It was at this point, after having sent off the remaining guards (possibly full of weird slugs), hands still dirty from burying the one who hadn’t made it, that I decided that maybe it would be a good idea to update Helli on our travel plans.
While I had left some signs for her to follow us in Fallow’s Reach, a lot had changed since then.
The copper wire lizard wove itself into being and cocked its head patiently.
“Yo, it’s Set.” Gotta be consistent. I have a brand. “Change of plans. Go south, cross Fallow’s Crossing toll bridge and meet us at next big crossroads south.” That was pretty good. Then I remembered the other new development, and added: “Don’t say Zeno’s name.”
The lizard nodded, then we both waited. When no reply was forthcoming, the lizard unraveled back into copper wire and I put it back into my spell stuff.
“Set,” Zeno said. “Helli, she’s not coming back.”
This felt a little dramatic, but then again Zeno had been very dramatic ever since we began our walk back to the crossroads. It was probably the threat of the massive pipes instrument weighing heavily on him again.
I made a noncommittal noise and shrugged. Helli was a professional. I was a professional. There was a certain understanding in these things. More than that, though, we were friends.
Granted, Csipherus had been rough on Helli. There was literally no gold or commerce for a very long time and honestly we did not have much in the way of machines, minus Ojutai’s new orrery. Also, Harry had died here and those two had been good friends. I could see wanting to run away and be somewhere else.
I mean, I’d even done it.
But I’d also come back, when I’d needed to.
“She’s gone,” Zeno moaned. “Look at the evidence. You and I, we were working our butts off to rebuild. She left as soon as the circle was fixed. She didn’t visit us. Not even once!”
“Yeah, actually,” I said. I’d been so busy with the Calendar, Ojutai, and my temple that it hadn’t registered as deeply. I’d assumed everyone was busy like me. “That…hurt.”
It’s not like anyone had to like, never say anything bad about Csipherus ever or vow to die for its protection, because 1) there were plenty of terrible things about it still, I knew that, and 2) multiple already had died for it and that had been horrible. One hadn’t even come back.
But Zeno had raised a good point. Moreover, of all my friends, he’d been the one who’d stayed in the city and worked to make it better, while also earning a nice living for himself. Tem had stayed as well, but I wasn’t totally convinced that that hadn’t been a part of the dragon agenda.
Zeno could have just as easily gone off to Paripas or Tormani and made a very nice fortune for himself on songs and whatever. Instead, he’d stayed in an initially unliveable city and helped make it suck a lot less.
That meant a lot.
It was also at this point, deep in my ruminations on friendship, grief, and the rebuild, that the group realized we were heading east, not in the direction we’d just had me tell Helli we were going.
“Iago,” Zeno said affably, “you don’t mind turning around, do you?”
“Oh, I’m always turned around,” Iago replied with equal good spirit.
Reversing our direction did make us look very silly to the people on the road around us– we were, after all, near the city of Reach’s Fallow, so it’s not like we were wholly unobserved changing our course.
Eventually, we made it to the crossroads. Another group of merchants passed us, having just made their way over from Fallows Crossing and night was falling. Perched atop a signpost was Helli and the legs, aka Nisbit, dozing off.
“Hey!” Zeno called.
What followed was a nice reunion. I brought up my note on the bulletin board in Fallow’s Reach and was pleased to hear that Helli had found it. When I mentioned my sending spell, though, her response was very different.
“Oh,” she said, brow furrowed. “I thought that was a fever dream.”
I scowled. One, rude. Two, was Helli really working that heard that reality was blending in and out of focus that much? I guess I hadn’t used that spell on her before, but like, come on. I’m in your head. That’s pretty abnormal for reality, I get it.
And I’m not the kind of person you dream of.
“I didn’t want to walk the whole way,” she went on, explaining the legs, which had uncurled from beneath her and bore her down the post.
“Seems that would be easy for you,” Zeno replied. Both Zeno and Felegum seemed to have complicated feelings on the legs, and I generally agreed. Nisbit was not directly bad for Helli, but seemed to be a resource in constant need of management. How she had held off making the trapped spirit in the legs arms for as long as she had was no doubt a testament to her indomitable will.
So, like, I’d handled the Robes of the Abyss. Those had given me strong vibes of Not Great and I was glad to be rid of them in exchange for Felegum’s continued existence (even if he had gotten weird and not talked for a long time). I was what you might call kind of decent at handling curses. Not saying Nisbit was cursed or anything, but also if anything we had was cursed, Nisbit was definitely it. I just want to get that on the record now so that I can say “I told you so” to posterity.
Anyway, next began the long task of introducing Helli to the entire traveling menagerie. Lily and Helli had met before, but that didn’t stop her from stroking the pegasus’ mane. “Glad you made it,” she said.
Zeno cleared his throat. “Also, it’s Kel for now.”
Helli nodded, as though this was either not a big deal or something that she’d remembered from my message.
She turned to Felegum’s mount. “Now that’s a bird.”
“Her name,” the sorcerer said proudly, “is Metzi. She’s fast.”
“Yeah, but you have to pluck her tendons,” I added.
“Eww.” Zeno shuddered at the memory.
“It’s fine.” Felegum waved it off. “TLC, guys. TLC.”
Helli did not get a chance to really interact with Tem’s war lizard (possibly for the best) as it became apparent at this point that she was accompanied by a literal dragon.
A small one, like a wyrmling. Like Calcryx had been all that time ago, except green.
“The dragon is Friend,” she explained. “They kind of do their own thing.”
That seemed true for draconic adults too.
We spend some time bringing Helli up to speed on the dead dragon with the ripped out heart. In brief, because as Tem said, “You don’t want the details.”
“Helli,” Felegum said, “it’s the most terrible thing.”
She frowned. “Is it the frogs?”
“It’s the frogs!” Felegum burst, at last finding the one person in the group who understood his dislike of them.
“I’m not sold on the frogs being so bad,” Zeno said, and then dove into what we’d learned from slaad interrogation. It did seem like a pretty raw deal for them. He also took the opportunity to catch Helli up on the latest in zombie developments, with Vincenzo persisting and East, West, and McNamara joining the crew.
I also brought up the, uh, difficulties of traveling with a disguised personage.
“Oh my god, you should have seen our crossing!” Zeno preened.
“Your pronunciation is getting better,” I said to him in Csipherian.
“I know!” he replied in the same. “My evolution is still tiring.”
After a protracted battle of trying not to, I emitted a long sigh. I really did try to hold it in. Luckily, this didn’t bother Zeno because he was already distracted by Helli’s necklace.
It was, as it always was, a familiar ring.
“Oh, Helli,” the bard said. “He’s dead.”
A little ironic, considering that death had never stopped Zeno from doing what he wanted.
Helli clutched the ring. “He’s still–“
“Enough of this.” Zeno waved a hand, dismissing an old and unwinnable argument. “We’re going to that.”
He pointed at the Dragonspire.
“Tem, explain,” said Felegum.
The remaining dragonborn cleared her throat. “I would say ‘ancestral home’, but it’s basically the long-term residence of a dragon who was brutally destroyed. Someone harvested its organs for magical purposes. Felegum, did you explain the rift between planes?”
“Oh, yeah,” said the mage and then went on to explain his hypotheses about the dragons powering connections between the planes. “But yeah, I’ve heard some things from my long distance boss. I have new intel about these frogs and I’m very worried.”
“They are real,” he said with renewed intensity. “I swear to god.”
Helli patted him on the shoulder. “I wholeheartedly believe you. I believe in the frogs.”
“Thank you, Helli.”
Iago exhaled. “Old folk don’t like to be trifled with.”
“Ya,” said Felegum. “A serious undertaking here.”
Anyway, at that point we were just standing outside for excessive periods of time, so we opted for kinder climes indoors, with the possibility of food. There was only one dining option at this crossroads, so we went to the Marigold Patch Inn. A fair number of merchants had pulled their carts in and tied up their steeds.
A sign nearby declared that there were fourteen miles to go before we hit Redstone Mine.
Iago strode up to it and banged open the door. “Innkeeper!” he cried. “I need wine!”
The rest of us kind of chilled outside.
“Well,” I said, bringing out the box of fancy wine I’d stolen from the cart. “Gang’s all here again. How about a toast?”
Inside the box was a fine bottle housed in burgundy velvet casing. The bottle’s label bore a tower with a stylized grape, and I had no doubt that this was officially a Nice Beverage.
Felegum molded ice into cups and we all had a nice drink. Someone said something about it being exceptionally tanic, which felt like words I should know but did not. Anyway, the wine itself was golden in a kind of muted way. It was nice.
“Go slow with this one,” Zeno advised. “It gets better.”
I held up the golden ice cup in contemplation. “You know, I think I messed up. I think I made a mistake with this one. I don’t think I should have taken this.” In the moment, I’d thought that it had belonged to the dude Zeno was mad at, but in retrospect, it seemed much more likely just to be regular winesellers. “But,” I added, “this is personal growth. I am admitting a mistake.”
“No,” Zeno said, aghast. “Set, this is great. Not a mistake at all.”
“Set, you should enjoy the fruits of your labor,” advised Tem, who, I became more and more sure as the conversation went on, had no idea what I actually did. “You worked hard to provide for your friends! A treat is deserved.”
“Oh,” I said, not wishing to enlighten her. “Ah, thank you.”
“I, however,” she said, “will not be able to partake as I must fast and prepare myself for the funerary rites of the dragon.”
“Oh,” I said again. “I’m, uh, sorry for your funeral.”
“Sorry your dragon’s a black hole,” Zeno said, and knocked his drink back.
We hung out there for a little while, long enough to savor the wine. Then the noise of familiar shuffling in the distance notified us of Iago stumbling by the stables. He made a chair for himself out of a hay bale, and a few moments later a horse started munching on it. A boy came by with a wine gourd.
“It’s always good to be remembered in places,” Zeno commented dryly.
At this point, I felt more than a little bad. Like, Iago had (presumably) gotten kicked out of this place for some probably good reason or another and had now been relegated to the stables. I had not exactly thought that his joining us was the best idea, but even still, maybe I was being too mean.
I offered him the wine, the last little bit from the tanic golden bottle I’d stolen.
In a weird twist, he did not want it.
This left me sort of surprised– I’d already given the box to Helli, who’d been more thrilled by that than the wine– and I didn’t really want to be hauling the wine around forever, especially when there was only one drink left in the bottle.
So, I did the sensible thing.
“Happy birthday, Kel,” I said and passed him the bottle.
We got drinks and took watches for the night. Iago was only too happy to have an excuse to hang out in the bar area for longer. I guess the inn must have been super full or something because we were camping out near it.
Anyway, I took first watch with Helli. No movement. We handed things over to Felegum for the second shift, who reported nothing and passed the baton to Iago and Zeno.
That morning, Zeno put away his bagpipes after his daily song and gave his report. “I think we should get breakfast here because I saw something mildly interesting.”
“A liquid breakfast,” Iago amended.
“You were going to do that anyway.”
A person at the Marigold Patch Inn greeted us as we entered, said that the inn was full, and that for a party of five that it would be twenty minutes. It was probably the same wait time for a party of six.
What the host did take issue with, though, were Zeno’s zombies.
“We don’t serve their kind here,” the host said with obvious emphasis.
Zeno glanced over his shoulder at them. “Oh no, they don’t eat.” He gestured for the undead gaggle to move to a safe spot.
The host sighed. “Can I get a name?”
“Put it under…” Zeno thought about it. “Chad.”
After seventeen minutes, “Chad, party of five” at last had a table. As we were seated, a waiter extolled the virtues of the Habanero Charmeleon, a very spicy breakfast taco. Everyone more or less got a coffee, except for Iago (who did the obvious) and Tem (who was abstaining from food and drink for the sake of her ritual).
Zeno make small talk with the waiter as they took our drink orders. He was especially curious about a strange wagon, aka Lord Reinbach’s wagon, bka the one we’d been following, but the waiter was just not about chatting when the inn was packed.
We put in our food orders and were surprised by the smallness of the plates, but that seemed to be popular in this area.
Anyway, I’d gotten the Ghost Pepper Charmander. I’d had to sign a waiver with a dwarf named Stobbard, and obviously as soon as I’d heard that this was the thing to get here, the impossibly good but also dangerous dish, I’d had to order it. I’d also, because I was very smart and covered my bases, ordered a coffee with milk. Just in case.
Obviously, though, I was from the south and the great city of Csipherus. I could more than deal with spicy food: I thrived with spicy food.
Some tostadas came out, which were tasty. Then, the Ghost Pepper Charmander was presented with much fanfare and silence from the onlookers. I straightened my shoulders. It was go time.
I took a bite.
It was, in a word, delicious.
It was also way too hot for a mortal person to consume. I choked. I cried. I felt everything in my face that could produce liquid doing that, with gusto. I realized belatedly that maybe there had been a flaw in my master plan.
Then I was really choking and resorted to drinking the cream cheese in an effort to stop the pain. I also choked on that, a truly unfortunate blow, but then something touched my back and I felt less awful. I even, after a few seconds, felt okay.
“Wow,” Felegum said, “you handled that like a boss, Set!”
He didn’t seem to be joking.
“Oh, thanks,” I said, continuing to drink the cheese, openly crying. In my brief moments of relief, I dabbed at my face with a napkin to get the worst of the sweat and tears.
Tem else also cried over a Habanero Charmeleon and I blindly offered her cheese. I was not sure if the crying was her breaking her fast too soon or if like, this really was too hot even for her.
Weirdly, after this ordeal, we still had to actually eat a meal– the Ghost Pepper Charmander and the Habanero Charmeleon were merely preludes to the main course that was breakfast. I ordered a Wartortle Sunrise, a nice pancake and egg combination, and we talked about how there really should be a hall of fame situation for people who were able to survive the Ghost Pepper Charmander.
Zeno chatted more with our waiter, who had mentioned hearing a strange droning music these days. This piqued everyone’s interest for obvious reasons, but the waiter did not seem particularly eager to go into more detail. This frustrated Zeno and surprised us all mildly because honestly Zeno has this weird power to just get people to pay attention to him simply by force of, well, being Zeno.
What I’m trying to say was that this inn was truly popping because this simply did not happen on the regular to our bard. Even when Zeno looked him dead in the eyes and delivered a zinger about freedom that might as well have been bard’s cant for “hey, I’m cool with the rebels and also the revels” the waiter, while clearly picking up what Zeno was putting down, did not take the bait.
Instead, the waiter laughed and nervously looked over his shoulder. “Well, I have other tables to get to. So, uh…”
“One more question,” Zeno insisted. “You heard of any strange flaming, horned guys running around?”
“Oh!” the waiter said. “You must be talking about Zeno.”
“Mm,” said the same.
“I mean.” The waiter kind of waved it off. “That’s what you tell your kids, right? ‘Don’t do your chores and Zeno will get you.'”
“Oh, I say that all the time,” said Zeno.
Conversation devolved into a brief discussion of the last trendy character to blame misfortunes on (Justin the Beaver), and eventually we concluded our meals and left the inn.
At this point, Tem and I were not feeling very great. I merely suffered in silence, but Tem belched out this huge stream of fire, way longer than I’d ever seen her do before. With that taken care of, we set off, continuing south.
About halfway to the Dragonspire we came across a wreckage of merchant carts. Bodies were carved across the chest with claw marks and familiar webbed tracks led off into the distance. Felegum studied the horror and pitched that this was a frog attack, a few days old at least.
Our travel days went quickly after that, and we soon found ourselves seeing signage for something called the Firedrake’s Cemporium. More specifically, later signs revealed that this was the Camazing Cobold Cemporium and Cift Cop. When the Cemporium actually came into view, it was less actual castle than painted plaster and hastily crafted decorations. That being said, it was clear a lot of effort had gone into this.
There were attractions all over the place, from the gift shop to spinning cup rides to all sorts of food vendors.
This did seem to be related to the dragon whose death we were coming to investigate or memorialize, but it also was just so strange that we really just had to check it out.
So, we did.
At the entrance to the park was a little red ticket booth surrounded by a small fence, with a little kobold inside.
“Praise the Firedrake!” the kobold said.
“Praise the Firedrake!” Felegum replied, making the same hand waves of glorious adoration as the kobold had.
“Have you seen him recently?” Zeno asked the kobold, who looked aghast at the merest suggestion.
“No one sees the Firedrake!” the kobold cried. “We used to steal but now we understand the powers of capitalism. Praise be to his leathery wings!”
“Praise be,” said Felegum, weeping at the sweeping kobold civilization, the triumph of order over chaos, unfurling before him.
Tem stepped forward. “I am sent by the dragon Gandris to check in on him.”
This did not impress the ticketmaster. “Well, that’s nice! Do you have a voucher for entry to the Cemporium?”
Tem had to admit that she did not. The kobold was happy to inform her that it would be five silver for the day.
“We are all friends of the Firedrake,” Felegum said. “Praise be to his leathery wings.”
“Praise be to his leathery wings,” the kobold repeated, accepting Tem’s coin.
Other things we learned at the ticket booth were that the Cemporium had a mailing list (maybe signing up for it got you a discount, maybe not– I really was more paying attention to the ride titled “Screaming Eagles and Displaced Dwarves”), a newsletter with up-to-date sketches of all their rides, and that you could buy a season pass for twenty gold.
“You guys accept Paripas writs?” asked Felegum, who seemed perpetually stuck with one.
The kobold informed him that while yes, they did, they were unable to process writs above 100 gold.
“They are the most cultured kobolds I have ever seen,” Felegum whispered under his breath as he handed over the necessary payment for a season pass. “And there’s this Firedrake.”
“Praise be,” Zeno interjected, now also doing the requisite arm motions.
“Rest in peace,” Tem said, somewhat moodily.
“I just really want to support them,” Felegum said, sporting a brand new wristband marking him as a proud VIP of the Cemporium. “Does anyone else want a season pass?”
“Felegum, no,” Zeno said.
Helli opted for a day pass, as did I. It was kind of charming here, I had to admit. It was also just…nice being around something mostly in good order? Like, okay, yes, Csipherus was a work in progress and actively getting better, but it was also a relief not to have to worry, for example, if a building was going to collapse as you were exploring it.
Anyway, Tem exited the conversation to meditate and gather her thoughts not interrupted by joy and whimsy. Felegum, who truly was going whole hog here, not only got his season pass but also his Paripasian writ cashed, as well as had struck up a conversation with the manager kobold about the Firedrake.
Zeno knocked back the last of the wine I’d given him and set the empty bottle on a trash receptacle.
The all-inclusive day pass bands ended up being a little too tight, as they were probably sized for kobold wrists. Zeno’s sense of style was deeply offended (the bands were green). The season pass bands, I think, were pink.
Thus attired, we set off. Felegum strolled through the park in a state of enchantment, extolling the virtues of civilization and how these kobolds had come so far. Ahead of us were the gift shop, some place selling Chorizo Charmeleon, and a cold treat called “cippin’ cots”.
Iago set off in search of drinks, as we knew he would, and Helli went to the Cift Cop. Felegum admired fireblown glass art placed around the park between rides, and Tem wandered from stall to stall trying to find someone who looked vaguely in charge. Manager kobolds wore bright red vests with leathery dragon wings on their back. Even I had to admit that was an incredible commitment to the aesthetic.
I got some cippin’ cots. I was curious. I also really wanted a tacky mug like everyone else in the group seemed to have. I’m not like, a follower or anything, but it was one of those things where you kind of notice that everyone has the cool Paripas mug and you don’t, and you’re like, “damn, that would have been a nice marker of our friendship to have.” Anyway, I got a mug. It also had leathery wings on it, which was kind of awesome.
And for the first time in a while, I just felt nice. I had the mug. We were in a wacky kobold amusement park and not some weird palace of death.
Things felt fun.
I don’t know what possessed me to do it, but I took out my copper wire, summoned the sending lizard, and messaged my mom.
“Yo, it’s me. Sorry for not telling you I was leaving.” I hadn’t felt great about that, but I’d needed to be gone. Things had been hard between us, after I found out about Dad. It was easier not to talk about that when I was there. Maybe being away would make it easier. “Hope you’re doing well. Stay safe.”
My mother’s voice came after a gasp. “Oh my god, Set, are you okay? Can I send food anywhere? What can I do? Do you need anything? Anything at all, just tell–“
She got cut off as the limitations of the spell kicked in. In my hand, the copper wire lizard looked at me expectantly. I let it unravel.
Some things were still too heavy to approach.
I looked up and caught sight of Tem’s gleaming armor winking in the sun as her car neared the apex of the cherris cheel. A familiar sorcerous figure in robes chatted with her, gesturing excitedly at all this unexpected culture.
In spite of so much pain and so much loss, of Firedrakes and fathers both, there was still such an incredible lightness to being alive.
God, it was weird. I put the wire away, then walked onward, eating my ice cream.