Zeno casually threw some terracotta arms into the water, watching in satisfaction as they wiggled and groped for shore, with the last of his telekinetic spell, not deigning to touch the zombie parts himself. Typical. But, I had to admit, effective. Those suckers would take a lot longer to piece themselves back together.
“IF I MAY,” Harry shouted. Then he tied the tatters of his clothing together. I was unsure if this was to gather our attention or just him realizing that he was basically down another outfit.
Helli asked Harry for her gem.
“YOU CAN STILL SAY THINGS,” he bellowed. “I CAN READ LIPS.”
“Harry,” Helli repeated, “gem please.”
He looked like he was a little unsure why she wanted it now, but he gingerly unpacked it from his things all the same and handed it to her.
Before us loomed the cylinder of warped glass that encapsulated the strange figure suspended in liquid. It had three pairs of flippers, each large and powerful, and a skin not exactly smooth. Tiny drops of water plinked onto the floor.
Anyway, as exciting as that was, I had ideas of my own. That terracotta armor had been something to fight against and I was keen to see what I could do with it. Some of the bodies had leather boots and some vestiges of clothing, but what was really catching my eye was the spear tips. Those were rad.
Like, I didn’t even know how they got the metal to look like that. It wasn’t reflective or anything.
I tried cutting one off just for posterity, you know, but it didn’t even give. Badass.
Like I said, though, the armor was baller. So I got to work on cutting myself some of that. Unfortunately, the zombie was still wearing it and was putting up a surprisingly good fight for something that was harmless, so this took a while.
The others, not understanding the genius scope of my plan, moved on to investigate the plinth.
Harry picked up a stray bone and hurled it at the cylinder, to not effect. “GUESS WE HAVE TO SOLVE THE PUZZLE.”
Helli looked around for a similar table or a lever like the last place had had, and nothing. Zeno took the bone that Harry had dropped and poked spots, hoping perhaps to create a lever, and then, abandoning that prospect, tapped rhythmically on the plinth until the bone broke.
“Guys,” I said, one arm hooked around the zombie’s neck while I attempted to peel it out of its armor with my knife from the torso, “find the puzzle. Stop playing with it.”
I shucked off one section of zombie and panted. Ugh.
“Set, what are you doing,” Zeno deadpanned. “Why are you undressing that poor man?” He lay a hand over his forehead and looked skyward. “I’m getting hungover.”
I grunted and sighed. No one understood my artistic vision. No one got the aesthetic. Fine. Fine. I was used to it.
The plinth, from what I could see of it at a distance, had a ton of circles perfectly pitted all the way around it.
“WELL,” Harry said, “AT SOME POINT WE’RE GOING TO TRY THAT.”
He touched it. Nothing, at least that I could see mid-battle with this dude’s armor, happened.
“Helli, wasn’t there a desk?” Zeno asked forlornly.
“It was off to the side last time,” the gnome replied, “at little further away…”
She trailed off as both of them looked around, spotting no such furniture.
Tem made a thinking sound. “How did we solve this last time?”
“You,” I said with another grunt and a slice, “had to put scrolls in the right order.”
“SET ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION.”
“Yes.” I sunk the knife in again.
“I DON’T THINK HE IS,” Harry yelled sotto voce.
“Oh,” I replied with another slice, “I am.”
Harry continued poking around the plinth.
“Good! Keep going! Try touching more!” I called over my work.
“We’ve got whole island!” Zeno exclaimed, hands on his hips. “Let’s see. What looks extraordinary?” He took a leisurely stroll around the plinth for inspiration. “Why would there be stalactites?”
He looked between me stabbing a corpse for armor and Helli swaddling a giant rock. Then he sighed and pointed at the ceiling. “Harry, do any of these look weird to you?”
In response, Harry tried to run up the cylinder containing the many-flippered beast. It was very slick and he slid down.
“Are there,” I called over the body, “any magic things?”
“Yes,” Zeno replied. “Me.”
“I meant,” I retorted, gritting my teeth as I sawed through a particularly difficult muscle, “can you see any magic?” Something hit me. Like a rock or something. “Also be careful, I think there’s something up there.”
“Ugh,” Zeno sighed in exasperation and became an owl. He flew up in a swirl of feathers and disappointment.
Then he flew back down next to Tem and hooed. Then flapped. Tem, cautious at first, did not know how to interpret this. The owl flapped again, flew off toward the ceiling, and then landed again next to Tem. This time the golden dragonborn made a bold choice, hopping on the back of the giant owl.
Zeno flew her up to the ceiling, clearly straining, and Tem grabbed ahold of of one the stalactites to take the weight off of him. I nodded; things were clearly well in hand. Pleased that my friends were taking the lead, I returned to my work. Then Tem swore, presumably in Draconic.
It was the this point that I looked up, noted the paladin dangling from a stalactite and a winded bird heaving on the cavern floor.
“Wow,” I said before returning to my work, “that’s weird.”
Helli, probably seeing the others needed a professional, stepped in. She secured the gem to her back and then spidered it up the wall, passing Harry on the ascent. When she reached the spot where Tem was hanging out, she tsked. “They should know better than to inscribe limestone.”
Tem tightened her grip on the rock. “It seems to be an alphabet of some sort.”
Harry finally joined them up there. “THIS IS A PROFOUND QUESTION. ARE WE ALL SEEING THE SAME THING? DOES IT CHANGE IF I MOVE AROUND?”
Tem described it. I tuned it out. They had it in the bag, and I was almost done with the armor.
Something moved around me, but I ignored it, focused on the task. Then as I straightened up, I caught sight of a giant owl hanging directly above me.
“Wow, creepy.” I laid the armor lovingly by a wall as Tem and Harry shone a light on the ceiling stuff. Harry’s voice had finally returned to normal volume, a great relief no doubt to those around him.
There. The armor really did look pretty sick. I was proud of it and the effort it had taken to get it off cleanly. There was still some more work to be done in terms of making it fit, but the piece was at least mine.
I stepped aboard the broom and flew to the others on the ceiling, quickly catching up on the missing parts of what they’d found. Basically, weird lines on the ceiling. Also, four rods of water. Harry grabbed one, but it was rigid and not moving anywhere.
“Well,” he muttered, “these don’t shift.”
Zeno flew around the perimeter of the room and then threw up an owl pellet right onto my armor.
“WHAT” I yelled.
He transformed back into Zeno and looked at the dry-ass mess he himself had made. “Ew, gross.”
“I–” I was so mad I had stopped making sense– “I hope that smells!”
Zeno bent over and sniffed it. “It doesn’t! I juiced all the water from it! That was a knife. Look, Set, I’m just like your knife!”
“Cool,” I said darkly, “maybe sometime I’ll use you as a weapon.”
“What are you guys doing?”
I ignored him. “Are we sure we have the right orientation?” I asked, cocking my head at the inscriptions.
“Thought about it!” Helli said.
I squinted. It was definitely not Csipherian, that was for sure.
“Are Csipherians known for their cyphers?” Tem joked.
“I mean, we do love riddles,” I said. We had the entire Sphinx in a Hat series to prep kids for that from a young age. Too bad I’d never loved those books as much as other kids had.
As Harry looked through the glass rods again for more clues, I flew down and wrote out the first line of symbols on the plinth. It felt a little silly, writing letters in a language I didn’t know, almost like dancing to directions on the ground, but I remembered how the plinth had lit up when Harry had touched it before. Maybe there was something to it.
When I finished the first row, a symbol appeared. The glyph hung in the air for a moment, almost watery, and then vanished.
I gaped then realized we actually had to do something with this. “Zeno, please– are you magical?”
He blinked at me like this was obvious.
“What is this?” I asked.
“A fertility dance.”
I sighed. “No, I mean the rune.”
We’d redrawn the shape in the dirt and he stared at it for a long while. Something almost clicked, but not quite. “It’s from a language of persecuted nomads,” he said. “That’s all I know.”
Figuring that we were probably on the right track, I flew back up to the ceiling, refreshed myself on the next part, and then wrote out the second line. A new rune appeared.
“What about this one, Zeno?”
He maintained that he didn’t know this language, just that he’d recognized the shapes. We just knew that the letters belonged to it. I repeated the process of the third letter while Tem held on, flexing her muscles, and Harry just gripped the wall– honestly, unsure why the dragonborns didn’t want to come down, but okay– then I wrote out the fourth.
All the symbols appeared, though I had to write a few out multiple times for us to get the shapes right.
Zeno tried reading it backward, something he’d heard was important. Nothing happened. “I think it might mean ‘I will dry up’?” He shook his head.
A shiver went over me. I really hoped it didn’t mean that.
“Pocket raisins?” Helli suggested. She threw a few out and they just stuck to the walls.
We tried a few more different things, and eventually it became clear that this wasn’t so much a translation as it was the runes themselves. I tried just saying their names in order.
Then the symbols on the bottom plinth changed. What had been five columns, five rows high, became twelve columns, three rows high.
Then flashes of visions appeared.
First, a face of a creature, contorted with rage, facing off against another creature.
A sun rotating around in space.
A cloud of small insects, locuts, flying.
A temple, but from a low perspective, a road leading up to the building on the top of a hill.
The face of a man, eyes narrowed, snarling.
A little kid, jumping up and down.
A coliseum, filled with tiny crowds cheering.
Then a person with gray hair, old, a number of small circles and rectangles beneath them.
Dark clouds, a lightning storm.
A pig cooked and roasted on a display with other food.
A long-legged bird.
A person holding a basket as if to hand it to someone.
The face of a woman with silver hair.
Farmland and buildings in distinct shapes.
Musical instruments made of brass.
A rugged man reaching behind him, picking up a dwarf and throwing them.
A child, separate from a large crowd of people but next to them.
A person dressed out of fashion.
The flashing image of a goblin holding a pot in one hand and then a sack in the other.
Someone in very nice clothing, brightly colored and bold, orating.
A cup of warm beverage, steaming.
A courtesan on the street, men reaching out toward her.
Then the shape of a pitchfork.
The visions ended and the plinth was now separated into 24 sections with dots and dashes. We got to work on translating those next.
And below that, the next puzzle, a circle, that might finally unlock the next monster trapped within: