mission and I went to go be practical and find medicine. But I also kept an eye out for cards.
What I found instead was a box meant for a bar. There was a pretty motely assortment of things in there, like bedsheets (ew), tankards, dried grains, hops for beers, and also a chest.
I cracked my knuckles.
Also, there was a small box of medicinal herbs. Like a very basic first aid kit.
Happily about my task, I unlocked the chest without issue and discovered five bottles of wine. Lovely. I took one and slipped it into my bag, carrying with me the medicine chest.
At last, Harry descended the walls. “Here,” he said to Felegum, tossing him the robe at last. “You could stash this here, if that’s what you wanted.”
“Uh no,” said Felegum.
“No one wants that,” I said.
Seeking to quell the dissent in our ranks, perhaps, Tem passed a hand over the robe. She hummed in appreciation. “Fiends and devilry!”
Somewhere, Huey the zombie waved his arms around in glee. Again, not sure if that was at the fiends and/or devilry or something else, but at least Felegum got to make his own decision about the robe. He tucked it through his pack straps, for further study.
At last, I had met an impasse. I could not carry both the super rad bolt of black fabric as well as the very essential medicine box without being louder than I normally was. So, I sought help from the loudest person I knew.
“Tem,” I said, “want to carry this fabric for me?”
Tem narrowed her eyes, somewhere between a scowl and a smile. “Sure,” she said after a pause.
Harry had apparently observed something mildly threatening going on outside, so naturally we had to wait around for another hour or two until it passed. Zombies presumably milled around and everyone was, at different rates, starting to lose their patience.
Then there was a crash from outside and stillness. This seemed like a good chance.
Tem busted the doors of the warehouse open and we split. Most of us had no problem, but Tem was extra jingly for some reason, even while carrying fabric.
And then, the true meaning of trash hit me.
Trash was invisible.
I cast an illusion on all of us, making us look like trash as we moved. It gave us a little time to move away from the zombies, because they too were not interested in trash.
And I thought I could hear, in the back of my head, a very proud Sam saying “trash man!”
Two or three hours of walking back and pretending to be illusory trash and we had once again reached Bacchus Jolly. We’d done it.
We pushed open the door and walked inside.