We were back in the room with the massive chasm in it, plotting our next moves. Post-battle fatigue had set in, but we had one of the two hearts we were looking for. All we had to do was find where the next one was and we’d have bought enough time to disrupt the ritual for our allies to arrive.
“This could be an opportunity for us to hunker down,” Felegum said.
“An opportunity for a drink?” Zeno asked.
Harry held out his hand. To his credit, he did look thoroughly destroyed and had been dead very recently.
“Is now a good time to mess with monk vows?” Tem asked, concerned.
“Oh,” said Harry in a daze, “you didn’t meet my drunken master.”
“He also used to work at a bar,” Zeno said conspiratorially to the new dragonborn.
As Tem oohed over this new fact about Harry, Felegum did his best to navigate us to a “secret room” on the map. The hope was that we’d be able to get somewhere off the main path and have a spot where we could rest without worrying about the undead or whatever that bug had been catching up to us.
Unfortunately, the secret room, while indeed where it was supposed to be, had caved in under the stress of time and presumably zombie occupation. So, we walked a little until we found a nice place to take a lunch break, hiding ourselves as best we could. Then Zeno played a restful tune on his bagpipes, which though relaxing did little for our stealth as it echoed through the pit in the chasm room around us.
Then there was another disembodied scream, but this was like a cacophony of voices echoing through the pit. It was impossible to tell where it was coming from, though it was easy to tell it was creepy and unnerving as hell.
Felegum did a little magic during the less creepy part of down-time, learning something presumably, and Helli went to inspect the walls for more gray tubing that we could track. I took out the stick figure doodle of a family again and looked at it. Sometimes I missed running away from things and just going places for kicks, not always having to be on high alert trying to save my home. But my people were just as scared, if not more. The plague had lingered, everyone living under a constant thrum of fear, and then the monsters had come from within and without.
“There’s a weird vibe on this thing, Helli,” Felegum said after a while of the egg-gem. “It kind of gives a…” He shook his head. “It was not happy being there.”
“What else are you looking at?” the gnome asked.
“Ah,” Helli said. “We probably don’t want that here.”
“Maybe we can all get along.” Felegum paused. “But I doubt it.”
“Just because,” Harry said, meditating, “you don’t like porridge day doesn’t mean that no one likes porridge day.”
“Thank you for your wisdom, Harry,” said the sorcerer.
We settled into a discussion of potential plans.
“We could always follow the tubes through the wall,” I suggested.
“Set,” Zeno asked, “where’s your daddy say to go?”
I narrowed my eyes. “My dad is dead.”
Probably also a zombie corpse, possibly by now in another plane. Pretty shitty thing to have happen to a dad, pretty mean to bring up out of nowhere considering he’d probably been gone for at least a year. But okay. No, my dad had never mentioned weird tubes on walls in our final days together.
“No,” Zeno said. “Your other dad.”
I didn’t have another dad. That was Felegum. I was going to bring this up that maybe Zeno had switched us when Harry clarified: “Your sugar dad.”
This was massively offensive. I’d only just gotten used to having a god, let alone trusting one. Also, I thought I’d said that only to Zeno, but I guess the bard must have spilled my secret. Good to know.
Anyway, I couldn’t just let that stand. “Hey,” I said, rising to the defense, “Lathander has appeared as both male and female to me. So ‘sugar daddy’ isn’t really accurate. But no, he just said to follow the tubes to their source and destroy the heart. The same thing I told you before.”
We decided to keep following the tubing elsewhere. Ahead was a T-juncture with zombies along either branch of it. The tube, naturally, continued on.
“Huey,” Zeno hissed, “stand there.”
The zombie did, and we all stood behind him as a front to get a better look.
Indeed, there was no branch without zombies. It didn’t seem great either way, but we needed to keep going, so we made a plan. Helli would stick to the ceiling (literally) using her spider legs, as would I (not literally) using my broom. The crew below had done an excellent job impersonating zombies and surely would be able to continue.
Just in case, though, I clapped a hand on Tem’s shoulder. “I’m sure Bahamut believes in you,” I said, offering the guidance of Lathander just in case Bahamut was not enough.
I took off, following Helli well above the mess. Honestly, I loved my broom. Why deal with a problem when you could just soar above it?
Looking back to see how the others were doing cemented that I had made the right choice. Huey, after all, was a zombie so he blended right in, and Zeno might as well have been a member of the undead for all the skill he brought to his performance. It was as if he had taken on a pallid hue himself with a smoky haze accenting his stumbles and lurches down the hall.
Felegum, it must be said, tried his best. It was not the stellar dance performance that it had been when we were escaping in the sewers from Ahkmatix. Harry and Tem too tried to keep the magic of the dance alive, but alas: it must have been a one-night show. Also, Tem couldn’t see in the dark, so she kept bumping into walls and grabbing onto Felegum, hindering his own zombie abilities.
Zeno was leading the unconvincing procession down the northern fork and made good progress ahead. It had seemed like he found something of interest, but everyone else was struggling.
Felegum, perhaps not liking the one way zombie was getting a little too interested in him, shaped the earth and tripped his pursuer, sending it to the ground. Harry and Tem, though, had zombies interested in them as well.
Harry clapped a zombie to Felegum’s lackluster beat and stunned it, then turned around and stunned another who’d become too interested in the group. However, all the ruckus kept drawing more and more zombies’ attention.
Tem, still completely blind, tried to stomp a zombie and just stomped the floor. Harry, perhaps seeing that they needed stealth in this moment, attempted once again to regain his undead dignity. The two zombies he’d stunned shook off their stuns and snarled more loudly at my friends.
What a mess.
Somehow in her unseeing struggle, Tem stepped through the neck of one of the zombies after her and then through another’s, absolutely annihilating it.
Felegum shambled up to another zombie, close enough to point his finger at their chest. A small blue-white ray of frost blossomed out from his hand, icing through the zombie at close range.
Zeno, oblivious to all of this, continued to hobble his way through the pack and head toward the northern exit. Once there, he pointed at me.
It’s clear up here, his voice said in my mind. Get everybody else this way.
Helli maneuvered along the ceiling, positioning herself before leaping down into the fray, yelling, somewhat disconcertingly, “Only I have hands!”
Somehow she stuck the landing and managed to stab a zombie.
Anyway, feeling like this whole thing was getting out of hand, I sighed, shook my head, and withdrew a bit of fleece from my spell components. I should have known that this was a lost cause. Carefully, I constructed the illusion of a pack of skeletal forms overlaid on my friends. This stuff had to be really precise, taking my concentration to try to make the illusory skeletons’ movements match up somewhat with the drag of my friends’ feet and move the spell with them as they moved.
Sometimes I don’t think people realize how good at this I am.
Or maybe I really wasn’t that good, I thought annoyedly as a zombie attacked Harry, who should have been within my exceedingly well-crafted spell. Harry didn’t seem to mind this intrusion much, though; he just killed both of the zombies who’d screeched before.
More zombies hurtled toward Harry, Tem, and Felegum, and I eyed the fleece accusingly. That spell had worked; I was weaving it still, but damn. Someone like Ojutai, sure, I expected would be able to unravel my illusions. But an undead thing, and so many at that? Really? Was I slipping?
Tem breathed out in fire, lighting up several of the zombies, and I hastily re-knit the illusion to accommodate for the now-dim light. Seriously, this was a lot of work.
Below, Helli skittered back up next to me on the ceiling. “It’s safe over there, let’s go!” she hissed, pointing down the hall after Zeno.
I moved my illusion as the three on the ground moved, continuing to cover them and adjust for dynamic lighting. The skeletons rushing toward my group didn’t stop at the illusion. They just kept rushing forward, down the hall and through it. One maybe connected with Tem, but both parties seemed to shrug it off.
Instead, the undead reached the end of the hall and looked around confusedly as my friends passed by, still shrouded in my zombie spellwork.
It had worked.
I felt very smug soaring above them, adjusting the spell on my broom as we traveled to less populated corridors.
The hallways quieted.
“Uh oh,” Tem whispered, her voice carrying. “Silence is never good.”
Zeno hissed at her to shut up. “It’s frickin’ good, Tem!”
Felegum massaged his temples, perhaps exhausted from the effort of dancing or from merely keeping the ground crew in line. “Let’s keep this illusion up as long as we can.”
So I did. It was ten minutes of careful augmenting and shifting as I flew, but it was good practice and we didn’t really run into anymore in the way of zombies (not counting Huey). We headed, according to our resident mapmaker and navigator, toward the loop on our map of the sewers.
“Oh my god,” Felegum said cheerily, “I’ve wanted to see what’s in this big circle for so long!”
Time was of the essence, sure, but this was one of the happiest I’d seen everyone else for a while. We couldn’t spend forever here, but surely a little exploration couldn’t hurt. They’d done a hell of a lot (including literally, you know, die for the cause) already and we could all use a break from constant battle.
The loop area opened up onto a landing overlooking a massive, incredibly deep hole. I don’t know quite how to express the scale of this thing. Like, to say it was huge was an understatement. Even when we’d been in Egonia, standing on the edge of the chasm that led to their mines, that ravine had been crisscrossed with pathways, ladders, and bridges of varying construction. While the bottom might not have been visible, that place had still felt full.
This was just yawning emptiness, void that stretched on and on, almost pulling you in.
But why? Why carve out such an incomprehensible space below Csipherus? Why go through that effort? I’d always thought our greatest secret was our catacomb. This was something very different.
A single path wound its way down the a spire at the center, big and open. It was impossible even to see across to the other side.
“Echo!” called Tem, paragon of stealth.
Everyone else shushed her.
We all took a moment to look around for more of the strange grayish tubes that had led us to the insect room, and didn’t see any. Everyone was curious, though, so we proceeded down. As we walked, more of the shape of the place became clear, even though it was impossible to behold it all at once. The paths curved in a pair of parallel helixes, elegantly arching over and under each other on the descent.
After two rotations, a couple of platforms came into view. There were planks and then something that looked like a dock. This far below the earth? It seemed almost suspended out over the air, like it was floating on its own.
I checked in with everyone to see if a quick five-minute search was okay, and then flew out over the chasm to the dock on my broom. It was about one hundred feet away, so I wasn’t worried.
It was indeed a dock, one specifically for skyships. No matter how many times I looked things over, it didn’t get any less weird to see this underground. There were a few crates that had been pried open, revealing a mess of straw. Curious, I poked through them.
The first two weren’t very interesting (more straw–for what? nothing revealed itself), but the third one contained a small chest, well-buried in its straw. It had taken me a few minutes to dig out, and I could tell it was something I wanted to spend more time with, so I packed it up and flew back out to rejoin the others and present my find.
“It’s a skyship port,” I said, gently hovering over the crew.
“Weird!” Zeno said.
“Right? No idea why something like that would be down here,” I said.
“What powers a skyship?” asked Helli.
“Also no idea.” I shrugged.
We continued down. By our third pass around the massive loop, we managed to find the correct passage that Felegum had been looking for on the map, which was a relief.
“This is a strange place,” Zeno observed.
Felegum sighed. “I really want to adventure down here, but we have to save the world first.”
“Yeah,” the bard agreed. “World first.”
“Loot later,” Tem emphasized.
I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me specifically or to those two, but I didn’t take the bait. The city had always provided for me, even when everything else had failed. And if we were reappropriating things from various places in order to save it, then I imagined Csipherus would be okay with that.
Or I would, if I was a city. I wouldn’t be mad, is what I’m saying.
“Guys,” Felegum called, his keen half-elf eyes seeing something, “I think there might be a ship down there.”
“A secret ship?” Zeno leaned in close to the edge.
“Have you guys heard of the Underdark?” the mage asked, somewhat hesitantly.
“Now I’m too intrigued,” Zeno said. We went down.
The ship was anchored with sandstone moorings, but a ship it was, born for the skies, about sixty to eighty feet long, boasting triangular backsails. On its stern was written (in rather nice calligraphy, I had to admit): The Winifred.
“Doesn’t look Csipherian,” observed Felegum, saying what I was just about to.
Zeno hummed. “I think I knew a Winifred once.”
No one wanted to ask him in what context.
“Feels kind of gnomish,” Helli said, interest clearly sparked.
“Maybe Fallow’s Reach,” Zeno added. “Or Reach’s Fallow.”
Honestly, it could have come from anywhere. That was kind of what airships did. Definitely not local, that was all I could tell.
“Helli,” the sorcerer asked, “do you think we could operate this?”
Helli glowed. “Nisbit!”
Whether this was a cry of inspiration or her literally talking to the spirit that inhabited the spider legs she was bound to, only Helli would know. But she seemed deep in thought, perhaps also deep in conversation with the famed alchemist.
“Guys, I really want to go into this thing.” Felegum’s voice had taken on an elation that hadn’t been in it for a long time. The curiosity of learning something new, seeing something different he’d never seen before.
Zeno whistled at the ship. I wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but he got no response. Like I said, I didn’t know anything about airships beyond that they were stupidly guarded and generally difficult to take from. Maybe you were supposed to whistle at them, per tradition. Wouldn’t surprise me.
Helli, Felegum, and Tem left to go explore the airship. “Don’t take too long,” I called out after them. A little sidetrip was okay.
I hadn’t seen them look this happy in a long time, and the time we spent here, like fifteen minutes? Definitely worth it.
“Yeah,” Zeno said, waving as the others departed to the ship.
It was a long fifteen minutes. And then a longer twenty. Twenty-five.
In a moment of mild pique, I opened the chest I’d taken off the dock. I was going to wait for some downtime with everyone to ooh and ahh about it, but I was getting nervous and my hands needed something to do.
And honestly, it was the right move. Opening the lock was like moving through the practice exercises that Kalends had taught me with a dagger: fluid, easy, calming. Like the world might be chaos beyond the reach of my hands, but right here, in this tiny sphere of influence, everything was where it should be.
Inside was a small vial with wax on top of it and a small pouch. The wax on the vial was a Csipherian symbol and the liquid inside was clear, though I had no idea what it might be. The pouch, while small, was surprisingly heavy, and on further inspection contained a fair quantity of gold dust. Rad.
I pocketed both and left the opened chest where it was on the ground. I wasn’t about to lug that sucker around anymore than I had to.
A few minutes later, the airship crew returned, Tem carrying a lit torch with her.
“Sorry, guys,” Felegum called, “Helli got a bit distracted but she did start the ship.”
I sniffed. Yeah, that explained the smell of ozone in the air.
“Also,” the mage continued, “Helli, do you want to tell them about what you found?”
Helli brandished a barrel that looked kind of like the beer keg she’d hauled around for weeks when she found that ale she really liked. “You know how we were looking for explosives?”
She popped the top off and inside was a fine black powder. An incendiary sand, someone called it.
There was some brief discussion about whether or not we wanted to take it with us. Some members of the party thought that it was asking for trouble and others viewed it as a useful tool.
“Harry,” Zeno said, “you’re awfully quiet.”
The monk considered it. “We didn’t find any of the things we were looking for,” he said after a pause. “I think we should keep going.”
I had to agree. This was good to know about, sure, but we didn’t come down to this incredibly haunted place in the middle of the end of the world to goof around on an airship. After we fixed the city, totally. Maybe even after we fixed the heart problem. But for now? Nah.
What followed was some small drama about the incendiary sand and its status, but eventually Zeno and Felegum decided to risk it for the biscuit and put the barrel into HFVNN.
“He likes spicy food,” Felegum said, panting as he hefted the heavy barrel into the bag, “must like danger.”
We continued back up the spirals and through the halls. The smell, it must be said, was not good. I was beginning to get worried that we’d just aimlessly be wandering catacombs, looking for more tubing and not being able to spot any when we reached a corridor with pillars that seemed similar to the ones we’d run into before.
Everything smelled damp, and there was a small river of water running along the floor. And beneath that water were tubes.
I unsheathed my knife. Time to be a compass.
But when I stabbed this tube there was nothing but pain. A shock of it, so blinding that I was caught off-guard. I couldn’t move, couldn’t think. I just stood there for what felt like an eternity in pain.
Then gradually it wore off enough that I could pull back, but I was all clammy, weirdly sweaty and cold by turns. I tried to think but everything in my head came back muddled and strange.
“You okay?” Zeno asked.
I had to think about it. “Yeah?”
He nodded. “So, which way is it?”
I paused. I tried thinking back through the whole process. What had I felt? Pain, yes, but a direction? The last time it had been so clear, a draw and a pulse. This was all noise and no signal.
The cold realization crept over me: I had no idea.
Zeno was looking to me for an answer. And yeah. We needed me to know this and I had no idea which direction we needed to go.
I stabbed the tube again.
It was not a familiar pain. Not like the dragons, not like anything. It was just screaming in my head and pinpricks of shock all over, deafness and cold and watery skin and–
–and then there was Harry leaning over me snapping shut his healing kit. And I still had no idea where the power was directing me to go. I wearily got to my feet, but Felegum really insisted that he could figure it out without me having to stab the thing again. We headed north.
The water deepened as we trekked onward, and then the tubing disappeared under it.
“Guess we’re all going to get wet,” Felegum said, sighing.
“Ew,” Zeno replied. “Can we not?”
The water appeared clear and descended on a slope. We all went into it, but once it passed my waist, it felt weird. Like a similar sensation to what I’d felt before. Once my knife went below the water–pain, again, sharp and fast.
Understandably, this was not great. We paused for a bit and talked about what exactly this could be. Was this water not really water after all? Was the knife just really angry it couldn’t drink all this stuff up? Or was this, as some of my friends pointed out, possibly connected to the last time that my knife had really hurt me– when I’d pitted it against its maker, a sandwurm?
I tried keeping the knife above water, which seemed to work, but there would definitely be a point at which I’d have to swim with it. I sheathed it and tried swimming. It was doable, but everything I had was going into concentrating on swimming and the knife.
We sent Helli down to scout, since she had the Cloak of the Manta Ray and had become a champion octopus swimmer (with an assist from the Nisbit legs).
While she was exploring, Felegum threw me the Robes of the Abyss to try wrapping the knife in. I gave it a shot. It was a nice shade of black, I had to say.
Helli swam back and reported that there was a chamber like the insect one we’d just come from. There were also, as there had been in the last one, terracotta warriors, at least eight of them, protecting it. “There was also a mammal,” she said, “kind of gray, not a mermaid–” at this Zeno visibly deflated– “but they may know we’re here and we may need to be ready when we pop out.”
This posed an interesting question. We did have a ton of incendiary sand. If there was a way to get that sand into the chamber and then set it on fire without putting ourselves in the path of its destruction– we might be able to make this next heart battle a little easier than the first one.
“I could do it,” Tem said. “If we rest.”
We were all treading water, me with a robe-wrapped, sheathed knife over my head.
“That’s not very restful,” the paladin commented.
The group agreed, and we headed back to land to take a break and evolve a plan.