YOU ALWAYS FOLD JUST BEFORE YOU’RE FOUND OUT: in which a bad situation gets immeasurably worse

On seeing the desperate state of things with the other captives, Tem spoke a prayer to Bahamut and her hands glowed with a silvery light as she moved from prisoner to prisoner, reviving each slightly.

As she worked, I took out a piece of copper wire. Even after our success getting the organs back into that one girl, she wasn’t back to speaking, let alone consciousness. Remembering what Kalends had told me about the mind palace he’d been trained to create and hide out in during torture sessions, I realized that maybe these people could be in similar situations. Maybe they didn’t know we were safe and trying to help.

So, I used the wire to send a message to the girl we’d brought back in Csipherian, saying that we were here to help and we were going to get her out of here.

The reply was strange. It was just static. I’d never heard that before and I had no idea what to make of it.

Felegum and Tem tried to see what they could by examining the unconscious captives, but either could make anything of it besides the feeling that something was off.

“They all seem perfectly normal,” Tem said. “At least from a medical standpoint.”

Zeno snickered. “Yeah, except for this one that Felegum killed.”

“What?” I whirled.

There was a dead body on the floor, crumpled as though from electric shock. On one arm were three circles in a line. I stilled.

Somewhere, Felegum explained that it had been an accident, that he’d dispelled the magic around the person or maybe on a device keeping them alive, and then this had happened.

Tem continued her slow and steady progress from living body to body, healing each. Their flesh coalesced back together under her scaled hands. Zeno and Helli listened at the door, giving us cover.

There were still things I could do.

I placed a hand on the person with the three circles in a row and closed their eyes. “The city will remember you,” I said quietly.

Because it would. They would join the ranks of the beloved dead, the foundation in which our history and the city itself was built, still a part of all its stories, just a different part than they’d been before.

Something in the body seemed different, lighter, and something in my ear whispered “thank you” like an exhale, like relief. Then it was gone.

I nodded, then moved into the other two bodies, performing the same ritual. The whispered thanks curled around my ear each time.

I must have been looking pretty bad after all that clerical duty because Kalends grabbed my arm and spoke in Csipherian. “Set, have you forgotten?”

“Probably,” I said in the same. “I’ve been gone a long time.”

Kalends didn’t treat it like a joke, though. “We endure,” he said quietly. “We don’t give up.”

I sighed and shook out my hands. “Yeah, I’m just so scared. Don’t–” I gestured back at the group– “tell them that.”

He nodded, not in a joking way, and we turned to the topic of our escape.

“I think,” Felegum said, “they are going to notice a missing body and some fucked-up magic.”

“I think we should leave a body,” Tem said in hopeful tones.

Zeno narrowed his eyes at her. “You just want me to give up one of my friends, dear. I’m onto you.”

To be fair, this was pretty obvious. Tem had made it clear from literally day one that she wasn’t into that zombie life. And neither was I really, but Zeno with zombies was useful. I wasn’t above accepting help from any quarter when it came to saving my city.

I turned to Kalends and had a serious heart-to-heart about him on the broom. “So,” I said, “how are you with magical stuff?”

Kalends shrugged. “I’ve thrown many a smoke bomb in my day.”

I did not have the heart to tell him that those probably weren’t magical.

Anyway, I was saved from further inquiry by Lankin examining the door thoughtfully, Zeno snorting in derision and offering his arm gallantly to Helli, and then the two of them vanishing.

“What,” I said.

Because seriously? Had they just left us in here by ourselves? As great as I was at lockpicking, a door without a lock was not the easiest thing to work with.

“Guys, we’re going to get you out,” Helli’s voice came from beyond the door.

A plank hit the ground outside. This sounded promising.

Then Tem, out of nowhere, burst through the door and slammed into poor Helli, presumably in the middle of putting down her side of the plank barring our exit.

“Tem,” she gasped, “what the hell, dude.”

“Kalends,” Harry said with deadpan flair, “your rescue party.”

I put my head in my hands. This was not the competent and stalwart group I’d intended to swan in and amaze my mentor with. I walked outside into the hallway as Helli extricated herself from both paladin and door.

The stone floor here was covered in gore from strange creatures, a far cry from the things we’d seen or slain before. It was green, for starters, and while the limbs were vaguely humanoid, there was always something wrong with them. The number of fingers on each appendage was off, and some joints bent the wrong ways.

This entire hallway seemed like it had been the site of some massive battle. I turned around. Or slaughter, more like.

Helli and Zeno, who had had a moment to investigate before the Tem-door debacle, showed me one of the doors they’d found. This one, to the left passage, had light under it. Straight ahead was a darkened door. I headed to that, listening for a moment at it. All was quiet. Helli crept to the light door. Or at least, that’s where I thought she was going because when I looked back, she was gone.

I slunk back to the torture chamber.

“Kalends,” Harry said, “would you believe that we’ve done this before?”

“Lot going on down there,” Zeno said, looking at the right passage with a moue of distaste.

Tem turned to me. “Would you like me to carry someone?”

I surveyed the captives. Kalends we had to get out– that was non-negotiable. But the three-ringed girl we’d worked so hard to get back to breathing, surely we could take her with us as well. “Actually,” I said, “yes.”

Somehow, it ended up that Lankin carried the three-ringed girl and Tem was the front-line person opening doors. She made it to the first door, the left, lit one, and opened it into a room with four torches and a junction leading out of it. To the right from the torch room was a clockwise curve and to the left was a straightaway.

The air smelled a little different here. To the left it seemed damp and to the right, musty.

Behind us, Harry and my best friend were working out their personal issues.

“Uh, bite your pride.” Harry grunted with Kalends slung over his back.

“Ever had your legs broken?” Kalends seethed, indignant.

Harry paused. “Yes. I think I threw myself–“

Kalends snorted in derision. “You drop me? I’ll kill you.”

If it weren’t for the extreme amount of peril we were in, I’d be smiling. The indignity of it all. Poor Kal.

We decided to try the damp left way first. It looked like it was going down to a basement, which was the opposite of the way we wanted to go. I took advantage of the opportunity to slip in front of Tem.

“Stop, stop, stop,” I said, heading toward the right door. “Let me go first.”

Now was the perfect time to show off how awesome I’d got to Kalends.

I swung to the right, up the clockwise path and to a new door. There was a thin line of light under this one and the crackle of a fire. I thought I could hear the murmur and shift of conversation, but I wasn’t sure.

Remembering the last time I’d opened a door when I’d been mildly sure that people had been behind it and the absolute mess that had ensued then (to recap: a massive fireball and a loud creak from the hinges, alerting the orcs inside to my presence, and later Felegum telling me about oiling hinges) I chose to learn from the past and pulled out the oil I had on my person. Oiling up the hinges, I recalled everything I’d ever known about being quiet, steeled myself, and then opened the door.

Inside was a table with playing cards and gambling chips, typical down-time activities. I hadn’t seen a set of cards like that for a long while, but that revelation was nothing compared to who was seated.

The Butcher, that goblin companion of Ahkmatix, the lich in red, was chatting with Yuval, a massive stone shape hulking in one corner of the room. Two Red Eyes.

Then someone else made a comment from one corner, and I saw for the first time a dude in a hat who seemed to have a broom strapped to his back, like me. Unlike me, he had curling horns protruding from his temples and also red eyes.

Three of them.

Very, very carefully, I shut the door and backed up.

Then I motioned hastily for the others to get out and held up three fingers and pointed at my eyes.

Most of them got it. I’m sure at least one person was wondering why I was scared of three eyeballs, but that was so far beyond what I was worried about. We moved back into the torch room. Tem was saying that she didn’t understand why we weren’t going at it– here were three Red Eyes prime for the fighting, after all.

But, as Harry hissed back at her, we weren’t here to fight. We were here to rescue hostages and get out with the Red Eyes being– one hoped– none the wiser. Thus far, we had done that.

Voices carried down the hall. Something had happened with the skeletons. Then it sounded like they were going to send someone to check on the prisoners.

Major shit. It sounded like the Hat-Broom Man.

There was a brief moment in time where it seemed like we were going to try to ambush the Hat-Broom Man in the torture chamber. This seemed bananas to me, the person who just wanted to get in and out, but I wasn’t about to leave Kalends, who had just been freshly put back down on his torture slab by Harry.

Eventually, we decided that this was not a good idea and went back out into the hallway. Tem stood at the intersection with her sword out, blocking the way for any oncoming Red Eyes and the ground rumbled.

It took us maybe a moment to realize who that might be– the red-eyed rocky dude who literally moved through ground, Yuval.

This was bad. It got worse when a voice whispered in my head to run.

The last time I’d had a more in-depth conversation with Lathander, it had revealed several unpleasant things. The big one was that we could not mess saving Csipherus up or else the undead would pour out from the corpse of my city and start crushing the rest of the world. Dude literally told me that this was what was going to happen and as I am currently trying the faith thing out, I have chosen to believe him.

So when the voice in my head told me to run, I told the person next to me, with urgency, to run.

Unfortunately for me, this person was Lankin.

Also, it was dark as hell out in the hall for some reason and I had had this great idea that we could make it to the dark door I’d investigated before by daisy-chaining it there. So, I was holding Lankin’s hand in an attempt to guide him across the hall and not lose track of the rest of the party as we snuck out.

Believe me, it sounded better in my head.

It also sounded a lot better before I told Lankin to run, which he took literally, and pulled me with him to the door. I think he was also dragging Zeno along too.

Hastily, I pulled on the handle of the dark door. Because things were already going my way, it broke off. This did not stop Lankin, who shouldered through the door and splintered it into pieces.

“What’s ahead?” I asked.

The elf paused, then looked down. He gestured for me to do the same.

It was a twenty-foot drop, right into a pile of rubble, like you’d use for tunnels. If you were something that tunneled beneath the earth and needed, say, a convenient access point to your tortured prisoners. Dust rose in the air, dissipating.

I swore as the ground continued to rumble. We’d found Yuval’s way in and out of the pyramid, but whether he was after us already or not was up in the air.

With both the light and dark doors ruled out, there was only one path forward, and that was through the extremely gross green gore to the right of the torture chamber. Zeno, who had been quick to avoid this route, grimaced and booked it forward down the corridor, which turned out to be a catwalk suspended over a much larger chamber. One of his zombies was out in front, leading the way, while the other flanked him.

As we raced across the catwalk, a line of columns came into view below us, six or eight of them in two rows in front of a familiar octagonal portal. Unlike the derelict one we’d seen in the middle of the desert, however, this one glowed with a faint purple light.

On the floor below were similar signs of a great insectoid-massacre. Gore and strange beetle-like bodies populated the spaces between columns; torn apart carapaces leaked black-green ichor onto the tile. Though we were thirty to forty feet above it, it was still low enough to pick out undead servants sifting through the beetle-corpses, collecting and looking for something.

The biggest beetle-corpse was the size of two Atarkas, and every dead insectoid had holes carved into them, like something had been cut out that was important. But what? And why?

Helli nudged me and pointed to a familiar man muttering in the distance by the portal with a staff made out of what seemed like spines with ruby eyes.

Durnen. It shouldn’t have surprised me to see him– we’d known that he’d be here ever since Utadria mentioned his name back in Tormani. But it was another thing to see him so close and to really have it hit home that yes, if we messed this up, he’d see us a lot sooner than we wanted to.

The rumbling noises continued and got louder. Behind us were silhouettes and I did not want to stop to find out what they were. Dust rose and the tunnel turned.

It went up. Finally, we’d chosen the right path. Before us was a corridor leading outside, with the undead carrying bodies outwards and a very orderly line of skeletons pushing empty wheelbarrows coming in.

We didn’t have too long to wonder about what was going on there, though, because a black beam of light disintegrated Blancain’t ahead of us.

We’d been spotted.

“Aww fuck,” Zeno said, though whether this was about the demise of his undead servant or the five Red Eyes that were now closing into battle with us remained unclear.

For my part, I moved up to Kalends, who was on Harry’s back, and took up a defensive stance to protect him. It hadn’t escaped my notice that in the panic to get out of the torture room, Lankin had left the three-ring girl. We had one person to protect here and I was damn well going to make sure they stayed protected.

Zeno too had had enough of being boxed in and he unleashed a bagpipe blast that scared that unliving crap out of a whole bunch of zombies. Dropping whatever they held, they fled, opening a hole for us in their ranks.

Somewhere in my head, a voice repeated: run!

While I appreciated the godly intervention, it was not making me any calmer, which was why I nearly missed it when Harry moved forward with Kalends. I lurched forward, following them as Harry punched through one skeleton and breathed acid behind him to knock out several more. Two fell into writhing acid pools.

“It’s dangerous to go alone,” Felegum said behind us to Helli, “take this.”

Silver glowed around them both in sparkles, as both were now protected.

Kalends held his ground on Harry’s back, not having much of a choice.

Then, a familiar face from a long time ago emerged from behind a pillar and Savas, an elven archer known to some as the Phoenix, pulled back his bow. A beam of fire appeared from nowhere and arced toward me. Luckily, the first missed me, but the second’s aim toward Harry was true.

However, this was also Harry. He grabbed the flaming arrow mid-air and jabbed it into a nearby skeleton’s skull.

Lankin let out a bloodcurdling battle cry and dashed toward the zombies fleeing from Zeno’s eerie presence. He knocked one prone just through sheer momentum alone.

Helli also moved toward a zombie who’d been hit by some of Harry’s breath, slashing at it until it crumpled. Then she whispered to her dagger, “Stabracadabra.”

Behind us, Tem jangled up through the tunnel to join the throng, clumping up with us.

It was hard to say where our first mistake had been, but this was definitely one of them.

Durnen looked back at us over one shoulder, dropped his spine-staff, then floated, turned, and raised his hands. Below us erupted a vibrant and unruly path of green vines, clinging for purchase on us.

Having fallen prey to this before, I was absolutely not into getting stuck. I smashed off vines and darted out of their grasp. Zeno and Blanca, his one remaining zombie, though, were not so lucky.

Hat-Broom Man flew up on his broom and directed a weird spell toward me and Tem.

I shook it off. There had been a whisper, a suggestion in my head to do something, but I wasn’t about that life. Tem, though–

Before I could look back at her, the Butcher swung out at Helli, slicing through her defense. Her armor, almost as a retort, slapped at him back with its seaweed.

Then there was the lich. A small bead of light passed through his fingers and grew and grew, until it enveloped almost all of us. I dodged, dancing between fire and rock in a heartbeat, just in time to notice Kalends go limp and unconscious in the burst of flames.


A shower of rocks rained down and I winced from the side of the alleyway. They weren’t big rocks, but they’d hurt when they broke skin. I’d know, I’d been crap at dodging them the last few times Kal had had me try.

But when Kal had signaled for the others to shower him with the sharp stones instead, demonstrating the dodge for me again, none hit him. It was as if time had slowed down, like he’d developed a second sight of trajectories and insight and moved his lithe body out of the way of each projectile, emerging unscathed from the onslaught.

The training stones rattled to the street and Artemis Kalends turned to me, eyes alight and unharmed. “See?” he said. “You do it like that and you won’t get hurt.”

I shook my head. “How can you see them all that fast? I’ll never be able to do that.”

He thought about it, then shrugged. “I just do,” he said. “I’m sure eventually you’ll figure it out.”


And now here I was, unscathed, while my formerly dexterous teacher’s body was pummeled with fire and debris.

I screamed.

This was not how it was supposed to end. It couldn’t end like this, not after I’d come so far and traveled so long.

The crush of zombies moved back in, two attacking Zeno and missing him by inches.

Again in my head, the voice yelled RUN.

But I’d done that before. I’d run from the city and then I’d run when my friends were in danger. And now, here was the friend I’d risked so much to get to, also in danger, and running would be the easiest thing I could do, run and save myself.

“Kal,” I croaked, and placed my hand on him. “You are the only thing I have left. Don’t do this to me.”

A soft, amber light, incongruous with all this purple, red, and darkness, flitted past my fingers over his skin, like the sun flickering behind clouds. Kalends groaned and fluttered his eyes.

“I hate this,” he said. “Worst day. Hands down, worst day of my life.”

On my other side, Zeno was making a valiant attempt to remove his person from the brambles and failing. “Set, you got this?” he called.

“No?” I called back miserably.

The bard shrugged and whispered menacingly at an enemy zombie until it dissolved. “Well,” he said, “I guess I’m looking a lot better than him.”

It did look like his stunt had boosted his spirits, but that was also pretty usual for Zeno.

Harry moved with Kalends through the cave and more toward the exit. One zombie tried to hit him but somehow Kalends managed to dodge out of the way, and Harry pummeled it to nothingness before breathing out another line of acid on pursuers. While I was not a fan of him putting Kal in danger like that, I had to admit, he was being very effective.

Felegum, who had been studying Tem, did a complicated spell motion and something cleared in the golden dragonborn’s eyes that had been dark and overcast before.

Meanwhile, Kalends threw a dart at a skeleton, saying “get the fuck out of here!” and smacked it right in the face.

I was so proud that I almost forgot that the odds were terribly stacked against us, that this was the worst case scenario and we were living it out, all because here was Artemis Kalends being a total jerk to something that had dared to hit him.

Then a wreath of arrows sailed overhead, blocking our escape with a wall of fire, and dire reality snapped back in once more.

We had no way out except through a massive sheet of fire.

Lankin threw off the zombie he’d tackled, stood, and then took out two more in his path on the way to the wall of fire. Helli stabbed a zombie next to Tem and then retreated herself closer to the exit. Tem passed her hand over her massive sword, trying to divine something and frowning at her answer.

We were trapped in a tiny space, between our enemies and fire, and every grand escape plan I had was going up in smoke.

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