I woke up to the most amazing smell in the world: warm butter.
Someone was baking something. It smelled delicious. Ergo, I had to know what it was. I pulled on my cloak and things and headed downstairs in the direction of the scent.
In the kitchen I met a nice older woman preparing breakfast. Her name was Pulchea and she was the proprietor’s wife. They both ran the inn; he handled most of the evening work and she prepared breakfasts and did the morning stuff. She was really nice and her baking smelled amazing, so I asked if she could give me some tips with bread. She was happy to oblige and we chatted as she showed me how to shape the bread.
When it was my turn, I rolled out the dough into a long cylinder as instructed, then made one end more diamond-shaped and the other longer. Along the middle of the bread, I stretched out four sections for little limbs. By the time I was finished, I had a very convincing-looking lizard.
Pulchea was also delighted by this and told me to hold on a moment as she dug through some of her supplies in the kitchen. After a few moments, she unearthed a container of raisins and showed me how to place them so that the lizard bread had beautiful raisin eyes and accents. Pulchea even instructed me through cutting the dough just so that it would crack into scales.
I was inordinately proud.
As my companions woke up and conversation shifted from the finer points of fancy breads to more pressing matters, we learned that Pulchea’s husband tended to change the name of the restaurant about once a week whenever the illusion got a little thin. Last week was the Zealous Clarinet, so the “zealous” part seemed pretty consistent.
Pulchea, Zeno and Felegum remarked, was also not a local name. She’d moved to the area since it was where her husband was from, though lately things had been a little wild with tornadoes happening in the month of tremors.
“What brings you out here?” she asked the rest of my companions, as I monitored the bread like a hawk. Kheryph had deeply enjoyed the extra raisins, as he usually did, probably because they looked like bugs.
“Uh,” said Zeno uncharacteristically inelegantly. “We’re the adventuring type.”
“Oh! There’s a board here–” Pulchea gestured in the appropriate direction– “to help people and the like. Catching kobolds and such, you know.”
“We’ve hard of trouble to the east.”
“Ah yes.” She nodded. “The kobolds. Or that’s what they called them. They live in the sewers and have webbed feet. Sightings and more strange things like that have been happening in the east. Also, attacks by a wolf, which results in an affliction that the wounded don’t recover from.”
Gods. My shoulders were stiff. I was staring at some point in the distance when I came back to myself. No more afflictions that didn’t have cures for a minute. I was still barely coping with the last one.
But Zeno wasn’t so easily deterred. “Back where I came from,” he joked, “we’d call some of these ‘tall stories’.”
Pulchea nodded. “On this side of the ravine, we call them ‘elevated tales’.”
The bard sighed and shook his head. “But that doesn’t make much sense.”
Felegum remarked that Iago was surprisingly put-together looking today.
“Morning routines are important,” replied the strange old man.
“You’re looking good,” Zeno affirmed.
Felegum shot him a look, perhaps not to encourage the crusty old dude who was following us and possibly at risk of super death when we inevitably ran into something dangerous. Iago, sensing back channeling perhaps, said that he’d leave us alone if Felegum could move a rod from his hand.
Felegum was, to be fair, looking a little more resilient than he had before. Truly, it goes to show the restorative power of sleeping for sixteen days. Or maybe it was something else, but whatever, he looked heartier these days.
Still, he could not budge the rod. He attempted to cast a spell to help, and recognizing what he was doing, I brought my own mage hand into the fray, invisibly because I was very subtle, but still nothing. That was annoying. I was hopeful that we could avoid elderly casualties but this dude just seemed determined to accompany us.
I took my mind off the amount of extra responsibility that I’d have to shoulder in keeping Iago alive by buying the lizard bread. Pulchea gave it to me free of charge, which was amazing, so I made sure to hide a few gold near one of the potted plants, just enough out of the way that you wouldn’t find it until it was time to water that plant.
Zeno, meanwhile, gestured to another wanted poster of himself on the board, this time showing Felegum. The mage looked momentarily nonplussed.
Subtlety, I took it, would then be the name of the game.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Our procession to Australis, also I guess called Straya by the locals sometimes, set out. Felegum rode Metzi, his steppebird, and Dronie perched on his shoulder, staring Iago dead in the eyes the entire way. I flew on my broom with Kheryph on my head or in my hood, as suited his preference at the moment. Zeno was on the back of Lily-of-the-Valley, a literal flying horse that was clearly magical. In terms of less ostentatious, we had Tem on her war lizard and Iago banging along with his chaotic drip on foot.
Farmland and rows of crops loomed ahead and behind us, the last of the summer crops reaching their harvest as we headed east. We came to a crossroads that mentioned Fallows Crossing in some direction– it seemed irrelevant so I just ignored it– then Australis to the east and some place called Marte to the north.
We had a brief pause to prepare ourselves before entering the town proper. Felegum made the sign of the gear. “I hope these kobolds are actually kobolds.”
Zeno and Iago drank. It was weird– I didn’t think I’d even meet someone who liked alcohol more than Zeno, but here we were. So far the main difference seemed to be quality and cleanliness; for all his infinite sips in the flask, Zeno had never looked as madcap as Iago did on a daily basis.
But yeah, people continued to pass us by, even as we rested and most of them were just…kind of in awe. Again, this was not the stealth operation. Somewhat belatedly, Zeno disguised himself with a kit he had, and the different contours helped. Maybe the best way to hide in this situation really was in a crowd of equally loud and strange people.
For some reason he asked me for directions on where we were heading next. I hadn’t really been paying attention, so I just said what felt right and he got upset for some reason.
Anyway, after much ado, we headed north. Ruins began to creep up alongside the road, replacing the copious farmland with skeleton shapes of buildings long decayed. We arrived in Australis as the sun had almost set, meaning that the town itself should have been a buzz of activity.
And to be fair, it had been, when we’d been approaching from a distance. As soon as it became clear that we were a group of people heading into their midst, farmers, shopkeepers, and townspeople dropped whatever it was they’d been doing and bolted for shelter. Doors locked, windows were barred, and by the time we reached the center of the town, it was devoid of people.
The sun crept lower on the horizon, a few rays peeking out over a palisade wall that was in construction around the perimeter of the town. Between shuttered windows, we could make out occasional flickers of candlelight.
Here, our strategies differed. Iago waltzed right up to the Prancing Caterpillar and pulled at its doors. They did not give.
I went invisible and snuck around from house to house, listening in as best I could to muffled conversations. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much. One house fretted over an animal named Patsy with a disease affecting her hoof that she seemed unlikely to recover from. Another spoke of caravans coming less and less frequently. Still another discussed the necessity of the wall, even at the cost of being cold in the coming winter and not having enough supplies.
It wasn’t a lot, not enough for me to figure out if there was something more serious at work here or if these were the normal gripes of a small town. Nothing was ever perfect; that I knew from trying to manage anything in Csipherus. Until I had more information, I didn’t know much on what to do there.
A brief survey of the surrounding farmlands revealed that the crops were mainly corn and wheat. So far, the palisade wall was on the south and west, and there was some elevation to the north. Since it was getting late, Zeno suggested we set up camp “facing the enemy”, or rather, camping with our backs to the palisade facing the road (but out of town so that the townspeople could stop freaking out).
We broke up watches with Felegum on first, me on second (miserable, I have to wake up early for Lathander), and then Zeno and Tem on last. We did not think Iago was responsible enough for a watch.
For the most part, at least for the cold part of the night where I was awake, time passed without an issue. Shapes moved in the distance and I could almost detect something hopping around a barrier. Could be deer. Could also be not-deer.
We woke to the morning sun. I hadn’t been on the road doing watches for a while, and as nice as it was to spend a peaceful night away from home, it was also hard convincing yourself to be vigilant for a long time when nothing was happening. At least we all got to suffer through the boredom of staring out into the dark.
Iago went into Australis proper once more to try and ply the locals, and Felegum took advantage of his absence to confide in the rest of us a few weird things that had been happening to him in the last year. Mechanus was much more than a random obsession fueled by boredom in Paripas: there were beings of chaos (frogs) afoot, perhaps even here, that had done some pretty bad stuff Felegum was not super into sharing with Iago.
Iago, for his part, came out of the tavern looking by turns carefree and contemplative, almost as if he changed emotions depending on whether his weight was on the boot or the sandaled foot. He took Zeno aside and chatted with him a bit. The bard’s face went through a myriad of expressions, but this was usual as Zeno was very dramatic and sometimes pulled weird faces for no greater reason than because he could.
What was a little strange was Iago getting my attention later and then asking me if I trusted Zeno.
“Yeah,” I said. Obviously. Zeno had been one of the few people who had always had my back in Csipherus. I didn’t hold it against the others for wanting to leave when the going got tough and things seemed impossible, but it meant a lot that he hadn’t. Or, I guess, that if he had he hadn’t told me.
“Inward we will go then,” Zeno announced, and since this was his and Felegum’s turf, I left it to the experts.
I did take a moment to cast a spell so that I’d appear like a more official cleric of Lathander– it still felt like lying even though I was actually the entity in question, albeit in less respectable clothes. Zeno had reapplied his disguise, after all, so it didn’t hurt to be less memorable, or differently memorable.
Tem strode into the village center with all the self-possession of a protagonist. “I am a paladin of Bahamut! We are on a pilgrimage!”
I winced, felt something in the pit of my soul shrivel, and clasped my hands together in an attitude of prayer.
A strong baked bread smell pervaded the village– not a bad sign at all. At first, that was all we got. Then a terrified villager poked his head out of the Prancing Caterpillar and agreed to tell us what we wanted in the hopes that this would more expediently make us leave.
According to him, there had been dead cattle, trampled crops, and murdered villagers. All of the trouble seemed to stem from the ruins of the old castle (perhaps it was a castle, perhaps it was something different, no one seemed sure) to the northwest of town.
Listening stoically, Tem nodded as the man concluded his list of complaints. “Bahamut will bring justice to your town.”
The man paled and whispered, “That’s what Zeno said when he visited.”
Then he quickly locked the windows again. A bolt thunked into place behind the shutters.
Something was not adding up here, and I was beginning to understand why Iago had asked me about trust.
We hit the road again and soon found ourselves wandering through the ruins, looking for clues. It was fun, to be with my friends (plus one old dude) and talking about all these weird markings on walls, what this place had maybe once been used for. I’d gone to so many sites on the Csipherian teleportation highway that the magic of discovery had almost faded; driven by a relentless search for what my city needed, I kept on, but it was easier like this.
I turned around to crack a joke to Felegum about some sigil looking a little sus, just in time to see a giant frog punch him.
Another different giant frog was trying to get me too, but I’d had my warning seeing Felegum get wrecked and dodged out of the way in time.
I called forth my wings and, after a moment of thought, invoked a holy shield on Zeno. I didn’t like the look of this. Sure, the frogs seemed tied into Felegum’s purview, but the last thing we needed was someone taking Zeno captive or using this as a distraction to nab him. This felt like too much of a coincidence.
While I was playing 3D underwater chess, Iago drunkenly stumbled into a red frog. “Guess we’ll have to make a meal out of you!” he yelled and his pot caught fire.
I did not have the heart to tell him that these frogs were almost certainly not edible. I also could only save one old drunk dude at a time, and I had chosen the less old, less drunk person I knew.
Still, the frog seemed shaken up enough either by the presence of fire or being clocked with a cooking implement to pause and think about its life choices. Maybe we could dispatch the rest of them before Iago sobered up and ran off in elderly panic.
“Why don’t we try a change of mood?” Zeno snapped his fingers in the direction of a massive blue frog, who cocked its head as though listening to an unheard melody, and fell into an elaborate dance.
“Have at it,” Zeno said to Felegum.
Felegum mouthed the word “ah”.
In retrospect, this was a tough way to confront your lifelong fear of frogs.
Zeno, though, had infinite faith in the magician and moved away from him, nimbly dodging another massive frog’s blow as sunlight winked around him. “Thank you, buddy,” he said to me.
I smiled, wreathed in similar light.
But Felegum had had enough. “Stop that dancing, it looks ridiculous!” he yelled at the blue undulating frog.
It did not stop. It seemed like it looked a little more haunted, but it did not stop. Felegum threw three balls of very orderly energy at it. This didn’t stop the dance either.
Tem immediately sensed that she could be of use. “Stay near me,” she said to Felegum, “and you won’t be afraid.”
“I AM NOT AFRAID,” Felegum yelled, his veneer of calm shattering in an instant, “I JUST HATE THEM!”
Silence. Even the dancing frog looked shook.
“It’s just PTSD, okay?” the mage said, quieter.
“Bahamut, protect us!” Tem called, abjuring the frogs and driving those she could to return from whence they came. One smaller frog splatted into a very gross puddle trying to jump down from the top of the ruins and flee, but the big blue frog continued to dance. A second red frog was able to barrel away down the walls with some impressive athleticism, and I had barely enough time to switch my train of thought from “those frog muscles, man” to “oh, that is a small bright bead of light coming toward us, shit” before everything around us erupted into fire.
Luckily, I have some experience getting out of terrible situations unharmed. So too did Kheryph, who had resumed hiding deep in my cloak. Props once again to Milto for making an absolutely lizard-safe piece of equipment; I loved this thing.
Several things became clear: that should not be allowed to continue. Also, there were a lot more frogs here than I had originally counted.
New to the party was the green frog who had thrown the fireball, as well as a purple frog who looked particularly menacing.
I laid into the red frog whom Iago had hit with the pot. It was a near thing– I’d started my strike too wide and was tempted to just give up, but then I remembered that Zeno had thought that I was cool earlier for the spell, and I decided to try a little harder. Anyway, the red frog got super hit by yours truly, and then I moved in the direction of the caster. Time to manage some threats.
As I turned, backlit by the last remaining fires of the explosion, I thought I heard the unmistakable sound of an old man hitting the floor. I closed my eyes, did not feel anybody crossing the boundary between life and death, and decided to just let that play out.
“Now you see me, now you don’t,” came Zeno’s voice, which either meant that he was a) invisible or b) once again doing bad things with eyes. Honestly, it was a toss-up, so I turned around to get a read on the situation just in time to see Tem stab a frog from behind and then promptly get bitten by another blue one.
In a moment of triumph, Felegum was able to avoid the claws of the blinded red frog.
The green frog that I was pursuing attempted to do something magical and it did not manifest as he had hoped, while some other dudes got through my guard amidst all this turning and surveying. It did not hurt a lot, but at the same time, it didn’t feel great.
Suspicious Iago noises followed, somewhere else behind me. Again, no souls were leaving places that they were supposed to be and I really did not have it in me to babysit an old dude the entire fight, so I just relied on him to take care of himself.
Meanwhile, I started in on the green frog who had thrown that fireball at us. It felt like I was landing solid hits with my daggers, except that–
More weird thumps, this time from the second floor of the ruins. Iago called out behind a wall: “Stop regenerating, you little shit.”
Whispery bagpipe music floated in my direction from somewhere in the ruins. “Set, heads up!”
If these things were healing that aggressively, then yeah, it did make sense for me to help concentrate our attacks. Zeno’s music had made the green frog run away anyway, so there wasn’t much use in chasing it down. I did try to slice it on the way out, but the green frog was just too determined to get gone.
Then Felegum, thoroughly tired of frogs, summoned an ice storm on top of the ruins.
Unfortunately, this also pelted Tem with ice. I chose not to think about Iago’s plight and hoped he had been sensible and taken cover. It did not stop Tem from inflicting more violence on the blue frog who was still dancing (despite the holy wounds, despite the ice).
This was when we encountered the death slaad.
There’s this adage about how people don’t look up. This was something that I liked as a person who could fly; it made being sneaky that much easier. However, I did not like it when other things took advantage of it and hid in high places while I was preoccupied with managing problems on the ground.
That was what this thing had done.
The death slaad was a black frog that perched atop the highest pillar of the ruins, well above the second and probably third floors. Maybe it had been there the whole time. Maybe it had just arrived. Either way, it threw another bright seed of fire at me and Felegum.
Obviously, I was fine. I tended to be fine in high-stress situations.
Felegum was not. Maybe the frog PTSD was finally getting to him. It had been a long day, and there had been an awful lot of frogs.
Then one moved toward Zeno. The bard was able to evade two attacks, but a third got him: a sharp claw glimmering past the dawnlight of my shield.
I moved, dodging a blow dart and stabbing my knife definitively through the frog next to Zeno. I am proud of a modest number of things in my life, and this particular strike was one of them. I’d found a gap in the frog’s defense as it loomed over to threaten Zeno, and my arm and knife moved as one devastating thought.
The frog, while still upright, did not look great.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the distance, Felegum said “ow” as a blowdart hit him amid the melee.
“Any chance you guys are going to surrender?” Iago asked from somewhere in a wall. I rolled my eyes. Yikes. Obviously not, we were doing fine. I hoped he’d just found a nice place to hide, maybe under some rocks. “No?”
He didn’t sound scared, which was positive. We probably should have just told him to hide at the first sign of danger. Next time.
For now, we had an ailing frog right next to us. Zeno played something that sounded horrible (but like, deliberately horrible, not like he’d been trying and it hadn’t turned out as planned) and the red frog next to us that I’d more or less destroyed just…melted. In true Zeno form, the eyes fell out and what I thought probably was the brain, but liquefied, streamed out of the sockets after them. Another red frog was also affected, but not to the same extent.
“Read to get the next one?” he asked.
I wiped amphibian gore off my knife. “You got it.”
Felegum stepped forward, holding his side, and despite his wounds, lined himself up for the perfect angle. With a flick of his fingers, a beam of light burst forth from his hands and seared into the other red frog and the blue dancer. A ghostly robot hand flickered into existence and then out, failing to gain purchase on a frog’s neck.
Seeing her opening, Tem sliced into the blue frog, still spinning to unheard music. If it had been looking wounded and exhausted before, it certainly looked worse now with another gash in it. At last, it ceased its dance.
“Boo!” Zeno called.
Felegum looked up. “The scary thing is doing something scarier!”
This was when the terrible yellow mist descended on us. Everything got hard to breathe and I was dimly aware, amidst my worry for Kheryph and my own pain and spike of panic, of Felegum’s beleaguered body hitting the earth. Outside the mist, the smaller frogs ran away as did the shape of the other injured giant red frog.
I ran to Felegum and called on every powerful bit of healing magic I had. It was a lot more than I’d thought I had, a nice surprise, and his color came back (well, as much as it could for still being in a terrible yellow cloud of poison). Thinking that he’d probably be okay and that I really had to prioritize getting the lizard to safety, I left him to his own capable devices and ran out of that mess.
Hearing Zeno’s “pip pip”, I assumed he’d done something similar. His “you’re running away from an old man!” made me wonder if Iago was becoming the butt of another joke. Hopefully the old dude would be chill. We kind of just constantly roasted each other here, but sometimes old people got really salty when you insulted them, even in a friendly sense.
But when Iago added “a drunk old man!” cheerily, I figured we were okay.
Felegum stepped out of the cloud, wreathed in smoke and froggy rage. “Oh no you don’t,” he said, chin titled upward at the death slaad, hands forming a complicated array of sigils. I couldn’t see anything specific happen to the slaad, but I had no doubt that the mage had done something strategic.
We found out sooner rather than later that this was a shell of invisible force when Tem summoned her trusty moonbeam and dragged it over the death slaad, checking as ever to see whether it was a shapeshifter or not. Her moonlight shone over Felegum’s orb and gave the death slaad the appearance of a very ugly tadpole trapped in a pearl.
Frogs scattered. The death slaad made a complicated hand gesture back at Felegum inside the moon-pearl and then vanished, much to the frustration of the sorcerer. Back on the ground, Iago stood over the purple frog, which was laying prone on the ground, his flaming pot held out threateningly.
I summoned sacred fire to get to work on the purple frog. If Iago had survived so far it seemed silly to help him die in a stupid way now.
Several weird things happened. First, Iago put the pot– still on fire, by the way– back on his head. It must have hurt or he must have been pretty drunk, because it was starting to crisp his hair, and he didn’t seem to have a lot of hair left for crisping to begin with. Then, he headbutted the frog, which made it struggle again. Last, he grabbed it into a strangely efficient tackle and began dragging it back to the first floor of the ruins.
“Yay, I caught one!” he said.
“Dude,” I said. “Your head is on fire.”
“Want help cooking that?” Zeno held out a hand, magic at the ready.
“After we cook him!” Iago replied with a smile.
This caused Zeno a moment of contemplation. “Do…do they talk?”
Gurgling issued forth from the purple frog and Zeno tsked, taking out a small pinch of something gray and casting a spell. After that, he listened attentively to the gurgles and nodded. Felegum performed a similar spell on himself and did the same, listening and occasionally making gurgling noises back.
Iago announced to the class that he had to take a pee break and vanished. Tem moved the moonbeam around threateningly, but because she had as much understanding as I did of what was happening, we weren’t sure if it was helping or not.
I mostly watched for any slaad coming back and kept an eye on my friends’ expressions. Zeno and Felegum wore expressions of polite amusement (Zeno), barely concealed disgust (Felegum), and thoughtful confusion (both). This wouldn’t be the first time that an enemy had baffled us.
I just waited it out, cleaning the frog guts off my daggers and their hilts.
But then Zeno conjured an illusion of horns and a burning halo around his head. A blade stilled in my hands.
What the hell was that?
For fun, or something, he also conjured one around the purple frog’s head, who made appreciative noises, and for a few minutes they both looked like they were at a very weird party. The conversation seemed to have turned less fraught and more academic, almost amenable, until Zeno turned to Felegum to make a quip and the purple frog seized its chance for escape and darted off as fast as its legs could carry it, leaving more questions than answers in its wake.