“Anyone want to hear some music?” Zeno said after we’d spend some time puzzling over the solution. “Helli, what song do you want?”
I scratched out a few more chalk marks on the back of the terracotta armor, counting out letters. At some point Zeno had nudged me when I’d written down a wrong letter, but I had mostly gotten everything together:
“Well,” Helli said slyly, “I’m really missing my music box.”
Zeno obligingly began to play the Wicked Arena for her, the reel making the drips on the watery cylinder before us go faster. Tem touched them in wonder and Zeno finished the song.
“We need to take the answer,” Harry said, squinting at his own work. “What does ‘take’ mean?”
“Harry, what are you talking about?” an out of breath Zeno asked, annoyed perhaps that his song hadn’t been the “arena” that the lock was looking for.
“It said ‘take the answer’,” the monk repeated. “How do you take an arena somewhere? As well as you made that tune. It’d be weird if the Red Eyes knew your song.”
All this seemed really old, too. Was it possible that this stuff had existed even before the Red Eyes? I didn’t know for sure. It’d probably been here at least two years, which was a lot of time. What if it was older, something that had kept the city going for centuries that had been corrupted, not merely added on?
Anyway, I was starting to get a little worried that if we took out all four we might do something irreversible to the city. I didn’t understand this kind of deep magic stuff, let alone place when it time it had occurred, and I wasn’t going to take that chance. Two hearts down should be enough to disrupt the spell, Lathander had said.
If we took out another heart, maybe that would make things even easier, or maybe it would weaken the Red Eyes’ spell and the city both. The city had to live on; that was non-negotiable. Leaving one heart untouched might be a good measure of caution then.
Also, everyone looked pretty exhausted. Especially Harry, who’d been slightly blown up.
“But,” Zeno went on, after Harry had expressed his concerns about our chosen interpretation of “arena” not being quite right, “I know words. And this word, ‘arena’, has a long history. It was a place where people fought, true, but it meant more than that.” He bent to pick up some of the sand on the ground. “The word was derived the very substance they fought on top of, the sand itself!”
On this last, he threw the grains of sand at the cylinder in a grand arch. They shimmered down in a gritty mist.
And yet, even after all this: nothing.
“What if we wrote it in the nomadic language?” Helli asked.
I snapped my fingers. Dots on the podium that lit up. “Write in the dots,” I said.
“Okay,” Harry said glumly, taking on the task. “Hope I don’t get blown up.”
Again, nothing happened. I was annoyed, because yes, I did want to be right. We noticed that the lights on the podium were only able to remain lit this time if they were being constantly touched. Harry, on his own, couldn’t possibly write out the entire word at once. We’d have to each take a letter.
And so, Harry went on the A, Zeno took the R, Helli took the E, I got the weird squiggly N, and Tem mimicked Harry on the final A.
As soon as the last of us touched it, there was a vibration in the plinth, and a weird energy pulled us forward. The last time, the creature trapped inside had been pushed out. This time, needless to say, was very different. We tried to pull free but only got more stuck. Then there was a splashing noise and–
We were somewhere else entirely. Also, we were alone.
It was times like these, I ruminated, floating along by myself on a vast plane of water, that I was really grateful I’d chosen to leave Kheryph with Kalends. Swimming down to the heart chamber had been one thing, but being trapped on an endless ocean was just another. Not having to worry about lizard safety on top of wondering where everyone else had gotten to was kind of a relief, though for the first time in a long time I felt well and truly alone.
I replayed everything in my head. There had been a whirlpool. Everything had gone dark as we were all sucked into this massive cave with paths before and behind, and then I’d bobbed to the surface and found this air pocket. Weird rocks with strange fractal patterns littered the floor of this place like a maze, and small plants grew along the bottom.
I fished out the cube piece from within my things and began swimming in the direction it pulled me. It felt like it was getting a lot of different inputs, but was being drawn to one strongest, presumably closest one.
All of a sudden, the pulling got really strong and Helli surfaced next to me. I wasn’t expecting it and my cube piece got stuck to hers and we really didn’t have the time or means to pull them apart, so we continued swimming around together– she, this absolute water spider, and me just some guy, until we’d found everyone. We got to Tem last, but it seemed like she was doing okay.
Before us, caverns twisted back and forth with strange glowing algae creeping up the sides of the walls. The plants became more lush, themselves half fluid with water.
It was a strange and beautiful place, with water cascading down five of the walls in streams.
“Have we,” Zeno asked the group, “been flushed down the Csiperian toilet?”
“Yeah,” I had to agree, “I was wondering that. Also, are we about to get shark attacked?”
I didn’t see that strange many-finned creature here. The last heart-bearer had been dead, but a lot of things were different from the last time. For starters, last time was much simpler when the bug had just plopped out of its container, fully dead.
Small rock outcroppings sat above the water, creating five miniature lagoons. The walls were coated with that same spreading blue and purple algae.
It was about at this point that we noticed the skeletons at the bottom of the seafloor. They were humanoid and there were a lot.
This, understandably, did nothing to diminish my concern.
Zeno swam down and poked at one on its head. The skull fell off. Once assured that the skeletons weren’t pre-animated, Helli too went down to investigate and dived into the business of cracking open mollusks.
Tem just ate them.
Initially, I’d hung out on one of the outcroppings to stash my stuff because I’d thought that the knife would have been making staying in the water intolerable, but it wasn’t as bad. In fact, I realized as I shucked off my pack, the water here didn’t seem to be angering the knife. I hadn’t felt any pain from it since coming through the cylinder to this strange place.
Taking advantage of this, I too began an investigation of the lagoon floor, and after poking around some dead bodies, I found a cylindrical case capped on both sides. It was metal, but it seemed like it had the topography of an ocean floor etched on its surface almost. I shook it.
Something was inside. Possibly several somethings.
Harry went into a meditative state. I think. It was hard to tell sometimes with Harry.
Some bubbles percolated to the surface, probably Zeno playing an instrument underwater, some weird achievement only he could pull off. When he broke the surface, he was no longer alone.
“Everyone, don’t be afraid!” he called. “Tem, this one is mine, please do not smash. This is Barnacle Bill.”
That tracked. I’d been surprised that Zeno’d been able to blow Nightcaller underwater and actually have that work, but I supposed so much musical talent could not be stifled even by an aquatic environment.
Helli and I took a break from our searching to compare goods. She’d found a potion somewhere down there, so I pulled out the clear one I’d discovered by the airship docks for comparison. Hers was an iridescent green, which looked awesome. Unfortunately, without pearls, we had no idea what either of them did.
We lamented this shared problem. Neither of us were all that keen on just experimenting to see what happened.
I still didn’t see any sign of the many-finned creature, and that reminded me of something else I’d left out of my sight. “Oh man, if I forget that armor I’m going to be really upset.” I squinted at our watery surroundings. “It was super cool.”
“Well,” Zeno swum closer, “we probably need to go upwards.”
Upwards was not a very large hole. The entire geometry of this place was a little weird, not gonna lie.
“What about the big hole?” Harry said, motioning at the giant hole in the center of the lagoons intersecting.
“Oh.” Zeno looked at it. “Anyone want to take a dive down to Bikini Bottom?”
“Okay, so like be aware that it might not be dead-dead,” I added. “There are all these skeletons, and those had to be caused by something.”
Harry threw a rock into the deeper water. Nothing. All was quiet. It would actually be pretty serene if it weren’t for the aforementioned dead bodies.
“Well, guys, here’s a question,” Harry said. “How do you flip a room?”
“Drink enough,” Zeno replied.
On closer inspection, the monk had a good point: the room looked like half of an hourglass. Eminently flippable.
“I can walk on the ceiling,” Helli offered. Just real casual.
“It looks like the waterfall changed directions,” Harry said, pointing to the spot on the ceiling that he’d been fixing his gaze on during his meditative period. He then went on to explain about some rods that he’d seen sticking into the wall and his theory that maybe these two things were connected, the rods and the flipping.
“Sure,” said Zeno. “What do you think about it, Barnacle Bill?”
Barnacle Bill blubbered at his side.
Harry did a handstand. I wasn’t sure what this accomplished, but maybe the perspective helped him as he climbed up later.
Not trusting the rods to not totally flip the room, I found a piece of wall and grabbed onto it. Harry poked the rods. Nothing.
Then Helli went up there. “I think I’ve found something! I can’t get it out of the wall, though. Harry, can you help?”
“Try rotating it?” Harry suggested from below.
Helli dangled her whole weight off of it.
Seeing this not work, Harry grabbed onto the wall, no doubt intending to rocket himself upward to assist the gnome, and…faceplanted right into the water.
“That…” he said, shaking it off, “could have gone a little better.”
The next attempt was indeed much better. Harry grabbed onto the object and pulled, ripping it out from the wall. It was a long spear with a jagged zigzag pattern on it.
“Harry,” Helli called down to him, “is it vibrating?”
“Well,” Harru replied, testing out the balance, “it feels throwable. A little concerned that there are so many thrown weapons in this room.”
Yeah, as was I. What were the chances that other people had come here trying to kill this many-finned thing, and what were the chances that these were their bodies?
Anyway, Tem started to juggle mollusk shells, trying to arc them closer and closer to the ceiling. She started off strong, but then she dropped one, got frustrated, and then just chucked another at the hole up there.
“Well,” Harry said, “hole or ceiling, kids.”
“Well,” Helli said, “Set has a broom.”
True. “Yeah, I can get there but maybe not through.” I squinted at the hole above. It seemed not quite large enough to fit me. Maybe a Helli-sized person, but someone my size? Maybe not.
“Well, we’re not getting any younger.” The monk dove down and began swimming into the hole at the bottom of the floor.
A few moments passed before he surfaced again.
“Right! So it gets deeper. There’s a small opening that opens up into a larger pool of water. No details, just a never-ending pool of water.” The dragonborn paused. “So that’s something.”
“That is something,” Zeno agreed.
“Seems like an inverted room,” Harry added.
We all looked around for signs of inversion, I guess. I managed to pop off one of the caps on the rub I found, revealing some parchments inside. Familiar parchment. The nice kind.
I grinned. Oh hell yeah.
“Things in the water would fall to pieces over time, yeah?” Harry asked.
“Not if they’re magical,” Helli replied. She swam down, picked up a book, and leafed through it. It notably did not fall apart, despite its being down there. “This book isn’t falling apart, so I think it’s magical.”
“Uh,” Harry said, “the clothes of this skeleton aren’t falling apart.”
“I see a rope,” Zeno said.
“Are these cursed?” Tem squinted down into the water.
“Not in general.” The bard waved it off, as if such a thing was silly.
“Well,” the paladin replied, “then go get it.”
This was a losing battle. Zeno was not one to go get things.
“Give me a sec,” Harry called, “I’m going to go look at this clothed zombie.”
It probably was not a zombie, I reasoned, so I let him have fun disrobing a dead thing without poking fun at him (a service that my friends had yet to accord to me, I guess) and pulled out one of the papers.
It was weird, like when you don’t know what the words say but you somehow know what they do. Just like with that spell from Ingrin, I held for the second time in my life something powerful, trapped on a piece of parchment.
A spell that would reverse gravity. Two scrolls of them, even.
My breath hitched. Just imagine what that could do, wielded properly, in a battle against the Red Eyes.
This, just like my knife, was a weapon that could be used in service of the city.
Zeno sighed. “I don’t see anything in this room other than an ancient crime scene.”
“I would like to be out of this place,” Harry agreed.
There was another sloshing sound and Felegum’s head surfaced in the confluence of lagoons. Perhaps it had taken him longer to find us after we’d gotten sucked into this place, maybe he’d done some strange magic to follow us here, but either way, we were glad to have him. We caught him up on our observations so far.
Also, since Zeno wasn’t going to get it, I swam down and grabbed the rope that hadn’t disintegrated underwater. Strangely, I didn’t have to work very hard for it at all; it tied itself onto my arm as soon as I tried to unknot it from its previous owner. That was pretty cool.
Anyway, by the time I’d finished doing that Helli and Zeno had swum down the big hole that Harry had just returned from. To pass the time, I experimented with the rope. It seemed to wrap onto things really well, like exactly where I wanted it to go. The knots even looked really clean.
At some point, I’d maybe tipped my hand about the extremely cool scrolls that I’d found and then everyone kept trying to get me to reverse gravity. Meanwhile, I was not super keen on it. This group gave me shit on the regular for blowing through all my spells and now, when I wanted to hold onto something for a key moment (like saving my city), they were going to snark about me having ulterior motives? Oh, how the tablets have turned.
These scrolls wouldn’t even have been an option if I wasn’t so incredibly good at spotting cool things. Also, I didn’t appreciate everyone feeling like they got to tell me what to do with them. What if I’d just sat and stared at a wall like Harry? We wouldn’t have the scrolls.
It turned out that Zeno did not like the hole. A first. Helli had tried some experiment down there that didn’t work out in a comforting way, I guess.
“I hypothesize,” Felegum said, once all the facts had been relayed to him, “that this is a portal to the elemental plane of water.”
Under my city. Wild.
“Also,” he added, “I’m in the not reversing gravity camp. I think we will kill ourselves.”
I crossed my arms. “Thank you, Felegum.”
One, I felt justified. I liked having one person at least on my side. Two, that actually made sense. Tipping this room upside down and filling it with– from what I understood– what would be basically an infinite amount of water sounded bad.
Harry wondered aloud if maybe this too was connected to the Csipherian conduit, as the conduits themselves were connected to planes.
“Well then, what do we do?” asked Felegum.
“My sword has a direct connection to Bahamut,” Tem said.
“I can touch it,” Tem elaborated unhelpfully.
“Your sword?” Felegum asked.
Tem swung her sword through the water, through the darkened part that lead to the elemental plane.
“Worth a shot!” Felegum patted her on the back. Then he took another look at things, trying to spot what we might have missed. “Guys, I think there’s a passageway at the top there, on the other side of the stone.”
Zeno slung an arm around Harry’s shoulders. “You can do it, Harry.”
“Okay, I’m feeling inspired,” replied the monk. However, even he could not move the stone or get it to reveal its passageway.
“We’re trapped!” Felegum laughed.
“I just don’t see how reversing gravity is going to help,” I said sullenly. “And I don’t want to waste this.”
“Set, come on,” Zeno wheedled. “What use is saving that scroll going to be if we can’t even get out to save Csipherus?”
“I want to break the portal,” Felegum mused. “I definitely don’t think we’re in Csipherus anymore.”
Then he took out a crowbar.
“Why are you even carrying that?” Tem shook her head.
“Hey, he’s just a useful person,” I said. I would tolerate no Felegum slander after he’d advocated so tirelessly in favor of keeping my scrolls.
“I used to have to do everything myself.” The mage looked down at the tool.
It was a bit sad.
Tem sighed. “Give it here.”
Felegum happily handed it over, and Tem attempted to move the rock blocking the passageway with it. Again, it was immoveable. Again, Zeno whined about me not using the scroll.
And yeah okay, at that point I had really just had it.
I sighed very loudly, lashed myself to the wall with the cool rope (which, now that I had come to understand it, I had decided I would call the Rope of Perfect Knots, because that was what it did), and ripped out one of the two scrolls.
I unfurled it and read words I didn’t know how to read, speaking in tongues I didn’t know. The scroll burned beneath my fingers, evaporating into lines of golden fire, then ash. Magic surged through me like I too was merely a conduit for it, the most powerful spell I’d ever cast and probably ever would taking form as the last syllable dropped from my lips.
And then everything shifted. Gravity inverted itself, the bottom of my stomach dropping out as my body struggled to reorient what up and down meant.
The blockage in the wall dislodged and water began pouring in the room. Indeed, though, there was a passageway, and we all (after some time getting up to it) clambered through it. The spell, weirdly, was lasting a lot longer than I thought it would. Like, it almost seemed like time itself was dilating.
The passageway became a pipe, perfectly spherical, though different from the ones we’d encountered in the sewers back home. We came to a vertical point where the pipe opened up and split off, and lo, there, covering the hole was the many-finned creature.
I unsheathed the dagger. “Want me to cut it out?”
Since we seemed to be on a tear of having me solve problems, might as well, right?
“No,” said Zeno firmly. The water continued to rise at our feet, sloshing around our ankles.
Tem approached it, and I tsked, taking the opportunity to show the Rope of Perfect Knots to Felegum.
“We lost Huey, didn’t we?” the mage asked, after agreeing that the rope was very cool.
“Yeah,” said Zeno. “But we have Barnacle Bill!” He turned to his newest companion. “Barnacle Bill, bash this thing!”
Felegum also turned to Tem. “Tem, please do your thing.”
“Okay,” said Tem.
And she and Barnacle Bill began to carve into the many-finned creature. There was a lot of blubber, but eventually the two of them got to an azure, hexagonal prism. When the heart was exposed to air, the body deflated and collapsed.
And then we were back in Csipherus, back where we’d started out by the cylindrical tank.
Felegum diplomatically stepped in to prevent Helli from grabbing the azure heart. Meanwhile, Helli hugged the green insect heart she had. Whatever had been developed in the green gem-heart had now taken on more of a circular shape. “Maybe we should keep them separate?” the mage offered.
“Not a bad idea,” Zeno said, recalling Barnacle Bill from his task.
The water overflowed from the cylinder behind us. I guess it really had kept on draining from the plane of infinite water. That was maybe something to address eventually, but we were just exhausted.
We backtracked to that familiar chasm room that we apparently just liked to camp out in and Felegum set up the dome. Wearily, we set up watches. Felegum and I would suck it up and take first, Tem and Helli would be on second, and Zeno and Harry would be last.
Over some brief discussion, we figured that maybe all the warriors who had died in that room might have been fighting in some stadium even, not against the many-finned creature, but against each other.
Even though there was still so much ahead of us, I felt a sense of relief. We’d done it. Two hearts out of four were in our possession. I had a cool rope, Helli got some great arrows, and Harry had a javelin and also maybe finally some clothing that wouldn’t totally fall to pieces as soon as he pulled one (1) cool monk trick.
I was tired, but it was the good kind of tired. According to Lathander’s advice, this would be enough to disrupt the ritual and give us an opening. Maybe we’d go for more later, but for now, for the first time in a long time, I could rest without feeling guilty about it.
My city wasn’t safe by any means yet, but doom and destruction was less imminent. We had a brief moment of peace.
And I still had one last scroll up my sleeve for when that moment ran out.