We returned to the others and found Felegum hyped up on a fresh discovery. On his voyages with the eyeball out, he’d found a strange illusory wall by the treasure trove. Or at least, that was what it sounded like.
“I want to find this second vantage point,” he muttered.
“And what?” Zeno pressed. “Sneak up on them?”
“We could attack them later!” The mage was thrilled. “Using it!”
Harry did not seem to be into this conversation. “I know the combinations to get us out of this city.”
This was also something weird. Again, half of our group had found this super sick and very sweet hiding spot in the heart of the pyramid, and the other half and found a weird cube with an escape route from Csipherus. This totally tracked. Harry would know a way out.
“We should probably attack the red glowing body before it transforms back into being Yuval,” Helli said.
Felegum, also of the Destroy Yuval fanclub, nodded approvingly. “We could also try to find the fourth heart. I want a lead, though, so we don’t spend a lot of time wandering around.”
“Maybe send an eye out?” Harry offered.
“Yeah,” the mage said, settling in. “Well, I’m going to steer the eye. If you all want to sit on your butts, that’s fine.”
Zeno paused, then made himself comfortable. “A compelling argument.”
Felegum made some annoyed arcane gesture. He was quiet for a few moments and then said “uh oh.”
He did something else, a quick twirling motion with his hand.
“You good?” I asked.
Felegum shrugged. “Oh, just had to sneak past Savas, no big deal. Anyway, does this sound familiar to you?”
He described piloting the eye through an illusory wall, then down passages and caverns until he got to a huge open underground space with seven tunnels leading off of it and a stone basin of some clear liquid. It was fairly big, like six inches thick, emitting a blue-gray light, not unlike moonlight or starlight.
It did not sound familiar, but then again, I hadn’t been that into gods before I left the city. It had been a fraught time for me when no one seemed to be helping us. Why bother learning about them?
Felegum pressed his lips together like he’d kind of expected that from me and then returned to seeing through his weird eye. I don’t know exactly what he did beyond “going northeast” and “big cavern” but all of a sudden he yelled and dropped the spell.
“Felegum, are you okay?” Zeno asked, genuinely concerned.
“Guys,” Felegum said, his breaths coming short and fast, “you are not going to believe what’s down there. It’s a giant frog demon skeleton.”
“Aw nah.” Zeno waved it off, like yeah, you’re right, I don’t believe it.
“Is it…alive?” Tem asked.
“No,” Felegum said, only sounding mostly sure. “Maybe it’s a burial chamber? It’s a giant, giant skeleton.”
This gave us all some pause.
“Really?” Harry asked after a little while. “From the infinite water, maybe?”
“Would’ve been surprised if we didn’t find it,” Felegum replied.
I wasn’t sure if this was because of the frogs or because we just seemed to run into any available trouble. Probably both. I was kind of caught up in thought at the moment. I may not have known what, if any, ritual or religious significance there was to the basin and the skeleton, but I had some involvement with catacombs and I did know about the old Csipherus.
Being extremely venerable and also very metal, Csipherus had been around for a long, long time. Hence the ancient transportation networks and this entire pyramid and all. We were a city that continued to build on itself, sometimes very literally. This was partially why you’d find such weird stuff in the catacombs: sometimes a person had taken up recent residence in there and had made things weird, but more often than not it was a very old remnant of the ancient city.
I suspected that this was what the frog skeleton was and let the appropriate parties (i.e. everyone) know.
If we had a Csipherian historian maybe they would have clearer answers. As all local historians were probably either dead or temporarily undead, that option seemed out for now.
The frog skeleton burial chamber really was appealing in the more pressing sense as an alternate place where we might attack the Red Eyes from…provided we could get there.
“It might connect to the infinity cube?” Felegum posited.
“Mm,” Zeno replied with a nod. “Sure.”
Meanwhile, the food had shifted to brunch. There were omelet stations and an animated floating pan floating over them. The pan was awesome. I couldn’t figure out how that one worked and I desperately wanted to. I also just thought a floating self-cooking pan was such a good idea. The flame below it was magical, as was probably the cold bubbling wine and the yellow pulpy juice.
The frying pan flipped and materialized toast from nowhere. Eggs would crack– you wouldn’t see the eggs or the shells, just the stream of egg inside stuff as it hit the pan– and I got a delightful serving of fried eggs on toast.
I watched, mesmerized as Helli whispered “burrito” into the pan and ingredients sprung forth from the table as though divinely summoned. Breakfast burrito in hand, the gnome went another round trying her luck.
This pan could solve almost all of my problems. The obvious ones, like the city being full of zombies, no, but like, infinity food–good food, too– to feed a broken population? Or just to take with me on my travels? Well, that would be pretty sick. And it seemed ungrateful not to accept gifts that the divine was throwing my way.
Long story short, I tried to grab it.
It got away.
“Aww, come on,” I said, not that mad, and sipped my pulpy juice. It would have been cool to have a cool pan.
Anyway, it was at this point that the other half of the party explained the weird cube. Apparently it was yet another transportation network spread through the city based on the gods of Csipherus. Harry went on and on about how we needed to memorize this one escape route in case we got stuck in the cube, and surprise: it was the combination or code that led to getting out of the city entirely.
I memorized a different one. Just to be contrary. And also because if you didn’t know that I wasn’t leaving this place at this point then you were just not paying attention and that was a you problem.
The cube sounded pretty whimsical until Zeno lamented the loss of Barnacle Bill to it. They’d actually tried to go back and find him, but the cube rooms didn’t seem to be the same iteration-to-iteration. Very weird. I’d given my condolences to Zeno on the loss of Barnacle Bill, and Zeno assured me that it didn’t set him back too much as Barnacle Bill had at that point lost both his arms.
We decided to move and try out the cube again. Felegum’s thinking was that between me and Tem, supposedly religious people, we might be able to unlock more exit points. I wasn’t sure that Bahamut was a big player here in the city and I had no training beyond a pretty chill hooded bro nodding at me that one time in Tormani, so I honestly didn’t know what Felegum was expecting but I was game to give it a try.
As we headed into the hallway, I gave the guardian statue a bow. Again, I was wholly untrained in this stuff; I was just making it up as I went. But that felt right– a thank-you gesture to someone who had helped greatly when they hadn’t been obliged to.
Felegum copied me and Zeno gave a toast.
Then we entered the cube.
It was non-descript, except for six symbols over each exit with one exit on each side of the cube. I supposed there was no backing out the way one had came.
In this first room in the series, we had doors with roses, snakes, birds, bees, ants, and a sea turtle.
“Set, go look at the symbols,” Felegum said, genuinely excited to see what Lathander knowledge I was going to drop.
“Ugh.” Now I was going to feel awful when I disappointed him. I hated that. I didn’t feel bad about this too much because I’d made it pretty well known that this was not something I was prepared for. Like, on a scale from “Set tries to shoot an arrow, a complete and laughable nonskill to Set” to “Set cannot pick the locks binding his best friend to a torture table, a thing he should be very able to do well and quickly” this ranked very low on the embarrassment rating.
Luckily, I was saved by an eager paladin.
“I wonder if these are like Bahamut’s canaries,” Tem said softly.
I didn’t even know Bahamut had canaries. This is exactly what I mean when I say I don’t know much about gods. Did Lathander have a pet? How do you even find something like that out? It had never come up.
“All is right with the world,” Felegum said, breathing out a sigh of relief.
“Are we okay if we go through the bird for Bahamut?” Tem asked.
“Yes,” Harry said, “but what would the next symbols be?”
“Let’s just go!” encouraged Felegum, which made sense as he no doubt both wanted to do something and also learn more about this weird magic artifact we were stuck in.
The birds door was on the ceiling. This posed some light difficulty for some people, but not for me or Helli, as I could fly and she was just incredibly leggy these days.
The door opened into another perfectly smooth, stone room. There was the same set of six doors, except this time the symbols above them were a nest with two eggs, a leaf with a cocoon, rolling waves, a serene figure, a stylized eye, and a bug emerging from a chrysalis.
Tem took a good look at all of these and put her hands on her hips. “None immediately scream Bahamut.”
“But sometimes he wanders in the guise of a traveler,” she finally said, and went through the serene figure door.
Again, the third room was predictably similar. Again, there were six doors with six symbols, except now they were materials: gold, moonstone, emerald, petrified wood, rose quartz, and amber.
“Gold,” Tem said, “since we have a gold dragon court?”
“Makes sense,” Felegum agreed. It wasn’t like there was platinum or any other metals.
“Yes,” Helli said tentatively, “but I like the emerald door.”
We went through the gold door at Tem’s behest and once again, we were inside the strange cube room.
It looked like Tem’s choices hadn’t quite been a win for Bahamut. Or, again, maybe Bahamut wasn’t that big a deal here.
Oh well. At least we’d learned something.
“Are you guys recording combinations?” I asked Felegum. Basics of solving puzzles, you know. Don’t repeat needless work.
“Oh,” the mage said, as though this idea had not occurred to him or anyone in the subgroup that had discovered this place. “No, we should do that.”
I nodded, because yikes.
Then I got to try. I went for bees– the city always reminded me of a large group cooperating together and also honey was great– and then the stylized eye– eye makeup was rad, also great for keeping off bugs– and then amber, since every time I manifested my wings after asking for Kheryph back, they’d gone amber and I’d grown to associate that with Lathander.
The third door opened back into the empty cube room.
Again, I should specify that I really don’t have formal training in this stuff. It has been a learn-on-the-job experience.
We did record which ones weren’t working, so at least we were still gaining some useful infromation.
At that point, it was only fair that Helli also got a stab at the doors.
“I vote for turtle,” she said, and thus began again escapade through the rooms, going turtle, bug emerging, and then emerald.
Once more, we were back in the same room.
She sighed. “Felt right.”
“I can respect that,” I said, having chosen my rooms in exactly the same manner.
And then things got extremely hazy and the nascent magic of the place crept up and did weird things to us. The others’ eyes got more sunken and they just looked bad. Horrifying to think that the same thing was probably happening to me too. I had enough problems.
Once the box had died down, we discovered we’d more or less been aged by a year. After being caught weirdly between seventeen (my actual lived age) and nineteen (how old it would make sense for me to be) for so long, I was now neither but instead a third, magically augmented age that was going to be even more of a pain to explain whenever anyone asked.
I was so annoyed. At the box, sure, but also at these cheeseheads for not bothering to write down their wrong solutions and expending precious un-aging tries on this dumb puzzle.
At this point, it was in everyone’s best interests to get out of the box. I no longer had interest in playing around with a thing that wanted to hurt me; I was flat-out booked in that department for the foreseeable future.
We exited into what I presumed was the bathhouse room the others had discovered. It was a hallway with red drapes and once I had my bearings, it was in an upper-middle class neighborhood. It was also built into the stone base of a temple with wide communal baths for people to chat and partake of the healing waters.
There was a red crack of energy and then rumbling thunder in the distance. The waters, admittedly, did not seem to be doing much healing at the moment.
We were in the southern part of the city, so we headed northwest. This, I think, was Felegum’s intuition about where the fourth heart might be– it made sense that they would be clustered around the center of the city.
I should also add that after a whole bunch of conversations with people, my views on the fourth heart had shifted. Harry repeating that Paripas thought acquiring all four hearts was a grand idea did not sell me on it, strangely, but Felegum’s more detailed magical analysis and Zeno’s surprisingly sound reasoning convinced me to give it a shot. We didn’t have evidence that the city was going to blow up, and the ritual still clearly was not disrupted enough to bring down the barrier.
Maybe a fourth heart would do that.
Also, I admit, I was curious.
We picked our way north, over some barricades that had been even more disassembled than they had been a week ago. A pile of rubble lay across the road. I was out in front, ready to take out anything weird, when a dark shape darted in front of my path. It wasn’t undead, but like, it was giving me a weird vibe.
So I dashed after it. If this was something important, a clue, then we needed someone fast to catch it, and luckily I was very fast.
Unfortunately I did not catch it. Also, on further reflection after chasing it down an alleyway, I thought it was a racoon or cat or something. I rounded a corner just as it disappeared down a drain. Also for some reason I’d decided the pursuit would be better if I was invisible.
So there I was, invisible, standing in a dead end, with nothing to show for my efforts.
I looked into the middle distance. A bird flew away.
It was at this underwhelming point that the others caught up. How, I wasn’t sure. Maybe I was just really loud for an invisible person.
Felegum asked me what I’d been chasing and I sighed.
“Well, nothing.” I glared at the grate. “I thought it might be a person. Or a familiar.”
It just felt really rare to see life of any kind here in Csipherus that I’d just felt compelled to investigate. In retrospect, yes, it did look pretty dumb. Still, given the choice between looking dumb because I checked it out and looking dumb because I hadn’t, I’d still choose the former.
We were, spookily, back around where Hat-Broom Man had been killed, which meant that we were also near the realm of the Trash Man. “Realm” felt like a very generous way of describing it.
But, since the sewer was also potentially connected to the catacombs and we were now invested in finding heart number four, we went down.
Also, Felegum wanted to find the cat or racoon or whatever it had been too.
It took some time, but eventually we tracked down the suspect.
“Hello friend,” Felegum said as the face of a racoon popped up and then quickly waddled off down a sewer hallway. “Oh my god, it’s so cute.”
He then chased the racoon, as I had. I remained invisible, but followed until, out of nowhere–
“Wow, didn’t expect to see you here again,” a weirdly familiar, extremely trash voice said.
“That trash,” Zeno said, immediately airing past grievances, “is unsuitable for my waiflike constitution.”
“Mr. Trash Man,” Felegum cut in diplomatically, “you don’t happen to be a scholar of Csipherian history, do you?”
“I may know a thing or two.” Trash Man squinted at the mage. “Have you been drinking those eternal life elixirs?”
“No,” said Felegum.
This was really too much for me. I liked Trash Man as much as the next person, which I felt was a passable amount, but not extending a whole lot beyond either animating his skeletons or thanking him for escape services rendered.
So I picked his pocket.
I was also, again, just very curious what a dude who lived in the trash would want to keep on him. People have such different definitions of useful, and you never know when one of them will come in handy.
In his pocket, I laid hands on a tiny piece of cloth. Intrigued, I gently pulled it out.
“How do you feel about trading for trash?” Helli asked.
“One man’s trash is another man’s trash,” Trash Man said enigmatically. “What have you got there, little miss?”
Helli took out her remaining clockwork pieces that she hadn’t been able to find a purpose for. After some hemming and hawing, he traded her the box of them for a paper crane. Or something. I was a bit occupied.
“What about,” Helli asked again, perhaps being the best wing-gnome ever, “trash versus compost?”
Trash Man heaved a sigh. “This is an internal argument between me and my friend Francois, Man of Trash Transcendence.”
Just the way he said it made it sound like the capitals were there.
Anyway, Helli and Trash Man embarked on a small aside about the mushrooms that Francois grew down below the city and I began to feel vaguely guilty, but not quite as immediately bad as I was feeling in the moment.
I had been picking Trash Man’s pocket and relieving him of what I thought was a folded-up handkerchief. Let me preface this by saying that I have been trained in the art of picking pockets by literally the very best in this entire city, which is still saying a lot even considering its current state, and I had sensed nothing wrong.
However, something was very wrong, and that was me, an invisible dude, pulling out like twenty-five feet of an extremely folded-up very rainbow string of little fabric squares, somehow impossibly compressed into a misleadingly thin cloth. It just kept going and going.
I quietly wound the rainbow squares up, hoping that they would snap out of sight and go invisible once I put them in my own cloak or something.
“Trash Man–” Felegum began.
“You!” Trash Man rounded on him. “Are excommunicated from the league of trash!”
“Wow, that was fast.” Felegum did not seem especially put out, more just annoyed and confused, but not enough of either to push further.
“Trash Man, I have a question,” said Zeno, possibly also by now aware of my rainbow struggles.
“Is your waify disposition coming around to the ways of the trash?” Trash Man inquired.
“Well,” the bard said, “bourbon is just trash water.”
This seemed to please the Trash Man, and he allowed himself to consider Zeno’s question about eggs and gems (another way of talking about the hearts and the weird things that sometimes came out of them). He also, bafflingly, asked if Trash Man had any jobs for us, like anything that might need to be taken out, that we could be (excepting Felegum) paid for.
Somehow, Trash Man called Felegum a racist, at which Feleugm took offense and explained that no, he was murderous, not a racist.
“Yeah, well, we can move some product,” Zeno blithely continued. “So what’s our cut?”
“You can have all the trash in the alleyway,” Trash Man said, as though there was a lot of trash there and it was not just an empty wall.
“Is this an illusion?” Helli asked.
“Ugh! Idiots! Up ladders!” Trash Man grumbled, and we followed him up to a pile of random stuff. Trash, if you will.
The rules of the engagement (that Zeno had somehow talked us into) were that we could have as much trash as we could carry, but not in bags or anything or we’d be excommunicated.
“Like that one,” Trash Man elaborated and pointed at Felegum.
Zeno placed his hand over his heart. “We would never.”
The thing that we had apparently agreed to transport was a pile of stones.
“Is this…trash or rubble?” Felegum asked.
“This is very precisely collected trash,” Trash Man deigned to answer. “This is some of the best trash.”
We were to deliver whatever this was to Francois, Trash, Man, Transcendent. Having heard the title several times now, it seemed like there was a significant pause between each piece. Or at least that was what I was going with.
In other news, Tem’s shiny new armor was too bright for Trash Man and he didn’t like it, Helli found something for making stuff, Tem got a burlap sack that looked like it had seen many better days, and Zeno picked up what seemed to be a globe that had been punched.
Meanwhile, I had just been religiously taking out and folding back up the extremely long piece of rainbow squares. I wasn’t kidding when I said that it was like twenty-five feet. I was in continuous invisible pickpocket mode and it was very silly.
I did get it out all the way, though, and it was mine, even though I was excommunicated for my troubles when I snapped off the invisibility to jump scare Trash Man. It was still worth it.
Harry and Helli tried to find a dolly to transport all the pebbles. I was really unsure why we were even bothering with someone super unrelated to the fourth heart, but it seemed like everyone was getting involved. Tem, perhaps inspired by her burlap bag acquisition, used her sword to open HFVNN and in went the pebbles for transport.
Felegum had no trouble in locating Francois.
Or so we thought. The mage led us to a hole in the ground.
“Harry,” said Tem calmly, “does this look familiar to you?”
Harry turned to her. “Why…would this look familiar to me?”
Maybe this was a weird dragonborn joke. I didn’t know because I didn’t get it.
Felegum avoided thinking about this problem by just throwing the torch into the hole. This ended up being intriguing as the torch slowed before completing its fall.
This was confirmation enough for Zeno, who leapt in.
It was, as most things Zeno did, surprisingly beautiful and effortlessly elegant. He landed on a single foot, floating down unbothered by mortal concerns like caution or gravity.
Meanwhile, Felegum, who was bothered by such things, tied himself onto a rope and got Tem to hold it before his descent. He merely flailed in slow-motion the whole way down.
Vincenzo tumbled in, while Helli simply walked on spider-legs down and I got out my broom and flew. Harry stood at the top.
“Zeno,” the monk called. “Any weird magical stuff down there?”
“Yeah!” came the enthusiastic response.
This was an acceptable answer, and Harry leapt down.
“No, wait!” Zeno amended. “It’s blue!”
Harry swore, but at this point he was caught in the slow-mo freefall as well as terrible flashbacks of Aljahar.
Once gathered, we snuck down the passage over loamy soil.
“Oh, that’s bad,” I said.
“Yeah,” Helli agreed, picking up exactly what I was putting down. “Like the Sunken Citadel.”
We did not want to be sucked in like Meepo and several other bodies had been. This was unfortunately a very real concern whenever loamy soil cropped up. This instance, though, appeared harmless.
We encountered a dude who looked strikingly like Trash Man.
“…Francois?” Tem asked.
“Francois,” Helli amended, “Trash, Man, Transcendent.”
This was perhaps not exactly the order in which Francois had wanted those titles or maybe the cadence and he looked like he was going to make a big deal about it, but changed his mind at the last moment. “Eh. Close enough.”
“It’s the same guy,” muttered Felegum.
“FELEGUM.” Zeno gave this askance look.
“And you wonder why you were excommunicated,” Harry said, shaking his scaley head.
I too had been thinking something similar, but I was also excommunicated and additionally at this point in time did not like agreeing with Harry.
“SILENCE,” boomed Francois. At this point we couldn’t hear Felegum either, who did seem to be trying to talk.
“Oh shit,” Tem breathed. “He has lair actions.”
“Oh hey, very nice.” Francois’ attention turned to the stones that we’d finished transporting. “Now what shall we do…”
As he spoke, the stones unfolded themselves into little pill bugs. I both fervently hoped for and against any bugs being leftover in HFVNN.
“Soon,” a pleased Francois said, “the soil will become transcendent.”
I was obviously in favor of that, the first sign that this escapade was actually helping the city. In the background, Felegum covertly moved out of the zone of silence.
Someone asked Francois about the bugs and he’d mentioned that they’d had a devil of a time collecting so many of them. “We had to use these things–” here he pulled out a zombie, which promptly tried to each him– “bad body!”
“Oh,” Zeno said nonchalantly, “I’ve got those too.”
“Oh.” Francois nodded, seeing Zeno perhaps more clearly than he had before. “I see you are a man of taste. What do we call you, man of taste?”
“I am Zeno,” said Zeno, “Man of Taste.”
Again, you could just hear the capitals. After Zeno made an offer of a drink to Francois, Harry asked me if anything stood out about this scene.
It was at this point that I realized I must have done the worst job in the known and unknown universe explaining Csipherian culture if Harry or anyone thought that I viewed this as normal. In my life, had I taken and eaten things from the trash? Yes. Was this supposed to be common or normal? No. It had been one more symptom of a city devolving into a fraught, self-annihilating mess and I’d done what I’d had to in order to feed myself and my parents.
I was so lost in complete disdain that I lost track of the conversation until things got interesting again.
“I have seen a puddle,” Francois said portentously.
“That might have been us,” Zeno said. “Was it recent?”
“Depends,” said the cagey transcendence. “How recent?”
“A week or two?”
“Oh no.” Francois laughed. “That’s a blink of an eye.”
Francois continued to raise more questions than he answered, baffling Harry with a monk-like riddle and intriguing Helli enough for her to bring up transcendental machinery, which sounded very complicated.
I am not ashamed to say that I tuned out. Sometimes when things are very boring I do that and this was one of those times.
Zeno captured my attention again by asking about Trash Man.
“Yes,” said Francois in a complicated way. “We are no longer on speaking terms.”
“I’m sorry,” Zeno said.
“We still do business.” Francois was very brusque about it. “It’s been much harder since my last assistant did not come back from mushroom hunting.”
Suddenly I felt very bad. Those crypt morels had been great, though.
Through a weird series of events, somehow Francois ended up knowing that I played a not-small role in the end of his assistant and there I was, dagger drawn, Zeno looking mock-horrified to discover I was a zombie-murderer.
It was a tense few seconds and I don’t really know who calmed it all down, but eventually Francois showed us out. “Well, you can leave this way.”
He pointed at the ground.
Wondering if this was a weird veiled threat, I got ready to go for the knife again.
“How do we go through this?” asked Tem, who had a much nicer, more accepting heart.
“How do you go through anything?” Francois said, exasperated. “How do you go through life?”
This was a deep question and not one Tem was prepared for.
“You have to go head first.” Francois sighed, like it was obvious.
Tem, a believer, dove in. Francois laughed. “Oh no, you could just tunnel through.”
Felegum molded the earth to get the dirt off poor Tem.
I think maybe at this point I tried talking to the others about getting moving and finding that fourth heart– again, I was not immovable on this stuff, I just wanted to be relatively sure it was a good bet not to destroy the city and it seemed like a solid yes– and of course, because nothing is simple, Francois overheard.
“Wait,” he said, taken aback. “You have four hearts? That’s not normal.”
At this point, I was done explaining anything to Francois as he had proven multiple times that he did not care to listen. Instead, a struck a cavalier pose. “Try to take them from me.”
“Are you…” Francois paused. “…asking me out?”
“Uh.” Honestly, I was not. I had never been in this position. Usually it was the other way, where I liked someone and they thought I was either a literal child and therefore a nonentity or just they say no. This was weird and uncomfortable in a totally different way.
“What about the Red Eyes?” my fellow excommunicate jumped in, saving me from this horrible awkwardness.
There was another interlude of telling Francois about the Red Eyes and him listening intently, before returning a verdict of “too many limbs, fire and magma.”
This obviously also hit a nerve for us, as that’s felt a little too close to Egonia for comfort.
“Tell me about the fire and magma,” Zeno said. “Where did this happen?”
“It was…rhetorical?” Francois said.
“A volcano,” the transcendent continued. “Or a dragon who breathes fire. What are you looking for? This feels like a test.”
“Francois,” Zeno said very seriously, “I am asking for your experience.”
“It was hot, I didn’t like it,” the other man said. “I prefer cool climates.”
“Was it near here?” asked Felegum.
“No, it was a long time ago, in a place far away. Once could say,” he paused, “a plane far away.”
We all exchanged a look. Then we wondered about going down the pile again.
“What’s on the other side of the pile?” Felegum asked. “Trash?”
“Everything is trash,” Francois said, cryptically. “If you stand together, I can shove you down.”
So we did. Because yes, I still believed these people were the best chance of saving the city, even if they were getting shoved down into trash hole, and I was not going to let them go alone.
We landed in a big pile (not surprising) in what appeared to be a dump (also not surprising). On our way down, the layer of dirt dissolved away, then we went to a trashpile, then more dirt, and then we were in this huge open cavern.
Sitting in a chair at the far end was a familiar sight.
“How very interesting of you to make it this far in my domain,” he said.
“We seek the heart of the trash,” Felegum said. “Your trashiness.”
It took me a lot of effort not to scoff at this, because obviously none of the hearts of my city would be trash. Csipherus was great.
“Someone not sychophantic,” Trash Man said.
“We need a ritual site of trash,” Harry tried.
“Oh, you do need the heart of trash,” Trash Man said. Then he shrugged. “Well, you can’t have it.”
What followed was brief annoyance and then a tale of how the Red Eyes too had sought the heart of trash two to three years ago. While they had tried hard to find it, they were unsuccessful.
This personage revealed that no, they were not Trash Man, but rather the Lord of Trash.
It was wholly unclear whether Trash Man and the Lord of Trash were the same person, if Francois was also the same person, or if they were all different but extremely similar-looking people.
Zeno immediately bowed.
Somehow this was not sychophantic.
“No, no,” the Lord of Trash said. “This is a casual audience. No bowing.”
“Well,” tried Felegum, “if you think no one has drawn on it–“
“I don’t think so,” said the Lord of Trash.
“Then can we see it?” asked Zeno.
“No.” The Lord of Trash was very firm here. “Only those who have dedicated themselves to the trash. For years.”
“Hi, Francois,” said Felegum, taking a dangerous but brave tactic.
“I am the Lord of the Trash,” said he. “Lord of the Trash. That is what you may call me.”
Tem stepped forward, hand on her heart. “I have dedicated myself to the trash.”
I was not sure how to feel about this. Was she joking? Probably not. Tem did not really do jokes very well. She’d come here to complete some task in my city. Was she calling my city trash, or was she dedicating herself to something here and now?
“That’s very nice,” said the Lord of the Trash.
“Will you teach me about it?” she asked.
“You have much to learn.” He sighed. “That armor is much too shiny. It’ll scare the trash.”
I did not even know if this was a thing, and I feel like that said a lot about this entire encounter. The rest of us were trying to figure out whether the Heart of Trash was real or not. The Lord of Trash said he would take further questions, but he was also very slippery and not very committal to the exact nature of the heart.
Helli gave him an almond croissant, and Zeno too offered up his broken globe with a ration stuffed into it. The Lord of Trash accepted both of these things, though he removed the ration from the globe, then bit the globe.
Felegum gave him the disgusting hat that Awk had made that somehow he had held onto. The Lord of Trash was deeply moved.
“It’s BEAUTIFUL.” He was beside himself. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a wonderful gift. It’s hideous.”
It was not enough to re-communicate Felegum, though.
“Is there a a hierarchy of trash?” Zeno asked.
“A god of trash?” Felegum, ever keen on order, asked.
“Yes,” said the Lord of Trash.
“Name?” asked Zeno.
There was a pause here, while each of Harry, Zeno, and Felegum attempted to ask questions of the Lord of Trash. Eventually, Felegum won.
“Have you checked on the heart of trash recently?” Felegum asked.
The Lord of Trash narrowed his eyes. “I will not answer that question.”
Sensing that our time with him was coming to an end, the Lord of Trash pulled an ingot of polished platinum from his pocket. “Trash is a state of mind,” he said. “You must believe it is trash. Throw it away and I will come.”
He turned in his chair and the room dissolved before us, not unlike the tugging sensation of a teleport spell.
I had just enough time to realize what was happening and to hope that we didn’t lose another two years to waiting, before we were dropped above the street where we’d met Trash Man for the first time.