The sun was setting on the Cemporium, perhaps both metaphorically and literally. No one seemed particularly surprised that I’d talked to Milto, which I was only slightly offended by since it had taken me a lot of effort to work up the nerve to cast all those spells to chat with him. Zeno summoned Lily to the peak, and about twenty minutes later she emerged through the clouds with four zombies in tow, one per leg per usual.
I also wasn’t sure how I felt about that becoming normal, but it was at the very least less weird than everything else going on.
Helli was rooting through the hoard, perhaps securing items for us or her young green companion. Tem was deep within her ritual by now, hovered over and/or judged by VOD, who while insistent that he had done it before (and better) nonetheless righted fallen incense sticks and corrected smudged lines of ceremonial spellwork where he saw them.
I suggested we do watches. Felegum agreed.
“Watch what?” Zeno seethed, still annoyed probably at having to keep up the dragon matchmaking ruse. He slept.
It seemed pretty obvious to me. Someone or something had killed the Firedrake. Whatever they were, they might write off a kobold’s shenanigans as mere acts of grief but they might not like us being here. They were resolute enough in their purpose to leave a sizeable hoard and take only a dragon’s heart. If they read us as a threat, I didn’t want to be unprepared for that.
Tem, between movements of her ceremony, offered to keep watch through the night, which was kind but ineffective. She’d been fasting for so long and was so sleep deprived that she was more likely not to notice anything until it was upon us anyway.
We ended up with Felegum and Iago on first watch, Helli on second, and me greeting the dawn. I was actually looking forward to it; it had been a long time since I’d had a peaceful morning to appreciate the dawn and my vows to Lathander without Zeno blasting off in some smoky reel. It brought a special level of appreciation to my practice.
Tem made it most of the way through the night. When Helli woke me to hand over the shifts, the paladin had wearily moved through the ritual steps, but her own exhaustion overwhelmed her around dawn.
I was in the middle of my own work, meditatively watching the sun crack over the horizon like an upside down egg when her head drooped. I’d planned to finish my own prayers and then either wake her or use my own scant knowledge of the process to help complete it, but I needn’t’ve worried.
VOD was there, relighting candles that the morning dew had doused and replacing smoked out sticks of incense. I smiled and closed my eyes, completing my own prayers in the quiet reflection of morning.
In spite of everything, things renewed themselves.
Maybe there was hope for this too.
By the time the others woke up, everything smelled like wet rocks and an ungodly amount of incense. Once she’d regained consciousness and realized all had gone well with her ritual, Tem fell upon the food around her with gusto.
This was, for those playing along at home, all the food that VOD had sent for from below as a ruse to keep convincing the kobolds of the Cemporium that the Firedrake was still alive. Considering that VOD had been at this for weeks, some of the vegetables were really Not Great.
Tem paid simple things like decomposition no mind. Perhaps this was a perk of being part lizard. Perhaps this was a perk of not caring enough.
She lowered a carrot rife with brown spots into her gullet, not unlike the infamous fish she’d scared people with back in Fallow’s Reach.
I chose no longer to perceive what was going on over there.
Instead, I joined Zeno, who was groggily stretching. “Ow, everything hurts still.”
I put my hands on my hips, also sore. “After much thought, it occurs to me that I have invited my favorite person (who is also a dragon) to a place where dragons have canonically been killed. And like…yikes, I’m beginning to wonder what I’ve done. Can we maybe catch the assassin before Milto gets here?”
“Catch the assassin, he says,” Zeno groaned. He didn’t give me real grief about it though, so I knew he’d be on board.
I took a look at the corpse of the Firedrake in daylight. During my quiet moments this morning, I’d thought of something I could try, but I wanted to see what I could learn before that.
Tiny pinpricks, small enough to seem spongiform, poked through the bones. What the hell was that? They were diamond shaped and there were so many of them, perhaps made by long and thin blades.
“Well,” I said, “in my professional medical opinion, this was either one very angry person or several moderately angry people.”
“Definitely a dexterous person, judging by all those pitons Helli and I found,” Felegum said.
This produced some uproar. We went to the north face of the mountain and beheld the pitons. Felegum posited whether or not the pitons themselves had produced the diamond-shaped holes in the Firedrake’s bones. The northern side of the spire overlooked kobold farmlands growing wheat, not anything that would be noticeable by the mass living in the Cemporium.
“Tem,” Zeno said diplomatically, “how did your people hear tell of this when no one else did? That’s what I can’t figure out.”
Tem shrugged, vegetable massacre now finished. “It must be similar to how Set sends messages to Milto the Just.”
I buried my head in my hands. “Oh my god, don’t call him that. I don’t even think that’s his real title.”
“They’re dragons!” Tem continued brazenly. “They have means! They figure this stuff out!”
“So who comes up here to steal a heart and leave a great pile of treasure?” This was Iago, asking a relevant question. Shocking, but true. “What do you even do with a dragon heart?”
“You destabilize the material plane so that the frogs can take over,” replied Felegum in grim tones.
“Iago,” Tem said graciously, “you should know that we’ve been adventuring across the planes.”
Felegum, the person most likely to adventure a plane, blinked. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Also, the size of the heart presents an obvious difficulty.”
We all chewed on that for a bit.
“VOD,” Iago asked, “who knows that the elevator is here?”
“I mean.” VOD had to think about it. “Everyone?”
That checked out.
Just to cover all our bases, I asked VOD if he’d seen the assassin. I wasn’t clear on exactly when the kobold had come up to the peak, but he hadn’t. In the meantime, Tem unearthed a massive tablet from the hoard. You know, as a person who habitually steals things from other people, I did not feel like this was an emotionally appropriate or necessary time to do so, but paladins, man. They are just going to do what they do.
Instead, I went and looked at the pitons on my broom.
The holds themselves were cut into the rock, making them easy to hang onto, though relatively inconsistently spaced with a bunch near the top. It was the climb itself that was most treacherous: you’d be completely exposed going up the mountain the entire way.
I landed back on the peak with the others, just as VOD was telling them that before he became the Voice of Dragonlord (praise be) he used to maintain the lift. Iago asked him if he felt appreciated or simply taken advantage of. Without giving him much of a chance to answer, the old man posited that VOD was affiliated with angry Egonian dwarves and the Csipherian black market.
“Hey,” I interjected, “my black market is legit.”
“Yeah,” Felegum said, “all the stalls are black.”
I nodded. “Exactly.”
Again, may or may not know what I’m doing religiously, but you can trust me on crime.
With this foray into supportiveness, Therapy Felegum was back. He sat down next to VOD and rubbed the little kobold’s back. “How are you doing today?”
VOD exhaled in a big breath. “I am worried I’m not doing enough. How about you?”
Felgum and the kobold chatted back and forth for a little bit. Gradually, the droop of the little guy’s shoulders lessened. Truly, the sorcerer was doing good work.
This reminded me that I too could contribute.
“So, I’ve never done this before,” I said, “but I was thinking about it this morning and I think I have a spell that will allow me to speak with the dead.”
I looked meaningfully at the massive corpse of the Firedrake.
This caused a small uproar. Within moments, Felegum had disentangled himself from VOD and had set up a telepathic link between all of us so that we could chat without speaking. This was especially useful because once I cast the spell, I could only ask the spirit of the deceased five questions. I had some idea– we’d conferred about a few possibilities– but it was still nice being able to talk with the others versus being totally on my own on this one.
There was just one problem.
“Can I, uh–” I patted myself down, even though I knew I wouldn’t have it– “have a stick of incense from someone? I hadn’t realized I’d need it for this spell. This kind of happened very suddenly.”
Tem handed me one from her leftovers. I was grateful and honestly pretty surprised she had anything leftover after the massive smokeshow of the evening and night. I took it, conferred once more with the group over the link that we were good to go, and then cast the spell.
I lifted the burning incense stick and as small dollops of smoke wafted from it, they coalesced downwards onto the stones as glowing grains of amber sand. The sand wove into the bones of the Firedrake, allowing the spirit to anchor temporarily to the body, just enough to raise its head and speak.
It waited, eyes alight with specks of luminescent sand.
I took an unsteady breath. A spirit wasn’t bound to stay here longer than ten minutes or after I asked them five questions, whichever came first. If they didn’t want to answer those questions, there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
How did you convince something powerful that you wanted to do it a solid?
“We have come to protect your people and learn the circumstances of your death,” I said. “Anything you tell us we’ll use toward that end.”
The glowing eyes within the skull watched me and said nothing.
“What happened the night you died?” I asked. One.
“I was stabbed with poison blades,” the Firedrake’s spirit said.
Yikes. “How many people killed you?” Two.
“I did not see how many.”
“Why would someone kill you?” Three.
“To take what I possess.”
Everybody was going wild on the bond in my head.
OH MY GOD IT’S HIS HEART! said or thought or screamed Felegum. THEY WANTED TO POSSESS HIS HEART!
Set wants to possess a dragon’s heart, sniggered Zeno.
Shut up. I was trying so hard not to talk out loud and use one of my last questions. We have two things left to ask them. What should I say?
Maybe about what they think someone’s doing with it? Felegum suggested.
This sounded sensible, so I did it.
“What could they be doing with your heart?” I asked. Four.
“Eating it,” the Firedrake’s skull intoned. “Burning it. Building a house out of it.”
Okay, that’s clearly useless. I sighed. I have one question left. Where do we go from here?
You’re going to have to trust yourself, Set. Therapy Felegum was at it again.
If I trust myself, I thought balefully, I will simply ask this dude’s real name because no one seems to know it beyond ‘the Firedrake.’
Noooo, don’t do that! whined Zeno. That’s such a dumb question!
But I want to know! I fired back.
Please ask something better. Felegum was being diplomatic again.
I am asking, I repeated, for help because I am struggling to come up with literally anything better.
What about asking what he wants us to know? Someone suggested. Possibly Tem.
But his– their name… I wrestled with it. This was, at last, a good question.
“As the avengers of your death,” I said (Tem had also suggested that part), “what would you most like us to know?”
That made five. One last shot.
The Firedrake’s amber eyes met mine. “The process of soul transference is complicated,” they said, and the magic around them dissolved back into sand motes, glowing into the earth like stray embers going out one by one.
“I don’t know,” Zeno said. “All I know about soul transference is all the shoes I go through.”
“It’s the longest running joke of this group,” I said, shaking out my hands and glancing over at the others.
“Oh shit!” I covered my mouth. I hadn’t warned him. I hadn’t even mentioned that I was going to be bringing the dude he’d literally called his dead god back. Oh my god, I was the worst. “Oh shit, oh noooo–“
Felegum had other matters than my moral crisis to attend to. “Tem,” he said, “what kind of poison drops a dragon like that?”
Tem shrugged. “Lots of things.”
Then Felegum gave HFVNN to Helli, who sliced the bag open with her poison dagger and began pouring in raw materials. Tem even brought her massive tablet over.
I, meanwhile, looked guiltily at VOD, who was still staring out at the body of the Firedrake, now still.
Felegum ambled up to the disassociating kobold. “So, this is where he used to fly?”
Felegum dipped back into therapy mode, continuing to engage the kobold as he threw four manticore tails out of HFVNN, partially butchered.
With that business settled, it was decided that we should leave with some degree of haste. The morning sun was moving through the sky and it was approaching the moment when the papier-mâché dragon would be launched. Zeno had swung onto Lily (who had made some noises of protest about having to carry the zombies again, which the bard shushed) and Felegum boarded the dragon puppet.
After some consternation, Tem also climbed on the dragon. I, for my part, rode my broom. It was a loyal magical item and had served me well. Meanwhile, Iago and Helli opted for the elevator.
The much less cool route, in my opinion, but whatever. Zeno and I were an honor guard for the dragon contraption as VOD stoically launched it (with Felegum promising Tem that all would be well as long as he cast Feather Fall at the appropriate moment).
It was a magnificent sight. VOD truly was a master of his craft.
That being said, the paper dragon also flew a lot farther than I’d thought possible, and faster too. Even pushed to the limits of our endurance, Zeno and I struggled to keep up as it dipped low and Felegum and Tem leapt off.
Everything seemed to more or less be going to weird plan– I felt bad about how we’d left VOD, to be sure, though I had warned him that either a dragon or a large cow man would be visiting him and that these were the same person– until the scream.
This was no ordinary scream. It was not, for one, a scream anyone heard out loud.
It was a scream coming from within our heads, over the telepathic bond.
It was Helli.
After another appearance from Therapy Felegum, it was determined that 1) yes, indeed the lift was broken and 2) Helli had confirmed that by breaking both her legs. Somehow Iago was unharmed, another sign that we lived in an unjust world.
I sighed and turned around on the broom, flying back. Zeno played a rousing rendition of my broom song, and Felegum and Tem hoofed it on their own. I don’t know what the plan was if things had not gone poorly with Helli– Metzi and Tem’s unnamed war lizard were still at the Cemporium– though I guess I could understand that riding on a giant dragon replica was just too good to pass up.
Anyway, it took a really long time but we made it back to the elevator where a very sad Helli and a very crushed Nisbit awaited us. Tem healed Helli and Felegum used the remainder of his diamond dust to unbreak Helli’s legs.
I was a little annoyed because somehow everyone was fixing legs but me, the guy whose close associates all broke or melted legs, but whatever. It did not rankle me at all. Death was no longer an obstacle to me but somehow legs still were. I guess it we all had our areas of difficulty.
Felegum had taken one look at the wreckage of Helli’s body and said, “That is not right, let me fix it for you.” With that, he summoned an array of modrons to get to work on her.
Zeno was even gracious enough to dedicate two zombies to her service, picking her up and transporting her as we headed to the animal parking lot. Also known as like, the stable.
Felegum was in full charm mode. “You probably just saw our lord the Firedrake–praise be– fly off to a spa day with a blue dragon girl!” he said to an attendant.
The kobold was agape. “No! Really?”
“Darling,” Zeno said, “you wouldn’t believe it. She stole his heart!”
Now it was my turn to scream over the telepathic link.
“Oh my gosh,” the kobold stablehand said. “What’s her name?”
Zeno looked at me and winked. “But what’s his name?”
The kobold cocked their head. “We just call him the Firedrake (praise be).”
No amount of careful finagling could wrangle forth an answer. I was beginning to think I had lost my one chance at knowing this guy’s name, given it up for other, probably more useful but definitely less fulfilling information.
“You should tell the others!” the stablehand insisted. “I’m sure they’d love to know about the Firedr–“
Felegum held up a hand as though checking a timepiece. This was silly, as we all knew he kept perfect internal time. “Oh, so sorry, but there’s a green dragon four hundred miles south of here we have to get to.”
“We just wanted to let you know that he’s so happy,” Zeno added, “and to thank you for facilitating this. In the meantime, we’ll send along a bill for some incidentals.”
The kobold sighed, but nodded. “Well,” they said, gesturing to a clipboard on a tray, “at least leave us a good kelp review before you go. We’re really trying to make a name for ourselves on there.”
Reader, we did.