Zeno, Harry, and Felegum turned their attention to scraping up the scattered gold, Awk dove below the waves, and Helli was already deeply engrossed in unearthing Nightscale’s treasures. I couldn’t find Kheryph anywhere. Not in my hood where he normally was and where I’d assumed he’d returned, not on my chest or my arms.
It wasn’t until I looked down at my pant leg that I spotted him.
Kheryph did not even look like a lizard anymore. For one thing, he didn’t have legs anymore– there was a burnt-off shadow of legs along my pantleg– and the skin on his back was slick with pus, like several layers of it had been melted off. I feared the worst, thinking that his dead body was just attached to me by something in his skin reacting with the acid breath of Nightscale.
Everything else seemed so normal. Helli was asking for help moving a shield or something. Awk was diving around as a giant frog and barfing up what looked like plates onto the shore. They were doing what you were supposed to be doing after a battle with something massive, not kneeling on the shore over the tiny body of something that wasn’t even supposed to be here, but was anyway.
Then Kheryph’s tiny body drew in a breath.
I stilled, waiting for it again. Another breath.
He was still alive.
Revenge plots evaporated into panic. I had some basic medical knowledge…for people. Animals, let alone tiny animals were another area of expertise entirely.
Whatever. Couldn’t be that different.
I took out a healing potion and poured it on the lizard. I was aiming for the mouth, as one did, but Kheryph was so small and doing anything to him seeing to hurt him. I think I got some in there, but much more sloshed over onto his skin. It wasn’t like I could forcefeed him like usual, not when he was this weak.
He did look a little better for what little of the potion he’d imbibed, but not much. Little stubs of his front legs had grown back, which was a good start. Even so, just being alive looked painful for him.
Frantic, I ran through my options. I’d already healed Awk earlier. The potion had done a little, but not a lot. Zeno was busy helping Helli with this weird triangular thing underwater and Awk was doing frog stuff. I had nothing, nothing left.
Except for one thing.
I took out my holy symbol, running through a laundry list of deities whom we’d prayed to for so many years and who hadn’t answered when we’d really needed them. No name came to mind as more likely to help than the others. They were all gods, and the title tended to mean too tangled up in their own cataclysmic affairs to pay attention to anything smaller.
But, I remembered, there was something who had.
A figure in the distance across a sea of sand. A voice of whispers in the desert night. Something whose exact nature I wasn’t sure of, beyond that it was something powerful.
“Please,” I said, kneeling on the sand of the island, lizard still clutching my leg with the burnt-up stubs up his limbs, “I don’t know if you’re listening, or if you care, but I need help.”
There was a long moment where nothing happened. I worried that this was it, one more ask to something that couldn’t care less.
But everything about this had felt different ever since it started happening. Maybe it felt different for a reason.
I bowed my head and, of their own accord, my wings unfolded from my back, bathing the underground lake in amber light. Coins glittered in the water like stars, vast and almost hopeful, and my breathing slowed as I closed my eyes and waited.
I don’t know how much time passed. Enough for me to lose my sense of space, adrift in the soft sleepiness of the moment. Around me, sounds: Harry lugging the Aegis somewhere, a frog through the water, counting and collecting, many insects stirring and breaking the still surface of the lake, thin membranes of wings vibrating in the stagnant air.
Insects. That jarred me out of the dreamlike state I’d been in. The wings faded, went away, and I noticed Harry with the Aegis over his back, Toad-Awk trying to eat some of the bugs and looking unwell, and Lankin trying to speak with them to little success.
Kheryph seemed marginally better. The skin on his little back was still raw, but he had his front arms again. His back, especially near his pelvis, still looked broken, though. I frowned. If whatever I’d done had worked, why did my lizard still look half-dead?
Hadn’t I done anything?
“Can we put it in HFVNN?” Felegum asked Harry and Zeno about the Aegis. The monk did not seem pleased.
“We want this thing available,” Zeno mused. He had a good point; the Aegis, while it had redirected many spells my way, was a powerful boon to its bearer.
Harry gave them a dry look. “Seems like a good way to explode, putting a magical item inside another magical being.”
Helli raised the object she’d acquired, a triangle still damp with lake scum. “Can we put this other shield in there?”
Harry held up his hands. “I’m not trusting an extradimensional being who wants to eat us with our magical items.”
I guessed Felegum must have already confirmed that the triangle shield too had magic.
“I’m very confused,” said Lankin.
“Oh, that’s right,” Felegum said, and held up HFVNN, which to an outsider would look like any other brown burlap sack, beyond the fact that it had no holes. “Come on, Zeno.”
The bard obligingly pulled out Shatterspike and sliced the Bag With No Holes open.
“WHAT!” Lankin exclaimed as Helli’s shield was shoved inside.
His amazement did not seem to last long; he quickly switched to digging up coins as we all realized that the insects were swarming again.
“Well, I’m not swimming in that.” Zeno sniffed. “Set?”
“If you heal my lizard you can ride on the broom,” I said.
“Okay,” Zeno said, hopped on side saddle again, turned to Kheryph. “Come on, little buddy, you can do better than this.”
A smoky purple glow suffused Kheryph’s body, but the lizard looked little better for wear.
“What.” Zeno scowled. I shrugged. We were basically making a lizard brand new. I didn’t like it either.
We flew over the lake, which was now becoming full of an intolerable amount of insects, and into the corridor down which Nightscale had fled. Felegum had been investigating a wall which had a weird stick in it. Beyond, a small waterfall crashed down into a series of rivers, probably the way the dragon had gone.
The stick, which initially seemed to be some kind of lever, continued to frustrate Felegum. Behind us, Helli looted with abandon and Harry pondered the logistics of another lake crossing before diving in. He seemed able to swim with the Aegis, but only just barely, and judging from the way that even he struggled, it seemed like it would be a long shot for any of the rest of us to carry it well, let alone over water.
Lankin moved forward to help Felegum with the weird stick, to little avail. I leaned down to inspect Kheryph, who had begun to climb up my leg onto my thigh and chest using only his front legs to pull him upward.
“This is a little upsetting,” I said to Zeno.
“Give him time, Set, give him time.” Zeno clapped me on the shoulder, hopped off, and joined the wall inspection crew.
I scowled. The whole point of magically healing someone was so that you could avoid the whole time problem. The insects were getting more aggressive, following us from the lake down this new river corridor and biting at us. I was already in bad shape, from the bugs, the dragon, various magic spells going awry, and I didn’t think I could handle much more.
The wall proved about as crackable as a door, so Felegum busted out a Shatter spell and the wall gave way, revealing nothing more than a caved in corridor beyond and a single rod wrapped in red rope. Since that exit was no longer an exit, that left us with only one option: the river.
Kheryph, who was not up to swimming on a good day, did not look up to swimming on this cataclysmically bad one. I narrowed my eyes at the cavern. There wasn’t really enough room to fly, but that wasn’t about to stop me. Holding my leg as much above the water as I could, I flew upside down a while until my head dipped below water, I couldn’t see, and I wiped out without glory. Kheryph was still soaked and I called the broom back before continuing the rest of the way swimming.
The lizard moved up my leg more slowly. Below the surface, Harry walked with the Aegis strapped over his back as he held his breath. He seemed totally chill doing this, again leading to questions about just what kind of upbringing he’d had at that monastery that had prepared him for this.
After about half an hour, Zeno, who had been floating on his back down the caverns, singing and playing the pipes intermittently, reached a gap in the rocks where the river terminated in a waterfall about fifteen feet tall. Being Zeno, he executed a spectacular swan dive into the water and emerged in a small pool below, then snapped his fingers and switched his fancy armor from its usual smoking jacket form to a skimpy bathing costume.
Lankin cannonballed in after him and Helli climbed down with little difficulty. Wanting to spare Kheryph anymore water traumatization than was necessary, I floated down on the broom. Harry stepped off the ledge and walked out onto air, Aegis still strapped to his back under a cloak, and hit the water. The Aegis really did seem to be trying to pull him down bodily, but he managed to resist.
It was a nice little breather, until Awk stepped forward, squinted into the trees, and said, “There are shapes in the forest around us.”
A familiar giant lizard stepped into the clearing.
“Hey,” Awk yelled, “it’s Zuul!”
“And the troglodytes,” Zeno murmured under his breath before he turned and smiled at the newcomers. There were, it seemed, as many as there had been at the cave, all melting out of the trees like they were accustomed to being around this much nature on the regular. While Nightscale must have fled this way, there was no sign of them, so small mercies there.
“So,” Zuul said as he stepped forward, “I see you have bested the dragon.”
“Did you see the dragon come out?” Zeno cocked his head. He was still dripping a bit from his swim in the pool, and Zuul was somehow doing an admirable job not looking at the near-string of a swimsuit he was wearing.
Zuul grinned. “That’s how we knew how to find this place.”
“Well,” Zeno shrugged, “we did most of the hard work for you. The dragon’s nearly dead. If you find it, you can probably take it out.”
“Oh, we’re not after the dragon.” Zuul stepped closer. “We’re after the shield.”
Zeno cast one of his suggestion spells on the giant lizard dude. “Then why don’t you hunt down Nightscale and take it?”
But it must not have taken, because Zuul just laughed in a dark manner and his minions crept closer. “We saw the dragon fly out, missing the Aegis. We know you have it.”
His eyes flicked to Harry and his cloak, massive and ill-concealing the Aegis. Harry, for his part, looked completely innocent, like he was doing nothing wrong.
It was at this point that Felegum, who had remained in the outcropping, made his way down the wall and began casting his Tiny Hut spell. This tended to take him some time, but the fact that he thought it necessary told me everything I needed to know. We were all tapped out and exhausted, and while Zuul and his goons would probably not have been a big deal for us normally, they were not going to be fun to handle without us resting from Nightscale.
Zeno continued to negotiate and cajole Zuul, telling the giant lizard that under no circumstances were we in possession of the item he sought. Two troglodytes were summoned and sent back into Nightscale’s cavern to inspect the area for the Aegis, which Zeno had lied about, saying it must have fallen below the waves.
“Have you guys ever made magic camp?” Zeno said, conversationally, as we all gathered around Felegum and waited for the mage’s wacky waving motions to produce an impassable shell. “It’s good stuff.”
We thought that surely that would buy us enough time– it had taken us thirty minutes to get down the river and Felegum’s spell only needed eleven or whatever minutes to get off– but those suckers must have been elite swimmers or something, because barely ten minutes had gone by when they returned from conducting a thorough search of the lair and told their boss that the Aegis was nowhere to be found.
Once more, Zuul’s eyes returned to Harry. “It’s not there,” the lizard man said. “So, where is it then?”
The troglodytes pushed forth out of the forest, and to our west Erfwe and his direhounds emerged. The ogre at least looked chagrined for his part in this. “Sorry,” he said, loading a giant ballista.
It was then that began a battle of Felegum defense. The sorcerer only needed about twenty more seconds to finish casting his Tiny Hut spell, but everything was moving quickly. We wouldn’t have another shot at getting the hut up without a much larger battle, so this was it.
Unfortunately, the troglodytes got some of the drop on us. Harry was hit by Erfwe’s ballista bolt, and both Felegum and Zeno had arrows launched at them. The sorcerer was able to continue canting and flailing magically without interruption, and somehow the arrow grazed Zeno’s almost nonexistent armor and not him. Maybe the troglodytes just couldn’t look upon him long enough to aim properly.
Harry took the cloak-covered Aegis off his shoulder and braced it into the ground, putting his body in between it and Felegum and hoping no doubt to afford the mage more protection against aerial assault.
Then things really got weird. I’d imagined that we were just going to be dealing with garden variety mountain inhabitants, orcs and other riffraff, you know.
That was before Zuul took a breath and his eyes burned red.
Yeah. Red. As in, associate of Durnen and yet another player on Team Red-Eye.
But what on earth was a Red-Eye doing up here? From what we’d been able to tell, there wasn’t a conduit site in Paripas, since it lacked catacombs. Maybe there was something we’d missed.
Or maybe they were still just really pissed about the whole cart incident. Could go either way.
Erfwe reloaded his ballista and hit me this time (“Sorry.”) and then his direwolves joined the party, one on me, Harry, and Lankin. And maybe the universe really just wanted to rub in just how much I was the weak point on Team Melee, because while Harry asnd lankin were able to dodge their wolves’ attacks, mine went straight for the throat.
I crashed to the ground as Kheryph scurried up my thigh.
Then my eyes fluttered open as Zeno called out, “Stand up, kid, you still have work to do!”
Dronie buzzed over my body on the ground, holding his little sword out menacingly to any attackers. Behind me, Felegum continued to cast, but I appreciated the defense. Today had been a rough day.
And evidently, Zeno thought so as well. He emanated a wave a serenity for a brief moment. “Why don’t we all just calm down?” He entreated the crowd harassing us. Then he turned back to our group and muttered, “Defensive postures, everyone!”
Dronie danced overhead, distracting the direwolf by me. Awk, though, who had trouble following a cohesive plan on a good day, did what Awk did best: his own thing. He transformed into a direwolf himself and coordinated with Dronie to find an opening in one of the opposing wolves’ defenses and bit them right on the neck.
Zeno audibly sighed.
Helli, though, unleashed one of her clockwork mice into the fray in the hopes of continuing a distraction. One orc charged at Zeno, who laughed and yelled, “You wish you could hit this!” as the orc’s strike went wide.
More of the troglodytes and cave dwellers moved closer.
And then I had an idea. We needed a distraction, right?
I took out a bit of fleece and felt it burn up in my fingers as I cast a Silent Image of a circling Nightscale, sans Aegis, sixty feet above us, scaled down to make it look like the dragon was higher in the air. I affixed a shocked and dismayed expression on my face. “Holy shit, it’s back!”
The troglodytes looked up, confused. Harry took advantage of the pause in fighting to shove a healing potion down Felegum’s throat, which looked weird and uncomfortable, but luckily Felegum was just really into his spell that he just kept going.
Zuul looked up at the dragon, looked at us, and then brandished two greatswords that he’d had slung to his sides. I swore. At least maybe my dragon would buy us a few more moments from a total assault.
But we would never know, because that is when Lankin, seeing a worthy opponent, joined the fray and attacked Zuul.
Zeno shot me a look of despair and I blinked in disbelief. There it was, ladies, gentlemen, and lizards, our best chance of delaying tactics going up in smoke and the battlecry of a wood elf.
Zuul gnashed his teeth and cried out to his followers. “You idiots! Attack!”
“Sorry, friends,” Erfwe grunted, “you pet my friends but I have to do my job.”
Another ballista bolt sailed toward Felegum, poorly aimed, perhaps on purpose out of sentiment. Still, Harry tried to catch it and it clanged off the Aegis, a single pure note emanating into the wilderness, as the bolt itself pinged into the air directly above us.
The wolves bore down on Awk and Lankin, as I, guarding the other side of Felegum this time, had gotten out of their reach. Felegum continued his spell, in the groove, and Dronie, emboldened by his success so far, taunted Zuul.
Zeno saltily got out his bagpipes and blasted a single terrifying note that harmonized weirdly with the Aegis’ ring. Some of the orcs and troglodytes moved back, but Zuul did not.
“Hey, Erfwe!” Zeno called. “What’s a ogre’s favorite meal?”
Erfwe thought about it. “Stroganoff!”
“Shrekfest!” Zeno yelled back.
Erfwe nodded. “Oh, famous ogre.”
Awk succeeded in pushing one of the direwolves backwards out of the circular area that Felegum needed for his spell. Now things were getting down to the wire. We couldn’t have anything too big in the dome or else the spell would fail, and “too big” included both direwolves and giant lizard dudes. Erfwe’s wolf lay on its side, whining and prone. Helli stabbed at it, and it got up with its tail between its legs and returned to Erfwe.
One very scared troglodyte rushed away into the woods.
“Coward!” Zuul snarled, and then cut through it as it fled. It slumped to the ground in two pieces, cleaved clean in half. I grimaced. That was one way to cut down on your workforce, but not a great way to harry us into handing over the Aegis. Unless Zuul was confident that he could take us all by himself, it seemed unwise. Though to be fair, he was also handling those greatswords pretty easily for a giant lizard guy.
Another orc turned to me and sliced through my defense. Still another stabbed Zeno, at last not stunned by the bard’s apparel. I slashed out at a troglodyte next to Felegum. As much as I wanted to hit that orc back, I had a mage to guard. The troglodyte survived my shortsword but not the dagger and fell to the ground messily.
Zeno’s eyes lit up. “Thanks for the new zombie, Set!”
I rolled my eyes. Trust him to already be making plans for the dead bodies.
Harry threw down some caltrops to the south of us so that any attackers would have to make their way through the spikes in order to get to Felegum, who by now was nearly done with his spell. Zuul sliced through Dronie with little fanfare, and the monodrone returned to another plane of existence.
Then Zuul cut through another troglodyte, again depleting his workforce, and used the momentum of the swing to rush forward and slam into Helli. The gnome withstood the onlsaught and kept Zuul from fighting his way into Felegum’s circle.
Lankin moved to Zuul, avoiding a strike from the direwolf he’d been fighting, and went to town on the giant lizard guy with his greataxe.
Erfwe let out a whistle. “Come back, my wolves!”
And the direwolves bounded back to him. Apparently Erfwe did not think it was worthwhile to risk his pets when his employer had so clearly gone off the rails. Helli and Awk tried to attack the fleeing wolves, but they had little success, which was good, since I think we would have all felt really bad about it if anything had happened. Erfwe used Zuul’s distraction to continue sneaking away.
Zeno made a valiant effort to kick some of the encroaching orcs and troglodytes out of the circle, but he was well and truly tired by now and it was asking a lot of him. Awk made a last ditch effort to attack an orc as a direwolf and then had to drop his form to fit in the dome.
Helli wrestled herself away from Zuul and sliced through a troglodyte in the circle, killing it, and rounded on another orc, a small machine of death. Zuul yelled out, “Stop them!”
An orc tried to rush in, but Helli, unstoppable, redirected his energy so that he was propelled outside the circle. Awk tried to wrestle the other orc down, but he was not as strong as Helli, at least not in his regular gnome form. The orc to our south, in the lake behind us, crashed through.
I was attacked again by the orc next to me, and at that point I’d had enough. Another round of shortsword and dagger work, and he was no more.
Then the dome of the Tiny Hunt at last sprung up, and that one ballista bolt from before finally finished its descent and slammed into the top of the dome harmlessly. Zuul was still trapped outside and Harry moved around Felegum to address the last of the stragglers who’d ended up in the dome with us.
Lankin killed one, Harry helped on another, and Felegum sent out some Magic Missiles and then taunted Zuul, who began to bang on the dome with his fists. All in all, a good time. Zeno very carefully picked his way through the caltrops and stabbed the last orc right in the face, which surprisingly was not the end of it. It took Awk magicking up a giant stick to whack it into oblivion.
A single lotus flower bloomed on its forehead.
“Oh perfect,” Zeno said, “that one can be Florc. For, you know, flower orc.”
Zuul hollered at his compatriots to keep up the assault on the dome, and Felegum yawned and sat with his back to the wall Zuul was harrassing, taking out his Ptarmigan book to read. I, not having a chance to loot Nightscale’s lair, looted the bodies. And, I have to say, I did pretty well for myself. It was a little difficult to divide the spoils at first– I miscounted a few times just from the sheer exhaustion of it all– but eventually we ended up at 4 gold and 2 silver apiece.
Helli also divvied up the gold and silver she’d gotten from the dragon’s hoard, which tallied up to another 15 gold and 30 silver. And honestly, the inside of the hut was nice. The small part of the pool we’d enveloped within the hut was relaxing. almost like a koi pond. I stepped over and stared at it, hoping for fish.
A few moments of nothing went by. I gave up.
Zuul, by this point, frustrated as well, stormed off, taking the last of the orcs and troglodytes with him, who somehow still obeyed him despite him cutting several of them into pieces. Harry poked an arm out of the hut and waved them goodbye. Zuul just glared and continued sashaying into the distance.
Lankin volunteered to take the last watch and Felegum realized that he still had that stick in the wall that had been magical, so he cast Identify on it with one of his pearls and it turned out to be a Rod of Liquefaction. In short, it could liquefy stone walls and it recharged itself daily. Pretty cool.
I took out the last of the baneberries, most of which were just not looking so hot after the dragon battle. Three were uncrushed, so I set them before Kheryph. With great effort, he ate one and then was exhausted. I cut up the other two into smaller pieces for him and left them out, settling in to sleep.
Helli strung the dragon scale onto her newly acquired bone necklace and Zeno tried to inspect the binoculars again. I fell asleep to Lankin taking daggers and a shortsword from some of the bodies, Zeno earmarking others for raising after he’d rested, and Kheryph, still breathing, still here, curling up next to me.
We still had to get the cart back (if we could) and probably deal with Zuul again, but for now, it was enough.