AM I MORE THAN YOU BARGAINED FOR YET: where we discover desolation and a battle of the bards

“Get me away from that place,” Zeno said as we did just that, leaving the Cemporium in the distance as we traversed the wilderness once more.

Felegum, meanwhile, wanted to investigate the other side of the spire for trails left by the mysterious assassin. As this potentially concerned Milto’s safety, I was in support. What’s better than one dragon heart? Two dragon hearts. I rest my case.

“Helli, can you move your legs alright?” Tem asked.

“Yeah,” said the gnome in misery. She’d been joining Iago in the drinking, so you knew things were bad. “It just really hurts.”

“This,” Zeno said, “is all Tem’s business now.”

“You keep saying that,” Tem replied placidly, “but this is an existential threat to the planes.”

We had some discussion in which Tem proposed that maybe the frogs appeared post-dragon demise. A dull rain set in, misting over the low mountains.

Felegum nodded in appreciation. “Very picaresque.”

Unfortunately, this also meant that the soil was pretty broken down and that any tracks or prints that might have been there, even from an assassin trekking through months ago were probably gone for good.

The group split into halves, the people with an investment in finding out what had happened– Felegum (frogs vs. planes), Tem (dragons), and me (Milto’s safety)– and the people who were content to sit around and drink– Zeno (not surprising), Iago (really not surprising), and Helli (medicinal). Felegum, Tem, and I looked for evidence in the mud and came up short, until Felegum found traces of what was sure to be something hopping.

Using this as a jumping off point, our investigations were renewed. Felegum and Tem found a lot of solid evidence, and I discovered what appeared to be the ruins of a very old town. There were old impacts in the rocks that our alpine assassin had used to shimmy up the spire. Only someone who had known the town was there (or who had made a very unlikely but very fortunate discovery) would know to find them and use them.

They were also covered in weird lichens and moss, which lent credence to the idea that yeah, this dude had to know about the encampment by the spire. In one of the holes, I found a clip thing that matched what we’d seen at the peak. This was the path.

Maybe tracing back who could have possibly known about this place could limit our pool of who was responsible for the Firedrake’s death.

Felegum and I discussed research possibilities. This was a town that had clearly gone extinct a few (human) generations back, and the prospect of a library or at least a place of old maps seemed like a good bet to pursue leads.

In the meantime, Tem tried to find a firepit.

More precisely, she had prepared a spell that would allow her to find the closest object of a certain type. In this case, it was a fire pit. Once she’d found one relatively close by, she kicked it over, scattering the stones. At first, I’ll admit, I did not understand why she was doing this. It seemed like a lot of religious energy to waste on something that you were just going to destroy.

Then she cast the spell again.

I suddenly saw why she was doing what she was: Tem wanted to find the spot where our strange assassins, the people who had potentially carried a heart down a mountain.

Anyway, Tem’s second casting led her to a firepit to the west, through thick wagon tracks. This one was much more recently used than the previous one she’d found. There were trees cut down and old, wet ashes. A cart had definitely been here. Tem called us over, and after a brief discussion between me and Felegum on whether or not there were forest ghosts in this place, we found Tem and her discovery.

I was also a little surprised. Maybe HFVNN was just one rare dude, but I’d figured that we couldn’t be the only people to have a bag with no holes. I’d assumed that was how they got the heart down and were transporting it.

The other team continued their drinking. Eventually, the size of the cart became a salient point.

As locals (read: Felegum and Zeno) knew, cart sizes differed between Fallow’s Reach and Reach’s Fallow. Being an orderly people (aka, having produced Felegum), Reach’s Fallow used the metric system. Being a chaotic mix of funny things (aka, having produced Zeno), Fallow’s Reach used Imperial.

“So what we’re saying,” Felegum recapped, “is that they put the heart in a cart.”

“Oh my god.” I slapped my forehead, the rhyme now obvious. “That’s right.”

Anyway, after both local parties had examined the cart tracks, it was determined the cart was from Reach’s Fallow. The other three at this point were pretty drunk, but luckily they all pretty much had designated drivers (Helli: Nisbit, Zeno: Lily, and this was a normal day for Iago). Helli did pour some wine on Nisbit, though, so he could feel like he was a part of the festivities.

Eventually, even these tracks became difficult to follow, even with Felegum leading the way. There were other carts, three-toed imprints of terrorbirds, and all sorts of other traffic one might expect to find along a lightly traveled forest road.

The cart, from what we were able to make out, appeared to be going west.

This was a good lead, but nothing terribly out of the ordinary. The people we might be interested in, who may have the heart in their cart, were using a piece of transportation commonly found on this side of the chasm and were heading (possibly) to one of the bigger cities (like Reach’s Fallow). To say we had a lead here was probably a stretch. So far, things were looking pretty inconclusive, though Reach’s Fallow was only about four days away.

Around mid-afternoon, I reached out to Milto. I was hoping that maybe at last I could work out this whole time difference thing by experimenting with talking to people at different times.

“Yo, it’s Set,” I said. “Talked to Firedrake ghost. Said he died by poison daggers. Attacker climbed spire. Be safe. Thanks.” I paused, thinking. “Also, do you know about soul transference?’

Couldn’t hurt to ask.

The reply came instantly. “Oh, Set! Interesting to hear your voice so soon. Soul transference. What an interesting concept. Ancient magics–no, I don’t know anything about it. Decided to have a little fly over the ocean.”

He sounded content.

I messaged back, saying that the dragon heart was used for soul transference, and was kind of amazed that, well, no one seemed to know about this thing. Either this was Firedrake-specific obsession (had he been a nerd?) or it was a massive clue. Either way, all we could do was walk or ride on, which we did until we reached a small hamlet. There on a sign was a yellow bird and the words “The Warbling Canary” on what looked like an inn.

Lights were on inside of houses, and a young woman stood in the doorway of the inn, deep in thought and flicking through small pieces of paper. She wore an apron and every time someone called her name (“Aerrits!”) she jumped. She was new, she explained, and she needed the paper to tell her what to say.

Our interactions with her went about as you’d expect. She got super nervous and had to start the entire order-taking process over. This happened several times. I think there were like three or four kinds of sausage on the menu, but no one ordered anything different than what the first person had ordered (weinerschnitzel) because yikes, we did not want to have to go through the whole thing again.

That being said, it wasn’t like Aerrits wasn’t trying. Her bosses sounded kind of frustrated with her still being in training, but she gamely tried to handle orders, even when some people got potatoes with their orders and other people didn’t. Someone also let her know that everything would be on separate checks, which was good, because it gave her enough time to emotionally prepare.

The food itself was good and Aerrits even felt comfortable enough with us to call Zeno cute.

(She called me scary and scrawny, by the way, in case we were wondering how my personal brand was doing.)

Naturally, the bard got to chatting. We discovered that Aeritts was from a small coastal city where her parents owned an inn. Initially she’d come out to Reach’s Fallow.

“Oh, I know that place,” said Zeno.

“Broad street next to lane was where I stayed!”

“I know the one,” he said. “I grew up in the Pit.”

Some shadow passed over her features. “Oh, okay. How’s things out in the world? The Pit’s not a great place. Not many people make it out of there with their high-interest loans.”

“It’s been a couple years since I’ve been back.” Zeno considered something. “I used to make music back then.”

Oh yikes, we were going for broke then.

“Oh!” Aeritts snapped her fingers. “What’s his name, did you know Zeno?”

Zeno fixed her with a trademark smirk, glanced at his bagpipes laying next to his chair, and then back to Aeritts. “Did you?”

“No!” she said, disappointed and totally oblivious that the dude in question was right in front of her. “But he must have done something to really piss off Reinbach because he went off to the countryside masquerading as Zeno.”

“Whoa, whoa,” said the actual Zeno, “what’s going on here?”

“There’s been this monstrosity called Zeno marauding through the countryside,” she explained, “but I also heard a rumor that Reinbach’s trying to lure Zeno back to exact revenge. I don’t know why but Reinbach seems like, obsessed with him. Reinbach used the momentum that Zeno had built up with his songs to start shutting coalitions down and making things even more strict.”

Zeno took a drink. “Quite the propaganda machine they’ve got going.”

“Sorry,” Aeritts said, “it sounds like I’m patting myself on the back for being so knowledgeable about all this.”

“No, no,” he replied, “it just sounds like you read the newspaper. You’re an informed citizen.”

“Really, I think that the people coming into Reach’s Fallow are just more impressionable,” Aeritts said, agreeing. “It’s different now.”

Zeno shook his head. “Whole town’s going to shit. That’s what I felt when I wrote ‘This Whole Town Is Going to Shit’.”

“It really is.” Aeritts sighed.

Then she paused.

“Mm,” Zeno said placidly.

She continued to look at him, eyes wide, as though the man before her and the man of legend had suddenly coalesced into one being, aka the dude eating schnitzel before her. “You’re talking like you’re heading back now. Why?”

“What can I say?” Zeno shrugged. “My friend’s looking for love. A tale of a broken heart, isn’t it always?”

Aeritts shook her head more forcefully. “Why are you going back?”

He shrugged again. “I guess the trap worked.”

“There’s no way.”

“Yes.” He met her eyes levelly. The whole inn went silent, as though holding its breath and listening.

Then Aeritts broke the spell. “Oh! You’re not one of the bards in battle of the bards, are you?”

What?” The still-unidentified Zeno spluttered.

“There have been pamphlets!” she enthused. “Here, I’ll get you one!”

Apparently, Reach’s Fallow would be hosting a competition in about a week between bards across the continent. Anyone was welcome to join and supporting staff/acts were welcome. The winner would walk away with the glorious title of the Bard King.

The bard thought a moment while Aerritz dug out a paper. “This is almost certainly a trap, but it’s one I’m willing to spring.”

When she returned, he flashed her a winning smile. “You sure you don’t recognize us?”

“Oh my god!” she said, nearly dropping the paper. “You’re–“

“We’re the Song and Dance Crew.” Zeno preened, clearly proud to have thought of that one. And it was pretty good, I had to hand it to him.

“Well, you don’t have a lot of time, whoever you are!” she said, handing over the paper. “Read this.”

There were two tieflings on it, one rocking out on a lute and the other one smashing a keyboard. “Lord Reinbach presents the Battle of the Bards!” the paper read in screaming capitals. “Compete for title of the Bard King. Winner to be financed by the city of Reach’s Fallow to tour the world!”

In the background of the illustration were many thin vertical lines, looking suspiciously like pipes.

The last date to register before the summer solstice, which again was approaching in about a week.

Seeing that time was of the essence, Zeno quickly assigned us all roles in Song and Dance Crew. I was the moody bassist (this made sense, as the bass was often responsible for the stability of the entire song and yet again I would be carrying the adults in my life), Helli would be on her music box, Felegum would take keyboard (this would probably become a monodrone synth if I knew Felegum), Tem would be a tambourine (tembourine), Iago would be on spoons (percussion, I guess), and Zeno of course would take the bagpipes.

“And you know,” Zeno said offhandedly, “I have some new stuff I’ve been working on.”

“If you’re going to keep playing covers of Zeno’s songs,” Aeritts interjected, “then you should know that most of them are banned.”

Zeno looked momentarily offended to have it suggested that he was playing covers of anything, let alone himself, but he recovered quickly. “Well, no one’s heard ‘Lily of the Valley’.”

“Oh my god!” Aeritts clapped her hands together. “Would you mind warbling for the Warbling Canary?”

Zeno winked, which earned him an ale on the house, and played the ten minute orchestral masterpiece that was ‘Lily of the Valley’. I’d missed out on the first part initially, since I’d been flying back from talking with a time-warped Ojutai, but it started out jaunty, then moved to a forlorn part, before settling back into romance. It was good.

Don’t tell Zeno I said that. But yeah, a surprisingly decent piece.

Aeritts leaned back against the wall, absorbing it. “Oh, that’s really nice,” she said at the conclusion. “You’ll probably want to save that one for later rounds, though. The idea is that you want a lot of pizazz for your opener. Make it flashy.”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t you worry.” Zeno waved it off. “I’ve got some showstoppers.”

Aeritts spent some time telling us about other known entries, the pyrotechnics, effects, and costumes that acts were known to bring to this effort. A band of dwarves who dedicated all their songs to their lost city was also competing, which gave us a moment of pause, and apparently they went all in on their special effects. They’d make the stage floor look like lava, flames would spurt out, all that stuff.

“But where have you been if you’re just hearing about the Battle of the Bards now?” she asked.

“Oh, just a miserable little festival town,” Zeno said.

“Oh, the Cemporium!”

“You know the one,” Zeno said. “I’m working on a piece called ‘Cohemian Crapsody’ to accurately reflect my feelings on that experience. Working title, of course.”

“Of course,” Aeritts said.

“I have some good ideas for special effects,” said Felegum, no doubt not about to be outdone by a band of Egonian refugees.

“Just be careful,” she said, “Reach’s Fallow can get a little…draconian.”

“If we can bring the old city back with music, then we will,” Zeno promised.

After this heartwarming moment, Aeritts was forced to confront the harsh reality of the amount of alcohol Iago had consumed.

“The life,” he hiccupped, “of an artist.”

“I don’t understand that,” she said, “but here’s your tab.”

Felegum steered the conversation back to the Cemporium and talked about the season pass he’d gotten.

“Oh those!” Aeritts laughed. “That’s such a con they’ve got going. It works for like a week and then they claim it no longer works or expired.”

Felegum laughed, though it sounded painful. “Oh, I know.”

Since we were just asking about anything, I asked Aeritts if she knew of a small town by the Cemporium. She didn’t, which fit with my perceptions that this was a thing that was hard to find. Time for a library.

“What about you, Aeritts?” said Felegum. “You sound like such a kind person, but you’d said people had been mean?”

“Oh, that’s just because I’m new!” She smiled. “They get kind of grumpy when I don’t know what their ‘usual’ is. But like, how would I know that? It’s not on the menu!”

“That does not feel very fair to you,” said Therapy Felegum.

They chatted for a while, but in the interest of client-patient confidentiality I obviously can’t report that part.

“You are doing fine,” Zeno said.

“Other than us,” said Felegum, “has anyone interesting come through here?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say interesting,” Aeritts answered.

“That’s true.” Felegum nodded. “It’s hard to compete against Kel.”

“A hunting party caught a boar?” she said, concentrating on the reaches of recent memory. “We have dire reindeer around here too, those are really big.”

Zeno and Felegum nodded. Apparently Lord Reinbach also kept a dire reindeer.

“Of course he does,” Zeno muttered darkly.

Reinbach, Aeritts mentioned, also liked to execute people who displeased him. He would even carry out such sentences personally.

On that bleak note, we headed to bed. There were more than enough beds for all of us, which was nice, and we broke the night into shifts. Felegum and I took the first one, then Helli and Tem on the second, and Zeno and Iago with the last.

During my shift, I headed to the outhouse. Partially because, yeah, I had to pee, but also I wanted privacy.

The copper wire lizard formed in my hand and I spoke to it.

“Yo, it’s Set,” I said to Ojutai, Mage of the Sands. “New arcane problem: do you know about soul transference? Also, any movement on lightning stone from earlier? Thanks, sorry if it’s late.”

“I just fell asleep,” came the reply. In some ways it was nicer receiving these from my cute wire lizard; I did not want to imagine how Ojutai looked in real life when he was saying this. “On the lightning stone, it’s difficult to narrow down, used to funnel energy somewhere. Soul transference, no idea what that means.”

I nodded, figuring that this was it. Then the wire lizard opened its mouth again. Another message. This time incoming.

“Look, here’s the thing,” Ojutai said. “You have got to stop waking me up in the middle of the night.”

I winced. Time, an entity clearly connected to Maps and Geography, my mortal nemeses, was proving difficult to master.

“Soul transference, though,” Ojutai-as-lizard continued, “huh.”

“Sorry for calling you so late, we’re traveling far away. I’ll try to do better,” I said back. Always a rush to reply on someone else’s spell. “Soul transference I heard about from a dead dragon.”

This manifested another response. “Let me talk to another person around here. The paladins may know. Ugh, I’ll have to get down from my lovely spire. It’s been so long. But I’ll look into it.”

I thanked him and returned to Felegum. We peered into the darkness around the Warbling Canary dutifully, but were unable to see anything. It just felt, you know, eerie.

As per usual, Zeno woke everyone up with bagpipes and I asked the others about the creepy vibes in the night.

“Our vibes,” Zeno said, “were immaculate.”

“The environment was not,” Iago said. “You might even say it was harshing our buzz.”

In spite of questionable vibes, breakfast was porridge with eggs. For the record, everyone except for Tem got cooked eggs, and Tem once again horrified onlookers with her food choices and eating style. Unfortunately the porridge was also irredeemable, even with fried eggs dumped on top of it.

I didn’t want to upset our hosts by altering their food, but honestly it was intolerable and some action needed to be taken, so I fished out the shaker of generic Csipherian spices from my things and added some to the meal on the sly. It was much better. Covertly, I flashed the spice shaker to Helli, who nodded and accepted it when I sleight-of-handed it over.

There were, somehow, forms to fill out for staying overnight here, which delighted Felegum. “Nobody worry,” he said over disappointing porridge, “I’ve already filled out our forms.”

Zeno played a restful song, either as practice for the oncoming competition or to put us in a better digestive mood, who could say.

“Have you guys noticed that we’re not healing as well?” Tem asked.

“It’s the FROGS!” Felegum said with feeling. “I was just telling Set about this last night!”

This was true; we’d spent some time discussing the effect of the land and the frogs and whether one was caused by the other.

“It’s real bad,” I agreed over better egg.

With food thus consumed, we considered our travel options. The next closest town was Clap-sic, which would put us closer to Reach’s Fallow. On the other hand, Yetrak was the destination where the cart had seemed to be headed– the cart that might hold a dragon’s heart, but might not. Many of the smaller towns were on the way to Reach’s Fallow anyway; it just depended how far out of our ways we wanted to go before the Battle of the Bards. We had a deadline to meet, after all.

Tem graciously paid for our food.

“Thanks for breakfast,” I said.

“Of course,” she said eagerly. “I’ve never paid a bribe before.”

I don’t think this really counted as much of a bribe, but far be it from me to spoil the experience of skirting the law for a novice. “Bribefast,” I confirmed.

We had seven days before the registration deadline and it would take about four days to make it to Reach’s Fallow. That left some time for dallying on the road, but not a lot if we had things to do in the city beforehand. I already had two errands in mind.

Anyway, apparently Clap-sic was a town to the north that had been left in ruins. That bore some investigation.

“What do you think, Zeno?” Tem asked.

“Zeno?” The bartender’s head shot up. “You are NOT Zeno. Oh no, oh no, oh no.”

“No, I’m not,” Zeno said, narrowing his eyes at the dragonborn.

“Tem,” explained Therapy Felegum quietly and with kindness, “this is a situation where we need you to lie.”

“OOH,” said Tem.

“Kel is what I want to be called.” Zeno rubbed his temples.

Anyway, on that ignominious note, we left for Clap-sic, figuring that we had enough time to stop there and still be fine to make the deadline.

It took us some walking, about half the day’s or a little more, but as we got close the unmistakable smell of burnt cinders pervaded the air. A tower was halfway collapsed, still leaving smoke tendrils in the sky.

Felegum had his eyes on the ground, searching for tracks, and was not surprised to discover the tracks of four-toed, large creatures congregating around buildings that had been smashed.

A strange slash was still burning like an ember in the middle of a field. On first inspection, it almost looked like an “N”.

Then we looked at it from another angle.

It was a large, still-burning “Z”, cut into the ground and emitting embers and char. Next to it were the tracks of a massive, cloven-hoofed beast. Perhaps, you might say, a dire reindeer.

“Hey, Kel,” Felegum called out. “I think your biggest fan has been here.”

“I’m starting to think,” Iago said with gravitas, “that Kel didn’t do this. There are a ton of dead bodies around.”

As gruesome as this was, he was right. The dead had been corralled into one spot, it looked like, and then lit on fire. The real Zeno would never leave a dead body unless Tem or I harassed him about it, and even the religious among us had learned to pick our battles.

“Do you think Reinbach is cleaning up the frogs?” Iago asked.

From the prints that Felegum could make out, the four toes all seemed to move in the same direction– that was, they’d been allowed to leave the town while the inhabitants had not– and they’d seemed larger than your standard humanoid.

I realized, again thanks to Lathander, that we didn’t have to do intensive crime scene investigation. There was a better way.

“I can talk to one of them if, uh,” I said sheepishly, “someone can lend me another stick of incense.”

Again, one of my errands when I got to a place with shops was going to be find a magic supplies place because gods, this was getting ridiculous.

Luckily, Felegum had my back–this was no doubt from the Dronie-summoning stash, so I treated the stick he gave me with proper reverence– and I cast the spell on one of the charred bodies closest to the gate of the enclosure where they’d been caged.

Incense flowed into sand and swept up through the mandible, calling the spirit back.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “We’re trying to find out what happened here and your answering a few questions will help us. What killed you?”

“Lit on fire,” croaked the dead man.

I nodded and wet my lips. “Why’d they light you on fire?”

“I don’t know,” said the spirit miserably. “Seemed like they enjoyed it.”

“What did they look like?”

“Soldiers, horses, and I caught on fire and all I could see was flames.”

God, this was terrible. “While this was happening, did they say anything?”

The spirit, if it was possible, gave me a weird look. “Have you tried listening while your whole body is on fire?”

Fair point. I felt terrible, because I really wanted to ask this poor guy his name, or at the very least if he had a last request we could carry out for him, but I had one question left and I knew what it had to be. “Can you tell me anything more about what these people looking like, what they were wearing?”

“Black,” said the spirit, “and red.”

Then he left, fled back into a hopefully kinder realm.

What followed was a lot of burying bodies, conferring blessings on the dead, and ceremonies from Tem and me. Tem knew what she was doing; I have sort of made it up as I’ve gone along. We make meaning out of the meaninglessness, it’s a human or human-adjacent thing. So too with this. All things end, but it didn’t have to be so brutal. I could honor that, meet these spirits there, and give them respect in death they hadn’t gotten at the very end of their lives.

In the background, Iago looted corpses. Again, I remain unclear on the why: these are literal villagers, but then again I did pickpocket a zombie to prove that I still had it, so like, maybe I can’t cast stones.

While Tem and I completed our rituals of laying the uneasy dead to rest, Zeno walked to the still-burning letter in the ground, watching the flames everlastingly eat into the dirt and grass.

Then he waved a hand, dispelled the enchantment, and the fiery Z was no more than ash and dirt.

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