WHEN I SAID I’D RETURN TO YOU, I MEANT MORE LIKE A RELAPSE : where time gets weird, Zeno summons a steed, and I talk with Ojutai again

Once we were out of the Lord of Trash’s domain, whatever that meant, whether or not he was one, or two, or three people, we were free to embark on the final part of our quest, which was choosing rewards.

From, you guessed it, the trash.

This was not exactly thrilling to me, but some people got into it.

“Don’t be ungrateful, Zeno.” Harry ribbed the bard, who had a weak constitution for this stuff.

“Never,” Zeno countered.

Meanwhile, Tem appeared to be trying to contact a higher power to seek out what trash would be the most amenable. Everyone was perusing the pile.

“Everyone but the excommunicated,” added Harry, who had chosen violence for no reason at all today.

“You know,” Felegum said, “I’m not even mad.”

Tem stumbled around until she grabbed the handle of a shovel. The rest of the shovel seemed to have melted away under suspicious and unlucky circumstances. “Don’t overdo it, Helli,” she said to the gnome, who was still gauging her own approach.

“We were offered,” Helli reminded the paladin, “two handfuls.”

“Alright, let me in there.” Zeno readied himself for the endeavor and went into the pile. He came away mostly unscathed, bearing another broken globe. Or so it looked on first inspection: it was actually some dude’s bust? But like, only the head part and not even a good part of the head– most of the face and a shoulder had been smashed in or were completely missing.

“Perfect,” said the bard, slightly out of breath from this exertion. “Perfect. Vincenzo, hold this.”

The zombie did, and it looked almost like our undead friend had grown a second head.

Then Zeno started doing Trash Man imitations, either to draw him out or just for fun– it was hard to tell what was the driving motivator there.

Helli said she was looking for the “least desirable trash”, so Zeno handed her this truly disgusting half-melted-with-decomposition melon.

Since Trash Man himself was nowhere to be found and could not stop me, I also took something. I had neither helped at all with this task and also I was excommunicated, but this was immaterial. If there was something here that might help retake the city, I was getting it.

I found a broken plate with a glaze painting of the back half of a camel. Metaphorically, it was perfect: a makeshift weapon and an ugly one at that.

“Are you going to fix that, Set?” Felegum, my excommunicate-in-arms asked.

I looked at the plate. “Probably not. Felegum, you should take something too. He’s not watching.”

“I can’t,” the mage said. “It’s illegal.”

“Oh yeah,” I remembered belatedly. “That’s so sad for you.”

To my side, Helli tiptoed over the trash in an exaggerated and obvious manner. Sometimes, in the same way that I wasn’t always the best at finding cool things, Helli was not always the best at sneaking around. But as colleagues, we could choose to shore up each other’s weaknesses or be jerks about it. I chose the former. And, being a consummate professional (despite working now for a deity), I chose not to perceive these antics, and merely busied myself with putting the extremely hazardous camel butt plate weapon away.

“Set, why are you looking away from Helli?” asked Felegum.

“I–” I averted my eyes. Professionally. “I don’t even know anyone named Helli.”

Once this had concluded, we tried to figure out where to go next.

“What is the fourth heart?” Zeno mused. “Trash?”

“No,” I said, more forcefully than perhaps I needed to. “My city’s hearts are not trash.”

They were, granted, extremely weird egg things or things that were extremely weird before and the later contained eggs, but they were all wanted and valued. I also took the opportunity to give Harry light shit about not fighting Yuval with us, since I felt that grievance really needed to get aired lest it fester.

Anyway, it seemed like if the fourth heart was trash (unlikely, but let’s consider it) that the Red Eyes, at least according to Trash Man, had not been able to breach it. If the fourth heart was not trash, then there should be another weird gray-veined gross path to it from under the pyramid. Either way, problem solved.

So naturally, we decided to do something entirely different, which was try to locate that massive frog skeleton Felegum had found with his eye.

This may have sounded dumb to the casual onlooker, but on a deeper level, it was a cool play. The chamber in which the huge-ass frog dwelled was connected to the central pyramid treasure room and hidden behind an illusion. If the Red Eyes had placed it there, then maybe they wouldn’t expect anyone to storm the treasure room from that direction. If they hadn’t placed it there, then all the better.

Also, Felegum was very anti-frog and he was deeply curious about how this thing had come to be here. And he was my friend and I wanted him to be happy by crushing his enemies (frogs).

I gave him some divine help and he began to navigate us onward toward the amphibian remains. We wandered through streets and passageways, much more devoid of life and activity. This took a good amount of time, and it was slightly frustrating.

“Are you sure you actually want to find this frog?” I asked Felegum.

“Yes,” he said with vehemence. “I’d kill it again.”

“What about the Temple of Thoth people?” Harry asked, kindly once again reminding me to exact revenge when we went back to his temple or monastery or whatever he held important.

Zeno shook his head. “I don’t think they want us coming back. Also, I think we need something more risky.”

“I am listening,” I said.

“I think you were onto something with those swords,” Zeno said, a great way to start any conversation. “Because they can’t be powering the hoard and trapping themselves.”

It always made me feel capable when someone more skilled in magic than me pointed out the soundness of my understanding of the arcane.

“Maybe ask Ojutai?” Harry suggested.

This was unexpected.

“A good thought,” Zeno nodded.

I wasn’t sure if speaking with Ojutai was going to improve our relationship or not. I’d kind of anticipated the next time we spoke as me confronting him over my city and trying to figure out if I’d done a good job of convincing him not to be a total dick or if I’d have to shift to exorcising another problem from Csipherus.

This suggestion was not bad, it just felt underwhelming. Like, hello, I’m having trouble and I need a hint.

“Are you actually trying to get him out or are you trying to impress him?” Felegum asked.

I shrugged. One of those things would accomplish the other. I did like to leave an impression, though.

“I thought you convinced him to open a school?” Harry said.

“I mean, maybe?” I ran a hand through my hair. That was the difficult part, as Ojutai himself had reminded me multiple times: I was looking for a lot of guarantees where there really weren’t. I thought I’d done a good job selling the idea. “Ojutai, Archmage of the Sands, has a nice ring to it.”

“What about the Calendar?” Harry asked.

“I think they’re actively avoiding us.” Helli pouted.

“Yeah,” I had to agree. These were my people but never in my life had I had such trouble talking to them. “I told them to wait for my signal. Yeah.” I shook my head, calculating the amount of time that had passed between when I’d last seen Kalends and said that. “I probably look so uncool.”

I allowed myself a moment for the death of my pride.

“And I don’t want to look uncool to Ojutai also,” I added. “Like what am I going to say? ‘Hey, sorry you’re still trapped! I’m colossally stupid and haven’t figured out how to free you yet. Can I have a hint?’ Like, ugh.”

“It’s okay,” Zeno said. “We can talk to him.”

“No, no.” I sighed. “It’s fine.”

Two thirds of the way through the night, the second moon rose. Now seemed like the time to do it. I mentally prepared myself.

“You gonna be okay?” Zeno asked.

“Oh sure,” I said miserably.

“Are you going invisible again?”

I perked up. “Actually, no. You have to–“

“So we need to go somewhere higher up to support,” Harry cut off my magical explanation. The Felegum asked me about the sphinx and its meaning and I made up a story about it being the fifth hero of Csipherus, the one who was more or less immortal and made this epic burial ground of the other four heroes, and who became this forgotten keeper of the grave, though equally a hero in their own right. Totally fake but pretty good.

Felegum wandered off to explore this epic monument, and I turned back to Zeno.

I explained that the thing with talking with Ojutai, and presumably Atarka, was that you had to cast messaging spells to reach them through the cage. So that would take down invisibility as soon as I did it, hence my last encounter with the dragon.

Also, it was a pretty cool spell and it was such a shame to see it vanish right away when there was basically no one out here anyway.

But speaking of cool spells, I had a few other things that I wanted to take care over before making the ascent.

For starters, I used one of my illusion spells to make myself look less like I hadn’t bathed in ages. My hair became less dusty and more darkly lustrous, the cloak and studded armor looked fresh, and as a nice little finishing touch, I switched out the design on my sheer tunic. The one Zeno had bought me had been dark navy blue with anchors patterned over it, so I changed its color to black (obviously) with little silver brooms and lizards alternating over it in place of the anchors. Occasionally there was a lizard riding a broom.

I know. I was very talented.

Next, because I really wanted this to go well, I also cast a spell over that that would make me a little more appealing. Hard to believe that someone might not be sold on this improved, illusioned version of me, but I was dealing with a dragon here and I liked to be sure. Harry was making some snarky remark about dragons and magic, as if he knew or as if he assumed that a dragon wouldn’t appreciate someone putting in the effort.

Accepting that this was an aesthetic that just not everyone was going to get, I returned to the broom. “Zeno,” I asked, because at least one person in this group could be trusted to give me an honest opinion when it came to wardrobe, “how do I look?”

“You don’t need me to tell you,” he said with a grin, which I took very positively.

I took off on the broom as the bard began to play a song on his bagpipes. It sounded like new material and I was sorry to be missing it.

Heading off to the lightning cage that imprisoned Ojutai, the scene was much different than it had been the last time I’d done my impromptu visit. For one thing, the prison itself was smaller. I’d thought that maybe it had moved, gotten farther away or that maybe it was more distant than I’d remembered, but no.

When I looked through it, too, things were weird. Ojutai, who was the smaller of the two (and honestly, hard not to be the smaller one when the alternative was the girl who ate caravans as an occupation and a hobby), appeared even more slender and serpentine than I’d remembered.

Behind him, through the lens of the lightning cage, the city appeared distorted and twisted around in ways that didn’t make sense. Not just like it wasn’t how I remembered it, but more that it was things that shouldn’t be possible. Buildings skewed at weird angles, contorted against the dark hemisphere. The only thing that was untouched in this strange nightmare version of Csipherus was the tip of the central pyramid.

Gathering myself, I sent the first message spell.

As you might imagine and honestly, as I had predicted, Ojutai was angry. It was indeed kind of uncool of me to be asking him to save the city and not be a total dick if freed and then not freeing him but instead coming back to talk again. I had anticipated this. I also would be mad, which was how I had figured that one out.

“Little meddler,” he said, “I remember you. It seemed like an age ago since we last spoke. It’s been an age since I’ve been here.”

I assumed this was hyperbole. Then the strain in his voice, the smallness of his enclosure, and the weariness of his form sunk in. Something wasn’t right.

I asked about it.

At first, his reply didn’t quite make sense. Something about being lured. A strange rambling about the length off time that had passed. “So much time. We were promised the riches of a city, and for a time we had them and it was glorious. Then our confidence was betrayed. They took what we had earned. Our confidence was betrayed. They were using us for our magic. Then you came along and promised to break me out of this place. It’s been hundreds of years and I’ve been left alone with hundreds of thoughts.”

This was news to me, though deeply shitty as I had also been royally dicked over by weird shit happening with time. It sucked. And in this case, it seemed like it sucked even more deeply than usual, because Ojutai hadn’t even had the comfort of going through it with a friend.

He deserved to know what the hell was happening. He was, by everyone who had talked to me about him, devilishly good at arcane stuff, so I figured that he might have some insight on the ritual.

He could probably use some new thoughts.

So, I told him about the death avatar situation and the truth of the Red Eyes. He thought about this for a time, then told me it kind of made sense. Dragons lusted after material objects as humans consumed food, that was the way he put it. I supposed Helli would have been the better person to empathize with him in this moment, but he was stuck with me and the food metaphor worked.

I told him in the spirit of frankness that we were at a bit of a loss on how to get him out of here—he deserved to know and I also didn’t want him thinking I was just here stunting on him—so I asked if he had any ideas on how he’d gotten trapped in here. “I’m good at picking locks,” I said. “But it’s much easier for me to work through it if I know what kind of lock I’m working on. Like, sometimes different locks have different numbers of pins inside that you have to push up in order to make them turn. If I know what to expect, then I can go faster. I’m assuming that it’s similar for magic locks, too.”

Ojutai sort of appreciated this metaphor. Like, he understood it but he also needed to be philosophical about it, which, I suppose, is an aftereffect of being trapped in a box by yourself for six hundred years.

“You speak of locks, but it’s difficult,” he said at length, “to describe the nature of this magic. It is as describing a beach to an ant on the sand.”

This was kind of mean and unnecessary. Of everyone we had, I was actually pretty well-qualified to understand this stuff. But more than that, I just wanted him to cut the theatrics and tell me the brass tacks of it. Did he know the lock mechanism or not?

He made a gallant attempt. Yes, this was connected to a greater piece of magic. At first I thought he meant something different and then there was another, different door analogy, and it was clarified that yes, whatever was holding the dragons in their cages was indeed bound up in the same spell that was powering the death ritual.

This was brutally inconvenient. Ojutai was frustrated with me for taking ages to understand something that he had not been clear in presenting, and I was annoyed because it really did feel more and more like I had messed up not storming into the ritual chamber and reversing gravity on Red Eye Central when I had the chance. I felt incredibly guilty and stupid and I hated that.

After a brief intermission of being angry at each other, we relented. Ojutai revealed that his hell was being alone and I just—

You know, it wasn’t like I didn’t get it. Wandering the city, roaming through streets that were totally empty, avoiding thinking about how everyone besides me, Kalends, and maybe a handful of random-ass Csipherians were extinct, including probably my parents, that sucked. I’d often felt alone, but at least I had the comfort of being sad in a group of people who occasionally made an effort to understand.

Ojutai did not even have that.

And yeah, was this dude maybe going to be my next be enemy? I didn’t know. I hoped not.

I don’t know how most people become illusionists. I think I did it because I kept thinking about something else, something better. So I did that, just without magic.

“Well, if we make it through this, you know the whole magic school thing is still on the table,” I said. “We could build a tower—I think you’d want to be somewhere high up—and you could have a study on one of the top floors. It could be quiet, but not totally removed. Like, you could read your books there and not be disturbed, but there’s like noise from students down the hallway so you’re not totally alone. And there’d be a window where you could look out and see people on the streets, going about their daily lives, and you’d be a part of it if you wanted to without having to be in the mess of it.”

This actually sounded pretty clutch for an office, and I was getting really into it. “And outside, there’s the central pyramid and the Sunspire. Well,” I paused, “after we rebuild it, since you two destroyed it—”

Ojutai let out a mirthless laugh. “Oh, we did not destroy it. Someday, I will tell you the things those people did and what we were forced to do.”

This was immensely interesting. The Calendar, in my conversations with them and Kalends, had assured me that Ojutai, not Atarka, was the worse lightning sibling, precisely because he had been a holy terror on my people, reading minds and also—I had thought—wrecking my favorite place in Csipherus.

Maybe this was one more way of him messing with me without magic. That was possible, and maybe I’d have been smarter if I doubted him.

But Bahamut had said that chromatic dragons tended to be awful because people were awful to them, and that he was glad we were reaching out. He may not have been my god, but sometimes you needed to use unconventional methods to get what you wanted. Maybe this was one of them.

I’d hear Ojutai out. Later.

He explained a little more about hoards and how they worked, how a dragon was only as strong as their hoard. Without a hoard, a dragon would shrivel and become a husk. When I asked about the swords and if he thought those were connected, he said that a sword was a pinnacle of wealth, a crowning treasure. He thought that maybe they could be connected, but also maybe not.

I interpreted this unsureness as likely not. At least, it didn’t seem like a strong enough connection for me to warrant immediately risking my life on it.

I debated the last question, but then figured, hell with it, someone had to take the first step with trust. “What do you know about the hearts of Csipherus?”

“It’s the name of a restaurant,” he said, somewhat confused where this was going. “I flew over it often. It was in the western side of the city, although now it’s a bit dilapidated. There didn’t seem to be any particular significance to it.”

I paused. So he didn’t know about them at all. I could keep that secret, but sometimes you could bring in an ally without telling them everything.

“So look,” I said, “there are these four magical things under the city. They’re the hearts. We don’t know a lot about what they do or why they’re there, but the Red Eyes seem to be using them to help with the ritual, so we’ve been trying to extricate them from it. So far we’ve done three of the four.”

I didn’t tell him about what they looked like or their locations or anything significant like that. But a little new information could go a long way in confinement.

And yeah, that was it. I left. He didn’t remark at all on my super cool outfit or the magical effort that had gone into it.

Zeno was still playing by the time I got back, and I was like, wow, this must be the world’s longest song, super experimental, rad—until I realized that it was the same song. It was of normal length, even. Time just hadn’t passed for me in the same way it had for the others.

And that, it hit me, was the kind of torture Ojutai was going through.

“…the Lily-of-the-Valley doesn’t know.” Zeno ended his song on a flourish.

It was a good song, but made even better by the fact that out from the darkness atop the sphinx emerged a pegasus, almost fairy-like in nature. Zeno laid his head against it. It—she—was real.

“Hello, new friend,” Zeno spoke to her. It was heart-warming, especially given that so many of his recent new friends were undead.

I laid out the whole thing to the group. I left out the tower study bit because that felt kind of personal and honestly I was not in the mood to be mocked by Harry again. Some things just got to stay mine. I did mention that the dragons, according to Ojutai at least, had not been responsible for the destruction of the Sunspire.

 Then we went through our usual litany of next steps.

“Aljahar?” Harry suggested, not really excited about it.

“I could try to bring Savas out,” Zeno offered from atop his new steed.

“Oh, I’d be more into that,” said Helli.

Zeno’s pegasus was named Lily-of-the-Valley and she was fey. The aesthetic of the beautiful princely guy riding in on a winged fairy steed was powerful and I respected it. As I knew from experience, it took a lot of effort to pull off a consistent look.

Felegum glanced up from his magical ponderings. “What about Atarka?”

“I don’t want to talk to her,” I muttered. “She was awful and she ate people. Remember Pinjin?”

“Fly me up?” the mage asked.

“Okay.” Again, I did not want anything to do with that one. The best case scenario of freeing the dragons and having them actually help still left an Atarka-sized hole in my plan for a post-ritual Csipherus. I wasn’t sure I wanted her here or how far I’d trust her.

But Felegum tended to have good ideas and see things I didn’t, even if sometimes those ideas turned out to be genocide. I could always rely on him to think of something. So, we flew.

Zeno, naturally, flew behind us on his pegasus.

“Wow,” Felegum said, “huge flex, but okay.”

This came just before I struggled to control the broom.

Again, despite Felegum being as waiflike in person as Zeno’s digestion was when it came to trash, my broom had a very clear limit on the weight it would comfortably tolerate and that limit appeared to be me.

Nonetheless, I regained control of the broom and flew him to Atarka.

She was also a sight. Unlike Ojutai, who had explained that the shrinking of his cage had been an effect of him trying to break out of it by magical means, her lightning cage was the same size as it had been originally, but her mouth was full of black sludge.

I cast my Sphinx’s Splendor spell on Felegum, because I figured even he would need every tool at his disposal in order to deal with this. “Okay, good luck.”

I also told him about the messaging thing because that was not immediately obvious. Between him, me, and Zeno, I was pretty sure we were the only ones who could do it.

“Can you hear me, Atarka?” Felegum called out to the dragon.

If she tried to reply, it was lost in the sputtering and vomiting of sludge.

“Ooh,” Felegum and I said at the same time, because that was pretty gross. It had been a long shot attempting to get useful information out of her in the first place, but now that she couldn’t talk, well, that was that.

Felegum thought about it some more. “Um, do we want to tell her anything?”

“Oh, sure,” I said with a wave. “Why not?”

We could do her the courtesy of letting her know what was up. Ojutai would probably tell her anyway if we freed them, so it didn’t seem like we’d be giving her much in the way of new information.

“We’re trying to free you,” Felegum said to her. “Expect you to play nice. Bye.”

Efficiency, thy name is Felegum. We flew off, as Zeno hung out and Atarka visibly relaxed for a moment and then inexplicably power vomited again.

“I think you look smashing, Set,” said Felegum.

This was kind. “Thanks, Felegum.”

“No homo.”

I sighed. “Thanks, Felegum.”

I was keenly aware that every romantic assignation that I had been involved in had ended poorly or weirdly—one had turned to be, for example, secretly a god—and for this reason I was especially loathe to consider anyone in our traveling group. Why on earth would I choose to be in constant company of someone who would remind me of what a failure I had been?

Even so, I appreciated Feleugm’s strong sense of boundaries.

And maybe he sensed that things were just very pathetic, because he said, “Want to stop by Ojutai’s thing again? I want to try to dispel magic.”

So we did. Felegum cast an incredibly powerful version of his spell and something in the lightning cage gave out, expanding back to the size it had been before. In the dispelling process, Felegum was also able to see that the spell was tied to two distinct objects in the treasure hoard. Power catalysts, as it were, to keep the dragons tethered.

If we broke the catalysts, the dragons would be free.

I sent off a quick message to Ojutai. “Hey, hope that helped!”

But because today was just not my day despite all my efforts, I got the sense that that too came through distorted.

All of us landed and reported back to the group on our findings.

“I think the catalysts are those giant gems from the bugs,” said Felegum, which was exactly the kind of brilliant insight I’d hoped he’d have.

“Well, we’ve taken gems before.” Helli rubbed her hands together.

We contemplated a plan for stealing the big gems, the swords, maybe more than that, and then taking all of it away from the city.  Felegum decided that he wanted to cast his dome for the night on the sphinx. We convinced him that might be too flashy, so he settled for casting it adjacently while Harry marched off to a “secure location” elsewhere.

Tipping my head back to the almost non-existent stars, I tried to remember the Heart of Csipherus, the restaurant.

No such luck.

Outside the dome, though, thunder rattled in the distance. At the time, this was almost comforting. Little did I know it would turn out to be anything but.

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