The door opened without incident, revealing the sleeping forms of Kalends and Lankin. Kheryph was wrapped around Kalends’ neck and the two of them were gently snoring. Lankin was leaning against a barrel, snoring not-so-gently.
And next to them was Helli, scratching at some strange pattern in the ground with a stick. She drew lines and wiped them out just as frantically, and when Harry threw the deck of cards at her, it hit her square in the face, cards going everywhere.
I tsked, because wow, yikes, someone needed to work on their gift-giving. Rule one: don’t injure people with it.
“Helli! You lived!” Zeno cried, holding his endless bottle of bourbon out to her. “Congrats, what happened?”
Felegum sat down, exhausted. “Yeah, what happened to the plan?”
“Plan?” Helli asked. “It looked terrible!”
What followed was a brief discussion of whether or not our efforts with Hat-Broom Man had gone to plan. It felt like we’d executed pretty well, on the whole, even if the red slither had escaped at the end. We’d done something, and the sheer fact that we hadn’t sat around and stewed in how bad things were and how no one was coming to help us was a win to me.
We’d taken action. That was more than a lot of people could say in crisis, when it was easier to ask other, higher powers for help than do a damn thing themselves.
I knew that all too well.
So no, I wasn’t about to let us spiral into thinking that we were fuck-ups because we’d tried something and it hadn’t worked out perfectly and we should have left it to something more powerful.
Eventually, conversation shifted to other topics.
“Whatcha working on?” Zeno poked at Helli’s obsession drawings.
“Right,” she said. “So, there’s a puzzle. There’s a door, we have to open the door. It’s made out of crystal, not far from here, and it’s got this patter on it. I followed a dragonfly to get there,” she added, by way of explanation. “And I think it’s the secret layer of an alchemist. So, here’s the puzzle.”
She explained the two rows of buttons, three to a row, the bottom row glowing blue, then red, then green. I didn’t really hear what she thought she had to do to solve the puzzle and I was tired anyway, so I left it to her, Felegum, and Zeno to solve.
“I saw this in a monk challenge,” Harry remarked, “but the bad news is that I didn’t figure it out there either.”
I took advantage of the moment to unveil the fancy bottle of wine I’d stolen earlier in the warehouse and offered it to the group to celebrate. Zeno, as expected, was the first to sample it. While the bottle had been sealed in a locked box, meaning probably valuable and probably decent, I’d also found hidden wines that had tasted like utter trash so Zeno’s thoughts on it would be interesting. He did know a lot about this stuff.
Oh, and because I was feeling especially cool, I sliced my dagger along the neck of the bottle in one agile cut, sabering it open.
It was a rich, golden color when poured into glasses, and it wasn’t until Zeno had taken a sip that I realized what might have happened.
“Shit,” I said, “did I steal pee?”
“No,” Zeno was quick to assure everyone, “no, this is good.”
This was high praise. The bard didn’t really hold back when it came to alcohol being shitty, and believe me, I had inadvertently given him a Quantity of shitty alcohol across the span of our friendship.
Hearing from Zeno that it was good, though, I took my own sip. It was viscous, if that makes sense, much thicker than I’d expected it to be, fruity and rich, and tasted buttery, also like it contained plums and blackberries. It felt warm, and not in the oppressive desert way.
We drank and chatted, and after I said that we were celebrating killing– or mostly killing– Hat-Broom Man, Kalends opened up a bit more about how the Calendar too had mostly killed Red Eyes in the past, specifically the Butcher.
This was concerning, as the Butcher remained very much alive the last time we’d seen him.
Kalends told a somewhat harrowing tale of what happened after a Red Eye was destroyed: blocks of the city would be scoured, or totally razed, in retaliation. The Calendar during these times would hunker down, wait out the damage, and then come back and re-assess.
Kal paused in his story to look at me over the rim of his cup. “This is like a three hundred gold bottle of wine, Set.”
I shrugged. It was food and something good I could offer. Besides, who was even going to buy it out here? Money meant basically nothing at this point.
Rest assured this would not stop me from pickpocketing zombies, though.
“Anyway,” Kalends said and leaned back, “I’m assuming you’ve all been to the north?”
I had to think about it. Paripas? No, but rather– “Yeah!” I said. “The barricades!”
Kalends nodded and looked grim. “Yeah, that’s when things all went to shit after the last Red Eye we took out. They either replace the body or go back about their purpose.”
“So,” Zeno asked, “how do we properly stop them?”
Here was where things got messy. Everything happened a little fast, but the gist of it was that I initially defended our strategy: I hated it when Harry shat all over our initiative to actually do stuff, even if it was out of an abundance of caution and concern for our safety, a thing I habitually disregarded and probably shouldn’t.
Still, we had managed to kill a Red Eye even if we hadn’t extinguished its spirit. That wasn’t nothing. We had to celebrate that small win and not tear ourselves down for not completely following a plan.
All that being said, I may have also used the opportunity to vent my frustrations on Harry for his needless endangerment of Kalends’ occasionally-unconscious body. I hated not being able to help my best friend, and seeing him get even more beat up than he already was, that just sucked. We all liked a battle, that was for sure, but like, I’d trusted Harry with this and it had been important to me.
I had thought that monks (or at least this one in particular) had a seemingly endless supply of patience, but oh, we found the end of that today.
Some of Harry’s retort was justified: I was definitely being a little shit about him having to leap through fire with Kalends low-key dying on his back. However, much of it I felt wasn’t. I couldn’t even get a word in edgewise because he felt the need to tell me how I kept going off half-cocked at every possibility to save my city without thinking about it.
Like I had any other choice available to me.
This was Csipherus and it was my terrifying, broken down, zombie-filled home.
This was what I was here to protect. I wasn’t going to stand still and think about it. I was going to, you know, protect.
And if I made the people who hurt my city hurt on the way out, well, all the better.
It was important to listen to Harry. He was my friend and yeah, I’d kind of incited this (after he’d taken a massive dump on my fancy wine party). Caution had its place. But listening to someone rattle off how I was being stupid and reckless and that if I really wanted to be a good person and truly selfless, I would do things differently, i.e. their way, well, it didn’t remind me of my purpose.
It just reminded me of my parents.
Harry stormed off before I could get myself in deeper trouble. I crossed my arms and exhaled exasperatedly, and sat down in a huff next to Kalends.
“He’s got a point, you know?” he said. “Remember Forvath? Short guy?”
It took me a moment. It had been two years, but it had been hard to find a humanoid shorter than me back in those days. Part of why I was so thrilled now to be even a few inches taller than Felegum. “Yeah, I remember him.”
“Well.” Kalends wet his lips, taking another sip of the wine for fortification. “He was really awesome at helping us sneak around. Great lookout, hard to spot, excellent vision. One day after we’d taken out one of the Red Eyes, I was lifting him up, and he–” Kalends shuddered– “he crumbled in my hands, Set. Like he was nothing. He just turned to dust. That’s what they do when you mess up or don’t complete a job.”
I looked down into my own cup.
“I can’t tell you the number of friends that I’ve seen turn to ash because of that man.” Kalends stared ahead, not at the wall but probably off in some distant memory of a city at war, crumbling itself to nothingness. “We were trying to coordinate with other pockets of people to make a safe place below the city.”
“That’s why you got so excited when I told you about the temple colony before.” I sighed. “It must have been a relief to know that people are still here. Despite everything that happened.”
I took the wine we’d poured out for Harry and drank it.
“I’m just really scared,” I said in a low voice. “I don’t know what to do, I don’t feel like I can change anything, and everyone’s just getting more hopeless.”
I was so sick of that.
Kalends swirled his drink around in its cup. “Well, yeah. These guys are pretty bad, I’m not surprised. But I’d be surprised if you let that stop you.”
I’d dreamed of flying on my broom through this city, bustling and full of people, listening to the chatter and the liveliness in the alleys below me. I wanted to fall asleep in the sun on a temple roof and share the delicacies of home with my friends (and not feel, you know, tremendously shitty about stealing solstice sausages from children).
I still believed in that. It was just getting harder and harder to remind myself that that was possible.
But you didn’t just fix everything all at once. It was gradual, the way that things knit back together. You just had to be persistent.
I fished in my pockets, then took out the roc token and gave it to Kalends. “Here. I stole this off a zombie, and it reminded me of you so I want you to have it. I’ve never seen one of these–yet–” I amended hastily, “but I’ve always imagined that they’d have to be graceful. And that’s why I’m giving it to you, because you’re graceful and you always will be to me.”
Even when injured like this, the way he turned the token over and made it dance across his fingers was breathtaking. Kalends made even the simplest gestures look magic, and I’d forever envy him for that. He smiled and pocketed the roc token.
“Set,” he said, lowering his voice, “your best chance to do anything at all about this is with these people. You guys are kind of all over the place, but you’re powerful enough to change things. I’ve seen it, both the good and the bad.”
I nodded, and sighed. “Shit, I have to apologize, don’t I?”
That was the way of it, I was smart enough to know that. The good people were always right. I didn’t disagree, I just hated not being able to be efficient about our solutions. Harry was a good person. That’s part of why I respected him even when he too was being a dick.
Kalends shrugged. “Eh, let him stew a little more.”
Exactly why he was my best friend, right here.
Anyway, while Kal and I were having a heart-to-heart, Helli, Felegum, Zeno, and Tem were discussing the puzzle at length. At last, Helli stood. “Oh shit! I know how to solve this!”
In celebration, Zeno wandered off somewhere and passed out.
My party had not exactly been the motivating event that I thought it would. Determined to at least do one thing right, I used every ounce of magical power I had left in me (a considerable amount) to try to heal Kalends’ legs, or at least speed up the recovery process. I’d meant it about him being graceful, but I also intended to give him back that mobility.
And, to my very great surprise, I got absolutely nowhere.
It seemed similar to what had happened to Kheryph: no leg ability left in there at all.
Kalends waved it off and went to go sleep, and I begrudgingly accepted this temporary defeat. I was meeting the baseline goal of “stay alive” but all my other goals seemed very out of reach.
I must have been looking very glum, because Tem took a sip of her drink. “It’s good,” she said.
“Thanks, Tem.” It was good to know that at least one dragonborn in the party didn’t hate my guts.
“Also, maps!” Helli said, remembering out of nowhere.
“New maps?” Felegum perked up from unrolling his bedroll.
“No,” Helli said, “but I know which part of the city we’re in.”
It took a moment for this to register that Helli did not mean what part of the city where Bacchus Jolly was in Csipherus– we’d known that for some time– but rather, what part of the city the brewery was located in on the map of the sewers and/or catacombs we’d found.
This was huge.
Felegum and Helli spent some time discussing the trash man, as well as some possibilities for where his hideout might be on our maps.
“Is he an alchemist?” Helli asked at one point.
“Ooh, maybe,” Felegum replied.
“Did he just go crazy?” I felt someone had to voice this. The trash man just had a lot of trash. It wasn’t like he was bad or hurting people, but I didn’t really think he was about to be an ally–
“But what about the dragons?” Tem cut in, her voice urgent. “We fight the Red Eyes and the dragons just stay?”
This was…not something that I think anyone wanted to talk about, partially because no one had an immediate answer and also because it was depressing to consider that our work fighting off literally every Red Eye on the books (except Zuul) wouldn’t even be enough to save Csipherus. I was already putting everything I had into getting the mood not to totally tank (already a huge effort) and I really did not need Tem doing this.
Obviously we were not going to hand the city to the dragons. I was not into it. However, both dragonborn seemed obsessed with planning out every little detail of saving Csipherus before we did anything and that was exhausting.
“You have magic friends,” Tem was going on, talking to someone, “and I have strong friends.”
“Oh, honey.” Felegum shook his head.
“You’re all my friends.” Tem spread her golden arms wide.
I looked over. “Friends?”
“Yes,” Felegum said jovially, “we’re friends too. I think you need to sleep, though.”
Tem nodded like this was an incredibly sage idea. “I’m going to talk to my sword,” she said. “Maybe you should too.”
I spent a long time at the table, spinning my knife– a weapon, they’d told me, of legend– and wondering if it was really a knife my city needed or something entirely different.
I woke up before dawn in the usual way, or what had become usual these days, and went to a window. It didn’t feel quite like normal, but peaceful. Warm. Like I had a connection to somewhere else.
However, the only place I really had a connection to was Csipherus, which was where we were. And as much as I felt motivated to do something, this strange familiarity was making me less productive and more anxious, like I had a purpose, I had a job, but I also had no idea what it was or what tasks were associated with it.
Somewhere else on the first floor, Tem groaned and Felegum laughed quietly before returning to his meditations. Presumably, Harry was still squirreled away being meditative too, but he wasn’t immediately visible and I wasn’t feeling especially motivated to find him. Not feeling this jumpy, at least.
Zeno came up to me as I was tying on arm braces. “Hope you don’t take what Harry said too badly. He did have a point, but I don’t think we can do nothing.”
I paused mid-lace, then resumed tying. “Leaving the city to die, even just suggesting that, is always a raw nerve for me.” The knot was too tight, so I picked it apart and redid it. “I just want to do something.”
Zeno sighed and gazed at the boarded-up window. “I don’t think doing nothing is an option, honestly. But I’m with you either way.”
I raised my eyes to his, amber meeting green, and nodded.
The solemn moment was interrupted by Felegum flying down the stairs. “Hey guys, there’s weird magical shit going on outside.”
Zeno shrugged. “A day in the life, right?”
Coming from our expert on weird magical shit, though, this was more than worth a look.
“What is it?” Tem asked, craning her head toward a gap in the boards.
“Let’s go see,” I suggested.
And that’s how we found ourselves on the opposite upstairs patio area on the second floor– with Harry on the other one. At least we knew where he’d gone.
Much more interesting than our drama, though, was a very deep black beam shooting up from the tip of the pyramid to the sky, pooling down around my city like some sort of fountain. It seemed to be forming a hemisphere around Csipherus, a black dome coming into existing from the top down.
“Uh, Felegum,” Zeno asked, “what the fuck is that?”
Felegum took an expert look at it. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m scared.”
I put my hands on my hips. This was really too much to bear. First the plague, then the zombies, then the dragons, and then the Red Eyes and now this. “Why is everyone trying to destroy my city! Why?”
It had done literally nothing to deserve any of this. I glowered at the black beam.
“Well,” Zeno said, “we’ll just let Harry sit here and think about if this is actually bad before we do anything, I guess.”
“He can hear you,” Felegum said sotto voce and shook his head. “Set, how are you feeling about staying in the city now?”
“Oh,” I said, fully tilted, “this is just one more goddamn thing on the list, isn’t it? It’s not the ghosts, not the sickness, not the undead crawling through the streets or people being overrun at their hastily constructed barricades. It’s not even the endless thirst or the not one, but two dragons roosting up here, but the scary black beam–“
Tem stared out at it, almost haunted.
“Come on,” Zeno said soothingly, “let’s open a door. That’ll make you feel better.”
“Thank you, Zeno.” I thought about it. “Let’s focus less on the dome of darkness. The door will make me feel better.”
We set out.
But to our very great surprise, the streets were empty. There were no zombies, no skeletons, no nothing. It was eerily quiet.
“Great,” I said. “It just gets worse. Now the city doesn’t even have sound. I can’t believe this.”
I muttered various indignities that the noble city of Csipherus had suffered as Helli led us to an herbalist shop. Or rather, it seemed like a shop an herbalist would operate if not for the little robots and creatures made of clockwork on the shelves and counters.
The front room of the shop wasn’t particularly out of the ordinary beyond the clockwork bits, though. It still had the kinds of herbs you’d expect to see in a place like this, and the counter appeared well-worn with use.
What was interesting was the back room, which contained, of all things, a grave marker.
Here lies Nisbit Korner Ina-Gorjon, alchemist of the highest degree and protector of what we hold purest in this world, the element of change.
The way the engraving was done was also pretty amazing: it went from dull and black, normal letters at the beginning, to a beautiful gold that flashed in the meager light at the end of the inscription.
“See the stairs?” Helli asked.
We looked at the grave marker. There were no stairs to be found.
“Beneath it were stairs!” The gnome insisted. “There are no stairs. Are the stairs gone?”
She touched the grave. Nothing happened.
I wanted to open a cool door as much as the next person. However, Helli had not slept in days, and it was entirely possible that she had just invented stairs and a tricky door as a pleasing hallucination in these trying times.
Zeno went around to examine the back room and came back empty. “Have you tried pushing it?” he asked.
Helli pushed on the grave. Nothing happened, so I went to the front of the shop with Felegum and Zeno again. The bounty of incense wands and dried leaves made it smell nice, and in my casual inspection of the goods, I found enough supplies to make about two medical kits and also some tea leaves that would be good for curing a cold.
Granted, it seemed hard to think that we’d ever be in a place where we’d get a cold again, but you never knew. Life had a way of surprising you. Best case scenario, we’d catch colds again and not evaporate in a terrible dome.
I’d just about finished getting the kits into my things when Helli yelled from the other room.
“You think she’s okay in there?” I asked the others. We followed after her just in case.
“Maybe I just need to rest,” Helli said, and fell asleep instantly on the grave. Metal as hell, had to respect it.
“Well,” Zeno said, beholding this obscured puzzle. “Huh.”
We thought about things some more. Zeno had a good plan for trying to draw out the Red Eyes, so we talked strategy for a bit before Felegum recruited me to try to open the grave by force.
I was, understandably, a little on the fence about literally disturbing someone’s eternal rest. They weren’t natively Csipherian– at least their name wasn’t– but like, I don’t know, man, grave robbing is just very unchill for us. Grave-opening felt too close to that. No one had told me that the cool door was under and likely part of someone’s burial structure.
Desperate times, but yeah, I couldn’t quite give it my all.
So, it was Felegum whose hand splayed across the face of the grave marker, whose fingers accidentally pushed in the flourish at the bottom of the epitaph, and who found the secret method for getting the staircase to appear.
Helli, unfortunately, was still incredibly groggy and could not revel in this as much as we’d hoped. She was dead asleep, so Felegum, being the next-smallest of us, went down to explore.
However, even he was too big. This place appeared specifically built for a smaller creature, like a halfling or a gnome.
The time had come for our gnome to shine.
“Do the puzzle!” Zeno hissed, shaking Helli awake. “Come on!”
“You have to do the puzzle,” Felegum said, also shaking her.
“Oh my god,” Helli exclaimed groggily, “the puzzle.”
She went down the stairs and we waited. We actually waited a considerable time, so long that I was worried she’d maybe fallen asleep again in a place where we couldn’t easily get her out.
Soon, though, she called up the stairs. “I found a spider!”
“Oh!” Felegum called back. “Is it being mean to you? Stand up for yourself!”
I toyed with my knife. “We can always squash it.”
Helli returned up the stairs carrying a bizarre metal contraption. Personally, I’d been hoping for another cool weapon or like, I don’t know, something to help save my poor city, but I guess this was cool. Morale and all.
“We can make you arms,” Helli was saying aloud. “We’re pretty good with people who don’t have legs.”
“Man,” I said to Zeno and Felegum, “she’s really tired.”
Out of an abundance of caution, or maybe to just be really sure that a super-tired Helli had indeed gotten everything of interest down in the secret room, which turned out to be a workshop area, Felegum summoned Dronie out from his cozy little pocket dimension or whatever and had him take a look.
It was nice to see Dronie again after a long absence. Dronie popped back into existence by Felegum and then winked back to his home plane for safekeeping.
“Anything down there?” the mage asked Helli.
“No,” she said, “just a bench.”
Having gotten, I guess, what we’d come for, we headed out with the strange spider thing.
“It’s too early for this,” Helli said. “Okay, we’re walking.” She sighed. “He seems grumpy.”
“Is this…” I hesitated, because while Helli was cool, I’d already offended one party member with critique. But Helli was a professional. I went for it. “Is this you personifying the spider?”
“Oh no,” she said, deadass serious, “he’s talking to me.”
I took a long, hard look at her, incredibly sleep-deprived and able to fall asleep at a moment’s notice. “Helli,” I said, deeply uncomfortable that it was me who this task had fallen to, “are you sure that it’s not…because you’re really sleepy?”
She paused and considered this. “Yes,” she replied. “I might just be delusional.”
Okay, that made me feel a little better.
What did not make me feel better was that the dome over Csipherus had expanded even lower over the city. The absence of all undead, once something I’d wished for dearly, now unnerved me. Still,it allowed us to get back to the brewery without incident.
Harry was also upset. He met us on the first floor, rubbing the bridge of his draconic snout.
I should also add that by this point Helli was in the spider, which was also made of some golden material, and was skittering along like she was driving some massive mechanical beast. It was very strange and totally also possible this was the reason for Harry’s consternation.
“I have good news and bad news,” the monk said.
“What’s the good news?” asked Felegum.
“The Mage’s Guild knows we’re alive.”
I tsked. I still wasn’t entirely convinced that the guild out in Paripas had had absolutely nothing to do with the Csipherus conduit being activated. Letitia had danced around the subject, and her reluctance to give me a straight answer on it made me feel pretty certain that someone had fucked something up here and wasn’t willing to own up to it.
“What about the bad news?” Felegum pressed.
Harry exhaled and narrowed his eyes. “They agree with Set.”
Personally, I would have flipped the good and bad news, but that’s just me.
“We need to fix this because they think it’s the end of the world,” Harry continued, pausing only to scowl at Zeno when he laughed. “They called it the Melding. Tem, do you know anything about this?”
Tem thought about it.
“That’s real rough, buddy.” I clapped a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “I hate Paripas too.”
But Harry was not in an apology-receiving mood. Too bad for him. “‘Worshippers of our Queen’ mean anything to you?” he asked Tem.
She pressed her lips together. “This is pretty much what my order has been maintained to prevent.”
“My instructions were to survive and try to slow it down,” Harry said. “The process took weeks the last time this happened, according to them, but it started with what we’re seeing.”
So it could be stopped. My hand found the hilt of the knife again. That was all I needed to know. The city wasn’t doomed yet.
“We might just need to be loud,” Harry continued. “We need to learn as much as we can before they send people to us.”
There was some fraught discussion here of several topics. One, that Paripas dared to get involved now after potentially fucking us over and running initially. Two, about giving the spider legs to Kalends. I was not convinced that this was the best idea. Helli might have been tired, but she was talking to the legs a lot, even after acknowledging that they might be a delusion.
Either she didn’t care that she might be looking goofy, or the legs were actually talking to her.
I still fully intended to cure Kalends. I didn’t get this healing power for nothing. Moreover, if the legs were legit sentient, hell if I wanted Kal just pushed into them. Helli could make her own choices about whether or not she wanted to work with them, just like Felegum could with the cool-ass robe. Kalends, I felt, should be accorded that same courtesy. I just had to come up with a better option for him.
And not be such a shitty healer, I guess, but whatever. That was a me problem.
“We’re thinking extraplanar dragons,” Helli said to the legs conspiratorially, then noticed us watching her. “Long story short,” she offered by way of explanation, “genius inventor trapped in spider.”
“I hope,” I said to my holy symbol, “this isn’t another sleep dream.”
“Well,” Harry said, “spider’s on the team.”
Beyond the possibility of going into battle at the side of Current-Spider-Once-Alchemist Nisbit Korner Ina-Gorjon, I was concerned about Paripas just blasting Csipherus to smithereens from afar. That would be one way of getting rid of the problem without dirtying their hands. Still, Harry assured me that other cities were having troubles.
But what for? Why go through all this trouble?
“I think,” Tem said, finally coming to a terrible conclusion, “that they’re trying to summon a god.”