Sometimes there are situations that are so bad you can’t help but look on them and think, “surely, it’s going to get better! It can’t possibly get anymore bad, that would be silly.” And then, of course, it gets worse.
Awk and Lankin were still unconscious, there were a ton of monsters, and it was still unclear whether or not that portal was actually closing. Harry had thrown the stone into it, that was certain, and he was employed in knocking out some dogs with his quarterstaff. Unfortunately for the finely carved staff, it was made of wood fighting creatures made of fire. The inevitable happened and it caught flame.
Harry attempted to put it out by hitting another dog, but then this weird thing happened where the fire on the quarterstaff got sucked into the animal, healing it. Frustrated no doubt, Harry picked up another dog ad tried to throw it, as had become tradition, back into the now-flaming portal back to whence it came. It wriggled out of his grasp, game for another round of bites.
Personally, I had hoped that we were just going to book it. The stone was in the portal and whatever magical hoohah Paripas had promised either was going to happen or not, but we’d satisfied whatever we could on that front. I hadn’t even liked flying over here, especially not after Zeno had fallen in the lava trying to cross over, and I did not want to overstay our welcome, what little welcome it was.
But, alas, that was not to be. Lankin continued to look particularly bad to my left where I’d thrown him out of the lava, and the one person left who could heal him was currently busy being a mammoth and goring down a magma golem. It was metal in the sense of Who Will Win? Fire Versus Ice Throwdown but mostly I just felt like I had a lot of problems to deal with while Zeno played around.
Helli, though, was absolutely killing it. Well protected in her kelp armor, the dark horse favorite item of this entire fight, she stabbed into the joint of two newly formed arms on the magma creature, pulling out a red-hot dagger, and stabbed again. I put aside my thoughts of battle and flew down to Awk, who looked considerably less bad than Lankin, and clasped his shoulders, healing him.
“Awk, I need you to listen to me,” I said, still floating. “I need you to heal Lankin, okay? I can’t help him right now. He’s over there and he’s not looking good. So heal him.”
Awk looked somewhat dazed. “Yeah,” he said distantly. “Sure.”
This was me, hoping the semi-druid would care more about us than he cared about flaming hot dogs, chaos, or his own interests. It was, admittedly, a long shot.
Because, yeah, we could talk in circles about how Awk may or may not have Team Red Eyes’ goals more closely aligned to his than our own, or his potential willingness to sacrifice my city if it meant gaining plus one dragon overlord, or how Zeno tended to heal him last, or never, on account of the gnome’s loose cannon tendencies. There was a certain amount of wariness between him and, well, most everyone else. We didn’t know where his loyalties fell, and maybe sensing no sympathy forthcoming, he seemed disinclined to tell us.
Awk was not, we had established, someone you bet the house on.
I stared him dead in the eyes. “I’m trusting you, okay?”
And maybe that was stupid. If it was, I’d correct that later.
But it wasn’t, then maybe my plan could work.
He nodded. “Okay.”
I patted his shoulder, then took off toward one of those creepy green skull things. For my plan to work, Awk had to get to Lankin to actually heal him. He wouldn’t be able to do that if, say, that skull decided to throw down a ball of fire on their little clump like I’d seen those creepy things do before. If I’d calculated this out right, I could give him some cover and prevent that.
The magma golem swept out some little fire spikes at Helli and Mammo (Zennoth? we’d workshop it, it seemed to be a recurring theme) and the other skull emitted a weak fire ray at Harry, which he easily dodged. I registered the shift when my skull started casting a spell, but I couldn’t whack it fast enough to keep it from finishing. It wasn’t a fireball, though; this was a defensive blurry thing, which was a marked improvement.
I still counted that as the plan succeeding and felt very smart.
Then the hot dogs howled and breathed fire on Harry, the pack growing stronger and patching up their wounds in the licks of flame as Harry crumpled to the floor, unconscious.
I shook my head. I wasn’t even done with the Awk/Lankin situation and now look at this.
However, this was not even the end of the bad news bears: the portal, uncomfortably close to me, shifted. It no longer depicted the city of flaming brass but this weird distorted image of the city pulling itself apart, spinning and melting, the portal itself almost consumed by sand.
I almost wanted to look closer at it, but then Felegum, who had finally come into the room, I guess, drowned the dogs all out in a massive wave of water.
The dogs, and also Harry, who the sorcerer no doubt hadn’t realized was still there.
I swore. That accelerated my timeline on helping the monk.
Lankin continued to look rough, but I’d chosen to trust Awk on that one. I’d gotten the elf out of the lava, and that would have to be enough for now. Zeno the Mammoth finished goring his lava golem foe and moved toward Harry, crushing some tables probably.
Flying over to Harry on the broom and landing dead center of the pack of fire wolves, Helli took out her music box. I could not suppress a shiver.
Is Helli a talented craftsman? Yes. Is Zeno’s song pretty good? Yes. Do I like that weird stuff can happen to my head when I get to close to that thing? No. Very much no.
I encountered it once in Letitia’s study (hiding under a chair) and that was enough for me. Coupled with the fact that Letitia, maybe sensing my extreme dislike of things getting into my head, ensorcelled me to see my city in ruins after that, I can’t say I have the most positive impression of the music box. It certainly spells disaster for anyone around it.
And lo and behold, that was exactly what it did for the wolves. Three of them were enthralled, with one last one howling to rouse its brethren to no avail.
Then, the moment of truth.
Awk picked his way over to Lankin and said, “You brave idiot.”
And Lankin opened his eyes.
Well, I imagine he did. In reality, he flexed through the rock and it all broke in little pieces, but I prefer the more poetic version. And that was all I needed to see: Lankin was safe, Awk had made good on his promise, and now someone needed to save Harry.
I flew in next to Helli, pulled out my last healing potion, and thanks to many years helping out at home forcing unconscious people to drink things, got Harry to drink it without a problem.
Relief. We were all okay.
Until the sound of Zeno’s ballad crept into my ears. I didn’t fall into that stupor that the dogs were in, though, maybe because I’d been thinking about it before.
The last dog went for Helli and knocked her off the broom, and then the tiny bead of fire that I’d been dreading flew out from one of the skulls’ mouths, arcing toward us. Helli and I were able to dodge out of the way, but Harry, who had only just come back to consciousness, was out again. The other skull chose violence and continued the fiery onslaught with a sphere that rotated closer to us but didn’t reach us yet. The skulls themselves maneuvered closer to the portal, which was still doing its weird dripping thing but did not appear to be changing beyond that.
Felegum spent another especially angry torrent of water over the portal, geometric patterns arising from the steam. I couldn’t tell what was going on in the cloud as much, but really the giant fire sphere approaching us was much more of a problem. Lankin emerged from the pit carrying Awk like a piece of game under one arm and beheld the mammoth in awe.
Zeno, the mammoth in question, continued his race toward us, attacking a dog on the way. He managed to take it out but in doing so, he endured a hit from the dog’s flaming carcass and lost concentration on his mammoth form, transforming back into a half-elf just outside the group of enthralled fire wolves.
Making a valiant and doomed grab for the broom, Helli pivoted to stabbing the last wolf that wasn’t enthralled as Awk slapped Lankin on his butt to heal him again.
I wasn’t upset, but I was slightly worried that Awk was interpreting my directive a little too literally.
But I didn’t have time to worry about that: I moved in to stave off the last cogent wolf and sliced with my brand new knife. I’d forgotten that the hot dogs had molten cores (which was dumb of me since Zeno just got knocked out of mammoth form by that same thing, but whatever) and instantly I realized that I might have just melted the most expensive thing in my entire life.
I pulled the curved dagger out.
Nothing. The wolf collapsed and the dagger was whole and fine. I squinted at it, trying to figure this out, but nothing.
Besides, I didn’t have time for that. I assessed. Moving Harry would be ideal, but he was super heavy and I couldn’t drag him. The only thing that kept going through my head was the music box working its way to the next verse of the Wicked Arena. I had to get out.
So, I ran. Back toward the door, out of the group and as far out of earshot as I could.
But I’d forgotten about the skulls again, and how not being right next to them made them feel like they could attack. The flame sphere moved, Helli’s kelp tendrils lashing out at it, and two beams of light flew at both me and Zeno.
And then, nothing.
“Hey Set!” a melodic voice called through the darkness. “Watch this!”
I rolled over onto my stomach and looked toward the source of the sound. Everything hurt. This was not surprising, given that I’d fallen onto a rock floor. My wings were gone, as were all my fancy mirror images, and in the middle of the fire wolves lay a still, unbreathing body.
I’d run away, I’d been scared, I hadn’t been thinking clearly and he’d died—
Zeno, the source of the voice, took out a diamond from his pack, deftly dropped it into his bagpipes, and began to play. It was like his other haunting tunes, but different. More resonant, a fuller sound. It almost felt like when he was calling zombies up through the earth, he was playing half a song, and this was the piece in full: grief balancing longing, horror with beauty, a gesture commanding a body to breathe again, while at the same time a plea, quietly asking but only if you want to.
Harry jolted awake at the last note.
It was, after all, pretty metal.
Perhaps even too metal. Zeno, flush with power, hearing his spell fade and his enchanted tune blast back at him from the musuc box, gave into the glory and basked in it. Meanwhile, Helli stabbed a wolf.
When she pulled the dagger out of the wolf (still kicking, unfortunately), she no longer held a dagger, but a hilt. Suddenly I was glad I hadn’t used my other dagger to attack. She closed the music box and ran down the hallway to the left. “Catch up, let’s go!” she yelled as she took off.
Awk took his time walking up to Harry and nodded appraisingly. “Hey there, extra crispy.”
His restorative spell seemed to bring Harry a little closer to making it out of here okay. Meanwhile, I continued to feel awful so I just followed Helli’s lead, throwing up an arm and calling the broom back to me to prepare to make an exit.
Little did I– or maybe anyone– expect, but Felegum had also awoken the once-cooled, now-angry lava golem with his magic and it was bearing down on Helli and Lankin. Complicating matters, the skulls had decided that they too would emerge and try to start shit.
“Get back in your hole!” Zeno yelled at them as Harry rolled away from the fireball that once again rocked the area. In the aftermath, both Awk and Lankin were unconscious, but the portal dissipated. The skulls, however, remained and Felegum switched from water to thunder, perhaps in the hope of breaking them. Harry threw some of his darts, and motioned at one of the gnomes to do something.
He didn’t look as stable on his feet as he was normally, but he was still standing. He walked between the lava golem and Helli, getting ready to parry.
Zeno deflated one of the skulls with whispers from his bagpipes, now that he was less obsessed with himself with the music box safely away, and spoke words of healing and encouragement to Awk. “Oh hey, Awk! You missed it, get up!”
Helli took advantage of all the chaos to stab the magma golem bearing down on everyone as Harry looked on approvingly. “Should have been watching the gnome,” he said with a weary nod.
And that was it for the magma golem. We still had Lankin on the ground and Helli’s dagger was coated in stone (definitely weird) as Harry dodged out of the way of the magma spilling onto the ground. Awk managed to get to Lankin and held out a potion.
I sighed, headed over to the elf, and brushed off the potion Awk kept trying to hand me for the heal.
“Dude, put that away. Those are expensive.” I should know; I was already earmarking funds for replacements. I waved it out of my face and called instead to the bard. “Hey Zeno, are you going to heal Lankin or what?”
I tried to assess Lankin but honestly I was so steamed at us using potions (costly, consumed) instead of our actual magical talents (free, regenerating) to solve these problems that I didn’t do a very good job actually looking over our injured friend. Anyway, Zeno said he had it.
It should be noted that at this time, fire started to spin outward from the portal. Things were getting considerably more hot in the room, and Felegum took the opportunity to run out of there as fast as he could. Zeno, true to his word, stood with his hands on his hips and looked at Lankin. “Come on, Lankin! You’re the last one!”
The elf opened his eyes, and Zeno nodded before taking out a familiar pearl. With a sigh of relief that all was well, Helli too back off down the tunnel.
Once again, Awk slapped Lankin and said. “Go get ’em, buddy!” to give him some additional health before following his fellow gnome down the hall. I too joined the hall crew, grabbing my returning broom from the air.
Lankin followed us shortly after, looking a bit singed. The wreath of fire coming off the portal was expanding and we didn’t have much time left down here. A pity, since the dwarves had mentioned some pretty cool stuff being absolutely up for grabs in the walls down here, especially the unexplored bits.
We kept moving down the hallway, trying to make it back to the first bridge. Like the last time we’d come upon it, much of the tracks were gone, but unlike the last time, the river was roiling with flame. Next to me, I heard Zeno gulp and mutter some words of healing encouragement to himself.
I did my best to avoid glancing back, but dang.
I didn’t realize how alike we were.
But as always, I couldn’t just ruminate on emotional stuff when the fire from the portal was closing in on us. I sent out an illusion of me on the broom with another anonymous rider. After all, it had worked before. But I got distracted, I didn’t realize how much the rider would come out looking like my dad, and I got careless controlling it, piloting the illusion right into the flame.
It had no effect, though it did confirm that this fire was just fire, not flame creatures like it had been before.
Awk transformed into a big goat, making it easier for himself to cross. It seemed like he was trying to ram the lava at first, but he ended up leaping through and made it to the other side with relative ease.
Felegum, sensing that maybe the rest of us were going to need more help than the goat had provided, used one of his spells to shape the flames out of the way. It was a little disconcerting to see fire going at right angles, though it did open a hole wide enough for us to get through.
Zeno approached me asking to ride the broom with me. I sighed and knew what I had to do. “It’s not going to be able to carry two regular-sized people. It’s been weird lately,” I explained hastily. “We might be able to swing it with a smaller person and a medium one, though.”
Helli immediately perked up. I was immensely pleased someone else had discovered the joy of flying.
Passing off the broom to Helli, I watched as the two stepped on it and Zeno flashed Helli a thumbs up. Helli was pretty skilled at piloting the broom, but like I’d feared, the added weight after it had been singed earlier was still a challenge– it had been tough even for me to control with a passenger.
They hit the fire. But, thanks perhaps to Zeno’s calling out affirmations that she was doing a great job, Helli wrested the broom back on course and completed the crossing.
Lankin naturally had little difficulty getting over the river, which left me, Harry, and Felegum.
Harry took a rope and tied it around himself and also the sorcerer, who continued to hold open the portal. I didn’t like this, but we really didn’t have any other choice. I leapt, clearing the first gap, then leapt again.
This time it went incredibly smoothly. I landed on my feet, brushing char off my shoulders. “I don’t even need wings to fly.”
Thanks to Zeno’s cajoling, Felegum and Harry were able to make it over as well. Now all we had to do was make it out alive before all this fire caught up to us.