So anyway, things were actually pretty good for a while there before they suddenly turned awful.
Weirdly, part of the good part involved me and Tem being on first watch together. I was a little suspicious about the whole sphinx thing. Yes, Felegum’s dome matched the color of the outside perfectly. Yes, I could totally understand him wanting a change of pace. Yes, I completely was worried we were going to be murdered somehow, but at least that would be different.
Zeno refused to bring Lily-of-the-Valley into the dome, even though she was both invited and would fit (barely). I think he maybe also wanted to watch the stars (limited) and bond. Anyway, it was me and Tem to start, then second watch would be Helli and Felegum, and then Harry and Zeno.
“How were the dragons?” Tem asked as we settled in.
“Not great, honestly,” I said. “Ojutai is in weird slow-mo and Atarka is vomiting slime.”
Tem nodded as though this made perfect sense. “Dragons are social creatures.”
I was not sure what to make of that initially as every dragon I had seen had more or less been an independent franchisee– even Ojutai and Atarka, though siblings, didn’t really seem to interfere much in each other’s business when they were free to do as they pleased.
I vented some of these feelings to Tem. “I’m just not sure about Atarka. She’s very uncool.”
“Yeah,” she said contemplatively as she polished sections of her armor back to their pristine glean, “but maybe her brother can reign her in.”
“There are dragons in your order, right?” I asked. “Are they okay, or are they weird?”
“There are some in the upper ranks, but they tend to keep to themselves.” She switched to a greave. “Occasionally dragons will visit the Order.”
“Are they nice?” I shifted forward.
She contemplated this. “Ojutai has a relic that I want to retrieve. That’s part of my quest, to retrieve that artifact–it’s been stolen from other dragons. That was part of why I gave him the dragon scales.”
I nodded. That had seemed oddly specific when it had happened, and unnerving as hell in the wake of Awk.
“What belongs to dragons,” she said, “should be returned to them. That’s why Harry got really mad at me.”
“Huh,” I said. “I thought it was just you being really naive at the time.”
Maybe it was time I give Tem a little more credit. She took a hell of a lot of teasing from us, but she’d been steadfast in completing her mission. Also, it was kind of nice to hear that there were dragons out there who maybe weren’t total jerks.
We went to sleep, for what I hoped would be a nice long nap.
I was wrong. A sharp sorcerous boot kicked me awake hours and hours before dawn.
“Ugh, why!” I groaned. “I’m still emotionally wounded!”
“But you look great,” Felegum said.
“Thank you.” I rubbed the sleep grit out of my eyes. “What do you need?”
The mage pointed outside, where he could not go, and I left, curious, only to behold to a massive pillar of frost twenty feet above the pyramid.
“Is this normal?” Zeno asked from beside his magic horse.
“Oh no, this is bad.” It got cold here at night, but not like that. I put my hands on my hips. The amount of bullshit I was going to have to clean up in this city was truly staggering. “Glad I have these boots.”
I went back into the dome to let the others know that weird frost should now be added onto our list of problems.
“Harry, can you summon the Trash Man?” Tem asked.
Harry, who had come over from his paranoia safe house elsewhere, shook his head. “Feels not immediate enough.”
I didn’t even have my spells yet. No one had gotten anything back yet– literally only one watch had passed and not even half of the second.
“So we rest up and then attack in the daylight?” Harry asked.
Felegum nodded. “Yeah.”
I checked around the outside of the dome and noticed frost beginning to gather on it. Luckily, on the inside, thanks to Felegum’s magic, things were nice and toasty.
“Okay,” I said, “I’m going back to sleep.”
Felegum tucked me back in, perhaps as an apology for kicking me awake earlier. Zeno and Harry departed back to Harry’s bunker with Lily-of-the-Valley, who also probably did not appreciate the dropping temperatures.
And I slept. I was pretty cheesed off that I had been woken up kind of for nothing beyond one more thing going wrong in the city (unfortunately typical), but I still felt rested when the dawn (wherever it was beyond the dark hemisphere) woke me up.
I yawned and packed in my things for the night as Felegum’s dome dissipated. Except that when it did, everything around us looked discomfortingly similar.
The frost I’d noticed last night had become a perfect shell of ice. The only variation in it was a small divot in one side where it seemed a little thinner. The rest of the shell felt like it was at least a few inches thick.
“Interesting,” said Tem, which pretty much summed it all up. She got out her sword and was on the verge of praying when Felegum interceded.
“Wait, stop!” He held up his hands. “Let’s try to excavate.”
Honestly, this was very smart: why go through when you could just go under and flip the shell?
However, to his dismay, the shell continued all the way underground, incasing us in a complete sphere of ice.
“Oh no,” he breathed.
Tem lit up her sword with fire. I gave her a little additional pep talk just in case, and then she stabbed into the dome of frost with all the might of the Platinum Dragon. Ice melted, then re-froze into icicles on Tem’s sword. She’d managed to pierce the dome, but found that the icy coating was about four inches thick.
When Tem at last cut past the layer of ice, the first blast of frost hit us like a wall. I felt more lucky than ever to be wearing my boots, especially as Helli offered her snowshoes to Felegum.
As usual, Felegum had a plan. He began shaping water to peel the ice off the dome.
Then I also had a brilliant idea. Ice was just frozen water. I knew something that desperately loved liquids.
I stabbed the knife into the dome. It took a moment of persuasiveness– mostly me assuring it that indeed I knew where the good things to drink were– but the knife went with it. With Tem continuing to smite the ice, Felegum elegantly slicing it off in orderly sheafs, and me sucking out the moisture from it, we were able to get out.
Meanwhile, Helli sat on the other side of the dome with her compass out and pressed against a cold wall, drawing a very precise circle, perhaps for an eventual cut.
With a sound like a blast, we were free. Before us was the very frozen form of a skeleton.
“Poor Vincenzo,” said Felegum.
Next to the icy undead body was a drawing of a cube. Felegum took his piece out and suggested that we follow it. And true, it did make sense that Zeno and Harry may have shifted during the night as the outside got colder.
When Felegum suggested that we go into the weird teleportation cube, though, I drew the line.
“Oh no,” I said. “That thing aged me.”
I was going to go on an expansive diatribe on all the problems with random guess-and-check methods when you’re in a high-stakes situation when the shape that the snow-white column had transformed into caught my eye.
It was not unlike a trunk. A very peculiar trunk of a very peculiar tree of gnarled bark, which made apples people traveled far and wide for.
“Oh hell,” I said. “Aw, it’s not going to be Calcryx, is it?”
The others (minus Tem) concurred: this was indeed looking a lot like the Tree of Life and Death. And the fact that a lot of very bad cold was seeping in, presumably from the conduit, was not helping matters.
The tree wasn’t full-grown, but it was reaching toward the top of the column of darkness.
There was a name someone had called it once, the Gulthias Tree.
I sighed. “Remember how Calcryx nearly froze me?”
“Calcryx?” Tem perked up.
“Yeah…” Felegum replied to me. “Ugh.”
“Do you think it’s coming through the conduits?” Tem asked.
Helli scrambled to put on some more gloves, a mighty feat to accomplish while still carrying her egg. We headed to the bathhouse.
“Set,” said Felegum, “what room do you think they’re in?”
I grimaced. “Honestly, they probably left the city.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Those two are the people who least want to die. I think they’d just leave.”
“Well,” Felegum considered it, “I want food. I haven’t had breakfast.”
So instead we rode the terrible cube age ride back to the heart of the enemy stronghold, and surprisingly we located Harry and Zeno there. Not like, in the room where we’d had our endless brunch, because neither Harry nor Zeno could open it, though not for lack of trying.
“Oi, statue,” Harry called. “We need a chat.”
This has been the weird part of working with gods for me–and it has nothing to do with the gods. A lot of people in our group are happy to be irreverent and occasionally mean about it and then turn right around like “okay, Set, now go open this door while I watch and judge you on your commitment that I find stupid but happen to need in this moment.”
That shit consistently makes me so angry. Like, do you know how hard it was for me to ask for help from these dudes in the first place? I hadn’t come into this convinced that these things cared about me; I’d offered everything I had for a bottom of the barrel chance, gotten it, and been surprised when I could ask for more and occasionally have it granted.
Also, it was hard enough asking for help in my own head versus doing it in this weird performative way like it was something I could do right on cue after the Harry Smack Talk Show was over.
So like, there I am, at the world’s most uncomfortable intersection of “I want to tell you that you absolutely suck and have the empathy of a slab, also surprise, asswipe, now I’m not doing it” and “this is not the vibe we bring to our interactions with the divine, which so far has been chiller than expected”.
All that was going on as I walked to the statue again with its heavy axe.
Hope was such a fragile thing and so much relied on it. On me not losing it.
And it’s not like I didn’t feel self-conscious anymore. It was more like, I got mad in a different direction. Like, oh, you really think a little discomfort is going to be the thing that makes me unable to give up in the face of what I want most in the world? Guess again.
I knelt before the statue. Not gonna lie, I needed a moment to collect myself because that was a lot of anger that needed to be redirected, but when I got there, I was good.
“Hey,” I said, still feeling a little bad for constantly asking this statue for favors when probably it wanted to just sit for a few more centuries undisturbed, “it’s us. We need a place to crash for a little while. Can we come back in?”
For a few seconds I was worried that this was going to be another of those times when I reached out and got nothing, like I had so many times when I was younger and things went wrong.
But then there was this exhalation of breath, a shifting of statics in the air, and the statue moved to let us back into the secret room.
This time, the space boasted a roaring fire and six bedrolls. The walls were adorned with wooden spokes, almost like it was a tent with a pole in the center. There was also, conveniently, a large pile of hay for Lily-of-the-Valley.
And best of all, above the bonfire was a magically rotating carcass of a very nicely cleaned saiga seasoned with coriander and rosemary. Below that, a small pot of hearty mushroom and potato stew simmered over the flames. It looked thick and delicious.
I touched my necklace and whispered a thanks.
You know, because they don’t have to do that. And also for not making me feel like an idiot. They really didn’t have to do that and yet somehow when I asked, things seemed to work out. Even when I took a big risk and asked in front of a group.
Anyway, at that point I became preoccupied with food and Felegum became preoccupied with the plan.
“Our excavation skills are minimal,” he said, recounting not only this morning’s efforts but also our inability to get through Yuval’s tunnel previously.
Harry considered it. “We destroy the floor,” he said.
I dipped my saiga in the sauce and took a bite. “I have been blessed.”
“The sudden change of weather,” Tem continued, paying me no mind, “suggests that maybe this white dragon is exerting influence on this conduit to affect this ritual. Maybe it’s for her own benefit or in service of Tiamat.”
“Counterpoint,” Harry said, “maybe this is a snake-mongoose problem.”
And what, let one dragon overwhelm the others and the Red Eyes?
“Yeah,” I said dryly, “but that would destroy my city.”
“Sorry your city’s a black hole,” Harry quipped.
This actually made me smile. Maybe Harry had gotten meaner since he’d died so many times but at least his comedic timing was still on point. Also, I missed Lankin and hoped he was doing okay.
We thought about sending a scout to see what the current Red Eye situation was. Zeno was also pretty adamant that we needed to do things in pairs from now on– no solo missions. Meanwhile, Felegum reached an interesting conclusion about the egg that Harry was carrying: it was super old. About as old as the plane itself.
Brave soul, he asked to look at the gem that Helli was carrying.
She shook her head.
“Ugh.” He left that alone.
We spent some more time talking about possibilities and how deep Helli might have to swim through the gems and gold to get to the catalysts that bound the dragons.
I was thinking about all this getting very real very fast when I got a weird feeling that we should hold off on doing anything until dawn. I communicated this probably poorly, as it was new and strange to me, but the others went with it, which was nice.
Felegum, thrilled at the opportunity to work some big magic, set to work on a glyph. I wasn’t sure what the reason was that we needed a glyph, but then he explained that he was casting so that if any of us said the command word (“dome”) his dome spell would activate instantly.
That was pretty handy. We’d managed to evade Zuul thanks to the dome, and who knew what we’d need for this upcoming battle.
Also, the air got all sparkly and it smelled really nice. Felegum looked vaguely concerned at something about the proceedings, but as far as I could tell nothing had collapsed or gone super poorly.
Harry did some forms and Tem hung out. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate more on that feeling that had seemed so pervasive and important before.
Felegum was almost done with his spell when something very loud rang into all of our heads.
Well, all our heads except for Harry’s.
“AHH WE ARE COMING! IT IS QUITE COLD! WE ARE HERE TO BRING OUR GOODS TO CITY OF RUIN!” There was a pause as the screamy speaker considered. “IT WILL TAKE US A LITTLE WHILE.”
This was, we had come to realize, none other than the Goblin Shopping Network.
Felegum was the first to try sending a message back. “You know what doesn’t have holes in it?” he asked.
“YES!” the goblin speaker replied with enthusiasm. “At dawn we load the trebuchets!”
There was the distinct sound of something being wrested away amid light struggle.
“This is Head Warden Albrecht speaking,” said the same. This was partially surprising to me, since there were times when I thought that Harry was just making him up for attention. “We have powerful magic-users and also some paladins that we met in the desert.”
Harry sighed and turned to Zeno. “Say it.”
“We ride at dawn!” the bard crowed.
A little more back and forth revealed that the GSN had constructed a Goblin Communication System, and that was what they were using to communicate with us.
Felegum took his arcane eye out again to spy on the zombie gallery within the main chambers of the pyramid, and he found that they were all covered in ice but still more or less moving as normal. Savas had shifted from being on one of the pedestals to being directly atop the three rings, and while he didn’t spot the eye this time we were beginning to suspect that he could see through invisible things.
Savas did not seem like he was super excited about the extreme cold, though: he clutched his burning bow to his chest, the weapon wreathed in flames. A thing aura of flames radiated around him.
Meanwhile, Durnen had both his hands plunged into the hoard with tendrils of black energythat turned to ice spiraling up the column. Then was also a small creature with a stone embedded into one of its shoulders, probably Yuval still in recovery, and then Hat-Broom Man-Person floating above the scene on their broom.
Ahkmatix continued to float, balloon-like, above the scene, his arms outstretched through the pillar of black, his eyes two red points penetrating through the dark. At the base of the portal, scales mostly tarnished and gaunt, her scales gone gray and her eyes pinkish, was the massive undead-looking form of a very familiar dragon.
And like, she was definitely ghostly– Felegum was clear on that one. It wasn’t apparent that she was actually here, maybe more like a projection or a vision of her was. Anyway, she seemed to be breathing out the black column coated in ice.
Then things got a little weird. Felegum said that Ahkmatix’s arms had seemed to tense, like he was snatching at something, either in the column or under his skin, and a wave of energy rippled across the planes.
It was a pulse, a wrenching turning sensation, and back in the pyramid safe room, we all doubled over. Tem’s gold scales went dull and unwell and I fell to one knee.
I’d felt awful and that had seemed to be it, until I brushed my hair out of my eyes and realized it had shocked itself white with the exception of a zig-zag black swath.
Now this was just too much. I’d already dealt with so much tough emotional stuff today and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I retreated to a corner and hastily cast an illusion on myself to make it look back to normal while some of the others made consoling sounds.
But amidst this great personal tragedy we didn’t fail to notice that something had also shifted with the gem that Helli carried.
A green, semi-serpentine creature moved within it.