MANMADE MADNESS AND THE ROMANCE OF SADNESS: in which we discover a strange artifact and mysterious tubes

“This certainly won’t come back to bite us later,” Felegum said as the purple frog vanished.

“No, definitely no,” said Zeno.

At this point, he explained the contents of the frog conversion to me. Apparently, our purple prisoner had been a “wandering scholar” studying various magics in strange and forbidden libraries across the planes. (This was done, the frog said, so that the frogs could evolve into more and more powerful forms and continue to grow.) The last time the scholar-frog had been in control of his own mind, he was in a library in some hell somewhere (wild) researching that topic. The next thing he knew, he was here, being compelled to fight in the service of the death slaad.

This was typical, according to the wandering scholar. Sometimes you would be doing your own thing, minding your own business, and all of a sudden your mind would be compelled by some powerful dude and you’d wake up somewhere totally different, like this ruin, or dead, like their compatriots had.

It seemed like a pretty bad deal.

Zeno also explained the illusions.

There was someone going around, crowned with horns and a burning halo and calling themselves Zeno, and then attacking towns. This was obviously not our Zeno– as much as he did need dead bodies, I knew for a fact that he’d been busy for the last year and change (or three years and change, depending on how you measured time) adventuring with me or being in Csipherus rebooting a bar.

Also, it just didn’t feel like Zeno’s style. This seemed more calculated, a strike designed to hobble someone who made friends wherever they went.

Tem, as we discussed, walked around the ruins checking for magic. She didn’t find much beyond the bodies of things that had once been humanoid and were now mostly bones, mostly eaten.

What we did find were crates. We opened some with the help of Felegum’s trusty and beloved crowbar, and on sifting through the dunnage, unearthed a vast collection of metal tubes. The tubes did not seem to possess a uniform length or width– they all looked very similar, but each varied slightly in diameter. We also discovered (accidentally) that they made very loud noises when dropped.

“Zeno,” Tem asked, “do these mean anything to you?”

The bard shook his head. “No, darling, nothing.” He cast his eye over the well-eaten corpses. “These bodies, on the other hand–“

“No,” said the paladin firmly.

“Just give me three minutes,” Zeno said, and then went off to commit crimes against Bahamut.

“Gross,” Tem said, the appointed number of minutes later as a pegasus ushered a small cadre of cadavers to the rest of the group.

“Lily,” Zeno said hotly, “is used to being the guardian of the formerly deceased. Why are you laughing?”

This last was aimed at me, because I had devolved into laughter.

“And even more formerly living,” I said. I don’t know. I think I was just relieved and tired and of course he was going to make an undead army, I should have seen this coming.

Felegum had occupied himself with digging through the dunnage some more in the crates and had unearthed a scroll. This made him very pleased until he realized it was just a shipping manifest. He and Zeno read through it together. It was, according to them, dated six days ago and was for four big tubes and four small tubes.

At this point, Tem found another magical thing on top of one of the buildings. Something to do with enchantment, she said. It ended up being a stone plinth with a squat pillar on top of it, about as tall as one of us with a four foot diameter. A clean crystal was embedded at the top and static electricity came off it as we approached. Runes ran down its sides in an unknown language.

Naturally, Felegum was into it.

He went up to it and touched it, able to read (with perhaps some arcane assistance), “crafted by the Stone Mason’s Guild in honor of our beloved king in 623”. This was about seven or eight hundred years ago, then. We also knew, or Felegum also knew and then told us, that it wasn’t made by the slaads. It was moved here, if it had been moved.

It did look out of place in these ruins, despite being horrifically old.

Met with the possibility of a contest of strength, Tem attempted to move it. Sparks of lightning flew around her and the several hundred pounds of electric monument did not budge.

Meanwhile, Iago had found a barrel of something that smelled awful. He was drinking freely from it.

After more poking and attempting to move the monument around, it put too much stress on the ancient floorboards in its new orientation (I guess at some point Zeno and the zombies had gotten involved and they and Tem had succeeded in moving it a few feet) and it fell through the floors and to the earth.

Felegum summoned a construct that looked like a hulked out Dronie, and it and the zombie trio (North, West, and McKenna) were able to right the monument, which had fallen over onto its side after its two-story plummet.

An interesting thing about all those bodies, reanimated and not, was that their ribcages were all torn open. Something had been opening them up to get to the hearts. The other bodies unused by Zeno for zombification did not have anything on them that might identify them– they’d either been dead too long or stripped of signifers and clothing.

I sat down, took out a piece of calligraphy paper, and set to work sketching out one of the deceased slaad. After a time, I had a medically accurate, functional schematic of a frog. Might be useful later.

As I was finishing up, Lily emerged from the corn fields with her luscious mane flowing behind her. She issued a very weird neigh.

“Lily, why do you sound like that? Have you been eating corn again?” Zeno narrowed his eyes at her. She looked away. “You know it gives you indigestion.”

Felegum, elsewhere, had a brilliant idea: identify the monument to learn its secrets. This was then followed by the grim realization that he did not have a pearl.

It was still early in the day, and no one seemed in much of a hurry to go anywhere. Felegum continued to stare at the monument, pondering, avoiding zaps. Zeno commented that it looked like it had been there a while, and either fed up or just desperate to make something happen, Felegum hit the monument with his gearmace.

A cloud passed over the sun. Then another. Dark clouds rolled in from the east and a light rain began to pick up in the distance.

“I bet the crystal could build a few orphanages,” said Tem gamely. She attempted to lever it out with her sword, and lightning once more crackled out from nowhere at her. It did not seem like removing the stone was going to happen.

Thunder rumbled and the smell of petrichor rose around us.

Before we got totally rained out, I sketched the weird monument too for good measure. This was good timing, because after about forty-five minutes a steady rain had set in, building up from a small drizzle to heavier rain with lightning.

By early afternoon, we were in a solid driving rain. Felegum was kind enough to set up the dome, and we took a break. Zeno played a song for us that was surprisingly peaceful, and Lily raised a wing to keep the water off the zombies, of which there were now four, since Vincenzo had caught up.

We discussed plans and threw out some ideas. Felegum and Tem wanted to inspect more of the brass tubes and banged around with one under the cover of thunder. Felegum also dispatched Dronie to Helli with the note “give us pearl” clasped into the monodrone’s hand.

Iago said he thought that the monument was a weather stone. This seemed more like the swill talking than anything, and he was still consuming swill at a frankly alarming rate.

That said, the storm did seem oddly localized.

Felegum sighed, clearly not wanting to give up on the weird plinth.

Tem, sensing that words of affirmation were needed, stepped in to provide them. “We can always wait and see if they come back for it.”

The magician did not like that plan, especially considering the amount of time it would take to carry out such a stake-out when this place had seemed pretty much abandoned to begin with, sans frogs, and buried the plinth instead. To keep it safe, he said.

Whatever it was, anyone looking for it would have a hard time finding it now.

With the rain still coming down and most of an afternoon ahead of us, we packed up our things and headed back south.

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