Time passed. For a while, things were calm and predictable. I met with Kalends and Ojutai. I prayed in the temple, and I wandered the desert wastes, searching for something that could help my people. The undead portion of Csipherus continued to be housed inside the central pyramid and scholars and dragons and gods only what threw their minds at the problem. It was not the sort of thing you solved in a day. Or a year.
Or even a year and three months, as was the case.
I was getting used to spending time by myself and it wasn’t so bad.
After all, Zeno was still in town, running the Bacchus Jolly. Occasionally, I’d even catch a glimpse of Vincenzo, who had somehow survived the final battle inside the pyramid and weeks of visiting Bahamut paladins looking at him hungrily, on his trips up and down the stairs to the cellar. Zeno had also taken up learning Csipherian, which endeared him to the locals– both for the effort to learn our language as well as the honestly hilarious mistakes he made.
Felegum was harder to get ahold of, but that was mostly because he was either nonspeaking or in Paripas or both. That had been a weird one. Something definitely happened when he was dead, something that made him able to do things he hadn’t been able to normally and had robbed him of something so badly that he had to spend weeks in chilly Paripasian libraries relearning vowels and the careful consonants of Common. What else he was studying with such ferocity, I had no idea.
Meanwhile, I filled my days with the city and its continuance. Kalends and I coordinated extralegal activities with the Calendar, and when I could not stand the half-dead, half-aliveness of Csipherus anymore, I left for the desert and its ruins. I didn’t know what I was looking for half the time. Sometimes I told myself I was trying to figure out the teleportation shipping line; other times I said I was trying to find magical things I could ask Ojutai about over a meal.
One time I found a fully intact ring, similar the ones that had been used in the triple-ring structure that made people undead the Red Eyes had used. I also found two more pieces of another ring and a translucent stone, kind of like a grapefruit but elongated with a red pulsing energy inside.
I really wasn’t sure what to make of that last one, but the ring and extra pieces gave me some hope.
Imagine my surprise when I got back from that trip to find that Ojutai was building out a structure on top of the central pyramid.
It was kind of like the Sunspire in that it was a tower with a platform on the top, but very different in that the platform seemed to be a celestial mapping device. I asked him about it at one point and he said it was an orrery. I was not sure why it needed to be built on top of a cultural artifact but was willing to be flexible if it meant that no more black columns of death could come out of the pyramid. Also, he did not seem to mind that there were like, a ton of zombies in what was effectively his basement, and he made a pretty good deterrent for keeping holy-minded people who were not hip with our undead situation from messing with them.
There were some things, I was learning, that I just had to take on trust. The tower had rooms. He was teaching people. That was enough.
The temple was coming along. There were plenty of building materials I could repurpose from the broken down parts of buildings, and I liked that it was something disparate, many different things coming back together into something whole. I was actually pretty proud of it. We had the water, we had the columns, and some uniquely Csipherian takes like it being an open-air courtyard on a roof. I’d only really encountered one cleric of Lathander, who had been a dude who, hooded, had nodded at me from a distance after I had come to pray at his shrine, and I felt like I could do a passable imitation. I’d nodded in hoods plenty of times.
I was debating how I was going to help intercede on worshippers’ behalf– I certainly didn’t expect Lathander himself to help everyone who came; that was kind of my job– and also weighing the merits of how well I could hide on top of the peristyle versus making myself invisible to listen to requests, when I noticed a slip of parchment.
It read, in broken Common, “press me”.
I looked around. Technically, this was a public space. It was also where I had been camping out for a while, sleeping on the roof tiles, since I’d left home. I carefully looked over the temple to see if anything had been messed with.
Nothing seemed weird. So, you know. I pressed where the parchment said to press, which was a depression in one of the walls.
A bed folded out, as well as a little tent. Modest, but a nice surprise. I sat down and tested it out.
What I’m saying is, it was good, but unexpected. Not just the bed, more like kind of everything. Not like the city I’d grown up in, but good in a new way.
With the exception of Ojutai, the dragons I left to Tem, who delighted in them.
Atarka occasionally hung out at Ojutai’s place and ate a lot, but as time went on she seemed to just not vibe with the city and spent more and more of her days in the desert. We also– unknown to me at the time– had a silver dragon in residence now, whose name was Ahn and who had decided they liked the catacombs. Again, unsure how I felt with not one or two but three dragons somehow all moving in at once. I was not sure I’d really signed up for that, but Tem took it upon herself to “adjust the city for dragon residency” which basically meant constructing extreme-plus sizes of everything, including a giant communal bath.
That last one was kind of cool, and we had enough water for it, for sure.
As far as Helli went, I didn’t know too much. It made sense that if she was back in Paripas then she’d probably hit up that one artificer guy she’d made friends with before. I hoped the legs hadn’t done anything untoward in the meantime, but figured she’d have told us somehow if so.
Things were like that, quieter, more predictable, until one day Felegum raced up the Street of the Sycamores. He looked out of breath, like he’d just been at my temple and hastily rushed down the stairs before spotting me kneeling beneath a tree, by a shrine with a water feature.
“Set!” he called. “We have to go west! The fate of the world depends on it!”
“Uh,” I said, hand midway through brushing sand off the memorial stone.
“Pack your things! Bacchus Jolly!” With that, he sped off.
I rose, glanced back to my old house briefly, and then went to gather my stuff.
It had been a while, after all.
It was so nice to live in a city that made sense. I arrived at the Bacchus Jolly not long after putting my things together, setting up someone to oversee the temple, and generally letting Kalends know I’d chat with him soon about stuff since I’d be out. I was a little late, but just enough to hear voices in the back room and know where to let myself in.
Zeno and Felegum were already deep in conversation, and Tem looked as though she’d just arrived too.
“There’s an anomaly in the west,” Felegum was saying. “It’s very bad. And I think there might be frogs.”
“Felegum!” Zeno put his hand on his heart.
“Also, the heart of a dragon has been stolen,” added Tem. “There’s a red dragon’s body lying carved up in the Sundered Plains.”
At this moment, a server poked her head in to inquire about the status of red wine. Zeno, frustrated, directed her to offer other beverages instead. The door closed and the bard massaged his temples. “Is the dragon news, though?” he asked, somewhat skeptically. “Or is it olds?”
“It’s a desiccated corpse in the plains, so yeah, it’s been a while.” Tem huffed, clearly still drawn in the direction of anything draconic.
I held up my hands. “I for one have been normal and do not have upsetting news.” My city was safe. That should make me want to stay here, not join in on whatever was happening again. “But I’m on board. It could be good to take a vacation. Sometimes it can be kind of hard being here.”
Also, they’d saved my city. I’d brought them into a quite frankly terrible version of it and they’d endured, lost several years in the process of getting here, died several times, and had invested a lot into making Csipherus livable again. Now I had an opportunity to help them.
And I did also owe them all for the knife. I hated feeling indebted to people like that, even though, yeah, we were friends and people said that friends didn’t keep track of who was being a burden and who wasn’t. But everyone did. And in that constant, eternal reckoning of accounts, I was determined not to end up the one who took the most.
During my reverie, the server came back for more questions on the state of the red wine and Zeno even more annoyedly directed her to use her best judgement.
“Set, are you coming?” he asked, once the matter was settled.
“Yeah, I literally just said that.”
“Good,” he said. “Because you owe me.”
I scowled. “I know.”
The backroom door squeaked slightly open. Zeno glared at it, and then it shut.
While it was the one-year re-opening anniversary of the Bacchus Jolly, it was rare to see him so on edge.
I didn’t like it. Not even a city full of zombies, red death, and impending doom had ruffled Zeno’s ostentatious and purple feathers. Something big was happening.
Obviously I wanted in.
We had a brief bit of time to make preparations, which I took full advantage of. First step was chatting up Ojutai about the dead dragon: who knew if that dragon had been good or bad, anything that could kill a dragon and rip out its heart was something that I wanted him to be cognizant was out there.
Surprisingly, Ojutai was sad to see me go. I didn’t think I really did much beyond bother him and like, harass half of Csipherus’ re-emerging restaurant scene. But maybe he just really needed to get out and I had just happened to be persistent enough. It was a nice surprise.
What was not a nice surprise was finding that almost every diamond in my city was sold out.
“There’s just been a run on them lately!” one vendor whined at me after I raised my eyebrows at his asking price. “400 gold is really the best I can do.”
I left. This was ridiculous. I was literally trying to set up a black market. Why was I even trying to do this the normal way?
I messaged Kalends and he said he’d look into it. Easy.
When I met up with him later, though, he looked exhausted. “Set, you will not believe what I had to go to get this for you. I had to call in like four favors, I don’t know what’s been going on in this city but there’s like no diamonds today.”
All of a sudden I just felt awful.
“Kal, no, I’m so sorry,” I said. God, I was the worst black market kingpin. But I hated the idea of Kalends putting himself into that position– that fucking, incurable, endless debt to other people, potentially other very nasty people– because of me.
I couldn’t stand it; I had to do something.
“How much it did cost?” I asked.
“About 400 gold,” he said. “Also, no, you don’t owe me anything.”
I blinked as though this was such stupidity it had left me speechless and pressed 400 gold into his hand. I also took out a vial.
“Thank you. You didn’t have to do that or go so far for me– I don’t want you owing people favors, but I appreciate you calling some in. Anyway, here’s this.” I gave him the vial. “I got this off an airship in the catacombs and I have no idea what it does. It’s got a Csipherian seal, though, so it’s got to be something related to us, and it seemed like they were trying to keep it well-hidden. It’s yours. I’d be interested to know what it is, but whatever happens, take it as thanks.”
Kalends accepted it with a nod and turned the vial over. “Yeah, I’ll see what we can find out and I’ll let you know.” He looked up at Kheryph, who had been staying at his place this week in our joint-custody agreement and was currently perched on his head. “What about this guy?”
Kheryph leapt from Kal’s head to my shoulder and latched on. I smiled. “I guess he’s coming with. I might be a while, but I’ll try to keep in touch.”
We clasped each other close and with that, I left the Calendar in his very capable hands.
The next day we made our trip to Fallow’s Reach.
Thanks to the teleportation circle being fixed, travel there would be a piece of cake. Also, it was free, which was awesome. The only catch was that we also had to go along with a ton of crates and trade goods bound for there, but I also kind of liked that whoever was running the Csipherus circle was being so efficient. It made me feel like it mattered, like there was enough coming into and out of the city that we couldn’t do extraneous trips out if we could avoid it.
It really was coming back.
And so, I left my city for the second time in my life, this time not afraid or covered in dead bodies, but actually kind of excited. I wasn’t the terrified kid desperate for any promise of magic to help him accomplish the impossible. I was going on a journey, and home would still be there when I got back.
Fallow’s Reach was different. Still a city, so that was good, but somewhere else. The sun was rising here, which was not what it had been doing back in Csipherus. A tendril of unease crept through me.
“What year is it?” joked Tem, the only person who had not lost two years in a freak teleportation accident and therefore found it hilarious.
After hastily finding a very weary resident and ascertaining that yes, we were still in the same year we’d left (I should not have been nervous: this was a Csipherian circle we’d used, operated by Csipherian magicians, therefore the best and most reliable method of arcane transportation), we decided to treat ourselves to brunch.
Fallow’s Reach offered a myriad of breakfast options, and we narrowed down our choices from the open restaurants of the Far Eel Tavern, the Sick Cheese Pub, and the Efficient Flame. That last one sounded very modern and cool, but the Far Eel was built into the cliffside supports above the ravine and had such cool atmosphere that we just had to go there.
The Far Eel, as the name implied, specialized in fish. It also boasted a lift to the docks a few hundred feet below, allowing the chefs to prepare the freshest of fish.
Felegum nudged me to look around and see if I could pick up any subtle signs left by the local unsavory element, but we were at a teleportation circle and there was like, literally no sign of criminal activity. I lauded his persistence but like, come on. There was a reason why I was the professional here. Only a law-abiding citizen would come up with that one, it was cute.
In the distance, the ravine spanned into fog and low clouds. Posts were augured into the ground at regular intervals, as though there had been a bridge to another city at one point, but those rope bridges were cut away and gone now.
I clocked it and filed that one away for later. Might explain some of Zeno’s nerves, since the only thing I knew over that ravine was Reach’s Fallow.
After much careful descending onto appropriate tiers, we set up at the Far Eel for their morning special of cod and coffee.
As alliterative as that sounded, I was just not in the mood for bottom-feeders so I ordered a tuna and it came out with beautiful sear marks from the grill. I made a careful study of them for future reference and dug in.
Felegum and Zeno also got quite nice fish, and Tem, being Tem, decided to order two fish, whole and uncooked. This was met with some slight hesitation, but the fish were procured.
Upon arrival, Tem lifted one up by the tail and gently lowered it head-first into her mouth, dislocating her jaw to accommodate the fish’s girth and swallowing in a single gulp.
This left us speechless, as it was nonstandard restaurant behavior in general and a little weird, even for Tem. She picked up the second fish and the horrified proprietor of the Far Eel hastily rushed up.
“Ma’am, ma’am,” he said. “We’re going to have to ask you to step outside?”
Tem rehinged her jaw to speak, still holding the second fish. “But I’m just eating my food.”
“No.” The maître d’ reiterated, with force. “You are upsetting the other patrons.”
He wasn’t wrong: the Far Eel didn’t have much of a morning crowd, but even the crusty sailors and quiet old people were giving Tem wide-eyed looks of comingled fascination and horror.
“But–” she protested.
“Outside. Not where we can see you,” the maître d’ said as he directed her to a safe distance away from tender eyes. “Thank you.”
Tem muttered something about this being vaguely racist but allowed herself to be led outside to complete her engulfing of the second fish.
The maître d’ re-entered and shook his head. “Where did you get that one? Only said she were from ‘through the fog’– I couldn’t get a straight answer and I wasn’t sticking around to watch her eat that other fish.”
The establishment had seemed to turn decidedly frosty to us at that point, which Zeno noticed and attempted to rectify. “Yeah,” he said with a regretful shake of head, “we only just met her.”
Perhaps this was not the best moment to try to pump the locals for information, but if anyone could turn a situation like this around, it was probably Zeno and Felegum. They tried their most intensely (Felegum) and most charmingly (Zeno) and made little progress. I sipped my coffee and listened as they plied the bartender, Philander, for news. A quick scan of the area told me that no one was really paying us too much attention beyond normal, which was good. I’d known a little of Zeno’s past as a rabble-rouser– we’d chatted about our parents a way back– and I had a feeling sooner rather than later we’d run into people who knew him, for better or worse.
Never hurt to be careful, is what I’m saying.
Anyway, the conversation was really confusing, like there were multiple things being said at once but none of the truth on the surface level. It was almost like Thieves’ Cant, but not the way I knew it. The barkeep spoke of a “great harvest” in Australis that hadn’t come in yet, and when Zeno nodded and called that city the “heart of the region” Philander twitched.
A sign? Maybe. We were going to check it out.
Before we left to secure our transportation, I found a bulletin board near the teleportation circle and left a want ad:
Strong pair of arms needed for help with harvest in Australis, experience with legs a plus.
I made the handwriting very elegant and pretty, because I enjoy showing off how awesome I am at these things, and also because I was relatively sure Helli would recognize it.
Along the way to the stable, Zeno pulled me aside and showed me a piece of paper. It was a wanted poster, with a familiar face and name. His.
“Oh.” I breathed. Damn, it was already starting.
“Subtle,” Zeno cautioned. I nodded. We were always doing subtle.
The stable we visited for steeds was called the Magnetic Ostrich and offered many options for long-distance travel. I offered to make Zeno invisible– I’d have done it earlier, but I didn’t know we were going to be in the thick of it this early.
He declined and promptly summoned Lily.
This, I had to admit, was less than subtle. I ran through several scenarios in my head of the impossibility of keeping someone as loud as Zeno hidden when he didn’t want to be, and gave up.
Felegum was fascinated by a strange animal known as a “terror bird”, which the stable’s proprietor pitched as “the best steppebird money can buy”. The sorcerer too must have thought so, because he rented the diva of the clutch, a strange specimen named Metzi, who needed her tendons plucked nightly to run most efficiently.
The stablemaster demonstrated, executing an expert twang of the bird’s hindleg. Metzi wobbled and emitted a contented beep, muscles relaxing after a series of tremors.
I experienced a moment of extreme gratitude that Kheryph had never needed me to do that.
Meanwhile, Tem rented a large lizard to ride on. I was tempted to ask her to have Kheryph on her head so we could have a lizard-riding-a-lizard-riding-a-lizard situation, but after seeing her speed and ease eating that fish whole I thought better of it. Kheryph had been through a lot and certainly did not need to be rescued from a digestive track.
Last, I’d be on my broom. I possibly should have gotten it repaired, but the only object-based enchanter I really knew was Milto and, well, yeah. How did you even begin with that?
I unstrapped the broom from my back and looked at it. Maybe there wasn’t an easy way to begin, only the willingness to get through the weird part. Anyway, it didn’t even matter; it wasn’t like I’d be running into him anytime soon.
We set out. Travel went pretty well. At first, the stable-owner was a bit skeptical of me riding the broom the whole time, but with some strategic adjustments from time to time, I was able to keep pace with the others. Maybe I’d try an animal the next time. The necessity of the steppebird tendon-plucking just like, unnerved me. Tendons, in and of themselves? Totally fine, I’d see tendons where they were and were not supposed to be in people, thanks to my parents’ patients. Seeing a bird react that way to you touching one? No thank you, I’d rather suffer.
Eventually, we came upon a small roadside tavern called the Zealous Digeridoo. True to form, a couple of people were set up in the corner playing atmospheric digeridoo background music.
Felegum elbowed the bard. “Zeno, do you want to change?”
Zeno blinked philosophically. “Have I not changed?”
“You are purple,” said a very tired sorcerer.
“Oh my god!” Zeno beheld himself and prompted used his magic robes to be less conspicuous.
The fare was pretty standard, a catch of the day and other smaller roadside offerings. The clientele hardly seemed to be enough to support employing musicians, considering that it was just us, a few other people, and this one incredibly weird old dude with a pot on his head.
And I do not mean flower pot. I mean like, the cooking apparatus.
One of his feet was in a sandal; the other was booted. His hands were wrapped in green and blue, one color per hand, and he was either taking a long nap or immensely drunk. Impossible to tell.
I gathered from some brief conversation with the proprietor that we had stopped in a little town called Sovieas. Further chatting revealed that the musicians themselves were an illusion courtesy of our host, who had a fondness for music (and digeridoos). Zeno asked after the specialty drinks menu and was informed that the Beast of Burden was their topseller.
I honestly do not know why we talked to the guy with the pot on his head. Maybe we were just really desperate and finding no leads, and this guy seemed like the best bet. We’d certainly milked drunks for information before.
Anyway, we did.
“I have many names,” he said grandly, gesturing wide with his flask. “Actually, I have one. It’s Iago.”
He was by turns philosophical– one hand stole from guards, one hand was an upstanding citizen, it was sometimes hard to follow his delirious turns of phrase– and also very silly. Zeno naturally plied him with drinks.
“I don’t think it’s good for you to stay here,” said Zeno, as the proprietor nodded emphatically behind him.
“Then,” Iago proclaimed, “I will go back to the last tavern.”
I prayed that Zeno was not offering what I thought he was offering.
The last tavern, if I recalled correctly, had been in a place called Meadowgrove, which Zeno had called the heart of the farmland. It seemed a perfectly nice place for a weird old man to vegetate.
Zeno returned to our table. “It’s good here. It’s good to be in this area.”
There was an undercurrent of nerves, but he actually seemed to mean this one. Had I looked like that when I’d gone back home to Csipherus, relief and fear at the same time?
I sipped my drink. I hadn’t expected someone else to know how that felt, those two conflicting things at once.
“We heard,” Felegum stepped in smoothly, “that it was great in Australis.”
“Who told you that?” The proprietor scoffed. “That town was overrun by monsters.”
I set down my drink.
Things were about to get very interesting.