Perhaps having given up on me, or sensing that I was still in such a foul mood that I was not to be asked again, Felegum talked to Helli about diamonds.
Tem had tried to heal Helli, also to no avail, and now the entire group was concerned about both of us. While it was nice not to have to be the only one in the spotlight, the–uh– consequences of being sliced by a frog were not exactly tantalizing.
“See, Set?” Tem said, holding up a gauntleted hand that had been as ineffective to Helli’s ailment as I’d been to the formerly living child. “It’s not just you.”
“Oh,” I said bitterly, “has Bahamut forsaken you too?”
“We are a godless party,” said Zeno, then drank.
Felegum had asked Helli for diamonds, received none, and so checked in with us on our health. “Were you both scratched by red frogs?”
I was hesitant to answer. Not because I didn’t know– yes, I very obviously was– but because I didn’t know what Felegum planned to do with that information, especially given what had happened to the kid who had become a weird husk inhabited by a frog.
Helli showed her arm to Felegum, who inspected it. Fresh wound, no clots. He rummaged in his bag. “I think you should both try this.”
It was…an old plague cure from Csipherus. And some tea.
The poultice seemed remarkably well-preserved, and deciding things could not possibly get worse, I submitted to having one placed on my own cut as well. The tea tasted more like the dim memory of tea than actual tea, but it was calming in its own way.
With our medicinal home cures taped on, we finally headed out and traveled north. Travel was, thankfully, uneventful. After some time, we came to a waystation, a little inn at a crossroads. It looked similar to most inns we’d encountered on our travels, if a little more overgrown and rundown than usual.
On closer inspection, it appeared to be abandoned.
“You know what we call that?” Zeno declared. “An outt!”
I inspected the windows and doors. They all looked pretty well shuttered, so I flew up to the second floor and found an unlocked door on the balcony. Waving to Helli to come on up and join me, I popped it open and stepped inside.
The balcony led into what must have been the largest room in the inn, a very fancy affair with a massive, comfortable-looking bed, and a wash basin. The sheets and bedthings were all clean; clearly this place had not been abandoned for long.
With a little further exploration, we also found a communal bed chamber for the more thrifty or common guests, and then downstairs was an open inn area complete with fireplace and pizza oven. From what we could make out of it, it seemed like the owners had left in a rush. An efficient rush, but a rush nonetheless. The doors to the front were bolted with large pieces of wood on a hinge, which I inspected– a wood lock, unique– as Helli cased the bar area and cellar.
Once we both were up to speed on how sick the wood lock was, we opened the door and let the rest of our group into the inn.
Helli tossed Iago a bottle of something. “Probably don’t drink the ale down there.”
Iago gave her a look that promised, if left alone long enough, he would certainly try.
I took to the roof. The sun was clipping below the horizon line of the distant hills, casting the world in amber. I usually found high places when I was sad about something, and this time I just needed space to deal with what had happened with that kid.
“I’m sorry,” I said, letting my breath disperse into mist as evening descended. I hoped Lathander would look after that kid, as well as forgive me for not being willing to give everything I had to save him.
My parents would have. I knew now that I could still be an okay person and not kill myself over every person I couldn’t save, but sometimes I wondered if my parents’ way was better after all, even as it destroyed things for our family.
I got out of my feelings conveniently around dinner, as Felegum and Iago were deep into their quest to determine why the inn was abandoned. Thus far, the fruits of their investigation had been the inn’s name, the Creaky Barrel.
Iago had indeed gotten into the ale. “At least a few days past drinking,” he pronounced, then gave it a second thought. “Maybe a week past drinking.”
I wasn’t sure if this was actual taste-timing skill or just him considering how gross it was, or both, but he seemed pretty confident. That put it about at the same time as the burning of Clap-sic, I thought, maybe a few days earlier if someone tipped them off about Reinbach’s men on the move.
Zeno eyed the ale.
“I think your constitution might be too delicate for this swill,” Iago, the swill sommelier, said.
“I am very well constituted, thank you,” Zeno replied coolly.
We decided that Helli and I would sleep the night all the way through– while I liked that we could lock the inn (and abandoned places always made me feel at home) I still didn’t feel like we had a handle on what had driven the owners off or how likely they were to come back while we were asleep.
Felegum would take first watch, then Iago on second, and Zeno would per usual wake us at or around dawn. He commanded Vincenzo, MacNamara, Mesquite, and Hickory to “occupy the bar and look busy”, which sort of worked– they basically did the same motions over and over again, except for Vincenzo, who was a skilled barhand and had a paying job back in Csipherus at the Bacchus Jolly. He wiped glasses like a professional. The others shuffled but looked kind like staff. One of them stuffed the oven full of wood.
“Maybe I’ll make pizza,” Iago said contemplatively, as Hickory relentlessly stacked logs in the pizza hole.
“Please do not smoke poison us in our sleep,” I said while Helli and I ascended the stairs to the fanciest bedroom. “Thank you, good night.”
I had thought that the worst thing that would happen while I was asleep, guarded by my trusted friends, was maybe a small kitchen disaster.
Instead, I woke up to goopy wounds and a distinct sense of non-refreshment. Tem came up to our room and offered to look how things were going, and her expression grew cloudier the more she inspected us.
Since this felt bad, I cast a spell to remove any curses on myself. As much as it was super cool that I could do that now, it didn’t seem to fix the gooey-ness problem, which seemed much more exotic and affliction than I’d given it credit for. My magic from Lathander still worked, though, so that was a nice reinforcement that I hadn’t messed everything up in my life.
Slightly more disturbing was the realization that something weird was causing my flesh to like, eat itself, but whatever. A win was a win.
Tem cast a mild restorative spell on Helli, causing a red blob of ichor-like flesh to slough off of her like bark off a tree. I stabbed into the discarded meat with my knife, and it desiccated with a satisfactory hiss.
Tem offered to try on me, which was fine by me– I was pretty sure I could do this spell too, but a) I wanted to conserve my stuff in case of greater emergency and b) Tem looked like she really wanted to help. Unfortunately, her mojo was not enough to outfox the weirdness in me, so Felegum sidled in and gave it a shot.
A similar gross-ass mound of flesh dislodged itself from my leg. It was massively painful. I’d thought, oh you know, it’s not my real skin, it’ll be fine, but no, it was not fine. It was real skin and it was departing, and it hurt a lot.
I stabbed the red fleshy leavings with the knife in a fugue of pain, as Zeno observed the proceedings from the doorway. He snapped his fingers. “Vincenzo, clean that up!”
We were, at last, cured. And, better, we had an idea of how to deal with this stuff. It was knowledge dearly bought, but maybe I could use it to help keep other people from exploding out into frogs in the future if they got hurt.
Worth a try.
I was feeling good and honestly really hungry when Felegum cleared his throat.
“So, uh,” he said, “we have some guests.”
“What do you mean, ‘we have some guests’?” I said. “Why would we have guests?”
“They came to the inn at night and we just served them,” the mage said, flapping hand. “Iago’s down there serving them.”
I needed a moment for that to simmer and process. “Okay,” I said.
“They’re adventurers,” Felegum explained. They were a party of three, Alber, Yinos, and Lifos, and together they made up the Fintwon Kintowngees, which meant “Famed Griffons” in Illithid. Apparently the three had had a memorable encounter with one.
Now healed, my thoughts were becoming clear enough to recognize that Iago had been left to his own devices with our breakfasts. I hastened down the stairs.
Iago glanced up from his pot. “I’m not a traveler, I’m a cook now!”
A quick inspection of the soup revealed that it looked foul (it had likely come from the much-lamented ale) and would probably not even be able to be saved by even Csipherian spices, so I put the shaker away. Zeno, who had been hot on my heels, prestidigitated the soup to taste like broccoli cheddar. He’d been muttering something about good kelp reviews.
In this instance, I did not feel like tricking these people into gastrointestinal distress was very kind or suitable to a positive review on kelp, whatever that was, so I snuck out into the garden to see what I could find. I got very lucky and was able to snag a few heads of cabbage and a smattering of root vegetables, including potatoes and turnips.
I could work with that.
With a little creativity (and a fresh pot) I had some steamed turnips on a bed of cabbage. I attempted to make a nice presentation of it– I’d heard, dimly, that one of the adventurers was a vegetarian and wanted to get their take on my breakfast offering– but my stupid ethics called me downstairs to the cashbox. Or rather, the dusty imprint where a cashbox had once been before its owners had taken it with them.
There I left a note, in my customarily excellent calligraphy, letting the Creaky Barrel know that we’d done a little pop-up food concept, thanking them for the resources, and leaving a gold.
I noted eight silver in a tidy pile deeply reminiscent of Felegum and allowed myself a smile.
When I came back upstairs, Iago was mimicking Vincenzo, and both of them looked uncomfortable with the arrangement. Iago was clearly trying very hard and Vincenzo seemed worried. I’d made sure to disguise myself to look like a slightly different version of Felegum, who the travelers had seen before, and attempted to play the role of disinterested server, but then I got actually ignored and that sucked.
Real Felegum was pretending to be a patron at another table for verisimilitude. I think at one point one of the travelers asked him if he was the same person as they’d talked to last night, and Zeno made small talk with them. Out of the corner of my eye, I clocked Helli slipping away into another room.
Alber, the loud leader who was decidedly not a vegetarian, said that they were on their way to act as couriers on behalf of “those fundamentalists in Reach’s Fallow.” The Fintwon Kintowngees were one of six groups dispatched to seek a person– the identity of whom they were not at liberty to disclose– by Lord Reinbach.
Zeno displaced no hint of recognition and instead took the opportunity to do some advertising for the Bacchus Jolly back home in Csipherus.
“Heard some weird things coming out of Csipherus,” Alber said suspiciously.
I polished a plate slightly harder than was necessary, unnerving Vincenzo next to me.
“It’s still weird,” Zeno admitted, “but in a good way.”
“Well, keep a hand on your coin purse,” Alber advised. “There’s strange people about these parts.”
“Oh?” Zeno asked. “Is it Zeno?”
“He’s been the talk of the countryside! Some say he looks like a demon,” Alber spoke in hushed tones, “with his red skin, leathery wings, and how he comes out in the night.”
This was…decidedly unlike the Zeno I had been acquainted with for two to four years, depending on your frame of reference.
Again, Zeno remained unflustered and asked them about the Battle of the Bards. “I have a somewhat personal interest,” he admitted. “I’m Kel, of the Song and Dance Crew.”
Alber said he hoped that Zeno had a better name for his minstrels than that and then left, with Zeno calling out to him to please find us on kelp. Alber’s two attendants, whoever they were, were gone. That was weird. I checked all the rooms for them, but there were no vegetarians or honestly anyone to be found.
Shortly after that, we also packed up. Helli had taken the opportunity to go through Alber’s things and had indeed found the letter he was delivering to a Lord Kielgor, but Zeno didn’t know that person. The letter basically said that Reinbach had sent out couriers looking for Kielgor for many months, but now he was asking a favor: for Kielgor to return to town as soon as possible. Reinbach said that if Kielgor could complete the task that Reinbach set him, then all his debts would be forgiven.
On the bottom of the letter had been the same signet burn as Helli had seen etched into the field.
After everyone had left the inn, I locked everything back up from the inside and left via the balcony on the second floor, as I’d done earlier.
Thus satisfied that all would be mostly well at the Creaky Barrel, we pressed on. A day’s travel brought us to another roadside inn closer to Reach’s Fallow. This establishment was called the Two Goblin Song and Dance Troupe and Inn.
Inside were long tables with people dancing on top of them as, in an alcove in the corner, two goblins and a halfling jumped and danced over instruments almost comically too large for them. Yet, still, the song they managed to play was good.
Hanging from the ceiling was a large and elaborate trophy, as well as an ornate trumpet. The engravings on both read: Victor of the Battle of the Bards and then a year and date.
At this point, we really needed to see the show and inspect what the former competition (or perhaps current competition) looked like. We chatted with a few patrons as we found seating, and learned that the Creaky Barrel had been recently abandoned due to increased monster attacks in the area. A frog, apparently, had come out of a person.
We ordered food and ale (not extremely deceased ale, even) and the magical fires in the chandeliers above burnt lower as the main act began. The two goblins danced madly over a keyboard playing the melody while the halfling maneuvered over a large stringed instrument, plucking and bowing the strings.
It was honestly pretty crazy. People from the audience would throw coins at them mid-performance, but the coins always magically funneled down to a bowler hat at the bottom of the stage.
At the end of the performance, Zeno got in line to ask some questions of the band as they signed autographs. They seemed to perform under Two Goblins and a Halfling Song and Warbling Crew most times. They stood on each other’s shoulders in a stack of three. Each time the line progressed and a new fan came up to speak to them, the band member on top would hop down, then hoist the other two up on their shoulders.
Zeno spoke to one of the goblins. When he came back later and told us about it, he’d mostly gathered information on the competition. The goblin’s advice had been to try to play to the judges, but to also be aware that other bands would likely resort to subterfuge and bribery. Some teams would get further through the competition than they should.
The Battle of the Bards itself was a lengthy process. Finals were in the sixth round, and each round only got more intense. Ideally, the entirety of the performance told a story as well as played a good song. Reinbach made sure that the Battle of the Bards was projected throughout the realm, which was odd considering that his father and most of his family really hadn’t been patrons of the arts before he came along.
When Zeno brought all of this back to us at the table, we settled in for a brainstorming session. Tem mentioned that she knew a special paladin haka she might be able to teach us, passed down in loving perpetuity from the golden dragons her order served. She attempted to demonstrate it. “We are the paladins of Bahamut! Our fire burns through the darkest night!”
“Maybe we need to workshop the name,” I said, rubbing my temples. “It sounds really similar to Song and Warbling Crew. What about ZENO?”
Zeno raised his eyebrows.
“Like, make it an acronym.” I scrunched up my face. “I don’t know, Zombie Equality New Order?”
“That’s awful,” Zeno said.
“I’m trying, okay?” I shot back.
With that, we bedded down at the inn, determined to rebrand and rehearse in order to take the Battle of the Bards by storm.