Fi splashes dirty swamp water on the faces of the elf poachers the group subdued below deck. Serra goes straight into interrogation mode, still being compelled somewhat by the angry swamp god, demanding to know who they are, who they’re working for, and what information they can share about the university.
They say they were just following orders, that they can’t say anything about their employer, and remain curiously quiet on the subject of the university; it’s unclear if they’re playing dumb, or genuinely haven’t heard of it, as the frogs had not. Fi threatens them, but doesn’t quite sell it. She’s more annoyed with them — annoyed with the group’s lack of progress and how the obstinacy of the elves symbolise that deadlock — than intimidating, and so they remain steadfast in saying very little.
That is, until Serra beckons Osti over and they are immediately terrified of the sight of the mould man. It’s an unnerving enough encounter for them to start spilling their guts: they work for an academic at the university called Bachman, for whom they have “collected” all manner of unusual specimens over the past weeks and months. Osti confirms this, his connection with all of the fungi across the swamp allowing him to see the inside of a lab for a brief moment, before being snuffed out (as his matter cannot survive for long outside the swamp).
Fi says they won’t turn the poachers into the frogs if the elves agree to direct them to the university. They agree, with the added proviso that the mould man won’t be coming with, because they’re still super freaked out by that whole scene. Rurron hoists the bound elves over her shoulder, one on each, fireman-style. With the elves giving directions, the group leave the boat after bidding Osti farewell for now, and venture deeper into the swamp. The vegetation gets thicker the further they go, and the water deeper, allowing Serra to continue swimming along in snake form but forcing the rest of the group to trudge through increasingly boggy, gross conditions.
At the back of the party, Roe has noticed that the further they go, the less wildlife she hears. In fact, after a couple of hours, she is alerted by the realisation that there are no ambient noises to be heard. No buzzing of flies, no running water, nothing. It’s at this point she also becomes aware of the fact that the ground she’s stepping on no longer feels like muddy swamp floor, but something more solid, despite it still looking the same. Similarly, the shadows being cast from overhead are no longer that of tree branches hanging across and blocking the sunlight, but something much larger and more solid.
She alerts the group to this, and notes also that the end of the swamp appears to be in sight in the distance, the foliage thinning out again. Roe asks the elves where the university is, and they point upwards. When asked how they get up there, they admit they’ve never actually been themselves. They just collect whatever Bachman asks for, deliver it to a certain place in this area, and when they check back the next day it’s gone. Fi realises something is up, too. There is no more fungi to be seen, when there had been plenty elsewhere. After hearing about the delivery method, she’d been planning on luring whatever it is that transports the poacher’s goods to the university.
Instead, Serra slips the skull on and transforms into her duck form, to break through the treeline and see what lies above. What she sees is, as Aidan described, a floating university, high above the clouds. Before she can get a closer look, however, she is attacked by two mechanical drones, running on grinding gears and steam and heading straight at her with bayonets affixed to their underneath. She’s clipped by the rotor blades of one, but successfully escapes back to the swamp and loses them.
Serra suggests, if flying up isn’t a viable option, maybe they could climb the trees? Rurron agrees, suggesting she could punch the drones out of the sky. Roe takes a different tack, asking the elves how, if they don’t speak to Bachman directly and have never been to the university themselves, they correspond with him? They point to a nook in a nearby tree. Roe beckons Fi over to illuminate the nook with a small flame. The flickering fire is sucked up by something within the hole, and is then snuffed out, implying some sort of suction. Fi asks Roe to ask Serra to perhaps get in the hole, since it’s around duck-sized, suspecting it of being a pneumatic tube messaging system (pneumagic tube…?). Serra is less than wild about the idea, and instead scrawls a message with a quill plucked from her own feathered back that reads “HELLLLOOOOO?” is as neat handwriting as she can manage in duck form.
They put the message in the nook, watch it get sucked up, and a reply appears within seconds. Fi grabs the tube with the reply message, and immediately vanishes. Initially concerned, the rest of the group repeat the trick, asking with the second note for six more to be beamed up. They meet Fi in the expansive lobby of the university, which has a huge pair of oak doors at one end and a massive chandelier hanging from the ceiling. They make a beeline for a reception desk next to the door, which is being manned by a cat with a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles.
Serra says they want to visit Professor Bachman, and the cat asks if they have an appointment. When they admit not, the cat sighs, then hands over a stack of forms to fill out. Serra does so truthfully, with her full name and the details of the V Goode law firm, but hesitates when it comes to the “duration of visit” part. Roe says it depends, Fi suggests a couple of days, perhaps? Serra asks the cat if they can update the form as they go, to which the cat incredulously asks if she used her real name, before chastising the druid for not realising the power someone can wield over you if they know your true name.
Shaken and a bit embarrassed, Serra asks for a new set of forms and everyone completes theirs with the fake identities established during the T’Eilt Industrial Ball. They are then allowed to step foot through the huge doors, which open to reveal a grand atrium that is peopled entirely by talking cats, walking up and down MC Escher-style staircases at seemingly impossible angles. Baxter, to his credit, is behaving very well through this whole thing, excited at being around other animals but not at all antagonistic to any of the felines. There’s a tea room full of cats having a relaxed chat, with one snoozing on a couch. In a laboratory, one is knocking a series of glass tubes onto the ground and smashing them.
The group happen upon a couple of chatting moggies, and ask for directions to Bachman’s office. One of the cats, a maine coon leaning on a broom who identifies himself as a janitor, points them up a staircase and says they can just knock on the door, he should be in there and is always keen to receive visitors.