AFTERLIFE, OH MY GOD, WHAT AN AWFUL WORD: in which we learn even more terrible things

Harry and Lankin left to go investigate the warehouse again for gods-only-knew what and the rest of us stayed back at Bacchus Jolly.

I just remembered that I’d also stolen those hops from the very same warehouse, so I handed off my scoopful of them to Zeno, who was appreciative. He even smelled them for a quality check and everything, so I guess after all this time of stealing stuff for him I’ve finally figured out what the good stuff is.

Then we gently broached the subject of Helli and the legs. Zeno and I were getting concerned.

“Wait,” Felegum interrupted, “guys, she’s right here. They might hear us.”

This was…unexpected. I’d kind of only figured that Nisbit would be able to use Helli’s body when she was awake, like he had to access her consciousness or something for it to work, but this was uncharted territory and Felegum had a point.

Zeno switched tacks. “I’m just worried,” he said. “If he’s overworking her, then obviously that’s not good for our friend.”

He sighed. “And especially worrying is the other thing. We want to go into the pyramid and explore catacomb entrances, but Helli is sneaky.”

And Helli, right now, was unavailable for sneaking. I could not imagine a worse time for anyone to be out of commission.

Felegum, in a typically Felegum way, studied the map. “Walking to the edges of the city could be good since everyone else is at the party.”

“So sad not to receive an invite.” Zeno turned to Huey. “Especially for you, bud.”

The skeleton slumped, perhaps sensing itself as the one undead not at the central pyramid. Zeno opened his infinite bourbon jug and poured a quantity of it down the skeleton’s throat. As it sloshed through the skeleton’s bones and onto the floor, it seemed like something shifted in Zeno’s expression.

He took out a mug and poured it full of bourbon, then set it out. I wasn’t sure if this was a dare or something, but he didn’t seem to be monitoring it or expecting us to do anything with it. He just left it along on a table.

“We,” he said, after performing this, “need to slow things down.”

I personally did not feel like drinking our way into oblivion was going to save the city, but I was open to any suggestion that led to action at this point.

“Theoretically,” Felegum mused, putting the map down, “we could slow things down by stopping the flow of zombies somehow.”

“So we’re looking at sneaking out catacomb entrances?” I asked, rubbing my temples. I didn’t relish having to try to figure out the map again, but if it would help, I’d suck it up.

“Or,” the mage suggested, “we could collapse the topside entrance to the pyramid.”

It was about a twenty-foot passageway, so this wouldn’t be impossible for our spellcasters, but like, I had to wonder if the Red Eyes would be able to fix this just as easily or even prevent it entirely.

Tem had also been deep in thought this whole time, trying to piece together her own solution to this problem. “What happens if Harry and I excrete out our breath attacks into a bottle?”

I shuddered. “Do you–do you have to call it excreting?”

“It’s more like an exhale,” Felegum added.

“My breath attack,” Tem continued, undeterred, “accumulates in these sacs here.” She demonstrated.

“Gross,” Felegum confirmed, “but still civilized.”

“If I express them,” she went on, “maybe we could collect it in a bottle and use it.”

As an explosive. I admired the thought process, as well as the willingness to go through something probably weird and uncomfortable for the cause, but like…no, when she asked me, I absolutely declined the privilege of expressing the breath sacs. I knew a lot about lizards, but I did not want to know that stuff.

Anyway, that’s how Tem ended up trying to express her own glands into a glass bottle in the corner. This was somewhat fraught as Tem’s breath manifested in fire and as much as having a liquid explosive would be awesome, no one wanted the Bacchus Jolly to burn down. She seemed to be having trouble getting the liquid into the glass without igniting it, which was not exactly confidence-inducing.

But we were kind of at the point where we would try anything, so we just let her do it, I guess.

We returned to our discussion of Helli and Nisbit, planning around them, as well as what benefits Nisbit could bring to our battle against the Red Eyes. Agreeing to treat Nisbit as an ally for now, we expressed clearly to Helli’s unconscious form that we needed her to be cared for.

Our talk turned to our enemies’ plans. Now that all the information was on the table, we could discuss bug gems and general extraplanar bug information freely.

“My current concern,” Zeno said, “is the dragons being used as a source of power. We need more information.”

“I can be invisible,” I offered.

We sketched out a brief plan of me and Zeno traveling in there, both invisibly, disrupting some stuff, and then bugging out. “But we’d need to know where we needed to go pretty exactly for that to work. My invisibility is greater–” he smirked at me– “but I’d need to act fast.”

I scowled. “Yours only lasts a minute. Mine is an hour.”

“I,” Zeno said, leaning in, “can cast spells with mine.”

“Is this what mammals call dick-measuring?” Tem asked fascinatedly.

“Yes,” Felegum sighed.

He looked like he was going to say something more on that point, but then Harry and Lankin returned, looking utterly wrecked, wheeling in a cart of garbage and bags.

“You look ghastly,” Zeno said in a pleasant voice.

“Yeah,” Harry replied. “I think a dragon tried to reach out to us.” He winced. “Lankin, did they reach out to us?”

Lankin thought about it. “Yeah,” he said. “I fainted and then I got back up.”

“It seemed like a dragon,” Harry clarified, “but I don’t know.”

“Wow,” Zeno said, “if only you didn’t have that Ring of Mind Shielding on.”

“Wow.” Harry repeated, clearly unamused.

Zeno smiled amiably. “Sorry, the wine’s too good. I’m sorry, Harry. Go on?”

The monk took a moment to compose himself. “Basically, the Mage’s Guild also got in touch. The timeline’s even shorter than we thought. This is a different group than the one that was doing it before and things are accelerating. The gems from the insects seem to be bringing in power.”

Felegum nodded. “Seems like time is of the essence then.”

“Yes,” I practically yelled.

Sometimes being with this group was exhausting. Everything around us was crumbling and we were constantly receiving signs to move, but instead of doing something remotely helpful, we just chilled out or went to get some scraps. And then got mad at me when I said that I was getting upset that my city was slowly becoming nothing.

Harry turned to me as if he could sense what I was thinking. “Waiting and learning is not doing nothing.”

“Oh no,” Felegum quickly covered, “that’s not what I was suggesting.”

Harry said that the message he’d received said that the gems were also powering something, and that if we could find the source and destroy it we might be able to slow down the process.

“Luckily, that’s out one strength!” Felegum said, brightening.

“I gave them Milto’s name,” Harry continued. “Maybe they’ll get in touch with him.” Then he turned to the legs. “Best I could do is metal bits and tools.”

The legs (and Helli) made no reply, but this wasn’t unusual.

Tem, however, would not let the thing that interested her the most be buried. “But the dragon?”

“Yeah, that was weird.” Harry rubbed his head. “Two things communicating with me at once was unpleasant.”

“Yeah, you need call waiting,” Zeno noted.

“It coincided with the crackles of lightning in the sky,” Harry went on. “I answered the dragon, but it knocked me to my feet. Also, felt like it was sucking out my soul.”

I folded my arms over my chest. None of my plans were going to work if they just sat around and let the dragons die.

“If you could spare some time–” Harry gestured at himself and his totally wrecked state.

“Oh, absolutely.” Zeno waved a hand cordially. I was about to lose my shit until he followed it up with: “But in the mean time, we could go ahead and take some gems.”

Felegum turned to the sleeping gnome. “Helli, can you talk?”

Groggily, our resident inventor awoke. “Yeah?”

I walked off in a huff, annoyed at the absolutely nothing that was happening, and happened to catch a glimpse of the dark hemisphere creeping about a third of the way down my city. I swore colorfully in Csipherian.

“Hey, Set,” Felegum called. “Want to help me work out this map?”

Sitting and thinking while my people suffered were the last things I wanted to do. I had left the city because I left helpless and I wanted to change things. I’d also, I could admit to myself, liked not being here: I didn’t have to see things get progressively worse while I stewed. It had also let me run away from a lot.

Now I’d returned, only to be in a position where I could actively see how horrible it was and still not be able to do anything. Not running sucked.

Not being able to do anything sucked even worse.

If I was on my own, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be on the front lines somewhere, and even if I got evaporated at least I’d be–

“I am so close,” I said quietly, “to walking out that door.”

And it would be so easy, to be angry and to act, to wipe a smile off their faces for just a moment, and be my city’s last big fuck-you.

“Please don’t,” Felegum said. And logically I knew that the map was just pacifying me into not running off in a huff, and I knew also that probably his interest in saving Csipherus didn’t extend much further beyond saving a civilized thing (and maybe all civilized things). But this was another friend, asking me not to be reckless.

“Okay,” I said, eyes still narrowed at the dome of doom outside. “But only because of our friendship, Felegum.”

“Thank you, Set. I feel important.” The mage smiled and spread out the map and though I grew increasingly frustrated trying to figure it out, I kept at it, though I listened in on whatever else was going on just in case.

Helli and Nisbit (one presumes) had a chat. Her hands had bloodstains on them from being worked raw, so points against centuries-old dude for that.

Zeno checked in on his cup of bourbon that he’d left out and seemed pleased. This could be interpreted as anything, though, as Zeno was always pleased by alcohol.

But then he offered it to our very tired gnome. “Hey, Helli,” he said with a grin, “looking for something with a little boom to it?”

He sipped it with a wink.

Helli tried some of it as well, then pulled back in a jolt of surprise. “Ooh!” she said. “Seems flammable.”

Zeno tapped the cup. “The water is evaporating, but the alcohol is not.”

The two of them (and probably also Nisbit) had a conversation about how they could make work with that in terms of explosives.

“I mean,” Helli said, at one point as they were talking about how long things would take, “it seems pretty serious. Set’s running around like it’s the end of the world.”

I raised my eyes from the terrible map to glower lightly from the other end of the room. Obviously it was the end of the world. It was potentially the end of Csipherus. Why would the rest of the world even matter if I lost this?

“Oh,” Felegum said next to me, perhaps already scenting trouble, “you’re talking about the accelerated timeline?”

“Yes,” Zeno stressed, turning back to Helli. “We do not have weeks.”

The monk winced as he shifted. “Yeah, the mages will be here in four days and that will be too late.”

I lay my head on top of the map.

Four days. And we were just sitting here messing around instead of doing anything.

The weight of this new information– that my city without intervention had like half a week to live– was a lot for me, but luckily Felegum was able to draw my attention back to the map, and we came up with a few good places to investigate for catacomb entrances. I was much better at finding these things out in the field anyway.

Helli continued to mutter to herself about arms, Harry and Lankin made noises about spending the night resting, and this is about where it got to be a little too much for me.

I don’t remember everything I said, but I was pretty furious. We had no time to be playing around, and yet here was a sizeable portion of our party getting themselves injured for trinkets and trash. I didn’t get it. Was this not serious to them? Did nothing matter?

Did the fact that it mattered more than life and death to me not matter to them?

I didn’t know what I could do beyond say I was really mad. I was choosing to trust them, but damn, it was hard when they were like this and then making fun of me for taking things so personally.

This city was about as personal as you could get for me.

But no, I was the one who was overreacting, I was the person in the wrong, not the people who played it so cool they let nothing affect them.

I could not stand that.

I think I said something about using my spells because everything was just going to waste if we slept.

Zeno perked up. “Can you make me invisible?”

Some of the tension around my shoulders dissipated. He was probably trying to make me feel better, same as Felegum had done. Because I wasn’t stupid, I knew that we needed everyone in the party at full strength, it was just stressing me out that we had to wait another night and lose time.

Also maybe he really was admitting that my invisibility was the best. I was not above being complimented for my frankly underrated skills.

I took out a piece of gum arabic with one of my eyelashes in it, waved it around, and made a big production of tapping Zeno. “There you go.”

He vanished both from my vision and from under my hand almost immediately.

Then something whispered in my ear. “Set.”

It made me jump, because it was higher pitched, almost like a girl, but then I smelled the bourbon. I dropped my concentration and a crouching Zeno snapped back into view.

“Oh!” he said in half-laughter, half-frustration.

Across the room, Felegum’s voice whispered in my head. “Set. I’m whispering.”

“I can see you!” I pointed at him. “Also I can hear you whispering!”

This was really getting to be too silly. I mean, I appreciated them both for trying, I really wasn’t going to be a huge dick about it, but–


A third voice spoke this time, impossible to mimic. It was one I’d known for a long, long time.

I stood absolutely still.

I feel the souls of the city disappearing one by one. Your brethren. The shopkeeper at the corner. The kindly woman you used to buy figs from as a child. All of them winking out. You cannot do this alone.

I scrambled. “All those people. Can I get them back?”

I do not know. They are being fed to a god of the dead, a death deity, by a great worshipper.

This sounded terrible. I barely had time to register that before the voice switched to my other ear and continued to whisper.

They are channeling powers through several planes. This great worshipper wishes to become a paragon, an avatar of this deity of death. Left alone, they will end all life on this plane as we know it.

“I know that,” I said, because I did kind of know that even if I didn’t know the whole thing. “But it doesn’t seem like anybody else wants to go with me to stop it.”

Sometimes you are so quick to action, the voice said again. I’ve been watching you for a long time.

It paused, as though to sigh.

A good place to enter may be one of four nodes in the center of a great location of the city. If you are able to disrupt two of the four nodes, you’ll weaken the spell enough for it to slow down in time for help to arrive. You have friends coming from many sides.

I clenched my fists. “It’s hard to trust you when you say to wait like this. I hope you know that. And I hope you know that I’m choosing to believe in this.”

When you find lines on the wall, follow them to the source and remove its heart.

This last thing I could not make heads of tails of, but it sounded like Lathander thought it was essential, so I kept it in mind. I shook my head.

“Well,” said Helli, “the city is dying now so there’s no commerce.” She paused, then seemed to be talking to someone else. “Is there anything else that uses these power gems?”

I cut in and explained everything that I’d just heard.

“So,” Tem said, steepling her fingers, “the Red Eyes are not working for Tiamat.”

“A god of death,” Felegum repeated, no doubt racking his brain for an answer.

“So,” Tem said again, “we’d end up with an avatar of death, or Tiamat, or…bugs.”

“Or,” Zeno interrupted, “just no avatar.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “I like that best.”

A little more discussion and looking at the map, and we found a promising way in by the water treatment facilities.

Felegum went upstairs to check on Harry, who presumably had left again in an angry huff, and Zeno turned to me. “Sorry, Set, I think Harry is right in this instance. We need rest.”

I didn’t like it, but I didn’t really have a choice in this one. Everything told me I needed these people. I knew it too, but it still hurt.

“I guess I’ll pray in the office,” I said.

Kalends asked me to keep him company, and Felegum enchanted the wheels of his wheelchariot to be super fast.

We practiced throwing darts and knives, but still I couldn’t help but wonder as more of the undead vanished into nothing and more souls left my city. My parents were surely dead, that much was clear.

Were they still standing sentinel around the pyramid? Or had they already walked through that portal?

And if so, would their souls be as impossible to get back as Lathander thought?

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