To recap, we set off from the ruins with the buried plinth around mid-afternoon. From our previous travels up here, we knew it would take about a day to make it back to the crossroads before Australis, so we could make it back from whence we’d come around dark. Tem strapped one of the tubes to her war lizard and we made haste.
“Always so excited to make haste,” mused Iago. “What about the journey?”
The journey was indeed not top consideration this time. It was raining; the going was not easy. Felegum tried singing to bring up our spirits, and Zeno told him to pipe down, which was maybe a little harsh but did allow us to concentrate on going fast.
We were able to reach the crossroads in about three and a half hours. Lily, for her part, shepherding four zombies, was exhausted. The rain seemed like it might end by tomorrow morning, but would surely continue through the night.
We made camp and Felegum once again set up the dome for us to rest. Zeno brought Lily inside to give her more comfortable sleeping quarters, which made things inside a bit cozier than usual, and Tem turned her war lizard loose for the evening. It literally just ran off.
“Hunt well! Come back tomorrow!” she called after it.
Somehow, the conversation turned to diamonds.
“Friends, look,” Zeno said proudly, taking two stones out and placing them over his eyes. “These are the last two left in Csipherus! Would you believe it?”
I felt the lump of my own diamond, dearly bought with a favor from a dear friend, press into my chest. So. That had been the reason.
I stalked off, shoulders clenched, saying I was going to find food.
It was miserable, as it was still raining, but I sucked it up.
Then, once I’d gotten a ways away from the group, I reached through my things for a piece of copper wire and began my spell.
The wire, once straight, folded itself into the three-dimensional geometric wire form of a lizard. It cocked its little head and waited, as though listening.
I took a breath, steeled myself, and sent a message to the Mage of the Sands, the blue dragon Ojutai.
“Yo, it’s Set.” That felt polite; let him know who’s calling. “Just found a weird plinth with a crystal on top. Lightning when touched. Do you know what this is? Enchantment magic device.”
I nodded to the wire-lizard to show I was done. It straightened, and then moments later opened its mouth and out came the dulcet, weary tones of Ojutai.
“Set, try to call during business hours. The moon is high in the sky.” A sigh. “Not sure. I’ll look into it in the morning.”
Highly embarrassed, I messaged him again. “Sorry, sorry, forgot about the time change. Thanks.”
When no reply was forthcoming, the lizard unspooled itself and I pocketed the neat, perfectly straight copper wire as the spell ended.
Then I actually had to go and find food. I made myself invisible for this one, but the mud was so loud that my every step still squelched loud enough to scare everything of consequence away.
I came back empty-handed, to Tem cutting wood with her massive holy sword. She offered to dry the skeletons.
“Please don’t,” said Zeno.
Iago attempted to look cool by bringing rain water from the outside into the dome in his pot for cooking, but thanks to the magic and power of Felegum, it simply was not able to enter (not being present inside the dome at the time of casting).
We ended up with a slightly sad mushroom soup (I surmised that in my absence Iago had gone foraging and come up with these offerings) to which Zeno added a splash of bourbon. I was so cold that I did not even protest, and once again praised my past self’s foresight in getting warm boots years ago as I sullenly ate a ration.
While the bourbon had improved the soup, it was still terminal. In this case, only one thing would do.
I unpacked the Csipherian spices I had stolen from someone’s house. Technically, I could buy my own, but whoever these spices had belonged to had good taste, by which I meant they were the standard compliment of spices you might expect a sensible family of means to have. It was a luxury and a delight to possess them.
I added several to taste, bringing out more of the earthiness of the mushroom. With a little more kick, the soup became very edible and tasted comfortingly of home.
“Set!” said Zeno in Csipherian. “Eram!”
“Ehram,” I corrected. He really was getting there, as much as I was surprised he’d been able to come this far in a year.
“Tastes sedentary,” he observed.
I had to sound that one out, running through what ingredients I’d added. “Oh. Sesame?”
He nodded enthusiastically, pleased.
With the conclusion of dinner, we settled into watches. Tem and Felegum took first, once again I somehow got stuck being alone on second watch, and Zeno and Iago took last.
I had Kheryph, so it wasn’t like I was lonely or anything, but I had a lot of time to think and one thing that kept popping up was the weirdness of this place. We all knew that something strange was going on based on how a few of us weren’t healing as well as we usually did. I spent my quiet time on watch piecing through the complex mysteries of the arcane and concluded that it was, ultimately, one of two things.
Either the land we were on was doing something to us, or it was the frogs.
More time thinking and observing the situation would no doubt yield fruit in terms of a conclusion one way or the other, so I made a note to talk to Felegum about it in the morning.
I awoke to dawn and Zeno playing a haunting melody on his death flute. Thankfully, that was not a euphemism; it was just an obsidian, creepy-ass woodwind.
“I feel like shit,” Felegum moaned.
“Funny you should mention that,” I said, and laid out my theories.
“Sh!” Zeno said. “Do you hear it?”
I listened, then shook my head.
Zeno pointed to the road, where something clinked metallically. Suspiciously like a lot of really long tubes being carried at once. The wagon in question was to the east, heading south.
It seemed like a good next step if ever there was one. Felegum and I discussed the possibility of a magical field as we packed, and I felt so cool. It was like I was living out some alternate universe Set’s dream life, discussing magical philosophy and mechanics with an expert and actually being taken seriously. Felegum listened to my theories with interest and was even explaining more of the complexities of land-based magics versus affliction-based ones, which I was following, when Iago completely ruined the happy, intellectual glow of the moment by vomiting up a giant slug.
It was four inches long and blue, from stem to stern.
We all just kind of stared at it for a bit, mid-pack. The wagon clanged musically in the distance as the slug writhed on the ground until someone, probably Iago, squashed it.
Then we looked at each other with varying degrees of nausea and disbelief. Surely not. No. It was too horrible to contemplate.
Choosing not to dwell on that unpleasantness, we evolved a plan to track the wagon. I followed them on the broom, using the cover of various trees and my truly incredible ability to hide and be subtle to keep track of their movements. It turned out to be much easier than I expected: they weren’t hiding and the continued to plod south.
We followed them for about an hour before they turned west at a crossroads onto a smaller road. It seemed like a shortcut, a lesser traveled route. I reported back to the others and we elected to continue following them down this path, but at more of a distance. Travel was slow, but the road was softer, allowing us to follow them with greater ease as their wagon tracks were pretty obvious.
This detour took the better part of the day, and then the road less traveled rejoined the larger, more inhabited road. Eventually, we came upon a sign saying “Fallow’s Crossing: 7. Twin Trees: 6.”
The wagon tracks turned toward Fallow’s Crossing before blending in with a mess of other tracks.
Zeno and Felegum, our locals, postulated that the shortcut we’d just taken must have let us skip past the traffic around Twin Trees.
We continued on, and a few hours later a heavy stone castle rose on the horizon. This was the armored bastion of Fallow’s Crossing. It was constructed from cliffs, with two turrets built into its walls and a heavy stone arch suspended across it. On the other side of the chasm was a smaller castle of similar make.
Carts were driven onto a platform and then lifted to make the crossing. Before the massive stone gates, a line had queued up of merchants and other travelers. At the head was some flavor of official, probably a customs officer, as heavily armored warbirds and their riders patrolled the line and towers.
At first, it seemed like all we’d need to do would be to declare any vegetables or produce on us and document them on a form, a task which Felegum took to as a gull to the ocean.
Then Zeno coughed politely and mentioned that we might need to explain the zombies.
I looked over my shoulder at Vincenzo, North, West, and McKenna all huddled around a slightly-more-rested Lily. I sighed.
Zeno looked at me and asked me to come with him. We were going to pretend to be Csipherians, he said, and he’d do the talking.
I did not have a problem too much with that. I after all was a real authentic Csipherian, and Zeno was going to do the talking in a situation regardless of whether or not you wanted him to. This seemed like very little to ask, to be a prop in his latest stage production. He picked up supporting characters and personas like I collected recipes, though I generally held onto those longer than he did.
Today’s dramatic offering was the tale of an enterprising Csipherian merchant stimulating the city’s economy with intercontinental trade. Due to the sad lack of workers available (and the sadder plethora of dead bodies), the merchant had no recourse but to animate corpses as laborers for his caravans, to help him transport wares to the vast desert and across it. It was so hard, Zeno said, in convincingly Csipherian-accented Common, to find good help in these unpredictable and trying times. He had even brought his cousin (enter: Sethandriel Ides, might of the Calendar, punk rock chef, and off-brand priest of Lathander, currently reprising his breakout role of grubby youth) along to learn the trade.
It was deliciously well-crafted. The accent, the posture, the hand gestures– even though it made me wince to keep up the charade seeing my city presented as a necro’s heaven, the little details were so undeniably us.
Zeno even pulled out a Bacchus Jolly drink token, mentioned that he ran a bar as a little side business, and invited the guard to stop by for a drink on the house if he was ever in the city.
The guard took the token, turned it over, and then spoke in a wholly different language.
“You see, it is funny,” he said in perfect Csipherian. “I too hail from that city. I had not yet heard that it had re-opened its borders. Fascinating. Tell me more.”
My heartrate spiked. Zeno was good, but he was walking on a knife’s edge here. I held back my initial urge to leap in, and let him walk it.
Zeno gamely switched to Csipherian and spoke in hushed tones of a terrible plague and a great battle. He spoke more of the after than the how it had happened: the city carving its teleportation circle back into the stone, magicians helping rebuild, caravans to and through the desert, exiled sons and daughters and all the children of a grand city at last making their way home.
The guard nodded. “Perhaps I will take my wife. She’s not Csipherian, you know, and I have always wanted to show her the city.”
Zeno nodded enthusiastically.
And like, he was doing okay. It was surprising, how agile he was in Csipherian as well as Common. It almost didn’t feel fair.
He still spoke Csipherian with a little accent, but to a person who hadn’t flexed the language in a while, perhaps it might go unnoticed, as long as Zeno didn’t have to communicate too complex an idea or say a word he did not know, like “sesame”.
“Perhaps we might secure a, uh, religious exemption,” Zeno said.
The Csipherian man narrowed his eyes. “That is certainly possible. But how, friend, do you justify…this?” He waved at the zombies in the way that a camel owner waves at a particularly foul-smelling gift from their steed.
“They are, they are laborers,” Zeno repeated. It was very subtle, like the shift in a juggler catching and throwing eight balls but then wobbling when a ninth was added. A delicate system on the cusp of unsteadiness. “We are taking it back.”
The man cocked his head and I stepped in.
“It is the way of the desert,” I said in my native tongue. “Just as we have learned to ride out the sandstorms and later use them for our own purposes, to thrive and prosper not in spite of them but because of them, so too with the undead. We desert people are resilient. We use whatever tools the desert hands us and we endure.”
Kalends had said something similar to me, once. I experienced a momentary pang, a cheapening of something much beloved. I hoped these zombies were worth it.
“Ah!” Zeno cried. “My cousin, the poet!”
The Csipherian guard deeply liked this, tales of his homeland undying and his people unyielding against all odds, as any true Csipherian would. He said he had some vacation time left and Zeno encouraged him to take it, to visit, and the guard nodded, saying that yes, it was high time he and his wife took a trip south.
The religious exemption forms were tendered and signed, I paid for the crossing, Felegum asked me about any fruits or grains I might be carrying (quinoa, but not enough to matter) and, at last, we moved onto the platform and were lifted onto the arch.
We discussed at length the socioeconomic implications for zombie labor– I maintained that I did not want it to happen and had ethical trouble using someone as labor that way (what if we managed to un-undead them, what about the wages then), and Zeno countered that they were just sitting in the pyramid and might as well be of use in the rebuild. Felegum envisioned orderly lines of ancestor-skeletons tilling fields and hugging great-great-great-grandchildren with sun-bleached ulnas and radii.
I held my head in my hands. God, I really had to fix the zombie problem.
Below us, the chasm loomed wide and massive. They’d had to construct an arch because it was way too deep to drop a support pillar into. It just went and went, onward and downward seemingly forever.
The guards on the arch all wore armor and a helmets embossed with the Fallow’s Crossing logo, a sort of capital omega meant to represent the bridge. One guard with a yelling cone directed people onto the descent platform and off the arch, and the castle at the other end, we heard, was home to the Lord of the Crossing. It sounded like a really cool title and I was really curious about them, but I was preoccupied by 1) locating our suspicious jingling cart and 2) Iago, who had leapt onto a support girder and was beaming into the abyss.
“How do you even get on here?” he said, from a cable he was almost certainly not supposed to be on.
I looked away as a guard rushed up to scold him and find his traveling party.
“The kindness of strangers!” the old man crowed as he was “assisted” down.
Since the lift to ascend and descend from the arch needed to be filled with carts and travelers before it was run, we had become a bit more behind the cart with the tubes. They were still going south, though they had about an hour’s lead on us. There was also only one major road going south, which helped.
We passed many people, travelers and farmers, taking interesting crops to market. Most commerce seemed to be done in this area. Gradually, the sun went down and we arrived at a small farming encampment called New Capostra just in time to see the cart we were interested in be locked into a stable for the night. It took four people (two half-orcs and two burly humans) to push it inside, and the doors were shut and locked behind it.
Along the way, Zeno had switched back to nondescript traveler’s clothes, a small mercy. After a long day, the inn was warm and inviting, and a built man with a handlebar mustache behind the bar asked patrons for drink orders.
I hung back around the entrance before heading in and took out the copper wire again. The lizard wound into shape and sat in my hand, listening for my message.
“Yo, it’s Set.” I supposed Kalends had heard me talk in his head like this before, but that last time had been under terrible circumstances. Plus, I was feeling uneasy after the bridge trip and wasn’t thinking. I just kind of wanted to hear him, someone from home, and know that everything was okay. “Just wanted to say thanks again for the diamond. That meant a lot. Hope things are okay.” A beat, a lizard waiting for my nod. “Miss you.”
The copper wire lizard and I waited. Then it opened its mouth and a terrible groan came out. “Set, I am so tired. It’s midnight. Things are fine. Ugh.”
I slapped myself in the face. God, that was right– it was a five hour time difference between this region and Csipherus, why did I keep forgetting? I messaged Kal back an apology and that for someone managing a shady enterprise I’d thought he’d be awake later than this and he said it was fine, that even crime magnates had to sleep sometimes. “I have an early meeting,” he said and the lizard unraveled back to wire.
I felt a little better, and entered the inn after my friends. I’d missed part of the conversation, but the gist seemed to be that there hadn’t been a lot of dragons in the Crossing for a while. Also, that it was hard to smuggle things across the chasm, since that usually occurred by catapult and the perpetrators tended to be easily caught.
There had been a dragon, Old Flametongue, in the south by Dragon’s Spire. She preferred the mountains and coast.
“Have you seen her?” Zeno asked the mustached man as I sat down. “I’ve never seen a dragon before.”
I snorted into my drink.
The barkeep shook his head stoically. “Many who live to see a dragon do not live to tell the tale.”
“How long as it been vacant?” Tem asked.
“It’s not,” the barkeep said with a frown. “We just haven’t seen her for a while.”
Our meal consisted of a suckling pig, potatoes, and greens, easily the best thing I’d eaten in a long time. Iago loudly said he wanted a flight of flagons.
Zeno leaned in and inclined his head in the direction of the other caravaners at the bar. “Would you recognize them?”
The ones who were driving the cart we were following? I shook my head. “No, I erred on the side of caution there. But I’d know their wagon.”
Everyone took in the scene except me, still suffering from time zone embarrassment. This was so bad. I couldn’t believe I kept messing this up, it was mortifying.
The conversations around us were mostly banal: travel, weather, shipping– the usual sort of thing. Zeno went over to take a look at the bulletin board, probably scouting out for more posters of himself.
He returned, telling us about a Masked Bandito and a mutton-chopped villain both in want of capturing, so I took it that he hadn’t found anything too distressing. He also asked about our plan for watches, just to see whether or not the cart would move out during the night.
“Someone needs to keep watch in the bar?” Iago lurched awake and then promptly fainted again.
The rest of us got rooms and divided our watch plan. Tem and I took first watch– a relief to have unbroken sleep– and I scoped out the stables hidden while Tem was loud as the last calls of the bar ended. We handed the reins over to Felegum for second watch, and then Zeno for third.
The night passed without incident. The wagon we were following remained in the stables all night, and most patrons remained in their rooms as well.
In the morning, the barn was unlocked and the six merchant carts took to the roads again. Three of them went south and the other three went west, toward Reach’s Fallow.
Including the one we were after.
We ate a quick breakfast and got back on the road. We had a destination, after all.